Singer Hariharan is among the last remaining masters of the ghazal form in this part of the world. Formally trained in Carnatic and Hindustani classical styles, he has sung songs in multiple genres and languages, and in the 1990s, with his band Colonial Cousins, he became the pioneer of fusion music in India. He speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about his journey as a musician within the mainstream and away from it.
Q: Tell us about your childhood. How early in life were you exposed to music, and when did you decide to make it your profession?
A: I was born and brought up in Bombay. My mother and father are Carnatic musicians. So right from my birth, I’ve been exposed to that genre of music—listening to it, learning from my mother. In school, I used to sing English songs. Those days, there were really beautiful songs in Bollywood as well. I used to sing those songs. So I was dabbling in all kinds of music in childhood. Since I was born into a family of reputed musicians, learning music and singing was for me a part of life rather than a hobby.
I am a science graduate and we had a family business, too. So I could have taken any route. But after I did my graduation, I met Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan and that changed my attitude towards music. I became more serious about it. I would put in hours of riyaz. But even then I didn’t know if I was going to pursue a career in this field. It took its own shape.
Q: You have sung, and continue to sing in a variety of genres. How do you approach different forms of music with such comfort?
A: That goes back to my childhood when I learned music in the formative years of my life. That’s why when I sing in different genres, it sounds seamless. Each genre has its own nuances and techniques. For instant, film songs are completely different from ghazals, which involve khayaland thumri. The ghazal is a shabd pradan form, which means the words play a very important role in it. So if you overdo the music it could kill the ghazal. It is like a haseen pari. It’s like a beautiful woman, but you can’t overdress her or put too many ornaments on her, because the basic beauty would die.
Q: Today, there are very few successful ghazalsingers in India. Do you think the form, and the audience for it, is dying out?
A: There is a wonderful audience for ghazals. But there are fewyoung musicians who are taking this path, because it takes a longer time to establish yourself as a ghazal singer. You don’t have the luxury of stars singing ghazals for you on the screen. You are the star. You are the hero or the heroine and you are singing your song. So it takes time but when it happens, it stays with you throughout your life. The ghazal form might have become less popular over the years, but people still listen to it. It’s an evergreen art form.
Q: Your band Colonial Cousins was among the pioneers of fusion music revolution in India. What brought you and Leslie Lewis together for this project?
A: Fusion is something that just happened to me and Leslie. One day, we were waiting for a script to come from Delhi; we were doing a jingle together. We had time to kill. So he picked up his guitar and started playing blues, jazz and all that. As he changed his styles, I started singing and there was a third sound being formed. It happened by chance that we sat together and sang for about half an hour. We both felt that something nice could be made out of what we had just done. So the seed of Colonial Cousins was sown. There had been classical musicians before us, like Ravi Shankar Ji, who had done a lot of fusion. But ours was a classical form in the song format, with a touch of pop. We liked the sound and people appreciated it.
Q: In 2000, you coined an original genre, “Urdu Blues”. Could you elaborate on that?
A: The blues scale is very romantic and it talks about life—the high points, joys, low points, sad moments, as well as tragedies. It’s poetic in nature. I found ghazals similar to that, lyrically and also in terms of musicality. The scales fit beautifully with each other like a glove. So it was in my mind and it happened with my first Urdu Blues composition for the song “Ye Aaine Se” in Kaash (2000). Then it became a genre. I am happy that I was able to create something new.
Q: Purists of classical music often frown upon any sort of experimentation with the form. What’s your take on that?
A: When a thing is done well, if it has the proper energy, it does not get criticised much. But when songs lack that, they falter and receive negative comments. Anand Shankar was the pioneer of fusion music. I don’t think anyone criticisedhis music because the essence was in tact in his music. They were preserved. So in fusion music, the originality, musicality, lyrics and content are all important.
Q: You’ve spoken about distancing yourself from the Hindi film industry as a musician. What made you do that?
A: I never distanced myself from it. But the kind of singing which is needed now in Hindi films, which a lot of people are doing very well, I don’t fit there. The singing is basically without embellishments and very straight. It is based on the voice texture and a lot of Western technique has come in. It’s very youthful—like a boy-next-door is singing to you with his guitar. That kind of thing has happened. Maybe they don’t need a Hariharan in that scene. I’ve been lucky to get songs which were beautiful compositions of great composers. They are popular even today. I sing those songs in my concerts and people respond with great enthusiasm—as they have been for the last 25 years. A singer is made by the songs he or she gets, and I got amazing songs written for me which suited my voice. But I feel the voice culture has changed in Bollywood. Only certain kinds oof voices are in vogue today.
Q: How is the digital platform changing India’s music scene in your view?
A: When something starts, the good as well as the bad get marketed. But basically, digital platforms are very good as they give opportunity to up and coming musicians. Sometimes, you see that the sincerity is lacking in the artiste, but one can’t blame the platform for that. That’s up to the artiste’s conscience—to put forth his best in this creative space.
Q: Any advice for aspiring musicians?
A: Get trained in the basics of one genre of music. Once you know your scales and technicalities, then go off in different directions. At the core, you should be a musician. You should have learned the art and then the soul takes over. You practice and practice and then you forget everything and play. That’s when music happens. Your experiences of life should come alive through your music.
Q: You were on the jury of Radio Mirchi Music Awards recently. How was that experience? And how important are such platforms for budding musicians?
A: It’s interesting, as we get to hear new voices at such events. I am not a voracious radio listener, as I keep making so much music myself which keeps me busy. But when I do Mirchi Awards, I get to listen to a lot of youngsters and it is a learning process for me when I am on the jury. I get exposed to new music. Music reality shows feature songs that have already been sung by somebody… But when you are singing an original composition, it is all you. You have to decide how you will sing it. That takes more talent and thinking.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I and Leslie are planning to release a new single. My son, Akshay Hariharan [composer and producer], is coming up with an album which fuses classical Indian music and different genres of EDM. I’ve also sung in that. I am also doing a ghazalalbum, which is a mix of traditional and contemporary music.