At Full Throttle | Verve Magazine
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Verve People
December 18, 2008

At Full Throttle

Text by Sona Bahadur. Photographs by Vikram Bawa. Hair and make-up by Jean Claude Biguine. Styling by Hina Oomer-Ahmed. Drum set courtesy: Furtado.

Original songwriting. Power vocals. High octane performances. The new wave of female singers is bringing freshness, chutzpah, glam and groove into Indian music. Verve makes sure they don’t remain unsung by celebrating five sassy members of this tribe — Monica Dogra, Hard Kaur, Anushka Manchanda, Sona Mohapatra and Shruti Haasan — in a rollicking photo fest. Stunningly styled in black and gold, the divas in the making kick up a riot as their live wire personalities and unique music styles come together. Meanwhile, Verve goes deeper into the genesis of the breed that has hit the sweet spot of New India’s zeitgeist

“I’m no playback singer. I’m a rapper. I’m Hard Kaur.” India’s hip hop queen doesn’t give a rap about impressing Bollywood. As Ehsaan Noorani of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy vouches, her debut hit single Gallasi had made her something of an overnight star when the trio approached her for Johnny Gaddar. “We didn’t give her a break. It was a collaboration.” Saregama VP Atul Churamani, who released Hard Kaur’s debut album Supawoman, describes her as an ideal artiste.

“Hard Kaur carries her music. She is her music.”

This New Age female crooner who writes, sings, performs, lives and looks her music was virtually non-existent a few years ago. Today her tribe is flourishing. Some would go to the extent of calling it a renaissance. Hard Kaur is joined by the likes of Anushka Manchanda, Sona Mohapatra, Vasundhara Das, Akriti Kakar and umpteen others who are singing up a storm.

And much as record companies like to deny it, music is alive and thriving on the fringes, away from the Bollywood/Indipop mainstream. Witness artistes like electronica outfit Shaa’ir and Func’s Monica Dogra and Shillong-based band Soulmate’s Tipriti Kharbangar, who operate outside the filmy whirligig. Regarded by many as the best blues singer in India, Tipriti says singing the blues has got her “recognition far beyond her imagination”.  Then there’s Kamal Haasan’s Kafka loving daughter Shruti Haasan who performs all over the place with her Chennai-based band Shruti and the Extramentals and is putting together a much-awaited debut album.

At the Verve photoshoot we celebrate this diversity by bringing together a truly eclectic mix of commercial and indie artistes. Associated with distinct genres of music and at different stages of their careers, the crooners are united by their conviction to be true to their chosen music paths. The inevitable music fest that ensues is a treat to watch. Dressed in a structured black jacket and ultra-cool gold sequin shorts by Anna Sui, Anushka gets in percussionist mode behind the drums. As Hard Kaur raps to robust bhangra steps, Monica delivers a stunning soprano. Sona joins in, her velvet voice bringing an earthy Indian flavour to this mother of a jam session.

Later, talking to me about the music scene, Hard Kaur differentiates between the falsetto of Bollywood playback and a more natural or lower singing pitch using a bizarre but rather original expression; “Chicken-head versus Solid.”  Fellow singer and pal Anushka Manchanda fame is plugged in to this insider lingo now that the two are collaborating musically. “During recording sessions Taran (Hard Kaur’s real name) uses these terms to indicate when I should sing in a fake high voice and when I should sing bass,” laughs the leggy ex-Viva girl made famous by the zingy title track of Golmaal.

Hard Kaur’s distinction may not score on political correctness but it helps to understand the history of female singing in Bollywood. Monopolised by a thinner vocal sound with an emphasis on high-pitched melodies, the playback system put in place by the first talkie Alam Ara in 1931 has dominated the Indian singing scenario ever since. Barring singing stars like Nur Jahan and Suraiyya, playback by its very definition meant disembodied voices that were heard, not seen. Usha Uthup cut to the chase in a recent interview. “When people watch Madhuri Dixit sing on screen, they see Madhuri not Lata Mangeshkar…with all due respect to Lataji.”

Sure there were sui generis singers like Shamshad Begum, Usha Uthup and Ila Arun. But in general, having a distinct voice was anathema. Dominique Cerejo, the dark-chocolate voiced singer behind the track Yeh Tumhari Meri Baatein from Rock On!! has gone through the struggle first hand in her two-decade singing career: “I have such an alternative voice that it has been an uphill climb to find my space in Bollywood where one only thinks of the female voice in high soprano register.”

