How Dewsbury-based musician Supriya Nagarajan was inspired by darkness for new album reflecting on night skies
“As the train rattled in the night through the countryside, my favourite part was looking through the window and watching the night sky,” Supriya Nagarajan tells me.
The 55-year-old is a Dewsbury-based musician, specialising in southeastern Indian music. She has lived in the UK for 23 years - a long way from the train rides of India, but she still remembers them fondly. The journeys were long, often taking up to two days to complete.
Almost 50 years later, Supriya can now reflect on the opportunities she had as a child that many can no longer experience. A 2016 World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness study showed 80 per cent of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. In the West, this rises to 99 per cent. It has had an impact culturally, too. The ethereal fascination with space has dwindled, she says. “None of us look up these days,” she explained. “We look at smartphones, we look at our shoes, we don’t look up or at the skies. We look down.”
“Dark skies are so rare, it’s like, ‘where do you find them?’” she adds. But during the coronavirus pandemic, things started to change. Light pollution substantially reduced. Astrophysical Institute of Andalucía research shows it dropped between 20 and 45 per cent, depending on the type and colour of light.
There was also a reduction in emissions; people started to explore green, outdoor spaces that they hadn’t previously considered even if it was on their doorstep. There was a greater awareness of the human imprint on the planet, and Supriya says this, along with added the time that lockdowns provided, allowed her to reflect and dream of the night sky once again.
“The lockdowns in 2020 were a strange time for me,” she says. “I could stop and reflect on my life and what went before. It was a memory walk. This whole episode about the environment healing gave me pause to think, ‘Oh, I remember, as a child, enjoying that. I remember going on walks and learning a lot about the night skies, learning stories, mythology and what astronomy means’.”
Astronomy, space and the stars have always been – and in many ways remain – central to Indian culture. In a South Indian wedding, a young couple picks out a distant star in a religious ceremony. This particular star indicates their direction in married life. People are also taught to read their own paths in the sky and many festivals are based on where the moon is positioned. The calendar centres on the moon, running on 28-day months.
The sun, stars and moon are all traditionally worshipped. Jyotisha is the Hindu system of astrology and is thought to date back to 700-600 BC. Ancient Indian astronomers used the sky for directions as they traversed across the vast country. They knew how many planets there were, where they were in the sky, and knew when eclipses would be.
And so, with Supriya’s infatuation with space rekindled during successive lockdowns in Dewsbury, she started to imagine an album that people could listen to and experience that would rejuvenate their own experiences of the night sky. Set for release on August 15, Indian Independence Day, Posse of Fireflies is set to recreate Supriya’s childhood memories in musical form. “Moods of Madhukauns is the bridge between my childhood and my granddaughter’s,” she says. “My legacy for her is to pass on the closest I can get to capturing the light of my night sky, hoping it may guide her as it did me all those decades ago.”
The backdrop of the album is a soundscape to emulate the night. This includes a raga, formed by Supriya – a foundation of Indian classical music which provides a melodic framework for improvisation. Supriya then worked with five different artists, who play over the top of this backdrop. The artists range from saxophonists to harpists, flautists to electronic musicians.
Many unique challenges emerged when recording the album. The most difficult aspect was lockdown, meaning each part was recorded individually, before Supriya and her team mixed the album together. “It was challenging, because it was entirely down to me to convey what I wanted the album to personify,” she explains. Supriya and the artists spoke over numerous zoom calls, they had a WhatsApp group to check on each other’s progress, and were always liaising with one another “to bring everybody’s minds together”.
“I had to be that core person and make sure that everybody was in the same frame. That, I think, was the biggest challenge,” she concludes.
Supriya fell in love with music from an early age. Taking after her mum, she trained in classical South Indian styles, singing in multiple languages as she grew up in the “cultural melting pot” of Bombay, now known as Mumbai.
“I learned seven languages, I could sing in any language, write lyrics in them. So I don’t think I would have had the benefit of that if I’d grown up anywhere else,” she reflects. “My mum was a music graduate, she taught me music from the age of four, so music has been my passion forever.”
Despite her passion for music, though, Supriya didn’t always pursue it as her career. She trained in finance, and worked as a banker and accountant for several years, including when she first moved to the UK in 1997. This included a stint in the Channel Islands, before she moved to Dewsbury in 2001. By 2004, Supriya left her career in finance and instead pursued her passion – music. This included setting up arts organisation Manasamitra, which delivers a range of original cross-cultural experiences. It aims to spread enjoyment in and understanding of Indian culture through music, dance, Indian crafts, such as rangolis, and other visual arts disciplines and storytelling avenues.
She has a second cohort in place, upon whom she wants to impress that it is possible to both chase the passion of music and pay the bills. “You just have to work methodically and slowly,” she says. And Supriya’s methodical work, from the coal-fuelled train journeys in India to running an arts organisation in West Yorkshire, has led her to this point, exploring the night sky through classical South Indian music.