This Is Shaan: The Enduring Master of Pop
The singer-songwriter on musical lineage, mental health and evolving the relevance of a career that spans over 20 years
Every generation is defined by an artist whose storytelling and melodies narrate the unheard stories of many. But ever so often you’ll come across an artist who breaks the generational barrier, resonating with people who — despite sharing different experiences and perceptions — seek refuge in their work.
Born Shantanu Mukherjee, Shaan grew up in a third-generation family of musicians. His grandfather Jahar Mukherjee was a lyricist and his father Manas Mukherjee was a composer. Given the musical blood ties, for Shaan and his sister Sagarika, pursuing music was instinctive. Shaan, however, sought creative liberation from a different angle, pursuing “other interests.” “There was never any pressure or expectation on me since my sister [Sagarika] was the singer among us and she was much more serious. But as fate would have it, singing chose me,” the 49-year old vocalist opens up in an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India.
Following his father’s demise in 1986, 14-year-old Shaan was keen on choosing a traditional career — one that promised security and stability; “I did not enjoy the luxury of taking up an unpredictable profession as singing,” he says. However, destiny had other plans. Shaan’s journey with music began with recreating the work of his favorite artists as remixes and covers, alongside Sagarika. His 1995 breakout cover of “Roop Tera Mastana” (originally composed by R.D Burman) brought in the momentum that steered his name ahead.
Shaan’s career is embroidered with memorable projects — some of them being collaborations with international artists such as Blue, Mel C, and Samira Said — and yet there’s one record that has endured the trial of time and musical preferences which evolves with every passing generation, and that is Tanha Dil.
Written by Shaan and composed by Ram Sampath (then a rising musician and part of rock band Colourblind), “Tanha Dil,” the title track in the vocalist’s magnum opus album, came as a breath of fresh air in the Indian music industry. Upon its release in 2000, the indie-pop anthem instantly became a smash hit, resonating with the youth of India.
At its core, “Tanha Dil,” embodies the free-spirited psyche of audacious dreamers leaving the comfort of their homes to find their true calling. The feeling of longing for a purpose, larger than those birthed by societal norms, struck a chord with millennial India. In fact, this sentiment is introduced at the very beginning of the track where Shaan draws the listeners’ focus on the importance of dreams and embracing them: “Aankhon mein sapne liye/ Ghar se hum chal to diye/ Jaane yeh raahein ab le jaayengi kahan/ Mitti ki khushboo aaye.”
This year, 20 years after the release of the song, Shaan revisited this timeless hit with a reimagined vision. Written by the singer and composed by Salim Merchant, “Tanha Dil Tanha Safar” focuses on mental health. Released on November 19th, 2021, this new version sees the vocalist elucidate on the realities of depression and the emotional strife mental illnesses bring.
The unfeigned lyricism shatters common misconceptions that cloud the common man’s understanding of mental illnesses and their effects: “Hain saath mere saare woh apne/ Apno mein mere bas main shamil nahi/ Rahein khuli hain hai carawan bhi/ Chal toh raha hoon main be-manzil kah.” As for Shaan, a particular hook stood out, prompting an artistic epiphany which pushed him to revisit the track. “I wanted to create a song on creating awareness of clinical depression, and it just hit me that ‘Tanha dil, tanha safar/ Doondhe mujhe, phir ye nazar’ explains the depressive state of mind better than any other phrase,” he says.
While many dubbed the 2021 release as a ‘revamped’ version of the classic hit, Shaan rectifies and redresses the interpretation: “The new ‘Tanha Dil” is, honestly speaking, not a revamped version,” he explains. “The chorus may resonate a faint similarity for obvious reasons (both versions share the same lyrics), but otherwise, it’s a brand-new song.” Curious to know whether this is a one-off project, I asked him if he’ll be re-imagining other past work too: “I didn’t see myself doing more such songs (revamped versions) but you’ve surely put a seed of thought in my mind,” he says with a smile.
Aside from his independent projects, Shaan continues to flourish and entertain the masses as a playback singer in Hindi and in other languages including Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Assamese, Malayalam, Odia, and Sindhia. There was a time in the Hindi film industry, between the 2000s and 2010s, when films starring Saif Ali Khan seemed incomplete without Shaan. It was like a dream pair as Shaan’s smooth, euphonious vocals fit Khan’s youthful charisma perfectly.
As a playback singer, Shaan likes to experiment with different vocal styles and genres. Though known for romantic songs and heartfelt indie-pop tracks, he has displayed sonorous vocal performances in Bollywood songs that went on to become hits — “Rock And Roll Soniye” from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, “Main Hoon Don” from Don – The Chase Begins Again, “Subha Ho Gayi Mamu” from Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.Of course, the conversation would be incomplete without a mention of “Musu Musu,” “Woh Pehli Baar,” “Chand Sifarish,” and the dark, neo-orchestral smash hit “Dastaan-e-Om Shanti Om.”
