The fine line between imitation and inspiration

Written by Snigdha Prakash on 08 May 2020

In conversation with Shankar Mahadevan 

– Snigdha Prakash, Student, Pasadena, USA.

Never make somebody’s idea your own. That’s imitation. Take away, instead, the principle behind that idea – and make that your own. That’s inspiration. It’s a thin line that separates imitation from inspiration. Here, Shankar Mahadevan shares with Snigdha Prakash a clear and practical way to, always, draw that line.

Where is the line drawn between being inspired by another artist and imitating him? Sometimes I feel if I listen to one particular artist for very long it gets so subconsciously imbibed in my singing that I feel like I’m imitating the artist.  

There is nothing wrong in imitating an artist. But imitating to the extent that you start to sound exactly like that artist can become a disadvantage for you. Because there's no artist on this planet today who doesn’t want work or who doesn’t want to sing or who doesn’t want to perform. 

So what you should do is firstly get inspired by every artist – especially your favourite artist. Listen to the artists and adopt their principles in music more than trying to sing exactly like them. I have seen students of many Gurus who sing exactly like their Guru. I don't know whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Because in the long run listeners will always compare you with that artist. And you will never match up to an original. 

What you should do instead is take inspiration from all these artists and imbibe it in your own style. And that is a mental thing – it’s in the head. And it is possible. All of you are very intelligent. And when you can compose at this level you can easily disassociate imitation from the style, and imitation from the content. 

Take that content and make it yours. And on that small content develop something and make it yours. That’s where your creativity can come in. Adopt a taan sung by a renowned artist like Kishori Amonkar or Ashwini Bhide, and then see what you can add so that that taan becomes yours. And that should become a regular habit. (“Taan” the singing of rapid melodic passages using musical notes or vowel sounds. It is a form of improvising.)

While singing a raga (a specific combination of musical notes that can evoke a specific kind of emotion) or a bandish (a melodic composition in Hindustani classical music that is set in a specific raga) always ask yourself what is the normal way to sing that. Normal is an easy path which just comes to you immediately. Then ask yourself how do I make it my own? 

At the end of the day, a composition is a journey of notes. So where can that one note of yours’ travel so that its journey becomes interesting? That is a composition. So try and make everything you hear your own – whether it is a taal, whether it is a raag, whether it is a taan, whether it is sargam. Listen to everybody, get inspired by everybody, and at the end of the day, make it your own. (“Taal” is the system of rhythm in Indian classical music. “Sargam” is the singing of the musical notes instead of the words of a musical composition – with vocal modulation or adornment.)

Read next.

A song is a journey of one musical note.

When you work with melody and rhythm.

When you join two parts of a song with a melody.

When you arrange music for a song you’ve created.