The lead voice of AR Rahman’s recently-released 99 Songs, Shashwat Singh on the lessons he learnt from the maestro
When AR Rahman wanted to check his voice out, nervousness got the better of Shashwat Singh and he messed it up.
The maestro asked him to try again. This time, his rendition of ‘You Raise Me Up’ won him appreciation, and a call from Rahman’s office to record ‘Wat Wat’ for the Hindi film Tamasha (2015) a month later.
After Tamasha, Shashwat sang ‘Sarsariya’, in the 2016 Hrithik Roshan-starrer Mohenja Daro and ‘Ruby Ruby’ for Sanju in 2018 – all Rahman’s compositions
Five years after Tamasha, Shashwat’s five tracks from the recently-released Hindi film 99 Songs, are making waves. The film (dubbed in Telugu and Tamil) is produced and co-written by Rahman. “Amid so many amazing singers out there, I feel honoured and privileged that AR sir decided to go with my voice for this movie,” says Shashwat, who is a product of Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, Chennai.
Speaking of anchoring almost the entire album for the first time in 99 Songs, Shashwat says, “There is a huge difference between singing one number and doing an entire track. You know you are the voice of the lead actor, and you have to know the story to understand the character. Sometimes you are privileged to get the video clip from the film and observe the actor’s expression while singing, which makes it easier for you to emote.”
A musical romance like 99 Songs can be compelling and challenging for any singer to explore the range it demands. There’s a haunting, soulful, feisty and spiritual quality to each of the songs and Shashwat adapts to the mood of each one well — one moment he’s a balladeer and the next, he groves with a rock number to the western orchestration and as seamlessly, moves on to render a number to the Indian traditional beat.
Music was not Shashwat’s first choice for a career, he admits. After an ACL- rupture dashed his dreams to join the Indian Army, he interned in sound engineering under Nitin Joshi in Pune but soon realised he did not want to be “a technical guy inside a studio”.
A suggestion from his sister, television actor Nidhi Singh, to give it a shot at Rahman’s institute brought him to Chennai. “I had never been to Chennai, it was a new experience for me. I was this small-town guy with no exposure, and at the music school I had these instruments in front of me and I started exploring with wonder. I enrolled for Western classical music, which helped me understand my voice. The intention was never to be spotted by AR Rahman, I was just a dedicated schoolboy who was trying to learn different things and exploring different instruments,” he says.
Recalling that being mentored by Rahman shaped his musical career, Shashwat says, “There is so much I learnt from him, He talks in spurts, it could be anything, sometimes it is a philosophical thought that’s on his mind at that moment.”
He adds, “I have seen AR sir in different forms — spiritual, musical, as a performer on stage — in every form he is teaching you a craft, and in-depth knowledge. He once asked me what runs in my mind before I go into the studio to record a song. I said, ‘lyrics, the context and my expression and the technical bits…’ he said one is supposed to have all that in mind anyway, but my voice should heal the listener. Till today I remember his words before recording a song.”
Shashwat sang for Pritam, toured with Arijit Singh, sang in Telugu (‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’ in Bhale Manchi Roju), Tamil (‘Oru Nila’ in K3), Malayalam (’Oh Thirayukayano’ in Madhura Naranga) and Bengali (‘Tui Chara’ in Love Story). He finds Malayalam the easiest of the South Indian languages. “I have a certain knack for sounds. Even when I was untrained in any form of music, I would play the guitar and the keyboard and associate everything to the sound, nothing with theory. I realised I had a natural understanding of harmonies.”
This love for harmonies eventually led him to Rahman’s most ambitious project, NAFS — a band of 10 students from his institute who would specialise in harmony, sans instruments, which was helmed by the US-based musician Arjun Chandy.
“That training helped me later in making my independent music,” says Shashwat who released four singles last year with more in the pipeline this year. Agreeing that the independent music scene in India has never been this good, he calls it the most exciting time for indie artists. “Not just Mumbai, you see indie musicians coming up with videos from even small places of the country, which is amazing.”
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