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Why Shashika Mooruth Wants to Make Spiritual Music Cool Again

The South African singer looks to jazz, funk, weird synths and Bollywood to reclaim devotionals from the West

Urvija Banerji May 16, 2017
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Shashika Mooruth realized she wanted to be a professional singer in India while she was a child growing up in Apartheid South Africa. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

While she was a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, Shashika Mooruth realized she wanted to be a professional singer in India. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

In 1976, Bollywood legend Kishore Kumar performed a rare series of concerts in South Africa. Because of apartheid, the rest of the world had begun a series of cultural and economic sanctions on the country. India too had imposed a ban of its own, which had the unfortunate side effect that the small but still significant population of Indian-origin South Africans was largely cut off from Indian culture, which included Hindi film music.

But that year, several concert organizers and show promoters were able to pull off what no others had done before them, and secured Kumar for a tour of South Africa. He was the first Bollywood star to ever visit the country. Security at the shows was incredibly tight. But one night in Durban, somehow, a little girl and her father managed to slip under security barriers and find their way straight to Kumar himself. Kumar took the little girl upon his lap and she showed him her songbook, and he invited her to return the next day to sing on stage with him. After that night, Shashika Mooruth, then 12 years old, became determined to make it to India to pursue her career as a professional singer.

But that dream would take several years to realize. In 1978, Mooruth and her father traveled to Mumbai, where she, a short-haired teen, was considered a novelty. “It’s so different now!” says Mooruth, who is a chart-topping world music singer today with over a dozen albums to her name. That childhood trip showed her the sheer scope of possibilities beyond Bollywood in India, and though she didn’t want to return home to South Africa, her father insisted she did so to complete her education before starting out as a musician.

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Mooruth would never finish her education in South Africa; after 1978, the country went into a state of radical political metamorphosis as the people pushed back against the brutality of apartheid. Mooruth describes writing exams for her B.Sc., and being pulled out of them in protest against the regime; what would have been a three-year degree was taking her five years. “I kind of ran away,” Mooruth says of her move to India after the multiple disruptions. “I tore away because it was really [my] drive [toward] the music.”

Mooruth, who is now in her fifties, has just released Krishna: The Flute Player, an album of devotional songs that aren’t quite bhajans or kirtans. Though she forwent the Bollywood route to instead make world music that borders on spiritual, the occasional jazz and synth-funk digressions in some of her songs are just cheesy enough that they would feel right at home on a Bollywood soundtrack–evidently, Kumar’s influence continues to creep in.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“I tried for Bollywood here, but the industry, I’m sorry to say–you pay [to get in], or you get utilized because you are a woman.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“The Bollywood industry is too fast-moving for me, and there’s much more to music that I still need to learn, which I won’t even complete in this lifetime,” says Mooruth. “I tried for Bollywood here, but the industry, I’m sorry to say–you pay [to get in], or you get utilized because you are a woman.”

Mooruth attributes her shift toward devotional music to meeting her “guruji,” a German ISKON swami who she mentions in the liner notes of her new album. He asked her to sing bhajans and travel the world with him. “I travelled with him to 25 countries,” says Mooruth. “It became an opportunity for me to feel myself through the spiritual medium.”

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Surprisingly, given the German guruji and the fact that Mooruth often peppers her conversation with whoppers like “it was a mystical experience,” her music reaches beyond the realms of both Western New Age spiritual music and traditional bhajans and kirtans. “Bhajans aren’t my music; music is my bhajan,” Mooruth says, rather philosophically. The aforementioned jazz and funk influences keep her music from the straightforward “devotionals” aisle at the record store, but the fusion elements are grounded in a genuine appreciation for music that saves her from the vapidity of the Western New Age spirituals on blast at every other yoga studio.

That’s not to say that the New Age movement has rejected Mooruth’s music: in fact, to the contrary, Mooruth is invited to the U.S. each year to sing at yoga centers around the country. “I must be the only Indian-style singer fitting into their performance, and they like it because they want to hear a typical Indian voice,” says Mooruth. “When I look at media coverage [in India], they cover a lot of Western artists who are doing kirtans or [American vocalist] Krishna Das and whatever. I always feel like this is India now, where what we have is not appreciated.”

Mooruth is particularly proud of a trend report her team received of her music in the charts last week, where Krishna: The Flute Player was listed in the same category as pop artists such as Adele and Taylor Swift. “Why it made me particularly happy is that this is what we composed,” says Mooruth, who is listed as a co-composer on the album alongside musician Rajeev Mahavir. “We’re not trying to sing like them, it’s our music and we’re taking it forward now and it’s being accepted.”

Watch the video for “On The Beat,” a song off ‘Krishna: The Flute Player’:

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