Whenever you hear a song rendered by Nihira Joshi-Deshpande, you realize it’s the voice of a true artist who is in love with her craft. A classically trained vocalist, Nihira has been doing professional recordings as a singer ever since she was a child. While her performances in a popular reality show, she made her mark in the Hindi and Marathi film industry with songs like ‘Mera Dil’ (Salaam – E – Ishq’), ‘Sajde’ (‘Kill Dil’), ‘Bhijun Gela Vera’ (‘Irada Pakka’), ‘Funkarichi Wadle’ (‘What’s Up Lagna’), ‘Tujhyamule’ (‘Shentimental’) and more.
In this interview, Nihira talks about her recently released single ‘Ishq Manayein Kya’, journey as an artiste, opting out of the rat-race in the mainstream music space, focusing on building her career as an independent artiste, why music reality shows can be counter-productive, working with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, love for dance, learning multiple languages and more.
‘Ishq Manayein Kya’ almost came as a pleasant surprise for all those who have followed your work. You are known for raga-based melodies or songs that have a distinctive Indian flavour to them. How did this particular song come about?
I have been a Salsa student for years. That is how got exposed to Latin and Cuban music. What struck me the most was that every Latin or Cuban song I listened to sounded like a piece of work put together by a synchronised team. It sounds like all the artistes are performing at the same time and all of them are on the same page. A single element does not dominate the others. That’s the kind of music I always wanted to be a part of. The urge to create a song in this space was always there and it finally happened with ‘Ishq Manayein Kya’.
You collaborate with the Cuban band Orquesta Son Diamantes on this track..How was the experience of working on this song?
I composed this melody a year and a half back. When this melody was composed, the arrangements were playing in my mind. But, I didn’t think I was qualified enough to arrange a song of this nature. After the melody was composed, I requested Manoj Yadav to write the lyrics. He came up with a unique thought for the song. If you pay attention to the lyrics, you will realize it comprises of a set of questions that the girl is asking to the boy. Every phrase ends with a “kya?”. I really enjoyed singing the song. Once the melody was written, I started looking for musicians to collaborate with. I finally came across Ronal Mente. He owns a company called RMM in Barcelona and has done the music production of the track. I had told him I wanted hardcore Latin arrangements for this song. He was the one who suggested that I should collaborate with Orquesta Son Diamantes. The journey began with me translating the song to them. They had to know the thought before they could start arranging it. I speak in Spanish, so that made things a little easy. I sent the translation to them. The whole process began last year in summer and around October, they started rehearsing the song. Ronald from Spain and these people from Cuba worked diligently on the song. They first came up with a model which I absolutely loved. The process of creating this song as a team was wonderful. We learned about our forms of music. A lot of exchange of thoughts happened. They asked me, “how do you write Indian music?” I introduced them to the Bhatkhande style of writing music. They use staff notation. What I got to learn from this process is that the core philosophy of salsa is team work. It has never been about one person leading from the front. This synergy is very important for any band that is performing. When the track came to me for dubbing, I was extremely scared and intimidated as I was going to dub in my home studio. This was a completely different genre. When I heard the track, arranged by Horacio Borbolla, it sounded so gorgeous. All the band members helped me through the process. As a salsera you have to blend in your musicality with the track. I don’t have a salsa timbre. My tonal quality is very Indian. I would have never managed and never wanted to copy the tone of a salsera. I tried to blend my voice with the arrangements. All the takes were without a pause as Ronald said he did not want me to lose the energy. It had to sound like I am singing to a live audience. I did several takes to get the song right. I did three takes every day. The last day, after I was done with the last take, Ronald said, “this sounds like you have really blended yourself in the track”.
Independent songs are made on a limited budget and there are several other challenges as well. What are the kind of challenges you faced while making this song?
