Straddling Indie and Bollywood – Mohan Kannan

Mohan Kannan is a name you will find on both sides of the Indie/Bollywood divide. A versatile musician, singer and composer, Mohan started off as the lead vocalist of one of India’s best known rock bands Agnee but he has a background steeped in classical music, as his mother is the well known Carnatic vocalist and violinist Vasantha Kannan. He is an accomplished mridangam player and has won the prestigious Palghat Mani Iyer award for the Best Mridangam Player three times.

Kannan’s entry into Bollywood came about when he was approached to sing ‘Khanabadosh’, a song composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for the 2009 film, London Dreams. Since then he has sung in several films and worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood including Amit Trivedi, Abhishek Ray, Pritam to name a few.

Here Mohan Kannan speaks to RagatoRock about his musical journey and how he is at home with both Indie and Bollywood music.

What is the pressure you had to handle when you entered the Music Space given the success of your mother in Carnatic music?
The pressure of becoming a full time musician had everything to do with making it work as a profession and justifying it as a financially viable proposition actually. I remember telling people at work, “As a successful musician, I can make as much in a day as we do in a year”, just before I quit.

My mother’s knowledge and the teachings she passed on to me (and continues to do so) only helped in making me understand my own benchmarks for quality, and she is still the first person to listen to all my compositions and tell me what she honestly feels (and it’s not always a good comment J).

Do you go to her with your new songs or compositions for advice?
Ah, as I said, I do! I remember I had composed for Abida Parveen to sing (for a tv show that unfortunately never got made) and because I’m such a big fan of hers, I went overboard in trying to impress her. My mother heard the scratch and told me, “It’s the fault of Ragas…they’re too limited for someone as talented as you to express yourself well with just one. No wonder you had to go to so many different ragas to make this song”. I remember getting off the phone and immediately deleting the composition. The next one I composed was a lot more honest to the song itself and to the meaning I had to convey. I never played the first one to anyone else.

What is Mohan Kannan’s trick to look effortless on stage?
Being effortless sometimes just happens (when it’s a good day on stage), but that is not as often as the days when it’s a little bit of spontaneity and a little bit of practiced performance. After my third show with Agnee in 2007, I realised I was worrying too much about the way my performances “looked” or “sounded” and was allowing that worry to mould the way I behaved. I was trying too hard to be a “rockstar” and my music was suffering. My friend, Priya, pointed this out to me after a show, thank God. I then started behaving as I normally do, and started enjoying the music and reacting to it on stage like I would in my living room. And I’ve realised that honesty always works and music is such a powerful medium that audiences will get drawn in to an honest effort much more than to a convoluted effort to try and impress them.

You have been performing on stage with Agnee for years? What made you jump into Bollywood Live Shows? Should we be expecting new collaborations for these performances?
It’s been over 12 years that we’ve launched Agnee and we’ve performed many shows across India. We’ve grown to learn that we are called to perform our songs like, Aahatein or Sadho Re or Kabira or Manmaani etc and no one expects us to (or wants us to) perform Bollywood for them. And we wouldn’t have it any other way for Agnee.

However, in these last twelve years, I’ve also sung over 50 songs in Bollywood and would love to showcase those live too. Koco and I realised that these songs don’t necessarily fit in the Agnee brand of sound, and so we decided to set up a different act for my Bollywood songs. There will be a few collaborations on stage for sure, we already have a much larger team for this act that we call “Mohan Kannan Live”, and this will also be the platform for a lot of my solo compositions to be performed live once they’re released.

How do you describe the Mohan Kannan Live shows to be different from the current Bollywood shows?
I hope to bring a holistic experience with audio, video, lights and performances  on stage, so that everyone gets a larger than life (or, as I like to call it, “Larger Than Live”) experience and every show leaves them wanting to come for the next one.

Any tips for budding artists as to how to perform effortlessly on stage?
Just what I learnt myself… Be as honest as you possibly can.

How did Wahi Hain Raaste come about?
Shirin, who is a rockstar and works with Shankar Ehsaan Loy, called me one day and asked me to come record the song. Once I went to the studio, I learnt it was for Panga. The song is a beautiful composition, and as is the case with every one of their compositions, so rich in melodic content. I was super happy to sing it. I had to go back to record a few parts again for pronunciation, and that’s when I met Javed Akhtar Saab for the first time. It was a pleasure working with such stalwarts as Shankar Mahadevan and Javed Akhtar and a wonderful learning experience…I hope people love the song in my voice as much as I loved listening to it in Shankar’s voice!

– Stanley Paul 

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