Interview: Ashis Ghatak, Author of ‘The Musical Maverick: The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan’

Delving into the world of writing and storytelling, Ashis Ghatak intricately threads together the fabric of passion, resilience, and artistry in their captivating interviews with renowned musicians. Through heartfelt conversations, Ashis Ghatak unveils the diverse journeys of individuals like Shankar Mahadevan in his latest book “The Musical Maverick: The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan“, whose life story embodies the essence of determination and creativity. From humble beginnings in Mumbai’s bustling streets to achieving global recognition, Shankar Mahadevan’s narrative unfolds, showcasing the profound impact of his music on both personal and societal levels.

In this exclusive interview with Storizen, alongside, Ashis Ghatak reflects on their previous exploration, immersing into the realm of jazz with Louiz Banks, a musical genius whose dedication to his craft resonates deeply. As readers journey through the pages, they’re transported into a world where artistry knows no bounds, and the pursuit of passion serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

The Musical Maverick The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan by Ashis Ghatak Book Cover

1. Could you share a bit about yourself and how you started writing?

I am an English teacher by profession in a senior secondary school in Calcutta. I have always had a penchant for writing on anything that excites me. I got to see my name printed for the first time on quite a few academic books I wrote. Travelling places and meeting people helped me branch out to another domain of writing I have always enjoyed, travel writing. Writing books, I should honestly say, was serendipitous. Deep down in my heart I always wished to see my own book on the stacks in the city bookstores I loved to pass the time. It was so humbling as that happened when my first book hit the stores three years back.

2. Your passion for music and photography suggests a deep love for art. Can you tell us how these interests began and if there were any particular incidents that inspired you?

My love for photography came mainly from my latent wish to be a poet. You know perhaps every Bengali loves to be a poet at a certain point of their life. When I sadly discovered that my talent doesn’t go beyond writing silly limericks I tried to play with my camera. Then I felt well, with my camera at least I can write some haikus here, if not a long poem. And like those closet poets who take pleasure in reading their own poems thinking that their compositions are second to none, I am happy being a closet photographer regaling in a self-absorbed world. I can’t remember any particular incident as such but I do love to remember the encouraging words from my friends who instilled in me the confidence and belief of writing books. They still do.

3. How did you go about exploring Shankar Mahadevan’s personal and psychological aspects to understand his fears, ambitions, and vulnerabilities that influenced his journey?

I used my experience of writing my first book, the authorized biography of the Jazz legend Louiz Banks. While studying on Shankar Mahadevan. It was Louiz Sir who got me in touch with Shankar Ji. They two share a great bond and Shankar ji was one among many who looked up to Louiz Sir as his mentor and Guru. Meeting the childhood friends of Shankar ji whom he values a lot and to whom he attributes his success, I could discover the fears, ambitions and as you say, the vulnerabilities that influenced the journey of a young singer of becoming Doctor Shankar Mahadevan and Grammy winner Shankar Mahadevan. Talking to him in several sessions of interviews helped me too to know how sticking to his passion helped him overcome those fears and vulnerabilities.

4. The biography portrays Shankar Mahadevan as someone who embodies the down-to-earth humanity of Mumbai despite his fame. Can you share any stories or moments from your research that illustrate this quality?

One should keep in mind that Shankar Mahadevan wasn’t born with a silver spoon and fame didn’t happen overnight. He came from a middle-class class closely knit family and merrily stayed in a 500 square ft flat with his brother and parents. The middle-class values instilled in him by his parents never left him and now when he owns a mansion with a fleet of cars donning the courtyard of his home, he remains the same Shankar who starts his day with his mother’s blessings and the same ‘Jadya’ to his bunch of friends with whom he had passed the halcyon days of his carefree life. Stories of his early life would melt one’s heart. He could laugh away the sniffles and sorrows when he would pass time with his friends, sing his ever-favorite Kishore Kumar songs, and get silent support from his father when the chips were down. The love story of Shankar ji and Sangeeta Mam is heart-warming. I remember one incident that he shared with me. It was the time when he would get occasional calls to sing jingles. They came few and far between and the newly married couple were content with whatever little he earned. For them every small joyous occasion was momentous. The day Shankar ji got the cheque with five figures for the first time, they celebrated by treating themselves at a Chinese restaurant. Returning home by the double-decker BEST bus that we saw in Basu Chatterjee films, they held on to each other firmly as they were approaching the days of prosperity. Only a Shankar Mahadevan could celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary with his childhood friends and openly declare among all that his friends and his family make his life complete. My book abounds with such stories.

Ashis Ghatak

5. Balancing between recounting Shankar Mahadevan’s achievements and providing broader social, political, and historical context in the biography must have been challenging. What were some obstacles you encountered while presenting this multifaceted narrative?

