shreeni "Put on your headphones, have some music come in and then try to sing, it is a completely different ball game."


Sandya chats with Playback singer Srinivas


We all DREAM!  Without a doubt, it is a definite requirement that humans dream of wonderful things that could happen to them during the course of their lives.  But unfortunately for us, economic pressures and family responsibilities usually appear as big boulders in our paths.  Despite our inherent talents and skills, many of us are forced to walk away as soon as we encounter these boulders.  Yet, there are exceptions.  With a little bit of luck and a lot of persistance, Chemical Engineer Srinivas has transformed into Playback Singer Srinivas, therefore making the exception rather attractive.  On a relaxed Wednesday morning, while enjoying the fruits of successfully releasing his tamil fusion-pop album, Paarvai, Srinivas spoke to us on the telephone.  His words thoughtful, his expressions original and his overall tone: polite, carefree and humorous.  He began describing his music background, education, experiences and progress, while we decided his narrative style was too engrossing to be interjected with questions.  Most of the questions were saved for the concluding portion of the interview.  Though Srinivas might say that he had all the pleasure of answering our questions, it was actually our pleasure to listen to him speak and relate his experiences to us.  Here's Srinivas speaking from his heart...


The Interview


Srinivas on his musical influences

Right from childhood, like any musician, I have always been swayed by music. In school and college, I was more known for music than anything else.  I won my quota of prizes for music. I was a big fan of the Kishore Kumar - R.D.Burman combination.  They were my earliest influences.  I learned carnatic music and my house was filled with it. That came naturally.  Later on, Mehdi Hassan, the Pakistani Ghazal singer was my biggest influence in life.   Even now, I am astounded by his earlier works and just the way he sings.  There is a ghazal that goes, Ranjeshee Sahi, which stunned me and I have heard it over 200 times. It was in a live concert by Mehdi Hassan.  You can say that it really changed my life.  I also enjoyed listening to old MSV classics.  (But melody is something you really start appreciating only in your twenties).  Madhan mohan, S.D.Burman were also my other influences.

Then, the time I really wanted to be become a singer and was crazy about it was when Ilaiyaraja was at his peak.  In the 1980s, he was going beserk.   Every song was a hit and was so fresh to listen to.  It became my dream to sing for him and that's when I really wanted to become a playback singer.  Meanwhile, I completed my chemical engineering degree with a specialization in textile dyestuffs. I went out to work.  Though listening never took a back seat and was always a priority, my dreams of becoming a singer was on hold.  In college when you get up on stage and sing, you think you are a great singer. Actually you are not!  I missed all that when I was working.  I worked for almost 10 years before I came back. 


Srinivas talks about his meeting with Illayaraja

In 1988, I was in Chennai for a brief while.  I was just a mad fan of Ilaiyaraja that one day I looked up the directory and went to his house.  They told me that he leaves home at 6:30 A.M.  I am a very late riser, but then for him, I woke up early and went to see him.  When I saw him in flesh and blood, it was too much. I just couldn't take it.  I gathered courage to tell him that I wanted to sing for him and was obsessed by music.  He wanted me to give him a tape.  It was almost one and half months before I could get hold of him to give him a tape.  Within ten days, he called me for a recording.  Some guy came knocking on my door at 11:30 P.M. asking me to come to the recording. NaaLaikku Raja-sir recording irukku, Voice-mixing.  I didn't even know what voice mixing was. I hadn't seen headphones also.  I was down with a serious throat infection.  So, I told this guy that I couldn't come.  But he said, I don't know, I was told to tell you.  If you want to come, you come.  So, I went and met Ilaiyaraja and he asked me where I learned to sing. I was so excited that I asked him if he listened to the tape.  He said it was nice.  He asked, Inaikku paada mudiyaadha ungaLaala? and I said I couldn't.  I said that I wanted to see the recording and sat through the entire thing.  Raja then said that we would have the recording session some other day.  Meanwhile, I progressed in my career and became branch manager at my company.  I moved to Coimbatore and got married.  


