Hariharan needs no introduction. His expertise in music encompasses multiple genres. From ghazals and Bollywood tracks to Indipop, he does it all. The singer, who considers his 82-year-old mother Alamelu (who still performs at concerts), Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan and Mehdi Hassan his inspirations, spoke to HT about Indo-Pak politics, and more.
Celebrities are often asked to comment on political matters. What is your take on that?
We don’t know enough to be talking about world matters, because even the people involved in these matters don’t talk properly most of the time (laughs). We are often just adding to the clutter. Whatever is broadcast in the news is just one outcome. Nobody knows what the issue is. Everybody wants to talk, and wants to tweet, par aapki knowledge kya hai (But what do you really know)? It’s all hearsay. When something major happens, there is no reaction to it. With Pakistan, it is never clear. You are suddenly bhai-bhai (brothers), and suddenly you are fighting like mad people. Is it a friendly or an enemy state? What is it? The situation is not clear. So what do we (artistes) talk about?
Do you think people should rather question the leaders who they voted for?
Do you know about this magical word called TRP? Obviously, someone who isn’t famous won’t get the same attention that a celebrity gets. I do understand that celebrities can change public opinion, or put pressure on the right people. But, how many times has that happened? You can count it (the number of times public opinion has been changed due to a celebrity) on the fingers of your right hand.
How open are you to experimenting with sounds?
I have always been progressive. I sing ghazals and I have created something called ‘Urdu blues’ (a fusion of ghazals and blues). I have been part of Colonial Cousins (an Indipop band). I have performed at the Ministry of Sound in London, (UK), where underground music is usually played. I’m open to experimentation; after all, everything is music.
At one point you practiced for 13 hours. Do you still do that?
Yes, there was a time when I used to practice for that long. Even today, on certain days, I practice for three to four hours, depending on my schedule. Practising is like charging your battery; it becomes your magic potion.
Do you miss your Indipop days?
Of course I do. It was a great time. Independent music was a rage. We really enjoyed it. Leslie (Lewis; the other half of Colonial Cousins) and I have had some amazing times.
But no other genre of music in India has enjoyed the success that can be compared to the success of Bollywood music…
That’s because there is no platform [for non-Bollywood music]. Neither are the videos played on TV channels, nor are the tracks played by radio stations. Where do you market these songs then? If you go ahead and present your music on a digital platform, where is the glamour? Where is the showbiz? Showbiz is showing the world something that you are doing. It (Indipop) has been ruled out.
How has the playback scene changed from the time you started out?
There was a point when the playback scene was all about singing and great voices. Then, it was about entertainment. Now, it has become the soundscape of a film. A lot of the sounds are not related to the story of a film. There was a time when songs helped you traverse a story. At present, films have more item numbers than songs. Well, they are serving the purpose. The tracklists have also become shorter. Bollywood music is not music per se; it is [made] for films. As the process of making films changes, the music also changes. And even the background scores are not orchestral anymore. They comprise of [software] effects. The imaginative, fancy flights have gone. It is more realistic — that’s what they call it now.
Hariharan is full of praises for his mother Alamelu who is in her eighties and continues to perform at concerts. (Facebook.com/HariharanA)
Is it easier for a newcomer to get a break these days?
It has become difficult for singers to make an impression. It’s unfortunate. Singers become popular due to the songs they sing. Songs that can become memorable are a rarity. The shelf life of songs has become three months now. It is very important that kids these days also pursue independent music along with playback singing. That is why independent music has started becoming more important now. Otherwise, after three to four years, suddenly someone else will take their place. And, with reality TV shows, the number of up-and-coming singers is tremendous. My heart goes out to these kids. They have to start thinking about the future; they have to become performers. Performance is what gives you longevity [when it comes to a singing career].
What advice would you give to aspiring singers?
One should understand the philosophy of a musician’s life. An artiste is always a giver. You assimilate the energy you are blessed with and give it to the people. And practice, for if you make music enjoyable for yourself, there is no struggle while practicing it. It is entertainment for you.
Recently, your son Karan Hariharan told HT that he refuses to take help from you. Do your kids seek career advice from you?
Of course, he does take help from me. But he also likes doing things independently. He is always like, “Dad, let me do it.” Growing up, he had an inclination towards acting. He did a video with me when he was four (‘Halka sa ik nasha’). Throughout his schooling life, he took part in theatre. He was also the emcee at family functions. So, after standard 12, when he wanted to go to Los Angeles (USA) to study acting at The Lee Strasberg, Theatre and Film Institute, my wife and I discussed it for about a week and decided we should let him do it.
Akshay Hariharan, your elder son, has chosen music…
Yes, and when we get together, I feel young (laughs). When we jam, we have a lot of fun. We mix techno music with ghazals and come up with many unusual combinations.
A few reports on the Internet also list a certain Lavanya as one of your children…
No, she is my student, and I did an album for her. I have only two sons. Please send me a link to this site (which mentions Lavanya as my daughter).
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The author tweets @iamsusanjose