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A journey across musical traditions

Deepa Nair Rasiya talks about her influences in music and philosophy and performing songs by Indian mystics with western instruments

British Indian singer Deepa Nair Rasiya has had vast exposure to various musical cultures. Her roots lay in Carnatic music, but she explored Western classical music too. Later, she switched to Hindustani classical music, learning from Veena Sahasrabuddhe and Mukul Kulkarni. As a further expansion of her musical interests, Rasiya’s latest album, Destination, explores the work of mystic poets Bhagat Kabir, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu and Baba Namdev. Released by Asli Music, its unique feature is that while the vocals are rendered in a traditional raag-based manner, the instrumentation is contemporary and western.

Deepa Nair Rasiya
Deepa Nair Rasiya

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. How did the concept of Destination come about? Have you personally been influenced by the poets you’ve chosen?
A. As a musician with a spiritual bent, I have always sought to reiterate philosophical themes or lyrics through my music. As a spiritual seeker, quite early on, I immersed myself in the sacred writings of Adi Shankaracharya and Bhagat Kabir, and in time, especially after marrying into a Sikh family, I discovered the beauty of the Sufiesque material in the sacred Guru Granth Sahib. Having acquired a level of competence in the Punjabi language, I began to understand and appreciate the lyrics of mystics such as Baba Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu, who predominantly wrote in that language. I eventually started short-listing poems that struck a deep chord and thus, Destination was born.

The cover of Rasiya's new album Destination
The cover of Rasiya's new album Destination

Q. Normally, such traditional songs are accompanied by instruments like tabla, sarangi and harmonium. How did the idea of focusing on western instruments like guitar, bass and keyboards come about?
A. I am a British-born Indian musician who has studied Western music as a teenager and young adult. There are many reasons why the instrumentation for Destination is the way it is. Whilst the traditional method of presenting this material has already been done by great masters such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Wadali Brothers and many others, I felt that I could bring an entirely different sound using my own compositional and creative style. Musically, my objective throughout has been to take raag-based music to a wider audience using contemporary instrumentation whilst spreading the messages of the poets. Compositionally, the melodies came naturally, so at no time did it feel forced or challenging.

Q. You started off being trained in Carnatic music, and later took to Hindustani music. What caused the move?
A. As someone who has always been into spirituality, I listened to a lot of semi-classical and classical versions of Bhajans in my youth. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I discovered recordings of Ashwini Bhide and Veena Sahasrabuddhe. Hariharan has also been a major influence — the exquisite charm of his north/ south style, which he used in his delivery of pure Urdu Ghazals captivated me. In the early 1990s, I studied briefly with Ustad Dilshad Khan and Begum Parveen Sultana. I found the khayal vocal style intensely appealing.

Q. You worked on Chants of India, the spiritual album released by Pandit Ravi Shankar and
George Harrison. What was the experience like?
A. Chants of India is probably the most amazing project I have had the honour of working on. A senior musician at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, Shri Chandrasekhar, recommended my name. I was initially invited to sing as part of a small group as there were several mantras and shlokas. But soon, I was instructed to return the following week to record a solo! I was terrified and excited at the prospect. I was taught the song in the car, en route to George’s house. Both Raviji and George were very kind and warm and I managed to sing the song exactly the way Raviji wanted it. Subsequently, he recorded his vocals on to the track and it almost became like our duet. I feel hugely privileged.

Q. What projects are you working on now or plan to work on next?
A. When I recorded Destination with KJ Singh of Asli Music, I had simultaneously recorded a second album, titled, Saranai, which entirely comprises material from the Sikh tradition. The album is due for release by the end of the year. I am also looking to record more Sufi material, this time with my newly formed group called Kauras. I expect to tour India in the coming months. I am a relatively new artiste in India and I am looking forward to some wonderful concerts there.

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