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‘Indian music is a vast ocean’

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London-based singer and composer Deepa Nair Rasiya

Listeners often describe her inimitable vocal style as soul-stirring that bring tears of joy and devotion. Deepa Nair Rasiya, a London-based singer and a composer who has worked as a concert performer and session musician in the UK since 1991, says the challenge for her is to make a mark in India where the volume of music flows in abundance…writes Anjana Parikh

AL: Please tell our readers about your journey into the world of music?

Deepa: Musically, my earliest memories are those of me, as a toddler in my parents’ flat in Marble Arch, humming and singing sections of South Indian classical compositions, whilst playing and exploring….  I guess I must have picked up a lot of this from all the recorded music

London-based singer and composer Deepa Nair Rasiya
London-based singer and composer Deepa Nair Rasiya

that was played in the house. I think I surprised most people, because of the ease with which I reproduced complex melodic phrases, typical of Carnatic music. So I guess I was a musician from the very beginning. My parents, recognizing this, of course, arranged for me to have training in Classical music when the family moved to India when I was around 5 years of age. And I gave my first public performance at the age of 7  – and there’s been no looking back!

AL: Your style is a blend between the Northern and Southern approaches to vocal technique. How do they differ from each other?

Deepa: Stylistically and in method of delivery, there is a lot of difference in the two styles…. and I am talking mainly about the classical traditions. The ‘gamaks’ or the movements that link one note to the next are approached differently, there are differences in the Raags and the use of Raags; I also find that in Khayal singing (Hindustani) for instance, there is more slow, contemplative exposition compared to Carnatic singing where, to me, the emphasis appears to be on technical brilliance rather than feel.

AL: How can the blend between the two styles of music help a singer?

Deepa: The more styles a singer is competent in, the more versatile he or she becomes. Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan are two towering examples of high calibre musicians in the music industry in India, who have demonstrated what can be achieved by mastering both styles. If one is able to take the best aspects of both styles, it can not only enhance the aesthetic beauty in the music, but also attract a larger audience to their music, having left behind the North/South divide.

AL: How did you get to be associated with ‘Chants of India’?

Deepa: Actually, Pandit Ravi Shankar came to England in the summer of 1996 to work with George Harrison and to record several sections of this album at George’s home in Henley. They approached the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, for vocalists for this project, mainly for chorus work on a lot of the chants. Shri Chandrasekhar, who was working at the Bhavan at the time, recommended me to them. After one whole day of recording with the group, I was singled out and requested to return for a solo recording soon after. When I got the call, I took a train from West London to Henley. A car was waiting for me at the station – I was whisked off to George’s residence. And I had to learn the song in the car during that short drive! It was one of the most un-nerving and surreal experiences in my life! Everytime I heard George’s voice instructing me from where he sat with the engineer, I had an “Oh my God, am I dreaming?” moment…

AL: You’ve also lent your voice to some British films and TV adverts. Is it challenging to make a mark of yourself outside India?

Deepa: Actually it is the other way round – I am a British-born musician, living in London, so the challenge for me is to make my mark in India, where I am not a resident and where there is such a sheer volume of music happening anyway. Having said that, the release of my single ‘Ab Toh Jaag’ seems to be creating a stir – I was pleasantly surprised and honoured to see some of the top names in Bollywood (both music and film) such as Vishal Dadlani (Vishal Sekhar), Ehsaan Noorani (Shankar Ehsaan Loy) and film director, Anurag Kashyap sharing my song on their Facebook page. I have had a great many number of messages of congratulations from India…. the invitations to perform at music festivals there have started coming in…so it is all looking good. Once the album comes out, I am sure the interest will grow even more.

AL: Your first debut solo album was ‘Into the Light’. It has a blend of both Indian ragas and Western music. Is it easy to market such products?

Deepa: In my view, it depends on who you are targeting as an audience. I think there is a huge market for it in India despite the fact that there are so many artistes doing it. It is less easy to market it in the West as I feel it is still very much a niche market. It is certainly not part of mainstream music in the West; the sound of Ragas being unfamiliar to the average Western ear, it will be a while before becomes more accepted and widespread in its appeal.

AL: Your new Sufi album ‘Destination’ is due for release this year.

Deepa: I am delighted to announce that ‘Destination’ is almost ready for release and will be out by the first week of March. I am deeply influenced by Spiritual poetry from across traditions; for this project, I selected Sufi verses from some of the subcontinent’s most prominent Mystic Poets: Baba Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Kabir, etc. The album has a very contemporary sound but has maintained the deep and profound feel of the lyrical content throughout….ASLI music, my label in Mumbai, is releasing this ground breaking album: my debut album in India!

AL: When you moved to the UK from India, you must have found lost especially with regard to your love for music. How did you revoke the interest in you again?

Deepa: Having left for India at the age of 5, returning to England after a gap of 7 or 8 years was difficult; whilst I spent my adolescent years delving into Western Classical music and the Pop culture, my awareness of Indian classical never really left me I guess but it re-awakened when I visited India again after I finished my studies in London – returning to further studies in Indian music felt like homecoming and it enabled me to qualify as a recording artiste at All India Radio and Doordarshan, India’s national TV station.

AL: What is the main quality a potential music learner should have?

Deepa: I teach vocal music a lot so this is a subject that comes up regularly and I am so glad you asked! The biggest message I have for potential learners is: be prepared: there is no quick fix – Indian music is a vast ocean which even the greatest of exponents have declared as impossible to fully master it; in a learner, there has to be a genuine thirst for the knowledge, dedication and hard work to produce the results, patience to see the development happen over time and above all, a humble respect for the tradition, for the art and for the Guru who is teaching them.

AL: Can music heal the world?

Deepa: This question is definitely for me! I live to heal through music! And I am being suitably rewarded, with messages I receive every day from listeners (often from other parts of the world), saying that my music has soothed their heart or that it made them cry tears of joy or devotion. I had a message from Ecuador once, from someone who said they heard a couple of tracks from ‘Into the Light’ and it moved them to tears. Music can definitely heal – there is no doubt about that. And the reason is that its reach is far beyond that of other medium of communication – it goes straight to the heart /soul. It cuts through barriers of language and cultural differences – a touching piece of music is a touching piece of music whether you are from Cambodia or California, Papua New Guinea or Prague.