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Sitarist Neha Mahajan on Working with Ricky Martin and Living Her Dream

In an exclusive interview with Cosmo, sitar player Neha Mahajan opens up about her experience, the maestros who inspire her, and the songs she loves to sing in the shower... 

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Cosmo: What was your reaction when you heard from Ricky Martin’s team?

Neha Mahajan: “When I received a call from Mireille, Ricky’s associate, I didn’t believe it at first... I thought it was a prank call. I was so sceptical, I even ended up asking her, ‘Why do you want me to play for this song?’ She said, ‘Erm, because it’s beautiful music’. I jumped for joy once I found out she was being serious!”

C: What was it like, working on Pausa? 

NM: “I learnt and grew so much because of this experience. My Sitar-raga music is a purely wordless communication, and to pair it with a song with lyrics—with a soulful voice like Ricky’s—certainly expanded my imagination. And Pausa speaks largely about the need to love unconditionally, which is immensely relevant for me.
As for Ricky, he is a very sensitive person and believes in the things he contributes to the world. I learnt about being humble from him...and also about believing in your art. Working with him inspired me to practise more and be in better shape, musically.”
 
C: When it comes to music, who is your biggest inspiration?

NM: “Baba Allaudin Khan. He is the founder of Maihar Gharana and an incredibly versatile musician. He embraced world music and produced a unique Indian identity through his understanding and talent. I am an ardent fan of his commitment to music.” 

Ricky Martin

C: You are also an actor...what are you binge-watching right now? 

NM: “Fleabag. I love that show so much, I wish there was a third season! It is refreshingly original, and made me fall in love with the protagonist—every bit flawed, but so hilarious. I also watched a lot of movies by Spike Lee, whose direction and spunk I greatly admire. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and Bong Joon Ho’s Mother are some other movies I enjoyed watching recently. As an actor, it is hard to have any one favourite...there are so many acting moments I love in so 
many movies!”

C: Do you ever sing in the bathroom? 

NM: “Roja songs are my favourite to sing in the bathroom! I’d sing ‘Dil hai chota sa, choti si asha’ every day in the shower before leaving for school. Now, I ‘air guitar’ and make up my own lyrics.”

C: And what are the top five songs on your playlist? 

NM: “Ustad Amir Khan’s Hansadhwani, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Yaman, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee’s Kedar, Shrimati Kishori Amonkar’s Bhoop, and Kumar Gandharva’s songs.” 

C: How has your taste in music evolved with time?

NM: “I am still mystified by how much sounds communicate when arranged in beautiful patterns. I try to listen to all kinds of music, from all over the world. But as a student of sitar, which I am still learning, I tend to focus on the deep impact that Indian raga music has on me. My taste in music is more like a child in love: if it is insincere and dry, I am automatically disinterested; but if it speaks to me, I feel joyous beyond explanation.”

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C: What are some other simple pleasures that bring you joy?

NM: “Waking up to birdsong, watching the mountains in the distance, humming songs in the 
wind during a walk, listening to crickets at night, calling an old friend out of the blue, oiling my own or my mother’s hair, making tea, cooking, wearing a face mask and eye-pads, learning to embroider and crochet... Oh God, I can’t stop.” 

C: How important are female friendships for you?

NM: “Very! It is sad that this differentiation has to be made...but I know it is important to make it, too, because the deep-rooted patriarchal remarks have been outrageous! Like, ‘Two beautiful women can never be friends’. It objectifies women endlessly. I believe in egalitarian relationships, fuelled by love, communication, and respect. And I value all my friends deeply, of all genders.” 

C:  What is your relationship with social media?

NM: “I like to use it for the reach it has, but I try to keep a check on how much I consume of it. I try to create a healthy balance, which needs to be worked on every day.” 

C: Who is the last person you stalked on Instagram?

NM: “A new friend I made in Canada, who is a really cool anthropologist and loves embroidery!”

C: What is the one thing you can’t have enough of?

NM: “Books. I have shelves and boxes full of them, even in the space under my bed!”

C. Tell us your favourites? 

NM: “I love Leo Tolstoy! I read Anna Karenina and War And Peace recently, in a span of three months, and I’m currently saturated with love for them! Weather by Jennifer Offill, All The Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy, and Milkman by Anna Burns are some other recent favourites. I am now reading The Union Of Smokers by Paddy Scott, and loving it!”
 
C: What are your resolutions for 2021?

NM: “To consume less; write e-mails to loved ones more; practise music a lot; work in films I love; read more; work out every day; give back in some way to the community...”