Shashaa Tirupati recently won the National Award for her song Vaan varuvaan from the Mani Ratnam film Kaatru Veliyidai. It all started when a relative heard her sing.“My parents are very religious. As an everyday ritual, my mother would sing aartis and bhajans in the shrine inside our home, and I would sing with her. Often, my voice would be heard over hers; I must have been about four or five. That’s when an uncle told my father, ‘Arre Richa (a name she used as her stage name) toh bada sur main gaati hai’. That’s when my parents woke up to the fact,” says Tirupati, 30, who was recently in the Capital to receive the National Award.
Born in Srinagar, Kashmir, Tirupati shifted to Vancouver, Canada, when she was around eight months old. Her family had already been there for two generations. By the time she was six, she had participated in stage shows and sung for the radio. “Vancouver, even in the early nineties was multicultural, given the migrant communities in that region. There were many radio and TV stations for specific audiences, making it quite easy for people to break into the performing space,” says Tirupati, the eldest of the three children.
She’s versatile in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Bengali. “I read and write in Punjabi as well. Initially, when I began singing in Tamil, it was new for me, but it all fell in place. I was introduced to GV Prakash, AR Rahman’s nephew through a friend in 2008. I gave him a CD of mine. A few months later I got a call from him asking if I would want to try out a Tamil song. That song didn’t work out, but the other one which we recorded — Oday oday from the movie Raja Rani (2013) became a chartbuster,” says Tirupati.
In spite of having a hit number under her belt, Tirupati did not get her share of recognition. She blames it all on her name. “In the credits they messed up my spelling, and only gave my first name. Also at that point Shalmali Kholgade — she had sung the alaap in between the song — she was much more in vogue. No one knew that I had sung that song,” says Tirupati.
Her name has caused her enough misery since she landed in India to learn music at the age of 10. Well-known classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj had asked her parents to bring her to India for training. “We had come to Allahabad so that I could learn from the late Kamala Bose, who taught me Hindustani classical. In Allahabad, everyone called me Tripathi — yeh Tirupati kya hai, humse poochiye, Tripathi hi hoga. After a while, we resigned to it,” she sighs. There was also this time where she was mistaken for Richa Sharma, another Bollywood singer. “Since then, I stopped using Richa as my stage name.”
Tirupati has left those days far behind. A chance meeting with Rahman, in season three of Coke Studio, led her to sing the hit track Vaada vaada for Soundarya Rajnikanth’s film Kochadaiiyaan, where he was the music director. This is her third collaboration with Ratnam and Rahman. Her earlier songs include O kadhal kanmani in OK Kanami (2015), and for OK Bangaram (2015). “Vaan varuvaan for Kaatru Veliyidai had repetitive phrases that were sung in different notes. We recorded it in Chennai. It started in a very different direction and the final version, well, it was something else completely,” says Tirupati. Last year, she also sang the famed Humma track from Ok Jaanu, Kanha from Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, and two tracks from the film Mom.
Her collaborations with Rahman are extra special. “He is so critical of himself and the work that he produces. He would finish a set, and produce a melody which most people would be amazed with. But he, would keep pushing himself and be like how can I make this better. He sets the bar so high. When he called out for me at the Coke Studio recording, I thought that he wanted to chuck me out. When I drew up the courage to ask him, he said that my voice sounded like a musical instrument,” she gushes. In less than three years, Tirupati has made a name for herself, singing tracks that are rooted in the classical musical tradition, and carry mass appeal at the same time. While Kanha has elements of folk, Humma brings in a peppy vibe.
Tirupati is clued into the underground music scene — Sohn (New Zealand), Melody Gardot (US) — everything except death metal. She is hopeful about Bollywood music, in spite of its remixes. “We go through phases; there was EDM. But then you get an album like Jagga Jasoos, so quirky and soulful. We have people like Amit Trivedi, Mithoon, and AR Rahman, who surprise you at each turn.”
For now, she is busy with producing her own album with about eight original songs, which will release at the end of this year. She also makes her stage debut with I, Cloud written by Ulka Mayur, which will be staged at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, next week.