The main challenge was finding a perfect band who would see the potential of the idea, distance, working across different countries and time zones and of blending two different styles of music and yet making it sound seamless. We went through a lot of preparation. I was constantly in touch with the team. I had to translate the song to them. When they were recording the backing vocals, the lead vocalist was the one I was in touch with. She learnt the Hindi diction. She was the one who trained all of them. After recording every clip, they would send it to me on WhatsApp as it was in Hindi. All of us had to work really hard as we were blending two different styles of music together. On the vocal front, for me the greatest challenge was understanding the Cuban musicality and recording myself alone.
How was the experience of working with lyricist Manoj Yadav on this song? You had earlier worked with him on your single ‘Nirmohiya’.
Manoj is someone who can come up with a unique line of thought every time. He refrains from using cliches in a song. He does not write anything until he absolutely feels it. This was not an easy melody for a lyricist. The pace of the song keeps changing and it takes several predictable turns. He did a fabulous job as a lyricist.
You used to hum a lot of songs as a child. When you were in fourth standard, you started training with Mrs. Vidya Zail. You were also a part of Kalyanji Virji Shah’s troupe. You continued your education with Dr. Jyoti Kale and currently Anuradha Kuber. How important, do you think, is training for a singer or a musician?
There are several reasons why training is very important for a musician. It is important for any musician in the form of music he/she is really interested in. What happens in India is that anybody who is seen having some inclination towards music, they are sent to learn classical music. What I feel is that you should learn some or the other form of music to keep the student in you alive. More than the form of training, educating and updating you and keeping the student inside you is very important. That is when you get the motivation to practice. Indian classical trains in you a way you can carry a lot of songs effortlessly. Training in a form you are passionate about is very important.
You have trained in Salsa dance form. You have learnt many languages too, including Spanish and German. Do you think it is important for an artiste to keep his/her curiosity alive and keep learning different things?
Yes, it is important to keep exploring new things. The reason I got passionate about Latin music as I got interested in it as a listener. Just after finishing college, I was looking at a fallback option in my career. I always had a flair for languages and loved to learn them. Spanish was rare at that time. Most people learnt French and German as that was what offered in schools. Spanish was not offered in any curriculum. After studying in Academia de Español, I was working with a Spanish government company called Navantia. I also taught in an international school in Pune as a Spanish teacher. After my daughter was not born, it was simply not possible to carry everything.
What attracted you towards dance?
The main reason for being attracted to dance was my irresistible desire to be able to react to Latin Music. It is a form of music that calls me. And Latin dance liberates my body, mind and soul. It keeps the youth inside me alive and opens my mind to new ideas. It also mainly teaches me that art is for expression of your feelings.
You have stated in an interview that your husband, Abhijit Deshpande, has helped you keep your music alive. You had to first shift to Pune and then, to Germany.
Professionally, he is an engineer. Cricket is something he has always been very passionate about. Here in Germany, he started a cricket club where he trains boys and men. He knows what it means to be passionate about something and has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Today, there is more supply than demand. It has become a rat race. Everyone is working hard. To survive in this rat race is very difficult. I sort of pulled out of it after a while.
Has shifting to a different country proved to be a hindrance?
No, I voluntarily pulled out of it. I just realised I needed to discover my own self first. Somewhere, in this whole journey of film music, something was biting me from inside. I was not discovering myself. I used to ask myself, “where am I heading as an artiste?”, “What is that I am capable of doing?”. My husband and I decided that moving to Germany was not such a bad thing. Here, I would find the space and frame of mind to explore myself.
A lot of your fans must be wishing that you were or are heard more often in the mainstream music space.
That’s true. Somehow, that never happened. A lot of it was out of choice. It was not someone ganging up against me.
But that also happens in the industry, right?
It has existed since forever. Groupism, politics has been a part of every profession. It exists in every sphere of life. You have to choose to focus on doing things that help you grow as an artiste.
Was ‘Hai Pagal Dil Mera’, the track which was a part of the compilation album ‘Channa Ve’ released by Universal Music India, your first professional recording?
