Sikh YouTube star Manika Kaur
Tuesday 12 May 2015 2:53PM
She may not be a household name just yet, but on YouTube Sikh kirtan musician Manika Kaur is a star. One of her recent videos has racked up more than four-and-a-half million views. Not bad for a singer of devotional songs who gives all her proceeds to charity. Geoff Wood reports.
‘Every album I do is for a cause,’ says Manika Kaur. ‘What I do is kirtan, which is spiritual music, for causes. Kirtan is basically singing spiritual music that’s taken out of the Sikh holy scriptures. I compose music to these verses and then I record them.’
Kaur is a young singer and songwriter who performs shabad kirtan, Sikh hymns and songs of praise usually performed in a Sikh gurdwaraor temple.
‘Usually three men [play],’ she says. ‘Two play the harmonium and one of them would play tabla. I would hear these shabads—shabads is basically what I sing, spiritual music—I would hear these shabads at the Sikh temple and just slowly fell in love with it.’
The main core fundamental of Sikhism is truthful living: live a truthful life, earn your earnings ... do it honestly.
Kaur grew up in Melbourne, where she learned to sing and play the harmonium. Years of practice and a belief in equality gave her the confidence to perform devotional music in public, a practice traditionally done by men.
‘Actually Sikhism is one of the religions that have come out of India that have equality for women,’ she says. ‘If you’re a Sikh woman today you’re equal to your husband.’
Kaur now lives in Dubai, where she recently released her second album of devotional songs, I Bow To You Waheguru, a reference to the Sikh god.
‘In Sikhism we believe in one god and that god has many names. Waheguru, Ram—there are many names for God. The very first thing that you would read when you open the Sikh holy scriptures is Ik Onkar, and that means one god.’
While the songs on I Bow To You Waheguru are based on the Sikh holy scriptures—the Guru Granth Sahib—the music pushes boundaries: no obvious harmoniums here. The album is also bringing Sikhism to a wider and younger audience.
This is Sikh spiritual music for the 21st century, recorded in London with renowned DJ, tabla player and producer Talvin Singh, a pioneer of modern Asian electronica who has worked with Madonna, Bjork and Sun Ra.
‘I have a great manager now and he got in touch with Talvin,’ Kaur tells me.
‘He sent Talvin one of the tracks I have up on YouTube called "Guru Ram Das". This particular track has four-and-a-half million views on YouTube and I think when Talvin saw it he really understood what direction I was trying to go in.’
That direction could loosely be called Sikh devotional electronica.
‘I think a lot of younger people are enjoying this sound of kirtan because they can relate to it. They’ll hear drums or synthesisers in other music that they listen to,’ explains Kaur.
‘I also believe as a Sikh that everything is created by God. Every instrument is created by God. I know we have different people creating instruments but above all of that, beyond all of that, everything is created by God. So why not use all of these instruments, bring them together in such a beautiful way to express love for God?’
Founded in the Punjab region some 500 years ago, Sikhism is one of the youngest of the world's major religions and music is central to its worship. The first great teacher, Guru Nanak, set the very earliest Sikh scriptures to music in raag form in the late 15th century.
‘We say that Sikhism is a religion, but actually Sikhism is a way of life,’ says Kaur.
‘As a Sikh our religion is humanity. The main core fundamental of Sikhism is truthful living, live a truthful life, earn your earnings ... do it honestly. Then Sikhs are required to donate 10 per cent to charity, to do good work.’
The notion of seva—or selfless service—is a tenet that Kaur upholds through her own charity, Kirtan For Causes, and her support for the SOS Initiative.
‘The SOS initiative has been working in Punjab for 10 years trying to place impoverished children into school,’ explains Kaur. ‘Currently we have about 3,000 children being sponsored.
‘Kirtan For Causes is my project, just my contribution to this cause. I don’t make any profits for myself. The words that I’m singing talk about this, about living a good life, a higher life, donating your profits, helping the less fortunate. So if I’m going to sing about it I should really make it happen. I should live up to these words that touch my heart.’