Photography: Aditi Tailang
Now, more than ever, we are realising the power of and the need for art. A beautiful song, a breath-taking piece of painting, a moving performance or a gripping book— art speaks to us through so many mediums. For many, like us at Platform, perhaps it is one of the most significant ways of coping with the current crisis.
So, today we celebrate another astoundingly talented artist. Deveshi Sahgal, who has a voice so powerful, it could transcend you to another world. There’s an earnest quality in her singing as she sings sufiana qalams that resonate and help amalgamate all her musical influences on one platform. We speak with her to dive into her world of sufism.
How did music find its way to your life?
I am extremely fortunate that from a very young age, my family encouraged my creative expression, whether it was through painting, singing, sculpting or theatre. My father used to—and still does—organise baithaks at home with friends and family. So I think he has been instrumental in my trajectory towards sufiana qalams. I didn’t quite understand their meaning back then but now that I do, it’s like learning a magic trick. I had also started learning Hindustani classical music from my guru Gurinder Kaur, a disciple of Kishori Amonkar, at the age of four, up until I was about 14. I think this foundation in classical music has really given me the confidence and freedom to branch out into different spaces of my creative expression.
I read somewhere that over the last few years you found your true passion and acclaim in singing sufiana qalams. What determined that?
I think I was drawn to singing sufiana qalams mainly because of the lyrics and poetry. I also feel that Urdu as a language is phonetically quite melodic and has a gamut of words that manage to translate and express emotions quite vividly and yet subtly. The thing that attracted me the most to it was that even though most of the poetry is born out of pain or suffering, it manages to deliver that emotion with a sense of pride that's stoic, not weak. So, I think for most romantics like myself, it’s a great nesting ground.
The basis of all sufiana qalams is surrendering one’s ego and the self to something that is larger than the picture we paint of ourselves. The sheer act of surrendering oneself, through the medium of any artistic practice, which remains the core of Sufism, is something I feel almost always speaks to artists. There is a moment in any discipline when one looses track of ‘self’ and conscious thought, whether it be through repetition or being deeply immersed in the practice —which is akin to meditation —and it is then that one gets a glimpse into that state of ecstasy, be it divine energy or love. It strips one of this delusion of control and brings one to a state of ‘fanaa’ (annihilation of the self), even if for a few moments and that is what drives me towards this practice.
Do you have a creative process?
My creative process so far has always been organic, almost instinctive, whether it’s inspired by my own life experiences or even borrowed experiences that were inspired by other artists, musicians, authors, filmmakers, poets, philosophers and even nature, the grandest of them all. It's like a big exchange of a continuous dialogue within the universal consciousness. Whenever I’m deeply moved by something, I almost always have a visual or a sonic response to it. As far as songwriting goes, I’d best describe it with an example of a single I released recently titled Hollows.
The song is about unconditional love with no structural limitations, flowing beyond space and time. It explores the idea of looking at love without attaching our conditioned expectations. The lyrics for the song came to me all at once — it could have been a letter, that just happened to take the shape of a song. In fact the song didn’t change much since the day I wrote it till I finished recording it. I guess in that regard I’m a bit of a purist. I like holding on to the rawness of the emotion and then give it meaning, structure and definition — the chord progression, the format, the story, the genre, the frills and the fluff. So for me, it is completely an emotional process that must come to me instinctively or I abandon ship.
Tell us a little bit about your other recently released single, Timekeeper.
Timekeeper dives more into the destructive nature of love. It's a song about the misfortune of being in an emotionally abusive and destructive relationship. As artists I think we dare to take the risks and talk about things that most consider dark or disturbing, and with that we must we willing to expose our own vulnerability. The idea of taking something dark and painful and turning it into a song that is easily accessible and is able to reach and comfort someone in similar situations has always been the most beautiful thing about music. Timekeeper addresses the issue of taking the responsibility for one's happiness in one's own hands, regardless of the story we find ourselves in.
