Bollywood playback singer Shilpa Rao, who is known for several hits such as ‘Manmarziyan’ from Lootera and ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’ from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, is now courting international fame. She sang a song on Anoushka Shankar’s album Love Letters which has been nominated for the Best Global Music Album category for the Grammy Awards 2021.
“It’s a moment that I will remember throughout my life! This was not even on my wish list, but some things really come true and life is unexpectedly beautiful that way,” says Rao about her nomination.
Brought up in the industrial town of Jamshedpur, Rao studied statistics before switching careers in 2007. She rose to prominence for singing the romantic number ‘Khuda Jaane’ from Bachna Ae Haseeno. From then on, her career graph has followed an upwards trajectory. She has worked under notable music directors such as A.R. Rahman, Illaiyaraaja, Amit Trivedi, Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar. Incidentally, she likes working with the latter two the most. A crowning feather in her cap is becoming the second Indian to feature in Coke Studio Pakistan for the folk song ‘Paar Chanaa De’ with the rock band Noori.
Though her work is spread over several genres from pop to folk, Rao’s foundation stone lies in her classical training. Listening to stalwarts such as Amir Khan, Prabha Atre, Farida Khanum and Begum Akhtar from her childhood is paying off today as she has a unique, neo-classical expression that no one else does.
That is precisely what Anoushka Shankar harnessed in the song ‘Those Words’ for Love Letters, an album which only features women. Though they had been hoping to work together for several years now, it only came to fruition recently. “Initially, she had sent me a rough version of this song. When I was in London in June last year, we sat down and worked together on the song and recorded it. I absolutely loved the whole point of her and me being on the same page when it comes to working in person and not via email or internet,” says Rao to LiveWire.
The resulting collaboration has led to a beautiful evocation of nostalgia in an Indian classical avatar. Sparsely arranged with only two instruments, the song emerged out of a poem about memories, words and loss. The cello creates a percussive rhythm bed for the sitar to ideate melodically as well as accompany Rao’s soul-stirring singing. Shirin Anindita penned the Punjabi lyrics.
Reflecting upon the emotive pulse of the song, Rao says, “The song is very dynamic yet reflective and passes through some beautiful moments. It is a song of a woman, who can be from any part of the world, who is reminiscing about her past relationship and linking separate moments of it.”
Incidentally, this is Shankar’s seventh Grammy nomination after being nominated for the albums Live at Carnegie Hall (2002), Rise (2005), Traveller (2012), Traces of You (2014), Home (2015) and Land of Gold (2016). She has more nominations than her father, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who won five out of six nominations.
Sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and mohan veena exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt were also nominated twice but only the latter won once for the album A Meeting by the River. American musician Mickey Hart’s Grammy-winning world album Planet Drum featured Zakir Hussain on tabla and T.H. Vinayakram on ghatam.
Besides Oscars, A.R. Rahman and team won two Grammys for scoring Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire. Other winners from India include composer Ricky Kej for the album Winds of Samsara and author Neela Vaswani for narrating the audio version of Malala Yousafzai’s book I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up For Education And Changed The World. But the man who topples all of the rest is celebrated orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta with 23 nominations and five wins.
However, this year, there are two new additions to the list besides Rao – sitar player Neha Mahajan and US-based singer Priya Darshini. The former played on the track ‘Mi Sangre’ for Ricky Martin’s album Pausa which was nominated for Best Latin Pop or Urban Album category. Darshini’s debut album Periphery, which deals with identity crisis at the backdrop of complex geopolitics, received a nomination in the New Age Album category.
Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.