Shweta Pandit made her debut as a recording artiste at the age of four when she sung a couple of songs for composer Ilaiyaraja which were used in the Mani Ratnam directed feature film ‘Anjali’. This year, Shweta completes 30 years of her journey in the music industry. If you consider ‘Mohabbatein’, in which she sang all the songs for a ‘heroine’ at the age of 14, to be her debut, then she you could say that she has been around for 20 long years. Her mellifluous voice, trained in Indian classical music, has a distinct youthful fervor to it.
Though it has been quite a long journey, she feels that she has just started out. In this elaborate interview, Shweta talks about her illustrious journey as an artiste, recording with the legendary Ilaiyaraja at the age of four, collaboration with A R Rahman, memorable songs in her career, facing the camera as an actor and a lot more.
Your first recording was for the legendary Ilaiyaraja in 1990. You were just four years old then.
Yes, that’s right. I was four when ‘Anjali’ happened. After that, I continued to sing for films as a child artiste for the next ten years. There were many memorable projects which I sang for as a child vocalist. I got to work with Zakir Hussain sahab on ‘Saaz’. There were also a couple of songs on which I remained uncredited like ‘I Love My India’ (‘Pardes’), ‘Raghupati Raghav’ and ‘Ladki Badi Anjaani Hai’ (‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’). After all these songs, I was introduced to the world of recording with ‘Mohabbatein’.
You were very young when ‘Anjali’ happened. Do you have any memories of recording for the film?
I actually have very clear memories of recording for ‘Anjali’. I was in the studio with a bunch of children who were supposed to sing for the film. Nitin Manmohan, the producer of the film, came to the studio and interacted with us. He told the musicians, ‘these kids have good, trained voices but I need an untrained voice’. He said as the girl in the film is not very normal, they cannot have a trained singer sing for her. It had to be a child who has not learnt music and does not know anything about the world. I had not gone to sing there. I was accompanying my mother and my sister Shraddha who was a part of the singing troupe. Nitin Manmohan asked me, “do you sing, beta?”. My mom said I was clueless as to what he was asking but just nodded my head (laughs). He took me to the recording room to try out the songs. Those days, the kind of microphones we had were very different from the ones we have today. They were huge! You needed a proper technician to adjust the mic according to the singer’s height. When the technician saw me, he said, “yeh toh itni chhoti hai, mic itne neeche jaayega nahin”. They put me on a huge stool which was almost the height of me right now and made me sit on it. I sang all the songs for the film. All those songs were hits at that time.
You were trained in music by your grandfather, the legendary musician Pandit Pratap Narain. When did you start learning from him?
I started learning in the year 1996 but I was not very regular with it. My sister was a more serious and regular student. When films like ‘Anjali’ and ‘Saaz’ had happened, I was not even started learning music. Dada ji passed away in the year 2002. I got to learn from him only between 1996-2002. I was fortunate that dada ji could hear my songs from ‘Mohabbatein’ and the devotional album ‘Mahalaxmi’ before he passed away. I collaborated with my chhote dada ji Pandit Jasraj on ‘Mahalaxmi’. They were trying out my voice and I was not the final singer. Most of the verses were in Sanskrit and they were not sure if I could get the pronunciation of the words right. I was very nervous and was not sure if I would get the Sanskrit verses right. When I went for my first rehearsal, I finished the whole shloka in one take. The musicians were shocked and asked me, ‘are you a Sanskrit Pandit?’. I had not rehearsed and come for the recording session. Even my parents were surprised as to how did I pronounce the words so correctly and in such a short span of time. I took me just one rehearsal to finish the entire book. My father had taught me a bit of Urdu when I was very young. I guess the fact that I had learnt a language which kids my age had not learnt helped me pick up different languages quickly.
You have sung both western styled numbers like ‘Halla Re’ (‘Neil N Nikki’) and songs with a classical/semi-classical base to them like ‘Mera Man Jabse Racha Hai’ (‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’) with effortless ease. Unlike many singers that have come up in the last couple of years, you mould your voice and singing style according to the genre or mood of the song.
Yes. I have sung songs like ‘Halla Re’ in a free-flowing and westernized manner. I always follow the music director’s vision and sing as per the requirement of the song. It is definitely tougher to sing compositions based on Indian classical ragas. Here, a lot of people have this perception that those who sing western songs can sing anything. I think it has to do with our fascination with the West. When I started out, I remember being told real-life stories like how somebody like Naushad sahab would ask his singers to learn Urdu so that they can pronounce the words more correctly.
‘Mohabbatein’ had a bunch of new singers who were selected through a talent hunt competition. Was it easier for you to sing for the film as your uncles Jatin-Lalit were the music directors?
