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How ‘Breathless’ made Shankar Mahadevan a sensation

This excerpt from a new biography of singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan relives the excitement of his first solo hit

Shankar Mahadevan with young members of the family. Photo courtesy Shankar Mahadevan
Shankar Mahadevan with young members of the family. Photo courtesy Shankar Mahadevan

‘Breathless’ earmarked two significant events. Firstly, Shankar Mahadevan became a star. The music video featuring the singer himself started beaming on numerous TV channels and took the song to every corner of the country. Indi-pop music got a new fillip as experimentation reached unimaginable heights. Secondly, it was the start of a bond, a beginning of a cherishing relationship between two talented artists that kept on getting closer and more affectionate with mutual respect and love.

The music video of ‘Breathless’ went a long way in establishing Shankar’s immense popularity. It was again Javed’s idea to employ his son Farhan and daughter Zoya to collaborate with Shankar to direct the music video of some songs of the album. When Javed played the ‘Breathless’ number for Farhan, Shankar was not present there. Farhan had earlier heard Shankar during a Shakti concert and he was completely aware of Shankar’s immense skill. Upon hearing the song for the first time Farhan was flabbergasted, to say the least, because it was something that he had never heard before. Apart from Shankar’s incredible singing, what intrigued Farhan was the mind that conceptualized something like this. Farhan remembered his initial impressions of the song. He said,

The genius of the singer lies in the way he thought it because Shankar can sing any song, but to think that ‘let me do something from the start to finish without any break of breath’ was unique. I remember when I heard it for the first time, I told Dad to play it again because I wanted to hear where or whether he had taken a breath. I heard it a couple of times and naturally could not decipher it.

Soon, Farhan made a video that represented the basic idea of the song and showed it to Shankar. The idea was to do the video without any cuts and make it seamless as one line of the song glides onto the other. The whole idea of the music video was that the protagonist of that love story started walking from a room, went through a whole journey and ended back in the room again. It was as if he was singing out the thoughts that lay inside his mind. It was much unlike the outdoor videos being made at that time.

‘Breathless’ became a trendsetter. Its popularity and capacity to captivate the audience never really waned. Till date, many singers from reality shows attempt to sing it and many performances are choreographed on this number. Several film songs that came later were sourced on the basic idea of this song. A year later, Shankar himself recorded a devotional song ‘Endrendrum Ayyappan’ where he sang in a style similar to that of ‘Breathless’, though that song was a devotional number sung in praise of Lord Ayyappa.

Recently, on Hanuman Jayanti (16 April 2022), Shankar recreated the magic of ‘Breathless’ by singing the Hanuman Chalisa in the same manner. The song was recorded for Shemaroo Bhakti and became an instant hit on YouTube.

Though the myth of the song being sung in a single breath was busted millions of times, yet, a willing suspension of disbelief is at work each time one listens to the song or watches the music video. The speed at which the song’s movement and Shankar’s movements are synced shows a defiance of being rebuffed in love, and the end of the song leaves one breathless. Renu Desai shared the screen with Shankar in the video. Tubby played the keyboard and Sham, who passed away after a few years, played the mridangam in the track. The modern recording technology might have camouflaged his breaths that came in between the lines but one gets a taste of his mastery and unbelievable control of breath when he is found complying to the multiple requests to sing this song during his concerts. Taufiq, who performed innumerable stage shows with Shankar, said that each time Shankar sang it on stage, he would be watching him closely to note where he took breaths. He would be gasping in wonderment, as Shankar would invariably veil his breaths with subtle tricks that left one baffled.

In the music video of the song ‘Tere Khayalon Mein’ of the same album, Siddharth made his debut as a child actor and also as a mouth percussionist. In an interview, Siddharth later recalled this unforgettable event of his life, ‘I was three years old then. I remember that I was very nervous and refused to sing. My father asked everyone to go out, switched off the lights and assured me that no one was there. I sang and that was recorded. It was a cute and innocent moment that will be etched in my memory.’

Breathless sold 300,000 copies and stayed at the top of the charts for weeks. Taufiq, one of the percussionists in the album, was in splits when he remembered an incident that happened soon after the album got released. Shankar had become a sensation and they had a series of Breathless shows all over India. Once Taufiq, Sivamani, Karl Peters, Sridhar and Shankar were travelling to Chandigarh for a concert. At the airport, a Sardarji kept staring at Shankar and kept on following them. Then, all of a sudden, he screamed with joy. The man was so excited that he started stammering. Pointing to Shankar, he shrieked, ‘I know you, I know you.’ He could not recollect Shankar’s name at that time, so out of helplessness he blurted out, ‘You…you are that nonstop singer. I saw you on TV.’

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Musical Maverick: The Authorized Biography of Shankar Mahadevan’ by Ashis Ghatak, published by Rupa India, 375 pages, 695.

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