Breathless Auckland left gasping for more

Auckland’s Hindi music fans will undoubtedly remember the country’s first SEL concert for a long time to come. What a night it was as Bollywood’s celebrated musical triumvirate belted out number after unforgettable number sending the sellout audience into a foot tapping frenzy late into the night.

The well organised concert began at 7-45pm at the choc-a-block Telstraclear Events Centre, just 15 minutes past the scheduled time – a refreshing departure from the delayed starts that is de riguer for celebrity concerts of this sort.

From the word go the trio fired on all cylinders with maestro Shankar connecting with the audience straight away. As the concert went into top gear with his repertoire of smash hit numbers, Shankar cajoled and coaxed the audience to sing, sway and dance with him – a thing which they did with great enthusiasm.

Fresh from a sellout performance in Sydney, the trio on more than one occasion said that the Auckland audience was the most amazing one they had ever faced. This was a statement as sincere as it can be because Shankar is a straight shooter – there are simply no airs about him. He speaks from the heart and there was no doubt that he meant it.

The trio and their talented ensemble performed every number that they had promised all along in their promos in the pages of Indian Weekender, including the title theme of the concert, the legendary “Breathless”, which catapulted Shankar into his permanent place in Bollywood’s stellar firmament.

The trio’s hit numbers are so many over the years since their big break in Dil Chahta Hai that it would have been impossible to sing all of them. But Shankar obliged by stringing along about a dozen of them of them sampler style in a panorama of their musical hits down the years.

Shankar’s training in both forms of Indian Classical music – Hindustani and Carnatic – shone through brilliantly in his incredible range of vocal inflections: alaps, taans, gamaks, taranas and superfast sargams besides rhythmic bols and boltaans, the latter which he dabbled in with the superbly talented drummers and percussionists.

His virtuosity in extempore improvisation even in his well known numbers to make them special for a live performance were pure genius, which would have elicited a hundred wah-wahs from connoisseurs.

But bad sound tuning, which had his microphone low on volume, subdued the finer points of his softer vocalisations, much to the chagrin of several listeners in the audience. Bad sound management is the bane of Auckland sound contractors when it comes to traditional Indian soirees. Many a great concert has been a victim of this unfortunate shortcoming.

A number of people complained during the interval and the versatile singer’s mic was set to a higher volume in the second half much to everybody’s relief. Shankar himself wasn’t happy with the settings in the first half, he told me backstage at the interval and acknowledged that many had echoed those sentiments.

The ever smiling and effable Ehsaan Noorani and the gentle and shy Loy Mendonca displayed their own virtuosity on the instruments of their mastery to rounds of unending applause. The trio’s coordination with one another and their extraordinarily talented ensemble including the singers in their troupe was superb and radiated an easygoing bonhomie that is characteristic of the trio’s persona even offstage.
Speaking to me on the evening before the concert, Shankar spoke of his early training, his favourite ragas, how the trio makes its legendary music and the non-Bollywood experimentation he has been involved in.

The middleclass lad growing up in suburban Mumbai in a family of music lovers showed early talent in singing. He was tutored in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms before breaking out into singing and composing popular music.

Though he is clearly the driving force, the SEL engine room is a finely coordinated, collaborative effort, insists Shankar: everyone plays a more or less equally significant role he says, pulling in their respective talents and creativity to produce their wholesome musical offerings that have proved to be such great hits time and time again.

Shankar has created and collaborated to create a significant body of music outside Bollywood. He has set to tune and sung soulful Ghazals and Urdu poetry written by the great Javed Akhtar and others and has been part of a fusion group headquartered in Sweden called Mynta, which has produced extremely interesting experimental sounds with international musicians.

When asked if he would sing some of the soulful Javed Akhtar-penned numbers in Auckland, he said he was sorry he couldn’t because of the set up of the concert. Indeed the absence of some of his more soulful songs did seem to disappoint a wee bit of the senior audience who have listened to his early music and remembered it over the years.

Auckland’s SEL Breathless concert will go down as one of the most memorable ones.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012