She is not your quintessential Kirtan singer with prayer beads and turbaned hair. But Manika Kaur has challenged traditional boundaries of kirtan singing by introducing fresh new elements of sound into her music. Her debut album raised a million dirhams in Dubai, her second album made it to the top 50 world music charts in the first four days of its release and with her third album released this year, she has pushed the boundaries “evolving the sound and hoping that with each more tracks we reach more hearts, open more minds and create more connections”. With the support of two renowned recording labels Suriya Records (UK) and Six Degrees (US), the album is now working its way to becoming eligible for the 2019 Grammys Award. For Manika, this is really something important for Kirtan, a niche area in music.
Clearly, a champion of Kirtan music, Manika is today the fastest-selling contemporary Sikh solo artist in the world. The media once described of her music as “hymns that build lives”, which is what the sole purpose of her singing is. It is linked to her charitable organisation Kirtans For Causes, through which she is building homes for the underprivileged, educating children, empowering women and changing lives in Punjab.
And there is recognition coming, she proudly says. Last year at the Trafalgar Square in London, she addressed a 20,000 crowd where she spoke about the infamous 1984 anti-Sikh riots and also about what is happening in Punjab today. She was also invited to perform in Houses of Parliament in the UK. As a strong voice of Punjab, Manika has taken her music to unprecedented highs. In 2016, she won the 2016 Sikh Award for Sikhs in Entertainment and with over 10,000,000 views on YouTube, the Dubai-based singer who was born and raised in Melbourne, says she is happy that she can get more eyes on her work in Punjab. “If I can get to build more houses and help, I have already done what I set out to achieve.” The versatile and talented Manika Kaur in conversation with Indira Laisram.

What made you adopt Kirtan singing?
I wouldn’t say I adopted it. My parents planted that seed early on by exposing us to the beautiful stories of the Guru. That’s how my love for Kirtan and the Guru began. That really inspired me, especially living in Australia where they wanted us to hold on to our roots and have a connection to who we are. They really focussed and honed in on that. So as kids, me and my siblings would get together and have jam sessions. I call it jam sessions because we would jam on our harmoniums, tabla and sing Shabad (hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, the central text of Sikhism) together.

Did you have a formal musical training?
No, I have never had formal musical training. I have taken a class here or there but never consistently. After getting married, having a kid and with my work load, I haven’t really had the time to take on music lessons.

How would you classify your sound or your style?
When I did my first album Bandhanaa (2010), it was produced by Sukhbir Singh (known as the Prince of Bhangra). What I was hoping for was to take the Shabad that I grew up hearing and singing to another level by making them sound completely fresh and relevant in terms of sound. I want to respect what is there and what exists but add different types of instruments to give versatility, depth and modernity to the sound.
But with my second album I Bow To You Waheguru (2015), I composed a lot of my own melodies. With my third album Sacred Words (2018), I have composed all the melodies except one. Some I have taken from what exists out there in terms of Kirtan, but as I move forward being in full ownership of everything is important – right from composing, coming up with the concepts and ideas, planning out what sort of instrumentation or sound I want in my album, what feel I am trying to create per track, and so on. So Sacred Words has been over a year-and-half in the making because it is not just composing and going to the studios working with musicians to build a track but there is also the whole art work of finding the right person to work with and creating the right image. With each cover, I always try to create something that looks traditional but feel completely new somehow. Essentially I am trying to reflect this music where the traditional element of Kirtan, sung for over 500 years, exudes freshness with new, electric sound.

Would you call it fusion?
I would call it new age.

