By Neha Kirpal
Singer, songwriter, entrepreneur and mental-health advocate, Ananya Birla is all that rolled into one. In this interview, the 25-year-old daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla talks to us among other things about her collaborations with some of the biggest names in music, her company that provides microfinance to rural Indian women, her handicraft e-commerce platform, and the challenges of proving oneself in one’s own career when one hails from a privileged background.
Tell us how your latest track with multi-platinum Jamaican/American hitmaker Sean Kingston titled Day Goes By (Universal Music/Island Records) came about. What is the inspiration behind it?
Sean and I had a shared vision for the track from the get-go. It’s about the intoxicating early stages of falling in love and the obsession and attraction that comes with it. Sean is from Jamaica, so we’re both from places where dance is a big deal, and this is 100 percent a song you can move to. We had so much fun making it and you can really feel that in the sound.
We met when I opened for his show in India, and knew we wanted to do something together. He’s not just great to work with, he’s become a really special friend as well. He’s one of the funniest and kindest people I know.
What was it like performing alongside Wiz for the Wiz Khalifa concert in Mumbai?
It was epic seeing Wiz in his element, and how he manages to make everything look so effortless. It’s such a privilege to be alongside artists who inspire you because you can learn so much from them.
Tell us more about your various enterprises and social initiatives. How do you juggle so many roles?
Every morning, I wake up and feel like I can conquer the day because I am following my passions, working with people that I love and hopefully making a positive difference. I really enjoy the diversity of my days and there is a symbiotic relationship between all of my projects that drives me. I’m an artist at heart, but I know that creativity and business need to go together to make the most of your efforts.
The vision for Svatantra Microfin has always been a platform that sustainably empowers women to fulfill their potential and achieve independence. Our clients live tough lives but the passion and determination I see in them is truly inspirational.
Ikai Isai is a platform for artisans around the globe to sell their products and keep their craft alive, making beautiful handmade objects available to many more people. At a time when everything is machine-made, I wanted to honour slow craft and the ancient traditions of making.
Mpower is especially close to my heart. Mental health still has an awful stigma and as a result, depression and suicide rates in India among young people are some of the highest in the world. I’ve had my own struggles, and I really want people to know there is no shame in having a mental illness, that it is okay not to be okay sometimes, and that there is someone there for them when they need it.
Coronavirus has not just threatened the physical health of millions but also wreaked havoc on the emotional and mental wellbeing of so many around the world. As people face an uncertain future, they are feeling anxious and helpless. Many have also been touched by loss and grief.
We recently set up a helpline for people who need support during this difficult time and to try to ensure that people don’t feel alone. It will connect callers from Maharashtra directly with a mental-health expert. We couldn’t have done it without great support from the government.
Any resolutions for the year ahead?
I am lucky that I have been able to put together a studio here at home, so I can work in the day. I am working on a lot of new music but this is an incredibly difficult time for so many people, and it is crucial that we all come together, look out for each other from a distance, and try to find ways that we can support our communities. I am in awe of our healthcare workers, who are risking their lives to save others. I guess my resolution is to keep on doing what I love, and hopefully make people smile at the same time.
As someone from a privileged background, how hard or easy is it to make your own separate career and chart your own path?
My family is incredibly supportive of me, but my music and business career are all my own. It was important for me, for as long as I can remember, to carve my own path. It took years of struggle to get where I am, I had to prove myself twice as hard. There are always going to be people who jump to conclusions because of my surname, and that’s okay. Criticism comes with the territory. But it is balanced out with the love from my fans, and that is what drives me. Everyone has their own journeys and hardships.
I was lucky enough to realize early on that life is too short not to follow the things that make you feel alive. I have never been happier, and it means so much to me that people are enjoying what I am doing.
What do you like doing in your free time?
I am not great at taking too much time off, I get a little restless. But these last few weeks have forced me to take things a little slower, and surrender to things that are out of my control. I have not been able to see my family, friends and my puppies in Mumbai for a long time, and that has made me appreciate them more than ever.
Otherwise, I have been trying to keep fit. I am a big believer in the whole healthy-body-healthy-mind idea and exercise really helps me to clear my head and stay focused. I have been meditating and working out regularly.
What inspires you?
I love to connect with new people all over the world – these conversations have so often inspired new music. When it comes to songwriting, I think authenticity is the most important thing, and as time goes by, I am way more confident being unapologetically myself. People engage so much better with a track when it is honest and from the heart. My favourite artists like Eminem, Ed Sheeran, even Billie Eilish are all different but linked because their music is raw, vulnerable and true.
My mother has been my role model because of her compassion, strength and dedication to making a positive difference in everything she does. She gave me the best piece of advice as a kid: to try my best and leave the rest to God. She has a zest for life that is unparalleled.
How do you see yourself and your growth 10 years ago from now?
If you’d told me 10 years ago that I would be where I am now – with platinum selling singles, getting to collaborate with amazing artists and working with people on projects that I adore – I wouldn’t have believed you. It has been a really tough journey to get here, and it is definitely a challenge to keep everything spinning, but I feel so lucky and full of gratitude every single day. I don’t take any of it for granted.
First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control