Dominique’s happier now that the industry is finally beginning to open up and accept singers who have a new sound. Vasundhara Das, Shibani Kashyap, Madhushree, Mahalakshmi Iyer and Suzy Q are all products of this paradigm shift. Even Sunidhi Chauhan, the reigning nightingale of Bollywood, has a powerful voice many would have considered left of centre less than a decade ago. What’s more, the repertoire of women singers isn’t limited to playback anymore. Many of them, including Dominique, are releasing independent albums to give vent to their creativity. Ergo, the singing is more eclectic, varied and organic.

What has led to the evolution of this new species? Change at many different levels. Maverick music directors — Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Salim Sulaiman and Vishal Shekhar – are joining hands with young filmmakers like Siddharth Anand, Tarun Mansukhani and Farhan Akhtar to create different sounding music. The audience is tuning in big time. That Farhan pulled off a mega hit Rock On!! in his own voice says a lot. TV reality shows are throwing up a deluge of new singers. Virtually every film that releases features a new voice. Oh, and let’s not forget to give the item song its due. As sexy becomes the new pretty on 70 mm, husky often scores over saccharine-sweet in playback.

Saregama’s A&R manager Shatadru Sarkar believes the very notion of a mass music market is breaking up. Instead, alternative record labels like Blue Frog, Counter Culture and Chill Om Records are nurturing independent talent and allowing niche pockets to grow. Who would have though even five years ago that India could have a Sunburn or One Tree Hill Fest.  Yet today one can enjoy a performance by an international artiste like Richard Bona at a world-class music space like Blue Frog. Monica, who finds the Indian music market far more open and diverse than its American counterpart, admits it’s thanks to Shaa’ir and Func’s popularity in India that their band is getting invited to play at big-ticket international festivals like The Big Chill, UK, and Glastonbury. Sona places her faith in internet and the connection it allows with the “real” music listeners. A boon for new artistes at a time when there’s hardly any support from mainstream media for non-film music.

But let’s pause to consider what the GenNext singer is all about?

She sounds like herself. So she’d not always be technically perfect. But she’s confident and original, creating a brave new sound. The voice could be earthy and rootsy like Sona’s. Or “smoky, husky, coming from deep inside of me,” like Tipriti’s. Sometimes it’s like marmite, perfectly suited to rap. Like Hard Kaur’s. It could be primal like Monica’s. You hear the streets of New York, the jazz, the spoken word, the R &B and the soul she grew up listening to. Or emotional like Shruti’s who sounds like she’s performing or speaking with music. Whatever the texture, it’s unique. As Sona puts it, “I can only sound like myself. It’s non-negotiable”.

She pens her own songs. This sets her apart from the playback set and allows her to really put her personality into her music. “Because I write myself, by default I have my own style,” says R&B singer Reenie who ended up writing most of the songs for her debut album Reenie at Manhattan Starbucks and Subways.  Monica, whose musical name Shaa’ir derives from the Urdu word for poet, believes writing her own songs and music has enabled her to be true to her musical DNA. “The songs that come out of me are of a gypsy woman who embraces change and wants to uncover the love in all things.” Sona sees herself a storyteller who wants to get to the hidden story through her songs. Rapper Hard Kaur won’t hear of anyone else writing her lines. “When Bollywood types tell me they’ll write my lyrics, I tell them to take a walk.”

She experiments. Dissolving borders between musical genres comes naturally to the new wave. Electronica performer Shridevi Keshavan, who has two tracks on Chill Om Records’ album Swaraaj, incorporates Carnatic with Western melodies. No mean task, she tells me, as there’s a difference in every aspect of singing as you progress from carnatic alaaps to English vocals and vice versa. And she loves the idea that people in clubs can dance to it. Loath to box herself as a rock artiste, Mesuggah fan and headbanger Shruti finds comfort in the umbrella term alternative. “My music has bits of lot of things, like a nice salad. There’s rock with Indian influences and some industrial rhythmic.” Sona’s debut album Sona converges Roman gypsy music, R&B, Baul, Flamenco and North Indian folk rhythms. A real melting pot of sounds.

