We all know Vasundhara Das. The multi-lingual, mulit-talented, multi-faceted singer and actress from Bangalore who made it big. You might know her for her popular songs, like Shakalaka Baby, O Re Chori, It’s The Time To Disco, Chale Jaise Hawaayein, (to name a few). You might even know her for her gripping performances in Hey Ram, Monsoon Wedding, and Ravana Prabhu. If you are lucky, you may have even been a participant in Bangalore’s Community ‘Drumjam’ along with hundreds of others on a relaxed Sunday afternoon with her co-facilitating it along with her husband Roberto Narain.
Beautiful and vivacious as ever, the singer-actress has very authentic and practical views on the current issues pertaining to the entertainment industry, in India as well as abroad. Read on.Q You have worked as a singer and an actress in a wide mix of industries, ranging from Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam and so on and so forth. Could you tell us how the work culture varies between the industries, and maybe what they could learn from each other. A Yes, I’ve worked as an actress in Tamil, English, Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada films and as a singer in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Marathi films. My journey through these experiences has been very interesting. I’m a firm believer that the work culture differs from production to production, and, while there may be good and bad practices everywhere, I’m nobody to be presumptuous and tell anyone what to learn from someone else.
While I have had experiences where I had a bound script prior to shooting and an entire film was shot in less than a month, at the same time, I’ve also had experiences shooting a film where I’d be on set, in make-up with the entire crew on standby while the script for the day is still in the process of being written. It depends on the director of that particular film and his/her approach. Regarding the difference, I would like to say, that most south Indian productions believe that time is of the essence. However, it is very difficult to generalise.
In Hey Ram, I was cast three days before we went on the floor to shoot. My director Mr. Kamala Haasan was very thorough and everything from costumes to set design to make-up (or lack of it in my case), was completely true to the period in which the story was set. Every piece of furniture and every piece of clothing that I wore was from the said time period. Just entering the set would transport you to a different time.
In Monsoon Wedding, we were all cast and called to rehearse block scenes and do costume and makeup/hair trials in Delhi for 15 days before we started to shoot. Each scene was blocked in rehearsal and then when we got to the set, we rehearsed it there, and then on the day of the shoot, we were more than ready. In this process, we got to know each other well and the style of shooting was a little different, where entire scenes were shot with minimal cuts. This meant that we were expected to be in character all day until the shoot wrapped up for the day.
In Ravana Prabhu, I needed to learn pages and pages of dialogues in a language I didn’t know how to speak. And being a strong female character in the film, there were many pages to learn. The crew and the director were super efficient and wrapped up the film in less than a month. Therefore, it is very evident that each film was approached differently, depending on the outlook of the director. Similar is the case of a recording as a singer. It all really depends on the style of working of the music composer and also a lot depends on your vibe with them.Q You started your career as a singer and then entered into acting. Was it a gradual progression? Or did you have your mind set on acting from the very beginning? A There was nothing gradual about how my career began. I have been a student of music since the age of 6. I envisioned a career in music for myself since before I can remember. But after I completed my bachelors degree in Mathematics, Statistics and Economics, when I left home to explore my possibilities, I signed my first recording contract with a record label and also signed my first film as a lead actress in the matter of the first two weeks of my exploration. I met AR Rahman while I was recording my debut album and recorded my first song as a ‘playback’ singer while I was shooting my first film. Acting had never been part of my plan until I met Kamal Haasan and auditioned for Hey Ram. I had never even been in a school play before my first day at the shoot. So in reality, from being a student, I jumped in the matter of a couple of weeks to having three careers – Indie singer-songwriter, playback singer & actress. Q Could you tell us a little about the philosophy behind DRUMJAM. A As a musician, your journey is mostly internal. Its all about you, your instrument (in my case – my voice), your practice, your teacher, your audience. But what if it can amount to more than that? What if YOU can amount to more than that?
When we perform, we expose our spirit. But what if we could SHARE our musical spirit?
The answer is that it is indeed possible. It is possible to share ones musicality and spirit with those who don’t necessarily have the gift of music in their lives. By this, I mean those who may never have touched or played an instrument in their lives, or those who think that they are not musical.
DRUMJAM is a company started over 10 years ago by my husband Roberto Narain and myself, to bring the joys of spontaneous and in-the-moment interactive drumming and music-making to people. We trained for years under our teacher and founder of the modern drum circle movement, Arthur Hull, and have brought the joys of interactive drumming and spontaneous music-making to over half a million people in India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia and the Middle East.
At Drumjam, while a lot of our work focuses on corporates and their various HR goals, we also run a community program in Bangalore on the third Sunday of every month where anyone, of any age or ability level, from any social or economic background, can come and spend two hours drumming with their friends or family or just drum their worries away. The main philosophy behind Drumjam is “The Rhythm Is In You!”.Q Being an acclaimed singer, showered with many accolades, what do you believe is the correct course for the music Industry in India to now embark upon. A This is a very complicated scenario. To answer this question, I think its important to first understand how different the music industry in India is when compared to other parts of the world. Elsewhere in the world, the music industry is about Musicians. Singers, Songwriters, Composers, Producers (music producers who are very different to our film producers). The rights to the music lie with the creators of the work. The supporting industry in this case is the Video industry.
Here it is the opposite. When we look at the numbers, the main industry is the film industry and the music industry is a supporting industry. Here, the music is simply one of the main tools used to market films and bring audiences into the theaters but seldom does it get its due and seldom do the creators of these musical works even own the rights to their work. For a very long time, some illegal vigilance bodies were collecting money on behalf of creators of musical works (lyricists, composers, performers) but never passing them on to the right people, filling their own pockets in the process. So while musicians around the world could enjoy the benefits of a ‘hit’ song by earning off of their royalties for many years, musicians in our country led very different lives.
We are now at a point where we are all part of associations and are fighting to own and perform musical works that we have created in part or in full. So I’d say we now are on the right track now. We are standing up for ourselves (in the context of the popular Indian music industry).
In the context of the Independent Music Industry, technology has made it possible to easily produce and record original works of music. Also, because of technology, the world is your market and where your music reaches depends equally on luck, timing, innovative strategy and how deep your pockets. All boiling down to how well you can promote yourself. The work of an entire industry now rests on the shoulders of the creator alone. And all this for what? For your audience to listen to you on a streaming site which claims to pay its musicians but a minuscule fraction of what they earn off of your creativity.
What you end up earning from this is not really anything when you compare it to how much you put into making the song/work in the first place. We now live in a world where the overall value of music has been reduced to almost nothing. This scenario became inevitable ever since we started seeing advertisements for mobile phones which promised to give 50,000 songs for free alongwith the sale of the mobile phone. 50,000 songs for free? Do they realise what it takes to make ONE song? A lifetime of dedication to your art. A lifetime of practice, sacrifice and patience. These are very challenging times for the world of music and there is very little clarity about the road forward. Not only in India, but worldwide.Q What are your upcoming projects that we can look forward to? A At this time, I continue to enjoy my journey as a musician through my performances – whether it is mainstream film music or the different projects I’m part of (Eg: The Shah Hussain Project, a Latin based music project and through my recordings as a playback singer; and my journey as a Drum Circle Facilitator sharing my rhythmical and musical spirit with people from all walks of life.
Here’s a snippet from her 2001 album:
To find out more about #VasundharaDas, you could check out her social media: