Home » Interviews » “Formal training is the backbone of a singer’s career” – Mahalakshmi Iyer

Those who follow Hindi film music, would vouch for the fact that Mahalakshmi Iyer has been one of the greatest musical talents in this country. Some of her most memorable songs in Hindi include ‘Des Rangeela’ (‘Fanaa’), ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ (‘Don’), ‘Bol Na Halke Halke’ (‘Jhoom Baraabar Jhoom’), ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’ (Sur The Melody Of Life’) and ‘Jai Ho’ (Slumdog Millionaire’), among others. While the singer has numerous super-hit songs to her credit, the vocal prowess and command over her craft can be gauged by the fact that she left an indelible mark even in some of her earlier songs like ‘Ae Ajnabi’ (‘Dil Se’) and ‘Woh Ladki Yaad Aati Hai’ (album of the same name by Pankaj Udhas) where she had very brief portions to sing. In a career spanning more than two decades, Mahalakshmi has given her voice to songs which have been etched in the history of Hindi film music.

In this elaborate interview, Mahalakshmi talks about her long and eventful journey in the field of music, important milestones, some of her most memorable songs, ones that deserved more attention, why she would not like to associate herself with a remixed song, the importance of training for a singer, collaboration with leading composers from the music industry and a lot more.

You had varied musical influences while growing up. Your mother Vijaya Iyer was trained in Carnatic Classical Music. Your father used to listen to a lot of classical music. Your elder sister Kalpana Iyer was drawn to ghazals. Another sister Padmini Iyer used to listen to a lot of western music. Shobha Iyer, your third sister, made you listen to religious Marathi songs.

Yes, there was so much music at home. I was the youngest of all my siblings. Since we were living in Mumbai, I ended up listening to a lot of Marathi bhaav-geet as well. My elder sister listened to a lot of Bollywood music and Ghazals. My second sister Padmini would listen to a lot of ghazals. It was a big mix. I was born and brought up in a very healthy musical atmosphere at home.

Did you learn music from your mother?

No, my mother was a Carnatic vocalist. We were born and brought up in Mumbai, so there was a heavy influence of Hindustani classical, Marathi and Hindi music. My parents thought it would be prudent to make us learn Hindustani classical music. I learnt from Pandit Gautam Madhusudan. And, then I learnt from Pandit Ratan Mohan Sharma. I also trained briefly in ghazal gaayki from Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale.

In the last couple of years, a lot of singers who have come into the industry have not had any formal training. In an interview you stated that training lays the foundation for any skill which you wish to practice in life.

Yes, training is very important for a singer. Formal training is the backbone of a singer’s career. I do not understand why youngsters today are dismissing it off as something that is not important. Even a basic foundation course or a few years of learning will lay the foundation for their future. You are made to do vocal exercises when you learn classical music. I have learnt light-classical music also. These vocal exercises help you get your voice in control or keep it healthy for a long time. A lot of young singers come up to me saying that they are not able to sing a particular song or in a certain rang. They ask me what they should do. All their questions have a simple answer. You must train your voice by learning under a good guru and then, of course doing proper riyaaz to maintain your voice for a long time. You can extend the life of your vocal chords by learning music and doing riyaaz. A one-to-one session with a guru is valuable as they can tell you where you are going wrong. It is important to remember that doing riyaaz in a wrong manner and in the absence of a guru’s guidance can prove to be detrimental to your voice.

When you were in R.N Poddar College of Economics in Mumbai, you were invited to perform at a lot of college festivals. Was that the time you opened up as a performing artiste?

Yes, when I was in college, I thought I was ready to move to the next level as a singer. I had a lot of people giving me feedback that I have what it takes to become a professional singer. Everybody wants to become a playback singer in our country. I did not really think like that. I thought let me learn properly, invest some of my time an energy in it and see where it takes me. Fortunately, I got a couple of good opportunities when I was in the final year of college. After finishing college, I started singing jingles for advertisements.

The first jingle you recorded was for the brand Amitex Sarees. How did you get that first assignment?

