Making music with a curious Bollywood couple
Music composer Ram Sampath and his singer wife Sona Mohapatra make a curious pair.
In the age of folk-rock and gospel-qawwali, Sona's unusually earthy and sonorous voice has found a worthy anchor in Sampath's progressive and experimental sound.
Over time, the duo has also mastered the art of standing out in a music industry where being different has become the norm -- while a sari-clad Sona famously wielded a guitar in the stylish Delhi Belly music video of Bedardi raja, Sampath beautifully juxtaposed her voice with dubstep in Talaash's haunting Jiya laage na.
The third season of Coke Studio @MTV marks the musician couple's latest collaboration where Sampath is producing an episode in which Sona is featured on three of the lined up songs. Here's a behind the scenes account of their day-long recording one overcast morning at Film City in Goregaon, a western Mumbai suburb.
Dressed in a red billowy off-shoulder dress, dramatic eye make up with a tinge of gold dust and a two-strand head band, Sona Mohapatra is a striking figure.
At a little over five feet six inches, the songstress towers over almost everybody on the set, including her music-composer husband Ram Sampath.
The musician couple is at the centre of all the action at Film City in Goregaon. Sampath is helping set up the music arrangement as the producer of his segment in the upcoming Coke Studio @MTV season 3.
“My episode is all about the divine femininity. So we have Anuradha Sairam from Chennai, Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan, rapper Hard Kaur and of course, my much better half Sona as part of the line-up. We have tried to depict various energies of femininity through music,” says Sampath who is wearing kajal like the rest of the musicians in his team.
The first song Sona is recording for the day -- she’s a part of at least three songs lined up for their episode -- is a folk Vrindavani song titled Piya se naina.
Please click NEXT to read further...
Image: Sona Mohaptra and Ram Sampath
Behind the scenes with a curious Bollywood couple
As the group begins to warm up, Sona complains of a fault in her headphones.
After repeated attempts to get the tech guys to rectify the problem, she gets ready for the recording to begin.
She fumbles during the second take -- she’s forgotten the number of times a particular refrain has to be repeated -- and instinctively looks at Sampath in horror.
“Sorry guys,” she says and readies herself for the next take.
It’s right before the final take that she summons her husband to her microphone and tells him to put on the headphones and see how problematic it’s been.
Sampath leans in, and agrees that they need tuning. “It’s like a new person,” Sona exclaims delightedly after the required adjustments have been made.
The team wraps the song after that take.
Image: Pulkit Samrat and Priya Anand in Ambarsariya, Fukrey
'Why should all Punjabi songs begin with a thumbi?'
During a brief conversation with gathered music journalists, Sampath talks about his work in Bollywood, most notably with Aamir Khan with whom he worked on Delhi Belly and Satyamev Jayate and the latest hit he’s delivered, Ambarsariya, a Punjabi romantic number sung by Sona in the recently released buddy comedy Fukrey.
He’s very proud of the song. ‘My point is, why should all Punjabi songs begin with a thumbi (a traditional high pitched, single-string plucking instrument from North India)?’ Ambarsariya begins with a distinctively melodious acoustic guitar solo.
The team gets back to work post-lunch with a heart-wrenching rendition of Paiyado by Aruna Sairam.
Sona is back in the red room, carefully dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief as she watches Aruna Sairam perform.
“This song is probably my all-time favourite. It’s an experience. Aruna, who’s probably the only singer left in India who sings these songs of the devdasis, has been an inspiration for me for a long time,” she says.
Sona shares Sampath’s musical vision and his passive disdain of the current music scenario in India. While Sampath is concerned about the thumbi and other stereotypical elements dictating Bollywood music, Sona laments that we don’t get to hear real live music as much as we should.
Image: Sona Mohapatra
'He tells me I'm fussy!'
After her self-titled 2007 debut album for which Sampath composed music, Sona’s most notable works have been with him.
Surely, creative difference creeps in occasionally?
“Oh, you mean do we fight? Yeah, all the time. Even today when I was telling them about my faulty headphones, he was like, ‘you’re so fussy! Just manage with what you’ve got!’”
Like Sampath, she talks sparingly about her better half, opening up only when pointedly urged to.
“I feel blessed to have got an opportunity to work with Ram. He gets context. He isn’t just about creating a beautiful tune; he also wants a structured story to go with it.
“As an artist it lets you be a part of something timeless. For instance people still find Shaan’s Tanha Dil (composed and produced by Sampath) quite moving.
“For him it’s all about being true to the artists, telling their story. He’s not a mere musician; he understands history and back stories,” she says.
She counts their collaboration on Satyamev Jayte among her most memorable works.
“My most prized collaboration with him would be Mujhe kya bechega for Satyamev Jayte. It didn’t just reach out to the whole country; it had this energy beyond its words. I think it’s a once in a lifetime experience for an artist to be part of a project that communicates with the masses about things that matter, questions them,” she says.
It wasn’t without its share of drama, Sona reveals.
Image: Ram Sampath and Sona Mohapatra at the Delhi Belly success bash in 2011
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar
'I would choose this life over anything else if I had to again'
“Satyamev Jayte was, by far, the most daunting project we’ve worked on together. We were supposed to present a song at the end of each episode where people would come in and share their ordeals and personal struggles so we had to present songs that would capture the essence of the issues being addressed in that particular episode.
“The catch was that you can never predict how a day would end. There were episodes where you are scheduled to do a jazzy song about alcohol when people have shared some really scary stories.
“So you have to come up with a new song and play it on a guitar within two hours. It was really something, really tough.
“We would come in hours and hours before the shoot to study the footage and understand what kind of songs we needed to make.”
So what is it like to be married to a frequent collaborater?
“I would choose this life over anything else if I had to again. It’s a dream come true. Not that there aren't dark sides to it, but it’s worth it in the end.
“When you wake up in the morning and realise that it’s filled with music and a person who’s admirably committed to it, someone who shares your values and belief system, you know you’ve got it good.
Image: Shaan in Tanha Dil
'I didn't want to take the beaten route to jumpstart my singing career so I cut a private album'
The career trajectory of a promising talent in Bollywood follows a template that is only too well known.
Playback singers, no matter how unique their sounds, have been known to forge successful mainstream collaborations after their big breakthroughs. Considering how popular she is, it strikes as odd that Sona has mostly worked with just one music composer till now.
‘I’ve had to work extra hard for everything so far but I wouldn’t change a thing. I didn’t want to take the beaten route to jumpstart my singing career so I cut a private album.
“I’m all for singing for other composers but someone has to approach me for that, right?’ she reasons.
“I can’t talk any more; have to save my voice for my next recording,” she says before retreating into the cold, dark confines of the studio with her make up artist.
Image: Ram Sampath at the Coke Studio @MTV recording