“Some six years ago, my daughter came up to me and said she wanted to learn to play the piano,” Shekhar Ravjiani tells me. We are seated for the interview in a conference room at the Global Indian International School (GIIS) in Dubai, where he has just finished conducting a masterclass as part of the school’s Leadership Lecture Series.

The interactive session had select students showcasing their talents in music, and the renowned Indian singer and music composer, one half of the hugely popular Bollywood music duo Vishal-Shekhar, offering them advice and tips on how to hone their talents.

As part of the program, he also handpicked four students to be part of the GIIS – Sheykhar Ravjiani School of Music this year. The award-winning musician will mentor the talented – and lucky – students in person and online over the course of the next few years. But more about his mentoring process later.

Shekhar recalls how he was delighted that his daughter, Bipasha, was showing an interest to learn music so “I got the best teacher to come and teach her the piano”.

Not surprisingly, the teacher started with the basics of music, teaching her the notations to write music, and the theoretical part of playing the piano.

“A month or so later, she came to me and said ‘you know, this is really boring. I wanted to learn music… [not this]’,” says Shekhar, a smile on his face.

He tried to make his daughter understand that learning the basics was crucial for a musician. “I told her ‘your father was very lazy at learning the theory part but I am sure you can do it’, and she said ‘No, I want to learn to play songs’.”

The hit-maker musician sips a cup of tea as he pushes back his shock of thick hair. “Her words set me thinking,” he says.

He recalls having had a similar experience while growing up and learning to play the piano. The first 50 minutes of the hour-long lesson by his music teacher, Xavier Fernandes, was dedicated to learning how to read and write music, a session little Shekhar found boring. “I only enjoyed the last 10 minutes,” he says. “Sir would play a song and I would learn how to play that song and, later, I’d play that for my friends telling them ‘this is what I learned today’.”

Shekhar in the process of picking students from GIIS Dubai for his global mentoring program
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So, when Shekhar began his mentorship classes, he was keen to ensure that the passion for music remains strong in the younger generation of aspiring musicians. To that end, he decided to adapt the idea of introducing songs early into the training process.

Children, he says, have a very short attention span. To keep them interested, he starts by asking them to sing a song of their choice. “I then analyse the song, telling them the scale in which they sang, what they need to improve, what they got right and where they did not.” In effect, it is quite the reverse of how music is taught in many traditional settings. “I feel children are happier when they are taught stuff they like and in a way that they enjoy.”

While the master musician underscores the importance of ensuring that the passion kids have for music is not dampened in the initial stages of learning music, he is also quick to make it clear that he in no way thinks that learning the basics are unimportant. “They are crucial and should be learnt. Definitely,” he says. “But kids nowadays need to be taught in such a way that practicals come first and theory later. That’s my teaching method.”

And how is it working? I ask.

Brilliantly, he says. “I have seen excellent results this way and plan to continue with this model of mentoring.”

The early days

Having been in Bollywood for close to quarter of a century, and having co-created some hugely popular numbers including Meherbaan, Zehnaseeb, Jag Ghoomeya, Swag se swagat and aankhon mein teri, Shekhar surely knows the pulse of music lovers. But breaking into the film music scene was no walk in the park for him.

Shekhar started off as a contestant in the TV music reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa back in 1997. “I didn’t win,” he says, “but I remember when I got off the stage, I told myself ‘one day I will come on stage and be a judge’.

“And I made that happen.” (Over the last 15 years, he has been a judge on more than 15 reality shows and has mentored some 300 contestants.)

Not winning the reality show was not his only brush with rejection. A year later, in 1998, he made an album and visited almost every music company in Mumbai hoping they would release it. “At one place, the gentleman there told me that I should quit music… In fact he suggested I never do music ever in my life. But I told myself I am going to come back strong.

“Looking back, I thank that person every single day. His words actually accelerated my growth.”

Vishal and Shekar at a live concert in UAE belting out some of their super-hit numbers
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Receiving rejections a few times can make one stronger, he is convinced. “You can never forget rejections or the people who rejected you,” he says. “But the important thing is how you use that as fuel to push yourself to work so hard that you rise above everything else.”