She performs live.  The world’s a stage for the new songstress who knows how to connect with live audiences. She might playback sing, but doing gigs, shows and performances is a huge part of her life. Just as well. With CD sales dwindling, live music is the perceived future of music. It’s what makes the cash registers go ka-ching. “Anyone can sing in a studio. The test is in performing live. That’s how people relate to you,” believes Reenie. Anushka who has done shows with Vishal-Shekhar, strikes the perfect balance between Bollywood and live shows. “I’ve no problem being associated with item numbers. People love to dance to them at shows.” Monica’s intensity on stage often causes people to ask her whether she is on drugs. “But I’m just high on my music. I’m not bogged down trying to be a pretty girl on stage. I get sweaty. I get gross.”

She’s a global being. Both in the music she listens to as well as in her aspirations. Shruti, who studied at Musicians Institute in LA, is aware of the global potential of her music. “Maybe I’ll be the first musical export to the international music world,” she hopes. Reenie managed to get none other than David Anthony, one of the biggest mainstream producers in the international music scene, who has made music for the likes of Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Li’l Kim and Blackstreet to produce her debut album Reenie. She’s currently “psyched” about the recent duet she sung with reggae artist Maxi Priest. Sona has done her share of international gigs including collaborations with the legendary David Bowie on a track called Let’s Dance and INXS on their track Afterglow. Hard Kaur dreams of singing with her hero Busta Rhymes. And as I write, Monica is heading off to Amsterdam to play at the India Festival. “It’s crazy that my band is on the cover of a popular Dutch magazine, and we haven’t even set foot in that place…yet!” Even newbie Aditi Singh Sharma, who performs with her Delhi-based rock bands, Crimson and Level 9, gigged all over Melbourne with Aussie band Skotch.

She combines music with style. Sculpted body, sex appeal, edgy style–today’s singer-diva puts thought and effort into her looks. As Shruti reasons, attire matters because it often becomes the first impression of a singer. At the Verve photoshoot, the glam quotient of the five divas extends way beyond their signature styles. Monica, who usually opts for shorts and boots courtesy her frenzied headbangs and cartwheels on stage, loves her divaesque look in a black floor-length Gayatri Khanna dress with coin embellishments. Shruti, even lovelier from the time we first put her on the cover of Verve earlier this year, does full justice to her black velvet shorts and bronze sequin jacket. Gorgeous in a gold Falguni and Shane Peacock cocktail stunner, Hard Kaur loves her dress so much she jokingly threatens to walk off with it! The irrepressible performer keeps everyone entertained as she provocatively arches her curvy derriere back and demands, “Koi Beyonce ko phone lagao!” From preening in the green room with Jean Claude Biguine make-up artists to giving bytes to the gaggle of television crew who have converged at the studio to capture this landmark shoot, the ladies make it amply clear that they love being part of this style fest.

She’s multifaceted.  That often means having a life beyond music. Currently learning Mohiniyattam, Monica is excited about making her acting debut in Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat. At the Verve shoot, I spot the philosopher-poet quietly reaching for Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit between shots. Shruti thinks nothing of straddling her gigs, music album and upcoming film debut; she only wishes there were more hours to take it all on. Working on her first album, Anushka dreams of having her own rock band some day. But she also wants to travel the world and have babies. Right now her Facebook is plastered with pictures of her recent bungee jumping adventure in Nepal. Allergic to the word career, she cringes at its mention. “For me this is life.

Not work.”

All these cool attributes might lead one to believe that things are easier for today’s singers. Actually the struggle is much the same. Parental blocks against pursuing music; coping in a male-dominated industry; intense competition. Anushka admits finding friends in the industry is far from easy. “There’s no line between professions anymore. Models are acting. Actors are singing. Singers are dancing. Everybody is competition suddenly.”Then there’s the Bollywood monolith. With mass media like radio and music TV channels favouring filmi item tracks over non-film music, it seems like a cultural eon since we had any genuine female pop stars. “Ten years ago we had pop divas like Alisha, Shweta Shetty and Sagarika. Today there’s a lull,” laments Atul.

So what’s working for these women? Attitude. Fearlessness. Spunk.

