Shilpa Rao (born 11 April 1984) is an Indian singer. Raised in Jamshedpur, she moved to Mumbai, at the age of 13 and completed Master's in Applied Statistics from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, before working as jingle singer for three years. During her college days, Mithoon offered her to record the song "Tose Naina" from Anwar (2007), making her Bollywood career debut.
Rao rose to widespread prominence with the release of "Khuda Jaane" from Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008). She was nominated for the Best Female Playback Singer award for the song, in 54th Filmfare Awards. The following year, she collaborated with Ilaiyaraaja for Paa (2009), where she performed the song "Mudi Mudi Ittefaq Se" for which she received another nomination in the same category during 55th Filmfare Awards ceremony. In 2012, Rao teamed up with A.R. Rahman and came up with the song "Ishq Shava" from Jab Tak Hai Jaan which was a commercial success, followed by Pritam-composed "Malang" from Dhoom 3 (2013) and Vishal-Shekar's "Meherbaan" in Bang Bang! (2014). Rao's collaborations with Amit Trivedi were particularly described "delightful hearings" with songs like "Manmarziyan" from Lootera (2013), being critically acclaimed.
Rao is particularly known in the media for trying new styles in her songs and singing for different genres. Rao, who considers her father as her biggest inspiration in the music career, has supported charitable organisations for a number of causes.
Born on 11 April 1984 in Jamshedpur, Rao was initially named as Apeksha Rao but later changed to Shilpa Rao. According to her, she relates to the name Shilpa more, since the name has "to do with art". She started singing while she was a kid, tutored and instructed by her father, S Venkat Rao, who holds a degree in music. He taught Rao to understand the "nuances" of different ragas: "His method of teaching was casual and at the same time very effective because it was designed to pique my interest". For her education, Rao went to Little Flower School and Loyola School, Jamshedpur, where she was part of the choir group in school. In 1997, she visited to Mumbai along with her family, to do a postgraduate diploma in statistics from the University of Mumbai.
Rao was motivated to be a singer upon meeting with Hariharan, at the age of 13, and commenced training under Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, insisted by Hariharan. Initially, she found herself struggling in "finding references" and meeting music composers since she was not "so active" in social networking media during the time. About her early days in the city, Rao said: "Jamshedpur is home for me but Mumbai with the people, the place, the pace everything has made a more patient person and a more hardworking artist I could ever be". In 2001 she began performing live with Hariharan at different venues, subsequently winning a national-level talent hunt in New Delhi. Shankar Mahadevan—one of the judges in the contest—asked her to settle in Mumbai.
In 2004, she shifted to Mumbai and completed Master's in Applied Statistics from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. Mahadevan gave Rao few contacts of people who helped her in getting to sing jingles. Rao mentioned that singing jingles was "perhaps the best way" to start in Mumbai as it helped her making the best contacts in the studios. She worked as a jingle singer for three years and established a life of her own. She sung songs for products such as Cadbury's Munch, Sunsilk, Anchor Gel and No Marks.
While Rao was studying at college, she met with Mithoon, who called her for recording of the song "Tose Naina" from Anwar (2007). Considering the song as her "most innocent rendition" she had done, Rao said, "This song is extremely close to my heart and has taught me what thrill and gratitude of music is and can be". Though Rao credits "Tose Naina" as her career debut song, the soundtrack of the film Ek Ajnabee (2005) has a semi-instrumental track titled "Strange On The Prowl" which has Rao's alap incorporated within it. She collaborated with Mithoon in two other projects during the year; Aggar and The Train. Though "Sehra" from the former met with negative reactions from music critics, both "Woh Ajnabee" and "Teri Tamanna" from the latter was well received; Raja Sen from Rediff.com praising Rao's "strong vocals" in particular. While shooting for Salaam-e-Ishq, music composer Shankar Mahadevan from the trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy suggested Rao's name to director Nikhil Advani, landing up with the song "Saiyaan Re". Sukanya Verma who praised Rao's "perfectly impish delivery" of the song wrote: "Despite Shankar Mahadevan's dynamic presence, [Rao], to watch out for, is never once intimidated". She again teamed up with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for the Hindi version of the track "All For One" from the soundtrack of High School Musical 2.