He surely did.

Teaming up with Vishal Dadlani, Shekhar began his journey in Bollywood composing music for the 1997 film Pyaar Mein Kabhie Kabhie. The music struck a powerful chord with listeners leaving them grooving and nodding to the beats. The duo has not had to look back since. Ek Ajnabee, Dirty Picture, Zinda, Ra-One, Dostana… the list of hit numbers they churned out for movies stretches, and the two quickly came to be recognised as one of the most successful teams in the Indian music industry.

What cemented your relationship? I ask.

“Being good friends,” says the 44-year-old, without batting an eyelid. “And having a good time. As I always tell my mentees, it is important to have a good time when you are creating something. The best product happens when you create it happily. It’s important to laugh, to smile, to have a good time. And if you are doing all of this with someone else, it cements a good relationship.”

He admits disagreements, arguments and discussions do crop up. “But eventually the decision we arrive at is for the product; never for our own ego. It is always for what would make a song better.”

Shekhar highlights the importance of healthy discussion and disagreements in any creative process. “Disagreements and discussions,” he says, “open your mind to new thoughts, ideas or perspectives that you may never have considered before. And because of an argument, you make a change, and that change will take the song to a new, higher level.”

Is it easier for newcomers today to get noticed, what with the plethora of channels and platforms available to showcase their talents? I ask the star musician.

“I agree, there are plenty of platforms, a sea of opportunities, compared to what we had say 25 years ago,” he admits.

He recalls reading a report that said around 15,000 songs are released every day on various platforms across the world. “Today, you don’t need a label or a company. Anyone can create and release a song. You can start a YouTube channel, for instance, and share your work. But while there are plenty of platforms, your work has to be something special... has to have something special... to be seen or heard and stand out from the rest.”

How important is luck in the mix?

“Luck plays a huge role,” he says, with a smile, taking a half spin in his swivel chair. “You can work really hard night and day, but if luck is not on your side, you may not get to be seen or heard.

“That said, only if you work really hard will luck also come. I believe in trying and trying until the doors open for you.”

Optimistic even in the worst of situations, Shekhar reveals how he used the stay-at-home situation during the recent pandemic to “reboot myself” in many ways.

Kids prefer to learn music through practical training, says Shekahar
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Shifting part of his studio gear to his home, he decided to compose one song every day. “I’d sit down at 10 in the morning and start creating music even though there was no film or situation to base it on. I wasn’t even sure whether the song would figure in any film; I had no clue of the destiny of the song. But that didn’t stop me.”

He had three lyricist friends on standby to write lyrics for his compositions and made sure that the song would be ready at 5pm so he could listen to it on his headphones when he went for a walk at 6pm.

Now, two and half years later, he has a veritable library of songs. “It is all organic material and the purest because it has not been thought of for any particular situation or movie,” he says.

The GIIS Shekhyar Ravjiani School of Music also took shape during this time. A couple of years ago, after a workshop at the school’s Singapore campus, he realised there was potential to mentor students interested in music, and after auditioning some 400 students, chose 16. They are continuing to be mentored online.

He will be choosing talented students from the school’s various campuses every year to be part of his school of music. “I believe in mentoring and sharing my knowledge with the selected students. How they use it to get ahead in life is their destiny.

“I am enjoying the journey of learning with every single collaboration whether it be for films or indie collaborations or with a band or with international  artists. That said, although I am at a position where I have done 650 songs and more than 50 films, I still think my journey has just begun,” he says.

Shekhar’s take on remixes

My view is that no song should be touched, because that is magic once created and we should respect it. It should not be tampered with or recreated.

We have put in so much hard work and passion and soul into it; so much of love and energy has gone into the making of that song. Then you see a new kid coming and singing this song afresh which is accepted by the new gen because they think that is the original.

If [a remix] is done well and with a lot of respect there might not be any harm in it, but what I am mostly  hearing is not good.

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