The free spirits have their own take on what music and life should be all about. And they’re sticking to their guns. “Being a woman in the rock circuit can be very overwhelming,” confesses Aditi, but “to me music isn’t about gender — it’s just music.” If you’re going to be an artiste, there has to be a you about it, stresses Monica. “Don’t try and create a sound that’s saleable.” Struggle is all in the head, she philosophises. “So many artistes from so many centuries have walked these steps. They’re in the particles of the air we breathe. Once you believe in what you do, their spirits propel you along. I honestly believe that.”

Many of them embody the change they wish to see. Sona, who laments the lack of an Indian ethos in pop music, is closing the gap by infusing her music with strong folk sounds. Hard Kaur has started her own label, Kaur Music, to promote promising new artistes.

As for the future, they’re not thinking. They’re just singing. American poet Maya Angelou said it best. ‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.’

Monica Dogra, 25, electro-rock
Story so far

Monica Dogra sees herself as something of a hustler. The Maryland-raised free spirit recalls the joy of performing at Carnegie Hall at 16 being tempered by the realisation that she was there against her father’s wishes. As a student of music she was kicked out of NYU several times because of money woes. Later, producer Andre Betts, who worked on Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, was excited about developing Monica as a sophisticated version of Rihanna, “a sexy pop star talking about sex, dudes and alcohol”. She said no. But her five-day vacation in Mumbai in 2005 proved life-altering. She met lots of musicians, got a ton of phone numbers, jammed with a bunch of people, played dumb charades in an actress’ house and met her current partner Randolphe Correa at a party at 2 am. She decided to stay. The rest is Shaa’ir and Func history.

Breakthrough song
New Day. It was the first song she ever wrote, a love song to herself.  “I believe I’ll receive love.  But, until then I’m my own biggest fan.”

Music to her ears
Pentagram, Bonobo, Ani Difranco, Cake, Sebastian, Jose Gonzalez, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Chemical Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Benga. Is a lot into dub step these days.

Style file
Loves boots, and clothes by Urban Renewal, a brand that finds old clothes, revs them up a bit with new buttons or different cuts, and then sells one-of-a-kind pieces.

Stylish music icon
Bjork. “She’s iconoclastic.”

More live music events and venues. sees Sees the Indian government understanding that live music and outdoor parties aren’t raves and allowing them to happen.

Hard Kaur, 29, hip hop and Bollywood
Story so far

‘Freshie, go back to your country.’  The racist refrain flung at wide-eyed, pig-tailed Taran Kaur in her Birmingham school gave her a hard time. Having an alcoholic stepfather at home didn’t help. She decided to turn gangsta. Hip hop became her nirvana against racism, domestic abuse and struggle. Her beautician mum had bridals in mind for her daughter but 16-year old Taran firmly declared, “I want to be a frikkin rapper.” The hip hop journey which began with UK club gigs and performances in venues across the world eventually brought her fame in the motherland. Her smash single Gallasi rocked the charts in 2006 bringing Bollywood glory in its wake with Johnny Gaddar, Singh is Kinng, Kismat Konnection.

On her music
“Hyper, fun, glam, sexy, crazy and original.”

Fave designers
Drashta, Shantanu and Nikhil, Manish Arora.

Style file
Hip hop one day, glam next day, and PJs the third. “I’m a drama queen. When I walk into a party, I have to be the best.”

On her iPod
Busta Rhymes, Self Scientific Feat Combo, Amy Winehouse, Chris Bryant.

Coming up
Her second album releases early next year. Producers include Tigerstyles, Dboy and others from UK and India. Bollywood tracks for Jai Veeru, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and others.

Sona Mohapatra, 30, soul rock
Story so far

A budding performer at five, Sona would use huge trunks with rusted latches—they were around her house because her father was in the army—as mics for her performances. “I’d adjust them up and down, tap on them and go, ‘hello, hello, mic testing,’ then break into song!” But since her folks considered music as a hobby, she couldn’t see it as a legitimate’ profession. So along with her training in Hindustani classical vocal, she got an MBA and Engineering/B-Tech degrees, worked at an FMCG for five years. When she couldn’t hold back the urge to sing and perform, she quit to pursue her dream to sing and be an artiste full time.

Breakthrough song
Afterglow with INXS.