I was singing in college festivals quite regularly. Some of the musicians who came and played at our college were also professionals who were working in the film, music and advertising industry. One of them said that somebody was looking for a new voice and asked me if he could suggest my name. I happily agreed. At that time, I had no experience of recording in a studio. I went to the composer, Mr. Anurag Shah’s studio and recorded a few scratches. We recorded 2-3 versions for one product. The client heard all of them and approved the one they thought was the most ideal for the commercial. Once we got the approval, we recorded the final version of that particular jingle.  

Till the 80s, it was very difficult for new artistes to get opportunities in the music industry. Towards the mid-90s and early 2000s, a lot of young people started getting opportunities. Do you think that was a good time for you to enter the industry?

It was difficult back then but it is difficult even now. Back then, there were 12-15 singers. Now, there are 200 of them. Perhaps, it’s slightly easier now because music companies and filmmakers are more receptive to new voices. Back then, they only wanted established singers to sing their songs. We newcomers had to wait and had to do what were called dummy recordings. After that, If the team liked your voice, they would retain it. I also did a few of those dummy tracks. Luckily for me, I found a lot of people being receptive to my voice and giving me good opportunities.

You had stated in an interview that you benefitted from the satellite boom that happened in the early 90s in India. You have lent your voice to the title track of many popular TV shows like ‘Astitva…Ek Prem Kahani’, ‘Kehta Hai Dil’, ‘Saara Akaash’, ‘Banoo Main Teri Dulhann’, among others. Was ‘Ek Se Badhkar Ek’ the first TV show the title track of which you sung for?

I am not sure which was the first TV project I sung for. ‘Ek Se Badhkar Ek’ was the first title track for a TV show which I had sung along with Shankar Mahadevan. He was not a part of the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio then but used to compose jingles as an independent composer. I had sung many jingles with him. I also did a lot of jingles for Louis Banks, Ranjit Barot, Ehsaan and Loy. I was trying to learn the art of professional recordings and singing for TV commercials helped a lot in that regard. Singing for jingles laid a good foundation for my career as a singer.

You have sung in every Indian language apart from Sindhi.

Yes, that’s right. Sindhi is the only language which I have not done any professional recording in. I have sung in Sindhi in school and college. I have also sung in Khasi, Arunachali and Gharwali and in multiple dialects of different languages. Sindhi is the only language which I have not done a song in.

Your first released song was ‘Suno Gaur Se Duniyawalon’ from ‘Dus’ (1998). The film was shelved after the unfortunate demise of director Mukul Anand but the music was released as a tribute to him. A music video of ‘Suno Gaur Se Duniyawaalon’ was shot with 20,000 people on the Juhu beach. Were you a part of the shoot as well?

Yes, I was a part of the shoot. If you look at the video carefully, you will find me in 2-3 fleeting shots. 30-40 percent of the film was shot before Mr. Mukul Anand passed away. We used a bit of footage from what he had shot in the music video. All the main actors participated in the shoot of the video.

Interestingly, you recorded for ‘Ae Ajnabi’ (‘Dil Se’) in the same week as ‘Suno Gaur Se Duniyaawalon’.

Yes, that’s right. I fly down to Chennai to record for ‘Ae Ajnabi’ the same week I dubbed for ‘Suno Gaur Se’.

One of your earliest songs for a Hindi film was ‘Dil Se Mere’ from ‘Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi’. Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani were working as solo composers on the film and then, decided to work on the title track together.

Yes, Vishal and Shekhar would come to the same studio and work on their individual tracks. They realized that they shared a good working equation and decided to work as a team. ‘Dil Se Mere’ is a beautiful song and was composed by Shekhar who is a very gifted composer. I had done some jingles with him before we worked on this film. I sung two songs for Shekhar on that film. The other song was ‘Tumse Na Humse’.

I remember a composer telling me once how ‘So Jaa Chanda’ (‘Mission Kashmir’) is one of the best lullabys in the history of Hindi cinema.

‘Mission Kashmir’ was a great project to work on. Mr. Vidhu Vinod Chopra has a great ear for music which is evident in the way the music of his films shapes up. Though I sung only one song in the film, I was associated with Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy during the making of the film. I was constantly working with them on advertisements during that time and therefore, had a closer look at the way they put together the music of the film. It was a very inspiring project. Vidhu Vinod Chopra had said that he wanted very tender singing for ‘So Jaa Chanda’. It was not a regular lullaby. The song comes when a lot of bloodshed is happening in the background. That is why you notice the music is also very subtle. It begins with a piano piece and then, the string section comes in and indicates a sense of heightened tension. Most lullabys are subtle but this was quite different. Though the film did not do very well, most of the songs from the album are remembered till date.

