Who Is Manika Kaur?
I am a Sikh, being one allows me the space to explore within myself, the tools to finding peace within the chaos, the ability to recognise my ego and the understanding of the continuous work I need to do on myself in order to obtain liberation. The examples set by the Sikh Gurus of seeing God in all, serving humanity with compassion and humility, living truthfully, standing against oppression and tyranny, remaining absorbed in Naam inspire me daily as I work towards figuring out who is Manika Kaur.
As a person I am family orientated, very much someone who prefers to stay at home, I rarely go out and when I do my friends usually have to guilt trip me. I am a creative creature so singing kirtan, composing melodies, understanding the emotion behind the passage is a wonderful way for me to express the love in my heart. I’m a non – judgemental, I feel that a person who is has failed to understand Sikhi, that we are here and what we experience and where we are at is all Hukam so instead of passing judgements one should focus internally on personal connection and growth and as try genuinely to send love, positivity and encouragement into the world. I am a mother, my son is 6 and is often my muse. I am a wife and I have a husband who supports me and believes in me, I often say to him that he gave me wings, he is the type of man that every woman should have, someone who sees all they can become and helps them reach beyond their imagination. I am a daughter to parents who have showed me how to live through the way they live, they taught me about Sikhi through love and not force, their examples are etched into my soul and have help me overcome many hardships.
Before singing what were you doing before that as in your Career?
I was born in Melbourne, Australia and I completed a degree in Fashion Business. In my final year I had an arranged marriage and moved to Dubai after graduation. Adapting to life in Dubai and being away from everyone who loved me and everything I knew was challenging at 23. I always prioritised meditation and prayer, this was an important part of my upbringing, it was during this time that I had a dream which was the start of my life’s mission. In my dream I was holding a kirtan cd, on the cover, there was a message ‘all proceeds donated to building the first Gurdwara in Dubai’ and when I turned the cd over I saw my picture. I immediately woke up with a knowing that I was supposed to do this, that’s how I started recording kirtan and started my foundation ‘Kirtan for Causes’.
Have you always been into your Sikhi?
I grew up in a house where my parents did Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji seva. My parents would have special containers built to fly hundreds of SGGSji’s to our home in Melbourne along with palki’s, gutka’s, rumala’s, chaur’s, chabas and chandovas – basically everything a family would require in their Babaji’s room and we would distribute these as a seva. From the age of 10 till 23 my weekends were spent doing this seva, cleaning SGGSji’s, preparing langar, and setting up our home for kirtan. My siblings and I often performed kirtan as in those days Australia was quite cut-off from the world and we would often have no bhaiji’s to sing. It’s impossible to describe what that was like, it often feels like a dream.
Have you always had a passion for music and singing?
Absolutely, I think most people love singing and in my formative years I was in love with Disney songs but when I discovered kirtan it was like uncovering a piece of myself – there is this treasure we all have access to that can create this quiet within, it’s like melting into the universal expanse.
Do you any play instruments?
I play the Harmonium, I’m self-taught and learned to sing and play kirtan by ear. I’m currently taking guitar lessons and I use a keyboard when I’m finalising compositions but I have no formal music training.
When did you realise this is what you wanted to do in terms of singing?
I remember a conversation I had with my husband before marriage. He asked me “apart from family, what are the 3 most important things to you?” and my reply to him was “Spirituality (Sikhi), Charity and Music”, even as a young girl I often spoke about doing something in music which my dad discouraged, at the time I had no idea I would be singing kirtan and in this way. It was after my first album, which was recorded with the purpose of raising money for building the Guru Nanak Darbar in Dubai. At the time my hope was that the album would raise 50,000 dirhams but when the album raised over a million dirhams (300,000 pounds) that I realised I wanted to spend my life doing this – composing and recording heart touching kirtan whilst serving humanity and thus my foundation ‘Kirtan for Causes’ came to be. Since then, through album sales and ticket sales from live concerts, Kirtan for Causes is currently educating 200 children in Punjab, we also built one home for a family and we are starting the second construction project soon. I am also talking to someone about sustainable homes which are more affordable and will help us grow this project. We are also working with Binti Period to tackle period poverty for our children and their families.