See, a biography won’t tell you the greatness of your subject unless you situate him in a broader social, political or historical context. Anyone becomes famous not just by something he does but by how he cuts above the rest at a given time. When you place one in a bigger and more complicated matrix of contemporary times, you can flesh out the character more convincingly. So when I tried to explore his achievement on jingles, I had to give a sketch of the anglicized domain of contemporary ad films and how he brought in Indianness. When one reads on Breathless one has to look at the broader perspective of the then Indi-pop music and how Breathless stood out among the rest. The same goes for the huge depth and variety of SEL compositions spanning more than 25 years. Now when I write on as big as Shankar Mahadevan who dabbles and excels in every discipline he touches, my main challenge was to be careful about the size of the book. Every time I wished to write in detail, I curbed myself. Even after a constant mental note of how much fat the book might be getting, I had to trim almost 30 percent of the total word count during my editing.

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6. In what ways does Shankar Mahadevan’s journey demonstrate human resilience and creativity, as depicted in your book? Can you highlight key moments or decisions in his life that showcase these qualities?

Answer: When you speak about human resilience and creativity, his life is an example. When he had already established himself as a successful professional, a great future opened up. He got the key to fly to the US and get a squeaky clean office at the giddying heights of a Texan high rise. But he chose to stay in the most humble mohalla of Chembur, chucked the opportunity in a whisker, and braced the uncertainties of a rookie singer. These were all out of his extreme passion for singing. The interiors of the recording studio, the resonance of the sound, the jingles or may be a pithy sargam or an alaap appealed to him so much that he felt happiness lay in here. Offers didn’t come in a flurry. But he waited and grinded. When he started singing film songs, only the kitschy leftovers of an album were left for him to croon or he would be called only for singing high pitched alaaps to decorate others’ songs.
I don’t need to cite examples when and how the tide turned.

7. Everyone talks about Breathless, Dil Chahta Hai or Kal Ho Na Ho etc. They have created sensations in a way. Since you are the biographer, I would like to ask you, not going by popularity is there any lesser popular work of SEL that appeals to you in a big way?

Definitely yes and there are examples galore where some of the brilliant SEL songs went out of people’s memory just because the films didn’t do well. About such albums, songs of two films instantly come to my mind, Armaan and Kuch Na Kaho. The songs are super melodious. I would love to write on so many forgotten songs. Listen to the wonderful Jeene Ke Ishare from Phir Milenge or Jugnu from Panga or playful songs like Jaane Bhi De from Heyy Baby or Dekho Raste Mein from Hum Tum Aur Ghost. People listened songs of Bandish Bandits but listened to the lively Shuru Se Shuru from Modern Love as well. Then the superb compositions of Johnny Gaddar and D-Day got brutally chopped off from the film. Ek Ghadi of D-Day is sensational. People could hardly know of these gems. I wonder how many could remember Dhundli Dhundli that Shankar ji sang for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s composition in Guzarish or his very own Dheere Dheere in Kyun Ho Gaye Na!

Ashis Ghatak

8. What challenges you faced fusing Shankar Mahadevan as an individual identity and Shankar Ehsaan Loy as a unified identity in the same book?

I don’t think it was a challenge in establishing two identities – Shankar Mahadevan being himself and Shankar Mahadevan as a part of the trio SEL. Because the identities were not separate at all. He just put on different apparel in whichever role he played as he was an apostle of music. He is so versatile that when he sings Carnatic classical in a kutcheri or singing devotional songs of Vitthala among a handful of people in a religious gathering, one can’t believe that he is the same Shankar Mahadevan who composed and sang Uff Teri Ada. The only challenge, if I use the word, was to strike a balance between Shankar Mahadevan with and without Ehsaan and Loy. I was careful in that. Because SEL is just a part of the huge repertoire of the music of Shankar Mahadevan.

9. Can you tell us about your experience writing Louiz Banks’ biography?

Louiz Banks biography happened because me being a part of the country’s only R.D Burman foundation, Euphony. Euphony does RD tribute shows with the original musicians who were part of his team and once Louiz Banks, one of the key RD Burman musicians, was invited as a performer. It was incredible when Louiz Sir accepted to my proposal of writing on him since I had no experience of writing a book on any person prior to that. It turned out to be a highly rewarding experience of my life. I could see from a very close quarter how greatness comes not only from the art one practices but also from being the person that one is. I got to know how passionate and steadfast he has been to bring India at the doorstep of the world. Jazz is not at all related to our traditional music, so to speak. But Louiz Banks has always been the pioneer in disseminating Indian music when he played Jazz all over the world, fused this Western musical tradition with Indian music spread a unique brand of Indo-Jazz music to the world, and evolved the diction of jazz to popularise it among the modern generation of music lovers.

10. How did writing biographies of musicians in particular impact your personality?

Knowing these great musicians and writing their life stories in books only reaffirms the dictum that when passion rules in you, you will settle for nothing less than where you want to reach. Louiz Banks could easily reject the lure and glamour of Bollywood music because what was important to him at that time was the pleasure he used to get from playing in Blue Fox in Calcutta. His passion was jazz and he would do whatever it took to pursue it. Someone said that if you really do something that you love doing, money will automatically follow suit, but if something is driven only by the pursuit of money, you will lose your way. The same thing is applicable to Shankar Mahadevan. Success came to them because they could put every other attraction to rest, but they were unflinching in following their passion for Music, and they have become a source of joy to millions. No reward can be comparable to this as not many are chosen by God to spread happiness and entertainment to the world. I’ll be happy if I could translate this impact on me to my readers across the generations.

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