A petite lady stands with a group of burly, bearded men in heavy-metal t-shirts and dark sunglasses. They’re standing in a circle and the men are performing a rock ballad. Then the antara begins: “Hum bhi toh hai iss jahaan mein, pal bhar sahi teri dastaan mein” (We’re also a part of your realm, even if only with a fleeting appearance in your story). Shilpa Rao’s glassy vocals with a ghazal inflection alongside Mohan Kannan’s bassy and Nitin Malik’s (of Parikrama) thin front-man vocals are not an intuitive fit, yet “I Believe” from the first season of The Dewarists remains a standout performance. With just two excellently sung lines, Rao grounds the song.
Shilpa Rao has been a fluid presence in Bollywood for over 17 years, building an impressive body of work as a playback singer. She’s also collaborated with an eclectic group of artists to establish a brand that’s almost become a ISI mark for listeners: If Shilpa Rao features in a song, it has to be good. Last year, she could be heard in In Laal Singh Chaddha’s “Tere Hawaale” (with Arijit Singh) and in Pathaan’s “Besharam Rang”, Rao’s vocals arguably smoulder more than Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan’s on-screen avatars, especially the way she delivers the line, “Nasha jo shareefi ka utaar phenka hai (We’ve gotten rid of the pretense of nobility).” Pathaan marks Rao’s fifth collaboration with director Siddharth Anand and music directors Vishal-Sheykhar, especially after the enormous success of “Ghungroo” in War (2019).
Born into a Jamshedpur household where Begum Akhtar and Ustad Amir Khan would play on most days, Rao doesn’t remember a life without music. Her parents’ first date was a Jagjit Singh concert. “Their appreciation for music was always common ground. And it wasn’t so much of the popular music, but the fundamentals of music,” said Rao. What she thought was a “normal” household, was, in fact, rather special. “The things we talk about today: Unlearning or overcoming conditioning, was something both me and my brother (Anurag Rao) were taught. Marks weren’t the most important thing, our happiness was,” she recalled.
When Rao was 13, she met singer Hariharan and was encouraged by the veteran to move to Mumbai to pursue singing. Around the same time, she began learning from Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. Rao won a national talent hunt when she was around 17 and one of the judges, singer and composer Shankar Mahadevan put her in touch with a few composers of ad jingles. Studying Statistics in St. Xaviers, Rao remembers being told she was a misfit for mainstream Hindi cinema. “I was told ‘you have a very nice voice, but we don’t know what to do with it’,” she said.
Years later, she’d prove with songs like “Bulleya” from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), that her voice can appear halfway into a song — “Yeh dil toh dhoondta hai inkaar ke bahaane, lekin yeh jism koi paabandiya na maane” (The heart tries to make excuses, but the body refuses to listen) – and elevate the composition to a new level.
Rao got her big break with composer Mithoon’s “Tose Naina Laage” in Anwar (2007). That year, she also sang Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s “Saiyaan Re” in Salaam-E-Ishq (2007) and “Woh Ajnabee”, by Mithoon, in The Train (2007). Rao’s ‘unconventional’ voice was now fit for a heroine and in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), she became Deepika Padukone’s voice with “Khuda Jaane”. “I always give a lot of credit to Sunidhi Chauhan,” said Rao, “because she was a game-changer. I think Sunidhi, KK and Sukhwinder Singh, who came a few years before I did, had started changing the scene, which made it easier for singers like me to fit in.”
With Hindi cinema soundtracks demanding sweetness of a female singer (think of Alka Yagnik’s voice), the ones who didn’t fit this template – like Richa Sharma, Jaspinder Narula, Ila Arun, Usha Uthup and others – usually got one odd song on a mainstream album. When Rao entered the Hindi film industry, the role of women in mainstream Hindi cinema was changing and the likes of Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma were laying the groundwork for female-led films. Rao pointed out that the shifting preferences mirrored the past. “If you go back 60 years, you’ll find artists like Begum Akhtarji, Madam Noor Jehan, Edith Piaf or Ella Fitzgerald – all of them had very strong voices,” she said.
