The stage is a chaos of colour, as if ready for a carnival. Sri-Lankan-born Grammy and Oscar-nominated artist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam aka MIA enters the stage to the chorus of a screaming audience and perches herself amongst colourful swirling mandalas in the background.
As she announces Born free, one of her provocative tracks, which is a cross between alt rock and synth punk with dollops of noise rock, a drummer girl with curly locks tears through. The holy mess swirls and the 25-year-old girl behind an unusual drum kit (fewer cymbals and two dholaks) contorts her face and headbangs while frantically attacking the kit. The result is some of the more crisp rhythm patterns we’ve heard in a while. Of the numerous videos floating around on YouTube, this one introduces us to Indian-origin Kiran Gandhi, who is the drummer for MIA when she is not attending classes at Harvard Business School. “Being on tour with MIA felt like an amazing challenge for someone like me who wasn’t a professional drummer,” says Gandhi, over the phone from the US. She was working at Interscope Records as an analyst when she found out that MIA (signed with Interscope then), needed a drummer. She sent across a CD of her work via the record company’s product manager. The artiste was impressed and asked her to come on board.
This YouTube video echoes not only Gandhi’s fiery technique, but also tells of the cultural myths about drumming being considered a male-dominated field where beastly strength is expected. But Gandhi disagrees. “Being able to listen to the other musicians and keeping time correctly are two skills that are far more important than being strong,” she says.
Born to Wall Street Investment banker Vikram Gandhi and social activist Meera Gandhi, Kiran’s family wasn’t really inclined to music. But like all children her age, Kiran learned piano at school. “That seemed like such a chore,” says Kiran, who found drums to be a source of passion at summer camp. “In drumming, you play the beat and one’s own creativity is valued more,” says Gandhi, who grew up on Spice Girls and the idea of “girl power”.
But the last one-and-a-half years, touring with MIA and balancing her classes at Harvard has been challenging. “I have done a concert, taken a flight back for my morning classes and then gone back to playing a gig. If you clearly know what you want, it can be done,” says Gandhi, a mathematics major from Georgetown University.
For now, Gandhi seems convinced by MIA’s political thoughts, that talk about her racial and cultural identity. Her recent song from the album Mathangi, is an example. So when she croons, Brown girl, brown girl, turn your s*** down, you know America don’t wanna hear your sound, with her on drums, is it a statement being made? “Ha! May be. Bad girls do it well,” she says.