The fall of Kabul to the Taliban last fortnight shook many around the world. So, when singer Sona Mohapatra had to shoot a music video last Sunday for Dholna — a gentle wedding ditty she’d recorded for composer Neeraj Shridhar a couple of months ago — she decided to represent the strife inside her through a sartorial statement while still doing her job. “We are entertainers. But the atmosphere just wasn’t right. I shuddered to wear pinks and pastels and be pretty. I decided to react to the current environment of conflict,” says 44-year-old Mohapatra in a telephone conversation from Mumbai. So she buzzed out her hair in a crew cut, wore a jacket with military insignia, and styled it along with a blue and khaki sari — colours from the Indian air force and the police. She paired it all with roses in her hair styled like a military beret and combat boots along with a bindi and reached the sets of the music video that was to be directed by Anand Mishra. “I am glad he let me dress my way and express what I was feeling despite the song’s music video set with a wedding in the backdrop,” she says about the song — a vibrant North Indian piece with confetti cheer and all the pep and gloss in place.
“It’s been an uneasy feeling these days, with the pandemic taking our lives hostage. Taliban being handed over the reins of Afghanistan has brought back a dreaded fate for the women and children of that country… it’s hard to sum it all up in words but these times require us to be even more determined to express our freedom, our joy, and our identity as free citizens of a glorious democracy,” says Mohapatra, adding that she’s been dealing with conflicts of identity, equality, and pigeonholing for a while now.`
Sona Mohapatra has had a busy pandemic — creating and producing original music, recording videos, attempting to study different sounds and collaborating with other artistes, among others. She also began to create music videos again — an idea that is old but has been resurfacing for some time now with quite a few artistes.
The playbook for indie-pop is now overhauled, thanks to streaming platforms and a plethora of music from various genres finding its way into people’s lives. Mohapatra has moved with the times, but also stayed an old-fashioned pop artiste at heart, creating original music and her own trajectory. If Mainu heere aakhe, munda lambdaan da (Look, the village headman’s boy addresses me as Heer) took off from iconic writer Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poetry, Diljale — composed by husband Ram Sampath and produced by the couple’s company OmGrown Records — was a typical, ’90s-style heartbreak song, but with a contemporary soundscape. Then there was Nilamani — Sambalpuri Blues, a traditional Oriya piece Mohaptra reworked along with Sampath as a tribute to Amphan-hit Orissa to shine the spotlight on the folk artistes who were finding it hard to survive but still going about their work. The video showcased and celebrated Goti pua dancers of Orissa from a 1,200-year-old tradition, Patachitra painters of Raghurajpur, and carvings and temples of the state. She sang the piece to Nilamani, better known as Lord Jagganath. She appealed to Jagganath again — when Yaas cyclone hit, Mohapatra sang Aahe Neela Shaila, a 400-year-old bhajan which is still sung in the state. There was also Re bawree in Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish, composed by Govind Vasantha of the Kochi-based famed band Thaikuddam Bridge. Recently, Mohapatra made her billboard debut at New York’s Times Square, with Spotify putting her there as part of their ‘Equal campaign’. “I am not pushed by a label. There is no lobby happening for me. To choose an independent artiste like me was a brave choice for Spotify,” she says.
Mohapatra’s trajectory as a musician has come with many twists and turns. In times of conflict, when there is no resolution in sight, music manages to do what many other things cannot — “it clarifies the thought process,” she says. Music is what Mohapatra has embraced in times of happiness, sadness, enthusiasm, and calmness. She’s been consistent with putting out new, original music. It may not always hit the sweet spot with everyone, but Mohapatra goes back to the drawing board time and again and tries another and yet another ditty and strut out again and show the audience her shiny new song.
Mohapatra’s life and career have been fraught with battles for equality, a war of words and controversies. She has spoken up against Salman Khan and Anu Malik in the past and raised her voice about some pertinent matters. Her irreverence and non-conformist views may have often rubbed the industry the wrong way. “After the roaring success of Ambarsariya, it took me four years to get Naina (by Amaal Malik). Not one song till then. I wondered what the issue was. Was it because I was speaking up about issues, was I not working hard enough? The simple truth is songs aren’t being made for female musicians. Largely female singers are singing choruses in a male songs. How many songs are being made with female singers in mind?” asks Mohapatra. Arijit Singh, who debuted in the same year with Tum hi ho (Aashiqui 2), got almost every male playback thereafter.
Mohapatra says that she’d rather be a performing artiste than cage herself as a playback singer. At this point she is creating songs, one after the other, all with different stories, the way old-world pop stars used to. “In India, the music scene has been such that pop music is only film music and playback singing is the ultimate thing. But I have always aspired to be an artiste. I admired pop stars from the ’80s and ’90s, who had individual personalities. But I saw them falling by the wayside and being swallowed by the monster of Bollywood,” says Mohapatra. She adds that despite a few hit film songs that would have continued to give her shows and thus, money, she didn’t want to stop making her own songs. “I will put out songs that represent me,” says Mohapatra, who is also aiming at releasing music of other upcoming artistes through her record label apart from working with folk artistes.
Music landscape is changing dramatically. Mohapatra is tracking the numbers. “People between 18-28 are the only ones attempting to discover new songs. It makes me think that they are identifying with mature poetry and tunes. If you are going to put out good work, the audience will find you,” says Mohapatra, who rues that it’s also difficult to compete in a world where “an artiste will sell some land in Punjab to buy a million views,”. “Punjabi community is also the kindest when it comes to with their folk and the idea of other artistes contemporising it,” she says.
Her upcoming song is called Roti Machine, a tongue-in-cheek perspective about women working from home and handling more than they can. There is also a collaboration with sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee that will hit the charts soon.
Mohapatra has been an underrated musician who is slowly rising up to be a popular force. But will she be a trailblazing star in the years to come? It remains to be seen.