No, it was not my first professional recording. I recorded ‘Hai Pagal Dil Mera’ in the year 2004. I had recorded a lot of songs before that. My first professional recoding was as a child artiste. I was sent by my guru Kalyanji bhai to lend my voice to the background score of a documentary. It was a beautiful song. I sang a lot of Ganapati songs with my classical guru Vidya Zail ji. I worked with Monty Sharma on a lot of background scores. Shankar – Ehsaan and Loy have been like my mentors the experience of working with them was surreal.
You became very popular after participating in the reality show ‘Saregama Challenge 2005’. After that you participated in two other popular reality shows too. Do you think participating in these shows helped you in your career?
I think it did, to a certain extent. Sometimes, I feel these reality shows are counter-productive. My biggest experience from the ‘Saregama’ experience was that I got a lot of well-wishers. You become a household name. When people recognize me even today, I don’t know how to react. I did a couple of other reality shows after that. On reality shows, the biggest gain is visual recognition. You get visibility. They are counter-productive as they typecast you in a certain image. They thought Nihira is a singer who sings Lata ji and Asha ji songs very well. After the show gets over, you have to work towards proving your individuality as a singer.
You have said in an interview that you are camera-conscious singer.
On my last trip to Pune, I was out with a friend. We were having dinner when a person seated on a table close to us, said, “you look just like that Nihira”. I smiled and told her, “yes, I bear a resemblance to her” (laughs’).
You have sung a very small portion which comes at the beginning of the song ‘Dhadak Dhadak’ from the film ‘Bunty Aur Babli’. That was one of your first Bollywood songs.
Normally in Bollywood, they don’t give credit to singers who sing such small parts in a song. Bring the gentlemen that Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are, they ensured that I get the credit for that small part. After that, I go the opportunity to work with them on background scores, jingles and films like ‘Salaam-E-Ishq’ and ‘Marigold’.
After that, you were one of the singers on the title track of the film ‘Alag’ the video of which featured some big stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Sushmita Sen and others.
Yes, that song was by Aadesh Shrivastava. I sung a small portion in it but I thoroughly enjoyed it as it was a good melody.
Then came, ‘Mera Dil’ from ‘Salaam-E-Ishq’ which proved to be your first big Bollywood song.
Yes, it was an incredible song. I was excited by the fact that I was singing I was singing a song for Shankar – Ehsaan -Loy as a lead vocalist and that too, for such a big film. I had recorded the song asa scratch. I was finally going to sing the song if Nikkhil Advani liked my voice. Thankfully, he liked it and my voice was retained. I was 18-19 when I recorded that song. I was going to sing it with Shaan who was hosting Saregama at that time. I was still a participant on ‘Saregama’ at that time. It was a sweet composition and has this interesting pulse to it. I was overwhelmed to see the kind of response for it.
‘Sajde’ from ‘Kill Dil’ has been one of your most popular Bollywood songs. Did Arijit and you record your parts together for the song?
No, we recorded our parts separately. ‘Sajde’ was a surprise for me. I had gone to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s studio to record ‘Baawra’ which is my personal favourite song from the album. After the recording was over, Shankar bhai asked me would you like to try another song as well. He said, “we want a completely different tonal quality from Baawra”. The rendition was Nihira. In ‘Sajde’, we wanted something that is opposite of Nihira. Shankar bhai knows how to get the best out of his artistes.
You have sung many memorable songs in Marathi films and albums. ‘Bhijun Gela Vara’ from ‘Irada Pakka’, ‘Funkarachi Wadili’ and ‘Tu Jarashi’ from ‘What’s Up Lagna’ are some of my favourite songs sung by you in Marathi.
‘Funkarichi Wadle’ got me a lot of recognition as a singer. I was nominated for a lot of prestigious awards, including the Maharashtra State Government Award, for that song.
‘Tu Jarashi’ from the same film is also a beautiful number and has a serene feel to it. Can you share some memories of recording that song?