Shaan doesn’t just take up a project; he makes it his own, dyeing the track with his unique vocal colors. It’s no surprise why many find themselves drawn to his earlier body of work. “I’ve been very fortunate to have had this long and successful career singing in various genres and languages, despite not ever having a proactive plan or path,” he says modestly. “It fills my heart with tremendous gratitude. Also, I love to live in the present, never reminiscing much about what has happened or worrying about the future. This attitude has helped me stay relevant and connected.”
For Rolling Stone India’s December 2021 digital cover, Shaan reflects on his illustrious career thus far, revisiting his older work and the introspection his musical journey has brought.
I love how you reimagined “Tanha Dil” through the lens of mental health. Could you walk us through the concept route for the music video? Why did you decide to focus on this topic?
Over the last three to four years, I’ve had a very personal skirmish with understanding mental health and clinical depression; also that there are so many myths and stigma around it. My video director, who is a dear friend, Iqbal Rizvi, has been a crusader for mental health awareness and for helping people dealing with depression and suicidal tendencies. Having him shoot the video was the best call I took. The synergy of the audio and video was perfect. Hope is the answer — no matter what, we have to hold on to hope.
Did revisiting the track after 20 years bring back any memories? Did you view the original version with kinder or experienced eyes?
“Tanha Dil,” composed by Ram Sampath and written by me will always hold a very special place in my heart. I got to tell a story of not just my closest friends who left home and country to seek new opportunities, but also of so many people, who have faced a similar point in their lives. Not being a trained wordsmith, I’ve always resorted to telling stories through my lyrics be it “Bhool Ja,” “Gumsum ho Kyun,” “Aksar,” “Tishnagi,” “It’s Natural,” “Tera Hissa Hu” but “Tanha Dil” carries on to be the best story told through song so far.
You’ve had such a rich career spanning indie, Bollywood, and even notable international collaborations. What has this entire journey taught you about yourself and your craft?
To stay open and take chances. To want to get out of your comfort zone and seek challenges.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve experienced, which in retrospect was the best thing that could happen to you?
The biggest challenge was when I decided to compete in the dance show Jhalak Dikhla Ja 6 [in 2013]. It taught me that with hard work and perseverance an average talent can reach greater perfection than a natural talent who is lazy. I then used that ‘learning’ to push myself as a singer, performer and songwriter too.
What would you describe as a pivotal point in your career that helped solidify your position in the industry? Perhaps a specific record you released or any decision you took?
Taking that call to do TV as a host and later a judge/ mentor gave me that added edge and recall, and meeting the greats of music helped in my growth as a singer too.
You’ve lived through and experienced every shift in the industry. While we are currently living in the streaming age, is there any aspect from the pre-streaming industry you’d wish newer artists could experience?
The challenges the streaming generation face are tremendous. It’s the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ generation. I would never have survived in these times. The only thing I would like to share with them is the virtues of patience and integrity. Shortcuts are very tempting but they will not get you too far for sure.
From 1992 to 2021, how has your artistry and storytelling evolved? Where do you plan on taking your art from here?
I have always believed that a song should have a purpose for its existence. Just making another song that rides on trends and has nothing new to offer is just business; good business but nothing else. I will continue to make songs/videos that will leave my audience with something to smile or ponder over. You can run through the 20-odd originals on my YouTube channel and you will probably agree with me. No song is the same. And every song has a subtle and positive message, even [2020 single] “Sniper.”
Where do you get your inspiration from? Has your songwriting or recording style evolved through the years?
Inspiration comes without an alert. It just happens. Mostly it gets washed away but sometimes it stays and develops into a song. My working style has been the same: that sound is important but the content is king. It’s all about music and lyrics. But having the comfort of a home studio, a tremendously talented engineer in Ganesh Surve, and support from the best in the business, Tanay Gajjar, Mehul Gadani (my go-to video director) have helped me keep myself updated and excited.
If you had to pick three to five chapters from your life to effectively narrate Shaan’s story in, say a short film, what would these chapters be?
My ‘Bandra boy’ state of mind — that no matter what, it’s all good. My ever-supportive, beautiful family and a bunch of genuine friends in and out of the music fraternity. By having the best wife and life partner in the world and just being a very lucky guy… Don’t want to jinx it, but I have got much more than I deserve. Ever so grateful.
Going forward, what will you be focusing your energy on? Are there any additional projects (industry or creative-wise) you’re working on?
Making music will always be a priority but being able to influence the youth towards positivity through songs or otherwise is what I want to focus on. Also both my boys, Soham and Shubh, well into their teens, really make me proud and inspire me. To be able to guide them into their careers and future is another important priority for me.
What are some of your goals for 2022? What can we expect from you?
More of the same… Want to keep pushing my limits as a singer-songwriter and create music that connects and yet surprises my audience.
Do you have any advice for young artists starting their journey or for those trying to find their style and sound?
Nothing can teach you as experience can. I would advise them not to overthink or overstress. Just use all the experience to make a better person for you. Evolve.