First Person: Javed Akhtar On Shankar Mahadevan
Javed Akhtar is a celebrated lyricist and has co-written with Salim Khan some of Hindi cinema’s biggest blockbusters. Excerpted with permission from Ashis Ghatak’s The Musical Maverick: The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan; Rupa Publications.
Let me begin by saying what I will say at the end too — Shankar Mahadevan is a musical genius. Reflecting on my journey with Shankar, it all began through the creative Imtiaz Dharker — a cherished friend and renowned painter.
She reached out to me to write the lyrics for her documentary focused on Mumbai’s Street children. She was aiming to capture their essence through a singular song rather than conventional commentary. I happily agreed.
Guided by Imtiaz, I found myself at a studio to meet Ehsaan Noorani. Soon after, his partner Shankar Mahadevan arrived. It was a brief yet defining interaction. In just minutes, he composed a musical masterpiece, leaving a lasting impression on me.
Later, I called Ehsaan, asking if they would be interested in composing for films. He said he would get back but never did. Later, I learnt that he got so flustered and nervous that he couldn’t muster the courage to return my call!
Despite that, I kept telling my producers about these exceptionally talented young individuals. It is ironic, though, that anything that’s different faces resistance from the market.
Besides the music of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, there was another idea I had been trying to sell for almost seven years. Many singers and composers found it interesting, amusing, and new, but I suppose most people believe that nothing should be done for the first time.
One day, incidentally, I met Shankar at Saregama and narrated the musical idea to him. He instantly agreed to collaborate. We titled it ‘Breathless’.
The music video for ‘Breathless’ marked the first directorial attempt of Zoya and Farhan, as they teamed up on it. This is how two of my ‘convictions’, which were not widely shared, came together, giving birth to ‘Breathless’.
Meanwhile, doors began opening for them in the industry. The trio’s versatility and range were evident in Farhan’s ‘Dil Chahta Hai’, Nikkhil Advani’s ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Mission Kashmir’ proving them to be a force to reckon with.
In addition to being an excellent composer, Shankar is an exceptional singer. The way he sings, most people can’t even speak with such ease. I’ve seen him in the recording studio; while rummaging through a pile of papers for the second stanza of a song, he effortlessly continued to sing into the mic.
There’s also this memorable incident. At an event, Shankar was singing on the stage when Yesudas arrived and sat in the front row. Just then, the interlude started. Shankar, with his cordless mic, came down the steps to pay his respects by touching Yesudas’s feet.
As he was returning, the interlude concluded, and Shankar started singing the ‘sargam’ while climbing the steps back to the stage. His singing is as effortless as breathing is for you and me.
I would be undermining his talent if I mentioned only his work in films. Shankar is an esteemed member of the highly respected international musical group Shakti.
Being one of the busiest people with an overpacked schedule, it’s obvious that he has no time for any ‘riyaaz’. However, I have watched him engage in ‘jugalbandi’ with maestros like Ustad Rashid Khan and it is truly amazing.
I have known him for almost 30 years now, yet he hasn’t stopped surprising me. Artistes are often associated with mood swings, careless attitudes, and narcissism. But none of these ‘qualities’ have ever shown up in him, not even from miles away.
Throughout our association, I have never seen him flustered, irritated, or praising himself. But perhaps it is these qualities that make him a great friend, a perfect husband, and a wonderful father. Although, I must also give equal credit to his wife, Sangeeta, and their sons Siddharth and Shivam, both of whom are exceptional singers.
Without any exaggeration, the Mahadevans are the most closely-knit, loving, and happy family I have seen in my life. Perhaps what keeps them even closer is that all of them are serious foodies.
Do I even have to tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Shankar and quite often with great results? In all these years, besides music and lyrics, we have shared millions of jokes and tons of vanilla ice-cream! He is much younger than I am. I not only love him but also respect him because he is a musical genius.