Talking to – Shankar Mahadevan

Tell us about your childhood and education? How did your inclination towards music start?
I grew up in Chembur- Mumbai and went to OLPS school (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour High School). The earliest time I remember is, when my mother had taken me to a relative’s house – I must have been around 6 years of age and I accidentally saw a Harmonium and was curious and opened it and started playing it.
My mother tells me that I played so well that our relatives and friends insisted that she enrol me into a Paatu(Music) Class. This is how it all started and I used to take the BEST bus from Chembur to Matunga to learn from my late Guru – Mrs. Balamani. I miss her very much. She was an excellent friend, teacher and guide for so many years. One more instance is, when I was 10 — I played Veena in the first song of Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar together composed by Shrinivas Khale. So, music was always an integral part of my education.
Like many of my friends, I went to Ramrao Adik Institute of Technology to study Computer Science. I even worked as a software engineer for a while but music was my true calling.
So, when I was 21, I released “Breathless” and from there my journey in this industry began. I am blessed that after all these years, I am still able to contribute in this field as a singer and a composer.

What were the difficulties you faced and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, life without challenges can be very boring. I had my own set of challenges. I was studying to be an engineer at the Ramrao Adik Institute of Technology in Navi Mumbai and at the same time trying to establish myself in the Hindi Movie Industry as a musician.
A career in music is very hard to come by without hard work and something different that I could contribute but at the same time, one needs a lot of luck and timing plays an important role in getting established. My break came through “Breathless.” I have overcome challenges simply by trying to work hard, be honest and not back away from the problem at hand.

How do you feel Bangalore as a musical base?
Well, the first and largest presence of the Academy is online so, really we could have been based out of anywhere. However, the fact that my partner Sridhar Ranganathan was in Bangalore and the ability to get better technical leaders and engineers made this an obvious choice for me. Now, as we are starting regular offline classroom centres, Bangalore is right up there, as the city promises to be a melting pot with a huge influx of people from various parts of India and the world coming in, combined with a rich cultural heritage from the past. With the growth in the economy and so many MNCs coming into the city, we could not have chosen a better city than Bangalore to operate the Academy. The city is growing at a very rapid rate and that is good for any field in art. The more the number of people and the more diverse they are – these form some of the fundamental recipes for creativity. To that extent, we all, at the Academy believe that more schools will get serious with music, more centres will open and more academies such as ours will flourish. After all, we all would like to see a vibrant, creative city everywhere, and Bangalore has all the right ingredients for it.

Tell us about Shankar Mahadevan Music Academy. How many schools have implemented your courses in India?

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Shankar Mahadevan Academy started in March 2011 as an online Academy. In 2010, I met my college friend Sridhar, and we decided to leverage technology to bring high quality Indian music education to the masses. We use state of the art technology, an outstanding curriculum and a unique pedagogy that makes music fun and interesting at the same time. We soon felt the need to reach out to children where they are – at schools.
We have delivered the Grow with Music program to 9000+ children in schools all over the country. The Academy is teaching Grow with Music in 22 school locations in India including the Delhi NCR Region, Lucknow, Kanpur, Nagpur, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madurai. The Grow with Music curriculum has been developed to create and sustain an interest in Music for children and available for children aged 2.5 years old through 14 years old.

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Do you think music should be made a part of school curricula?
Absolutely! I believe that a child exposed to any music will relate to that type of music. Music is like food and if we are exposed to any specific food genre (for example South Indian Food or Italian or Mexican Food) when we were children, some dish from that type of food becomes our “food for the soul” even if we develop a taste for other cuisines much later in life. Music in that respect, is very similar. It is vital for children to discover music early in their lives as it contributes to their overall growth. Apart from helping children develop an appreciation for music as an art form, it helps children develop creatively, nurtures lateral thinking and social skills like self-confidence and team building.
The Grow With Music program is a progressive and age-relevant curricula that breaks music down into its elemental form for children. They also get to learn a repertoire of songs from all over the world across various genres and all this while having a lot of fun!

