Artist | Women Series | Sonam Kalra

Women series is a monthly edit to explore creative entrepreneurship amongst women globally. Through this series, we wish to understand creative journeys, challenges, inspirations and develop a community. This month we interviewed Sonam Kalra, a musician and founder of the Sufi Gospel Project

Tell me about how your musical journey started. Did you have musical influences growing up?  What education/ training did you receive? 

As far as I can remember there has always been music in our home. My earliest musical memory is sitting in my mother’s lap, listening to Begum Akhtar on the record player. There was a certain calm, a surrender, a deep emotion that would be apparent on my mother’s face when she listened to music. It moved her from deep within. I started learning when I was quite young, about 4 years of age. Since then I’ve had the good fortune of learning music from some amazing Gurus like Smt. Shubha Mudgal, Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar. But perhaps, my greatest Gurus were my parents, for it is through them that I learnt to seek, to be true to myself, to work hard with integrity and express myself with honesty.

I sing for them and I sing to God. It’s that simple. 

What has been the source of inspiration for you (people, places, cultures etc)? What are you listening to these days?

My greatest source of inspiration has always been my parents, Aneeta and Surjit Kalra. I sing for them and I sing to God. It's that simple. I’m also inspired by people who have used their voices to make a change and told their stories with truth and courage, people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Musically, I think what appeals to me are big voices, honest voice and voices that tell a story - that to me is what a voice should do, sing yes, but also speak, tell you a story without necessarily spelling it out. Abida Parveen, Begum Akhtar and Ella Fitzgerald's voices were like that- filled with stories that made you want to keep listening to them, for that one glimpse into their hearts, their souls. These days I am listening to Iqbal Bano’s rendition of ‘Hum Dekhenge’, a composition based on an Urdu Nazm written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with a revolutionary theme. I myself have composed based on another poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is called ‘BOL’ and it speaks of using one’s voice to make a change.

Could you share the conceiving of The Sufi Gospel project? We are curious to know about the process and its development.

The Sufi Gospel Project blends together the many voices of faith, through poetry, prayer and music to create one universal voice of faith. Traditional Western gospels meld with Indian classical sounds and Indian spiritual texts are enriched by elements of Western poetry to create a sound that touches every soul. To put forth the idea that no matter what the language of the lyrics or the ethnicity of the sounds is, there is but one language, the language of faith. 

I first conceived of ‘The Sufi Gospel Project’ when I was asked to sing Gospel music to commemorate the Urz, the birth centenary of the Sufi saint, Hazrat Inayat Khan at the Inayat Khan Dargah in New Delhi. I had sung Gospel in churches and at other music venues but when I was invited to sing for the Urz of Inayat Khan, I felt the universe was telling me something for it is not every day that a Sikh girl is asked to sing Gospel music in a Sufi shrine. That is what inspired me to create a sound that blended the faiths. A question I was often asked was, why does a girl who belongs to the Sikh religion sing Gospel music? My answer was always the same; because God has no religion and religion is not God. I work with a keyboard player and guitarist who are Christian, my accompanists on the Sarangi and Tabla are Muslim, my flautist and percussionist are Hindus - a testament that when it comes to faith and music, religion is not relevant. In my music, Khusrau blends with Amazing Grace, Kabir shares the stage with Abide with Me and Bulleh Shah’s voice is heard amidst English texts and Irish music whilst Nanak's words resonate in the plaintive strains of world Folk sounds. The aim of The Sufi Gospel Project is to shed the garb of common Sufi and Gospel interpretations, to find a commonality between them and take on a more all-inclusive definition of Oneness that also embraces Bhakti, contemporary poetry and more. Proving that many different hallelujahs can exist in harmony. And because of the many languages and musical influences I’ve combined, I find that most people are able to connect with the music and the message.

What is the step forward for your personal projects?

I've been truly fortunate to be able to share my music at some very special venues in 30 countries across the world, including the iconic Sydney Opera House, The Pyramids of Giza, The Royal Opera House Cairo, Coke Studio India, Muzaffar Ali’s Jahan-E-Khusrau with Abida Parveen and The Sounds of Freedom Concert in New Delhi where I shared the stage with legendary musician, Sir Bob Geldof. I’m hoping to share more of my music globally so that the message reaches more and more people across the world, as I believe this message of acceptance is one that is relevant and important in today’s socio-political climate. I’m continuing to create new music within The Sufi Gospel Project, there are about three new tracks that we are releasing this year. 

Sonam Kalra at Sufi Gospel Project

I’ve also been travelling with my new performance themed around Partition called ‘PARTITION: STORIES OF SEPARATION BY SONAM KALRA’. This is a multidisciplinary experiential music performance using theatre, video, art and music to retell the stories of separation as a result of the partition of India in 1947. I spent almost a year researching the works of poets and writers from both sides and composed the music: five songs based on that poetry and inspired by their stories. I also worked with a contemporary poet whose poetry is recited during the show and with whom I have composed one of the pieces for this project. Using the power of music, the voices of Manto, Ali Sardar Jafri, Daman, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Amrita Pritam as well as personal accounts of ordinary people who survived this terrible ordeal, my effort has been to weave together a retelling of this holocaust that tore our country apart. We’ve performed it in India and a few venues abroad and I’m hoping to be able to present it in other parts of India as well as at festivals and venues internationally and of course, in Pakistan one day. I hope it enables a channel of communication where we can reach out to each other as people, neighbours and children of the same land and start a dialogue of peace. I recently also created a performance piece based on Krishna where one of the songs I sang in praise of Lord Krishna was written by Guru Arjan Dev in the Dasam Granth. That poem was one I found during my research and it has great meaning for me, as it further quantifies the seamlessness of faith across the religion that I see and know to be what true faith is and should be.

Could you comment on the current landscape of independent music industry in India? 

Honestly, I think it's a great time in India to be in the field of music, as there are so many live music venues and festivals now. Technology and social media have made really easy for musicians to put their music, sounds and ideas independently out there so that is allowing a lot of musicians to amass an audience for themselves, without the help of a record label. I think some great music is coming out of India and I’m really happy to see the blend of Indian and Western influences being used so creatively by many musicians. I do think however, there is a need for better artist management - managers who can help map out the career of an artist, make good choices for them, understanding the needs of an artist and the kind of music they play instead of blindly plugging them in venues that don’t work for them.

What is your understanding of spirituality, the importance of conscience in arts? Comment on the link between spirituality and arts. 

For me, personally, music is worship. It is that moment when you are truly one with yourself and your Maker. I think any artistic expression means allowing yourself to surrender, allowing yourself to be moved and guided by a deeper conscience, letting go so that you can be shown the way by your intuition, supported of course, by intellect and hard work. Once you truly immerse yourself in your art form, you find you are able to take a fresh look at the ordinary and see it as filled with light and beauty. Art is spiritually transforming not just for the artist, but for the listeners or the viewer. If it stirs the soul, in spite of imperfection, then it is art. And that’s all it needs to be.

I’m hoping to share more of my music globally so that the message reaches more and more people across the world, as I believe this message of acceptance is one that is relevant and important in today’s socio-political climate.