Interview Hindi

Grammy winner Tanvi Shah: You can't jump to the top, you have to work your way up

Tanvi Shah has been part of some stellar albums while being an innovative and experimental artiste herself. In a candid conversation, the singer speaks about the nature of music, her journey, and writing a Grammy-winning song.

Shriram Iyengar

Tanvi Shah never aimed to be a professional singer. "It was just a hobby," she says. But her success at this 'hobby' might be the envy of many.

Shah broke through with the song 'Fanaa' in Mani Ratnam's Yuva (2004), composed by AR Rahman. She went on to be part of the composer's Oscar-winning composition 'Jai Ho', writing and singing the Spanish version of the song that was part of the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2009). It won the Grammy award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture or Other Visual Media in 2004.

Since then, Shah has gone on to be part of multiple international collaborations and hit songs in a plethora of languages. In a conversation with, Tanvi Shah spoke about her keen ear for languages, her musical journey so far, and the secret to success. Excerpts:

So, what have you been up to?

I have been busy travelling. Shuffling between the US, UK, and India working on my EP. It's been busy, but I can't complain.

You won the Grammy [for the Spanish version of 'Jai Ho' from Slumdog Millionaire] and you were at the Grammys this year. How has the journey been so far?

I have always said that I am living my dream. And I am still living it. It has been a very good journey. Learning a lot. Experiencing a lot. Going to the Grammys, walking the red carpet again this year was amazing. There are so many new genres of music. There are so many new artists. And not just the usual ones, there are YouTube artists, Pentatonic, Moist Avenue. I was surprised to see all of them.

It's nice that they are noticing and appreciating these artists, and not just the high-end artists. It doesn't always have to be a Jay Z or a Beyonce.

You have sung an incredible number of songs for AR Rahman, from working on Yuva to singing in Cheliya, the Telugu version of Mani Ratnam's Kaatru Veliyidai (2017). How does it work with the composer? What is it like working with him in the studio?

It is an amazing experience. It is a lovely experience. I always come out learning something new. He is one person who always encourages you. He always lets you sing and use any crazy ideas you have. You never know what he is going to use, or what he is going to delete, or add. But at the end of it, it sounds so brilliant. It is amazing.

Although you made your singing debut with 'Fanaa' in Mani Ratnam's Yuva, you graduated with Fine Arts and Ceramics designing. What led you to singing?

Singing was just a hobby for me. I am actually a creative designer, and do a lot of interior and jewellery designing. Singing was just a hobby, you know, a bathroom singer kind of thing, and AR changed my life. There was no looking back. I am one of those lucky people that my hobby has become my profession.

Of course, dedication and discipline helps.

You have sung in various languages. Were you always interested in different languages, or was that just the occupational hazard of being a singer?

See, as a singer you have to be versatile. You have to be able to sing in any language. You see Sadhana Sargamji, Shreya [Ghoshal] or Udit sir [Udit Narayan] sing in different languages. Udit sir sings in Tamil, Telugu. It's always that need for versatility.

When you have variety, people like it more. So, me singing in Spanish and all was just out of sheer interest.

I like watching people, the way they pronounce their words. I love seeing their facial expressions. When I was studying at George Washington University [in the USA], I got to spend time with all these international students. I had this Colombian roommate and an Egyptian roommate. I used to go out and attend their festivals, their functions, you pick up their styles and music.

I guess that's the reason why I have a thing for all these other languages.

Music is universal. Why does it always have to be [straitjacketed]? Who is gonna stop me from singing in Spanish today, or tomorrow in Portuguese or even Hebrew or Croatian?

Indian film music and the alternative music scene have evolved greatly. You can see a variety of influences that were not there in the past. How do you view this?

It is really nice that all these languages are coming in. It makes more sense. Even that song, Senorita, you have people coming in and mixing languages and music. It is really nice that all these genres are coming together because if you are going to stay in a cocoon, how are you going to learn about what is outside?

In today's social media world, everyone wants something new. Every minute they want something new. If you do something new, they are going to appreciate it.

Imagine, you have only seven notes and the number of songs which are coming out till date, the number of songs you can create is amazing.

Going back to your Grammy, you won it for writing the lyrics for 'Jai Ho' in Spanish. How did Gulzar saheb [the original lyricist] take that? Did he help you out on the translation?

Oh, he was there in the studio. But it was not a translation. I worked on a Spanish version for the song. It came in a little later. We just wrote the lyrics as it were. The song was about freedom and happiness and rejoicing.

Normally, when you have someone like Gulzar saheb sitting in front of you, you cannot open your mouth. It's not that he doesn't like it. He is a very nice man. But you are, like, let's watch him create.

It was a totally different experience. As I said, I am really blessed that I get to work with such people. Even meeting them and being in the same room is such a big thing. You know he is such a good poet. For him, even when he talks, poetry flows. The amount of years he has spent writing, kudos to him.

It is not just him though. You have been part of quite a few international projects. You have worked with JHawk and Gustavo Alarcon on a song. How is working with international musicians? How does the chemistry work?

Well, Indian music is getting to that standard. Working with international artistes like JHawk, Snoop Dogg, and all of them is quite an experience. Out there, they want to come and talk to you first. They want to know about your culture and music. In the beginning, the only Indian music they knew was Bhangra, and sitar and tabla.

Things have changed. With 'Jai Ho', and a number of other musicians travelling, they have started looking at different genres, and looking at different rhythms that we have. So, if there is no chemistry, they won't usually be interested in working with you. It is a very different kind of scenario in totality over there.

How does a singer stand out in such competition, both in India and abroad?

In my opinion, you have to work hard to survive. If you are dedicated, and you have the discipline. I don't think anything can deter your journey.

It also depends on luck. Being in the right place at the right time, taking up the right kind of work. But what I think is right might be wrong for you.

One thing I have to say is that you can't slack off. You can't jump to the top immediately. You have to go from the first step of the ladder to the next one. The jump happens with one-in-a-million people.

Which soundtrack in recent years remains memorable for you?

The Delhi-6 (2009) soundtrack really stood out for me on a personal level as well. I got to be a part of it. The song 'Rehna Tu' in particular is on another level. If you believe in spirituality, it takes you into another zone altogether.

The Gladiator (2000) soundtrack is something I love. It is sung by Lisa Gerrard, and it's gibberish. But that's exactly what I am trying to say. The entire song is not a language. But she has sung it brilliantly, and people get goosebumps when they listen to it.

No language, no caste, no religion will change the fact that music is universal.

Considering so many things happening, international projects, writing songs, different languages, how do you de-stress?

Stress would be a wrong word. The more you use that word, [the more] you get stressed. If I am juggling too many things, I go surfing or I just chill.

Are you working on any interesting projects currently?

I am working on my EP. I've been doing that for the last six months. That's why I have been shuffling between the US, UK, and India. We have been writing a couple of songs and taking instances from parts of my life into the song.

The main thing is using different genres and different rhythms. Who knows? If I get down to it, maybe a couple of other languages as well. As of now it is a pre-Diwali release.