Srinivas's initial  meetings with Rahman

In 1992, in Coimbatore, was when I went to see Maniratnam's Roja because it was a Maniratnam movie.  Dreams of playback singing had taken a back seat;  I was in Coimbatore and travelling and didn't know how to approach it now. I was just taken aback by the freshness of Roja's music.  After a long time, I had bought a tamil film audio cassette.  This new person, Rahman, had introduced so many singers; the re-entry of Sujatha, Hariharan (my favorite!), Minmini (God knows who she was at that time!) and Unnimenon.   Immediately, I realized that this person has an attitude towards introducing new artists, his music sounds fresh and he was definitely here to stay!  sriniOn one of my official trips to Chennai, I got hold of Rahman's address and went to see him directly.   At that time, he was very accessible (he had just started working on Pudhiya Mugam).  He conducted a voice test; I sang a Mehdi Hassan ghazal and he liked it.  I mentioned that I lived in Coimbatore and he said that if I moved to Chennai, he might be able to work with me.  By the time I came to Chennai in 1994-95, he had shot through the roof!.. The gates had become bigger at Rahman's place (laughs!).  It was difficult to even get through to his office.  With persistance and a little bit of luck, I was finally able to see him again.  As soon as he saw me, he remembered.  That's Rahman!.. He's human... and he's got GOD inside him as well!  He slowly started giving me singing assignments. 

That's around the time I started singing advertisement jingles for some experience. The first time I ever went in front of the mike, was when I realized I was a bad singer.  When it was played back to me, I realized I was terrible.   Singing at home is fine.  Singing on stage, with all this big power, you think you sound great!.. You are not! (laughs!)  Singing at home with your tambura, with some basic sruthi, you can sound in pitch.  But singing in a studio is something else.  Put on your headphones, have some music come in and then try to sing, it is a completely different ball game. You need a lot more experience.  I was singing some jingles, devotionals and Rahman was giving me a lot of tracks to sing too.  I was kind of okay and finally in 1996, happened.   Even now, I am kind of okay as a singer.

What about your new album, Paarvai?

Paarvai is outlook.. a perspective.  Paarvai reflects my attitude to life.  There are 8 songs which reflects various shades of my personality.  All the compositions are more on melodic lines.  There are no dance numbers.  You can call it more of a fusion-pop album.


Srinivas on his latest album "Paarvai"

The first song showcases the need for human beings to understand each other irrespective of color, caste, etc.  We have integrated the three religions; the Hindu religion represented with the Gayathri Mantra, a Muslim chant and a Christian choir towards the end. We have tried to knit it together and this happens to be the first song that we have done a video for.  There is a song promoting happiness in everything you do.  There are 4 love songs; one on your first love, second is on an obsessive love and two duets with Sujatha.   (I thank Sujatha for singing so brilliantly as usual!)  There is a song for the children.  My daughters have sung one line.  There is one song on music.   It is definitely a serious album for serious music listeners.

Sometimes, the songs you loved while singing fail in box office popularity (success) and sometimes the songs you hated while singing climb up to the top in charts. For example, Kanava illai kaatra in Rakshakan.  I particularly enjoyed this song very much, but I don't know think it became very popular. Has this happened to you and how do you feel about this?

You really can't help it.  It's a commercial world.   Sometimes your worst songs become big hits.  That's the other side of the story.  You don't mind when an average song by you becomes a hit.  But when a good song by you doesn't reach the people, you truly feel a little bad.  I am so happy that you are mentioning Kanavaa Illai Kaatra, because Rahman always keeps asking about that song and whether or not I sing it in concerts.   That happens to be his favorite song in Rakshakan as well.   We never thought that that song would shape out that way when we started recording.   We were both a little shaken by the song when we finished the recording.   Then, he did his usual magic with his keyboard and mixing.

How does Rahman usually go about doing a song?  Does he tune it first or does he let you sing and improvise as the song progresses?


Srinivas on Rahman's approach to composing

Rahman's approach is totally different which now many people have started following.  For example, Raja Sir has the whole thing in his mind from the very beginning.  You don't have a doubt about what you should sing and you better not! (laughs). Two totally different schools of music.  With Rahman, when you go in, nothing is ready.  He just feeds in some basic chords.  When you listen to them on your headphones, you are transported to some other world.  Within two minutes, he creates a masterpiece of a loop.  Those chords are just magic.  You feel like singing so much!  He incredibly motivates you when singing, which is also the reason why artists (singers and instrumentalists alike) give him the very best.

