The Talented Ms Nagral

Mar/08/2021 / by Radhika Iyengar

A rising music icon, Avanti Nagral’s songs are infused with lyrics that are honest, thoughtful and intentional. They have an unfettered realness, which resonates with over 48 thousand Instagram followers. Her music covers a spectrum of subjects, including mental health, empowering fellow women, grappling with personal insecurities, and long-distance romances.

The 23-year-old polyglot (she’s sung in English, Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi), became the first to enroll in Harvard and Berklee College of Music’s coveted dual degree program. She has spoken on women issues at a United Nations panel discussion, is concerned about global healthcare, and even established her own digital production house called Golden Milk Media. A multi-hyphenated career woman, Nagral gets candid with SEEMA about music, celebrating the self, squashing societal expectations and flouting barriers, whether they are social or psychological.

Your latest song, Sun toh Lo is based on young people trying to cope with mental health. You’ve bravely used your music to start a conversation around a subject which is not too popular among the South Asian community and diaspora. What prompted you to write this song?

That’s a great question. It’s something I’ve always cared about. I’ve had several health issues through my life personally, many of them have been physical health-related. When your physical health is at an all-time low, often, so is your mental health. And I’ve always felt that I’ve been fortunate to have access to healthcare and counselors. But there are so many people who don’t have this kind of access, and for whom, even sharing that they’re not feeling okay gets met with backlash.

I found this especially during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. There are so many people who’ve been silently suffering. And suffering doesn’t have to be diagnosed as a clinical disorder. Suffering doesn’t have to be extreme. But it’s the little moments, the ups and the downs, and not being able to find an outlet—to not be able to share with your loved ones what you are going through.

As you know, a majority of my audience is very young. I had already been doing a lot of work in spreading awareness, but I wondered how I could ensure that it reached people as a message which they could relate to, because sometimes, people can’t say what they are experiencing, but it reflects in their body language. Sometimes, it’s easier for people to relate to things when they are expressed through art and music. That’s why, for me, it was really important that the song was also in Hindi. My hope is that the song can be something you could send to somebody and have them understand what you’re going through. Have them understand that all you want from them is to listen.

I get a sense that many of the songs that you write stem from personal experiences. How easy or challenging has it been for you be so open with your feelings?

It’s definitely not easy, but I think there’s so much beauty in vulnerability, yet we shy away from that. We think that we have to put on our game face. In fact, today, everybody has to do that. Social media has created a public persona for everyone. We have an online self and an offline self. While it’s great that sometimes you can put on a front and keep distance, often it takes away that human connection and that humanity. So, for me, I’ve always tried as best as possible to be very similar in real life as I am online. It was a very conscious choice not to make a persona, because I felt like, the more authentic and relatable we are, the more we can speak to somebody and speak to their heart. Every single one of us has a story that deserves to be told. And if I have the privilege of having a voice – a singing voice – that can hopefully do justice to my own story, but also tell the stories of others, then I feel it’s a duty and responsibility.

What is your song-writing process? 

It really depends. For instance, I wrote the song Thank u (pls), a day after a breakup. It was just my way of expressing catharsis. I was feeling sad as one does, but I was also feeling very grateful to the person for the things that I learned from them. The lyrics came from that place. For me, music has always been cathartic, and writing has given me that ability to express myself.

Sometimes, however, you also need an objective lens. There are a few of my songs where I’ve collaborated with other writers, where the process has been either slightly tweaking the lyrics or enhancing the melody. In the case of Sun to Lo, my Hindi vocabulary is not as good — I cannot write such deep and beautiful lyrics. Therefore, I collaborated with a lyricist, where we were very intentional about the concept. I think, just being able to build it from there and bring in different experiences, makes a huge difference. Also, if you are talking about love, heartbreak, longing, loss, mental health, and don’t share your personal experiences, you don’t bring that same depth to the table.

You experienced insecurities and low self-esteem when you were a young girl. Do you still feel insecure in an industry which is, to a certain degree, highly superficial? How did you tackle that?

I would love to meet somebody who doesn’t experience insecurities. They would be my role model, because I definitely do feel insecure on a daily basis. Sometimes, it’s superficial things about our bodies; things about our outward appearance. We will often have that little voice inside us that tells us we’re not “good enough”. I found myself, in fact, becoming even more insecure over the past year due to social media. Audiences and numbers go hand-in-hand, and it’s amazing how much impact those numbers can have on you. Often, I’ll find myself constantly comparing. 

When that happens, I have to nip it in the bud and say, “Hey, I’m not in competition with anybody else. I’m in competition with myself and that is the competition of growth”. I just need to feel like I’m constantly growing. That can mean in any space, right? Today, I’m focusing on my personal growth. Tomorrow, I’m going to focus on professional growth. The day after, on relationship growth. As long as I’m growing, that’s what makes a huge difference. 

