FIRST NOTES Although I first became known as a singer through Sa Re Ga Ma [an early Indian version of American Idol] as an 11-year-old, I'd been singing since I started talking. I learned from my parents - we are a very musically and culturally aware family. Though our family is Bengali, my childhood memories are of growing up in Rawatbhata in Rajasthan. It's in a remote area and cut off from the township, so I was surrounded by a lot of traditional and cultural activities. We had no connections to show business - my family is full of scientists and engineers- but my parents were very encouraging about my interest in music. One of my earliest memories is singing in a hall when I was about five. My teacher took me to this boring concert and asked me to sing a song from a film. I sang Aur Iss Dil Mein Kya Rakha Hai ['what else is in my heart?'] and the entire audience burst into applause after just two lines. I'll never forget that moment - it was like the first experience of love, but from an audience. My father wanted me to be properly trained as a singer. To him, this was more important than fame and fortune. My family values education and academic achievement above all, so when I got to Mumbai, in 1997, I focused on learning. I wasn't looking for fame or glamour, unlike millions who come to Mumbai to make it in the film industry. I had no aspirations to be in cinema and I still don't.
REALITY CHEQUE In Mumbai, I took lessons from legendary musical director Kalyanji and also learned about classical Indian music. The belief that Mumbai is all about pop songs and Bollywood is wrong- there are many incredible teachers in the city. I think learning is a constant process, even if I don't go to one particular guru anymore. I still practise, but not every day; with concerts, recordings and shooting for the TV show [as a judge on India's X Factor], I'm happily but constantly busy. The main difference I notice between youngsters of today and from when I was an aspiring singer is the level of confidence. The amount of intel- ligence and presence on stage now is incredible. Even while still in their teens they know how to win over an audience. But there's also an innocence lost, the beauty of naivety has gone as the current generation is fed on reality TV, which didn't exist when I was growing up. When I see parents trying to groom a child for stardom, sometimes it's a bit too much. The new generation doesn't seem to know the wonder of music, they aren't seeking enlightenment, there's no appreciation of how profound music can be. Now it's all about ratings, concerts and money. When I was a kid, I didn't do concerts for big pay cheques.
THE FAME GAME My life changed after producer/director Sanjay Leela Bhansali discovered me on television. He came to our house and offered me an opportunity to sing in his magnum opus Devdas , the biggest musical at the time. I was going to be a playback singer [providing pre-recorded vocals] for the beautiful Aishwarya Rai. I couldn't believe it. The songs were rooted in classical music and I was thrilled. At the time, Aishwarya was facing a lot of flak in the media and a lot of rumours and gossip, but she was so unaffected by it that I feel I learned something from her - to ignore the riff-raff. I've learned not to read any press about myself, good or bad. I've never been a victim of malicious gossip - well, if I have, I'm blissfully ignorant. I've never had a PR person. I've never wanted to be on a scroll on a newsreel. I'm not a manipulator of self-publicity and have stayed rooted to my family and music. I hope my singing alone will bring me all that I deserve.
MUMBAI MAYHEM Although I'm just 27, I feel old. I've seen so much. But those who say I haven't had to struggle are exaggerating. My father ran from pillar to post in the early days. My family faced troubles that I wish to wipe from my memory, as I don't want to mull on the past. Songs that were promised, payments that were never made, songs I sang that other people ended up recording over, I've seen it all. I do remember the people who treated me badly, but I forgive and try to forget. I think I've grown a bit thick-skinned after my years in Mumbai. In this industry, if you aren't strong, you'll get eaten up. After all my rounds on the reality shows, the performances, the applause, the concerts, the struggle began after reality TV. Gaining success was easy, maintaining it was not. Although doing concerts and performing on stage is great fun- especially with audience interaction - true Indian music is not about performance. There's a belief in our culture that music is for personal and divine growth, a form of spirituality that makes us one with the lord. When I study and practise classical music, I close my eyes and sing for no one but me. There's a certain magic to that, which is lost on the new generation. With certain kinds of reality shows - with their dramatic cuts and staged wars- the new generation is being prevented from developing a voice to find this form of divinity.
REEL LIFE I've been offered roles in films but I've turned every one of them down. When I met the great Indian actress Rekha, she grabbed my face and told me that I must do films. Another time I was recording a song in Chennai and a producer said I reminded him of legendary Indian actress Sridevi- I love her, but I don't think it was a valid comparison. [Bhansali] jokes with me that we'll make a film, but as my mentor and guardian I know he won't. I won't sacrifice my music - and doing films would take me away from music. I've worked hard for everything I've achieved. I won't be a mediocre actress when I can be a good singer.