How singer Shashaa Tirupati’s dream to work with AR Rahman came true.
In 2011, just as she was finding her feet as a singer in Bollywood, one of the top singers of the time told her she had a bad voice and that she couldn’t do playback. His words left her so devastated that she stopped singing.
It was only after a three-year hiatus that Shashaa Tirupati got back to music and Mumbai. She had hoped that she would someday be good enough to work with music maestro AR Rahman. But she had never imagined it would be the man himself who would bring her back to music, giving her the break she had so desired.
The ‘Humma Humma’ girl as she is known, Shashaa chased her dreams with all sincerity, thousands of miles away from her family, and the time when she almost gave up, her hard work and talent came good. And that is the most important lesson for us all: find out where your passion lies and leave no stone unturned to work towards it because dreams do come true.
Born in Kashmir, Shashaa grew up in Canada with two younger siblings. Her childhood revolved around ice skating, swimming, girl scouts, volunteer work, and student clubs besides music and academics. Since her parents were musically inclined she was encouraged to sing and perform for charitable organisations.
Shashaa started training in music from the age of eight from Allahabad. From 1996 to 2001, she kept shuttling between Canada and Allahabad juggling music and academics. She was a top student and eventually scored the highest marks in the province in grade 12 which fetched her seven scholarships in the university. “I began teaching music on the side along with studying towards a degree in molecular biology and biochemistry,” she says.
But it was the music of the movie Guru that changed her life, and she dropped out of her pre-medical studies. “I played the two songs ‘Tere Bina Besuadi’ and ‘Jaagey Hain Der Tak’ on a loop on my Windows Media Player for six months.” Multiple things triggered this—the time, her age (she was 17 then), the romanticism of the music, and of course, her hormones in overdrive. “I wondered if I would have as much fun operating on someone as a neurosurgeon as I did enjoying music and preparing myself to work with Rahman sir, and I was like no way.”
Driven by her dreams, she packed her bags and, much to her parents’ trepidation, moved to Mumbai in 2007. Completely alone, she participated in reality shows, sang jingles, and became a voice-over artist. Between 2007 and 2011 she made multiple trips back home since she was unwell and undergoing treatment. These trips cemented her belief in herself because, as she says, “Hearing my parents tell me to leave it all and come back home helped me get back and go at it with a vengeance all over again.” By 2011 she was better and decided to stay on in Mumbai.
That was the year she stopped singing. In hindsight, Shashaa calls it a “blessing in disguise,” because it was during the hiatus that she ventured into music direction and production along with composer Tanishk Bagchi. “During this time I also discovered the songwriter in me.”
In 2013, AR Rahman was auditioning for Coke Studio. Calling time on her self-imposed ban, Shashaa pulled out her tanpura and set out to fulfil the dream that had brought her to India.
“What came out was a hoarse voice and that worried me. This was just a week before the audition. I started rehearsing and cut short all my assignments.” Rahman heard her recording and asked his team to make a note of it. Shashaa recalls how when the practice started and she was standing with the choir at one of the stages, the man turned to the choir and asked who Shashaa was.
"My knees were shaking—I was so scared he hated my singing that I was scared to identify myself. Eventually when I raised my hand he looked at me and walked away without reacting. The next day I mustered all my courage and approached him, thinking it was now or never. With weak knees and a sinking heart I said, 'Sir you asked about me yesterday; was my singing so bad?' To which he replied, 'Your voice sounds like a duduk, an Armenian double-reed woodwind flute.'"
That was the most wonderful moment of her life. She says, “He made me confident, showed me avenues I hadn’t thought of, and was a good teacher. I would jump in front of a railway track for him.”
Shortly after this, Rahman asked her to sing a song called ‘Vada Vada’ for the movie Kochadaiiyaan, and she hasn’t looked back since. The floodgates had opened and Shashaa went on to sing in multiple languages including Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Arabic, and English.
“Singing in 10 languages has been a bonus. I've been blessed to work with AR Rahman sir, Ilayaraja, Harris Jayaraj, and Mithoon, among others. Humbling, thought-provoking, didactic, and mostly, nerve-wracking! The amount of knowledge, endless creativity, and capabilities these composers emit, their drive and passion, their love for their work, their respect for the arts and musicians playing for them—it’s all worthy of being soaked in and applied in our lives. I try to imbibe and reflect the same.”
The music and film industries do not follow any schedules, and neither do they offer job security. One has to learn to ride the wave of lean and peak periods of work, and this was something Shashaa picked up early on.
While having had to fend for herself in Mumbai made her thrifty—she would eat vada pav from the shop that sold it for Rs 3 instead of Rs 6 and watch the auto meter carefully so that she could get off when it hit Rs 9 so she wouldn’t have to cough up Rs 11—Shashaa has always understood the value of hard work and money. “I wanted to make my parents proud and I did not want them to support me financially since I have been earning from my teenage years.”
Even today Shashaa values time and money and on the days she doesn’t have work or recordings she reaches out to people who want to use her voice for something interesting but can’t pay her for it. “I go and sing, or record for them without a fee because I understand what they are going through and I do what I can.”
As I pen this story I listen to Shashaa’s recent hit number ‘Humma Humma’ from the movie OK Jaanu. Tapping my foot to the beat, I ask Shashaa how the experience was. She says, "Singing AR Rahman’s song recreated was beyond surreal. It was very interesting for me as well that in an originally male song I finally got to do my thing and give it a feminine perspective.”
Shashaa is also excited about her recent number ‘Baarish’ from the soon-to-be-released Half Girlfriend. This is her second album for Shraddha Kapoor. My second song in the same film is the promotional song, ‘Main Phir Bhi Tumko Chahunga’, with Arijit Singh.
“I feel blessed for every not-so-favourable experience that came my way, which I look at as stepping stones and lessons towards whatever little I've achieved till date. I've realised far more than I ever thought I was capable of, but then again, I've not even begun! God has been utterly kind and my parents and brothers are my greatest critics and support system.”
While she dreams about singing a song with AR Rahman, she still believes that there is only one song, from the movie Guru, that describes her: