You may think you’ve not heard of Shriram Iyer, but you’ll almost certainly have heard him in the many community events or on YouTube. His impressive falsetto is everywhere and he’s a product of his own drive.
Shriram Iyer is amused that his namesake Shriram Iyer is a singing sensation in India. Of course, he is not worried about the latter hogging the limelight there. Iyer himself has clocked up some impressive feats in New Zealand and Australia in his chosen field of music.
The 35-year old singer, who gave up his lucrative corporate career for the love of singing, has award-winning composer and playback singer Shankar Mahadevan as his mentor, done 400 shows in the past 15 years, cut an album and has now formed Saffron Groove, a collaboration with producer and singer/songwriter Bobby BeeBob. “Two accomplished musicians, one unique musical experience,” is how they describe themselves.
Winding back to the beginning of his musical career, it all began in 2000 when Iyer migrated to New Zealand with his parents from India. Leaving his hometown Baroda after completing his schooling, he came to New Zealand and enrolled in an engineering degree at the University of Auckland. But it was a subject he reluctantly pursued. All Iyer wanted to do was sing. The very year he landed in Auckland, he took part in a nation-wide talent hunt singing competition conducted by Radio Tarana, New Zealand’s number 1 Hindi Radio Station. He won hands down.
“I was 19 when I won and it was also my first singing competition. The victory was decided by a 50:50 judges’ and audience poll. I knew no one in New Zealand. I defended the title the next year again in 2001. There were 3000 people,” he recalls, adding, “The noted Attaullah Khan of Pakistan gave me the cash prize and a turban.”
So for two consecutive years Iyer was the Golden Voice of Auckland. It was his minor markers of success for him and a success that would shape his life. The media feted him, there were umpteen opportunities that opened up and singing offers were galore. The sizable Indian population in Auckland soon recognized him on the streets and even labelled him the Udit Narayan of Auckland. “I was like ‘wow somebody knows me’.”
After that, Iyer started performing in many events but stepped out of competition. “People started calling me for judging because I had become established. All this became a hobby and a parallel career. Later, people started saying we will pay you. That was good,” he laughs.
But coming from a conservative, ‘risk averse Tambramh’ (Tamilian Brahmin) family, Iyer says he was programmed with the thought that ‘music is a hobby and not a career’. Thus he continued with his studies and completed his engineering degree in 2003. And he knew he had to find a job, work and save up. Much as he wanted to he could not think of becoming a full time musician.
However, he had decided to follow through with music even though he had a profession as an engineer. In 2004, Iyer organised his first show. “Before this I was doing a lot of shows but it was very restrictive in the sense that I had to perform according to the vision of the event manager. Besides, I was fresh and young and sang Udit Narayan very well at the risk of being stereotyped ‘the Udit Narayan of Auckland’, which was a good thing to begin with but then it was also bad because it meant I can’t sing a Sonu Nigam song or someone else.”
So he put his money and sold out 800 tickets to put up a show called Taal Se Taal Mila. “That was another turning point,” reflects Iyer. “I had a rich network of well-wishers, etc. I was young, had energy and chased sponsors. It was my show, my concept and I had Bollywood numbers across ages. For the first time I sang 10-11 songs, something I hadn’t done before. I was the lead singer and there were other guest singers under me. I sang all that I wanted to sing. I felt a great sense of freedom doing that. I did make some money too. People embraced me. This was an interesting journey…”
After this, Iyer was confronted with the question: what next? As luck would have it, Shankar Mahadevan happened to him in 2005. Backed by very supportive parents, Iyer was able to rope in Mahadevan who came for the first time to perform in New Zealand for his concert.
“Before this, I was a bit disillusioned playing in big concerts with the stars. Either I had to wait for a slot or a last minute change would crop up. I knew I had the capability to host a big show myself and told my dad let’s do something big after my first concert in 2004. We had the desire and God has a funny way of aligning things. I was talking to my second cousin in Mumbai and things just rolled off. We were the first people to bring Mahadevan to Auckland,” reveals Iyer.
It was in that show that Iyer got to sing with Mahadevan and Bollywood playback singer Sadhana Sargam, with whom he would also sing a duet for his music album Is Dhundh Mein.
But Mahadevan wasn’t an easy proposition. When Iyer’s father met the noted musician in Mumbai prior to the concert, he was told that Iyer could sing but it all depended on how well he sang and not on the basis of him being the organiser’s son. “Till date Mahadevan is specific about who sings with him, after all it is his brand,” says Iyer.
How Iyer got Mahadevan’s attention was when he came on a secret tour of New Zealand a week before the event. At one of the lunches, Mahadevan asked Iyer to sing a song, who gladly belted out his own compositions. Impressed, Iyer got his first great break and it also marked the start to a lasting friendship.
“Shankar Mahadevan is the one who helped me get out of the Udit Narayan mould. My relationship with him is ongoing. He told me to start learning classical music which I did. He said my compositions have strength and that I can both sing and compose which not many people can do. He told me if I released my album he would come launch it for nothing. And he kept his word. He is a great influence in my life,” reflects Iyer.