You have had so many popular songs to your credit but there have been quite a few which did not get the attention they deserved. ‘Kya Yeh Sach Hai’ (‘Dillagi’), ‘Mera Mann’ (‘Nayee Padosan’), ‘Palkon Pe Sapne’ (‘Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai’), Koi Aisa Aalam’ (‘Karam’), ‘Tere Sawaalon Ke Woh Jawaab’ (‘Manorama Six Feet Under’) and ‘Bechayan Sapne’ (‘Chittagong’) are some of your most underrated songs. Which are some of the other songs, which you think, deserved more attention?

Yes, there are many songs of mine which did not reach out to as many people as they should have. When it comes to Hindi films, they start promoting a soundtrack once it is released in the market. And, if the film does not do well, the label stops promoting the music and the soundtrack goes into oblivion. It’s very unfortunate. These songs that you just mentioned did not get their due. Even a beautiful song like ‘Sadka Kiya from ‘I Hate Luv Storys’ did not get the due it deserved. ‘Odhni Odhli’ (‘Tango Charlie’) was a very good song too. Fortunately, there are some songs which have done well despite the film not doing well. ‘Jhoom Baraabar Jhoom’ tanked in two days but the album was huge. I had two songs (‘Bol Na Halke Halke’ and ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’) in the film and they did very well. In the last decade, mediums like radio, television and internet have become very big and because of that, audiences have discovered many good, lesser heard songs. As a playback singer, you want to be versatile. I had the confidence that I could do songs against my type. There was this song in the Tigmanshu Dhulia directed ‘Charas’ called ‘Yeh Dhuaan’. It was a dance number with a sensuous appeal to it. It was a very different song for me. Raju Singh was the composer and Javed Akhtar sahab had written the lyrics. I wish more people had listened to it.

You had recorded a couple of songs for the remix album ‘Instant Karma’ in the late 90s. Those tracks became very popular and it was one of the first instances when listeners in India got a taste of remixes. You have been the voice of many songs on the album. How was the experience of working on this project?

Around that time, music composer Biddu came up with something which became very popular. I think he recreated ‘Chura Liya Hai Tumne’ with a rap section in between. That was the first time I heard the recreation of an old song. When ‘Instant Karma’, comprising of Ehsaan, Loy and Farhad Wadia, came together to do this project, I imagined them creating a particular sound as their background was largely western music. But, I got to know they have also grown up listening to a lot of Hindi music. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy were already working as a trio then. They wanted to recreate these older melodies. They recreated some of the songs and presented them to Sony Music India. If you listen to ‘Instant Karma’ and the subsequent albums in the series, you will realize that the songs do not sound forced or deliberate. Attention was paid to each and every song. For the first time, ‘Hinglish’ music happened in India. The lyrics had a mix of Hindi and English phrases. It was a novel way of recreating old songs. I am against the remixes that are done today as not enough attention is paid while presenting them in a new form. You can’t just add some silly music or beats to make it sound different from the original. The recreations or remixes that happen these days do not really add any value to the film. They are just a marketing ploy. Recreation should be about how a music director envisions an already popular song. It is a big challenge and a big responsibility. In India, everything becomes a trend and that is why quality suffers. My personal favorite would be the ‘Instant Karma’ remixes.

You had released a self-titled album called ‘Mahalakshmi’ in the early 2000s. Why do you think it did not do very well at that time?

The album arrived at a time when pop music was kind of dying out. I was very keen to do an album ever since I started my career and was happy to get this opportunity from Sony Music. Unfortunately, when the album released, independent pop music was on its way out and there was a glut of remixes. Some of the remixes were the risqué kind. Those music videos became quite popular. My album shaped up pretty well and Sony Music decided to make multiple short videos out of the songs. Back then, only one video would be made for most non-film albums. Shankar composed six songs and Ehsaan and Loy worked on two songs as a duo. The album had good variety. There was a wonderful song called ‘Tu Hi Ye Bata’ was a drums and bass kind of song.

