'My day will come too!'
Mahalakshmi Iyer is a singer to look out for.
Of the very few voices that have made an impact in the post Alka-Kavita generation, here is a veteran of over a thousand songs, which include ad jingles, television serial (in Hindi and Tamil) soundtracks, original albums, remixes and film songs.
Some of her filmi songs include Ae ajnabi (Dil Se), Kya yeh sach hain (Dillagi), Hindustani (Dus), Humko na tumse and Dil se mere (Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi), So ja chanda (Mission Kashmir), Chalti hai purvai (Rahul) and Yaar teri bewafai ka (Love You Hameshaa).
She is now working in Kuch Na Kaho, Ek Hindustani and Yaadein and has been signed on by Sony Music. On the anvil as well is an Indipop album with music by Shankar-(Mahadevan)-Ehsaan (Noorani)-Loy (Mendonca).
Dr Rajiv Vijayakar met up with the singer. Excerpts:
Tell us something about yourself.
(Smiles) Well, I have been trained in Hindustani classical music, though I have not done any Visharad.
My mother, Vijayalakshmi, is an exponent of Carnatic classical music. My parents encouraged my three sisters and me to learn Hindustani music rather than Carnatic, since we were born and brought up in Bombay.
I have been trained by Pandit Gautam Madhusudan, late Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale and Suresh Wadkar. Now I am learning under Pt Ratan Mohan Sharma, who is a disciple of Pt Jasraj.
You are yet another South Indian singer, like Hariharan and Kavita Krishnamurthy, whose Hindi-Urdu accent is impeccable. To whom do you give credit for this?
Without meaning to be immodest, I'd say the credit goes to me.
I made it a point to learn to read and write Urdu, even joined Urdu classes at St Xavier's College, Bombay.
Nowadays, there are so many artistes who are Visharads but cannot sing to save their lives. What do you think?
Apart from the basic gift, it is very important to learn from a good guru, rather than merely join some class.
My gurus were very strict with me. A good teacher teaches you more than just sur, taal and laya. They enhance the quality of your voice itself.
Why is it that so many classically trained singers end up doing Indipop or essentially Western music-oriented jingles?
As far as I am concerned, I began singing jingles almost a decade ago. At that time, Ashok Patki and Nathan were the kingpins. Their approach was completely Indian.
Later, with the media boom and the arrival of many products, the Western music-based jingles were also accepted. But most of them are essentially fusion. In fact, all Indipop albums are fusion. You cannot be totally Western if you want to be accepted here.
Besides, if you are groomed in either Hindustani or Carnatic classical music, you can sing any kind of song easily.
If Indian music training facilitates any kind of singing, why is it that the Western singers can scale higher notes than those trained in Indian classical music?
That's because they start on a comfortable scale, whereas in our case, the sa is usually 'C' sharp.
I have experienced this difference even in our film and non-film music. Somehow, there is a mind set here that a film song should be on a higher pitch.
In fact, quite a few times, I have shocked the people concerned by asking why a certain song cannot be sung on a lower scale.
Coming back to your career, how did you get the first break?
Even with my musical background, I was thinking of getting into academics in college. But just after giving my Bachelor of Commerce examinations, I decided that I must exploit what I am gifted with!
As for my break, I did not have to struggle in the real sense. I had done college shows and some other small shows, and somehow, word got around.
My first jingle was for Amatex Sarees. Then I began to sing for television serials, the first one being Zameen Aasmaan, in which I sang a regular song under Sharang Deo.
The countdown show, Ek Se Badh Kar Ek was my first title song and was composed by Shanker, Ehsaan and Loy.
I would also dub title songs of serials that were being dubbed from Hindi to Tamil. After I re-did a Talat Aziz composition he liked my voice a lot, and called me to do songs for Noorjahan and Adhikar.
I even hummed out the backing vocals in Pankajji (Pankaj Udhas)'s Stolen Moments.
As for films, I started with Dus with Shanker-Ehsaan-Loy and Dil Se with A R Rahman.
Did you benefit from entering films via the jingles scene?
Of course! The world of jingles absorb a new talent very easily. Within a short while I was singing for the biggest names there, like Louis Banks and Leslie Lewis.
In films, somehow, they take pleasure in seeing a new artiste struggling away!
Secondly, just learning the basics in music, modulating your voice and developing your range, isn't enough. Jingles taught me expression, understanding, emoting and delivering the goods - and you have 30 seconds to top all that in a jingle!
Why is it that -- apart from Anu Malik, A R Rehman, Shanker-Ehsaan-Loy and a selected few -- you have yet to open your account with most of today's composers?
I'm not the pushy kind. I want to expand my horizons as well, though of course playback singing on a regular basis is my ambition.
I have sung in several languages, like Marathi, Gujarati, Assamese, Bengali and all the Southern languages, and I think that I am good at picking up the nuances.
I was a shade apprehensive about doing a typically Carnatic classical song when called by Rajaji (Ilayaraja) for the first time, but then things fell into place.
What kind of music do you like?
I listen to every kind of music.
In fact, I would say that a significant part of my singing ability has developed from listening to a wide range of music from Western artistes like Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder to the abhangs of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt, Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali.
All the older composers have done such amazing work. I wish that I could have sung a few songs for them.
This wishful thinking is the prime reason why many of today's singers do cover versions, so that they can experience the pleasure of recording such songs. But you have never done covers...
I have done some remixes for unavoidable reasons. I don't want to judge anyone in this respect. But as far as I am
concerned, if I really love an old song, I would rather sing it at home and practice it than record it in my voice - they are best left alone!
Besides, through the generations, these remixes and covers actually end up being credited to those who have re-done them rather than to the original creators.
A new trend of signing up with music companies has started. Even you have signed up with Sony Music. What are the pros and cons?
There are advantages on the professional front, which is why we have no choice, but to sign up with music companies.
But many of these music companies bind an artiste with unreasonable terms and conditions. But a creative artiste should not be bound so that he has to do something he does not want, or cannot do what he would like to.
Lastly, did you experience any injustice in your field?
Yes! This has happened at least twice!
In fact, I am waiting to see if my song in Lagaan is intact or has been dubbed over by a bigger name!
I guess this is a part of the game. But there was an incident where the music company did not want my voice even after the producer and director were extremely happy with my song. That was particularly upsetting.
All I can say is that my day will come too!