In our Creator’s Corner this month, we are Celebrating the Women in Music. For this endeavour IPRS spoke to women from various backgrounds working in the Indian music industry about their journey, difficulties they have encountered, their take on the low number of women working in their respective music fields, and how to encourage them to join the music industry.
Satarupa Sanyal is a Bengali independent or parallel cinema film director, producer, actress, poet, and social activist, based in Kolkata. She is well known for her feminist social stances that inform her films. She is trained in Hindustani classical music and Rabindra Sangeet and performed for the All India Radio. She received the National Film Award for Best Lyrics for Chandaneer in 1990.
In your long journey, playing multiple roles, what is the major difference you have noticed in the societal behaviour towards women writers, lyricists, or even filmmakers?
I was born in a non-film background family but my father would love to listen to all genres of music from western classical to folk to Rabindranath Sangeet. So I was always exposed to a wide spectrum of music. Somehow music was as natural as breathing to me. When I started composing it was very spontaneous. I was never passionate or ambitious about it. But my love for music and how I designed my life around it is a God’s gift to me.
I was very good academically. Like every middle-class Bengali, I wanted to be a doctor or engineer. But I was not sure about it. I think my love for music finally decided my career. When I started doing films, it was a male-dominated world. Even when I graduated from the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya in Veterinary Science, there were only two girls studying there. It was difficult to work in a men’s world at that time but my colleagues were very helpful and kind. But the general public did not accept women in such roles.
I joined the industry as a director in 1990 and also won the National Award for lyrics in the same year. But even then I have never been offered a role as a lyricist. I have written only for my films. If I was born after 20 years, maybe things would have been different for me. Things are now improving slowly. The industry accepts women in the roles of a singer, actor, costume designer, etc. but when it comes to the need for talent for a job, the industry is still not eager to hire a woman. This thinking needs to change.
Why do you think there is a dearth of women in music composing or penning a song? Are these still viewed as male bastions in the industry?
When I started my journey, the producers were not ready to work with a woman director. They doubted my ability to carry out such a huge role. Now things have changed. I fought a lot for this to happen. I fought for women and their rights but of course, I didn’t win every time. My daughters are now acting, composing, and writing for films. They have seen my journey and understand that it was not easy. An artist’s life is an adventure about freedom of speech and expression. This adventure is more difficult for a woman because one doesn’t know where they are headed, to whom you are approaching, and whether she will be acknowledged. Nowadays the girls are doing excellent in every aspect be it art or academics. Still, there aren’t many women writing lyrics, composing, or working in the studios but the number is increasing. This is happening because of the fight women like me have fought over the years.
Born in a musical family, Bindhu Malini has trained both in Carnatic and Hindustani music and is influenced by the poems of saint Kabir and the songs of Kumar Gandharva. She has received National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer and Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer – Kannada for her songs in the movie Nathicharami. She has composed and recorded songs for films and albums in Tamil, Hindi, and Kannada languages.
How did having a musical family background help you as a composer/singer especially while diversifying into various genres like Folk, Sufi, Classical, film as well as non-film?
I think every genre has its own structure and rules but it can’t survive if there is no room for improvisation. But the joy lies in playing within the pre-set rules which both Hindustani and Carnatic music offer in plenty. This applies to every art form but that doesn’t mean the genre is straight-jacketed. The genres also allow you to bend the rules.
Everybody looks at the world in a different way. Coming from a musical family helped me immensely while composing as it made me more intuitive. If you take the movie, Aruvi, it’s not just about music but how music and life are inter-coined. In Chennai, classical music is widely acknowledged but so are the other genres especially film music. The film music industry is a superb melting pot for the genres to be mixed and being born in such an environment has helped me a lot.
Does being a woman make any difference while composing? Do you feel women think differently to men while composing?
I don’t think one can generalise as we don’t have the correct ratio of male and female composers to compare. I would think differently as an individual, not just as a woman. Vedanth Bharadwaj and I have worked on Aruvi together and the result was a collective effort. While on ‘Nathicharami’ I worked alone and the director approached me as he liked my work not only because I am a woman.
It might have flowed more smoothly from me. It’s not just about being women-centric films. It’s beyond gender. If the story of a film demands the music to have a certain kind and feel one has to be able to handle that as a music director. If it has to be more feminine, the music can cater to that, I feel both a man or a woman could and should be able to deliver that. Women-centric films can be strong and aggressive too.
Just like society, the industry is also changing. Gender equality is not about women fighting for their rights but it’s about creating a space that doesn’t see differentiation. Women have been dominant contributors in almost every field of work. If this is understood then this question becomes redundant. The patriarchal mindset is very slowly changing and every part of society has to work together to change it. If there are ten women composers today, in the near future there will be a hundred.
Initiatives like HER MUSIC will throw better light on the possibilities and opportunities available for women in the industry, that women can work here in a professional way, and it will be a more secure environment sooner than later.
The term ‘multi-faceted’ suits Parvathy more than most. She has been an Avant-garde theatre artist, journalist-political commentator, anchor, poet, and lyricist. She has released two anthologies of Tamil poetry namely ‘Ippadikku Naanum Natpum’ and ‘Idhu Vaeru Mazhai’. After her second book of poetry, she decided to enter the film industry and is now a lyricist for Tamil films.
When I was an anchor, things were different. I would request my producer to provide me with details about the interviewee beforehand. I would do my homework on every guest. Nowadays, anchors tend to have more casual and banter-based conversations. Which is not wrong. Putting the guest at ease before the interview is vital. I would still prefer being the anchor rather than facing the questions.
How different is writing a book and penning lyrics for a movie?
It’s completely different. When you write a book, some part of your personality is revealed. You can write about any topic under the sun, your creativity, thoughts, and expressions have no boundary.
While writing for a film, you have to keep the character and the plot in mind. You become the voice of that character so you have to write about what the character wants to emote or bring out. As a lyricist, you mostly write for a particular tune.
Knowing people from various walks of life, sharing their experiences, observing their lifestyle. And also my personal experiences. All of these contribute and inspire me.
Why do you think there is a dearth of women in penning a song? Are these still viewed as male bastions in the industry?
There are a lot of female lyricists in the Tamil industry, but they don’t get as many opportunities as male lyricists especially in ’big films’. Women songwriters are generally given love songs to write and seldom is any female given a ‘mass song’, revolutionary songs, or sentimental ones which describe a bond.
The other challenge in this age of information overload is to get familiar with people, with retaining capacity becoming less. The ones who have made it big have done only through hard work and perseverance. Keep persisting, keep hoping and keep working hard. And that is the only way one can break the glass ceiling.