Sonam Kalra is a multi-award winning artist who completely turned around the Farsi-poem ‘Man Manam.’ Bringing in the right mix of Sufi and contemporary flavours, she is a rare creator who has been able to blend together two distinctive forms of music (Sufi and Gospel), resulting in an enchantingly beautiful rendition of poetry. It is this very essence that sets ‘Man Manam’ apart from the rest.

Sonam has performed at iconic venues like the Sydney Opera House and across over 29 countries in the world. In an interview with Journey India, she open up about what is in her man (heart), her music and what God means to her.

Journey Staff: What do the lyrics of ‘Man Manam’ mean to you?

Sonam Kalra: The poetry of Man Manam is very special to me. When I first heard it, I had a very visceral reaction to it- it just called out to me and touched me at a very deep level.

Man Manam, Naman Manam means ‘I am, yet I am not.’

The poet, Hazrat Shah Niyaz Barelvi goes on to say,

Aashique Bekhabar Manam, Man Manam Naman Manam’- which means, I am so lost in your love, the love of the beloved, that I am in this world, yet I am not.

This beautiful idea of complete surrender to the Divine resonated with me. Music to me is like that- its worship. It’s a complete surrender to a power which is greater than you, and to the gift that has been granted to you.

Journey Staff: What made you pick this Farsi poem and convert it into a song specifically for Coke Studio?

Sonam Kalra: When Coke Studio reached out to me, I had two pieces in mind that I was going to choose from- one was in Punjabi and the other in Farsi (Persian).

I decided to go ahead with the song in Farsi because the poetry had so much beauty in it and the main refrain, ‘Man Manam’ had so much gravitas to it. I knew that even if I looked back at this composition many years from now, this beautiful poetry and composition would be something I would be glad I chose- something I could be proud to have created.

I also felt that this song being in Persian, would stand out. It also seemed to be in synergy with the wonderful platform that Coke Studio is and the kind of music it promotes. Coke Studio is the only space that gives artists the freedom to create and express new ideas, create music that fuses so many different genres and sounds, and so I felt it was the right place to present this song.

Journey Staff: This is a two part question:

1.  You have worked on multiple projects. How is ‘Man Manam’ different than the rest? Take us through your creative process, be it understanding the lyrics of this song to composing it.

2.  Also, what were some of your challenges while composing this song? Was it difficult to adapt a Farsi poem into a song? What were some of the factors you had to be mindful of?

It wouldn't say the challenges I faced composing this song were any different from the challenges I face when composing other songs. In any case, I like challenges, so I tend to lean towards the harder path, alys.

It would say it was more exciting than challenging. For starters, the song was in Persian so I worked hard to ensure I pronounced the words correctly. I then added a recitation in English to the song, in the middle section, because the poetry was so beautiful that I wanted more people to understand what it meant.

The refrain, ‘Man Manam’ had a very mesmerizing quality about it. I feel Farsi is inherently rhythmic and that really attracted me to the language. And using that rhythmic quality, I wanted to create a tune for the refrain that stayed in your head, made you feel a ‘wajd,’ - a sense of spiritual ecstasy.

I remember a few friends advising me not to sing in Persian, a language the Indian audience wouldn't understand, and to do a Punjabi song instead. But the fact that that it was in Farsi is what made me want to do it even more, because I believe that music truly transcends the boundaries of language and fortunately, the response we got for the song, proved it. It was a risk, yes, but one I knew I wanted to take.

Journey Staff: You have blended in Sufi and Gospel for this song. Could you please share a little bit more about this amalgamation?

Sonam Kalra: The words of this poem naturally mirror the ideology that I am trying to put forth with the Sufi Gospel Project.

There is a verse towards the end of the poem which says, Isaaye Mariami Manam

Which means, ‘Mary’s Christ am I, and I am Ahmad of Hashim, I am of Ali’ - this verse talks of how I belong to the beloved in every avatar that he takes, and it reminded me of something my mother wrote, “If my Guru is standing beside me and Gobind too, is by my side. If Allah too is present here, then whose child am I?”

Journey Staff: Could you please tell us a bit more about the Sufi Gospel Project

Sonam Kalra: The Sufi Gospel Project is an attempt to blend the many voices of faith and create one universal voice. It is an attempt, through music, to break down the walls that separate us. Sufism mean an acceptance of all humanity as equal and so, I felt that if that is what it means then I must create a sound that encompasses many different faiths and ideologies. 

Even though I trained in Indian classical music, I had been singing Gospel music for a year or so before this project was born. The one thing almost everyone asked me at the end of a concert was, ‘Why does a Sikh girl sing Gospel music (or 'Christian ‘bhajans' as someone referred to them)?

My answer to them was always the same; ‘God has no religion and religion is not God.’

The idea for The Sufi Gospel Project was born when I was asked to sing Gospel music at the ‘Urz’ - the birth celebration, of the Sufi saint Inayat Khan in Nizamuddin. That was turning point in my life, the very thought of a Sikh girl singing Gospel, Christian music, in a seemingly Islamic space was so very special for me; it felt like the universe was telling me something. And so, I worked on trying to create something worthy, something befitting of this opportunity that had been granted to me.

Traditional western Gospels meld with Indian classical sounds and Indian spiritual texts are enriched by elements of western poetry to create a sound that touches every soul. To put forth the idea that no matter what the language of the lyrics or the ethnicity of the sounds is, there is but one language- the language of faith.

