'I was lucky that Rahman handed one of his best songs to me'
Chinmayi Sripada has sung some of A R Rahman's best compositions -- from Kannathil Muthamittal's Oru Deivam Thanta Poove (Rahman considers this song among the top three in his career), Guru's Tere Bina and Raajhanaa's Ay Sakhi.
But singing isn't the only she possesses.
At 28, Chinmayi is one of the most successful female businesswomen in India, having even won international awards.
Her most recent accomplishment is the hit song Titli from Rohit Shetty's Chennai Express, picturised on Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone.
So who exactly is this woman, discovered by Rahman at the young age of 15?
Chinmayi reveals little nuggets about herself to Patcy N, and sings some of her favourite songs as well.
I am a single parent child. I was brought up by my mother, and she is my guru in classical singing. I have trained primarily under her.
I come from a very strenuous, strict, disciplined classical music background. My grandfather, noted Carnatic classical exponent Dr Sripada Pinakapani, was a Padma Bhushan recipient.
I was born in Mumbai. When I was one-and-a-half years old, my father left us. When I was six, we moved to Chennai where my grandparents lived.
My mother, T Padmhasini, was a singer but she chose not to sing professionally. She was more into research and documentation of musicology. She works with the Government of India in the department of culture now.
I won a silver medal at an All India Radio national level competition for Hindustani Classical Music in 2002 and a gold medal for Ghazals in 2000.
When I was 14, I won the singing competition of Sun TV, Saptasawarangal singer Srinivas liked me and after a year, he took me with him to meet Rahman sir (A R Rahman).
Image: Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone in the song Titli in Chennai Express. Inset: Chinmayi Sripada
Video: Chinmayi's picture: Uday Kuckian/Rediff.com
'Rahman is the most easygoing and the most humble person'
First singing break with A R Rahman
I was just 15 when I sang my first playback song for Rahman Sir in the Mani Ratnam film Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) -- the song was Oru Deivam Thanta Poove.
It got me the Tamil Nadu Government State Award.
When Mani Ratnam’s Kadhal released recently, Rahman Sir said one of the top three songs of his career for Mani Ratnam was this song.
I am very lucky and grateful that he handed one of his best compositions to me, a complete novice, who was just a child at that time.
Even though I was a child when I started my career, Rahman Sir never thought of me as a kid because at that time, he was working extensively with kids. He had lots of child choruses in his songs.
He makes recording an easygoing singing experience. Only when you have finished recording do you realise the magnitude of what has happened. That you have worked with one of the legends of the industry today.
Rahman Sir is the most easygoing and the most humble person one can ever see.
He speaks very little so I never thought he would mimic somebody. But I remember once when we were recording a song for Bharathiraja Sir (Tamil filmmaker). They were talking about a choreographer and suddenly to prove a point, Rahman Sir got up and did this dance step that the choreographer had showed him for Vandemataram.
I was shocked! It was unbelievable to see Rahman Sir dancing and mimicking somebody’s dance step.
People think Rahman Sir only works at night, but that’s not true. He works at any hour, morning, day, night. He works throughout the day. I don’t know when he sleeps. Most of my recordings with him have been in the evening, very few at night. I have even recorded with him at 7 and 8 in the morning.
I have sung over 35 songs for Rahman Sir.
Image: Chinmayi Sripada sings Titli from Chennai Express
'After Sivaji, people started giving me more work'
A successful businesswoman
After my first song became popular, I started getting more work but the progress was very slow because people in Chennai thought I lived in Mumbai or Kolkatta.
After I sang for Rajinikanth’s Sivaji (2007), people started knowing me and gave me more work.
In the first five years when I had less work, I completed a degree in psychology from the University of Madras and learnt Odissi dance. I also had a degree in German.
I started a company in 2005 for language services called Blue Elephant. We handle translation and interpretation services in over 120 languages. We work mostly with corporate companies. I have a network of linguists all over the world.
In 2011, I was one of the 26 women, who were recognised by the Fortune/United States Department of State as an emerging leader and I was mentored by a Fortune 500 company for a month in New York (The Fortune/ United States Department of State Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership connects talented, emerging women leaders from all over the world, who are between the ages of 25-43, with members of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Leaders for a month-long internship programme.)
In October 2011, I was invited to attend the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit in Los Angeles. I won the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council award for excellence in a niche industry. I run a small but successful business.
I love challenges. I wanted to do something new so I did this. That has given me some interesting experiences. I meet people from all over the world.
Image: Sara Sara Saara Kathu from Tamil film Vaagai Suda Va
'Recognition in Bollywood came with Tere Bina in Guru '
Entry into Bollywood
Rahman Sir gave me my first break in Bollywood in Mangal Pandey: The Rising with the song Holi Re. Recognition came with Tere Bina in Guru and some portions of mukhda and antara of Maiyya Maiyya,and Maiya Yashodha in Jhoota Hi Sahi.
Composer Mithoon wanted to know who had sung Tere Bina and traced me to Chennai. His father (Naresh Sharma who has scored background music for more than 200 movies) called my mother and after a month, they came to Chennai and recorded Madno.
I had tears in my eyes when I heard the scratch version of Madno. It was a very deep, emotional song. While we were waiting to do the recording, we started talking to Nareshji. Mithoon was also there but he hardly speaks -- he is a very reticent human being but a very good friend now. His father is my well wisher and the one who is advising me how to take things forward here in Mumbai.
After Tere Bina became so popular, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do here to get work. In Chennai, if your song does well then work follows. But here, I don’t how one is supposed to meet people and say that you exist.
There is this geographical disconnect that people have because I stay in Chennai. So Nareshji is helping me out here.
Image: Chinmayi Sripada sings Maiya Yashodha from Jhoota Hi Sahi
'Shekhar Sir has a very good voice'
Chennai Express and TitliAfter a long break, I sang Ay Sakhi in Raanjhnaa for Rahman Sir. And of course Titli in Chennai Express for Vishal-Shekhar
When I met them, Shekhar Sir told me the situation of the song Titli. Shah Rukh Khan is carrying Deepika Padukone up the stairs to a temple. She falls in love with him and this is a romantic song. They gave me the lyrics and Shekhar Sir also sang the song -- he has a very good voice.
In fact, Shekhar is becoming my mentor. I told him I want to work in Bollywood and he actually picked up the phone and started calling composers and telling them, “Chinmayi is here; why don’t you work with her.”
Image: Chinmayi Sripada sings Tere Bina from Guru