A spiritual steel beneath the pop image
Telugu pop has still to come out of the dark clouds engulfing it. But there is a silver streak, by name Malgadi Shuba. The most sought after icon of today's Telugu folk and remix pop, Subha Suresh Kailaas was born amidst orthodox Brahmin ambience in Chennai, but lucky enough to have a father whose job took the family members out of the traditions of Mylapore to expose them to different flavours of India - both ancient and modern.
Her antecedents came from the coincidental fact that her family lived in a crowded residential complex in Mumbai where she was surrounded by 11 buildings named after ragas. Also, famous playback singers lived in that complex. Every summer the kids of the block would put up a show for the residents, and 16-year-old bubbly Shuba would always be the leader.
Western classical notes and love ballads were her forte and despite shocking reaction from her kin for whom it was blasphemy to sing anything in a foreign language, Shuba took pride in hitting the altos and crescendos while emulating her favourite divas, Mariah Carey or Sharon Prabhakar.
A shift to competitive Delhi was the most lucky thing to happen to her, and Shuba became the talented school captain who excelled in inter-collegiate competitions from debating to acting. It was at one such a competition she caught the eye of the famous quiz master, Siddhartha Basu, who was a judge at the western music finals. He put her on to the ITDC hotels for a part-time job as singer. For Shuba, this was a great opening but to her parents ''singing in hotel'' was an anathema. But there was no stopping Shuba, her 'manasika guru' Usha Uthup having proved others wrong.
``Crowd management is what I have learnt at this platform,'' says a nostalgic Shuba. ''I knew how to feel the pulse of my audience and keep them crave for more. I was also so fresh and my energy levels were very high. I was the only singer in Delhi dressed in traditional Indian ensemble doling out large doses of western pop music. For most of my fans I was 'Usha Uthup once more' and this compliment would egg me on further.''
The year 1982 was a milestone in her life when she met Jawahar Wattal, the wellknown composer who was helping Daler Mehndi record his first album. Shuba did the prestigious Nescafe jingle. Many would still remember the haunting voice that left a refreshing aroma and the words, ''Need reviving and a taste that is rewarding: Nescafe'', took a new meaning.
Thus began an eight-year-old affair for the singer with sound waves, and her voice was all over every frequency on almost every jingle. Things were hectic and almost too perfect for her but her parents were cut up with her for not settling down to wedded life. But this was the golden era in Shuba's life. Being the only singer who could yodel in eight different tongues made her the obvious choice for jingles that needed to be translated. Her lyrical clarity, punch and bass voice made her the queen of the times.
In 1989, Shuba was in Chennai and she got in touch with the savvy creative director of Lintas, Suresh Kailaas. Her close friend Dilip Sekhar, who was working as keyboard artiste with cine music director Rajkoti, gave her a lot of freelance jobs and local jingles. Dilip was trying to be a music director himself and in 1990 Shuba and he released their first English pop album ''Set me free''. For this, they had to sweat out in a dirty garage at Dilip's place for days together but the result was magical. A year later, Dilip changed his name to A.R. Rehman and took the musical world by storm with his debut scores in the legendary film 'Roja'. Shuba had auditioned with him for the unconventional number, ''Rukmini Rukmini'', but could not match the accent he wanted.
Around this time Suresh Kailaas called her for the Ruby Chocolate jingle and this was the historic meeting that would lead to their tying the nuptial knot a few years later. ''Suresh taught me to give life, all I had. He is the positive influence on my life and career and inspired me to work relentlessly to record 1,500 songs in eight albums in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada and I even did a Hindi song in 'Mr. Bechara' for Anand Milind. However, it was Rehman who gave me a lease of life in films with 'Thaiya thaiya' in the Tamil film 'Uyire' which was rendered as 'Chaiya Chaiya' in Hindi for 'Dil se', she says.
Rehman liked Shuba's voice dynamics and control and would always want to involve her in any happy moment of his life. Her inclusion in his first mega stage show in Dubai is still fresh in her memory. This was the celebration of two good friends and their days of struggle together.
In 1995, Shuba became a mother and this experience prompted her to take up Vane Music's offer to do a cassette on nursery rhymes. An instant hit, it brought her a number of little fans from all over the world.
Private albums like ''Malgadi Ekki'' threw Shuba into the skies of fame and Malgadi Shuba was thus born. Her famous ''Lalaguda Lambadi pilla'' and ''Chik buk'' still get the adrenalin levels up in any audience group. Her most recent 'Folk Songs from AP' with S.P. Balasubramaniam and others was another hit.
Her song picturised on the sex siren Silk Smitha for the film 'Rakshana', ''Neeku naaku unna link'', was a super-hit, and double entendre became the order of the day. ''I did not know the meanings of most of the Telugu songs I was singing and my directors were exploiting this. When I realised that some were really vulgar, I decided to quit singing for a while and stopped Telugu songs for almost two years,'' ruminates Shuba. Recently she forayed back with a special number in Devi Sriprasad's composition for 'Sontham' with ''Akkado ikkado ekkado'' and she has just recorded for R.P. Patnaik's 'Nijam' and hopes to be recognised once again in Telugu filmdom.
``The happiest moment of my life was when I was nominated for the MTV top 100 videos in 1998-99 for ''Yennai Paar''. The tracks for this album came from London and the video was done by Rajiv Menon's wife Latha. ''It is a beautiful piece of work and pulls a string in my heart even today,'' says Shuba. Recipient of coveted awards she still feels that she has not even begun her journey into excellence.
The last few years have had a tranquil influence on her life. A chance encounter with the 'bodhamrutham' (teachings) of Bhagvan Ramana Maharshi has changed her life. ''The Maharshi's life has charted my destiny. No ochre-robed gurus for me. My loin-clothed guru is now my everything.'' Her recent album, 'Sharanagathi', a soul-caressing one causing one to turn inward, is produced by Suresh Kailaas. It is bound to bring out the true Shuba - sensitive and pure like a child.
Shuba is a voice to be listened to, a force to be reckoned with, a volcano of emotions waiting to erupt and disseminate the message of love and spiritual happiness. She is so contradictory that her image of being the ''item'' singer fit only for raunchy dancers is just a facade. Scratch a little deep and you will glean the spiritual steel that she is made of.
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