Rao's first release of 2008 came with Raghav Sachar-composed remix version of "Gup Chup" from One Two Three, followed by "Ek Lau" from Aamir, composed by Amit Trivedi. According to Rao, "Ek Lau" was a song of "hope for many people for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks". She affirmed that the song will inspire people and picked "Ek Lau" as one of the "few compositions" that is "close" to her. Apart from rendering "Main Sajda" for Anu Malik in Good Luck!, she was heard in a "faint alaap" at the beginning of the song "Koi Na Jaane" from Hijack, along with KK. The duo, earlier worked during the year, in Vishal-Shekhar's "Khuda Jaane" from Bachna Ae Haseeno. Rao, calling the song a "timeless classic", felt it was beautifully composed and written. She mentioned that she feels "fortunate to be a part" of the song. It fetched her first nomination in Filmfare Awards for Best Female Playback Singer.
Rao, a friend of music composer Amit Trivedi, introduced him to Anurag Kashyap, director of the film Dev.D (2009) who was searching for a new composer with a "distinct vision" for his the film. The song, "Dhol Yaara Dhol" from the soundtrack of the film was recorded three years ago, "free of cost". She was next heard in Piyush Mishra-composed Gulaal, where she performed the track "Aisi Sazaa". Sen from Rediff.com credited Rao's "distinctively dulcet tones" for making the song a memorable track. After recording "Manzaraat" from Sikandar, Rao performed the track "Mudi Mudi Ittefaq Se" for Ilaiyaraaja's Paa. She described the song as the "most difficult experience" and believed that lyrics and "musical bounces" in the song was a "test" in proving her versatility. The song garnered positive response from critics; Chandrima Pal from Rediff.com picked the track as the "most significant song of the album". The soundtrack album had another track titled "Udi Udi Ittefaq Se" by Rao, with slight variations in the arrangements and lyrics. "Mudi Mudi Ittefaq Se" garnered her second Filmfare Award nomination in Best Female Singer category.
In 2010, Rao collaborated with Pritam for the first time, and performed "Ittefaq Tu Nahin" for Mallika and "Dil Le Jaa" for Toh Baat Pakki!. She again teamed up with Trivedi for Admissions Open and Vishal-Shekhar for Anjaana Anjaani. Though her previous releases during the year received mixed response from critics, "I Feel Good" and "Anjaana Anjaani" from the latter was positively received; Joginder Tuteja from Bollywood Hungama ascribed the "beauty of the songs" to Rao for holding fort and giving "good company" to her co-singers. She did playback for Bappi Lahiri in "Ankhiya Na Maar" of Apartment and performed two tracks for Lahore; Piyush Mishra's Sufi song "O Re Bande" and M.M. Kreem's Punjabi flavored "Rang De". The Times of India appraised the work of Rao in Lahore, since she tried performing different tracks within the same album. In the year, Rao made her Tamil music debut with the song "Oru Maalai Neram" from Yuvan Shankar Raja-composed Naan Mahaan Alla along with Javed Ali.
Rao's third collaboration with Pritam came along with the song "Allah Maaf Kare" from Desi Boyz (2011). She lent her voice for Trivedi in "Yeh Pal" from No One Killed Jessica, where NDTV noted that the song is "effectively voiced" by Rao. The year marks her first collaboration with Salim–Sulaiman, by recording "Jazba" from Ladies vs Ricky Bahl. Rao's vocals in the energetic track was critically acclaimed; Vivek Warrier from Koimoi declared that her vocals are "refreshing" and "have great presence". During the year, she teamed up with Raghu Dixit as the composer and Ash King as the co-singer in "Uh-Oh Uh-Oh" from Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge. Rao collaborated with with lyricist Neelesh Misra and composer Amartya Rahut and formed the Band Called Nine, which works for the traditional Indian craft of storytelling. During the year, they released their debut album, Rewind, consisting of songs and storytelling, put together with a narrative. Besides, Rao appeared in several TV series including MTV Unplugged and The Dewarists, where she performed accoustic versions for some of her previously released songs for the former and the song "I Believe" with Parikrama and Agnee for the latter. Rao considered MTV Unplugged "very challenging" to do since she had to create a totally different version of songs and "present it to people, who have heard it earlier and liked it".
After Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, Rao worked again with Salim–Sulaiman for "Jab Main Tumhare Saath Hun" from Jodi Breakers (2012). Tuteja reviewing the song from Bollywood Hungama perceived that she "deserves to be heard much more often". Apart from rendering "Yaariyaan" of Cocktail, Rao teamed up with Trivedi in two other films, English Vinglish and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. The title track and "Gustakh Dil" from the latter received positive reception; Jaspreet Pandohar from BBC Online regarded the title track as a "likeable listen" for Rao's "warm Hinglish" vocals. Tuteja complimenting the "charisma of her voice" in the song "Gustakh Dil" wrote: "Her voice carries a certain depth and edge to it that always makes one wonder why she isn't brought behind the mike far more often". The year concluded with Rao's collaboration with A.R. Rahman, by recording the track "Ishq Shava" from Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which was a fusion of Arabic and techno sounds. Shivi from Koimoi declared that the song proves Rao's versatility as a singer.
After Rao's debut and The Train with Mithoon, the duo collaborated once again for 3G (2013), where she performed "Khalbali" alongside Arijit Singh. She was part of the song "Apna Bombay Talkies" from Bombay Talkies which celebrated the 100th year of Indian cinema and the beginning of a new era in modern cinema. In the song, the singers recorded for actors whom they generally do the playback singing, and Rao dubbed for Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. She next featured along with Sreeram Chandra for Pritam-composed "Subhanallah" from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Her next release, "Manmarziyan" from Trivedi's Lootera was widely acclaimed by critics; while Filmfare's Devesh Sharma complimented Rao's "wistful rendering" in the song, Mohar Basu from Koimoi mentioned that she is "flawless" in her part. Her last release of the year was Pritam's "Malang" from Dhoom 3 along with Siddharth Mahadevan. According to Rao, "Malang" is unique and sets itself apart from other tracks because of the blend of "high energy and a Sufi touch".
Rao's first release of 2014 was Soumik Sen-composed "Gulaabi" from Gulaab Gang, followed by Vishal–Shekhar's "Meherbaan" from Bang Bang!. 2015, started with "Thode Se Hum" from Badmashiyaan, composed by Bobby–Imran. According to The Times of India, Rao rendered a "quieter female version" of the song with as much "soulfulness" as Mohit Chauhan does in his version. Similar was the case in her next release, the reprise version of "Le Chal Mujhe" from NH10, where she tried a "low octave" kind of voice texture for the song. Initially recorded to be a duet between Chauhan, it was later released as a solo by the two, and received positive response from critics for separate versions. Rucha Sharma from Daily News and Analysis affirmed that, Rao in her version "managed to outshine two most sought after singers, Chauhan and Singh".
Rao relates, singer's voice as his or her "own identity". The Times of India described her voice as "somber" yet "soulful". Deccan Herald mentioned that Rao has "enhanced" her reputation by modulating and experimenting with her voice. Rao often changes her vocal texture to express and relate the "way she wants to". In the song "Le Chal Mujhe" she tried a "low pitched" voice though "Malang" and "Meherbaan" represented an "open voice" of Rao. Bollywood Hungama's Rajiv Vijayakar in a review of "Malang" said: "Siddharth and Shilpa are made to sing in a welcome full-throated manner, and that is indeed a good change from Shilpa's trademark "closed" vocals". Rao believes, upbeat and classical-based beats are best suited for her kind of vocals.
