Seven years ago, when Mumbai-based singer Priya Darshini moved to the US, she could never feel at home. Born in Chennai into a Tamil-speaking family and raised in Mumbai, Priya Darshini would often dwell upon the concept of home and what it really meant. “Was it a space, a construct, a community?” she would often introspect. But just when she was allowing “all the beautiful cultures in life to co-exist”, including that of her husband and musician Max ZT’s Jewish-American family, the political unrest owing to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the outgoing Donald Trump administration jolted her. “Like other immigrants from around the world, I constantly felt on the periphery,” she adds. When she channelled her distress through social-media comments and posts about American politics, she was snubbed almost immediately. “They said I didn’t belong. If I said something about Indian politics, people in India would tell me that I didn’t even live there,” says Priya Darshini, 36, over the phone from Brooklyn, New York.
Her grappling with the idea of not belonging anywhere birthed her debut album Periphery (Chesky Records) in March. It leads with the delicate single Home, which looks at the concept of complex identities in a world where some people tell others about who has the right to live where. “Writing the record was cathartic. It helped me process that it was just about finding stillness within myself and learning to embrace myself in all my authenticity and honesty,” she says. The exploration of geopolitics has earned Priya Darshini’s Periphery a nomination in the Best New Age Album category at the 63rd Grammy Awards, to be held on January 31at Staples Center in Los Angeles. About the prestigious nomination, she says, “the feeling hasn’t sunk in”.
The singer is up against Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Choegyal with Laurie Anderson and Jesse Paris Smith (Songs from the Bardo), Canadian guitarist Jim “Kimo” West (More Guitar Stories), Helsinki band Superposition (Form/Less), Cory Wong and Jon Batiste (Meditations). The only other Indian name to feature in the hallowed nominations is Anoushka Shankar, for her album Love Letters, under Best Global Music Album. Shankar’s half-sister Norah Jones (I’ll Be Gone with Mavis Staples) also finds a nomination, under Best American Roots Music.
The earthy East-West crossover Periphery, which unfurls slowly, blends Priya Darshini’s Indian classical training with American folk and pop. It features Max ZT, cellist Dave Eggar, drummer Will Calhoun and percussionist Chuck Palmer. The Banyan Tree and Cocoon take root in her melancholia. The latter song, based on raga Puriya Dhanashree, moves hauntingly to cello notes. The sounds in Des, the melodic raga Desh composition, and the wondrous Jahaan, co-written with filmmaker Devashish Makhija (Bhonsle, Ajji), saunter from Sufi to Middle Eastern.
With recording engineer Nicholas Prout at the helm, the entire album has been recorded live in 12 days, and on one microphone, placed in an abandoned church in Brooklyn. The sound is stripped of any compression or post-production embellishments. Crystal clear vocals and church acoustics offer an immersive experience. “You can feel the space, the architecture of the room. It’s like using a very old-school recording style, where the past meets the future,” says Priya Darshini. In such a set-up, there couldn’t have been any retakes or separation of tracks, so, even if one person made a mistake, all of them had to start over again.
“The only way” to meet the challenge, says Priya Darshini, “is by diving deep into who you are, and staying honest. We had to be very vulnerable, drop all our walls and function from that space of vulnerability. So, it really mattered to me that I was surrounded and working with people who I could hold the space with. It was an emotional and powerful experience for us,” she says.
Trained under santoor virtuoso Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Max — aka “Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer” — weaves a beautiful tapestry with his hammered dulcimer (Western cousin of the Indian santoor), with the main percussion sound created by sweeping Indian brooms against the floor. Priya Darshini moved around the space to get a different range of sound for each song. The album, in English and Hindi, alternates between many worlds. It even features her rendition of Sanware Sanware — composed in raga Bhairavi by sitar legend Pandit Ravi Shankar and originally sung by Lata Mangeshkar in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1960 film Anuradha. “This piece is such a tall order. I wasn’t planning to sing it at all. But label founder David Chesky had heard me sing this at a benefit concert and wanted me to include it,” says Priya Darshini, who falters sometimes in this difficult piece, the fatigue catching up, it seems, but she pulls through with her classical training.
Born into a musical family, one of Priya Darshini’s grandmothers was a veena player and the other a Carnatic classical vocalist. In Mumbai, aged eight, Priya lapped up everything she saw on MTV. “Curious about the music that was not coming to us, I started asking people who’d travel, to get me music from wherever they went,” she says. One of the tapes her father brought from an official trip abroad had songs by jazz queen Ella Fitzgerald. “The vocals blew my mind,” says Priya Darshini, who soon began to consume jazz, listening to the likes of trumpeter legend Miles Davis. She soon felt the style’s similarities to the structures of Indian classical music.
She trained initially under Carnatic classical artiste Bombay Lakshmi Rajagopalan and then in Hindustani classical music from Pandit Sunil Borgaonkar for the last 15 years. She performed with college bands while studying mass media at KC College in Mumbai, before pursuing filmmaking at New York Film Academy. A brief Bollywood playback stint, with Vishram Sawant’s D (2005) and David Dhawan’s Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya (2005), left her disenchanted. “It just wasn’t for me. I felt very disconnected from it. I craved to create original music,” she says. In 2008, she was chosen by American musician Roy Wilfred Wooten for his famed Black Mozart Ensemble, which combined jazz with classical music, hip hop and bluegrass. Priya Darshini travelled with the band for three years (2005-08) and recorded in Nashville, the US, often. It was on a trip back home around the same time that she met Max, who was staying in Mumbai then to learn from Sharma on how to give the hammered dulcimer an Eastern touch.
Priya Darshini has also been a keen sportsperson. At 23, she became the first Indian woman to complete the 100-mile Himalayan Ultra Marathon. “I’m most comfortable amid nature, which is also the sense you’ll get in the album,” she says. A video for Home, shot in Borivali National Park, near which she lived for many years, was recently added to Periphery. Will the once-Borivali-girl bring “home” the hallowed gramophone? If it happens, she says, “It would be huge.”
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