Kashmiri Singer’s ‘Song of Hope’ Becoming New Pandemic Ballad

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Pragnya Wakhlu during a solo stage performance. Photos by Special Arrangement

By Yashasvi Tickoo

AS body bags, flaming pyres and mass graves are making death dominant in Pandemic, many artists are celebrating life, with songs like Life Goes On and Better Days. Kashmir is becoming part of this global musical movement by singing its own tunes to tackle plague.

One such tunemaker lately became the talk of the town for bagging twin trophies—Best Cinematography Award for Kahwa Speaks and Best Music Award for Katyuchuk My Love—at the 11th Dadasaheb Phalke Film Festival 2021.

The awarded anthems were conceptualised on the themes of peace and romance respectively, the latter being a euphemism to the need for harmony by a personified cup of Kahwa, and the former along the lines of the ballad-worthy love story of Habba Khatoon.

Shuttling between Srinagar and Seattle, before making Delhi as her hub and home, Pragnya Wakhlu originally hails from Kashmiri capital. She and her parents moved away to Pune in the mid-eighties, where she was primarily brought up. The late 2000s, her first album was sold in the form of CDs, and she continued making music through the era of streaming.

“The shift of my audience into the realm of streaming has invited the need for revised strategies as a campaigner for my own music,” the singer says. “It used to be about how many CDs you sold but now it’s all about views and likes.”

In the self-isolation stage of 2020, Pragnya wrote a soul-searching song—“talking about life and life-learning experiences”—as part of her six-song album, Lessons in Love. Coming of age in the second viral wave, the ‘Song of Hope’ is now spreading positive vibes in pandemic.

As an independent artist, Pragnya upholds her artistic freedom, often limited under labels, by financing and producing her own music. “I want to continue spreading the message of positivity, and strive for more peace and kindness in the world, through my art form,” she says.

In an exclusive chat with Kashmir Observer, the Kashmiri singer-songwriter talks about her recent work, her journey as an artist and the themes she explores through her music.

Where do you live currently?

I live in Delhi but my grandmother lives in Srinagar. I was born in Srinagar’s Lal Ded hospital.

So you started music in Srinagar?

My parents shifted to Pune in mid-eighties, and so I completed my college and everything from St. Josephs and then Fergussons.

I’ve lived in many cities. I had a job in Bangalore in IT in Infosys. After that I went to the US, and then I decided to quit. I was doing music all along but now I wanted to do it formally.

At what point did you realise that maybe IT is not your cup of tea?

I felt like I wanted to do something more creative, as well as contribute to society, using my gifts as a musician. In the IT company at the end of the day, I was making websites to buy clothes from online stores. For me that didn’t seem like a meaningful reason to exist. I felt like there has to be a different path that I’m supposed to be on.

I had a salary and a job and I felt like if I did not quit now, I would not want to quit as my pay would be much higher.

How did your parents and family react to this?

My parents were luckily supportive, even when I was not clear about my objectives. I wanted to make music to do much more than entertainment, as a part of healing and messaging.

But, a lot of people told me not to quit. It was the year of a slight economic recession, and therefore not the best time to leave a job. But I came back to India in 2008.

Since I started, it has been quite hard. If you’re changing careers into a creative field, nobody cares if you excelled at your previous occupation. You’ve to build yourself up from scratch. I didn’t have any guidance as to how to move forward.

I started writing music in Seattle. I used to go to a karaoke cafe where the best singers would get a free starter if they were good at it. The host was a band leader for a local Seattle band. One day, she told me that she will be hosting this singer-songwriter night for women artists.

She asked for a demo, so I recorded my vocals and guitar on my laptop and cut a CD and gave it to her.

So was that your first break?

Yes, that was my first show of original music. We were told that whoever sold the most tickets would get to headline the performances in the women singer-songwriter night.

Consequently, every one of my co-workers bought the tickets making me the most-sold performer. And therefore I got to perform my original in front of a live audience for the first time. And that gained me a standing ovation.

But before that Seattle show, I was performing covers. I would go to intercollegiate competitions in Pune, and in Bangalore I was in a band that would perform locally.

Sharing stage with other musicians.

Do you’ve any background in music?

My family is not a very musical, although my grandmother plays the sitar and I learnt it in my younger years. My parents learnt sitar and tabla but never pursued it in seriousness. They’re artistically inclined, but not so much as to build a career in it. Therefore I had no reference point or mentorship in my career.

Yes, there needs to be some guidance when one starts out, but since you had no support, how did you manage otherwise?

As an independent artist there is no milestone as to how much progress you need to make, it is all relative.

When I came to India from US, there were not a lot of female artists, which is why men did not take you seriously. So you really have to prove yourself.

I remember I was a session vocalist for a band in Pune and was ostensibly ignored attributing to my gender. Everytime I gave a suggestion to a band member, he would not even look at it, or me, as if I was not there.

It’s challenging in the beginning because, in a quest to become a reputable artist, you’ve to prove yourself every step of the way as a woman, something that is not true for fellow male artists in the industry.

The very dichotomy that exists between the generic category of artists and female artists of the same nature plays with one’s own credibility. In order to move forward as a woman, one has to make it to the generic best of all list of artists, all to be taken seriously.

You know, everyone assumes that just because you’re a woman you’re going to sing pop and other stuff like that, but my primary genre is fusion folk music.

What I wanted to do was create Kashmiri music in my own way, by breaking out of the mould. I wanted to eliminate the jumpiness and instill a more sombre vibe to the songs. This idea is met by mixed reactions, because a certain set of people prefer Kashmiri songs the original way.

Are there any specific subjects that you wish to touch upon like many of the Kashmiri independent artists like Alif or Ahmer?

Most of it is aimed at spreading positivity and peace, by bringing about a more soulful rendition of a folk song, or my original works. A lot of my music is also based on my personal experiences and relationships.

A member of the audience at show I was performing at, once asked me to make music on the political atrocities in the region, but, for me to comment upon something I have not witnessed, i.e. a political scenario that I was largely oblivious to for a better part of my life, would be highly unnatural and unauthentic, and the music that comes from such place of unauthenticity would call for a rather synthesised retelling.

The artists that politicise their work have a set of personal experiences that births art in its unadulterated form, therefore accounting for a more vulnerable, and sourced storytelling.

Moreover, I believe that art is subjective and it is one’s own choice when it comes to the themes that they wish to touch upon in their work. For example, my recent single, The Whale Song served as a metaphor for a relationship I was a part of, that was not completely unravelling of the significant other’s values, thus inviting conflict between the two people.

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