Who is your role model and inspiration, someone you look up to?
I am currently writing a book and have been researching the lives of several of the Sikh gurus when Guru Arjun was martyred and sang ‘Tera Kiya Meetha Lagay’ – this kind of acceptance, of submitting – it moved me but also changed the way I approach many situations in my life. However, growing up and watching my mom handle life with so much grace – till today she inspires me, whenever I feel weak or sad I just have to remember that I am the daughter of Ravinder Kaur Uppal, I am the daughter of a fearless, unstoppable, loving woman and there and then I feel my spirits lift. Just remembering I came from her is enough.
In 2008 you entered and won a radio competition for singing your own composition how and why did you decide to do that?
I was relatively new in Dubai and I would write a lot of songs and poetry, I have done so all my life but I found a lot of inspiration in the hollowness of my new life, it was a difficult adjustment. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t feel loved, I missed my family and my home so singing kirtan, meditating and praying as well as writing and composing English songs was my escape. At the time I was working with a producer in Dubai who submitted my song into this radio competition and the track won and was played several times, it was definitely cool hearing my song on the radio!
You released your album Bandhanaa in 2013 how did this happen?
Actually ‘Bandhanaa’ was released in 2010, it was re-released as ‘Satnam Waheguru The True Name’ in 2013 when I was signed to a label and the album was released on Itunes and other musical platforms. When the album came out it was completely a new sound for kirtan, thanks to Sukhbir Singh who produced the album, it was so loved and appreciated. I received emails from people from all around the world letting me know how much the album meant to them or how for the first time their children were actually listening to kirtan. All this lead to the album having an official release and soon after I was working on my next project which was on the life of Guru Ram Das. For this project I composed the melody and worked with a Swedish producer, I also wrote the script and contacted renowned hand shadow-grapher Amar Sen, I used this artistic medium to create this video which went on to win ‘Best Short Film’ at the Sikh Arts and Film Festival in California.
You won the 2016 Sikh Award for ‘Sikhs In Entertainment’, did that come as a shock for you? Also you had over 10,000,000 views on You Tube?
It was an honour to receive this award but mostly I had the chance to address the crowd. I took that opportunity to tell them about the epidemic facing Punjab. I shared a heartbreaking story about a family in Punjab whose two sons Princepal Singh and Amritpal Singh were being educated by Kirtan for Causes. We decided to travel to Punjab and interview some of the families whose children’s education was being sponsored in an effort to show and encourage others to support the education of the forgotten children in Punjab. When we entered this particular home the two boys were sitting on their grandparent’s lap, they informed us that their son committed suicide that morning. It’s a moment that I can never forget, how these grandparents were going to support their grandkids, they sat there and delivered the news with virtually no reaction. That’s when I realised that suicide was the new normal in Punjab and we could no longer ignore the cries for help. It is time for a change. Any opportunity I get to speak about my experiences in Punjab I take as a chance to create awareness on the dire situation there.
Having 10,000,000 views on my channel is definitely wonderful, there is a lot of love in the world and it is humbling to receive this kind of support. The planning and effort behind every track and video are immense so having it reach people and mean something to them is a wonderful feeling. I wholeheartedly thank all those who have and continue to encourage me.
What is your favourite Kirtan you have produced or performed?
This is really hard because each shabad left me with a gift. If I had to choose, at this point in time I would say Guru Ram Das Rakho Sarnaee.
After the completion of my first album with Sukhbir I thought to myself ‘What next?’, I wondered if I could keep creating beautiful kirtan without the help of a superstar producer like Sukhbir. Hence, when I composed ‘Guru Ram Das’ and worked to produce it in the way I wanted and created a video which received 4.5 million views on youtube and won an award, I felt like I proved to myself that I am capable and to trust myself.
You worked and met with Legend Bhangra pop star Sukhbir Singh how did that happen?
