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Sounding Out Sanctuary


A profile of singer and soft strong song maker, Anju
By Stefanie Fernández |
SEPTEMBER 9, 2019
Artwork by Shebani Rao
On August 24th, SAADA launched the soundtrack to our "Revolution Remix" South Asian American history walking tour with a one-night-only concert at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. We shared stories of South Asians in Philadelphia from the 1780s to the present day and original compositions by five talented South Asian American artists: Arooj Aftab, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Zain Alam, Seti X, and Anju. The album is available now on all streaming platforms including Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud.

Listen to Anju's track while you read the profile below:

I first discovered Anju Madhok’s music while going through entries to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest last year. Sifting through hundreds of clips, I was spellbound by Anju’s entry, “Invocation,” a quiet, inward meditation manifested externally on an altar of heirlooms of self: a journal, an orange rind.

After that, I dove into Rind + Seed, Anju’s earliest project on Spotify, and discovered in just four tracks a tenderness in its conjurings of childhood and vulnerability — a sound Anju would describe as homegrown — pitted, continuously, as from a ripe fruit. I didn’t know Anju, but I trusted them.

So it made sense to me that the next time I’d hear from Anju one year later would be for a project as intentional as SAADA’s Revolution Remix. It is first time Anju has written someone else’s story — that of Anandibai Joshee, the first South Asian women to receive a western medical degree, and activist and writer Pandita Ramabai, who attended Joshee’s graduation in 1886. Yet the magic of Anju’s intensely personal music until now hasn’t been its individual perspective; it’s the brave, tender voice that creates a sanctuary for so many others to heal.

Pandita Ramabai with her daughter, Manorama.
Anju attributes this conjuring skill to being an only child. “I really had to find ways to entertain myself and create my own world,” Anju tells me. Growing up in Minneapolis in a religious Hindu family, Anju remembers observing the world through a child’s eyes, and listens to that inner child when writing music. “[Everything] was just extra vibrant, extra colorful, extra spicy. You know how those leaves, like those oak leaves, get like bumps on them sometimes? That was mind-blowing,” Anju laughs. Now, at 23, they remember the ease with which they could zoom out of their body to observe it, their parents, and the world around them from their spirit’s perspective.

“Moving through the world in so many different ways, that's gotten muted,” Anju confesses. “That feels like the most sacred thing inside of me that I'm trying to protect.” They first harnessed this magic in music in high school, when Anju first starting writing and recording songs on GarageBand. “I think me being a musician and me identifying as an artist are two different junctures in my life,” Anju says. They grew up playing piano and violin and studying the Western classical canon, but it wasn’t until Anju tapped into the sensory realm that they felt like an artist.

It was in college at Wellesley that Anju first found the communities that would uplift and inform this artistry. They discovered East Meets West, a Cambridge, MA community space that hosts open mic nights called East Meets Words. In February 2017, Anju was invited to feature there. The energy in the room altered Anju’s self-perception.
“To see that my music is emotionally resonant … to deliver it to a room full of people and feel their energy, feel my energy — that was really powerful,” they remember. “I think that's when I was like, oh, I'm an artist.”
Anju performs at a SAADA event in Malibu, CA on July 20, 2019. (Photo credit: Sej Saraiya)
Self-released that year, Rind + Seed holds a soft spot in Anju’s heart; “pre-the-hardening,” they call it. Hearing it back now, Anju hears some clunks they attribute to lack of production knowledge, but also hears in their “acoustically planted” EPs a softness endearing to their past self. Rind + Seed and its 2018 follow-up Water Garden are sparse instrumentally, but experiment with themes and sounds that lilt between major and minor keys, between Anju’s education in the Western canon and reverence for South Asian tradition.

“I think that the songs that come out the smoothest or that feel the most resonant when I look back on them are songs that start as an unidentifiable feeling in my belly,” Anju says of the emotional rigor of their process.

So when it came to telling Joshee’s and Ramabai’s stories, Anju felt unmoored. “When I sat down initially to work on it, I was like, I only know how to write from this place of my own feeling,” Anju says. “How do I write about another person's story? I remember feeling very anxious and worried that I would tell it wrong or conjure the wrong feeling.”