Just before ‘Mohabbatein’ happened, I was singing very regularly as a child. I had sung for my uncles in films like ‘Raju Chacha’ and ‘Dil Kya Kare’. The impression they had me of was that I was a little kid. I did not really get the film because my uncles were doing the music for it. For ‘Mohabbatein’, they were looking for singers who could sing for the lead actors. It was Adi (Aditya Chopra) sir who heard me and wanted me to sing for the film. He has his own mind and is not somebody who can be convinced what should be done. I will be forever grateful to him for making me a part of ‘Mohabbatein’.
You started working in this industry at a very young age. Do you think it worked as an advantage for you? Or, was it the other way around?
It was definitely an advantage. At the same time, when you start working at such a young age in such a competitive industry, your childhood is instantly taken away from you. you are dealing with very high standard of work. You are working with the best of the best people. I remember Lata ji, Anand Bakshi and Yash ji sitting in front of them. I recorded the songs when I was thirteen years old. It was a lot of hard work.
Your father Vishwaraj Pandit assumed the moniker Mandheer and composed the music for films like ‘Dil Hi Dil Mein’, ‘Bhai Ka Dushman Bhai’, ‘Naarad Vivah’ and ‘Wafaa’ in the 80s along with younger brother Jatin. Together, they were known as Mandheer-Jatin. He has been a renowned tabla player and percussionist and had even performed with the likes of Kishore Kumar back in the day.
My father’s presence was instrumental in the career of Jatin-Lalit. People outside the industry are not aware of him as he was not somebody who ever tried to be in the limelight. Right from the beginning, my father was the main driving force in Jatin-Lalit’s careers. He also played an integral role in my aunt Sulakshana Pandit’s career as a singer and an actress. He spent almost his entire life building his siblings’ careers.
Do you feel that he did not get his due as a musician?
Yes, I do. He is one of the most talented musicians I have come across in my life. Sometimes, people ask me why did he spend his life working towards building his siblings’ careers. The world we live in today is very selfish. You need a heart of gold to do what he did. He always valued his siblings’ happiness over his. Mandheer-Jatin started out as composers in the 80s. It was very difficult for new composers to break into the market at that time. In the 90s, it was easier because newer people were being introduced. Timing is very important in the industry. When Jatin-Lalit came, the industry was more open to trying out new people.
He also dabbled in acting. He played the lead role in the social drama ‘Idd Mubarak’. It also happens to be the only film in which your grandfather Pandit Pratap Narain has sung a song.
‘Idd Mubarak’ was being shot when I was very small. It is the only film he has acted in. The thing is that he always felt that since it is a very tough and competitive industry, my aunt and my uncles would need a lot of support. They were nine sibling and lived in the same house. He was the oldest son of my grandparents was a father-figure to his siblings.
Your mother Swarna Pandit had anchored a couple of episodes for the devotional programme ‘Bhakti Sagar’ which was produced by T-Series.
My mom was only eighteen when she got married to my dad. It was my grandfather who spotted her and put across a proposal to her family for my dad. She is one of the most beautiful women I have seen in my life. ‘Love Story’, which had my aunt Vijayta Pandit in it, was being shot in Kashmir. My mom, dad and a few other family members were there too. Rajendra Kumar saw my mother and said, “I have not seen you before. Why don’t you audition for my next film?”. My mother was quite surprised as she never had any desire or ambition to act. Once Raj Kapoor met her and offered her to play the lead role in ‘Henna’. She smiled and told him, ‘I have three children’. He was shocked because she was still so young. When we grew up, she became the associate director of the music reality show ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’ (later renamed as ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’). The whole concept of having judges on a reality show was hers. It was a small thought but it became a huge concept and is replicated by most reality shows even today.
Despite being one of the most skilled and finest singers around, we do not get to hear you as often as one would like to. This is something you have also spoken about.
I have spoken about it because people often ask me, ‘why do you do not sing very often?’. They think so many singers are singing regularly, so why isn’t Shweta?. They do not know what is happening within the industry. They think of it as a very simple thing. I was speaking to Sukhwinder Singh once. If you see his graph, he is not a regular singer. He sings one song in one or two years but it becomes a superhit. He told me, ‘sher aise hi dahaadta hai, uska ek gaana aata hai aur sabse zyaada chamakta hai’. That was a very positive way of him looking at me. It is true that I have not got opportunities according to my talent. I do not know the real reason. I am one of those artistes who have not been given opportunities. I do not want to hide this fact. Many of the songs, which were originally recorded by me, got dubbed and went on to become superhits. The fact that people tell me that they want to hear more of me makes me happy.
Many of the songs you sung in Telugu and Tamil became huge hits.