I work with a keyboard player and guitarist who are Christian, my accompanists on the Sarangi and Tabla are Muslim, and my flautist and percussionist are Hindus - a testament that when it comes to faith and music, religion is not relevant. In my music, Khusrau blends with Amazing Grace, Kabir shares the stage with Abide with Me, Bulleh Shah’s voice is heard amidst English texts and Irish music, whilst Nanak's words resonate in the plaintive strains of world folk sounds.

The aim of The Sufi Gospel Project is to shed the garb of traditional Sufi and Gospel interpretations, to find a common ground between them and take on a more all-inclusive definition of the ‘oneness’ that also embraces bhakti, contemporary poetry and more. Proving that many different hallelujahs can exist in harmony. And that whilst each of us has our own truth and that no matter where you find that truth-in a temple, a shrine, a church or a mosque, the most important fact is, that each truth is just as valid. I believe this is an important message, especially in the present socio-political climate.

Because of the many languages and musical influences I’ve combined, I find that most people are able to connect with the music and the message. That is true of Sufism- an acceptance of all truths. Yours, mine, his, hers; everyone’s truth as equal.

Journey Staff:  What were some of your thoughts while bringing on board the other musical artists associated with the song?

Sonam Kalra: Most of the artists in the song were a part of my ensemble already. We added a few more musicians like the banjo/mandolin player, two percussionists and a bass player. I knew the sound that I wanted to create, I wanted it to be rooted in tradition, but contemporary in style. I wanted to have many colours to the song, yet be subtle; be Indian as well as Middle Eastern and add a strong rhythmic depth to it. And to create that, I used the sarangi, the bansuri, the daf, the banjo- so you could hear all the influences. But most importantly, I wanted to create a sound that tugged at your heartstrings.

Journey Staff: The song has very serious and powerful lyrics, what were some of the emotions you went through while producing this song?

Sonam Kalra: I was very moved by the beauty of the lyrics as they went right to core of my personal belief. When I compose it’s quite an immersive process and I tend to lose myself in the creative journey. I'm also a perfectionist so I like to go over things with a fine-toothed comb. The composition takes a while to develop, and be constantly fine-tuned till it takes its final avatar.

Journey Staff:  What was your favorite part of the whole process?

Sonam Kalra: That would be hard to say. From the moment I knew we were going to be performing on Coke Studio to actually being there in the iconic studio, rehearsing and then actually recording everything live with everyone in sync, to finally seeing it on air- it was all quite magical. To be a part of the musical change, the revolutionary movement that Coke Studio has spawned feels very special.

Journey Staff:  Were you at all anxious about the response to this song? What did you want your audience to take away from this song?

Sonam Kalra: I think every artist is a little anxious before the release of a song, for it is a labour of love with sweat, blood and tears. That being said, I think I was more excited to share this beautiful poetry and composition with the world because I believed in what I had done. 

I wanted the audience to hear something new. Which is why I sang a song in Persian and also blended the spoken word with song, which is quite unusual. Till date, ‘Man Manam’ is one of my favourite creations.

Journey Staff:  How does it feel to have your compositions evolve from idea to reality?

Sonam Kalra: It feels great, there is truly nothing quite like it!

Journey Staff:  What is the kind of music which gets you excited? What kind of music do you want to be able to work on?

Sonam Kalra: I like music that comes straight from the heart. I'm inspired by Indian Classical music, Sufi music, folk music, Jazz, Gospel and the Blues. I’m also a big fan of beautiful poetry. I feel very blessed because I am working on exactly the kind of music I want be working on- music with a message. All the music I create has an underlying theme of acceptance and works towards making people think. If I can change the world one note at a time, I’ll be happy.

Journey Staff:  What are you working on next?

Sonam Kalra: I’ve been truly fortunate to be able to share my music at some very special venues in 30 countries across the world, including the iconic Sydney Opera House, The Pyramids of Giza, The Royal Opera House Cairo, Coke Studio India, Muzaffar Ali’s Jahan-E-Khusrau with Abida Parveen and The Sounds of Freedom Concert in New Delhi where I shared the stage with legendary musician, Sir Bob Geldof. I’m hoping to share more of my music globally so that the message reaches more and more people across the world.

I’m continuing to create new music within The Sufi Gospel Project, there are about three new tracks that we are releasing this year. I’ve also been travelling with my new performance themed around the partition called ‘PARTITION: STORIES OF SEPARATION BY SONAM KALRA’, which has been conceptualised and directed by me. This is a multidisciplinary experiential music performance using theatre, video, art and music to retell the stories of separation as a result of the partition of India in 1947.

I spent almost a year researching the works of poets and writers from both sides and composed the music: five songs based on that poetry and inspired by their stories. I also worked with a contemporary poet whose poetry is recited during the show and with whom I have composed one of the pieces for this project.

Using the power of music, the voices of Manto, Ali Sardar Jafri, Daman, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Amrita Pritam as well as personal accounts of ordinary people who survived this terrible ordeal, my effort has been to weave together a retelling of this holocaust that tore our country apart. We’ve performed it in India and a few venues abroad and I’m hoping to be able present it in other parts of India as well as at festivals and venues internationally and of course, in Pakistan one day. I hope it enables a channel of communication where we can reach out to each other as people, neighbours and children of the same land and start a dialogue of peace.

Other than this, I have been working on some Kabir poetry and I recently also created a performance piece based on Krishna, where one of songs I sang in praise of Lord Krishna was written by Sikh Guru Arjan Dev in the Dasam Granth. That poem was one I found during my research and it has great meaning for me, as it further quantifies the seamlessness of faith across religions that I see and know to be true.