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At three, when babies begin to talk, Shalini sang on stage. At five, when girls of her age were playing with dolls, she rehearsed with various music bands. At 11, when her friends were busy attending classes in school, Shalini was invited to cut her first album titled Shalini for which she also recorded the video. At 14, when all the girls were preparing for the Board examination, Shalini juggled with books and music notes, and between school and the studios.

Yet, to use a clichi, she came out with flying colours, missing the state first rank by just three marks. A remarkable achievement, one must acknowledge. And Shalini is certainly aware of that. When she talks about her accomplishments, she does appear somewhat over-confident, something that is pardonable when you consider all that she has achieved at a young age. And thankfully, at 16, like other teenaged girls, she too, drools over Leonardo di Caprio.

So, right from the age of three, competitions, stage shows and musicals were part of her life, along with studies. "Even as a three-year-old, I remember how thrilled I was when people clapped and appreciated my songs. Music is a passion for me and every song is a test," says Shalini. Her goal in life has remained the same: to be a famous, successful and distinguished singer.

The big break came when she was 11. One of the television channels announced a music competition in memory of R D Burman in which the participants had to record songs from 1942 A Love Story and send the cassettes to Bombay. Shalini decided to try her luck. After hearing her sing the adult love songs, Balaji, the sound engineer, was so impressed that he refused to take any studio charges. He was also pleasantly surprised to hear her sing the Hindi songs without an accent. "He praised my singing and then blessed me. He didn't know I was a North Indian," remarks Shalini. Even now, not many know that she is originally from North India.

But she was in for a rude shock. When she switched on the television that night, she saw the names of winners of the same competition being flashed on screen. Yes, she had missed the deadline. She cried the whole night. "I thought I would achieve fame through this competition. I badly wanted to be a well-known singer and didn't intend to remain a stage singer always, known only to a few people. I cried a lot. I asked God, what am I going to do now?"

God did have an answer for her. This ambitious young girl was destined to get another chance. Madhava Das of Magnasound happened to be searching for new talents at that time and approached Balaji to suggest some names. With Shalini's songs still fresh in his mind, Balaji played Shalini's songs to Das. "Can you guess how old this singer is?" he asked. Das thought she was 23 or 24, only to be told that the voice belonged to an 11-year-old.

Magnasound summoned Shalini the next day itself. She could only say "wow!" when Das informed her that she was going to sing for their first Tamil pop album. Suresh Peters was the only person that time who had a Tamil pop album to his credit. But Shalini had to wait for two more years to see her dream come true. Finally, when she was 13, Shalini was released. It wasn't a sensational debut, but people started noticing her.

Soon, she was there on newspapers, magazine covers and various television channels. "I enjoyed all the attention, it was great. I was in Arkonam recently to inaugurate a function. I didn't expect such a huge crowd to show up. It was an experience I will never forget. The police escorted me and there were thousands of people everywhere just to see me and touch me. I always wanted something like that to happen. God, finally it came true! It was great, simply great," gushes the teenager.

Shalini, who had till then taken lessons in Western classical music, realised it was not enough to build an ambitious career. So, she began training in Carnatic music. That continued for a year, following which she switched to Hindustani classical music since she was told that lessons in Carnatic music will enable her to sing only in that particular way. "Now I understand how wise I was to take such a decision. Training in classical music is extremely helpful because it makes us modulate our voice. We can take the twists and turns (in a song) much more easily," she explains.

By the time Shalini turned 14, several other singers, including Anuradha Sriram (of Chennai Girl fame), had entered the arena. All the new singers together brought out a pop album called Dance Party-I which was a big hit in the Tamil music industry. On Shalini's agenda now are Dance Party-II and her second solo album.

Music today is a completely different ball game, we remind her. To be successful, the singers have to be reasonably good looking, good dancers and better performers, besides being okay as singers. Is the pressure too much for a young girl like Shalini who is still in school? "No, I have been taking part in stage shows since the time I was a toddler. So, acting doesn't intimidate me. I don't have a problem singing, dancing and acting either in front of the camera or in front of a huge audience. In fact, I enjoy dancing and singing before an audience. I also think I have good looks, so it's not been that difficult for me," she says.

Carrying books for rehearsals -- where she studies for exams -- has become a routine affair for her. "I give equal preference to studies because I believe you are nothing without good academic qualifications. My ambition is to be a great singer and I will be one. But that does not mean I do not have to study. It is as important as singing," declares Shalini.

Life is tough, she admits, but also adventurous. On one hand, she attends school and prepares for exams, while on the other, she is busy recording jingles, singing and dancing for music albums, stage shows and films. But while she likes playback singing, it's a strict 'no' as far as acting on screen is concerned. And Shalini did get many film offers, including one from Mani Ratnam. Says she, "I don't want to act in movies. I told them I am always ready to sing for films, but not to act."

She may be a pop singer, but she likes to listen to slow rock and melodies. "As a singer, I do not want to restrict myself to pop songs alone. I sing ghazals, classical, anything. I want to be a versatile singer like Asha Bhosle. I'm happy as long as I get to sing. I know how difficult it is to get into this field and I consider myself lucky. I was at the right place at the right time. It is all due to God's grace."

Shalini's latest passion is to form an all girls band. It may not be long before Indian music fans see the birth of desi Spice Girls, singing and dancing in Tamil, Hindi and English!

(from Rediff)

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