Karaoke King of All He Surveys
By Kavita Chhibber
His father was a well respected Bengali film maker, he often saw the stalwarts of Bengali music like Hemant Kumar sit in his house singing and playing the harmonium and Aniruddh Mitra fell in love with music.
The Mitras had a radio in the house and a partially damaged gramophone. Aniruddh would listen to music on those until the radio broke down and no one bothered to fix it. “Then I would go and stand outside my neighbor’s house to listen to radio programs, requesting them to crank up the sound so I could hear the music outside-sometimes they did and some times they didn’t. There were times I would wait all day to hear Binaca Geetmala, a popular Hindi music radio program only to be disappointed because the neighbors decided not to turn the radio on that day. But that torture ended when the local paan (betel) and cigarette shop owner bought a radio. "I would go every day, sometimes in the sweltering heat of summer to listen to a few programs I loved and was on seventh heaven." Aniruddh would also skip school to go to the movie theater but never got caught because he only went to see the songs and knew exactly at what time a particular song that he wanted to hear would come on screen. He would see that and go back. "There was this beautiful song from the film Anita and I would go there to listen to the saxophone piece in that song. Now I’m recording the very songs I used to beg people to let me hear through their radios."
Aniruddh was a good singer but was too shy to sing in public. One of his friends in High school would encourage him and bribe him with 4 panipuris if he sang his favorite songs.
While in school Aniruddh developed an interest in photography and was soon designing album covers for the recording company HMV. "It was wonderful because I got to listen to some beautiful music composed or sung by top musicians while taking pictures for the cover, but no one knew that I could sing. In the 1970s I spent a lot of time with music maestro Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. The tune for his block buster, Dil hoom hoom kare was composed before me but to this day, Dr. Hazarika does not know I sing, even though I learnt all the folk music from him and he was a great influence in my life."
Finally in 1983, Aniruddh recorded a cassette of his songs and took them to the late music baron Gulshan Kumar of T-series, who gave him some useful tips as did famous musicians Kalyanji Anand ji. Even though Aniruddh loved the songs of Mohammed Rafi, after the audition tests came back, Gulshan Kumar rightly pointed out that his voice was ideally suited for songs by Mukesh. "You know when you listen you will realize that you will not find a single mediocre song by Mukesh. People say he has a very limited voice but his style of singing was truly unique. Even with less tonal quality, he was far ahead because of the way he enriched other aspects of his voice. In those days there was no technique to cover flaws and his rendition was always perfect, each word carrying equal weight." Aniruddh credits a lot of whatever he has learnt about vocals to music directors Kalyan ji - Anand ji. "They taught me how to breathe, how to throw my voice. You can hear the breathing as far as the new singers are concerned because they don’t bother to learn the right technique. In the old days each song was created specifically for a particular singer and specific breathing techniques were designed for that singer to use for the song. The singers had to memorize the lyrics and then emote because every word had to be clearly enunciated and feeling of the song portrayed with beauty and poignancy." In the mean time Aniruddh graduated and became a civil engineer, and went to work on a site. "It was very far off and the only source of entertainment was movies shown every weekend. I used to walk 6-7 miles just to go and see the films for their songs and then walk back." Aniruddh realized very early on that though he had not learnt music he had a very fine tuned ear and could pick up any mistakes or discrepancies in compositions. It would help him in a very unlikely career path later.
Aniruddh was offered an opportunity to come abroad and study. "I ended up in Louisiana or Lousy-ana as I call it, in 1983. I had visions of beautiful ladies and fast yellow cabs - but it didn’t happen in Louisiana." Aniruddh barely scraped through and started teaching classes to pay for his own tuition fees.
One day Aniruddh bought a cassette which had the instrumental version of the songs of Mukesh, a little mixer from radio shack and sang at a Diwali party. People loved it. That year he went to India and made about 40 song tracks and brought them back and again sang before 800 people at a cultural festival. "People started calling me asking where they could find these tracks, so I decided to save money and went to India and published my first cassette of instrumental music. The cassette sold very well."
"I still hadn’t heard of the word karaoke, nor did I realize that what I was doing was karaoke. One day in 1989, one of my students came to me and said sir I can’t come to take my test in the evening because there is a karaoke night. I asked him what was a karaoke night and he explained that they sing with music tracks while the song lyrics appear on the television screen."
Aniruddh was intrigued and went with him to see what was going on, and even ended up singing an Elvis Presley number himself. He was really excited and went and bought some English cassettes and after listening to the tracks realized he could do the same with his Hindi music cassettes. He performed at a Durga pooja and was flooded with phone calls asking where he got the cassette from.
Aniruddh then published his first karaoke dual cassette. He made 300 cassettes and they were sold out in a short time. “I’m not good at business and shyly gave a price which was below my cost and didn’t even break even, but it was really exciting to have done some thing creative and succeeded. It also took me back to my first love-music.”
From making karaoke cassettes, Aniruddh switched to making cds on the encouragement of a friend who initially agreed to sponsor the project but then backed out. "Still I have to thank her because if she had not encouraged me I would never have made a cd." In 1993 he met the legendary musician R.D Burman who was recording near by and told him about his karaoke venture. "R.D. generously handed me a cassette of his own tunes and said I think they will come in handy for you, use them. Those tunes are from his blockbuster film 1942-love story. He also asked me to come and work with him next summer, but he passed away before that."
Aniruddh has not looked back since. Today he owns a state of the art studio in Calcutta where he creates karaoke tracks of exceptional quality. Some of the tracks are better than the original soundtrack. "Very often we find flaws in the original score and correct them. My sound engineer Somnath Chakraborty is also an accomplished musician so he has added extra pieces to some of the tracks." Aniruddh says karaoke is very popular abroad but making karaoke music is very expensive business. "When you add the cost, it’s almost 1400 to 1500 dollars per track. To be allowed to recreate a popular song can cost up to 7-8 lakhs in India. I also use top notch musicians, and you have to take care of their needs, bear the brunt of their moods and pay them top bucks to perform. Luckily now since we record on multi-tracks, each musician comes and plays his piece individually and we put it all together." Aniruddh also uses top notch up and coming singers to record the songs that act as a vocal guide and has given a break to many youngsters even though his wife Sayantanee is a very well known singer from Bengal. Two of his recent recruits are Keka Ghoshal and Saptak both finalists in the popular "Saregamapa".
Aniruddh says his biggest regret is that while there is love for golden oldies he has been relegated to making karaoke cds of new hits that come and go so quickly. "I can’t find a producer who would allow me to make karaoke of the songs from India’s golden period and because of the expenses involved, I have also fallen into the trap of demand and supply." He has faced piracy and copying of his cds from other production houses and says he really cannot do much about it. "When I first came up with Karaoke tracks in 1995, I went on a musical tour and it was a super success. I could have continued doing that and not brought the karaoke cds into the market, but I strongly believe that music must be shared. I hope people will respect that and pay for the original cds. A 5 song cd costs you 8 dollars-in that you won’t even get a live drummer and we give you five tracks to sing."
As he struggles through lack of finance, people duping him and trying to take advantage of his name, piracy and good producers. Aniruddh finds joy in the response he gets from music lovers when he has annual karaoke music competitions and people show up by just hearing his name. His troupe of musicians and singers just finished a super successful music tour. The civil engineer from India remains the uncrowned karaoke king, and now Aniruddh is expanding to producing regional films and music DVDs in India. He is also building a state of the art recording studio in Atlanta which is his home away from home.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.
All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber.
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