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My Journey into Music & Exploration of Sufi Poetry

By Shreya Basu and Deepa Soman

Singing connects an individual directly to another’s soul. 

Radhika Sood Nayak with her Tanpura

The Lumière Learning Monday on 24th of May, had Sufi Singer & Composer – Radhika Sood Nayak as guest. Radhika talks about her journey as a child “with a voice” and her journey as Hindustani classical singer, to a Sufi music composer and singer. “Sufi poetry is woven around themes of love for the divine, renouncing empty rituals and man-made hierarchies, shedding one’s ego and ultimately, a quest to merge with the Source!”

Radhika structures her talk by drawing upon the framework of the Navarasa or nine emotions, while rasa is the emotional state of mind. She borrows from the nine emotions, viz., Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya (laughter), Karuna (compassion), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), and Shantha (peace or tranquility).

“Bhayanak Ras” – Fear

When Radhika looks at her musical journey, she sees the “Bhayanak Rasa”. Bhayanak or horror of a shy, introverted child, petrified of going up to perform on stage. Her parents, teachers and school saw her potential and pushed her. Aware of her talents but overwhelmed and terrified, sometimes about singing to guests in the living room or to children in the audience at school. But good things happened when she pushed past the fear and got in the spotlight.

Radhika’s parents brought her an opportunity to perform at Doordarshan, Jalandhar and she performed. She got another opportunity to perform on stage alongside Punjabi folk music legend, Gurdas Maan. Understanding how important these platforms are, she appreciated it ever more as a grown up. Enabling parents, a father who expected her to find her space, and gave her encouragement.

She looks back with tremendous gratitude for her parents for the opportunities the freedom she had and for their support. Radhika’s advice to the introverted is. “If you’re once shy and frightful of the stage, it need not continue all your life. It can change over time. That makes me wondrous, am I the same person that I was when I was a child?” There are some things that change gradually as you grow, and it can develop into something beautiful. Even if you’re not ready today, don’t assume you won’t be tomorrow.” And the key is not giving up and keep facing your fears.

“Adbhut Ras” – Wonder

In the 1980s, there was a lot of strife in Punjab and Radhika moved from Ludhiana to Delhi, a small town to a big city. The next “rasa” which came into her life was “Adbhut Ras” – the wonder! Moving into a metro city, she got into the prestigious, Shriram College of Commerce (SRCC) and was invited to join an all girls band to represented SRCC in music festivals. They performed at the college festival, ‘Crossroads’, all the North Campus colleges, BITS Pilani, Rendezvous IIT (Delhi). Her musical world was expanding as she discovered the Carpenters and Barbara Streisand. It was a time full of wonder. She recalls being part of a band being a very wholesome feeling and experience, like being part of a tight group.

“Shringar Ras” – Beauty and appeal

Radhika continued to excel academically and was accepted to the top school for HR, Xaviers Labour Relations Institute (XLRI). This set off another set of wonderful experiences, the beginnings of a new phase of personal and professional life. She met her future husband, Sadashiv Nayak on campus. It was the phase of romance and beauty with the “Shringaar ras”. A coming together of two distinct culture, Punjabi and Mangalorean. Radhika’s parents supported her choice of life partner despite the community difference. XLRI was a huge turning point for Radhika. She got placed with the Day 1 company on campus, the coveted, Unilever and worked in Mysore for two years. Thereafter she joined Grindlays Stanchart Bank with the intent to be in the metro.

“Raudra Ras” – Anger

The first realisation that she wanted to pursue music as a career was when she was in her second job. There was some turmoil and big changes happening in Grindlays Stanchart merger. Radhika was put on the bench, and it affected her badly as well. “Raudra ras” or anger dominated her mind state. It was very early in her career to experience this churn but in hindsight it provided her with the trigger to leave her job and focus on music. Sadashiv has been a huge part of her music journey, providing her with emotional support and stability. He stood by her in her decision of leave her job to pursue music. He has been undemanding and helped share the load, giving her time and space to pursue her music.

“Veer Ras” – Bravery

Going through tough times, the anger and frustration towards her work situation, was necessary to bring her to crossroads and make the brave decision to pursue music full time. Veer ras – bravery and resilience. Moving to Mumbai opened up a whole new world of music for her. Chance occurrences and transitions brought upon by opportunities taken and a sense of immense gratitude for life. Meeting people, guides, who have led her on her “Hero’s Journey”.