As a kid, Rao dedicated most of her time in voice training. When her father comes back from work, they sit with the harmonium and tanpura and do their training together. According to Rao, her father follows a systematic training where the main focus is not on "just practicing the vocals", but about precision. As she grew up, she learnt how to place the vocals and how to protect the vocal chords from damage that might be caused by singing in the wrong pitch or by overusing. She works to maintain her vocal texture. She has a vocal tutor with whom she trains once a week to keep her vocals "fresh" and also try "newer textures".
Rao has not restricted herself to any particular genre while performing to music. She mentioned that she always tries a newer style in her song and has been open to all kinds of music. Rao grew up to ghazals, had a different taste of music while being on the choir group, subsequently moving into Rock music while in teens. "As you grow older, your taste in music changes. Now, I listen to everything; anything that makes me smile". She credited her music influences and training for the shaping of her voice and style of singing; "I have attempted diverse genres and have always tried to put out something new for audiences with every song". Mid Day noted that though she has rendered a number of songs in various genres, it is difficult to "categorise" her voice.
Rao considered her father as her biggest inspiration since he has "exposed" her to good music, taught her to have "good judgement" and to "analyse what is good and what is not". While she was a kid, her father used to play songs of Ustad Amir Khan, Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was then, Rao learned to appreciate Hassan's "perfect interpretation" of emotion and inspiring to learn his "effortless style" of singing. After moving to Mumbai, Rao was succoured by Harihan and Shankar Mahadevan whom she considers her as "constant source of inspiration". Rao perceived that Hariharan has the perfect voice, training and vocal styling; further complimenting the work of Bombay Jayashri. After working with Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar, she considered them as fantastic composers who are influential to her in taking good music and found the work of KK delightful. A Kishore Kumar admirer, Rao learnt from him that "singing is more than music and lyrics"; should come "straight from heart". Rao has also been influenced by many artists outside the country. She considers artistes like Sade, Sting and Eddie Vedder as constant influences for her. Rao mentioned that she wants to lend her voice for Tabu the most and looks forward to working with Vishal Bhardwaj and Sachin–Jigar; "Bhardwaj is someone I really admire. I respect the work he has done so far and the new wave in music that he has brought about".
Describing herself as a "movie buff", she watches films from all over the world. She does not consider language as an issue. "If the plot clicks my fancy, I can watch anything". She considers Shruti Pathak and Meiyang Chang as her closest industry friends. Giving prior importance to hygiene, Rao avoids dusty places since she is allergic to dust. Maintaining a healthy diet, Rao restricts too much sweet, and "strong smelling fruits" since she is "very sensitive" to odors. Rao gives importance to be fit by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, "eating right" foods and "sleeping well".
In addition to singing for films, Rao has supported charitable organisations for a number of causes. In March 2010, she appeared on NDTV's Greenathon, an initiative to support eco-friendliness and investigate poor electricity supplies in rural villages, to lend her support. In October 2011, Rao performed the track "Haseen Zindagi" along with Teesha Nigam, Shruti Pathak, Neha Bhasin, Shefali Alvares and Akriti Kakkar, composed by Sonu Nigam for the project in aid of breast cancer awareness. She performed in Delhi at the "100 Pipers Play for a Cause" which is a musical extravaganza dedicated to raise funds for people affected by the Nepal earthquake. On 2 March 2012, celebrated as Seagram's Fuel Music Day, Rao performed live along with 50 other artistes, on a digital platform ArtistAloud.com, to show their support for independent music in India.
In February 2013, Rao contributed in Coca-Cola NDTV "Support My School" which is a 12-hour telethon which raised funds and pledges for the revitalization of 272 schools. In May 2013, Rao performed in an event focused to create awareness about the effects and influence of tobacco and to raise funds for cancer patients. In October 2014, Rao took part in the musical concert held in New Delhi for raising funds for the flood affected people of Assam. In July 2015, Rao started "I am 100% Bihar" campaign for the state's clean energy project, through various social media.