Also, sometimes the best catharsis is crying, because it helps get it all out. The other day, I found myself getting incredibly jealous of somebody online and it bothered me. And I was obsessively checking their post. So, I really needed to just get myself into a space where I was centered. I had a good cry, I took a shower and tried to center myself. Sometimes, removing yourself from the situation is the best. Basically, when you hear that voice in your head, try surrounding yourself with people. Try talking to your family or your closest friends. It’s important to build a support system around you.

Women’s issues are also at the core of your work. Your song ‘Treated’ explored themes of women’s self-esteem, as well as domestic violence. In 2019, you spoke at the United Nations panel on the representation of women and young girls in the media. Why is this subject close to your heart? 

I believe everybody has a voice and deserves a seat at the table. For too long, because of patriarchal structures, women and girls have not been afforded the same opportunities. As a woman who has grown up with arguably so much privilege, in terms of socio-economic background, I’ve had access to higher education and have a supportive and open-minded family. I don’t take any of those lightly. So, if I have had those privileges, I feel it’s almost a duty to bring others along with me and say, “Hey, this is possible, we can create a world for ourselves.”

I’m also an older sister and I wear that identity on my sleeve. So, when I see younger women and the opportunities that they have, I feel somewhat responsible. Think about 13-year-olds today. They have so much access to information and opportunity, and if not used correctly, if they’re not pushed in the right direction, or if they’re not given the same opportunities, then you will have that perpetuation in another generation. That’s why it’s important.

What about representation?

I think that’s extremely important as well, because it’s not just that I want to see someone with the same skin color on screen, that is important too. But what is important is knowing that voices like yours and mine are heard; knowing that there are more and more people in decision-making roles who can represent you.

I’ve interacted with so many young girls today and they’re brilliant. So, to be able to encourage that potential is important. When I write, I often write as if I’m writing to a younger version of myself, something I wish I could have taught myself. When I speak, I’m very intentional about trying to create space for young people to have their own voices, because too often, especially in South Asian communities, we think that children are meant to be seen, not heard. And that amplifies with younger women, because of the conditioning.

So, making sure that we have the ability to be vocal is crucial. That’s why I’m intentional about using the word equity, because I recognize that, just by virtue of many things, both genders are never going to be equal, primarily because physical aspects, right? Those are just facts: an average woman is shorter, not as strong. So, if we can’t have that exact equality, we can have equity. We can make sure that there are ample resources available. We can make sure that opportunity is never the barrier. At the same time, we must all lift each other along the way and succeed together.

Harvard gave you a grant to work with South Asian traditional instrumentalists. Could you tell me more about this project? 

I got a grant from them to research and record with traditional instrumentalists. I’m trained in classical music and my guruji is Dr. Prabha Atre, an absolute legend. I started training in classical when I moved to India. While I thought what I’m learning was absolutely cool, none of my classmates in school found it so. I felt that this is an ancient form of art that’s being passed on and was surprised that there were so many people who shunned it. I realized that they didn’t have that kind of exposure while growing up. It was seen as “uncool,” since it was not easily accessible to them. For me, it became important to preserve these sounds. The question was, how do you preserve the old, while also making it accessible to the newer generation, so that it feels invested and motivated to take it forward?

So, you’ll notice that most of my music has some element of that, whether it’s alaap in the back, or the tabla or sarangi, or other instruments, because I want those sounds to feel familiar. When I was doing this project, I very intentionally recorded with instrumentalists, whose sounds are not necessarily familiar. For example, I recorded with a belabahar player. Belabahar is a cross between a violin and a sarangi, and there are only four left in the world, which is insane when you think about it. I have so much respect for people who are preserving this tradition. So, I recorded with them. Then, I was in Nepal for a couple of days, and there’s this particular kind of Nepali dholki called the damar. We recorded with that as well. It was just really beautiful. To be able to support these artists and make their work somewhat accessible is important. You’ll be hearing some of those sounds on my upcoming projects. I also hope to be able to finally piece together the mini-documentary we created.

There are many young South Asian women who’re grappling with their own insecurities, while ambitiously trying to make a mark in various industries. What do you want to tell them?

One quote that I try to live by is a quote by Maya Angelou. I’m probably paraphrasing, but it’s essentially that people will forget what you did, what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. It’s amazing that we have the opportunity to dream big, be ambitious and go after what we want. Keep pushing forward. At the same time, remember to move with kindness in whatever you’re doing. Don’t let things like age and the color of your skin limit you. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but there are trailblazers who’ve helped open those doors slightly, and now we need to kick them wide open and make sure generations after us never feel the same way.

Check out this article about an old and evergreen music icon, Asha Bhonsle

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