This entire project was one of divine providence, everyone I met along the way since I had the dream (as mentioned above) came to serve this very same purpose. I met Sukhbir during Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Gurpurab, I sang there and spoke to him about my wish to record this album for raising funds for the Gurdwara, he immediately said he would produce it and he did so entirely as a seva. It was an exciting time as Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum had recently donated the land to the Sikh community to build a Gurdwara, this actually happened on my birthday the same year I got married and moved to Dubai.
(Opening of Dubai Gurdwara)
The entire community was excited with the news and many people donated money or time to this project. It was the second time in my life I would be involved in a Gurdwara project. When I was younger my parents purchased a large post office in Blackburn, Melbourne and donated it to the Sikh community, it was converted into a beautiful Gurdwara, I remember helping to re-paint the walls and how the entire community came together and did their bit for the project. I wanted to somehow contribute to the project in Dubai so I begged Waheguru to give me some kind of seva in my new home where I often felt out of place, I had no idea at the time of what the Guru had planned for me – divine providence.
You have also worked with renowned DJ, tabla player and producer Talvin Singh a pioneer of Asian electronica he has played with legends such as Madonna. How did that happen?
After my video on YouTube Guru Ram Das came about, I was approached by a manager Vinod Gadher who said that he loved what I was doing and spoke to me about Talvin Singh, soon after he was my manager and asked me to compose something and send it to Talvin. I started keeping in touch with Talvin over skype and email, when we met it was just so easy, I learned a great deal about sound from him, I will always consider Talvin to be one of my teachers, recording an E.P with him has been an adventure and I am humbled that he even wanted to work with an amateur like me.
You also have worked with Dharam Seva Records and Tigerstyle on certain projects how did that come about?
Dharam Seva Records are involved in such wonderful Sikh-centric projects which really align with my interests, I was introduced to them through a mutual friend and everything just felt right. Their passion for seva is touching and genuine and I enjoy being a part of the team.
I have just completed an EP with Tigerstyle, it was my manager Vin who felt put me in touch with them and arranged the whole project. Interestingly, I never met them face to face. I composed the melodies for the tracks and explained to them the type of sound I wanted but their natural ability to create a signature sound is infused into my melodies and the entire process was smooth, they are talented and professional, it was a pleasure to work with them.
For people who don’t know what is Kirtan For Causes?
Kirtan for Causes is my foundation (and also my mission statement) – 100% of all proceeds made by my kirtan is used to serve causes. My main focus being in Punjab, we educate children, build homes and deal with the everyday problems that our children and their families face. For example, our children expressed to us that they find it difficult to study because they do not have electricity so in the evening there is no light, we responded by sending out 400 powerful solar lights. We also arrange internet, laptops, mobile phones for our children attending university if needed.
You are also a devoted philanthropist. But you are raising funds and awareness for Punjab via your organisation Kirtan For Causes I have seen the videos of your work it is amazing. But not only that you also sponsor over 200 students and you actually visit and speak to them about their journey. Can you tell me more about that?
Motivation. We want to remind them of the heights they can reach if they make use of this opportunity to get educated. We ask the families of our daughters not to marry them too young, to allow them to become independent so that they can create a better life and future, we remind them that these children are also ours and we will be there to help every step of the way. One of our boys Nishan Gill has recently gotten a job in Dubai as an IT support engineer, Gurpreet Kaur who has overcome some incredible circumstances is in Chandigarh University studying journalism and has already been offered a job there. Amritpal Kaur, this was the family in Gurdaspur we built a home for, is studying to become an Intensive Care Technician. We are so proud of our kids and being a part of their journey is essential.
You also did your photo shoot for Kirtan for Causes in London. How did that come about? Why London?
I am in London quite a bit, I receive much love and support from the community there and enjoy being there. Last year I was invited to sing kirtan in Houses of Parliament which was incredible, I feel the talent level of people in the UK is exceptional so I love coming there to work with musicians, artists, photographers etc.
