Shilpa Rao is seldom heard in Hindi films these days. The 35-year-old singer is responsible for such gems as Javeda Zindagi (Anwar, 2007), Ek Lau (Aamir, 2008), Khuda Jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno, 2008), Manmarziyan (Lootera, 2013), and the duet version of the April 17 release Kalank’s title track, co-performed by Arijit Singh.

A singer of her calibre, who carved out her own space in a decade where Sunidhi Chauhan and Shreya Ghoshal ruled supreme, is sorely missed. What has kept her away, Rao told, is a mix of circumstance and choice.

“Most albums these days predominantly feature male voices,” she said. “In the ’90s, you had duets or male-female versions of a song. Then, women started getting item numbers. But now, it’s not equally divided. We need more solo female songs. There’s so much talk in the UK and US about female representation, and movements in Saudi Arabia about women’s right to driving, why can’t we bring about that change in the industry?”

Kalank (2019) title track by Arijit Singh and Shilpa Rao.

The second reason, Rao said, is her focus on quality over quantity. Rao had four songs in 2018; two in Jalebi and one each in Hichki and Helicopter Eela (“Of course, they didn’t catch the eye”). In 2017, she had none, and in 2016, she had two songs in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. One was her rendition of the nazm Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo. The other was Bulleya, where she only sang one verse.

“Does me singing a few lines or many lines matter?” Rao wondered. “In Bulleya, if you remove my lines, the song is incomplete. The song is about the relationship between the two individuals, and the song makes sense, only when the female part is in. If you take Beyonce’s two lines out of Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend, does the song stand? I don’t see the point of singing 10 songs a year and them not working in any way. I’d rather sing one antara in a year, but that should stick.”

Bulleya by Amit Mishra and Shilpa Rao, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016).

This year, Rao will be heard in a number of songs that were recorded in 2018. “You will hear me in new styles that I haven’t done before.”

Trained in Indian classical singing by her father, S Venkat Rao, and ghazals by Hariharan, Rao counts Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and British singers Sting and Sade among her inspirations. “I listen to any music that I like listening to,” Rao said. “I enjoy trip-hop like Zero 7 or funk like Jamiroquai alongside [sitarist] Nikhil Banerjee or Mehdi Hassan.”

Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo by Shilpa Rao, live at Jashn-e-Rekhta edition four, 2017.

We got Rao to take us through the key songs of her playback singing career, which, coincidentally, includes three compositions by Amit Trivedi.

Javeda Zindagi, Anwar (2007).
It’s a simple song, and by simple, I don’t mean a straightforward tune, but the simplicity is in not trying too hard. It has a very simple message. The words [by Hasan Kamal] are nonchalant. Any human being can connect with the song on so many levels. I did not know it would become big, and even today, when I perform it live, people sing along to it and know every word.

My approach to singing a song isn’t based on assuming how big it can get. If I like or connect to the tune, I sing it. I was 21-22 and studying in college when I sang Javeda Zindagi. Mithoon [the composer] was just as young. One thing I can say about him is that all he cares about is making a good tune. He isn’t here to impress anyone. He likes to compose heart-touching melodies, and that is his forte.”

Javeda Zindagi by Shilpa Rao and Kshitij Tarey, Anwar (2007).

Ek Lau, Aamir (2008).
“Singing Ek Lau was like being left in the desert. There’s no much to hide behind. The emotions are naked and in your face. You have to emote the words well, and the song doesn’t have any elaborate production. It was difficult, yes, but it was beautiful. Also, it was my first song with Amitabh [Bhattacharya]. I was recently having a chat with him about how far we have come from Ek Lau to Kalank. This song will always be special, for the simplicity and power of its words.”

Ek Lau by Shilpa Rao and Amitabh Bhattacharya, Aamir (2008).

Dhol Yaara Dhol, Dev. D (2009).
“This was the first song I did with Amit Trivedi, but it came after Ek Lau. Dhol Yaara Dhol wasn’t originally made for Dev.D. I met Anurag [Kashyap] when he was writing Dev.D. I knew him from the time he was doing Gulaal. He said he wanted a composer for the film, and I said I have a song ready, and maybe, you would want to check Amit out. So, Dhol Yaara Dhol became the first song for the film. It’s one of my favourites because, again, it’s simple. Just this folk-ish song that takes you back to your childhood.”

Dhol Yaara Dhol by Shilpa Rao, Kshitij Tarey, Dev.D (2009).

Khuda Jaane, Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008).
“I was very intimidated when I first heard the song. It is a very difficult song and I did not know how to approach it. Its whole graph is challenging. The biggest effort to sound effortless in all songs is the effort you put in all the back-end work. In Khuda Jaane, my voice has to hit the lower octaves and then higher octaves with no space to breathe between the words. I have to give it to Vishal-Shekhar for seeing me in that light. It’s a perfect combo of good melody, vocals, and picturisation. There are few songs where everything comes together. It’s a great feeling that people remember the song so well till now.”

Khuda Jaane by KK and Shilpa Rao, Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008).

Manmarziyan, Lootera (2013).
“A very, very beautiful song. Again, the three of us – me, Amit and Amitabh – working. We know each other’s mind and musicianship, so there wasn’t much to explain. In fact, this song has the shortest dub I have ever done. I recorded it in barely 30 minutes. It’s a great song today, but at the time of recording, I don’t realise or have that in mind. And anyway, once I finish a song, it’s in public domain and not mine. It’s never mine to begin with. My involvement stops at the singing. More than me, the lyricist and the composer deserves ownership of a song, but it’s still not like that unfortunately.”

Manmarziyan by Shilpa Rao, Amitabh Bhattacharya and Amit Trivedi, Lootera (2013).

Paar Chanaa De, Coke Studio Pakistan season nine (2016).
“The tune had been in the Ali Noor [Noori frontman] family for a very, very long time, surviving through generations. It speaks of the ghariya [clay-pot] that Sohni hangs on to while crossing the Chenab river to reach Mahiwal. Metaphorically, the song is about a person and their faith. Noori had come down to Delhi for a gig and we were jamming at [Parikrama singer] Subir Malik’s house. And they wanted me to come to Pakistan and do this song. I am very overwhelmed by the love I received for this one. This song is also difficult. It has its ups and downs. But obviously, since it’s an active collaboration, being performed live, no one’s telling you what to do, and the input is more from my end.”

Paar Chanaa De by Noori and Shilpa Rao, Coke Studio Pakistan season nine (2016).