Singer, songwriter, composer and now a radio show host, Sona Mohapatra speaks to Bulbul Sharma about connecting with people over the airwaves, and touching lives through music.
Sona Mohapatra, the renowned singer, music composer and lyricist, is now collaborating with a radio station for a show entitled Lal Pari Mastani, which will highlight personal stories of women and men who have fought discrimination of any kind. The 41-year-old singer, who is donning the hat of an RJ for the first time, speaks to Guardian 20 about connecting with people through radio, and her decision to cut down on her playback singing commitments in Bollywood.
Q. You are Rj-ing for Red FM’s new show Lal Pari Mastani for the first time. How have you been preparing for the project?
A. I am actually hosting my own show under a moniker that my fans have known me by for over a decade, “Lal Pari Mastani”. The Lal Pari Mastani Show on Red FM is an extension of what I do on stage: play great live music, sing, perform, talk about topics that are close to my heart, interact with people and also curate a playlist of recorded music that I would like others to enjoy; and not the regular, everyday fare that you hear on the airwaves. To host your own show and do it well on radio does take a special blend of craft, talent and madness. I feel excited by the opportunity to interact with an audience in a brand new way, but I am not even trying to compete with the amazing RJs in their domain. My core is that of being an artist, live performer and possibly a social commentator, and that is what I will showcase on my show. I also have a style and fashion story playing out in parallel in this show, inspired by none other than Nisha Narayanan [COO, Red FM]. We both have a deep love for Indian handlooms, textiles and the sari. I will be showcasing a different one in each episode of The Lal Pari Mastani Show. I am known to be outspoken on matters that I feel passionately about, and with Red FM, I want to interact and co-create music, art and film with my audience. I’m keen to hear what people have to say. I also plan to get some interesting guests on the show and you will get to hear some live musical jams, some real-time music creation and many other moments of magic. I want to make my audience part of the creative process.
Q. The show would be all about stories of women and men talking about gender bias, sexism and other related issues. How do such discussions and stories help bring social change?
A. As I said earlier, I hope to engage with people and discuss issues that are close to my heart. Women’s rights is definitely one of them but not the only issue or topic we plan to showcase. I stand for women’s rights in the same way I stand for human rights in any case. The catalogue of inequities and misdeeds that have been committed on women isn’t something to be ignored as it carries on to this day, and therefore it is relevant for us to be having a conversation about these topics. I believe that women’s rights are at a flashpoint in the world today and that being a feminist is not just restricted to women. I know of many men who believe in the idea of equal opportunities for both genders, which is basically what the idea of feminism is about. I do believe strongly that conversations, discussions and debates are the bedrock of any progress in civilised society. The power of thought and provoking thoughts in others is what leads to a change in mindsets. I believe that it helps trigger and acts like a catalyst to every revolution.
Q. You are also working on a music project, of the same title Lal Pari Mastani. What was your thought process when you, along with music composer Ram Sampath [Mohapatra’s husband], were zeroing down on the music and lyrics for it? Also, is there any common theme that runs through the tracks of this project?
A. The core of this project emanates a free spirit, love and a need to be subversive and go beyond the obvious. It chooses to be layered in its storytelling. My heroes have always been India’s true-blue rockstars and harbingers of freedom and change. Be it Meera, Ameer Khusrau, Kabir or Bulleh Shah or even the poetess Andal in South India—these artists were creative forces that pushed the envelope beyond just beauty and entertainment. Lal Pari Mastani will also put out a lot of music and songs that have contemporary lyrics and original compositions, which have the same ambition and soul as the heroes I talk about.
Q. You have worked with Ram Sampath on many projects. How is your bonding as professionals? Is it any different when you work with your husband, as compared to when you work with other music composers and producers?
A. Ram and me run a production house and music label called “Omgrown Music”. It has been a decade of creating some of the most successful advertising campaigns like “Paas Aao” for Close Up, Airtel’s “Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai” , “Jo Tera Hai Wo Mera Hai” to Thums Up’s “Aaj Kuch Toofani Karte Hain” , Asian Paints, Maruti and Coke Jingles to name a few, among 1.000 more over the years. He is the music composer and I have played a very successful creative producer in this run, though I say so myself. Three seasons of the music on Satyamev Jayate, several feature films and the most successful episodes on the Coke Studio India chapter have been created by us working together as equal partners. So yes, I share a very broad working relationship with him that goes beyond singing for a song. I participate in the ideation, casting and delivery of these projects as well as tie up the all-important legal and logistics on them. I love working with him because he is possibly the finest conceptual creative minds in India, if not the world. He has a heart of gold, is generous to a fault and is as hard working as a truly successful professional can be. He composes, arranges, mixes and plays instruments; and also writes most of the key hooks and lyrics in each of his songs. Ram started his career at the age of 15 and put out albums like Colour Blind, Tanha Dil and Loveology with singer Shaan when he was all of 19… So working with such a prodigy, so to say, is my honour and I cannot count my blessings enough.