So far, Iyer has sung with him in three major concerts – in Auckland, Hyderabad and Bengalaru. Interestingly a clip that Iyer loves to show off is the one at the International Indian Film Academy (IFFA) Awards in Canada in 2011 where a journalist asked Mahadevan if he had any message for Iyer to which Mahadevan replied, “Shriram is a fantastic singer. He came down and sang so well for us. Yes I love him as a friend and singer.”
Although the 2005 concert was a massive turning point for Iyer, he never got into organising international concerts again. “Organising shows taught me a few things: that I don’t want to be an event promoter, that’s not what I care about. I care about music, that’s all. For me organising events was a means to do whatever I wanted to do in music because other people were not letting me do it.”
In 2007, Iyer released his first album Is Dhundh Mein in Mumbai. “I was the first Kiwi Indian to release an album in mainstream India. Sagarika was the music company that released the album in Infinity Mall’s Landmark store,” says Iyer. Shankar kept his word, heaved praises on Iyer to a packed media and launched it.
Though the album sold just about 1000 copies, Iyer continued his musical pursuits as it was something ingrained in him from a young age. He also knew that in the digital age he could exploit his talent further. “It is difficult to do promotions when you are in New Zealand and trying to balance yourself with work. I had already made six trips to India in two years”.
So he made a music video of the title track of the album which gave him the distinction of being the artist of the fortnight on B4U entertainment channel in 2007. The video also played on MTV and Channel V. “My dream was part fulfilled. There were calls but because I was in New Zealand a lot of interviews did not materialise.” He realised Mumbai was the place to be but it was not a feasible idea to move lock, stock and barrel.
Iyer kept his other profession floating despite his parallel musical career shaping up well because “It is hard to make a career in music full time.” In 2008, he moved to Melbourne to study MBA at the Melbourne Business School. For a year, he put his music on hold.
Moving to Melbourne was a challenge. From enjoying great popularity in New Zealand, he coped with living in anonymity here. “I grappled with that a lot.” He had to pretty much start from scratch performing for free. “Slowly it changed as people/organisers started saying ‘you are worth paying for’.”
But he has no regrets moving to Australia and thinks this is the place to be. “There are more infinite opportunities here.”
In his long career, Iyer has sung with Ali Azmat (of Junoon), Shibani Kashyap, Udit Narayan, to name a few. He narrowly missed a chance to perform with AR Rahman after his chance meeting with him in Melbourne but the memory of singing to Rahman in his hotel room far outweighs any experience, he admits.
Iyer has come a long way. He has finally made the decision to leave his corporate career and is engaged full-time in making music of his choice. “You can’t do two things. Leaving my job was a calculated decision. This was long time coming. My wife and I knew that the timing had to be right; this was the right time to do it because there were a lot of opportunities. When my first album was launched I lost out on many opportunities because I was based in New Zealand. I had a job but what has it given me? On the contrary I lost an opportunity…My wife says I am less grumpier than when I was earning a lot.”
Saffron Grove is the biggest thing in Iyer’s life right now. It is a collaboration between him and Bobby Beebob, a music producer and singer-songwriter who has worked extensively both in India and Australia and with over 122,000 Facebook fans. Together they are writing original music and are working on an album, the second for Iyer. Saffron Grove is signed to a US based label 50-50. It has music publishing by BMG. “Aaja Fir Se”, a number from their album at work boasts of two and half million views on YouTube. In 2013, Iyer claims it had more views than most major Australian artists for that year.
“Today I am as ambitious as before but am not putting any conditions to it. My happiness is linked to my journey; it’s almost like a spiritual epiphany. The creation of a song is priceless, it is hard to explain where it takes me, and it is pure, unadulterated bliss. My purpose in life is simple: to create and to entertain.”
Iyer still goes to New Zealand where he has a fan following. “The community has given me so much love that I still go there four times a year to perform.”
Iyer’s creativity also extends to his writing. “I love writing in equal measure. Ideas are like uninvited guests, keep your doors open and welcome them.” He has authored a few books too.
Born in Bangalore and brought up in Baroda, Iyer says he has unfortunately not inherited the business acumen of most Gujaratis. So he is driven not my material desires or greed. “If that is a natural consequence of my action I will take it but I am in pursuit of excellence. I want to die saying I sang as well as I could and I wrote as well as I could.”
These days Iyer adopts the name Siyer to differentiate from his namesake in India. “Yes marketing and branding are important things, they have a role. My new identity of Siyer is a step to differentiate from others.”
As a boy, Iyer recalls singing to a group of aunts who would give him the thumbs up. “The discovery that I could sing happened when I was 12. Then I started with listening to Mohammad Rafi. Now I have learnt one has to take the mind away from taali and devote to taalim.” And with three people (his parents and wife) who “blindly support” him in his creative endeavours –Iyer says he has found the liberty to do what he wants in the realm of music. An investment in happiness. Or so, he thinks.
By Indira Laisram