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I am Tired of Being Called a 'Female' Music Composer: Sneha Khanwalkar

Sneha Khanwalkar.

Sneha Khanwalkar.

'Till today I am asked if I am a singer,' says Sneha Khanwalkar, who has won accolades for films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Gangs of Wasseypur.

You don’t need a survey to tell you that women are grossly underrepresented in the music industry. While you’ll find singers aplenty, since every heroine needs a voice to lip-sync to, composers and other technicians remain mostly male. The Hindi film industry has seen very few women composers so far. For some years in the recent past, Sneha Khanwalkar was the only prominent female name, having composed for films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Gangs of Wasseypur.

Sneha has joined the #HERmusic campaign initiated by IPRS (Indian Performing Right Society Limited), which aims to address the concern of the underrepresentation of women artists in the Indian music industry. She is joined by several artists like Anushka Manchanda (singer, composer, music producer), MM Srilekha (singer and music composer), Natania Lalwani (indie-pop musician), Hiral Viradia (sound engineer) and Anwesha Dutta Gupta (singer and composer).

Sneha spoke to us about the campaign and how she hates the label ‘female music director’. Excerpts:

It is 2021, why are we still having to talk about women’s representation in the music industry?
We are still trying to increase the ratio of women in the industry, which is so low that it’s almost criminal. And honestly, if institutions like the IPRS are pushing for female musicians and artists, I would do anything to create even the smallest push. Personally, I’m tired of having to do this over and over again. But you know, it’s something that we have to do, a cross we have to bear, but it’s just annoying that we still have to keep doing this.

Why is the awareness so low that we still need campaigns for this?
Do people really know what a music director does? No, because we’re still just talking about singers, and people on the screen. We don’t talk about technicians. How many people know who editors are? There are female editors also in this world. General awareness about these fields is very low. Music mein ho toh tum kya karte ho, gaana gaate ho? Till today I am asked if I am a singer. So for a girl in a small town to imagine becoming an editor, or her parents supporting her – this is not even a conversation. Because traditionally, men have been taking up these jobs.

So people are still surprised when you tell them you are a music composer?
It’s so annoying. I can never be a normal music director. I have to be a ‘female’ music director, all the time. There is no talk about us as artists only, and not as male or female.

Technical jobs, irrespective of gender, are considered less glamorous, right?
Many women wonder whether they should become singers and actresses because you get more visibility. When these big award shows happen, the technical categories are handed out in a smaller event, they are not even part of the main ceremony. So first of all, the technical aspect in itself is underrepresented, then comes gender, where again it’s traditionally thought to be a man’s job.

Did you face gender discrimination yourself, when you started your career?
I was very young, 20 or 21, and too focused on my music to realize these things. Even if there were struggles, I wasn’t aware that it must be happening because I’m a woman, or because I was inexperienced. You don’t even think of yourself as a woman, at that point, it’s all about following your passion. Growing up as a tomboy and throwing my weight around at home, these thoughts didn’t even occur to me. The industry liked me for the work I did, I wasn’t allowed to get away with bad work either because I am a woman.

What do you think the industry should be doing to encourage more women participation?
First of all, the industry is not one person. Different people function differently. I don’t think there are board meetings where they decide not to hire a woman. In fact, there is enough curiosity too. Among 100 people, 20 might be interested in my music because I am a woman. ‘Oh, it’s a female music director? Let me check out her songs.’ So there is that also. I think what the industry should do is in their stories, they should start promoting normal women, and not just keep the same conventional beauty and characters of women. Maybe that will help. Men should also be willing to work with women, and not go by preconceived notions that we are more emotional or less professional.

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