They found direction in author Danzy Senna’s advice to "look for the story that didn't happen within the story that did." Anju returned to that inner child observer and latched onto the details they garnered from SAADA’s walking tour. Amid a story of breaking international barriers for women, Anju noticed the minutiae that Ramabai noticed: the author’s fascination with the false dentures Americans wore and their distaste for walking with bare feet. In these small culture shocks, Anju mines the unmooring of these women too, their struggle for progress, and finds resilience: “Say what they will / About my bare feet / I traded lush lands for new sands / I see their false teeth.”

The soundscape of “Red” is similarly anchored in the piano and strings Anju has traditionally written with, but this time, the piano stutters and the strings swell to capture the grandeur of centuries-long retrospect as Anju conjures the hope that Joshee and Ramabai must have felt leaving something behind to create something new.

“Whenever I write a song, I sit down and start with bare bones, piano and vocals or guitar and vocals. And then it’s a matter of drawing the [skeleton] with a pen and a paper and then adding like, papier-mache, or glitter, or whatever else,” Anju says. That dressing came in the form of layering their own harmonies, snippets of South Asian song, and the inclusion of a kanjira drum.
Anju performs at SAADA's Revolution Remix concert in Philadelphia on August 24, 2019.
American history is so often told from the view of a ship’s bow, yet so seldom has it represented the view from women like Joshee’s vantage point. The swell of hope in Anju’s verse is tempered by the limitations of history and the America we know she found. Even so, Anju invites voices from the past to speak briefly through self-referential layers, with a question addressed to peers like Ramabai bearing witness, the successors she empowered with her work, and to South Asian artists remembering this story today: “World to come, remember me / Ocean tide, banyan tree / If I run out of air to breathe / Will you sing my story back to me?”

Anju’s ability to access these narrative layers and the spirituality of this practice is rooted in their religious upbringing, even if that relationship has become fraught. “There are a number of reasons why I can't really return to that place,” Anju says, among them the problems of Hindu nationalism, casteism and misunderstandings of identity. Yet Anju finds “little crumbs of spiritual things,” like mythology, scattered along their process and performance.

One of Anju’s upcoming songs draws on the story of the Rama Setu, the land bridge said to have been built by the god Rama from India to Sri Lanka. In one version, the bridge is built by writing the god’s name on stones and placing them on the water, after which they floated. “When I was a kid, I took a sharpie and wrote this god's name on a stone and put it in the water, and it sank,” Anju remembers with a laugh.

“It's stories like that and those kind of like, fantastical, magical, supernatural stories and people and possibilities — those things can be very real and very true, I think, sometimes truer than like, factual actuality,” Anju says. “That's something I pulled from being in a religious and spiritual household.”

Songwriting has also allowed Anju to communicate with loved ones from the hidden corners of self — “the realest place I can be.” Anju describes a deepening relationship with their father through his listening: “I feel like I was communicating with him, in high school and college, the most, like sensitive personal things when he would listen to my music. And he was so respectful of it.”

The growing hostility to immigrants and people of color nationally makes it easy to shrink into oneself as a creator — to harden and lose touch with the tenderness Anju made it their mission to protect. “It comes back to the idea of sanctuary, and even more, urgency for me. I have so much privilege and I'm able to create this internal world and like, bedroom that feels very safe and sanctuary-like,” they say. “It really comes back to like tapping into … my inner child before being tampered with by the world, as far back as I can reach, bringing that into my present, and also sending it into my future.

Sanctuary and diaspora are the bones of Anju’s music. In our conversation, they remind me of the latter word’s origin: “Someone recently sent me an article about diaspors: this plant that can root in a lot of different places. … I feel like embodying a diaspor plant feels like part of [how we] adapt to the way things are, especially [with] the state of the world right now.”

And this is just a starting point. Anju hopes they can do justice to these stories, and tell those that still need to be told within the South Asian diaspora. Growing in and around activist spaces, Anju hopes their music can provide sanctuary to and nourish the root systems of those doing the work. Anju’s work, by necessity, deals in healing.

“Maybe you go out on the front lines, and then you can like, take a breather and drink some orange juice mixed with sparkling water, and, I don't know, lay down on some soft pillows,” Anju laughs. “I hope my music can be that for the people who are out there.”
Stefanie Fernández is a Cuban American writer from Miami, Florida. Her work has appeared in NPR Music, Pitchfork, Miami New Times, and No Depression, among others. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she is a producer at The Atlantic.

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