Q. You have spoken strongly about women’s rights. The recent #MeToo movement has caused quite a stir in the West and as a result, many women have spoken out about their experiences. But why do you think India hasn’t seen a similar movement up till now?
A. Unfortunately, I think we’re at a different point in our culture from the West. We too need to hold misogynists accountable for their actions but we also need to be wary of trivialising the issue of sexism. Hard evidence may be hard to find, but we should learn from the way the collective voice rose against someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein. So this is a battle that has to be fought collectively. I shared a #MeToo post on my page and received some really disgusting responses to the same. People insinuating that it was my fault or that I was saying such things for attention, so on and so forth. The environment in our society is not conducive to being open or calling out to such matters and we as a culture are more comfortable sweeping things under the carpet. I do believe things are changing towards more open expression though, and I count
Q. You started out in the music industry with advertising and received a lot of recognition for that. How do you look back at the time when you were singing for ad films?
A. I’m not really made for session singing, as I’m more into authenticity and storytelling in music rather than versatility and pure craft. I made a bigger mark in the advertising world as a producer, but advertising still made good use of my unique voice, especially Arun Iyer from Lowe [a creative agency], when he cast me as the voice for Surf Exel’s “Daag Achhe Hain” campaign as a voiceover. It gave way to several imitator campaigns using husky crackly voices. I loved that though because imitation is the best form of flattery. I’ve sung for numerous successful ad campaigns in the past.
Q. Is it difficult to keep the full-length album culture going in India? What do you think can be done to make music albums more popular in the country?
A. Our music companies need to get out of their slumber and actually try to create an indigenous scene of pop music. That means original creators—composers, lyricists, singer-songwriters— need to be protected and guided. They need to empower the scene rather than pander to the Bollywood producers. There is zero A&R [Artists and Repertoire] in the industry and the Indian audience appreciates good music of all kinds not just one flavour. The problem lies in the tastemakers and media, too, to a great extent. Film songs are hugely promoted and the audience is sadly deprived of the other colours of the spectrum. No society can thrive creatively with just one flavour and that is something we all have to think about and
Q. We don’t see you doing many songs for the Hindi film industry these days. Why so?
A. Due to my outspoken nature, most of the Hindi film industry is uncomfortable with my existence and my success, but the few allies I have are deeply connected to me. That’s all that matters to me. That apart, only nine to 10 songs in the 100 releases in the mainstream have space for a female voice. These are scary statistics but true. In a country where we couldn’t release a single soundtrack without the Mangeshkar sisters, we are slowly wiping out the feminine perspective in music. We are regressing more as we progress in this regard. Not only is this the ratio in terms of the mainstream airwaves, even the big music festivals like NH7 has no space for female performers… The same trend is reflected in big campuses like IIT Bombay and festivals like Mood Indigo [IIT Mumbai’s cultural festival]… We are ready to crown a brand new male superstar every two years and facilitate 1,000 releases for him. But it is not so for the artists in my gender. The same trend applies in reality shows. The judges are mostly men, the audience always votes for male winners. How many women Indian Idol winners can you remember in this decade?
Q What, apart from your radio show, have you been working on these days?
A. I am working on a very interesting project with my band. Sanket Sane, my band mate, is composing music for this one… Next is an ode to the dance music and folk music of Maharashtra. I believe our mainstream is saturated with Punjabi sounds and it is time that we take the music of other cultures mainstream. The first track is ready to be released next fortnight and is a “lavani reinvented”. The lavani is an art form in itself and apart from the reputation it has in the mainstream for being lyrically seductive, very few people know of the social taboos and other political messages the music of lavani has. I am also taking Lal Pari Mastani [her music project] on a multi-city concert tour with my band across India in the coming year. There is also a US tour in the pipeline. So a very busy year awaits me.