She was born in Srinagar, raised in Vancouver, got her training in music from Allahabad and Benaras, been a Mumbai resident for close to five years now, sings in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and English, and has a sweet spot for middle eastern and Sufi forms of music. While 27-year-old Shashaa Tirupati was busy in her own whirlwind life, things took an unthinkable turn two years ago : She was spotted by the Mozart of Madras A R Rahman!
And like it always happens with all Rahman discoveries, Shashaa's the newest sensation of the music world: Her voice is running in loops across India, with the three soul-searching songs she sang in Mani Ratnam's latest Tamil romcom O Kadhal Kammani.
Shashaa's is yet another example of Rahman's keen eye for spotting talent: He's hailed as a music scientist who experiments with voices for no other reason. Before his entry into Tamil films, the South Indian music industry was suffering from the 'one-film-one-singer' syndrome. A cursory glance of any well-known music directors' discography will show that they rotated a set of accomplished singers for all their songs. New singers were hard to come by, and variety was only in genres, never in the voices.
It was only after the Oscar winner's entry into film music in Mani Ratnam's Roja that many unknown singers started getting their big-breaks. In his debut film, he used a rookie singer called Minmini (though credit has to go to Ilayaraaja for introducing her first) to sing Chinna Chinna Asai (in Hindi Chhoti Si Asha), which catapulted her to international fame.
The trend continued in many other Mani Ratnam-AR Rahman combinations. Sadhana Sargam became a household name after she sang Snegithane Snegithane (in Hindi Chupke se) from the Tamil film Alaipayuthey (remade in Hindi as Saathiya) and an unknown singer Shakti Shree Gopalan became a hot search topic after ARR made her sing Nenjukulle song from Mani Ratnam's Kadal.And now we have Shashaa! While she is revelling in her new-found star status, the singer bares her heart on a range of issues in an email interview with Hindustan Times, from her Tamil pronunciations, getting 'spotted' by A R Rahman, and her future plans.
Your Tamil pronunciation is perfect. How did you manage this without knowing the language?
I have always had a strange love for languages. I taught myself Punjabi, Bengali, Farsi, Italian, Urdu and a few other languages. When it comes to Tamil, though I understand it a bit, I think having listened to almost every Rahman sir's album has helped me improve my stylisation and diction. The rest of it is purely guidance from ARR sir and his team.
In general, is it necessary for you to understand the meaning of the songs you sing?
Of course you need to know what you’re singing! Music is nothing but an expression of emotion. Understanding the significance of the words and phrases is key to creating an impact at the right moments in a song. The soul of a song comes intrinsically. I don’t want to be a technical singer. I want to be a technically sound singer who makes hearts tingle.
When and how did ARR notice you?
This one always makes my stomach flutter! It was for Coke Studio Season 3 in 2013. I owe all my experiences and opportunities with ARR sir to a dear friend and co-worker, Nitish, also a mixing engineer on sir’s team. He told me about the auditions for a Hindustani Choir sir wished to put together for his episode that season. I auditioned with six others, and by God’s Grace, was selected. During one of the rehearsals, ARR sir randomly asked which one of us was Shashaa and I hesitantly raised my pinky. I thought I had messed up and was singing the harmonies all wrong. Next day I mustered the courage and asked him if I had done something wrong. He said my voice sounded like a musical instrument. I was relieved, but even more confused now, wondering if that was a compliment or a strike out!
A month after our episode was telecast, I received a call from his studio and was asked if I could fly down to Chennai the next day as sir wanted to try my voice… That was the point I realised it was a good thing to sound like a musical instrument! That song was Vaada Vaada from Kochadaiiyaan.
What were his first words to you and yours to him? Any memorable exchanges with him that you cherish?
First words: “Which one of you is Shashaa?”
The most memorable and grateful moment I’ll owe to him would be that first trip for his work to Chennai. I fell ill with a horrible throat and cough and was unable to record. The world ended for me, considering this was the moment I had prayed for all my life. I met sir and he calmly told me that as soon as I feel better, I could let him know, as he has kept the song aside for me. He could have replaced me with one of those million singers dying to work with him, but he didn't. Hence my immeasurable dedication towards Him.