On her iPod
Siddheswari Devi, Gouhar Jaan, Girija Devi, Shobha Gurtu, Begum Akhtar, Kumar Gandharva, Geeta Dutt, Nina Simone, Etta James, Billie Holliday, Amy Winehouse, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Baba Maal, Richard Bona, Prince, Freddie Mercury, Sting…the list goes on!

Style file
“Don’t blend in!!! I’m anti-homogeneity.” Sucker for a great cut, solid colours and a certain degree of flamboyance. Also loves Indian textiles and weaves.

Stylish music icon
Prince. Works for boys and girls!

What’s next
A new album and a number of Bollywood and international collaborations. “They’re all exciting as they showcase the contradiction that I am!”

Music mantra
Soul sweet soul. It’s about giving it your all and hoping the divine will oblige.

Shruti Haasan, 23, alternative
Story so far

At six she sang for music legend Illayaraja.  Shruti discovered Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and The Who early thanks to her music loving dad Kamal Haasan. Mum Saarika did her bit by making her learn classical Indian. The music graduate from the Musicians Institute, LA, is currently putting together an album of her unique brand of alternative music. The geeky cool beauty is active on the club circuit where she performs with her band Shruti and the Extramentals. Her original songs on MySpace and high-energy performances at Hard Rock Café and Blue Frog have already created a buzz among music insiders. She also playback sings for Tamil films. But there’s more to her life than music. She makes her acting debut with Luck.

Music style
Incorporates things she has learnt in Indian classical music. “It functions as my base or canvas. Then I work in the things I’ve heard or liked otherwise.”

On her iPod  
Karnivool, Mutemath, Madonna’s new album (I’m the most loyal fan even though its possibly the worst album), Unearth, Mesuggah and Tori Amos.

Personal style
Loves skinny jeans with a cool tee. “Sometimes I pull out my ballerina skirts if I’m in the mood! Most of all I love accessories. I’ve been guilty of wearing studded bracelets with a very feminine floral dress… got major flak for that one!”

Style icon
Madonna. Also Joan Jett, among the coolest women ever.

Music meets style
“Fashion is an extension of the artistic ideas you put across through the music.”

Coming up
Music album. Bollywood acting debut Luck for which she also sings, a la Rock On!!

Music mantra
“If you’re not feeling it, no one else will.”

Almost Famous 5

Verve tunes into exciting new voices on the singing block

1) Tipriti Kharbangar: The female vocalist of Shillong-based band Soulmate doesn’t like to sound like anyone but she learns from her hero, Ella Fitzgerald. “That woman can sing.” Soulmate’s debut album Shillong was voted the number one Original Album in the Blues/Rock category in 2005. Tips, who also plays the rhythm guitar, is currently working on her second album and continues to perform at several big-ticket venues including Blue Frog in Mumbai. Her dream? Peace and harmony in the world.

2) Shridevi: From temple fests and college competitions to being signed on to Chill Om Records, the electronica singer’s music has travelled diverse paths. The singing style that has emerged is “finely crushed carnatic flavours with gypsy freeflowing tips.” She sang the title track for a festival movie by Arindam Mitra and has two movies in the pipeline. Waits for the day when the world stops talking and starts singing.

3) Aditi Singh Sharma:  According to her parents, Aditi didn’t cry as a baby – it was more a sort of “musical wailing”. Ergo, she tells people she was born singing. The rock singer plays extensively with her Delhi-based bands Crimson and Level 9 on the pub circuit, has lent her voice to several jingles and has collaborated with Bollywood types including Monty Sharma (U Me Aur Hum), Salim Sulaiman , Mika (Gumnam) and Amit Trivedi (Dev D).

4) Reenie: The husky-voiced singer who likes to sing R&B in Hindi recently made the move to India after living in Manhattan for almost a decade. Her debut album, released last year, is called Reenie because “this is who I am. The lyrics and melodies are mine.” Playback singing makes good sense because “Bollywood is what sells.” The ex-MTV stylist and television host also loves to perform live.

5) Parwati Kumari: This sufi singer from Jharkard just released her debut pop album Barse Barse Naina. Her voice was also featured in Saregama’s Underground Series. Hindustani classical is “basic as ABCD” for the artiste who studied music at Delhi University and Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and perfected sufi at Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah. Item numbers and Westernised tracks are not her thing; the Abida Parvin fan enjoys nothing more than giving live performances with just a harmonium and tablas for company.

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