Tuning in to Mumbai's music scene

Tuning in to Mumbais music scene

Mumbai is the city of millions of swashbuckling dreams where ambitions are made of stardust and hopes are wrapped up in golden bows. Everyone comes here mostly for the glamour and incidentally, the money. These dreams come true by brushing shoulders with a celebrity for selfies, looking like a million bucks with hardly any rent money in your bank account and finally, creating something that will set your dreams apart from the million others.
Bollywood is the number one destination and the music industry has nurtured all and sundry – from India's nightingale Lata Mangeshkar to the grand old man Suhash Joshi, an octogenarian architect who plays the flute every evening at Prithvi Theatre. But for the newbie arriving at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, finding a foothold in this business can be as much of challenge as its allure.
So here's a guide by Isheeta Chakrvarty who will give you the ins and outs of surviving, and living, your dream. After completing her Masters in English from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Isheeta decided to take the plunge into pursuing her music. Afterall, she had been training in classical music as well as jazz for over a decade. After a couple of years in the city of joy and several international performances later, she came to Mumbai riding high on India's first western music show – The Stage. Since 2015, she has been mastering the ways of the music industry, live gigs, playback singing (Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai from the Salman Khan-starrer Bollywood movie Sultan) and finally culminating into her own project – Sawan Ki Ritu – a modern take on a thumri accompanied by international musicians. We catch up with her as she heads to Bangalore for a TEDx conference.
Music – what does it mean to you?
Music is undoubtedly a huge part of who I am and what I do. I am deeply blessed to be able to turn my passion into my profession. Some of the biggest life decisions I have made have been solely guided by music.
How are music and this city connected?
Mumbai is the entertainment capital of the country and rightly so because of its dynamic and ever-evolving energy. This city is constantly changing. The malleable nature of this city allows for different forms of art to thrive. It's the same with music. There is a constant influx of artists from all over the country and the world coming here to play music. There is also a demand for different kinds of music here because people are constantly looking to experiment and find something new all the time. So looking at it purely from a thriving and professional perspective, Bombay has the space and platform to allow for different kinds of creative music to thrive.
From the live stage to the recording studio
I enjoy both. Both have their own sets of challenges and demands. When we perform live there are obviously no retakes. So it is a deeply alchemical process. You feed off the energy of the musicians who are playing with you and from the audience as well. One is very vulnerable on stage because you are opening yourself up in front of many sometimes countless people but that's where the beauty of it lies. In such a scenario, you are just a channel for the music to flow. All you have to do it not get in the way with that flow.
As far as recording studios are concerned, it is a lot more intimate and possibly more relaxed as well. One has the luxury of retakes. One of the most interesting challenges in a studio is that you have to be a lot more accurate and spot on cause every sound is caught in the sensitive microphones in that isolated booth. It can get down to being very technical as well.
So both have their pros and cons and I personally love both.
Home crowd versus international tours
As a performer as long as the audience is enjoying the music it doesn't really matter whether you are performing for your own people or outside the country. Having said that, I always do get an added thrill of performing to a foreign audience because I get to share my music to folks from a completely different culture from mine, who speak a different language, think differently and all of this adds to the sense of adventure that I feel. I remember singing a Hindustani classical composition before an audience that only understands Spanish. They didn't even know English let alone Hindi or Urdu. Post the performance some of them came up to me and told me how much they loved what I sang and it truly touched their hearts. That feeling that I get as an artist after hearing that, is priceless because you understand what music being a universal language really means. It all boils down to the essence of it.
Finding your own groove in the industry
I think one of the most important aspects of finding one's groove anywhere is to first be rooted or grounded. Find the things that one is good at and focus on the strengths. In a place like this where there are so many talented artists all around, one can get overwhelmed. But remaining true to who you are is essential. Be focussed on your craft. Don't comparing yourself to others and always retain your own identity and originality anywhere in the world. Believe in yourself.
The good times and the bad times
Frankly, this industry has been largely good to me. Good times for me means getting to work with some of the most incredible musicians we have here, learning constantly on the job, just being able to pay bills by doing the music : that is what good times is for me.
Bad times have meant keeping up with the pace of the city. It can get tiring and exhausting after a point. Sometimes this city and its pace can make one feel extremely lonely especially when you trying to do everything on your own right from setting up work to chasing cheques to negotiating with brokers, landlords, Wi-Fi guys to playing the big gigs – navigating all that on your own can get a bit too much.
What not to do and how not to do them
Do not shut yourself up to new opportunities especially when you are new. Don't expect things to happen on their own especially in the beginning. Initially you have to knock on plenty of doors, rather than wait for opportunities to land in your lap. Also, people skills is essential. Be nice to people, just generally—it's a human thing. Respect other people's time and yours too. Be professional even if you are working with friends or with work-people who have become friends. Don't take opportunities and people for granted. No work is small or big. Work is work. However, that does not mean that you say yes to everything that comes your way cause then you will be operating more from a space of insecurity than from motivation. Most importantly, no matter what the city throws at you, be resilient and don't lose faith. Trust yourself and trust your work.
Do dreams come true?
Yes, of course they do. Keep doing what you're doing and don't focus on the results. Allow the dreams to take their own shape. Dreams have a lot of power in them so make sure to dream nice and big.
How expensive is it for dreams to come true?
To be honest, in the times that we are living in currently, either financial capital or social capital seems to have become a way to make things happen. So from that perspective, yes either one of those things have the potential to at least land you an opportunity. But these are still secondary to your real craft. There is no substitute to being really good. Deliver when you are called upon and that is one way to get the ball rolling. Hard work these days is not just limited to developing musical skill-sets but also to make the right connections and being at the right place at the right time. One thing I have always believed and seen it happen—this is Mumbai, anything can happen. So always be prepared.

Sree Sen

Sree Sen

Sree Sen is a prolific writer and mentor. She has spent years at Times of India and DNA. She is writing her book and helping transgender communities find voice through video story telling.

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