As a child, Shilpa Rao often asked her father how her voice sounded. Her father, a Hindustani classical singer, always told her: “You are great. Your rhythm sense is superb!” But Rao was not satisfied. Her father had not answered her question about her voice.
“I think that’s what made me work harder on my texture. I strived to have a unique, distinct voice,” says the Jamshedpur-born singer, who rose to fame when her song Khuda Jaane from Bachna Ae Haseeno became a huge hit and won her many awards.
“Music composers would hear my voice and say, ‘It’s great, we’ve never heard something like this. But we don’t know where to place you!’” recounts Rao. Despite that, she was never driven by the urge to sound like the cutesy nightingales that were the gold standard of female playback singing.
For decades, the most prevalent voices were those of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, who had been singing since the 1940s.
There were many different kinds of voices before the sister duo captured the nation’s attention. “From the 1930s till the 1950s, we had a wide range of female playback voices,” says Rao. “Begum Akhtar, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, Noor Jehan and Reshma ji – each had their own definitive way of singing and vocal styling. There was no one ideal way of singing.”
But once Mangeshkar and Bhosle’s voices cast their spells, nothing else was heard. Generations of singers like Alka Yagnik, Mahalakshmi Iyer and Kavita Krishnamurthy arrived at a time when the sisters ruled the industry and recreated the same steep notes.
Today’s new singers – Aditi Singh Sharma, Neeti Mohan, Shefali Alvares, Harshdeep Kaur and more – are all part of a growing breed of singers who are changing the conception of female playback singing in Hindi cinema. Their unusual vocal ranges and intonation are perhaps inspired by their cultural backgrounds, and are at variance with the sweet, honey-coated voices of the last several decades.
Sounds of change
For almost seven decades, steep, thin voices represented the voice of women in Hindi cinema — virtuous, innocent and pure. This archetypal good-girl sound was so deeply entrenched in our cinema music that even when actors like Hema Malini in her throaty timbre, sang Tune O Rangeele on screen, or the husky Rani Mukerji sang Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the playback for them was always in the euphonic range.
Nandini Srikar, who sang the hauntingly beautiful songs Bhare Naina from Ra.One and Dua from Shanghai, had a tough time breaking into Bollywood because of her rustic voice. She thinks it has a lot to do with the way heroines and their characters were projected in the films, “the ideal being a beautiful, shy, coy, vulnerable, sweet sixteen of some sort”. And a high-pitched, shrill voice suited that kind of a projection of femininity best.
“It’s only in the recent years that films have changed that classic representation to a more independent, outgoing, fun-loving, confident and assertive woman with an opinion of her own,” says Srikar.
Many more female-centric movies or films which essay women as complex characters are produced today. “The changing voice of the singers in a way represents the strong and complex woman – the ‘real-life’ woman,” believes Srikar.
Hitting new notes
The shift in movie playback singing towards a variety of timbres and textures would’ve been impossible without the efforts of a growing strain of daring composers. Musicians such as Vishal Dadlani-Shekhar Ravjiani and Amit Trivedi have introduced a variety of off-beat voices, including that of Alvares, Mohan, Rao and Singh Sharma, who have broken the mould of high-key voices that had found favour until now.
Singers like Harshdeep Kaur (most recognised for Ek Onkar from Rang De Basanti and Jugni from Cocktail), and Sona Mohapatra (famous for her strong yet velvety voice in the songs, Bedardi Raja from Delhi Belly, Ambarsariya from Fukrey and Naina from Khoobsurat), once found music set for them in scales they could not sing. “At the time, because most of the singers idolised Lata ji and tried to sing like her, the tracks too were made accordingly,” remembers Kaur. But she couldn’t do justice to the high notes. So she took to skipping songs and refusing assignments.
Mohapatra too had similar experiences. “I’ve been to many a recording where I’ve had to shriek just to stay in pitch and key,” says the Oriya singer who worked as a brand manager before she decided to join the music industry.
Aditi Singh Sharma, who did her schooling in Moscow, grew up listening to English and Russian bands. Someone who was convinced her diction was so non-Indian that she’d never make it in Bollywood, has had no less than 12 songs with 10 different composers, including such hits as Sooraj Dooba from the flick Roy, Dhoom Machale from Dhoom:3 and Dilli Dilli from No One Killed Jessica.