Can you give us an example of how he motivates his singers?

I was singing Sotta Sotta Nanaiyudhu for Taj Mahal.  I started singing (hums for us a little!) and we were recording the last pallavi. (Rahman himself records everything. Very few people know this.  He records every cymbal that he puts into it.)  When you are singing, if he gets inspired he starts playing something in his keyboard.  The flamenco guitar piece that comes after I singing Sotta Sotta in the last pallavi, he played it on the spot. (He sings and hums again!)  A little surprised, I said, "What is this?" and that is the way he is.  He improvises as he goes and gets plenty of ideas.  Let's take Kanavaa Illai Kaattra as an example again.. Kaadhal Thaaimai irandu mattum (sings some more!), after that, he hadn't framed the Unnai Mattum Sumandhu Nadandhaal... portion to his satisfaction.  We started recording and I was coming close to Unnai Mattum portion and he still hadn't come up with anything.  When I came to the Kaadhal Thaaimai portion, he immediately told me to sing Unnai Mattum Sumandhu Nadandhaal (the way you hear it in the final version!)  (Srinivas sings the entire portion for us!)  The way he joined the two portions, Unnai Mattum and Kaiyil Midhakkum together was just amazing.  It was really unbelievable for me to see him frame this new Unnai Mattum portion when I was still singing the old version.


Srinivas gives some examples on Rahman's extempore improvisations

Even in the case of En Uyire in Uyire, the rhythm was going on and stops just before Kaigal naangum theendum munnae, kaNNgal naangum theendidume and then he put in a BANG!  He really inspires you so much sometimes that you sing out of pitch (laughs!).  You get so excited by some of the stuff he does during recording.  The most recent example was the pallavi portion (Netru munniravil unnithila poomadiyil) in Snegidhanae in Alaipayuthey.  I learned the tune and sang it in my usual soft voice.  Then Rahman said, Now you have come to Kodambakkam station (meaning the tune is now OK).  You are in the train and you sing like this!  You sing like a classical, hindustani musician and you sing like this!  He explained to me as to how he wanted me to sing.   I was skeptical as to whether my voice would sound good singing like this.   The way I sang and the interaction.. it all added to up to me realizing that I could sing some other way too.

Who are some of the music directors you have worked with and what do you think of each one's approach to music?  For example, can you tell me how Vidyasagar might be different from Rahman in his approach?


Srinivas on Vidyasagar

Vidyasagar is a real delight to work with.  Some of the Malayalam songs I have sung for him are incredible.  Unfortunately, many film industries judge a music director purely by his successes. Poothirikkum Manamae Manamae from Pudhayal (he sings & hums!) is one of my favorites. I sang a lovely song for him in Puratchikaaran.  Nobody has heard of it.   But singing that was one of the most enjoyable experiences in life. (He sings Ottrai Paarvaiyilae from Puratchikaaran).

How do you think music directors determine that a song would be perfect for a singer?  How would they know that a certain song would you perfect for your voice and singing style and vice versa?

I sang a song for the Hindi film, Raja ko Rani se pyaar ho gayaa for Jatin-Lalit, which I feel suited my voice to a tee.  My vocal range can go very high, but I personally don't like it when that happens.  For example, songs in Taj Mahal and Uyire, though they were big hits and I enjoyed singing them, I touched B flat in Sotta Sotta and A in En Uyire... my voice would be better in the G range in full force.   For me the ideal songs would be the Raja ko Rani se pyaar ho gayaa song, Aaao Sune.. leharon se; some songs I have sung for Vidyasagar in Malayalam; some for the wonderful music director Sharath (who did the album, Chaitra Geethangal with Chitra) and of course, Bharadhwaj with songs like Manamae Manamae (Roja Vanam) and Vaazhkkai Vaazhkkai in Pooveli.  Actually few people have heard of the latter song. These songs are the ones I have enjoyed singing because they are within my vocal range and style.  But if you are playback singer, you have to sing Mahaaganapathi (AmarkaLam) and Minsaara Poovae (Padaiyappa)(he sings the first two words in high pitch and says, you can't sing this in a low pitch and sings a sample in a low pitch).  You definitely can't do a low pitch for Rajini Sir (laughs heartily!)  I try to be versatile, but I don't know if I have been successful.  I have sung dapaanguththus like Mahaaganapathi and recently, one more dappanguththu in Bharadhwaj's Paarthaen Rasithaen, (this one beats them all!) but he has given me some of the best melodies.  Life has been fun so far!