How do you balance your passion for classical music as well as popular Bollywood music?
I firmly believe that my early exposure to Classical (Carnatic) music and then just living in a city like Mumbai, where I was blessed to be exposed to so many forms of music have played a very important part in influencing my musical aesthetics. Classical music allows me to create and extend an elaborate musical expression on a blank canvas. It helps me understand the fabric of music to help innovate. For example: Breathless, which is a pop song, is based on Raga Yaman/Kalyani and I adapted a couple of “sing along” Bhajans to come up with Kajra Re which gets played at dance discotheques. In that regard, I think India has such diversity of music and if you just stop and listen and reflect, it is simply amazing – that we have music for every occasion, be it a life occasion or festivals — it starts from a baby shower to when a baby is born, the naming ceremony, first birthday, engagement, wedding, 60th birthday and so on..and even some music specifically for death in certain parts of the country are amazing and then it extends to celebrations in the form of festivals and given the number of religions and the number of festivals we have, there is Sufi, Gospel, Ghazals, Abhangs, Folk and so on and of course Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood etc. It is almost inevitable to start experimenting with fusion, it is like making Indian Chinese or Indian Italian or even simply Mangalorean versus Udipi versus Chennai Sambhar or think of any dish that has had local influence added to its original form. Music is really all around us and it is really up to the musician to start exploring music as an art form without any bias or boundaries.

How do you see Indian music scenario emerging in the future?
As I was mentioning earlier, India is a diverse land with each and every culture and sub-culture creating its own music. It is this diversity which will ensure that Indian music continues to be in the global reckoning. My academy has reached out to 2500+ students and given them the opportunity to explore Indian Classical music. A large majority of our students are from the West and Indians and locals abroad seem to be more aware and more eager to pursue Indian Classical Music than the general population of a very rapidly changing India. This cuts across beginners, performers, appreciative audiences and so on. Classes, as well as programs in Classical music are well attended in many other countries and the promotion of Indian Classical music is done at the grassroot level in most other countries abroad. The biggest challenge for Indian Classical Music lies in getting our music to break through unnecessary obstacles and try and make it contemporary. While the core strength of anything classical lies in the tradition and the need to uphold it, it is also true that any art form is sustainable only when it is made relevant for each successive generation. We need a lot more fundamental changes in the approach from a point of view of teaching, democratization of the skill to anybody who desires to learn and making it to be sought after. When it comes to international audiences and performing for them, most audiences are open to listening something that is rendered well, and not go into too much technicalities of what it was.
So the Academy’s fundamental premise is to have our lovely, traditional classical music be presented better to new generations with the tools available. In fact, the radio, the microphone, ability to record and archive music and the television started the technological revolution in music about 75 years ago — we are just exploring the possibilities of the Internet in furthering this revolution and taking it to the next level.
While we talk about this, it is important that people realize that they all can have so much joy learning music. Not everybody has to become a performer. Learning music is therapeutic in its own way for everybody and brings joy to one and all.

What has your journey through music taught you?
Positivity in life and it has given me the joy of having so many true friends around me. Performing music is like life, but crunched in a very short time of 2 hours – I often change the order of the songs or the songs themselves based on the mood of the crowd. It has taught me to be positive, flexible and making other people happy makes me happy too.

Can we expect another “Breathless” soon?
There can be only one “Breathless.” If you are asking me for a song composed and delivered like breathless, I think some of the new songs that we composed for Katyar Kaljat Ghusli (a Marathi movie) are well accepted by millions of people. As a composer, I just keep doing my work with the same passion and you people make songs like “Breathless” happen. The aamjanta chooses the songs that are a hit.

Any advice for our readers?
I am not big enough to advise anybody, but here are some things that I have followed.
Be true, follow your dreams, let nobody tell you that you cannot do something.
Be bold, take a stand, be nice, be kind.
Make good use of the limited time we have in this world – Best Wishes