She has witnessed the waves of change in the music industry. From the days of orchestral recordings to those of auto-tuned vocals, Mahalaxmi Iyer has held her own.
Recently, at a city gig, titled Bollywood Music Project, she performed live with multi-instrumentalist Raghav Sachar. The singer, who is known for her mellifluous voice, says that she enjoys live concerts because she gets to “explore a completely different facet” to her skills.
Back to the start
Growing up, she could never escape the power of music. She explains how she was influenced by different genres of music because of her family members. “My mother (Vijaya) is a classical artiste. My father (Krishnamurthy) was the biggest classical music aficionado I have known. My eldest sister, Kalpana (Iyer), instilled the love for ghazals in me. The one after her, Padmini (Roy), who is also a singer, introduced me to western music through Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, The Beatles, etc. The third in the line, Shobha (Rammoorthy), inspired me to listen to abhangs (religious Marathi songs),” says Iyer, adding, “This is what I owe my musical journey to. Since I listened to varied forms of music, I could sing songs of various genres.”
What started off as a hobby soon evolved into something bigger. “People who worked in the film industry started to notice me during college competitions. My name became popular through word-of-mouth,” she says.
The big break
During her initial days, she worked with the popular composer trio Shankar (Mahadevan)-Ehsaan (Noorani)-Loy (Mendonsa), (SEL; who also hadn’t made their Bollywood debut then) for advertisements. She lent her voice to several jingles, some of which were in foreign languages such as French and Russian. As things progressed, she received the chance to make her Bollywood debut by recording two film songs in a single week — SEL’s ‘Suno gaur se duniya walon’ and AR Rahman’s ‘Paakhi paakhi’ (Dil Se; 1998). This triggered a rich career for Mahalaxmi, as she got to sing several hit tracks such as ‘Aaj ki raat’ (Don; 2006) and ‘Bol na halke halke’ (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom; 2007) including the Academy Award-winning ‘Jai ho’ (Slumdog Millionaire; 2008).
“Entering Bollywood without familial connections and making a career in it seemed far-fetched [when I started]. But today, I can consider many people from the industry my friends, especially SEL, because I have been collaborating with them from the time I used to sing jingles,” says Iyer.
Doing what matters
Today, the multilingual artiste is in a position where she has the luxury choose the songs she wants to sing. What is her criterion for selecting projects? “These days, I have made it a point to question the nature of the song, besides asking what key it is in, as every artiste sings in a particular range. I am hesitant to sing songs with vulgar lyrics. If the lyrics are risqué, then I beg out,” she says.
Iyer adds that “money doesn’t matter” to her. “I am not trying to be a saint and say, ‘Main sirf rooh ke liye gaati hoon (I only sing for my soul).’ But I would love to be part of projects with smaller budgets. I recently recorded two ghazals, for which I was not paid a rupee! However, the experience was creatively most satisfying,”she says.
Diversity in creativity is being highly encouraged in the present times, observes Iyer. “Many entered [the industry] with aspirations of becoming lyricists or composers. But, they have turned into singers or instrumentalists, owing to the opportunities that they received. Also, there are many collaborations taking place. Young YouTube artistes or bands are partnering with established composers,” she says, adding, “The scene seems encouraging for indie music as well. Newer venues are opening up to support growing talent.”
However, the singer feels that we [the Indian music industry] lag behind when it comes to bridging the gap between multiple music genres and the audience. “Unfortunately, India is largely driven by mainstream music, and many people are still comfortable with listening to [mainstream]songs on television and radio. So, they are not accessing music digitally yet,” says Iyer.
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The author tweets @iamsusanjose