A rare breed
Indian singer Hariharan has tried virtually all genres of music, and won over loyal fans for each genre. He, however, would like to be known as a singer who made people happy. Archie Nair met him in Dubai
Photograph: Mohammed Rasheed
Hariharan once described himself as a rare breed. And why not? Ghazal moulded him, Indipop nurtured him and film songs made him — a celebrity, that is. Three genres, three signature statements and one man doing them all.
He recently celebrated his 50th birthday and the bash turned out to be a vintage Page 3 function with most Bollywood celebrities turning up. That is no surprise if you watch the man go about. So seemingly at peace with himself, he simply melts into a crowd, the only stand-out trait being his pony-tail.
It is a style statement that has given him an individuality which not many singers have been able to attain. He is not the average Indipop artist who needs scantily clad models to boost up his album sales. His music sells, without much ado.
One of the most successful teams ever seen in Indipop, the coming together of Hariharan and Leslie Lewis to form Colonial Cousins is now a landmark moment in contemporary Indian music’s annals. Even as Colonial Cousins readies to celebrate its tenth anniversary next year with an album, Hariharan has clinched a musical scoop: He has made ‘Destiny’ with Daler Mehndi.
The son of Carnatic classicist HAS Mani, who was among the first batch of students from the Swati Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram, Hariharan was initiated into music through his mother Alamelu. Learning Hindustani music under Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, he trained extensively on his Urdu diction. Awed by the soulful ghazal renditions of Mehdi Hassan, he took to the genre. A prize at a national level radio competition, and Hariharan had found the first footing to the world of fame.
Music director Jaidev signed him to sing a ghazal for the film Gaman, which fetched him a state award. Singing for television, cutting ghazal albums and playback singing in Hindi movies, Hariharan’s teaming up with composer AR Rahman fetched him more laurels. With Colonial Cousins, he had charted out a new turf: Fusion music. Most recently, he was honoured by the Indian government with the civilian honour, Padmashri.
Excerpts from a chat:
You have celebrated your 50th birthday recently. What is your learning from music and life?
You have to keep moving — in music. You have to keep innovating. Music is the same, the same sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa. But the lyrics, the presentation and the composition need subtle changes because each generation gets used to a sound. Earlier, a change would happen every 20 years but now trends change in two years. You must keep up with the change. You must keep your minds and ears open and practise your music but also listen to the world around you because everything is getting globalised. Music is becoming one, like the cultures of the world. Art is a reflection of the society and when the society gets global, art must also become global.
Has your career shaped up the way you wanted?
I don’t know how my career should have gone because I haven’t planned anything. But yes, I am happy at this moment in life. I am happy because I have done all genres of music with success be it film songs, ghazals, Indipop. I am identified and respected in each genre, and I have a profile in all (genres).
Among the three distinct genres, Indipop, ghazals and playback singing, which is your ideal comfort zone? Which genre would you like to be associated with your name in the long run?
I would like to be known as a singer who made people very happy, as one who gave them peace and nice memories. Luckily for me, I have got songs that people remember throughout their lives. Those songs are not as if they were a hit and then were gone out of memory.
You have worked with many different composers and on many songs. Can you sense whether a song will be a hit during its making?
I can sense whether a song is going to be good. With film songs, much depend on their picturisation and how the film fares at the box-office. These are things out of my control. But yes, surely, I can know if a song would be loved by the people.
Are there songs in your repertoire which you feel were not acknowledged enough?
Yes, of course. A lot of songs have not been recognised because the film did not do well or the songs weren’t well picturised.
We haven’t heard of Colonial Cousins of late…
We are completing a decade next year, and we would be bouncing back with a new album.
How different will it be?
It will be as different to how different we (Hariharan and Leslie Lewis) are now.
But how will you define your style now? You are into many genres…
See, you don’t plan these things. The album happens and you must learn to get it go and do things (out-of-the-box)…
You are a singer who is heard as well as seen (on television). Is performing, as in emoting on-screen, important to a singer?
Yes, it is very important to be noticed. And anyway if you are singing for a hero, why don’t you be the hero? (Hariharan did that by acting with Khushboo in a film)
Do you believe that singers must retire after a point in time?
Yes. I too will retire, whenever I feel that I ought to stop. But right now, I still sing well. I do practise and I am happy with my singing.