Indian mainstream music has been an extension of the cinema of the country, whether it is in the north or the south. And while women have always been a part of the industry, they still struggle to find their niche in the music industry that is still run by a few powerful men. This is why when many falter, some rise up to the occasion and outshine the rest. Here’s the story of two such female singers, of whom one set out to be a playback singer from the age of five and the other wanted to write her own English songs and sing them in a small gathering, but ended up singing for Bollywood. Curated and moderated by Nirmika Singh, editor Rolling Stone India, lyricist and poet, the power packed panel showcased the journeys of two immensely successful women singers.

Shalmali Kholgade was born and brought up in a humble home located in Powai in Mumbai where her liberal parents never stopped her from doing what she wanted. When most girls were struggling to convince their parents to let them pursue extra-curricular activities, Shalmali’s parents were nurturing her talents—yes, talents, because the music wasn’t her only interest. There was also acting, drawing and dancing.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Shalmali Kholgade, who’s been a playback singer for eight years now, has been performing since she was 16.
  • In the last seven years of playback singing, Shalmali has built her own audience, breaking the mould of what she said the “feminine” voice as she asked, “What even should a feminine voice sound like?”
  • Singer Harshdeep Kaur never had any other dream but to become a playback singer in Bollywood that she saw as a teenager growing up in Delhi.
  • Both Shalmali and Harshdeep have a lot in common and the two things that stand out for both are parental support and musical background.

Shalmali Kholgade’s Journey

While sharing her journey at the Bombaywaali Summit held in Mumbai on September 21, the playback singer of “Pareshaan” from Ishaqzaade” and “Balam Pichkari” from “Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani” said, “I thought that I will be singing English songs that I would write, to a very intimate audience in a venue like Jazz by the Bay which does not exist now or Blue Frog Café which shut down or at the Hard Rock Café where I did do a few gigs but that was it.”

“But the life that was thrown at me made me realize that I didn’t have to sing to 50 people, I could sing in front of 10,000 people and enjoy that too.”

Kholgade, who’s been a playback singer for eight years now, has been performing since she was 16. She started her journey into music under her mother, Uma Kholgade, an Indian classical singer and a theatre personality, at the age of eight. With a life full of surprises because of Kholgade’s ability to grab an opportunity and run with it, she auditioned for a Latvian gig and got to perform as a soloist with a Latvian troupe in a Cabaret named Bombaloo which toured Moscow, Yerevan, and Armenia before becoming the singing sensation that she is today.

Women Disruptors Mainstream Music
Shalmali Kholgade at the Bombaywaali Summit

She shared her deep admiration for Amy Winehouse who passed away in 2011 and her determination to have a tribute to her. “I thought at the time why did I not say thank you to her when she was alive and that really pricked me in my heart and so I did an Amy Winehouse tribute show at the Blue Frog. But there was a twist there as the venue was only going to let me have the tribute if I called some guest artists and so I called in all the women artists I knew like Aditi Singh Sharma, Caralisa Monteiro and Neha Bhasin and made it into a women’s show. Some of them didn’t know me, some barely knew of me, but they all kindly agreed and we had the Amy Winehouse tribute.”

“So, women have helped me in my life a lot to get where I am today. Those artists didn’t know me but they loved Amy Winehouse’s music and so they supported my show,” Shalmali reminisced.

“I believe that you don’t think of something as an opportunity when it comes your way but when it does and you put your heart and soul into it, you never know who’s watching and listening. In that audience that day was Mickey Mcleary,” recounted Shalmali who went on to perform the very famous act ‘The Bartender’ where she has performed beautiful renditions of vintage Bollywood songs revamping them with the flavour of sensuous, old school jazz, and is featured on their second album, ‘B Seventy’.

In the last eight years of playback singing, Shalmali has built her own audience, breaking the mould of what she describes as the “feminine” voice as she asks, “What should a feminine voice even sound like?” Shalmali is now training to create her own music and is going back to her dream of creating and performing her own music.

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Harshdeep Kaur’s Journey

On the other hand, singer Harshdeep Kaur never had any other dream but to become a playback singer in Bollywood that she saw as a teenager growing up in Delhi. Her father owned a factory of musical instruments and so there was never a scarcity of musical instruments around her. On top of that, her father used to play the guitar and was part of a band called ‘House of Music’ with his friends.

Women Disruptors Mainstream Music
Harshdeep Kaur at Bombaywaali Summit

Kaur’s journey was stamped with a career in playback singing right from the time she hummed her first song, when her father took note of her talent and cultivated it right till she bagged her first deal with A.R. Rahman – she sang in the chorus for the film “Kisna”.

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“I never thought of anything other than becoming a singer and contrary to Shalmali, my entire life revolved around Bollywood. Right from my childhood, I have been enamoured by the world of Bollywood and since then I knew that I wanted to sing for the movies,” says Harshdeep who has since been a part of several singing reality shows and sung for big Bollywood banners as well.

Today, the rigidity around the female voice has changed. – Harshdeep Kaur.

Talking about how much the industry has changed since she came here first, Harshdeep says, “When I shifted to Mumbai, I was told that there a few singers who had a monopoly in certain songs but today the mindsets have changed. The kind of music directors we work with are more open to experimenting. They want to try new voices. My voice is not the regular shrill, feminine voice because of which I faced a lot of challenges, because all songs composed for a female singer were for a thinner voice and I have a voice with bass. So, I would only get folk songs to sing. But today, the rigidity around the female voice has changed.”

Both Shalmali and Harshdeep have a lot in common and the two things that stand out for both is parental support and musical background. And despite their very divergent styles, they retain their uniqueness and therefore are representative of what is now changing for women singers in the film industry. Both of them represent the multiplicity of range there is of women in our music industry today. The panel concluded with Nirmika Singh, reciting one of her compositions, to a round of applause from the packed house.

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