Photoshoots are important for the press, website, social media and also for album covers so every 2 to 3 years I need updated photos. I try to do everything to the highest standards and I have noticed that it always pays off, a great picture can land you a full page interview versus a small quarter page nod. It’s difficult trying to shift kirtan into a more prominent position, it takes time to educate listeners with every new sound but it does help people to take notice when you reach the world music charts or get played on mainstream radio. If you set out to do anything in life, do it well so that you are not left with regrets!
Have you ever had any negative feedback in regards to yourself?
Not to my face. (laughing)
One time someone said that because I used instruments other than harmonium and tabla I was breaking rehat mariyada because the Gurus used only these instruments, I informed this person that the harmonium was invented in the 1700s well after the time of our Gurus and asked him to not judge me but instead join me in sharing love and positivity in the world and if possible help to educate a child in Punjab.
Someone who meant well once told me I should use images of myself looking into the heavens or into the distance as it comes across more divine and less like self-promotion, my response was what could be more divine than being real and authentic, using an image in hopes of projecting or creating some sort of illusion isn’t real and I would rather fearlessly be me and stand by my choices then dress up as a pious person and pretend I’m above what it is to be human. I’m just always me, not what society wants me to be and because of my thinking I am free and boy does it feel good not to be trapped by dogma.
Also, my understanding is people see you as they are, it’s not a reflection of who you are, so negative feedback from someone about you is really negative feedback about themselves.
You are a role model and inspiration too many did you think at the time that you would touch so many people with your beautiful voice and Kirtan?
Firstly, Thank you.
When I begin a project I don’t plan some outcome I want. It always starts with prayer, I try to be in the moment of what I’m doing, to experience it wholly. The fact that people can share that with me makes it all the more beautiful. I am so moved that many people are sharing this seva with me – their kindness makes it possible for me to keep going with the work in Punjab, it will take everyone to create the change in Punjab that desperately needs to happen – this must be a collective seva, one of true and pure unity.
One video I do remember so vividly in my mind, which was when you attended The Freedom Rally in Trafalgar Square in London, where you addressed over 25,000 people. I sat and watched you and I was totally blown away. You spoke the truth and spoke so passionately. How was that for you?
That moment will always be extraordinary. I stepped out of my comfort zone and it helped me to grow immensely. Just being able to speak to my community about 1984, Punjab today and my experiences, the response was overwhelming. Unforgettable.
What’s next for Manika Kaur?
I am shooting two new videos next month (one will be released this year) and will be working on a new shabad, which will be a duet with the multi-talented Sukhshinder Shinda. I will be sending him the melody next week so we can start working on the track. He is also doing this single completely as a seva, the compassion I have experienced is overwhelming.
Early November I will be releasing a new video titled ‘Dear Punjab, I’m Sorry’, this is a spoken word style video. I am also working on a project to bring and build sustainable and affordable housing to Punjab.
Next year I will be releasing a double E.P (Talvin Singh and Tigerstyle) which is coming out on an American label as they feel I should take steps towards the 2019 Grammy’s. I have also started working on a kirtan educational project for children which will come together in the second half of next year. Currently, most of my time is spent chained to my desk as I write my first book which will be published next year.
I also blog monthly about what I’m working on, wherever possible I create vlogs so people can get a peek behind the scenes of the more exciting projects. All my work can be found on my social media pages and my YouTube
I am in such awe of Manika Kaur, she is such a selfless and compassionate woman. When I first wrote an email to her, her response was just beautiful and that’s when I knew she is a very special woman. The support and help she has given to my blog have left me feeling very empowered. Not many people will do that in life. But Manika showed nothing but love! Manika’s love and drive for what she believes in is just endless. The amount of seva she does for the children out in Punjab just astounds me. Not only that she helped build a Gurdwara in Dubai and built houses in Punjab for families. I fell in love with Manika Kaur with her beautiful and unique voice the composure she has is just fantastic. Every time I hear her Kirtan it puts me in such a trance and gives me a push. I urge people to listen to her Kirtan because you can connect with it. Close your eyes and feel it. I do. The Kirtan that stands out for me is Auhkee Gharee. The video just blew me away. It was real and very heartfelt.