Pragnya Wakhlu, an independent singer-songwriter, talks to Peerzada Muzamil about her inspirations, musical journey, and why she never adheres to a particular stereotype.
Pragnya Wakhlu’s notable works include, ‘Kal Nahin Aata’ (Single-2009), ‘Rise’ (Single-2009), ‘I Let go’ (Single- 2011), and ‘Kahwa Speaks’ (Album-2017). She is a recipient of numerous national and international awards and her upcoming album is called ‘Lessons from Love’. Besides Dubai and Hong Kong, she has performed in the cities across the US, Switzerland and India. She is set to release her new album, ‘Lessons in Love’, this year.
Q. Your music has a cross-generic flavour. Artists usually claim to be representatives of their respective cultures. Whether it is Dickens’ Pittsburgh, Picasso’s Paris or Sinatra’s Hoboken, there is always a place full of fonder memories and intriguing inspirations. In your diverse travels, have different cities you experienced in your journey also shaped your music? Is that a reason why your music transcends the traditional genres?
A. I grew up in Pune, and spent most of my childhood there. Indian classical influences emanate from there and it is chiefly because the audience there loves the genre, though my grandmother’s sitar-playing also had a role. Talking about Srinagar, I have spent most of my summers at my grandparents’ house there. That is where the influences of folk and Kashmiri Poetry come from—Habba Khatoon, Lalla Ded, Sheikh-Ul- Aalam. Traditional music and peculiar instruments they play there opened up new perspectives for me. The city is serene and beautiful and full of unexplored stories. It offers a lot to a musician in terms of poetic influences as well. Bangalore bequeathed me with the love for rock n’ roll. Seattle, where I was working as an engineer, is bustling with grunge music. Delhi has a jazzy vibe, and because of its cultural history, it’s partly sufi too. So, all these cities have musically facilitated a cultural confluence for me, which is more or less why my sound is cross-generic. Moreover, cities have also changed me as a person, because they always do! It reminds me of that line by Orhan Pamuk, “The city is where our soul belongs.”
Q. The subject matter of your songs is remarkably diverse as well. Your song ‘Burning Fire’ meditates on the preservation of the cultural identity of the Tibetans. ‘Hukus-Bukus’ reflects on Kashmiri Shaivism. Your album ‘Kahwa Speaks’ flurries with the poetry of Lala Ded and Habba Khatoon. And your upcoming album ‘Lessons in Love’ is completely different and a lot more personal. Is there a spine that binds your diverse music together, or a thread that keeps it connected?
A. When I connect with something and the subject interests me, I write about it. My new album is also somewhat very personal, I rarely write about love or romanticism. I’ve always written about social issues about things that have some personal meaning to me.
I have never been into any single genre like some artists have a particular forte, my music is cross-directional. It wholly and solely depends on the type of emotion a song has, the type of vibe it brings. The kind of sound a particular song has largely depended on the subject matter. The kind of music is very much related to what I am and I believe that everyone is an amalgamation of various bits of personalities. I never write in a particular direction and that way whatever I make subconsciously or consciously has had a bit of me, some people say that it is a very good thing. And therefore the thread which weaves my music together is my-own-self, and the message it carries—peace, harmony, and unity.
Moreover, I believe that people don’t need to fit in particular molds; they don’t need to be a copy of any set type that is conventionally called acceptable. We can be several things and beautifully coexist. We don’t need to fit into someone’s idea of what we should be; the theme is to be accepting of ourselves. When I connect with something and the subject interests me, I write about it. My upcoming album, ‘Lessons in Love’ is somewhat very personal, given the fact that I rarely write about love or romanticism.
Q. What is ‘Lessons in Love’ all about?
A. Over the past few years, I have gone through a series of experiences each of which has taught me something about myself or life. I have refrained from writing about love before, albeit unconsciously because I just seemed to have a lot of other interesting things to write about.
After my heart went through different experiences I felt the need for catharsis. I wanted to explore writing these songs more as a way to get things out of my system and also not necessarily be “politically correct” all the time. It felt a little strange to write about intensely personal experiences in songs as it makes you feel very vulnerable as an artist. Almost as if someone gets a peek into your personal life. But I realized if I am feeling these things, there are probably a lot of other people who have been through the same things and feel similarly, and who would relate to the songs and maybe in some way it would help them heal as well. Hence the name “Lessons in Love”.
Q. Is there anything like the infamous writer’s block for musicians as well? Would you call it a melodic block? How do you get out of it?
A. A lot of musicians don’t go ahead and complete songs because they want to wait until they feel “inspired” again. The best way to overcome a writer’s block is ‘Stream of Consciousness’. Take a topic you want to write a song about and write down whatever comes to your mind for a few minutes non-stop. You don’t necessarily have to be Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but don’t stop. Stopping is the key to failure. Melodically, if you’re stuck, sit with an instrument, in my case guitar, and just play around till you find notes that “sound good” to you. And sometimes, breaking the rules also helps!
Q. Being a woman, have you felt that the journey as a musician is relatively tougher? Have you faced challenges because of your gender?
A. Yes. Worst of all the problems are not being taken seriously because you are a woman. Most of the people don’t acknowledge women in the patriarchal setup, let alone what we do. It is a tough journey but over the years things have gotten better and you keep learning and finding ways to protect yourself and eventually your art does all the speaking. Staying in focus is the panacea.
Q. Is there a go-to musician, band or song for you? Perhaps you could shed some light on your influences.
A. I like “I am the highway” by a band called Audioslave, because it reminds me that even though things come and go out of our lives, our minds can remain constantly peaceful and in observer mode just like the highway. I love India Arie’s “I am light”. On a sad day, I listen to “I can see clearly now” by Jimmy cliff. I also love “Yeh hausla Kaise Jhuke” by Shafqat Amanat Ali. It’s a very inspiring song that talks about the unending will we need to persist in our lives. Some bands I love include Coldplay, India Arie, Akasha, Indian Ocean, Advaita, Chennai-based band Junkyard groove, and Scottish singer K.T. Tunstall.
Q. How should an Indie singer-songwriter go about their art, given the times when the financial woes for independent musicians, especially for those from South Asia, are growing like a pandemic?
A. In the initial stages of your career don’t restrict yourself to doing “only original” sets. The more gigs you do the more comfortable you will be onstage and the more money you will earn to support your songwriting. Work out a two-hour set of a good mix of originals and covers, make a good profile, approach venues and start getting shows to support you financially. Learn the basics of production so that you can create parts of your songs on your computer and optimize studio and recording time. Teach others—you can generate part of your income from teaching others how to play an instrument or sing. Having a few regular students also guarantees a bit of steady income and helps you to refresh your basics as you teach. Barter your services with other musicians. If you’re a good guitarist and need a vocalist, you could play guitar for the vocalist’s album and ask them to sing on yours. Also, try crowd-funding—if you’re passionate about a cause and it shows, you could try raising money for your next project through crowd-funding. We raised money for our audiovisual show through crowd-funding quite successfully.