Raja Kumari on documenting Indian culture through her music: If we don't keep passing it down, it will be a travesty

Raja Kumari talks her new track 'Bindis and Bangles,' the influence of Indian culture and classical dance, and expressing her identity through music.

Aarushi Agrawal March 04, 2020 10:45:46 IST
Raja Kumari on documenting Indian culture through her music: If we don't keep passing it down, it will be a travesty
  • When Svetha Rao, professionally known as Raja Kumari, set off as an artist, the sound was a strong representation of her identity.

  • This expression of identity continues in her latest track ‘Bindis and Bangles’ where she brings Indian fusion to hip-hop, and is co-written by DIVINE.

  • Moving forward, Rao is already working on new music, recording, and preparing more videos.

American-Indian singer-songwriter Svetha Rao, professionally known as Raja Kumari, has “known what it was to truly be an artist at a young age,” given her classical dance education. “It ended up shaping everything. The way I saw costume, stage, expressions, and using your body to tell stories,” she explains.

It’s the foundation of her career as an artist, imbibing in her, above all, an unwavering dedication to her art. Classical dance also houses the roots of her spiritual and religious interests. Through learning and then performing mythological stories, playing different characters and donning different costumes, she feels a deep connection with the tradition she’s expressing. “You have to transcend what is normal because you’d be no stage for two hours in a yogic state.”

Raja Kumari on documenting Indian culture through her music If we dont keep passing it down it will be a travesty

A still from 'Bindis and Bangles'

Art and religion have since been deeply intertwined for Rao. As a student of religious studies at university, through studying about different religions “I picked up something that I thought was universal to every religion” which then resulted in her “thinking of writing things to that perspective.” It also taught her about how “karma is a law.” There is, she adds, a mathematics to it, which runs deep. “If something bad happens to a good person, you have to understand that mathematics is running on a different number of births. So it may not make sense in this life but in god’s view you can see why it’s happening.”

Armed with religious clarity and a strong set of beliefs, Rao then “put my artist career on the side for a few years so I could learn the craft,” referring to her song-writing years. Spending endless hours in a studio, she has collaborated with artists like Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, and Fall Out Boy, among others. “You’re only as good as your last song,” is the most important lesson this time in the industry taught her. When Rao finally set off as an artist herself, the sound was a strong representation of her identity. “I was given such a traditional [Indian] upbringing in the middle of America, so I’m both at the same time. The music is figuring that out, what does that sound like, what does that feel like.”

Raja Kumari on documenting Indian culture through her music If we dont keep passing it down it will be a travesty

A still from 'Bindis and Bangles'

This expression of identity continues in her latest track ‘Bindis and Bangles’ where she brings Indian fusion to hip-hop, and is co-written by DIVINE. “I really love bindis and bangles, they’re part of my identity now, part of the way that I relate to my culture. I think maybe people around the world that don’t get to live in India can wear [these] proud and try [to] stay connected to who they are.”

Conceptually, the video presents another duality, set in a stylised ancient India but with the latest technology, a song about looking to the future whilst being firmly rooted in tradition. It’s a response to the attitude she’s observed among people to westernise and “let go of everything that has defined us” which Rao thinks is a mistake. “I think the whole world is searching for what we already have, and they’re looking for the knowledge which we know. If we don’t keep learning it or we don’t keep passing it down, we will lose it. And that’s going to be a travesty to the whole world”

While Rao often faces criticism about her music, from appropriating Indian culture to presenting only Hinduism as Indian, to Rao, it “just sounds like a lot of noise. I think people that tell me I’m appropriating Indian culture are actually stupid.” This entire dialogue, to Rao, “ doesn’t make any sense. We’re wasting time and energy. This is a complete waste of time.” And while the country is witnessing tremendous political unrest, when asked if she feels the need to comment, personally or through her music, she says, “My existence itself is a revolution. That’s literally it.” Moving forward, Rao is already working on new music, recording, and preparing more videos.

Watch the song here

All images from YouTube.

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