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Discovering Priya Darshini

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When the nominations for the forthcoming Grammy Awards were announced on November 24, many Indians were thrilled to hear that sitar exponent Anoushka Shankar’s album Love Letters was on the shortlist for the Best Global Music Album category, which incidentally is the new name for the World Music slot. It’s the seventh time she’s been nominated, and one hopes she takes home the trophy this time.

Norah Jones was nominated too, sharing the honour with Mavis Staples for the song I’ll Be Gone in the Best American Roots Performance category. What many Indians were surprised at, however, was to see the name Priya Darshini in the Best New Age Album category, for Periphery.

Naturally, some music buffs wanted to know who Priya Darshini is, and what her music sounds like. It is called New Age alright, but that category is very loose and vague, boasting of artistes as diverse as Yanni, Kitaro, Enya and Enigma, who have little in common with each other in terms of sound. By its very property of drawing from various international styles, there isn’t much of a difference between New Age and Global Music. Nobody would have complained if Anoushka was nominated for New Age and Priya Darshini for Global Music. it’s a Grammy nomination, and that’s good enough.

Thoughts on Periphery

On listening to Periphery, released on Chesky Records, a few things are immediately noticeable. The first is that while Priya Darshini is rooted in Indian classical music, she’s blended it with sounds of Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer and Dave Eggar’s cello, besides using a variety of rhythms by percussionist Chuck Palmer and drummer Will Calhoun. The hammered dulcimer is a percussion stringed instrument somewhat similar to the santoor and is played a lot in the Middle East and Central Europe. With Max ZT having been guided by santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, he brings in an Indian flavour.

The combination of various influences makes the album eclectic, and there are good measures of pop melodies and American folk too. Priya Darshini sings both in Hindi and English, also keeping handy her training in Mumbai from Bombay Lakshmi Rajagopalan.

On the opening Hindi track Jahaan, co-written by Devashish Makhija, the sound moves from Sufiana-tinged to Middle Eastern. She switches to English on Home, the album’s first single, where she talks of being on the periphery and “so far away, away from home.”

To be sure, this isn’t an album that’ll have you jumping in excitement from the first listen. A couple of portions, mainly the song Cocoon, sound esoteric. But most tunes grow slowly and impress with their meditative, ambient, and soothing nature. A typical example would be the lullaby-like Loneliest Star which goes,

“Loneliest star, shining so brightly, no one to see, loneliest star, what keeps you going, day after day, day after day?”

Beautiful cello interludes are interspersed with gentle dulcimer parts and a short vocal stretch.

Musical Interpretations

The sargams and taans on Space River and the intricacies on Des, named after the classical raag, provided a wholesome Indianness. Co-written by Joan Morgan, Banyan Tree smoothly alternates between tempos, and the closing Absent is a haunting instrumental. But the big surprise is the rendition of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Bhairavi composition Sanware Sanware in the film Anuradha. Obviously, one shouldn’t compare the singing with Lata Mangeshkar’s original, but the rhythms and arrangements are charming.
Priya Darshini, who’s also an actor and marathon runner, was earlier seen in the credits of the song Obey The Law Of The Heart, which Stone Gossard of the Rock band ‘Pearl Jam’ sang for the 2017 film Basmati Blues. One could hardly hear her there. She was more prominent on Karsh Kale’s Following Sunlight from his 2016 album ‘Up’.
Periphery has brought out the best in her, and she is thrilled with the Grammy nomination.
She said, “I can’t believe it! I’ve dreamt of this day since I was little, but I never really thought dreams like this could come true for someone like me – a Tamizh Ponnu from Goregaon, Mumbai! Glad I was proven wrong.”

She added that writing this record and diving into such a deep authentic vulnerable space with Max ZT (her husband) and Dave Eggar had been one of the most beautiful and powerful experiences. Interestingly, the entire album was recorded on one microphone, without compression and EQ, in an abandoned church in Brooklyn.

Indian Musicians and the Grammys

Priya Darshini is another example where a lesser-known Indian artiste has suddenly made headlines with a Grammy nomination. Not many knew Ricky Kej before he was nominated for and eventually won the Best New Age Album for Winds Of Samsara in 2015. The same year, the unknown Neela Waswani’s I Am Malala won for Best Children’s Album.

In 2019, three Indian-origin artistes – Falguni Shah, Satnam Kaur Khasla, and Prashant Mistry – were nominated for Children’s Album, New Age Album, and Immersive Audio Album respectively. However, none of them won the award.

In this year’s New Age category, Priya Darshini faces some interesting competition. There’s the Tibetan music-inspired album Songs From The Bardo featuring avant-garde artiste Laurie Anderson and others. The other nominees include the electronic album Form/ Less by Superposition, Jim ‘Kimo’ West’s guitar-driven More Guitar Stories, and the Jazz-inflected Meditations by guitarist Cory Wong and pianist Jon Batiste.

Now, these are five completely contrasting sounds, and one wonders how the final choice will be made. But both Priya Darshini and Anoushka deserve the best wishes to take home the coveted prize.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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