How did you start linking singing to philanthrophy?
I would say my charity work is again a seed planted by my parents. As a kid I have always been going to Punjab with my family. At 16, I started to realise that I wanted to be involved in seva in the way my parents were – working towards uplifting communities. Seva is a very important concept in Sikhi. It means selfless service. I knew that this was a path I needed to follow that would be instrumental in shaping who I am.
When I married and moved to Dubai, it was a beautiful country with beautiful people no doubt, but I felt a sense of emptiness. Everything was focussed on the external and was just too perfect and I found myself disappearing in a way. I started to pray for a worthy life, to recognise and make use of it. And I had a dream! That’s how I made my first album Bandhanaa.
I didn’t officially release Bandhanaa, but it came out in 2010. I was raising money for building the first gurudwara in Dubai at the time and that album raised a million dirhams. It was produced by Bollywood legend Sukhbir and that was completely by chance. I guess destiny had its way of helping. That album costed me zero dollars but raised so much. After that I realised Kirtan has this power of reaching people and, that maybe, I could create this foundation where I could record beautiful Kirtan to raise money for causes. And that’s how I started my foundation Kirtan For Causes. It focusses completely on Punjab. Hundred per cent of the proceeds from my album and concerts go towards educating children in Punjab and building homes for impoverished families. I have 200 children that I sponsor through my music at the moment and I have built two homes so far.
So the success of my first album gave me the impetus to work on my second album. I started talking to people about my mission in Punjab and the kind of change that I wanted to create. It all evolved from there.

What is the challenging about being in the music business today?
Everything is definitely a lot more difficult. For example, if I had been a bit more professional when I started right at the beginning, I would have done things more differently and professionally such as setting up a Wikipedia page or working on social media, etc. These are things I have slowly learnt along the way. It is a highly competitive space especially for someone like me who don’t really fit into anything. I am creating my own genre and that’s because, firstly, I sing Kirtan, and, secondly, I don’t look like a Kirtan singer with prayer beads around the neck and turbaned hair. I believe in looking and living a normal life in this world and being very much part of society but keeping my mind above things. I believe through having all the experiences, I can improve myself and have that personal, spiritual growth. I don’t believe in cutting myself off and hiding in a cave somewhere. So when people see this completely normal woman singing Kirtan, they find her relatable and they cannot make any assumptions as to who I am.

Tell us more about your unique instruments and instrumentalists?
I always look for artists who are very unique and sounds that will go well with the Shabad. I work with Talvin Singh (OBE) and although he plays the tabla, he is an incredible producer who has worked with Madonna, Björk etc. He has this ability with sound which makes you feel you can literally walk through the sound. He does a lot of electronica as well, so that for me is really interesting and that really pushed my third album towards a new age sound.
I have worked with artistes from Circle of Sound, a dynamic and innovative music production house. One of them plays the sarod. The other is their percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger, who is often called a singular phenomenon in the world of percussion today. I have worked with Scottish folk musician James Yorkston who plays the guitar and dulcimer. World-renowned composer, producer, cellist and kora virtuoso Tunde Jegede has lent the sounds of the kora to my music. I have also worked with London-based Jyotsna Srikanth, who is Europe’s foremost violinist and very few violinists in the world can play the way she does. So these are the many instrumentalists I have featured on my album Sacred Words.
We keep looking and pushing for more sounds and instruments to add. We will have those traditional instruments like tablas but at the same time we will have pianos, keyboard, dulcimer, kora and violin thereby building layers to the sound.

Do you have any dream venue and what projects are you working on?
I love to perform because I get to experience and establish this connection with everyone around; it is special and so valuable. I did a concert at the Union chapel in London where singers such as Elton John has performed and from that one concert I was able to sponsor 100 children. I would love to do more concerts but I would love to have sponsors come in to sponsor the cause and the ticket money could then go towards the charity. That’s the thought process I have, but right now I am expecting twins. So, my focus has been on finishing my first book which is about love versus duty, arranged marriages, how society treats women but it’s through the eyes of two girls and their stories. I need to have my first draft before the twins are born.
And then I am literally taking a year off. There is a lot on my plate – I have the foundation, I blog, I write books, compose music and have an album coming out next year, the recording for which is done. I am sourcing musicians to play on each track. But you know what, I am young, I have the energy and the drive so I can do all of these now. And what I have noticed is, doing all of this has kept me young (laughs).