Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

How popular Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor found her groove

We chat to the songstress, who came out of a tough time in her life to follow her passion for music in her 30s

Kanika Kapoor will perform at Yas Mega Mela in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, October 31
Kanika Kapoor will perform at Yas Mega Mela in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, October 31

Renowned Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor, best known for the enormously popular foot-tapping numbers Baby Doll (Ragini MMS 2) and Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan (Roy), is in Abu Dhabi to headline the Yas Mega Mela Festival that kicks off on Thursday, October 31, on Yas Island. It’s a bit like life coming a full circle for the 38-year-old singer.

“Abu Dhabi is very close to my heart,” says Kapoor. “My first-ever show, after Baby Doll came out in 2014, was at the IPL opening in Abu Dhabi. The last five years have been a roller-coaster. At that time, I couldn’t have imagined living this life. So to come back here after five years is a very special, emotional feeling. I’ve prepared a great set, combining my own songs with mash-ups from the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m really looking forward to it.”

How it all started

Going back to where it all began – in a manner of speaking – is an exhilarating prospect for most artists, but it is, understandably, an even more emotional experience for Kapoor, given her unique set of circumstances at the time. Kapoor’s journey as a professional singer started in 2012 while she was in the midst of a painful divorce and going through an identity crisis. “I had zero confidence. I got married and moved to London from Lucknow, a town in northern India, at 18. I wasn’t even allowed to sing for 12 years, until I was about 30.

I had zero confidence. I got married and moved to London from Lucknow, a town in northern India, at 18. I wasn’t even allowed to sing for 12 years, until I was about 30.

"When my father suggested that I become a singer, it was as unthinkable as becoming the president of the US for me! How was I, a housewife and mother [to three children] from the English countryside going to pull this off? It was impossible.” But it’s not like Kapoor was a stranger to music before then. Prior to the forced break, she had spent a decade, from the age of eight, training in classical music under the late Pandit Ganesh Prasad Mishra from Varanasi. At 13, Kapoor’s father’s close friend, famous Hindi devotional songs singer Anup Jalota, decided to mentor her. She even moved to Mumbai for a brief period, but returned without success and got married instead.

By 2012, Kapoor had decided it was time to leave her unhappy marriage and turn her life around. She released a remix of Jugni Ji, originally sung by Pakistani Sufi singers Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi, in collaboration with singer and music producer Dr Zeus. The video became instantly popular, raking in more than half a million views on YouTube and earning Kapoor the Brit Asia TV Music Award for Best Single. Bollywood came knocking at her door soon after. Baby Doll became one of the most popular songs of 2014, winning Kapoor both the Filmfare and IIFA awards for Best Female Playback Singer.

'I was lucky'

Her ascent to fame sounds almost serendipitous, and she’s quick to acknowledge her good fortune. But even as she admits she feels blessed, Kapoor emphasises that there is simply no substitute for hard work. “I was lucky – I don’t have the awful stories so many Bollywood aspirants have. But I also worked incredibly hard. I was getting divorced when I released Jugni Ji. That itself led to so many accusations and taunts about my character. People – even so-called friends – wondered who was helping me, who was holding my hand. Because god forbid that a single woman make something of herself through her own grit and dedication. When Bollywood happened, for three years, I worked non-stop. I had no personal life, and even my kids saw very little of me. It was challenging, but I needed to build my own identity.”

Independence and identity are recurring themes in my conversation with Kapoor. She speaks passionately about the importance of encouraging women to follow their dreams, instead of marrying them off early. And yet, ironically, the legacy Kapoor is building rests largely on the mass appeal of songs that can justifiably be criticised for objectifying women. Kapoor hedges when quizzed about the role that item numbers – musical tracks inserted into films that don’t add to the plot – play in cementing the perception of women simply as objects of beauty and desire. “Why corner item numbers alone? I think both women and men in India have to work together to help women grow, instead of tearing down item numbers or pulling down women. I don’t know what more to say. It’s a very complex question.”

Her commitment to independent music

Today, Kapoor splits her time between London and India. Her three children live with her ex husband, while she travels around the world for shows and recordings. As much as she enjoys her work in Bollywood, Kapoor is equally committed to her independent music. She’s working on a project in the semi-classical Punjabi Sufi genre, but is tight-lipped about all upcoming work. “It’s just around the corner, wait!” she laughs. What she does hold forth on, though, is the changing music landscape in Bollywood. “The typical high-pitched voices that ruled for 30 years don’t work any more. It’s the more earthy, emotional and traditional voices that are in demand. It doesn’t matter who you are any more. If you have a different voice and are willing to work hard, you have a shot at success. I think that’s very cool.”

Kapoor’s Abu Dhabi performance will be live and “at least 90 minutes long”, she confirms. By her own admission, she’s come a long way in five years. “There was a time when I used to be shaking and trembling on stage. There were also times when I had to resort to playing tracks, which, I admit, felt a lot like cheating,” she says. “But not now. Now I feel this strong emotional connection with the audience. I often find myself crying on stage. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything in the world.”

Kanika Kapoor will perform on Thursday, October 31, at du Arena, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Tickets cost from Dh20. More information is available at www.yasmegamela.ae

Updated: October 31, 2019 03:54 PM

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