Review: The Musical Maverick; The Authorized Biography Of Shankar Mahadevan by Ashis Ghatak - Hindustan Times
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Review: The Musical Maverick; The Authorized Biography Of Shankar Mahadevan by Ashis Ghatak

Apr 05, 2024 09:17 PM IST

On Shankar Mahadevan’s influences, his work as a playback singer and composer for Hindi cinema, his devotional music, and his role in the Grammy award winning Indo-jazz group, Shakti

When talking of singer Shankar Mahadevan, the term “breathless” immediately comes to mind. The reference is to the 1998 song Breathless, which, in many ways, changed the young musician’s fortunes. Interestingly, the idea originally came from lyricist Javed Akhtar.

Shankar Mahadevan (centre) rehearing for Symphony Orchestra of India’s Spring season 2020 with Zane Dalal, Zakir Hussain, Hariharan and Kelley O’Connor at NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai on February 24 2020. (Aalok Soni/HT PHOTO)
Shankar Mahadevan (centre) rehearing for Symphony Orchestra of India’s Spring season 2020 with Zane Dalal, Zakir Hussain, Hariharan and Kelley O’Connor at NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai on February 24 2020. (Aalok Soni/HT PHOTO)

The story of Breathless occupies an entire chapter in The Musical Maverick: The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan by Ashis Ghatak. Here, Mahadevan recalls: “Javed saab wanted to explore a song with a strange parabola, a strange journey, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes high or sometimes low. This instantly attracted me. He had shared the idea with other singers, but somehow they could not understand it.”

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374pp, ₹695; Rupa Publications
374pp, ₹695; Rupa Publications

Akhtar, who has written the book’s foreword, went on to write songs for many soundtracks composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (SEL), comprising Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa. These include popular scores like Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Rock On!! and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. While elaborating on these films, the book also talks of SEL’s work with lyricists Gulzar (in Bunty Aur Babli, Mirzya and Raazi), Prasoon Joshi (Taare Zameen Par, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) and Amitabh Bhattacharya (2 States, The Zoya Factor).

Besides his work as a playback singer, the book describes his role in the Indo-jazz group Shakti, with guitarist John McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. Since this book was written before the latest Shakti album, This Moment, won this year’s Grammy award for Best Global Music Album, it misses out on that landmark development, though there is a mention of the nomination. One chapter also talks of his devotional songs.

Mahadevan first made a mark as a singer with the 1994 film Humse Hai Muqabla, where he appeared on Urvashi Urvashi and Patti Rap, composed by AR Rahman. Ghatak leads up to that point by first talking of his upbringing in the Chembur suburb of Mumbai, his exposure to Carnatic, film and Marathi music, his training in veena and the switch to singing, his group The Originals, and his work with the fusion bands Divya, Mynta and Surya. It also talks of how he met Sangeeta, whom he married in 1992.

Among the musicians who played an important role in his growth, Mahadevan describes TR Balamani as the “ultimate teacher”. “She taught me everything I am capable of today. She taught me that the knowledge of music is boundless,” he says in the book. Another influence was composer Shrinivas Khale. “Shankar would just sit and listen to him, observing the way he would select the notes,” the book says. Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali had a great impact on him too, after he heard the maestro’s Chupke Chupke Raat Din.

There’s an interesting chapter on Tara Devi, drummer Ranjit Barot’s aunt. Mahadevan met her one day in the music room, and she volunteered to teach him a song. His jaw dropped when he heard her sing, and she taught him Ab Radhe Rani, a traditional Krishna bhajan. Later, she taught him thumris and azaan, the call to prayer. However, the young singer eventually got busy with jingles and kept postponing meeting Tara Devi, who died suddenly.

A good chunk of the book describes SEL’s film work, beginning with Dus, Rockford and Mission Kashmir. Here, the author could have selected only the most popular scores, and clubbed the others in one or two chapters. A list of best songs sung and composed by Mahadevan also could have been added for quick reference.

There are detailed descriptions of Mahadevan’s work with jazz great Louiz Banks in the band SILK and his first association with Shakti, which led up to the recording of the live album Saturday Night In Bombay. Before that show at the Rang Bhavan, Mahadevan had not known any Shakti piece. But mandolin wizard U Srinivas, who had joined the group, taught him the composition Giriraj Sudha based on a Thyagaraja kriti. “This was on the morning of the show day. The same evening (he) performed it as though he had been part of the band for a very long time,” the book says.

Author Ashis Ghatak (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Ashis Ghatak (Courtesy the publisher)

The Musical Maverick is filled with anecdotes, and also mentions the angioplasty Mahadevan underwent. Chapters on the singer’s pet project, the Shankar Mahadevan Academy, and his acting stint in the Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusali, make for interesting reading. Ghatak keeps the descriptions lively, and includes things many fans wouldn’t know. Some names should have been cross-checked though – HMV’s Harish Dayani has gone as “Daya” and composer Piyush Kanojia as “Kanoria”.

A mentor teaching English at a Kolkata school, Ghatak earlier authored Louiz Banks: A Symphony Of Love. It was at the launch of that book in Mumbai that he met Mahadevan and proposed the idea of a biography. Besides being an accurate description of the man and his music, this book also takes readers on a nostalgic ride over three decades.

Narendra Kusnur is a Mumbai-based music journalist.

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