Dressed in a black Rajnikant tee cut along the sides, red lipstick, with her now trademark pixie cut, Sofia Ashraf cut a self-assured picture as she took the stage at community space The Hive, in Mumbai recently. As the 28-year-old began belting out, “Kodaikanal won’t, Kodaikanal won’t step down until you make amends now…”, the tightly packed room reverberated with hoots and cheers. “I want to thank you all for the support. In fact, the company is now talking to the workers about compensation, so having made some impact feels great,” says Ashraf, referring to her viral video Kodaikanal Won’t, which called out an MNC giant for dumping toxic mercurial waste around their plant in Kodaikanal.’
A teary-eyed Ashraf, who performed in Mumbai for the first time, reveals that after five years in the city, she was moving back home, to Chennai, to volunteer with the Cuckoo Forest School, in Puliyanur village, Tamil Nadu. “The funny thing is, I began the year saying I’m going to give up music, because I needed to concentrate on my writing,” says the former copywriter, who worked with a prominent advertising agency, “I did the video because I felt strongly about the cause. We didn’t expect it to blow up. After the video, I quit my job and went to Chennai and spent two months just doing music. This decision is a by-product of that.” She has also written songs for school children.
At The Hive, Ashraf also performed a new song Beat to Beat, Paycheck to Paycheck, about the monotony of daily corporate life. “Unlike what most people believe, I quit because I wanted to move out of the claustrophobic and institutionalised advertising world, where you’re compelled to be creative within a box,” she says. For Ashraf, leaving advertising and the move to Mumbai had signified the start of a new life. The then 23-year-old, who used to be a staunch Islamist, shaved her head, cast aside her burqa and renounced her religion, thus earning her parents’ ire. “Initially, they thought it’s a phase, but they’ve come to terms with it now. They might not understand what I’m doing, but they support what I stand for, because it’s the same values they stand for and that Islam propagates — justice, truth, love, and human rights,” she says.
From being known as a burqa rapper — she had composed a song for the Bhopal gas victims in 2009 — Ashraf says that she’s now anti-labels. The success of Kodaikanal Won’t has lent pressure to pick up other issues, but she won’t succumb. “I think as human beings, we’re evolving. A book that really influenced me was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It talks about different phases of enlightenment and epiphany. That’s what I’m going through right now.”
The story was originally published under the headline ‘State of Mind’.