Now these singers find that music is written precisely for their tones. “In the last few years, younger composers have been calling me at the ideating stage to set the correct key for my voice, so it’s been getting better,” says Mohapatra. “Composers like Vishal-Shekhar, Mithoon Sharma, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, understand the singers’ voices, find their scale and compose accordingly,” adds Rao.
Composer Amit Trivedi believes that the singer’s voice should match the voice of the actress playing the part. “For Kalki Koechlin’s in Dev D, I couldn’t have a Shreya or Sunidhi singing. I wanted a slightly anglicised voice, with a more girlish texture. Same goes for the voice of Konkona Sen voice in Wake Up Sid. She doesn’t have a conventional voice, nor is she a conventional actress. Kavita’s (Seth) rustic, Sufi voice was perfect for Iktaara.”
Besides, movies like Dil Chahta Hai changed the sound of film scores. Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 film had Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s techno beats, with influences from rock, hip-hop and world music, set the yardstick for composers to turn more experimental.
With technological advancements, composers are extensively using programming and machine-tuning voices to make them sound more club-friendly. It’s easy today to change the natural scale of a voice to suit the tone of a song or to mask mistakes.
But has that made singers lazy? Not entirely, says Neeti Mohan. A regular on AR Rahman’s live shows, Mohan was one of the winners of the TV show Popstars and went on to deliver the massive hit, Jiya Re in Jab Tak Hai Jaan. She agrees that yes, anyone can be a singer today, and perhaps many a time, singers get away with a few errors. “But the best way to gauge a great singer is to hear her live. Then there is no technology to back you. It’s just you and the audience.”
Besides, shows like Indian Idol, The Voice and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa help keep the singers on their toes. “Seeing the number of reality shows today and the kind of amazing talents that come to the fore, we’ve realised that we don’t need to depend on the existing singers, when there are so many others to choose from,” says music composer Anu Malik, who was one of the judges of Indian Idol through all the seasons. “The existing singers need to work harder to sustain and survive. They’re being challenged by newer talents. They can’t afford to be lazy.”
The future: high or low?
But does this mean that the sweet voice is slowly, but surely, going out of fashion? Not at all, contends Shalmali Kholgade, Anushka Sharma’s voice in Bombay Velvet’s Mohabbat Buri Bimaari. “Our films are most often love stories, with love songs, which require a sweet sounding voice. It (the sweet voice) may not necessarily create ripples like it did before but it surely won’t go out of work.”
Shefali Alvares, daughter of Indian jazz singer Joe Alvares, rose to fame with songs like Subha Hone Na De (Desi Boyz), Badtameez Dil (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) and O Gujariya (Queen). “Look at Shreya Ghoshal and Priya Saraiya. They are very much here and are totally killing it! I’d never be able to sing Sun Saathiya from ABCD 2 as beautifully as Priya did,” says Shefali in her husky drawl.
Perhaps then it’s not so much about which vocal range is better than the other but about acceptance for every kind of voice and singing style. Sona Mohapatra sums it up best, “I think all kinds of music must exist together. Music isn’t a zero-sum game; it’s like the ocean and all our efforts add merely a drop to that vast, great body, so there’s no need for something to fail for another thing to succeed in music.”
“The sweet, melodious voice was in demand for the longest time because we were conditioned like that for 30-40 years. Now, Shraddha [Kapoor] is singing her songs, and so are Alia [Bhatt], Sonakshi [Sinha] and Priyanka [Chopra]... No wonder unconventional voices are being accepted a lot more.”
-Amit Trivedi, Music Director
“Today’s youth is exposed to world music. They listen to Adele, Taylor Swift, Norah Jones and many more. Besides, the lyrics of the songs have changed. There are words which are sublime, and then there are words which are ridiculous. You have to adapt to the changing times.”
-Anu Malik, Music Director
“I don’t think that the sweet voice is going out of fashion. There are some really awesome singers right now, and they’re killing it! The singer in demand today is one who can sing in all styles and with whose voice a composer can try variations to the same song.”
-Shekhar Ravjiani, Music director
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From HT Brunch, November 1
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