Fortunately, my South career is exactly what I would have wished it to be like. Even now, when I go to Hyderabad or Chennai, I meet a lot of people who tell me that they love my songs. I feel very humbled. I will always be thankful for whatever I have got so far.
One of your most prominent collaborations has been with A R Rahman. Apart from singing for him in films like ‘Highway’ and ‘Lekar Hum Deewana Dil’, you have also performed extensively with him in concerts all across the globe.
I have been performing with Rahman sir for a decade now. It has been a marvelous collaboration. I have learnt a lot from him. I started working with Rahman sir just after he had won the Oscar. He is one of the most humble human beings I know of. Whenever somebody says good things about the singers or musicians he works with, he conveys the same to them. One day, he told me, ‘today, I met a fan of yours.’ He always praises his singers and appreciates the work they do. He is very different from everybody.
Apart from being an accomplished singer, your elder sister Shraddha Pandit is also a musician and a lyricist. Is there anything you have learnt from her?
When I used to sing as a child, I was very raw. Shraddha would be the person who would correct me and guide me to sing in the right manner. She taught me how to project the words correctly on microphone and several techniques of film singing.
You have acted in films like ‘David’ and ‘Barkhaa’ and the TV show ’24 India’. Do you plan to act more often?
Music will always be my first love but I do enjoy acting. Having dabbled in both the art forms, I find acting to be a more relaxed job than singing. Singing is a lot of hard work. You can cheat a bit while acting but you cannot do the same in singing. I have not acted in a while but if some good project comes my way, I will do it. The first time I acted was in a Coca-Cola commercial directed by Dibakar Banerjee. I did another ad with Ram Madhvani after that. I played a supporting character in ‘Barkhaa’ but it was as important as the heroine in the film.
You have sung so many memorable songs in all these years. Can you name five songs that are closest to your heart?
Nenani Neevani (‘Kotha Bongaru Lokam’) – It was a song that won me the Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer (South). It is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever sung. When I was recording the song, I did not know anybody from the team. I met the composer for the first time when I went to record the song. Th song became a huge hit but I was not aware of that as I was in Mumbai. One fine day, I got a call from Filmfare and was informed that I was nominated for this song. That is when I realized that the song has received a lot of love.
Idhayam (‘Billa 2’) – It was my first Tamil song. I was a little nervous as I was not sure if I could sing Tamil. Also, it was a classical-based song, so it was even more tough. But, I had a great time recording the song and it shaped up very well.
Halla Re (‘Neil N Nikki’) – The album was way ahead of its time. The kind of sound Salim – Sulaiman created for this album was very fresh and innovative. Had the film worked, the music would have done even better. I had sung three songs for the film. ‘Halla Re’ was my first solo song for a YRF film.
Chhori Ki Baatein (‘Fight Club’) – I always feel that this song took me to another league as a singer. It was a heroine-oriented song and it gave me a lot of exposure as a singer. I will always be grateful to Pritam for giving me the opportunity to sing this song.
Heera (‘Highway’) – Working with Rahman sir on my first solo song with him was really special. I did not expect him to call me for such a soothing melody as he had always seen me jumping around on the stage (laughs).
Two of my favourite songs sung by you have been ‘Beqasoor’ (‘Lekar Hum Deewana Dil’) and ‘Mera Man Jabse Racha Hai’ (‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’).
I recorded ‘Beqasoor’ with Rahman sir in Singapore. I was touring with him. One day, he asked me if I can sing this now right now. The chord combinations, the piano pieces – everything about this song was gorgeous. Musically, it is a very enriching song.
Mayur Puri had written ‘Tell Me O Kkhuda’ and was also directing it at that point of time. He wanted the song to have traces of Rajasthani folk music as the film was set in Rajasthan. The lines he wrote for the song were absolutely wonderful. The way Pritam composed the song was incredible.
If one considers ‘Anjali’ to be your debut, you have completed thirty years as a playback singer. A lot of people start out at this age. How do you look at the journey ahead?
I feel I have just started my journey. I don’t feel I have been around for thirty years. When I started out, we had analog. All the songs of ‘Mohabbatein’ were recorded with each and every singer present in the recording studio. The musicians would play their instruments at the same time when we would sing. This was very different from how things happen today. It would be very embarrassing for us if there was another take. Now, everything is digital. People can just sit at their homes and record their songs. I have memories of Udit ji (Udit Narayan) sitting next to me and singing ‘Aankhein Khuli Ho’. I am very proud of the fat that despite being a singer of today’s generation, I have also witnessed that era where singers would sing would sing live. It was a very different atmosphere. You had to be a very good singer to sing a song. These days, people are asked to sing or act based on the number of followers they have on social media.
Do you have a release in the near future?
There is a song called ‘Krishna’ which I have written, composed and sung myself. It is a romantic number and will be out soon.