Kaushiki’s dual role

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By I sing for the fun of it; It’s just me, says Kaushiki Chakrabarty, for whom classical music is home and all else an extension of it. A t2 chat
  • Published 11.09.12
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Picture by Pabitra Das

Raghu Dixit to Swanand Kirkire — everyone is smitten by your Coke Studio@MTV debut! How was the experience?

It was a huge platform. I had been following Coke Studio Pakistan for a while because of the fresh voices and fresh approaches to music you get to hear. I’ve always been very open to all kinds of music. So I was aware of what Coke Studio was all about but I had never actually thought that I would ever sing there. Primarily, what would I sing? What I regularly sing doesn’t fit into that. How to link both was something that I never knew or hadn’t tried.

Suddenly when Shantanuda (Moitra) asked me whether I’d like to sing a composition for Coke Studio, I honestly thought it must be for a thumri or an existing raga-based song he must have designed differently. When I went to Bombay and heard the kirtan composition I was supposed to sing (Lagi lagi), I was frankly a bit scared — whether I’d be able to sing it properly with the right accent. Nowadays youngsters are so used to straddling multiple genres at one time, but my focus has always been classical. To deviate from that was a bold step for me as well. I wasn’t sure if I’d be received well by my regular listeners either… Shantanuda helped me a lot with the singing style and voice projection, and I feel privileged that people are now identifying me with that song.

You make a special appearance in Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. Is it true that Rituparno Ghosh has been trying to get you to act for a while now?

(Laughs) A long time ago, Rituda was very insistent that I act in one of his films but Baba (Ajoy Chakrabarty) did not agree. It was almost nine years back, I was very young and Baba was touring Holland. So he took Baba’s number from me and called him, ‘Okey ekta chhobir jonyo antoto amay dao (Allow her to act in at least one film of mine)’ but Baba’s logic was ‘If it was someone else I might have agreed but since it’s your film, it will definitely be a hit and if she starts acting, she won’t be able to concentrate on singing. Tai tomar chhobi boley aaroi debo na (So, your film is a no-no)!’ (Laughs) I don’t know why but Rituda still keeps asking me. After this special appearance in Chitrangada, where I appear as myself in a song sequence, Rituda said, ‘Jaak, ekbaar toh antoto tokey amar chhobite dekha jabe (At last you will be seen in one of my films)!’

Do you have more films and collaborations coming up?

I have sung a song for Agnida’s (Agnidev Chatterjee) film Teen Kanya. A song with a very western arrangement that needed a different voice throw and a lot of hard work from me, again.

Also, Shantanuda made me sing a Hindi song for a Bengali film, can you imagine? (Laughs) Rahoon tere peechhey for Pratim D. Gupta’s Paanch Adhyay. When I went to Bombay for the recording and was shown the song sequence with Priyanshu (Chatterjee) and Dia (Mirza), I got so emotional that I choked and couldn’t sing. I had to come back the next day and record. They fought with me! (Laughs) It proves how I’m still not prepared to handle these situations that professional playback singers must be used to but I feel privileged that composers are trusting me and I’m happy with the way the song has turned out. Different, fresh yet very much me.... I’m working on a few concepts of my own, too, with folk and thumri. I’m also singing for a Bollywood film, which will be a huge thing for me.

A nine-year-old Kaushiki at riyaaz

Bollywood?! Tell us more…

Yes, it’s Madhuri Dixit’s next film, Gulab Gang (produced by Anubhav Sinha). I’m singing for Madhuri, around four or five songs. They’ve sent me three of the scratches already and I’ll be going to Bombay to dub. I’ve been asked to sing a thumri and the others are peppy, hummable numbers, very unlike what I’ve been singing. Aami kintu ekhono shei tanpura niyei boshe achhi (I am still sitting with the tanpura)... but things are coming to me and people are, for some reason, trusting me with their compositions, which are babies for the composers. I am scared and happy at the same time! I feel like a fresher, a newcomer. I enter the studio and I start shaking! I get very tense wondering if I would be able to perform....

What kind of homework are you doing as a “fresher”?

I’m trying to work on my voice texture, voice throw, how to face the microphone, the looseness in voice and husk.... Also, if I’m using too much of tremolo or if I can be heard when running out of breath. In classical music, you need a bold vocal presence. It needs that thrust and power but in case of lighter songs, like in films, the singing has to be more free-flowing and you have to withdraw that thrust. Or else it would be unnecessarily powerful and the words would lose their emotion or subtlety.

When I sang my first song for a film, Chaplin, Indraadipda (Das Gupta) had to work a lot on my voice. I just didn’t know how to face the microphone in a studio for playback (laughs). I was used to a very bold throw of voice, something I’ve been trained in, for classical singing. While I think it’s the classically trained voice timbre that is working for me, at the same time these technical details are very crucial, something that I was never conscious of in the past.

Shrutinandan (her father’s music school) has a studio in the basement, so for the last eight months or so, in the afternoons or at night, I lock myself up in the studio and practise on the tracks that I’m being sent, with my brother acting as judge! (Laughs) In my head, I’m a newcomer and I’m ready for all kinds of thrashing to get my singing right.

Kaushiki with Shantanu Moitra at Coke Studio@MTV Season 2

Be it films, the Book Fair or Coke Studio, we see and hear a lot more of you. Are you consciously trying to establish yourself as an independent artiste?