I often feel that society as a whole has become extremely pre-occupied with the concept of instant gratification and with that we have lost the patience and the grit to overcome any hardships. If something is broken. we tend not to fix it —we’d rather move on to the next or the new. Consumerism has filtered its way into our very psyche and therefore it restricts us from our own personal growth. The song is about acknowledging our insecurities and complexities that have let to a lack of understanding and empathy for ourselves and others. To love and be loved has always been the core of all human interaction, but we constantly build walls around ourselves and adorn masks, to protect ourselves from being hurt. Pain and suffering, just like love, can never have updated versions. They come to us all the same, just packaged differently.
You made your Bollywood debut by working with Amit Trivedi on a beautiful and soulful song called Daryaa. How was the experience?
It's actually quite a funny story how I came to sing this song. I had received a message on Instagram from Anurag Kashyap himself, asking me to sing one of the songs for his upcoming movie Manmarziyan. Somehow, I never saw this message. I only realised this when I met him in person and he joked about how I had been so difficult to get in touch with. Both Anurag and Abhishek Bachchan joked about who discovered me first on Instagram so that was definitely a huge compliment. I'm such a big fan of both of them and their work and talent, more so after meeting with them in person. They were extremely warm, encouraging and humble souls.
Amit Trivedi was no different in this regard. He made me feel so comfortable and relaxed in the studio, even though I was really nervous. We recorded my vocals in a span of a few hours and he even managed to make me sing on a pitch much higher than my own, although he struggled with me on the correct pronunciation of the words. We got along quite effortlessly, which is extremely important when trying to achieve something that requires you to be in the moment. I loved the lyrics of Daryaa and Amit's composition and take on the song. He is a great producer, who knows how to bring out the authenticity and strong points in every musician or singer. Every great producer intelligently builds music that reflects the authenticity of each individual artist. For me, he made the track an acoustic one, which helped me ease into a space that was already my own. I think I even cried a little as I sang this song! So the experience was truly special and humbling and I look forward to working with Amit again on another one of his heart wrenching compositions.
Do you have a five year plan? And are there any musicians/artists with whom you definitely want to collaborate with in the future?
I have been very fortunate to receive the blessings of my idol Abida Parveen, and even the opportunity to share the same stage with her. For me, she exemplifies the true essence of a timeless and effortless artist. Her voice, her being and her nature inspire me like no other and it is a dream come true to have had the honour and privilege to have been able to sing for her and receive her guidance. Also, I find it difficult to make a five minute plan so I can't say what’s in store for me for the next five years, but I'm sure I'll still be making music or maybe switching back to my art. I'm going to take it one day at a time, specially in the current scenario when everything is quite ambiguous in itself. I love collaborating with artists across all genres of music. I even enjoy collaborating with visual artists to bring together a conceptual video for a song. In particular, I’d love to travel and collaborate with ethnic musicians across the globe. I enjoy the rawness of discovering something new by fusing different styles and genres together, which I've managed to do a bit of in my upcoming sufi album. I shall be releasing it as soon as things get better. So I do hope to do more of that in the future.
Post the pandemic, what will be the new normal for you?
Despite the dreary reality and loss that this pandemic has pushed humanity to face, I think in these times something has shifted at the core for a lot of us. The lack of movement and accessibility has made me realise that as humans, we learn to adapt to the environment that we are presented with. Speaking of environment, nature is finally blooming and the planet is finally breathing as it should. Everything except us is flourishing. I think I'm going to always remember this time for the things I felt through the silence. It has given me time to introspect, to reduce my wants, and most importantly, to look at myself as not something separate, but as a part of a whole — we are all in this together. I think prior to this, there was this need and a rush to stand out and to prove oneself, to give one's existence some meaning based on parameters set by society, but I really do feel that the things that truly matter are always kept on the sidelines in this quest. I hope to continue to cherish and contribute more to the things that count – fresh air, blue skies, love, compassion and empathy.
Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani
Photography Aditi Tailang