Sonam Kalra & The Sufi Gospel Project: music for the soul

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The universal terrains that music transpires through, it is only natural that this melodic form of the arts seldom remains confined within set precincts of norms and expectations. In fact in its essence of being a liberal art, music does not have to abide by the many vague rules of the world. Instead in dealing with the worldly confines of emotional expressions, music transcends itself into an otherworldly entity- one that does not have to yield in to boundaries to find universal acceptance.

Fanning such desire of music to be more than just a means of entertainment and instead revel more in its nature as a haven of the soul is an Indian singer lesser heard of. That does not however in any way take any credibility away from the immensely talented, multiple award winning Sonam Kalra whose passion for music is more than just an exploration of her creative faculties. With Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project, this is exactly where the “Sikh girl singing gospel in a seemingly Islamic space” aspires to tread into with her unabiding love and soul stirring rendition of melodies. In indulging her musical faculties into such pursuits that speak of the greater belief in music at large, Kalra is one artist for whom remaining true to what one believes in drives the whole notion of what they deliver out of sublime respect for the art they indulge in.

Even beyond its name, The Sufi Gospel Project is as interesting an interpretation of the melody as it is a concept in debut. In fact in dwelling as much in the many realms of musical transcendence, this sufi gospel style has even been lauded as a definitive genre of musical exploration. It perhaps is only apt that such a distinctive style of musical deliverance stems from someone as ‘privileged’ as Kalra, who in her mother’s love for music and in her family’s belief in acceptance and encouragement grew to instill similar ideals in her nurturing of that love she forever owes to music.

Sonam Kalra grew however to be not as privileged along the journey she undertook to reclaim her nascent love for the melodies when finally she came to realise that music was all she ever wanted to be. Though Kalra had been learning music ever since she was a child, obviously stirred by her mother’s deep love for the same, it wasn’t until much later in life that Sonam decided to focus exclusively on it. As a working professional in the advertising world, it took Sonam some few years of conviction to ditch the conventions of what her degree in graphic design have been allowing her to do and choose instead to pursue that passion she was always adept in.

Things however did not come easy to her, as even after the leap of faith when Kalra took a sabbatical from advertising to devote herself to the singular pursuit of music. The very year Kalra decided to indulge her musical sensibilities saw her losing her voice to laryngitis and a series of throat infections. Not one to be deterred by such physical hindrance that could in no way rattle her devotion for music, Kalra instead took this as an opportunity to take on different projects with panache. From anchoring The Real India Travel Show at BBC to test driving cars as the host of Wheels on the same channel, Sonam ensured that her other talents received enough exposure to grant her the courage and conviction that would propel her forward on the musical path.

Trained in Indian classical music under Shubha Mudgal and Pandit Sarathi Chatterjee, Kalra did well to ensure that music for her barged beyond the demand of nationalities. Sonam also learnt gospel and jazz from Ashley Clement in Singapore and classical opera under tenor Hur Chul Young and soprano Situ Singh Bueller. It perhaps is her definitive insight into the art she so lovingly practises that led Kalra to hone her skills in as wide variations of them as possible. It perhaps also is what let her to embark on the singular path that has come to be the defining narrative of who she is today as a musician of repute.

When Sonam Kalra got an invitation in 2011 to sing gospel at the birth celebration of the Sufi saint Inayat Khan in Nizamuddin in Delhi, she knew immediately that this was what she was born to do. And thus emerged The Sufi Gospel Project which in its very name sounds like a contradiction of sorts. But music seldom abides by norms and so does Kalra with her venture into a realm way beyond the conventional. Her personal existence being one grounded in faith, Kalra’s belief that God himself does not adhere to any one religion bode her particularly well in coming with a genre of music that is fusion at best. So there’s Sufi icon Amir Khusrau’s words resounding with Amazing Grace, Kabir’s dohas causing no less of a stir alongside Abide With Me and Bulleh Shah’s melodies finding wonderful freshness being interwoven with English and Gaelic texts. And yet none of this is an attempt at preaching religion or popularising faiths. It rather is the vision of Kalra that urges her to ‘blend the many voices of faith to create one universal voice’. In her own encompassment of this universal spirit in person, Kalra is no lesser than any phenomenon herself. With a team of a keyboard player and guitarist who are Christian, two Muslim sarangi and tabla accompanists as well as a Hindu flautist and a percussionist, Kalra’s faith in music is no less universal. And that indeed translates resoundingly in her many performances- always a sound that is meditative in essence, carefully yet soulfully interweaving classical elements of music with such lyrics that essentially stem from no one religion in particular. In creating a sound that has the innate good of all faiths culminate together on a ground where the wistful yearning for humanity reigns supreme, Sonam Kalra and The Sufi Gospel Project is more than just a musical medley; it is a definite form of spiritual expression of the most noble kind.

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