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Bengali singer and actress Iman Chakraborty may belong to a rare breed of artists who received India’s prestigious National Award after her very first playback song for a movie, but her journey was far from easy. The 34-year-old singing sensation remembers a time when she was rejected for not fitting a certain stereotype.

“In the early stages of my career, I only used to sing Rabindra Sangeet. For any Bengali singer performing Tagore’s songs, it’s traditionally expected that you maintain a saintly appearance—wearing a sari, tying your hair in a bun adorned with jasmine flowers, and sporting a prominent bindi [red dot] on your forehead while playing a harmonium. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that since it’s a personal choice, I never quite looked the part,” said Iman Chakraborty in an interview, hours before her concert in Dubai last Saturday.

Singer Iman Chakraborty performs in Dubai

Her wardrobe choice, mostly Western casuals, and on-stage histrionics were considered blasphemous and a stain on Tagore’s rich legacy, according to the singer.

“I started singing Tagore songs while wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and I danced with abandon while singing Rabindranath Tagore’s songs. Everybody wondered what was going on and who I was to rewrite those rules. But I didn’t pay heed to those negative voices. Go to [expletive], I thought,” said Chakraborty. Rabindra Sangeet, also known as Tagore Songs, is a unique genre in Bengali music, where songs written and composed by the iconic Nobel Laureate polymath are sung. Similar to the cultural impact that William Shakespeare’s works have had on the English-speaking world, Tagore songs are considered a cultural treasure of Bengal.

“How does it matter what I wear while singing those songs? I always believed that if the emotions and aesthetics are correct and pure, everything else is good. Judge me all you want when it comes to my singing. Judge whether I am good at singing or not, but don’t judge anything else other than that. I have always believed that I have only one life, and I will live it the way I please,” said Chakraborty.

Her bold work philosophy worked.

Jonai Singh of JS Events from New York, who has been at the forefront of bringing cultural artists from India during the pujas, told Gulf News: "This was a decade ago... 2013. It was late at night in New York, and I was browsing on the internet when a You Tube video by an artist caught my attention. A Bengali singer was singing with a harmonium, in a local show. She reminded me of the young 'Runa Laila'. I decided to host her for her first US tour, I felt the world needed to hear Iman Chakraborty. The rest is history."

"We brought her for the first global US tour, which was extremely successful. Iman was noticed by musicians, composers and the music industry. Her career soared. She then went on to win the National Award in India. It feels wonderful to see an artist, whose journey you have been part of, succeed. In a way, she feels like our discovery. The show in Dubai is the closing act of her 2023 global concert tour, organised by us. To see Iman evolve as a performing artist, up close and personal, has been magical, indeed," Singh of JS Events from New York told Gulf News.

What also helped silence those critics, who questioned her talent earlier in her career, was that coveted National Award in 2017 for the soulful Bengali song “Tumi Jaake Bhalobasho” from the movie ‘Praktan,’ starring Prosenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta.

“The National Award for singing in my career came as a huge blessing. I never thought I would ever get a National Award in my career. Having said that, I just received one, but remember singers like Shreya Ghoshal have six such awards. In my eyes, the National Award is a good reward, but the best reward that an artist seeks is the love of their audience, and I have received that,” said Chakraborty, who constantly travels to the US, the UAE, and other parts of the globe for her live concerts. Before her 2017 National award win, she was working in the music industry for over four years. Her hustle was real, she says.

Iman Chakraborty is a self-made singer who believes in fighting her own battles

“If you want to make it as a singer, you have to be very serious about it. I am an eternal student of music and will always remain one. I do my Riyaaz [vocal practice] every day, and I am very disciplined. I always tell my students who I teach music that if you are a musician, then you can’t live like others. You have to be particular about your food and what time you go to bed. Exercise—both physical and vocal—is so important.”

Lessons from COVID-19:

During the COVID-19 pandemic that plunged the world into a lockdown, and public events, including concerts, ground to a halt, this singer—who is married to singer Nilanjan—learned how much they loved performing live to an army of adoring fans.

“My husband and I started doing online concerts, but frankly, I didn’t enjoy it. Performing in front of a live audience is something we craved. So after some time, I got very bored and sad about not liking it. But we did it for the money. This is my bread and butter. Music is my livelihood too.”

I am my own biggest critic. When I hear my own voice, I often feel it’s rubbish. So I never listen to my own songs.

- Iman Chakraborty on her biggest pet-peeve

She takes her craft very seriously. While she has a busy concert calendar filled with tours in India, the UAE, and the US, she is also aware that she needs to up her social media game.

“There are so many youngsters who are coming up in my field, and they are so well-equipped. They know how to handle YouTube, Instagram … I am laid back, but I am now understanding how social media is for our business. When your song releases, you need to make reels and put it out there … Now, I have a team whom I pay to do it on my behalf … At the end of the day, music has to be pure because audiences can spot a shoddy song from afar. You can’t mess with them.”

Fighting the good fight:

While she’s acutely aware that she cannot mess with her audiences, she’s equally fierce when it comes to protecting her private space. Earlier this March, she made sure that a stranger who tried to harass her at a fruit shop near her home was arrested. She also took to Facebook to speak up against the harrowing ordeal, hoping to embolden other women who may face such molesters in their daily lives.

“There’s a term called visual harassment where somebody harasses you with their looks … He was staring at me from head to toe, and I felt very uneasy … Remember, if you don’t stand up for yourself, there is nobody going to turn up to fight for you. If you face harassment at your workplace or in a bus or train, you should speak out, and you must fight for yourself. Nothing good comes out of being silent,” said Chakraborty. She’s fierce when it comes to standing up for her rights as a woman and as a singer, but there’s one area which overwhelms her. Trolls torment her because she is yet to master the art of filtering vitriol and hate that’s dumped on a public figure on social media platforms.

“I get very disturbed and agitated because nobody likes to hear negative things about yourself … Comments on what I am wearing to what I am eating, trolls don’t spare anyone … But I have learned that handling trolls is a part of our profession in the spotlight. It’s impossible to silence all the trolls that hit you … I just want to make good music and be an eternal student of music.”

Iman Chakraborty loves to entertain and believes she's an eternal student of music

She claims she was never a studious child and didn’t dream of becoming a doctor or joining the army. The self-made singer got her music base during the Durga Pooja festival. Her biggest mentor and guide, apart from icons like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, is singer Usha Uthup.

“She is now 76 or more than that, but mentally she’s younger than me. If I am feeling low or depressed, we meet at a cafeteria for a chat. She has taught me that age is just a number and that hard work pays off. My career is proof of that philosophy.”

Did you know?
How Iman Chakraborty met her husband and musician Nilanjan?
“I had a recording at his studio. I was late, and he was very disgusted because I was late. We finished my song in one take, and I escaped … Later, I met my idol Ustad Zakir Hussain to get his blessing. He kissed my hand, and I had to share that happy moment with someone, and I called up Nilanjan at 4 am. It was meant to be a call where he listens, and he indulged me completely. Our relationship started on that note. So we believe Zakir Hussain’s blessings are with us.”