No, actually it’s just the reverse. I had consciously decided to stick to one genre until I created an identity there. Creating an identity in the popular medium is all about a few specific compositions. The kind of music I’ve been bred on is a mode of life. It’s not about one raga. It’s about learning how to treat the ragas and speak in that language.

To learn, practise and create my own space in that zone was a long process and I didn’t want any dilution in that. It needed a tremendous amount of focus and unidirectional effort. My first film offer came six years ago when I was asked to sing Bitiya na kijo for the Umrao Jaan remake, which I couldn’t do at that time because I was touring with my classical music shows. Also, I’ve never been the kind to go around asking people to make me sing. I was doing my kind of music and I was extremely happy.

When did you feel you were ready for this musical detour?

When I felt I had devoted a certain level of time and respect to classical music that was justified both musically and professionally. Also, from my father’s words. He has been my guiding light. When Baba says ‘all right’, I know it is all right. I started singing when I was hardly 12 and because I started so young, people started calling me a prodigy... they had huge expectations from me. I also felt responsible. People have trusted me and veteran musicians like Jasrajji, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan or Kishori Amonkar expressed their faith in me. I couldn’t play around with that. It’s been more than 15 years that I’ve been singing and people identify me with a certain form of classical music but at the same time I’m sure they also expect to hear something new from me. I also need to think of what next or what more I can offer…. That’s when I felt maybe it is time I could experiment a bit. I’ve always heard people say that you can sing anything if you can sing classical. I thought this was the right time to put that to test.

Kaushiki with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan, Ayaan and her parents

Don’t you fear flak from purists for teaming up with bands and Bollywood artistes?

I’ve got that already (laughs). It began two years ago when I started singing other songs. There has been talk about whether classical music is taking a back seat for me, or if I will ever want to go back to the pure form again…. I don’t think I can keep repeating myself or go around explaining that classical music will always be home for me and whatever I do now will be an extension of that. I’ve never believed in fusion just for the sake of it. That’s probably why I’m one of the few from my generation who has never been a part of any fusion project.... Musically, I can never do anything that I don’t believe in, just to utilise a platform. But if my musical sensibility matches with someone else’s, it can be enriching too. If I can communicate with a tabla player, why not with a guitarist? Respecting each other’s musical traditions, that is what music is all about.

How accepting is your father?

I was worried if Baba would accept or like what I’m doing now but he has been very sporting. Whatever song comes my way, I make it a point to sing it to my father first or send him an mp3 file of the recording. It makes me so glad because his approval adds to my confidence.

Was music always the only choice for you?

I had never thought of a profession and that music would become a profession wasn’t a conscious decision either. I never had any hobby other than singing. I mean I was such a boring kid! (Laughs) Be it riyaaz or leisure, I would always be singing. It was something that I connected with so easily and spontaneously that I never realised when it became a profession for me. I still sing for the fun of it. It’s just me.

Kaushiki with Asha Bhosle and her father in Calcutta in 2001

You started the SVA Charitable Trust this year. What do you hope to achieve with it?

We usually see that people who have made a name for themselves keep performing all the time but there are many who are talented but don’t have a platform. I want SVA to be a huge platform where famous artistes and unknown talents can share the stage. We have to inspire and create artistes for tomorrow.

Indian classical musicians dress and talk a certain way.... How important is it for you to be a cross-generational artiste?

I’ve always believed in acting my age. My craft demands a certain structure of presentation, it has a legacy and tradition that I respect and would never mess around with. But I never try to act like a 60-year-old because I’m not that. Superimposed seriousness would just be a thing of pretence, not me. I like to sit on stage and chat with my audience, not close my eyes and alienate myself.

What’s the best compliment you’ve got?

From so many if I have to pick one, it was in 1996 during my first public concert in Delhi. I was 16 and Ustad Allah Rakha came on stage after my performance, and he told my father, ‘Yeh ladki Zakir (Hussain, his son) se kuchh kam talented nahin hai, usey sambhal ke rakhna.’ Those words weren’t a compliment but a constant reminder of the faith people have had in me.

Star sign: Scorpio
Education: Masters in philosophy from Calcutta University
Music gharana: Patiala
Strength: Smile
Weakness: Tears
Inspiration in classical music: Baba (AC), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Shobha Gurtu
Would love to sing with: Rashidkaku (Khan). I’m very fond of his style
Music director you want to sing for someday: Ismail Darbar and, of course, A.R. Rahman, again
Me-time music: Everything from Kolaveri di to Coke Studio@MTV
Currently on loop: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Tere ishq ki chadar
Favourite singers: I’m a diehard fan of Lataji and Ashaji
Embarrassing moment on stage: At the Dover Lane Music Conference last year where I had to engage in conversation with an impatient audience for 30 minutes, waiting for my tabla player to arrive
Most memorable foreign tour: Venice
Fave western singer: Celine Dion
Fashion fetish: Earrings
First solo performance: I was seven and sang a tarana at Calcutta Rowing Club
Fave actors: Ranbir Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha and Anushka Sharma among the new; Madhuri Dixit and Kajol are my all-time favourites
If not a singer: I write sometimes
Lucky charm: A feroza ring. I generally don’t go on stage without it
An actress you’d like to playback for: Rekha in her prime and right now Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan)

Mohua Das
Should Kaushiki focus on classical music or do both? Tell t2@abp.in