Rao has had her share of hit songs, but she isn’t as prolific as contemporary greats of playback singing, like Shreya Ghoshal or Sunidhi Chauhan. Was she intimidated by the idea of competing for the same jobs as Ghoshal or Chauhan? “I think my thought process was always: Ignorance is bliss. I had no idea. I would show up in front of a mic, and do my thing,” she said. Her priority is getting at least 10 hours of sleep each day. “In the remaining 12-14 hours, it’s hard to be bothered about how people are thinking. This ‘inner peace’ probably stems from my parents never giving a lot of weight to material success. They prioritised what one wanted to do on their own terms,” Rao said.
Time and again in our conversation, Rao said she’s in it for the “long haul”. Over the years, she’s spread her wings outside the Hindi film industry, collaborating with excellent indie musicians, including Pakistani duo Noori. So far, she’s the only Indian artist to have sung for Coke Studio Pakistan. “I remember Noori had come down to Delhi for a concert in 2016. We were jamming on a couple of songs at someone’s home, and they told me I had to come and sing for Coke Studio. It all happened really fast. I guess it was destiny,” remembered Rao. Coming in around the five-minute mark in “Paar Chanaa De” (Coke Studio S09) – a folk song set around the tragic love story of Sohni Mahiwal – Rao’s voice is a perfect foil to the rough, grungy voices of Ali Hamza and Ali Noor. The song culminates into a memorable climax as Rao’s improvisations of “Ghadeya” undercut Noor’s gravelly vocals singing “Tainu Paar Laga Ve”.
When asked how she chooses her collaborators, Rao said, “I don’t believe in calling anyone a ‘lesser-known’ artist. If the song speaks to me – that’s it! I will collaborate with them.” Rao recorded a cover of Adi+Suhail’s “Zindagi” with the duo in 2015, and more recently collaborated with Delhi-based The Yellow Diary, for a song called “Roz Roz” in 2020. In the same year, Rao collaborated with Anoushka Shankar on her album Love Letters, and won her maiden Grammy nomination for Best Global Music Album.
Rao, who’s delivered hit songs like “Manmarziyaan” (in Lootera, 2013) and “Malang” (in Dhoom 3, 2013), feels wary about the instant fame that can come with social media. “I’m afraid that kids nowadays are missing the thrill and the satisfaction of discovering their voice, these days music has become about how many people it’s reaching etc,” she said. It’s not like she isn’t on social media – Rao has more than half a million followers on Instagram and close to 300k subscribers on her YouTube channel – but she realises the limitations of social media. “It’s a bridge to reach the people who follow my work. Social media allows me to have a conversation with those who listen to my music, and see their feedback,” Rao said.
She concurred with what the legendary singer and Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan said in a recent interview,about how the “pain” of listening to music had been taken away from listeners. “I come from a generation where you had to save money to buy an album. You had to physically write down lyrics of a song, based on what you heard. Your senses were all the more heightened while listening to a piece of music,” Rao said. “The coming generation won’t know the pleasure of lighting a candle, and hearing an entire album cover to cover. The beauty of rewinding a song to go back to your favourite portion in it.”
Rao may not be neck-deep in assignments, but she isn’t complaining. “I’ve always been happy with the work. It could be someone new, or someone established. I’m not biased. I listen to everything with an open mind. If I connect with a song, I do it,” she said. “Music is music is music. I don’t think you can compartmentalise it. Once you’re in the studio, there’s no such thing as less or more work.”
With nearly two decades of experience to her name, Rao has been around long enough to know the ups and downs of the ride. She wants to savour the highs, but without getting hung up on them. “My love for music is the only cushion I’ve had in an otherwise uncertain world. There could be people surrounding me today, or I could be by myself tomorrow, it’s only music that remains.”