Music

The sound of oneness

Sonam Kalra with the students of Kalakshetra. Photo: M. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

When Sonam Kalra sings, celebrated Sufi poet Bulleh Shah may be smiling up there, and so must be the father of gospel music, Thomas A Dorsey. Not only do their two genres blend impeccably in her deep, stirring voice; her unique ‘The Sufi Gospel Project’ draws out the essence of their philosophy.

As the Farsi verses ‘Man manam’ and her version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ echoes through the serene, wooded campus of the Kalakshetra, Chennai, where Sonam performed recently as part of the ‘Remembering Rukmini Festival’, you experience the healing power of music.

“There is no better cure for troubled minds and souls,” says the charming singer clad in a black salwar kameez and standing amidst students-turned-fans in colourful dance ‘practice’ attires.

“Labelling is the root cause. Whether it is our faith, work, art…we want to categorise everything,” she explains talking about her project. “I love sufi as much as gospel and thought why not sing them together. Actually anything in which I can convey a message musically inspires me. Be it jazz, Hindustani classical, Shabad (Sikh hymns), Gaelic chants, bhajan and Kabir dohas.”

A former advertising professional, who studied graphic design; her fight against naming began when she was told to choose between design and copywriting. “I was more excited to be at the beginning of the ideation process, which I knew I could be as a copywriter. Why can’t a designer be a copywriter, I wondered. Quite like how my Sikh father refused to heed our neighbour’s advice of removing the name plate during the 1984 riots. The divides are our making.” Thus, Sonam set out on her journey towards the oneness of genres.

She took a sabbatical from advertising and began focusing totally on music. Inspired by her mother Aneeta Kalra, who ran a music academy Shadaj, Sonam began learning classical music from an early age but later decided to pursue it seriously. She trained under Shubha Mudgal and Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee. Meanwhile, Sonam got opportunities to do travel shows for BBC and Star World. “Every experience in life adds to your art and widens the perspective,” says Sonam, who is also an award-winning theatre actor.

Once when in Singapore, she heard Ashley Clement and decided to learn gospel and jazz from him. She also studied classical opera under the noted tenor, Hur Chul Young.

“Each style helped me experience music at a personal level. Through them I found faith in god, in people, in goodness and in love. And all these found resonance in ‘The Sufi Gospel Project’ that began to take shape when I was invited to sing at the dargah of Sufi Inayat Khan. It set me thinking that the world is full of overwhelming revelations. Imagine a Sikh girl singing gospel being invited to perform in a seemingly Islamic space.”

Every incident in her life seems to have had an impact on the project. When Sonam lost her mother to cancer, members of Shadaj wanted her to do a tribute concert. “When putting together the compositions, I understood how I wanted my music to sound. I knew the way forward. It was like a blessing from my mother, who was my strength,” she says.

She wanted the project to break down walls; to be prayer, poetry and music. It’s hard to slot it. “That exactly is the aim — to rise above labels.”

Sonam performed in coke studio, dargahs, churches, sufi festivals, academic and art institutions, auditoriums around the world and literature festivals. “I share the stage with sarangi and tabla artists who are Muslims, a keyboard player who is a Christian and a Hindu flautist. And wherever we go, we urge people to live, love and listen to their heart,” she smiles.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 1:58:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/the-sound-of-oneness/article8336521.ece

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