If you are asked to list 3 ARR songs which you wish you had sung which three would you choose?
Three? How about three hundred! Seriously speaking, it would be insulting to even think of being in place of any of the veteran singers. I’d rather say a few of ARR sir’s songs that are extremely close to my heart with female lines -- Kehna Hi Kya, Tu Hi Re, Tere Bina Besuadi and Jiya Jale. What Chitra ma, Lata ji, and Kavitha ji have done is beyond divine.
You've sung 5 songs for ARR till now. Which one of these are you most satisfied with?Well, with film releases including Telugu versions/languages, the total number is not 5 but about 9. Every song I've sung for sir so far has its very own set of experiences, lessons, and vibe. As serene as Vaada Vaada was, Aye Mr. Minor had its own element of chirpiness, Naane Varugiren its thrill and challenge and Parandhu Sella Vaa had scope for experimentation and playfulness midst western and Hindustani classical.
Let's now talk about your songs in Ok Kanmani. Among the three you've sung for the film, which one was the most difficult and why?
Each song had its challenges, but Naane Varugiraen was a different thing altogether. I never thought I’d be able to do justice to such intricate brilliance! It was a tug of war between taal and sur and expression. Concentrating on one would lead to losing out on the other. It took me a good 3-4 hours to dub this song, and sir has been the epitome of patience and faith dealing with me on this one!
Did you make any impromptu improvisations in any of these three songs which ARR liked and included?
He’s the king of improvs! He kept shooting out what was going on in his mind, especially in Parandhu Sella Vaa, and yet he would encourage us (Karthik and myself) to come up with little phrases. So little things like the classical parts that I did were beautifully retained and placed whereas all the funky “takachikatakachikas”, “tikadhum tikadhum”s were sir’s craft.
Any particular experience you would like to recount which you cherished during Ok Kanmani recordings?
Seeing AR sir and Mani (Ratnam) sir in the same room. Greatness Overload. Till then I didn't know I was singing for the their film! I had haunting themes and scenes of Guru, Bombay, Roja playing in my head while I watched them both work.
Was there any particular stanza in these three songs which took you a lot of takes before rendering it perfectly? Any hardest bit?
From the first line till the last line of "Naane Varugiraen". It’ll be a sure shot task performing that live !
So what's on your plate next? Are you doing more Tamil songs or going back to Hindi?
As much as I've been working towards Bollywood playback, I adore Tamil music and cinema. Hence, I regularly travel between both cities as and when I’m required for recordings. I’m working with several composers down south as well as in Mumbai.
You are a Canadian with roots in Kashmir?
I've been a multicultural and multinational kid! I was born in Srinagar, raised in Vancouver, had music training in Allahabad and Benares, and I've been living in Mumbai for about four and a half years now. I've sung in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and English and have a sweet spot for middle eastern and sufi forms of music.
I spent most of my childhood in Canada, where I grew up singing, performing, swimming, practicing seikeido, ice skating, girl scouting, playing soccer, and reading! Then my parents brought me to India to seek classical training. I was oscillating between Vancouver and Allahabad in the midst of that.
I went back post my junior college for higher studies in Canada, had topped the province in my grad school and went on to university on a full scholarship, besides 6 other scholarships. But then I dropped out of pre-med after hearing ARR sir's “Dum dara dum dara mast mast” song in the film "Guru" and decided this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be prepared to sing under ARR Sir. I kept him in my mandir for 12 years and felt that impressing him wouldn't be easy.
I practiced for two years and then kind of ran away from home. I came to Bombay, did some reality shows and hundreds of jingles for the funding and shows and some 15 odd Hindi and various regional films' playback, but I maintained the riyaaz as the bigger picture was something else. Finally through Coke Studio I realised my dream.
Anything else you want to mention?
I would like to thank the team at Panchathan- Suresh Permal, Srinivasa Murthy, Srinivasa Doraiswamy, Srinidhi Venkatesh, Jerry Silvester Vincent, Sami Durai, Nitish R, PA Deepak, Karthik, Chetan, Vijay, Ishaan - all these people were crucial parts of the entire process and making us sound as beautiful as we did in the final product.