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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
World renowned sitar maestro Niladri Kumar recently collaborated with Imtiaz Ali, Irshad Kamil, and Arijit Singh to compose two melodious songs for the web series Dr. Arora.
In this exclusive interview with India Currents, the musician speaks to us about his songs, his electric ‘Zitar,’ and the experience of collaborating with Imtiaz Ali and Arijit Singh.
IC: Tell our readers about the two songs you composed for the web series Dr Arora—Mehram, sung by Arijit Singh, and Khaalipan, sung by Abhay Jodhpurkar and Meenal Jain.
NK: In April 2020, while we were experiencing a situation that was a first for all of us, I started a music series called Improvise. I had composed a melody back then and played it on my sitar. That music was called Fragile, since I felt there is a certain delicateness to this melody.
Every melody comes from a certain corner of life experiences and emotions in general. Similarly, it was with Mehram. But what was unique about this melody was that when I composed it on the sitar, I already and always knew that this had to be a song sung by a male if this had to develop. I did not know when and how, but this is the backstory.
When Imtiaz heard it for the first time, he said he would use it and that’s how it landed up in Dr Arora. The web series is set in the 1990s, so when Imtiaz first approached me it was to create Khaalipan—something of the 1990s flavor but today’s sensibility of it. Both are very different songs, and I think listening to them will evoke some emotion that we listeners may miss of those evergreen songs. Nice melodies, great lyrics, and so on.
IC: What was the experience of collaborating with Imtiaz Ali and Arijit Singh?
NK: Very rarely do you encounter a person who is not just great in his sphere of work but is also a magnet for others to do inspired work. All my interactions with Imtiaz Ali have been enriching and I have not just learnt from them but also been inspired to do things that have legs that can stand the test of time.
Arijit Singh is always a pleasure and a great person to work with. We connect with music, and from the minute I explained to him the emotion of this song, he could grasp the direction. Along with being a singer, he is also a musician, and that makes a lot of difference to the way he approaches the song as a whole.
IC: Tell us a little about your earlier song with Imtiaz Ali, for which you won the RD Burman Filmfare Award in 2019.
NK: Each song has a journey of its own, and I think Aahista from Laila Majnu has remained with people even after all these years. That is where the power and ability to connect with music is something that can be actually experienced. I am eternally grateful to all the listeners whose love makes the songs last.
We may not have the ammunition to reach those millions of numbers on these songs when they release on the first day—which I believe is the norm—but more than the number game, I think the fact that it can actually reach a million hearts and still keep reaching people day by day is what is important to me. It’s the audience who keep the music alive and as artists we can only try to reach within and create the music we can.
Aahista is my second song with Arijit Singh. The first was Tere Bina and now Mehram is the third. The journeys of all these songs all have been special.
IC: Tell our readers about the Zitar, your electric sitar.
NK: As an instrument player, I don’t have words (shabdh), but through my instrument I still have to speak. The zitar, my electric sitar, stems from my journey of the need and the feeling to just be heard. It started with my pickup mic story on the sitar, which created the first ripples, to then creating the zitar for me to have a means to express.
IC: You are an inspiration for many. Who or what are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
NK: If I had to take one name, my inspiration was, is, and will always remain my father and my guru. His story, his journey, his teachings, and his life are what give me that fuel of inspiration, which is always needed as a person and an artist. Along with that, you encounter so many people from every walk of life—not necessarily music—and they too have become my inspiration in small ways. To constantly be learning is what inspires me.
IC: What can fans expect from you next?
NK: As a life of a musician, the beauty is that one is always composing, creating, and it’s a good feeling to call that itself my work. Currently, I am working on two albums. One will be releasing this year. It’s an idea I had in mind for a while and I’m looking forward to it coming out. Along with that, two film releases are in the pipeline. Another very unique project with the sitar is due for an international film director, which I am quite excited about and will share the news on that soon.