You were a part of the Oscar winning song ‘Jai Ho’ (‘Slumdog Millionaire’). Interestingly, director Danny Boyle had filmed that particular sequence in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ with ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ (‘Don’) playing in the background which also happens to be your song. Wasn’t ‘Jai Ho’ originally recorded for Subhash Ghai’s ‘Yuvvraaj’?

Yes, the song was initially recorded for ‘Yuvvraaj’. For some reason, Mr. Subhash Ghai decided not to use that song in his film. Danny Boyle got more interested in the song and it fit in with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ perfectly. I was shooting for a TV series called ‘Mission Ustaad’ which Rahman sir was also a part of. We finished the shoot at 12:30-1 am. Rahman sir then asked me if I would be able to come for a recording now. I went to his studio and recorded the song. I came back home in the wee hours of the morning and went back to the shooting floor a few hours. When I met Rahman sir there, I realized he looked as bad as me. When I asked him how did the song come about, he said “I do not know what you are talking about” (laughs). Least did I know that it would go on to become such a big song. None of my live shows are complete without me performing on ‘Jai Ho’.

You had sung a track in ‘2 States’ which was filmed on Revathy (a Tamil song which soon metamorphosizes into the title track of ‘Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai’). The song was not a part of the CD but when one heard it in the film, one could immediately recognize it to be your voice. Do you think it is important for a playback singer to have a distinctive voice?

Yes, I think it is. Having a distinctive voice is what will set you apart from other singers. Like you said, you recognized my voice when you heard the song. Your audience tends to remember you among so many voices that they hear. A good voice is a gift from God but with riyaaz, you can make it better. All of us start our careers by listening to our favourite voices or artistes. After some time, when you have found your groove, it is important to stylize your voice according to how you want to approach a song. I am happy that my audience recognizes my voice. It will be wonderful to have your distinctive style in your voice, especially now with so many singers around.

You have won a couple of awards for Marathi songs but your work in the Hindi film industry has not been recognized by a major award.

Yes, I have never won a major award for a Hindi film song. Apart from the Marathi songs, I won the Odisha state award for a song called ‘Dheu Phere Kule’ which I had recorded for the film ‘Mimansa’. I do wonder sometimes how I missed being even nominated for some of my most popular songs. It might seem like a cliched thing to say but the truth is that the biggest recognition is my audience loves my music. Getting awards would have been encouraging as an artiste but that is something that did not happen for some reason.

These days, we do not get to hear your voice as much as we would like to. There was a time when a singer would have a career spanning across four or five decades. Do you think the shelf life of singers has reduced?

I am still a playback singer and happy to take up any good opportunity that comes my way. Trends are changing very rapidly in the industry today. They are looking for new voices constantly. Many a times, the voice does not match up to the song. A lot of things are corrected at the mixing stage. A lot of singers fail to do complete justice to the song because they are not trained. It takes a lot of practice and effort to become a good vocalist. There are many trends in the industry which, I feel, are unhealthy. Recreation of songs is something I not agree with. We have so much wonderful talent around who can create great music. Working on albums like ‘Instant Karma’ and ‘Dance Masti’ was a good experience but after that, I lost interest in remixes. I would not want to lend my name to a remixed song.

In the last couple of years, PR and management companies have come up in a big way. These companies exercise a lot of control over artistes and often, tell them what they should do. What do you think about this trend?

I see young singers coming to the recording studio with an entourage. They have their manager, PR person, social media manager and so many other people. Today, a lot of artistes feel that it is extremely important to be active on social media and keep posting things. Social media could be used in a positive way and for better thing but I am not sure if that is happening today.

You have had some great songs with some of the leading composers in the industry. Tell us about your experience of working with them.

Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy: They are my buddies. Right from my first few jingles with to my first song in a film, they have played an important role in my career. They are most prolific music composers I have come across.

A R Rahman: I call him Mr. Spontaneous. He has a sharp mind and does everything spontaneously. He will tell you, “here is the song, now do what you want to do with it”. He gives you a complete free hand as a singer and the freedom to approach the song the way you want to. He is the most receptive composer I have come across. He has always pushed the boundaries as a musician and that is why he is recognized as the most innovative composer we have had.

