Manika Kaur's Bandhana
Not many of us develop a unique style of presenting devotional music at a young age; fewer still blend Gurbani with modern rhythms and tunes which appeal to the young and old alike; and far too few devote their singing to various causes they feel passionately about.
Manika Kaur's debut Kirtan album, Bandhana, encompasses all of the above ... and more.
She collaborated with internationally acclaimed bhangra/pop singer Sukhbir to create this CD, essentially to raise funds for the Gurdwara being built in Dubai. And in just over a month of its release, the CD has already helped to raise nearly US $100,000.00 for the construction of Guru Nanak Darbar at Jabel Ali, Dubai.
26-year-old Manika was born and brought up in Melbourne, Australia and moved to Dubai after she married in 2007. It would have been easy to slip into a laid-back life in the lap of luxury, but in her words, "I was sure that I didn't want to become just another socialite; I wanted to make a positive contribution to society, and at least try to make a difference."
Blessed with a divine voice and writing poetry since she was little girl, Manika spent a lot of her growing years mimicking her favourite singers, musicians and raagis. Although she had no formal training in music, an Australian producer had already recorded an English song with her before she moved to Dubai.
In Dubai, she recorded some more English music with another producer and went on to win a radio competition (by popular vote) for singing an original composition in December 2008. A chance social encounter with the well known singer Sukhbir shaped her dream of recording a Kirtan CD to raise funds for building the Dubai Gurdwara.
What started as an experiment to record a single Shabad, went on to become a unique musical collaboration between the two.
"I wanted a Kirtan album which people could listen to by the seaside, something that had a modern contemporary feel. Sukhbir had already produced a Kirtan album for his father - which also featured a Shabad sung by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar. But rather than impose his ideas on me or cramp my creativity, he actually enhanced it with his great musical genius. I think he is a spiritually gifted singer and I'm so lucky to have met him."
But with humility, Manika is quick to point out that it's the cause that is the major motivation behind the CD, not personal recognition. "The building of the Gurdwara is much bigger than me or Sukhbir or even this CD, for that matter. We are all so grateful to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum (Vice President of UAE and ruler of Dubai), who donated a plot measuring 25,400 sq ft to the Sikh community, free of cost, to build the first Gurdwara in the United Arab Emirates.
Many architects have collaborated to design the 100,000 sq ft building, and it is estimated that it will cost US $20 million.
[More information about the planned Gurdwara is available at www.gurudwaradubai.com
On his part, Sukhbir says "The new Gurdwara in Dubai was the inspiration for both of us. It may sound strange but it seemed that the project started by itself and before we knew it .... it was finished! Working with Manika was very easy, as she is a very versatile singer who sings in English or Punjabi with equal ease. Her vocal range is unbelievable! She sang the beginning of the Shabad titled 'Ram Ram' in almost a whisper and hit some really high notes in the verses! Brilliant!"
Sukhbir goes on to add, "The vocal recordings, some of the pre-production and all the final mixes took place in the Darbar (prayer) room at Manika's residence in Dubai. For me, that in itself was an overwhelming experience, as Guru Granth Sahib's presence made it very very special for me. The violin was recorded in a hotel room in New Delhi, guitars were recorded in Mumbai and at home in Nairobi. I worked on the project in any conceivable place, from a seat in the airplane to the television room at home in Nairobi!"
The CD doesn't sell for a fixed price - in fact, people just use it as a means for a donation, with some individual donations running into thousands of dollars.
Recalls Manika, "We had only just begun working on the CD and Sukhbir played the vocals to a family friend in Kenya. She was so moved that she immediately donated $1,000 to the CD, even though it hadn't yet been fully recorded, let alone released! That was just the beginning of the overwhelming response we've received from people the world over. It seems like everyone is eager to be a part of this collective building effort - even if to offer a single brick on the tiniest wall of what will soon become a wondrous house of God."
As for Manika herself, she believes that, "Music is a wonderful medium through which one can spread any message. I know that there are many singers around the world who are much more gifted than I am, but God has been really kind to me, and I'm sure I can do more. I have been blessed with a very comfortable life, but I feel that I must do something for those less fortunate than me. And I honestly believe that if each of us can look out for others a little bit more - feed an orphan, donate some clothing to the needy, educate the poor, etc., the world would be a much better place to live in."
Manika has gone on to record a music video for the song "Hallelujah," originally sung by Leonard Cohen. The song is featured on YouTube, highlighting issues of world poverty and impoverishment.
"The lyrics of the song mean different things to different people, but I interpreted them as man's spiritual quest and the soul's misery at its separation from God."
Manika's rendition of Gurbani in the CD Bandhana and her interpretation of Naam Simran with some lyrics in English have inspired her to produce another album along similar lines.
Currently working on an album of English songs, she hopes to collaborate again with Sukhbir for another Kirtan album.
She says, "Working with Sukhbir on this project has been a glorious experience for me. His patience and humility are virtues one doesn't often see in those who have fame and recognition. But I feel like it's only the beginning. Hopefully the architect of destiny will allow us to make many more Kirtan CD's together for many different causes that need help in raising awareness and funds. All we can do is try our best to make a difference in the short time we have on this earth ... what else are we here for!?"
Sukhbir echoes the same sentiments and says, "I loved every bit of making this CD and simply cannot wait for Waheguru to give me another opportunity to work on the next project!"
By the sounds of it, divine causes find divine ways of bringing beautiful voices into heavenly collaborations. So let's all say hallelujah ... for more!