You have been given a song that you just don't like.  For example, you are given a dappanguththu which you don't like, how would you go about giving it the needed emotion?

I would never say that I did not like a song.  In fact, I enjoyed singing that AmarkkaLam song. I also enjoyed singing that 'deadly dappanguththu' for Paarthaen Sirithaen. (He jokes!) Veettulla yaethukka maataanga-nu ninaikkiren. The song goes, Kadaikkala, Kadaikkala, ponnukku onnum kadaikkala (I am singing for a man with two daughters!)  I definitely enjoy singing these kind of songs, but there are songs filled with energy that Kishore Kumar and Mano can carry and pull off that I know I can't do.  Moreover, music directors also know my limitations and capacity. My dappanguththus are kind of different and I might throw in a sangadhi here and there. I'll ask for permission to do that :-)

Is there a type of song that you haven't sung so far that you would like to attempt in the future?  There are so many types like pathos, happy, duet, dappanguththu, janaranjakkam etc...

I think I have sung almost all types: (He sings!) Mudhal murai kiLLi paarthaen (Sangamam), and even songs like Kanavaa Illai Kaattra, Minsaara Poovae, Mahaaganapathi, and of course, Uh.. That pretty much covers the spectrum!

What about future plans?

Though I had a dream of being a playback singer, I never planned to become one.  I don't ever plan anything because man proposes and God disposes, as the saying goes!  I really wanted to do an album, but never said that I was planning to do it in the next two years.  Moreover, I believe that it is indeed the hands of God that does everything in life.  I am very thankful to him to bringing me into this field of music. I am not sure if I should say that I am thankful to him  for letting me taste this success.  I have sung over a hundred songs in Tamil, this includes some dubbing songs. You get to buy CDs abroad right?  You'll buy a Rahman CD and you will find a film like Gang Master with it.  Telegu movies dubbed into Tamil. (I clarified to Srinivas that Gang Master was actually by Rahman).. Oh! I am sorry!.. Gang Master is by Rahman, you are right! (We had a hearty laugh!) You know, something like Mr. Z!

There is a huge controversy currently that excessive marketing has decreased the overall quality of music. Many have been accussed of using marketing to hype even poor and tasteless music. Do you think that marketing has really reduced the quality of music today?


Srinivas opines on marketing affecting quality

I think you are partly right and it is a cause for concern also.  But I also think that people like Rahman when they are release something, they are totally satisfied with it.  Then it gets marketed and hyped, which is to be expected.   Sometimes, good music doesn't get any backing.  But to differentiate between good and bad music, you know, it is a harsh world that way.  What might appeal to me may not appeal to somebody else.  Excessive Marketing is a reflection of the world we live in today.  My album, Paarvai is getting some marketing and I might feel that it is not getting as much exposure as some other album, which is actually not as good as my album.  It is just foolish to think that way.   Meanwhile, someone else might feel that Paarvai is getting excessive marketing because of my playback singer status.  It might be true that people succumb to hype and marketing and might go out and buy a low quality album once, but I don't think people are fools to buy it the second time.  Both the album and the musician will lose credibility. In the long run, everything will even out.   Actually, in the long run, nothing matters! (laughs!)


A very special thanks to Srikanth Devarajan (Seattle, USA) for obtaining this opportunity for Tamil Thirai Valai to conduct an interview with Srinivas. 

We would also like to thank Srinivas for sending TTV a copy of his new album, Paarvai and photographs which are published as a part of this interview.

Sandya S. Krishna

Original Protographs provided by: Srinivas
Photographs scanned by: Krishna
Real Audio bits of the conversation created by: Krishna