Meet the Indian-Origin Women Musicians on the Grammy Awards 2021 Nominees List

We speak to musician Priya Darshini whose debut album was nominated for the 2021 Grammy's, and singer Shilpa Rao whose song in Anoushka Shankar's album is also a contender.

By Neha Kirpal

Three Indian-origin women (and their well-wishers) will be looking forward to the finale of Grammy Awards 2021 with baited breath.

Acclaimed musician Anoushka Shankar made it to the list with her new album Love Letters (read her cover interview here) as did her half-sister Norah Jones. While this is Anoushka’s seventh Grammy nomination, for one of the singers on the EP, Shilpa Rao who sang the song Those words, the nomination is proving to be a life-changing first-time experience.

For Chennai-born, US-based Priya Darshini, the honour is even bigger – Periphery is her debut album and it appears to have hit the ball out of the park.

We speak to 36-year-olds Priya Darshini and Shilpa Rao about their experiences and the new global recognition.

Priya Darshini

Chennai-born singer, voiceover artist, composer, actress, athlete and entrepreneur Priya Darshini, who grew up in Mumbai, first travelled to the US in 2005 for voice and therapy lessons. Her global experiences made it to her debut album Periphery. Dwelling on subjects of identity politics and the immigration crisis, the album has been nominated under Best New Age Album category at the 2021 Grammy Awards.

Priya Darshini

Having created music in a wide range of genres – from Hindustani classical to American folk, pop and Bollywood – Priya feels that the idea of genres is consistently changing, since we have access to various styles of music from different cultures around the world. This makes it impossible not to be influenced by them and bring them into one’s own understanding of music.

“My favourite genre of music is honest and authentic music,” she says.

When she moved to New York, after short stints in Nashville and London, the anti-immigrant rhetoric started to rise. It constantly reminded her that she was from somewhere else. She says that her debut album Periphery came out of a healing process, one of exploration and introspection.

Having lived in various places, culturally and socially, she has always lived outside everything and never fit in fully anywhere. “With my very diverse and mixed lifestyle and life, I didn’t feel like I belonged to any particular type of place or group or culture,” she says.

Priya at a Chesky Records recording session, Brooklyn, New York, June 18, 2019. (Photo credit: Radhika Chalasani)

Her sense of deep displacement got her to question what home means to her. “Is it people? Is it community? Is it a place? Is it a construct?” she wonders aloud. She realized that feeling at home is something that one can really feel inside. “It’s about finding stillness within me, and embracing myself in my full authenticity,” she says.

She decided to write about the processing, which resulted in the album. The album was raw and organic recorded live with no effects added, in an abandoned church in Brooklyn. She wanted to connect and reach out to others feeling like they were on the periphery of everything and tell them that they are not alone. “These constructs of the other should be broken, and we shouldn’t ‘other’ people for whatever it is – their gender, culture or anything else,” she says.

Interestingly, Priya studied filmmaking, and did a lot of work behind the camera in documentaries and films. She also starred in The Letters (2014), an American biographical drama film as well as a play It Can Happen Here (2017).

Apart from this, Priya is also the first and youngest Indian woman to complete the 100-mile Himalayan Ultra Marathon. Having always been interested in the community aspect and challenge of sports, she enjoys pushing her boundaries physically and mentally.

Priya Darshini at the 100-mile Himalayan Ultra Marathon

As a child, she was a competitive swimmer, did a lot of martial arts, and also played badminton, squash and cricket.

Priya says that she was curious about the abilities of the human mind, and so got into running. In 2007, she was inspired by a runner friend who had just run a 160 mile race in China’s Gobi desert. Having a deep connection to the Himalayas and affinities for environmental issues, she signed up for one of the most difficult races in the world.

Having trained for it for months, the experience taught her much about life, living in the moment and disconnecting from results. She went onto found her own adventure racing company, The WindChasers. The company began to organize 70-mile races at the India-Nepal border. Thereafter, they also started these races in the Nilgiri mountains.

As part of the work for their Mumbai-based non-profit Janarakshita, Priya and her family are also deeply involved in charitable work with pediatric cancer patients and education for girls, particularly those belonging to the Adivasi and Dalit communities. They primarily work with many Mumbai hospitals for cancer care, regarding their paperwork, counseling, treatment and raising funds.

Priya Darshini and her musician husband Max Zbiral-Teller, known as Max ZT (Photo credit: Ben Rosser)

In 2004, she also worked for many months on tsunami relief in the south, where they adopted several villages and schools. In the domain of education, they fill out gaps in areas such as infrastructure, funding, running of schools, payments of teachers, building toilets and providing hygiene facilities. Currently, the 36-year-old is working on another initiative which involves slowing down fast fashion.

Priya’s biggest inspirations are her parents, her grandmother, her patients and all the brilliant artists she has met and worked with. “The human story – how people succeed in their own ways – is what inspires me. There is no one way to define success,” she says.

Her personal and professional journey has taught her to always remain a student and constantly keep learning and “to empty my mind before learning anything, dropping my ego, focusing on the now, immersing myself 100 percent in anything that I do, and sharing without boundaries everything with the world,” she concludes.

Shilpa Rao

You may be familiar with Shilpa Rao’s voice from well-known Bollywood hit songs such as Khuda jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno, 2008), Ishq shava (Jab Tak Hai Jaan, 2012) and Meherbaan (Bang Bang!, 2014). She had the honour of being the second and last Indian musician to sing in the critically acclaimed Coke Studio Pakistan with the song Paar chanaa de.

Shilpa Rao

She has won and been nominated for several prestigious Indian film awards. And now her song Those words in collaboration with Anoushka Shankar’s EP Love Letters, has been nominated for the 63rd Grammy awards.

Originally belonging to Ranchi, Shilpa has lived her childhood in Jamshedpur, where she did her schooling and learned music. In her college days, she came to Mumbai, where she has lived ever since.

Shilpa sings various genres with the same energy, whether it is Indian classical, western classical, jazz, regional, pop or Bollywood. She also sings in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali.

About being part of a Grammy-nominated album, she says it’s a moment that she will remember through life. “This was not even on my dream list or a wish list, but some things really come true and life is unexpectedly beautiful that way,” she beams.

Shilpa’s biggest and all-time inspirations are her parents and her guru musician Hariharan, among others who have taught her along the way. The most rewarding part of her musical journey has been meeting various people with whom she has worked – from composers to lyricists to directors to actors and writers.

Shilpa feels that women in her industry are doing a great job with their independent work. She says that to excel professionally, one must draw from one’s personal experiences too.

“You connect better with people and your work. Your work becomes specific in the kind of person you are. It’s very important to add your personal touch to the work that you do,” she says.

As an artist, Shilpa believes that one should be more aware of the world around and try to put out the message of empathy, no matter if one has a small or big following.

“What has to be talked about is showing empathy with your work, showing love and spreading the message of love. That is more important, especially in today’s times,” she signs off.

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