A Little over a month ago, a bevy of classical musicians including the likes of Pandit Jasraj, flautist Ronu Majumdar and Grammy award-winner Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt gathered at Mumbai’s Hotel Sea Princess, to listen to a couple of new songs sung by a popular Bollywood playback singer. A rarity in the classical world but the moment Ye dil jo pyar ka began in the melancholic raag Puriadhanashree, everyone listened in attention. Titled Humnasheen, the album is Shreya Ghoshal’s foray into non-film music and an attempt to put a new lease of life into ghazal, a genre that seems to be in the throws of oblivion. “This (the album) made me a student again, refreshing me, letting me explore. Just regular Bollywood can become really monotonous. I try new things even in my regular songs,” says the 30-year old singer over the phone, and soon enough, croons Chikni chameli’s laavni bit for us.
Ghoshal has a unique ability to hurl herself into a song; as though all the octaves and notes are just hovering around her. Perhaps the busiest singer on the circuit — she’s been on quite a power roll, whether it’s experimenting with item songs, turning into an absolute diva for her stage shows, strutting and blinging around or judging reality shows by looking at par with the female guest actors. Quietly and steadily, Ghoshal has become a strong brand. It would seem that she has a well thought out marketing strategy behind her, but it’s moments like these — delivering a line with every shruti in place at a given moment — even though it’s on the phone to a journalist, that remind you that she’s a sincere artiste. As for the marketing strategy, Ghoshal thinks she is too old-fashioned for one. “I hear and read about these things all the time. But I have just been singing for so many years. If music is what can be called my strategy, then every singer should be trying that,” says Ghoshal.
Twelve years ago, when she first emerged with Bairi piya and Dola re in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas as the voice of Aishwarya Rai, after a successful stint on the reality show Sa Re Ga Ma, she came to be known for her compelling delivery and wide spectrum. What came across was her training from various gurus as a child growing up in Rawatbhata, a small town on the edge of Kota, Rajasthan. She credits her musical destiny to the efforts made by her engineer-father and housewife-mother who moved to Mumbai to get her a career. “I have been blessed. The right things just kept happening,” she says. It’s been some years since then, but as of now her singing style is much more distinctive and individualistic. Now songs are being written and composed keeping her in mind. “Saibo in Shor in the City was for her voice only. It had to be sung by Shreya and no one else. I would rather wait for her to give us time than get the song done by just anyone,” says music composer Jigar, who composed the song with his partner Sachin.
What makes Ghoshal stand out in the soundscape is the serenity in her voice and that enviable range. The “honey-dipped” inflection of it, which once put in the recording studio, can turn into naughty, sensuous, serious, sad, comic and pure classical, depending on the requirement of the job. So if she delivered some strenuous drama in AR Rahman’s Saans in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, she provided honed high notes accompanied with lungfuls of air in the cheesy yet extremely entertaining Ooh la la in The Dirty Picture (her sighs in the song were a big highlight). Then there is the variation-laden Mere dholna loosely based on the rare raag Maalgunji in Bhool Bhulaiyaa and also the pristine and arduous Bhor bhaye in Delhi 6. “When I joined the industry, it was at the cusp of change. Also, at that time, I was singing everything that came my way. Now, I’m very careful with what I pick and like to be as versatile as possible,” says Ghoshal, who says no to anything misogynistic and with strong innuendos. “I have refused two songs in my career. They went on to become huge hits,” she says.
Ghoshal admits that sometimes the fight between survival in an industry and wanting to excel musically puts her in awkward situations. “When we talk of Bollywood, then I have to do my best in that small boundary and that’s not easy. On a lot of days I’m stuck with some non-music gangs in recording studios, various psychologies, which want me to stick to what’s composed, which I understand at some level, but I would like the opportunity to raise the bar sometimes,” she says.
The scenario she is a part of right now is full of newbies with newer textures, some of whom even grew up listening to her. There is also better technology and software available for bringing even the most besura (out of sync) in tune. So how does a true artiste who wants to make it on the basis of a voice survive in today’s times? “It’s good to have many voices around as there are listeners of every kind of voice. With that settled, I have to say that you can only tune a voice to a certain level. What about dynamics and expression? You will not survive for very long with software help. Good music has to be there, otherwise you will choke the audience,” she says. Shantanu Hudlikar, the sound engineer at Yashraj Studio vouches for her voice. “She doesn’t like corrections. She would rather do it again than leave it to the machine,” he says.
She finds working with people like AR Rahman a breath of fresh air. Recording for Barso re, the melody with a serpentine course, from Guru was memorable. “He lets you be and likes to know your interpretations. Barso re is all sets of improvisation. He will also bring you back if you loose your way,” says Ghoshal, who considers this one of her finest. But National Awards came in for Devdas, Paheli and Jab We Met.
She still swears by her riyaaz. “I like to do voice training exercises almost everyday. Sometimes the voice is so strained that I just listen to music,” she says. So there is Coldplay, John Mayer, Rashid Khan and Lata Mangeshkar in shuffle mode on the iPod all the time.
But it’s her concerts that give Ghoshal the real high, the ones for which she likes to glam up, travel and sing to packed halls that chant her name. One of her concerts in Ohio, USA, even had the governor turning the day into Shreya Ghoshal Day. “Being on the stage makes me feel like a Goddess. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade anything for,” says Ghoshal. And looking the part of the “Stage Goddess” is also a part of the process. “I’m a little middle class in these matters. I’m still not okay with something very short. I do like to hire a stylist once in a while, may be pick some nice designer wear too,” she says. As for the finances for these concerts, they are still handled by her father. “I am really dumb in these matters,” she says.
Her plate is full of projects with Vishal-Shekhar and AR Rahman. She revels in fan mail and constant Twitter and Facebook love and even though she may refute the idea of calling herself a brand, but she’s setting trends for sure. There are girls in little towns who are singing her Piyu bole (Parineeta), Dheere jalna (Paheli) and Sun raha (Aashiqui 2), preparing to walk into the same recording studio some years later. “Her voice is brilliant but what has brought her this far is her innocence. Call it small town, but she’s retained it in this big city,” says singer and colleague Kailash Kher.