“When I write, I see more of a calm in me, the thrill of having found myself, to share with you and the world the little I’ve learnt about myself and continue to learn, as the years pass me by,” says singing sensation, Rajni Shivaram.
The Bangalore-based Rajni Shivaram is a passionate singer, who chose to sing blues, leaving what could be termed as a lucrative career in Biotechnology. Two years and running, she has rendered songs with one of the early birds in the realm of blue bands in India, The Chronic Blues Circus. After learning the ropes and nuances of blues, Rajni chartered a course of her own by leading a band, Midnight Poppies, started by Sangeeta Agnes Hosea, her guitarist friend. After delving deep into various genres of music, the band now performs original music.
In a free-wheeling chat with The Indian News, Editor-in-Chief, Jayashankar Menon, the singing sensation Rajni Shivaram speaks about vivid passions and more. Excerpts:
TIM: Can you talk about your twin passions as a writer and as a singer?
RS: I enjoy writing as much as I enjoy singing. It gives me immense pleasure to talk about my journey. I think most of us get caught up in this rigmarole we call life. Sometimes, we get so lost, we don’t find ourselves ever. Life just becomes a journey with set, defined goals at every phase.
TIN: What is your take on people choosing to take challenges?
RS: I have immense respect for those that have veered from any known territory, those that have chosen to challenge themselves amidst all odds and emerged successful. The appetite for risk, I believe can drive us to do a lot of things and if you take it far enough, can even contribute to your being successful.
TIN: How do you see success?
RS: Success as I see it, is not a destination but a process, the road to it, being long and winding. It is all a mere learning process. How we see ourselves really does impact what we end up doing for ourselves and the people around us.
TIN: About your childhood..
RS: It would be safe to say that I’ve always enjoyed singing. Right from when I was a child. Not like I knew what it meant anyway. I was just extremely loud as a child. Untamed, wild and just loud. I’m sure a lot of people would say the same about their kids. However, my Mum had a tough time raising me, worrying I’d turn out very wrong indeed. I was just a rebel without a cause. The more you’d ask me not to do something, I just would, for the kick of it. I had a vivid imagination as a child. Crooked as it would seem to everyone around me, including the family. I was very directionless. I’m not sure anyone knew how to raise a difficult child. I was difficult. The problem with our society lies here. You can’t slot someone who perceives the world differently in the same category. Put them in the same box and they get bored, which is precisely what happened with me. I’ve always been very artsy, as a child. I was never pushed to explore my potential. I was always told I am talented and that was the end of the story.
TIN: Can you throw light on your singing and academics?
RS: I sang quite a bit, I was enrolled in community singing classes (Carnatic) where I’d be singing with a group of kids. However, that didn’t really get me anywhere. I didn’t see any improvement so to say. Neither did I want to see any improvement because I was never taught to see it as a serious career option. The one thing It did was It made me happy. I wasn’t too happy in school. Maths made me sick in the stomach, I loved the languages I picked up. I had a good ear for it. I picked them up quite well. I was what one would describe a very “average performer”. Very quiet in the school I was put in after my 2nd Grade, CMR NJS. I was a rebel yes, but, I was scared at being thrown in a school, quite out of my comfort zone, where kids came from well-to-do families and were snobbish to say the least. I was no longer a bully. I was bullied. I was always ashamed of not being able to speak well enough. As a kid, you develop a certain kind of complex. Beneath all that bravado, I was just a very sensitive girl that was really ashamed of herself. It came with an inferiority complex that I had to deal with for a long time. I couldn’t bring myself to excel in what the society expects one to excel in- academics or be the kind of normal one would expect one to be.
I was trying to fit in so hard that I lost myself in the process, for the longest time. Thinking If I did strive a little more, I’d probably do well in academics again. I fell for the same flawed logic in college, ended up doing my engineering and life seemed more than normal, except at every step, I knew this. I wasn’t happy, one bit. A part of me felt like I gave up on most things I loved doing just for the sake of academics, to please people that are never going to be pleased anyway. I wanted to prove to everyone that I could be an engineer. I did become one and I followed it up with a Masters degree in Biotechnology from BIT MESRA.
TIN: Now about your singing as a passion and as a career…
RS: I took singing more seriously. I’d sing everyday and it was the one thing that kept me going even when things around me weren’t any close to being perfect. I’d sing to drive them Blues away. That makes perfect sense to me now, although I couldn’t have realized it back then and couldn’t have said it better. I was beginning to feel happy again. I saw happiness even in the most dreadful moments. Thus began my journey with Music. Singing alone to myself, in my room in the hostel. F-78, the room number, I still remember.
I met people and interacted with some juniors in college, jammed with them. I was probably the only Masters student that hung out with juniors and took part in fests and sang to my heart’s fill. I did see a lot of these young bright kids going after what they loved instead of going after that much needed placement. Some of them, in their own right, were developing technologies, building their own start ups and making a business out of them. I’m glad to have crossed paths with them. It was my entry to a new world. A world where dreams could come true, if you really put your mind to it. The way they thought, it inspired me. It made me believe there was more to life than just excelling in academics and getting that quintessential job.
TIN: Can you share your experience the first time you stepped out of your comfort zone of Bangalore?