Pritam: He is one of the most versatile composers we have today. I have not recorded too many songs for him but the ones I did like ‘Dil Laga Na’ (‘Dhoom 2’) and ‘Mayanga’ (‘Dhoom 3’; Tamil version) became very popular.

Vishal Shekhar:  They are a powerhouse of talent. Both of them have extremely individual styles but the way they bring their sensibilities together while composing for a film is incredible. They experiment with a lot of genres. They will create a rock ballad or an electronic dance number but will design it keeping in mind the sensibilities of the Indian audience. 

‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’ from ‘Sur The Melody Of Life’ (2002) has been one of the most memorable songs of your career. Sunidhi Chauhan was the voice of the protagonist who incidentally was playing a singer in the film. She sang all the female parts but you were chosen for ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’.

Yes, one would expect a song of this nature to be given to new comer but I guess it was my good fortune that it came my way. People remember and listen to the song even today. It was a high-pitched song. Sunidhi has a deep low voice and a mid-register, so they were looking for a different voice for ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’. Nida Fazli sahab had written the song and I had earlier worked with him on the title track of the TV show ‘Ek Tukda Chand Ka’. He recommended my name to M.M Kreem. That song had fabulous lyrics. MM Kreem sir guided me through the recording. Even the music portion had an aalaap. It is the only song I have taken two and a half hours to record.

Apart from ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale, which are some of your other songs which are close to your heart?

Bol Na Halke Halke (‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’): There is nothing that beats the experience of working with Gulzar sahab. His lyrics were one of the highlights of the song. Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy created a wonderful melody and I also got the opportunity to sing a duet with the incredible Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.  

Aaj Ki Raat (‘Don’): I got cast against my type. It was my first big hit. I had earlier sung songs like ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’ and ‘Chup Chup Ke’ but those songs become bigger with time. I have observed that a pop song becomes a hit sooner than a melodic tune. People usually like fast-paced, rhythmic tracks. That takes some time to grow on people. However, the soulful songs remain on the listeners’ playlist for a longer time.

Des Rangeela (‘Fanaa’): Salim-Sulaiman had produced that song for Jatin-Lalit. ‘Fanaa’ was the last film which Jatin – Lalit worked as a duo on and I am glad I got to sing two songs for the film. Post that, I worked with Jatin ji and Lalit ji as individual composers. Both of them had very different styles and way of working. They have given us some of the best melodies from the 90s till the mid-2000s. Kunal Kohli, the director of the film, loved my voice and he told me that he really wanted me to sing this song. I went there expecting a romantic song as most people were calling me to sing those kinds of songs during that period. When I reached the studio, I realized it was a patriotic number. It was a very vibrant song and became extremely popular. Every 15th January and 26th August, I get a flood of requests and tags on social media with people having covered the song or danced to it. I met a young girl recently at a coffee shop. She clicked a picture with me and said, “I danced to your song at the school function”. I told her, “let me take a guess. Was it ‘Des Rangeela?’. She smiled and said, “yes”. I open with my shows with ‘Des Rangeela’ as it is a song which talks about the beauty of my country.

You started out at a time when the sales of CDs and cassettes were on an upward rise. What do you think about the loss of physical media?

You have to move with the times. Physical media have been replaced by a lot of other devices. Today, because of technology, people have access to a large number of music streaming platforms and they can listen to music on the best of the devices. It is sad to see CDs and cassettes becoming obsolete but you have to move with the times.

You have been releasing a lot of music independently or via labels which support independent music. Is it liberating?

It is extremely liberating. Those days, when you would approach a music label to produce an album, they would ask you a hundred questions. With everything going digital, it is easy to start your own music label or YouTube channel and freely express yourself through your songs. You can create the kind of music you want to without having to follow somebody else’s instructions. I follow a lot of independent singers and composers who are doing great work because of the freedom they have got. Often, artistes get cornered by music labels and are not given a free hand. That is the reason why some of the biggest names in the music industry have jumped into the independent space.

Would you like to compose songs as well?

I have composed a few jingles. I did a couple of songs here and there. I have done cover versions of many classics including a ghazal by Hariharan ji. I produced these songs myself and tried presenting them in a new avatar. I want to release a lot of original songs in the future.