The story of Radhika finding her first guru is serendipitous. While mulling with the thought of quitting her job in Mumbai, she verbalised her intention to her lawyer turned friend in the Mumbai High Court. Her colleague simply asked, “Oh then, what are you planning to do? And Radhika verbalised about wanting to pursue music. Her colleague referred her to a music guru, “Sushila Ji”, who took her upon as a disciple. An unexpected place to get help from, Radhika says she has learnt life is full of leads from unexpected places. All you have to do is be open to them.

“Vatsalya Ras” – Affection

The next major change in her life was when she had her twins. The family had grown by double, felt like whole world had exploded. “Vatsalya ras” is typically the tender, gentle feeling of love and affection one expects a mother to feel for her children. It was through her going back to music, when Radhika approached Sushila Ji, her first guru, when the twins were two years old, that she first experienced it. There was a high level of compassion related to motherhood that Sushilaji displayed. She encouraged Radhika to bring her kids along for the music practice where the kids would be safe and entertained right in the next room from where she trained. “Looking back, Sushila ji was more than a guru – more like a mother to Radhika in a very holistic way. While I was demonstrating “Vatsalya ras” to my children, she was passing it on to me”

Learnings from Gurus

Radhika’s first guru – Sushila Ji introduced her to a lot of opportunities and gave her several platforms. Whether it’s the audition for ‘Akashvani’, or annual events that she hosted. The biggest lesson Radhika learnt from Sushila ji is, “No opportunity is big or small. Every opportunity should be a performance, even if it is just one person listening to you.”

In younger years, one might want a lot of appreciation, applause and following but time and again Radhika’s Guru reminded her to discern between what is important and what’s not. Radhika had learnt music as a child but really grew to love it during this time. Discovering her love for music was a gradual process for Radhika, and her guru played a huge role in that. After her passing, for the last 8-10 years Radhika has been learning from Guruji Dayal Ji. Every week that she sits with him, she derives life lessons along with music lessons.

Tryst with Sufi Music

With Sushila Ji, Radhika got to learn a lot of devotional music and Indian classical music. But her tryst with Sufi was very much by chance, one of those coincidences. Her first solo performance was in a temple and she decided to introduced a Sufi song into her repertoire. The feeling she experienced after, is what inspired her to continue exploring the new genre. She started learning more about Sufi music and Punjabi poetry.

Radhika during one of her live performances

In 2015 Radhika approached the Kabir festival organisers and was accepted to perform. This was her first opportunity and exposure to ‘Sufi Kalam’ in a holistic way and a turning point in her life. Since then, she performs at the Kabir festival every year. She is encouraged to explore newer poetry to add to her repertoire. It is a place where she really feels a ‘sense of community’ and collaborations. Through all the transitions and learnings, one thing had to be there throughout – discipline. Radhika says her ecosystem was extremely supportive and she is lucky to have a husband that is truly a backbone whenever needed. Similarly, her parents being acceptive of her husband from a different community, her career choices, all of those things made her feel empowered to make her own tough decisions.

A quote which Radhika says really symbolises what she feels :

“Haji Log Makke wale jaande (People go to Mecca for Hajj);

Mera Ranjha, mera Makka.” (Just my Ranjha is enough for me)

Main kamliyan (I’m crazy)

– Heer from Heer Ranjha, Bulleh Shah’s Kalaam

Karuna Ras -Compassion

Radhika adds, “People may take any path, but this is MY path.” I hope i continue to be crazy to take up these ventures in life without fear and self-doubt. Lately in life, it has been all about “Karuna Ras”. Going through the experience of the pandemic and the lockdown, it’s more in focus than ever that “what can we do to reduce the sufferings of others?” Through music, that’s the only tool I have at hand. “Sharing music and poetry that calms and de-stresses you is my goal.” During the lockdown after one of my concerts, someone reached out to Radhika and said she wants to learn from her. She had a lot of self-doubts around whether she can teach or not. But now she is glad she said yes and has several wonderful people who she teaches.

Listen to the conversation with Radhika Sood Nayak, Sufi Singer and Composer in the video below :

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