RS: BIT MESRA was an eye opener. The first time I stepped out of Bangalore and moved to a city, Ranchi, which is unlike any city I’ve come across in India. The culture shock proved too much to handle. I wanted to come back home for sure. However, I’m glad I stuck and saw it through. Towards the end, I’d come to appreciate it for the experience it provided me with- beautiful. I realized, where I came from, Bangalore, I was rich. It is luxury, although I’m from a middle class family. People in these parts (Bihar and Jharkhand) really did strive to meet the basic requirements/ amenities- food, water and hygiene. It irked me initially to say the least, that the suffering could be so much. However, this is the kind of reality one doesn’t talk to you about, one you don’t get to see everyday, let alone being exposed to it.
We were exposed to it, although to a lesser degree compared to the inhabitants of the city. Filth was everywhere. We wouldn’t have water sometimes in the hostel. We’d pray we don’t run out of it. The quality of the food, very questionable. The quality of water, my friends were falling sick from Typhoid and other diseases. No proper medical care was available. To see the light in such conditions was difficult. You could either hate the city and the institution or learn to embrace it with arms wide open. I did the former in the beginning and was killing myself, but towards the end of the first year of my Masters degree, I began to come to terms with it and started immersing myself in a lot of things.
In hindsight, I couldn’t be any happier with all the decisions I’ve made. Even the wrong ones. Knowing oneself is a process. Some take a lifetime and yet don’t find themselves. The mistakes I’ve made may have taken it’s toll on me in that it took me longer to get where I am today, but it has made me more appreciative of the process as well. It has given me more clarity. Also, I realized, I wasn’t exactly poor in academics. It is just that the way our education system expected us to grasp things, the way things are taught to us/ information is conveyed to us, it mattered so much. Our education system surely needs reformation to say the least, to understand not everyone understands things using the rote method. I rely more on the visuals to learn things. I wouldn’t have gotten into BIT MESRA If I didn’t ace my GATE Exam. I understood so much more when I learnt everything using videos from the very scratch. I even aced Math, during my Engineering (most of the time), only because of the teachers I had and the methods they employed were good. If only I’d developed a liking for this subject when I was in school.
TIN: Despite being academically excellent, what prompted you to choose music as your career?
RS: I was doing well academically and I graduated with great marks. However, that thirst to turn my life around and give Music the chance it deserved in my life, hit me so hard that I decided to give it a go when I came back to Bangalore. I got myself enrolled in Nathaniel School of Music for a short three month course, to network with Musicians, build my contacts and to see where exactly I fit in. In about three months time, I realized there was nothing more I wanted to do than sing the Blues.
TIN: How the Midnight Poppies came into being?
RS: I inquired with The Chronic Blues Circus if I can sing with them and they were gracious enough to accept me. I sang with them from 2015 to early 2018. My bassist, Sangeeta Agnes Hosea in Chronic Blues Circus, towards the end of 2016, had quit CBC to focus on her original material. She is a fabulous bassist. A multi instrumentalist. Midnight Poppies is of her making. She had recorded a couple of albums with the help of our common friend, Vamsi Krishna at his house. This was how Midnight Poppies started out.
To be honest, I think I was the last to join the band, after my stint with The Chronic Blues Circus came to an end. I believed in what Sangeeta did. The lyrics were straight from the heart, by a genuine person. She’s genuinely a treasure trove of knowledge. She’s quite underrated as a guitarist although she is popularly known as a bassist. To add to her skill set, she now sings as well. Such is her musical prowess. With Midnight Poppies, we focus on our original compositions. You might think I am snobbish for liking each of our compositions and to say I love the lot, but, it is true. Each one is a gem in it’s own right and you’ll know when you hear it. It isn’t restricted to a particular genre although there is a certain, unique sound that the band brings to the table, and all of these songs fit in it perfectly. It spans the range of Blues, jazz, pop and folk elements.
If one would still ask me to pick, I’d have to go with “Don’t look back” , “Judgement Day” and “Little Things we left behind”, as my favorites from my band material. I think there was no other reason than the fact that I believed in her and the fact that her songs have great potential that I actually joined the band. It’s been over a year with them now. We’ve already played in Bangalore, Shillong, Guwahati and Mumbai. We will be playing in Delhi soon. Midnight Poppies recorded its original songs with DD National, in Delhi, in February, which will be aired on May 22, 2019, Wednesday, with a repeat telecast on May 27, 2019, Monday. The series of gigs in Delhi we did, apart from this, went on well.
TIN: What was the highlight of your career?
RS: In March 2018, I had the pleasure of playing four shows in California as well, that being the highlight of my career. With the band, we hope to accomplish so much more and we are getting there. Our originals will be out real soon, sometime a little later this year. We are working on it as I speak to you and we couldn’t be any more excited about it. There are a tonne of artists that speak to me, for various reasons and this lifetime maybe a little too small to explore all of them and I hope I get to hear a lot of them.
Among them, the few I can recall right at the top of my head are Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, K.D Lang, Annie Lennox, Maggie Bell, Neil Young, The Allman Brothers, Jimmy Reed, B.B King, Albert King, Freddie King, Eva Cassidy etc. There are so many more that I’m missing but, soul gets me. And, all of these people have a tonne of it and it shone in their instrument of choice.
TIN: What really excites you?
RS: Nothing really excites me as much as learning does. I’m learning Music and I think I say it with some pride here. It takes something to learn what most people pass off quite conveniently as “talent”. Music and singing especially is a lot more than that. It takes a lot of blood and sweat to get better and progress makes me extremely happy. I will be giving Grade exams in Music starting this year as well. Alongside, I’m learning to play the piano as well. A long long way to go, but, it seems promising. A long road ahead of me, but, the unknown has only fascinated and gotten me excited.