'In the age of Instagram reels, we're missing original music': Award-winning singer Sonam Kalra

Ahead of her performance for India By The Creek in Dubai, the artiste, known for merging Indian and Western musical traditions, talks about music being a potent vehicle for cultural exchange


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 29 Feb 2024, 7:38 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Mar 2024, 3:21 PM

A multiple award-winning singer and composer, Sonam Kalra is a rare talent who excels in both Indian and Western musical traditions. Possessing a powerful voice, her music is known for transcending linguistic and cultural barriers, resonating with listeners from diverse backgrounds.

The singer will soon be performing live in Dubai for the much-awaited music festival India By The Creek, where the Consulate General of India is collaborating with Teamwork Arts, to bring a unique blend of arts and culture to the city. Bringing together artistes from both India and Dubai, the festival will feature a diverse array of activities, including music performances, literary discussions, poetry sessions, and interactive workshops.

“India By The Creek is going to create a sense of community like never before, bringing people together to have a dialogue,” says the award-winning artiste, ahead of her Dubai visit. “When we get people talking, that's when an exchange of ideas happens—and an exchange of culture happens, which is really important for us as human beings, to feel alive, to create connection and empathy, to enrich our lives," she adds. "Our lives are nothing without art.”

India By The Creek is a celebration of cultural diversity, an ethos that also forms the crux of Kalra’s musical sensibilities. “The festival is such a melting pot of many different styles of music and art, similar to how Dubai is such a great melting pot of cultures. For me, it's very exciting to come to a place like that because my music is also a melting pot of many different faiths,” says Kalra.

Born and raised in a family with a deep appreciation for music and the arts, Kalra has created a distinctive style that merges various musical traditions, including Indian classical, Sufi, gospel, and jazz.

Music, for Kalra, is “a true bearing of the soul”. “It's love, it's pain, it's joy, it's sadness, and for those of us who believe, it really is God. So when I sing, or when I hear music, I'm moved in a way that's difficult to explain. And for me, that is ibadat, that is worship,” she adds.

A musician with a message

From a very young age, Kalra was clear that she wanted to be a musician with a message. “As an artiste, the first thing you have to do is tell your truth because when your art is aligned with your true self, that is when you will, I believe, reach the most people because you're not pretending to be someone else.”

Kalra, who grew up in a syncretic and liberal household, was the youngest one of three girls. “Growing up, our father always told us that women are not equal to men, we are way better than them. We all grew up believing this,” she recalls. Kalra, who lost both her parents to terminal illness, mentions, "My parents were my greatest teachers, these belief systems have definitely shaped me as a person and shaped my music."

“A lot of Sufi poets, when they wrote poetry, they actually wrote in the feminine form, in order to express their love for God because they believed that it was only a woman’s heart that was capable of such love, divinity, and surrender," she adds.

While Bollywood continues to play an integral part of Indian culture, the singer always found herself drawn to a different kind of storytelling through music. “So much of India is known for just Bollywood, but Teamwork Arts has always taken it upon themselves to promote all the other exciting things happening in the arts world, whether it’s in literature, music, or theatre. They’ve always been at the forefront of that.”

One of Kalra’s most notable projects is ‘The Sufi Gospel Project’, where she seamlessly blends the devotional poetry of Sufi saints with the harmonies of gospel music. Her inclusive interpretation of Sufism, promoting messages of peace and unity, has garnered recognition worldwide, leading her to perform at prestigious festivals and venues across the globe.

Finding your truth — what it means

We live in a day-and-age where finding one’s truth may sound like a fascinating concept, however, the road map to getting there often seems blurred in parts. Especially for the younger generation bombarded with stimuli in the form of social media and other quick dopamine fixes.

"My parents never forced us into streams or told us which path to take. They’d always say, ‘find your own truth, find your own voice’ and the most important thing that you can let someone do. We are all here on this planet for a reason, to say something, to contribute in a certain way," Kalra recounts.

While the notion may sound nice to the ears, Kalra offers an insightful pointer for people to identify what feels true to them. “You will know when you're doing that thing you're meant to do. Your whole life, for that moment, feels like it’s in equilibrium,” says Kalra.

“I know this from when I get on stage to sing. I could be having the worst day, dealing with 50 stressful things. But when I climb onto that stage, and I touch it with my hand to my head, as ibadat, as worship, everything in my world seems well. That’s the feeling one has to search for when one is looking for truth,” she adds.

Sharing the stage with legendary musicians like Sir Bob Geldof and Sufi icon Abida Parveen, Kalra has left her mark on renowned platforms such as the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids in Egypt, and MTV's Coke Studio. However, creating impact through music has been her primary focus.

“If my music or my art can create some form of human impact, positive change, then really, that's the reason why I do it. Artistes are the conscience of society—the storytellers of society. We are the oral and visual custodians in so many ways," says Kalra.

The age of ‘trending’ music

In the age of Instagram reels and trending music, Kalra reveals the one thing she wishes would change going forward. “Imitation is a great form of flattery because we listen to the greats, we try to imitate them, and we learn from them. However, what's happening is, in order to get more views on a reel, everyone is doing cover versions of songs they neither wrote nor composed,” says Kalra, adding that what she misses the most “since the post-Covid era is a lot of really great original music, which we had before”.

Her advice to the younger artistes would be to carve their own, unique path. “People have become so interested in just getting likes and views, they think, ‘Why should I bother to create original music? No one will have heard of it, no one will like it, and I won't get popular’. While it’s harder to find instant popularity, you still can find your audience through creating original music. So, I hope this changes.” Like Kalra, we couldn't agree more!


Sponsored by Dubai Duty Free, India By The Creek will take place from March 8-10 at Al Seef Dubai


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