Manika Kaur is an activist, philanthropist and the fastest selling contemporary Sikh solo artist in the world. She is the standard bearer of kirtan singing, a hypnotic form of devotional music once reserved for men and confined to Sikh Gurdwara temples.
Kaur took kirtan into the mainstream with the release of her debut album Bandhanaa with Bollywood legend Sukhbir Singh in 2013, breaking down barriers and amassing more than ten million views on YouTube in the process.
She’s since released two more albums and become a staunch champion of women’s rights, campaigning for education equality and global access to feminine hygiene products and calling for an end to female infanticide.
Kaur is committed to ensuring her music and the material gains from it are a force for good. She donates all the proceeds of her musical endeavours to Kirtan for Causes, a charity she established to help the impoverished in rural Punjab, India.
Her latest album Sacred Words is her most diverse yet, and features collaborations with Scottish folk musician James Yorkston (guitar/dulcimer), Jyotsna Srikanth (violin) and Tunde Jegede (Kora). She spoke to iSing.
What is sacred kirtan music?
It’s where music is composed to passages from the Sikh Holy Scriptures (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji). It is devotional, non-denominational music – the universal language of the soul. Kirtan is a simple and powerful way to meditate. It can create this “quiet” within; it’s like melting into the universal expanse.
When did you first start singing kirtan?
My connection to kirtan has its roots in my childhood. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and my home was filled with stories of honoured gurus, temples of gold, epic journeys and enlightened masters. After an evening soaking up these vivid tales, my siblings and I would play kirtan together, jamming out on tabla, harmonium and voice. I learned at a young age to communicate, meditate and resonate so naturally via the medium of music. At the time I had no idea that this would become my path.
Can you tell us more about your childhood in Australia?
Melbourne was a sleepy town when I was growing up. This was a blessing because it forced us to be close as a family and allowed us to connect to our roots. I was bullied at school due to being different and awkward but a loving and stable home helped me to overcome these things. Learning to pray, sing kirtan and being involved in seva (selfless service or charity work) from a young age allowed me to accept and embrace my differences and not succumb to peer pressure.
Kirtan music is typically performed by male singers. What was the reaction when you started to perform it?
You are right that this space is mostly dominated by men. Having said that I have received nothing but support from the Sikh community. Given that our faith recognises that women are equal to men this was rather encouraging. My look and sound doesn’t fit the typical mould of what one would expect from someone who sings spiritual music. My ethos is more about living my life and being a part of this world whilst pushing my mind to rise above situations. I believe that my failures and mistakes and the challenges I’ve faced have provided me with the learnings I need to keep growing spiritually.
You donate the proceeds from your music to charity. What kind of projects do you support?
Kirtan for Causes is a non-profit organisation I created. We aim to create beautiful devotional music that creates an atmosphere of peace for the listener whilst serving humanity and uplifting communities through educating impoverished children, building homes and working to understand and meet the needs of communities living in poverty in Punjab.
All the revenue from my music career is directly channelled into the work of Kirtan for Causes. We support 200 children through education and have built several homes for disadvantaged families enrolled in the scheme. I travel to the Punjab every year to visit these families and develop strategies with them for the next year’s work.
Are attitudes to women changing in India?
Change is happening but at an alarmingly slow rate. Safety for women living in India is a major concern. In Punjab, female infanticide is very high. Every day approximately 274 baby girls have their neck snapped moments after they are born. This is because girls are often viewed as a burden and in impoverished households the idea of paying for a daughter’s dowry is so stressful. We often have to convince families to allow us to educate their girls. We also remind them not to marry their daughters too young and try to explain their daughters have the potential to become independent and successful. We have had some great successes and that has helped us to build trust with our children and their families.