When Kundhavai (Trisha) and Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) meet on a boat for the first time in Ponniyin Selvan 1, not many words are exchanged. Everything that has to be said is conveyed through a small glimpse of the magical ‘Aga Naga’ that plays out in the background score. As the beautiful meet-cute scene and its music went viral following its release, fans thought that they had heard the last of the song. But as we know now, the single will get a full version in the film’s upcoming sequel.
While we wait to witness more magic from the Ratnam-Rahman duo this evening, we catch up with the magnetic voice behind ‘Aga Naga’: singer Shakthisree Gopalan. “After seeing how people raved about the score, it was tough to keep my lips sealed that there was a full version of the song slated for the sequel.”
Edited Excerpts Below:
What was Rahman’s brief about the song?
I was told that it was for the Chola Princess Kundhavai. Andha lyrics varnikurathulaye iruku (The brief was there in the way the lyrics describe the emotions). The spirit of the song is more than apparent in the way it was composed and in the lyrics. But the most important point in the brief was the fact that there was a spirit of royalty and regality. There is a larger-than-life feel but there is also a sort of elegance that is royal in nature.
Was the full version composed after the song went viral?
Even before the release of Ponniyin Selvan 1, we had recorded ‘Aga Naga’ for the sequel. Surprisingly, Rahman sir placed a small portion of it in the backdrop and it came at a very beautiful moment in the film. To see how people reacted to it was… romba arpudhama irundhuchu (it was wonderful) and I didn’t expect it to go super viral. So, I was keeping my lips sealed all these months.
So, how was it recording the song for the second time, that too for multiple languages?
It was a huge blessing to be able to do that rendition. As an artist, this is what you live for; it is like the fodder that feeds your soul. The second time I sang the song, it was already viral. So, I was like “#nopressure”. But more than that, it was like going into the bubble of what music and Rahman sir meant to me. I feel that took precedence over whether there was an expectation or not.
I sang the full version in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. And for the small background score in the first part, I sang all the languages back to back. Every language has its own sonic aesthetic and it was exciting to see how the word feels and sounds when you switch from one language to another.
It’s been a decade since you got your big breakthrough under Rahman’s composition, ‘Nenjukulle’ from Kadal. You have come a long way since then.
For a kid, who grew up in Mattancherry, Kochi, this is unimaginable. So, even today, it feels super surreal. But over the years, I have learnt that it is one thing to dream of becoming an artist, and it is another thing when it happens for real. Because once you are on that path, you have to do a lot of things. You keep practising and training. And for a singer, your body is an instrument and you have to take care of it daily. You also keep hopping from one city to another. But what makes it worthwhile is thinking about why I started doing this in the first place. And that for me is my love for music.
Besides having a successful singing career, you are also an architect. How has music helped you in architecture and vice versa?
It is an exciting intersection of two worlds that endlessly fascinate me: sound and space. I designed Rahman sir’s music school KM Music Conservatory and it was a dream project to work on. I also designed the live recording suite at Rahman sir’s studio; it is the place where they mostly record strings, guitars and some vocals. I have also designed a few other studios. The acoustic problem-solving we had to do while designing such places is wonderful. This, I feel, is my jam, where sound and space interact. In fact, through the last year, I have been working on an immersive interactive audio installation.
Can you tell us more about that?
So, I collaborated with Leo, a technologist from Sweden and we launched the very first instance of the immersive audio experience in Bangalore for the Under25 Summit this year. We call it “Sound Garden”. A lot of times, we experience sound in a unidirectional way like we sit and listen to a concert or watch a movie. Seldom do we get to move around the space and play with sounds. So this installation is just about that, it is like a deconstructed instrument. You move around the space and play with glowing light orbs and every time you touch one, it triggers an audio sample. It is not just about space and sound, but also the human interaction quotient right? So, as you move through the space, you interact and engage with sound, you are also affecting the sound and it is a communal experience.
You have been on a roll this year. You also did your first public performance in New York and recorded the ‘Ninaivirukka’ song (Pathu Thala) promotional video with AR Rahman.
Yeah (laughs). I performed at an industry showcase earlier this year. Then my friend Rini (Harini) and I collaborated and launched the song ‘Magizhini’. The song is about enjoying the comforts and the cosy feeling, which we usually overlook in the everyday hustle and bustle. Even musically, the song goes back and forth between busy and chill-out compositions. We launched it in January. And soon, I did my first solo live performance in New York.
Later, I came to Chennai to record the music video for Pathu Thala, which was a whole awesome experience. Soon after, I did the Sound Garden installation, and now, of course, Ponniyin Selvan. There is more to come, including my first EP, which has a whole bunch of songs I have been working on. So, yes, it’s been an exciting year.
How are you juggling music between New York and India?
I moved to New York to pursue my Masters in Music at Berklee College of Music. Everyone around me knows what going to a music school meant to me, it’s like that one dream I kept polambifying (ranting) about. I got to meet several amazing people around the world. After the course, I have now started performing in the city. But even when I was studying, a lot of projects happened remotely.
For instance, I sang ‘Tupathu’ in Thallumaala (2020) when I was in New York and we did the session over Zoom. Similarly, when I dubbed for Shraddha Srinath in Maara (2021), I was in Chennai but it was during the Covid lockdown and we did it remotely. I have not met the director to date. So, it doesn’t matter whether you are in Uganda or Chennai, remote is remote. I shuttle between New York and India for mostly live gigs and some shoots. But it is nice that I have a band in New York and another one in Chennai. So, I collaborate with different people whenever I am in either of the cities. It is nice to have two home bases or maybe three, if I also consider Kochi. I know with all these, there is sleeplessness and it can be tiring, but the journey has been very exciting and I am curious to see what’s ahead.