How techie Shankar Mahadevan turned into a supermarket of music
Shankar Mahadevan is an unstoppable force. In October last year, the musician performed with musical greats like Zakir Hussain, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Holland, Sanjay Divecha and Louis Banks during a whirlwind ten-city US tour. On returning to India, he added another feather to his cap when he was asked to act in a Marathi film for which he was composing the score. With the turn of the New Year, he was readying for the opening of his self-conceptualised, larger-than-life Indian folk music show in Mumbai. During this time, Mahadevan was also spending his days and nights in the studio, composing film music and jingles and performing to live audiences as one-third of the immensely popular composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
Mahadevan’s career as a music singer and composer is pushing two decades and one wonders where his boundless creative energy stems from. Born in Chembur, Mumbai, to a Tamil family from Palakkad, Kerala, Mahadevan was brought up to believe in the importance of both academics and the arts. He received a formal training in Hindustani classical and Carnatic music at a young age and was able to reproduce melodies on a harmonium by the age of five. “Being from a middle-class Indian family, I learned Carnatic music. And my parents were very particular about teaching me proper Carnatic music in the proper way. You don’t take any shortcuts. So, that’s why I’m here,” Mahadevan said in an interview to India Knowledge@Wharton.
Although much of his time in college and, later, at the workplace was spent playing live shows and recording his music, Mahadevan balanced both worlds with ease. Music was already a huge part of his life when he graduated with a degree in computer science and software engineering from Mumbai’s Ramrao Adik Institute of Technology in 1988. But like most middle class youngsters of his generation, he took up a job that would ensure a secure paycheck. He started work as a software engineer with Mumbai firm Leading Edge Systems where he worked on others the development of the Oracle Version 6.
His passion for music though continued unhindered. And inevitably, there came a time when he could not balance his work and passion, and was forced to choose between the two. As his wife Sangeeta recalled in an interview with First Post, “Music was his passion, and his job was hindering it. If he got a call, he would not be able to take the assignment because he had to go to work. He was so passionate about music that it was obvious that he needed to change tracks.
To the good fortune of Indian music industry and fans, passion won out over the pursuit of a conventional career. Mahadevan, switched to a full-time career as a singer. He largely credits his wife for her support and motivation during those days of introspection. “There’s something called a livelihood and something called passion,” he told Afternoon DC in an interview. “It should always be your aim to make your passion your livelihood. You will be able to work 24 hours if you are doing what you love.”
And those early days when he decided to turn his passion to paycheck were not easy, as his wife recalled in her First Post interview, “When you are young you don’t think about the future. We both came from middle class families, and we were quite happy with whatever we had. We lived in his Chembur house with my in-laws. I gave up my job soon after marriage when I got pregnant. When work started coming in, Shankar would be away for long hours, at the studio...”
Mahadevan’s effortless modulation of his voice and its immense range took him places. Although he first gained fame as a playback singer for a host of Tamil films, he was soon roped in to sing for films and jingles in Hindi as well as various regional languages. An important milestone was his 1998 release of Breathless, the album on which his unusual song of the same name won him praise as a solo singer.
More importantly, in 1997 the late Hindi film director Mukul Anand brought Mahadevan together with guitarist Ehsaan Noorani and keyboardist composer Loy Mendonsa to compose the song Hindustani for his last film Dus. The song was a hit and thus was born the music director trio that would be one of the dominant force on the Hindi film music scene for the next two decades, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy or SEL. Starting with small films like Rockford and Bhopal Express, they hit the big time with Farhan Akhtar’s first film Dil Chahta Hai for which they won a Filmfare aware, one of the four they have since won. With over 60 films under their belt they continue to be among the most in demand music directors in the country.
Mahadevan also pushed the boundaries of his art far beyond Bollywood playback singing and composing. In 2011, his first career as a successful software programmer came full circle when he started an online music school, the Shankar Mahadevan Music Academy. As a vocalist with John McLaughlin’s legendary Indo-jazz and world music ensemble Remember Shakti, he brings to the band his rich brand of Carnatic microtonal vocals. As he told one interviewer, “You can call me a supermarket of music. I can only focus on music. But within music, there are so many branches for me to explore and I am a very restless student from inside. My interest towards ghazals, film music, fusions, Western music, jingles... are all part of my interest and my craving to learn beyond.”
Image Credits: Getty and Alamy, The Hindu
Inspiring successful startup stories at Signature Start Up Master Class events at your city.