It was a complete surprise when I recently won the Filmfare Award for Best Playback singer, for my song ‘Darling’ in ‘7 Khoon Maaf’. In fact when my name was announced, I went numb. When I went up to the stage, initially, I could not speak. It took me 42 years to get my first Filmfare Award. And I spoke whatever came to my mind, even as my eyes filled up with tears. That’s why it was so moving for everybody and they gave me a standing ovation.
‘Darling’ had an impact because it was fresh. Composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, it was based on an 1860 Russian song, ‘Kalinka’, so it had an unusual melody, and the treatment of the song, as well as the chorus, was very different. I never got frustrated that I did not win the award earlier. But I did feel sad that every time I was nominated — for ‘One two cha-cha-cha’, ‘Hari Om Hari’, and ‘Rambha ho’ — and I got passed over.
Bollywood did not give me many chances to do playback singing because there is a preconceived notion that a heroine should have a high-pitched voice. So, singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, K S Chitra, Sujatha Mohan or P Susheela were preferred instead of Begum Akhtar, Reshma and I, who have low bass voices. It is strange: for example, when you listened to the dialogues of (the late actress) Meena Kumari, she had a low bass voice, but when she sang, it was high-pitched.
Still, by the grace of God, I have had a long career. The reason: I regard every show as a new one. I don’t take the musicians or the audience for granted. The song is always above you, even if you have sung it a million times. You have to approach it with a new sense of love and respect.
Every time I get a chance to do a concert or appear live, which is almost every second day, it is a wonderful experience. For me, performing live is an addiction. Along the way, if I get a film song, be it in Tamil, Hindi or Malayalam, it is like a cherry on the cake.
Many have asked me about the qualities needed to be successful. I reply that, first, you require a God-given talent. Thereafter, you have to train hard, whether you are doing western vocals, Hindustani or Carnatic music. You have to dedicate your life to music. You are not going to get a chance every day to do something great or creative. So it’s important to hang in there, with a positive attitude, and wait for the breaks to come.
A question I am often asked is about changes in music over the years. Well, digital technology has made a big difference. It has made a lot of things easy, yet at the same time it has become mechanical. The songs are not warm, as they were in the old analog records. Some appreciate the technological advances, while many say it is bad. As far as I am concerned, change is inevitable.
Without change, you cannot move forward.