Recording a song by composed by Nilesh Moharir and written by Ashwini Shende is always a pleasure. It was a serene melody which got a lot of love from the listeners. I sung it along with Hrishikesh Ranade.
Can you name three of your most favourite songs that you have sung in Marathi?
There are many. One has to be ‘Funkarichi Wadle’. I really enjoyed the melody as a listener. It is not a typical song. It had a lot of scope for a singer to explore and try out different things. Salil Kulkarni is one composer I absolutely love working with. His song ‘Patha Ekaki’ from ‘Kurukshetra’ is one of my favourite songs that I have sung for him.‘Saang Na Re Mana’ from ‘Zenda’, ‘Bhijuna Gela Waara’ from ‘Irada Pakka’ are some of my other favourites.
Like ‘Ishq Manayein Kya’, you have released a lot of original songs on your YouTube channel over the years.
‘Na Chhedo Humein’ was my first composition. I collaborated with the very talented lyricist Khalil Abhyankar on that song. My journey as an independent artiste has been quite interesting. I try to make the kind of music that can make me come out of my comfort zone and help me grow as an artiste. It is not easy as an independent artiste if you are relying on organic methods to promote your songs. You have to bear the expenses involved in putting together a track and there are hardly any returns. Despite all the challenges, I am happy creating music as an independent artiste. There are no restrictions and you get the freedom to do all that you wish to do as an artiste.
‘Ishq Manayein Kya’ became the first Indian song to be played on Salson Radio, the leading radio station on Salsa and Cuban music.
Yes, the song featured in their list which had top 20 songs that had released recently. The other tracks on that list were by really big salsa artistes. I was the only Indian musician whose song was a part of that list.
You have done live shows for years. Do you still do them?
After moving to Germany, a lot of time went into learning German and getting used to the new surroundings and lifestyle. The pandemic slowed down things for everybody. Once things get a little more normal, I would definitely get back to the stage and perform.
Are you open to singing for films in the future?
Yes, definitely. It is not a door I have closed. It’s just that it is not something that is in my hands. As a singer, you do need to have talent to get work. But, there are a couple of other things that have become equally important these days. You have to be constantly be on the scene, make yourself visible by doing TV appearances and you need keep networking all the time, be extremely active on social media. I find it very difficult to do all of that. If songs come my way, I will definitely take them up but I don’t want to be a part of that race anymore.
Asha Bhosle’s ‘Taruna Aahe Ratra Ajuni’ is one of your favourite songs. So is the Jaidev composed ‘Abhi Na Jaao Chhodkar’ from the film ‘Hum Dono’. Which are some of the other songs which have inspired you?
I am a huge fan of Hridaynath Mangeshkar. He is a fabulous composer and I have also loved his singing style. I have admired Kishori Amonkar from my childhood. Another favourite vocalist is Dr. Anuradha Kuber whom I have also been privileged to learn from. I have also been a fan of British rock bands like Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd and Radiohead. I also love listening to Latin music which is evident from ‘Ishq Manayein Kya’.
A bi-lingual Hindi-Spanish version of ‘Ishq Manayein Kya’ is about to release on the 5th of May. What made you decide to come up with an alternate version of the track?
I had sent the translation of the lyrics, that Son Diamantes beautifully converted into a poem fitting exactly into the melody of the song. It was surprising how Spanish lyrics were working with the composition. I loved the rendition in the voice of Lisbet, the lead vocalist of the band. So, this was a collective decision made by all of us. We thought it would be interesting for the audiences to hear how the same song sounded in different languages and different voices on the same platform.
What is the kind of music you want to put out as an independent artiste in the near future?
There are several ideas on my mind. Some are under production, some still in the ideation stage. There is an EP that I am working on. There are some singles too. I also would like to come up with a Marathi song and explore more genres of Latin music like the Son, the Bachsts, cha cha cha. Of course, I would keep exploring Indian music always.