A quintessential rabble-rouser, Sona Mohapatra is a singer-cum-music composer known for her powerful voice and unabashed opinion. Her documentary, ‘Shut up Sona’, has received global acclaim after it was premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam this year. She talks to Anindya Tripathi about her experience as an artist, the inherent sexism in the music industry, and the repercussions of voicing one’s opinion against men in power.
Q. What was the idea behind ‘Shut Up Sona’? Were you happy with the outcome after three years?
A. ‘Shut Up Sona’ is a cheeky take on life. It is an exact representation of what happens when women transcend cultural and geographical boundaries to raise their voices. Each time they try to question the status quo, even in matters that concern them, they are asked to shut up. I have experienced this innumerable times in different ways over the years. The title was conceived from a scene where my make-up artist, Kumar, is spraying something on my face while I continue to chatter about being ostracised on the college campuses, and he says: “This will work if you kept your mouth shut.” This one line resonated with me in different ways. I wanted to feel empowered and own my narrative as a female artist. After seeing the final cut, I was thankful to my friend and filmmaker Deepti Gupta for shaping my journey in the most beautiful manner.
Q. Has the music industry changed since your initial days, in terms of acceptance of more female artists?
A. I think there’s no real organised music industry in India. It’s a movie industry with the music industry as a subsidiary and that is sad for a country as big as ours, one that has so many genres of music. If anything, the situation has gotten worse in terms of the number of opportunities afforded to female artists in the mainstream in the last decade. There are more female artists than ever today, but the opportunities have diminished. Most of our mainstream narratives are testosterone-led and created with a purpose to make the men larger than life.
Women actors are usually decorative additions to be used as props even when they play important roles. These men became—and still are—the choices of music labels that are exclusively catering to the “big boy” trend, be it Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Mohit Chauhan, Mika, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah or even Arijit Singh.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. I believe there is a great opportunity in these times for musicians and singers who have built their own brand. I have always come out with my own music every year and not depended solely on Bollywood for my breaks.
Q. You have been quite vocal during the #MeToo movement in India. Does the development in the Harvey Weinstein case give you any hope?
A. Of course, it does. It shows us that if women can work together, we can bring sexual predators to justice and within the legal framework. We still don’t have enough women in positions of power. We also do not have a legal framework that is equipped to deal with sexual harassment and serial predatory behaviour as yet. The National Commission of Women (NCW), as an organisation, lacks legal teeth and I believe it doesn’t even have the right resources or people who can deal with women going through trauma or exploitation. Despite sending multiple testimonies of women (underage minors included) who were harassed by Anu Malik over the years, the NCW failed to even initiate an official investigation.Singer Kailash Kher continues to perform and be felicitated by multiple governments despite being publicly accused by several women, some of them being women journalists. It seems we are a culture that is fine with serial predatory behaviour in our men. Again, the silver lining in this dark cloud is that people have become more aware of the right and wrong behaviour in workplaces after the MeToo movement in India and many workplaces are in the process of understanding and implementing the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) guidelines.
Q. Have any particular experiences shaped your formative years and made you the opinionated person you are?
A. A lot of my close friends think I was born this way, but yes, a lot of experiences are etched in my memory, especially my time in hostel during four years of engineering. My life has been in constant collision with sexism simply because I’ve always refused to “know my place” in society. I’ve always demanded equality and that’s been offensive to a lot of people. My earliest memories are of my mother, an educated working woman, holding the short end of the stick always. She raised three daughters, took care of her in laws, cooked all meals, earned money and yet had to be submissive. She lived three life-times of hard work in one. It pained me and made me angry even at the early age of five to see this imbalance. I always felt the need to fight for her as a child and growing up, I see my mother in every underdog story. One that triggers me to fight and try make things fairer.
Q. Through your entire journey as a musician, what is the biggest challenge you have faced?
A. Finding collaborators who can make the most of my voice, timbre and strong desi grounding. I have never fit into the archetypal high-pitched female voice that was the sound of classic Bollywood either. I always preferred artists like Girija Devi and Shubha Mudgal. So, I knew that the road ahead would not be conventional but feel really blessed for all the opportunities too. Be it a modern pop Thumri, Jiya Lage Na in Talaash, Naina in Khoobsurat, Ambarsariya, Bedardi Raja or Mujhey Kya Bechega Rupaiya along with my own album songs, I do believe no other voice could have sung these songs. They are my soul, life and storytelling, apart from being a tune or musical arrangement.
Q. Whom do you turn towards when you are seeking inspiration?
A. My heroes are all deeply rooted musicians and artists, be it Girija Devi, Pandit Kumar Gandharva or Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or even Blues musicians like Etta James and Nina Simone. I’ve always wanted to bridge the ancient with the modern, so I’m not too fussed with the latest trends in music or fashion.
Q. One dream collaboration that is yet to happen?
A. I believe I should be a dream collaboration for other artists. Let them seek me out.
Q. Will we be seeing more of your role as a producer?
A. I hope to make more content on issues that interest me. I’m not keen on turning producer just for its own sake. The amount of social media content I’ve created in the past 15 years is humongous, so I’m very happy being a musician and artist first. But I definitely plan to create more content with a strong feminine perspective in the coming years.
Q. Your fashion mantra and favourite attire?
A. Comfort and personality above all else. Like in all other art, the “Goddess” is in the details. My clothes and accessories are never generic and I don’t need to be in top to down designer wear to feel like a million bucks! Dressing up and putting together a look are an act of creative expression that I enjoy immensely. My travels across the help me immensely in creating a unique look that is true to my interests and roots.
Q. What is your take on the so-called music critics and their influence in the current music scenario?
A. There is no real music critique and media space for music reviews in our current environment. Just a couple of publications even care about writing anything about the arts, culture, dance or music scene, let alone profile pieces on artists old or upcoming. Our publications are mostly full of puff pieces on actors. A dangerous place for any society to be in on many accounts. Fortunately for me, the people who like or love my music communicate with me directly on social media and it’s all that matters to me. I think influencers are important in discovering new music and acts. People who are positive and committed are always appreciated.
Q. Your idea of a comfort food?
A. I tour and travel so much on work that I cherish the most basic flavours of home. Also, I have always been a foodie but one who cares about the freshness of ingredients and the nutritional balance on a plate. So, a moong dal khhichdi with loads of vegetables and ghee or a bread toasted well with the left-over dal, sabji, onions and my mother’s amazing tomato pickle loaded up as an open sandwich or stewed pineapple with fresh cream, all these are my favourite comfort food.
Q. Your message to women trying to carve their way in the music scene?
A. Be yourself, be brave and be positive. Create an identity that reflects who you are and what you love, instead of falling for the trap of trends. There’s only one of you, so use that to your advantage.