Diversity defines Devika’s music

San Francisco-based contemporary Indian singer Devika Chawla recently released Punjabi rock-fusion number Kalli Kalli Raati. The energetic Sufi-pop-rock number has an infectious groove and live-wire vocals. In this exclusive interview, Chawla talks to us about the inspiration behind the song, performing on stage with Ali Zafar, and keeping her music relevant for global audiences.

Indian Currents: Tell us about your recent Punjabi rock-fusion number Kalli Kalli Raati, and the idea and inspiration behind it.

Devika Chawla: Kalli Kalli Raati is inspired by my love of diverse genres of music. While growing up in India, I learned Hindustani classical music, and enjoyed listening to Punjabi folk music. Those musical roots helped me stay deeply connected with Indian music even after I moved to the US. At the same time, I experienced pop, rock, and hip-hop music evolve in the US.  

One day, I was listening to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs, and then, somehow, I switched to listening to Bon Jovi. That evening, I was inspired to write Kalli Kalli Raati and develop it as a pop-rock song. I started the concept with some rock guitar loops on Garageband on my laptop. The edgy, rock guitars inspired complex emotions that straddle love, hope, fear, desperation, and anger. Kalli Kalli Raati means “dark and lonely night” in Punjabi. The protagonist is calling out to the one she loves, asking him to come back home, and not to leave her alone, in the dark night. On the one hand, she is sad and makes a plea to him not to break her heart by leaving her. On the other hand, she is angry that he didn’t think of her and wonders if he has forgotten her completely.  

IC: Your music is known for its old-world charm and (you for) the ability to showcase Punjabi music differently. Tell us how you keep your music relevant for global audiences.

DC: I love to experiment and fuse Punjabi/traditional music with a contemporary sound to create something unique. I enjoy collaborating with different artists and producers. My music always has an element of the old world charm – be it a classical slide, a rapid succession of notes delivered as an alaap or a tarana, or a hint of a raaga or folk mode in the melody I create – or some characteristic lyrics used in Hindustani classical or folk music. But fusing this element across genres spanning pop, rock, hip-hop, and lo-fi keeps it fresh, fun, and globally appealing. My last song Dil Tenu was a lo-fi Punjabi song. I had a vision for it to be a laid back, melancholic slow number, different from the traditional upbeat rhythmic pattern and instrumentation of many Punjabi songs.  

When I collaborated with Bohemia, our voices and styles coming together sounded completely unique and different from anything else that existed out there. Dil, Ek Tera Pyar, Behparwah, and Phir Ek Tera Pyar have this magic that keeps listeners coming back for more Devika-Bohemia collaborations.

I collaborated with US-based producer Holmes Ives on electronic Indian ballads, including Jab Se Piya, which was subsequently remixed by Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz, and Bombay Dub Orchestra. It was also featured on The Buddha Bar by DJ RavinJab Se Piya was also submitted by Six Degrees Records for the Grammys in the Best Global Music Performance category.

IC: Recently, you performed a duet on stage with Ali Zafar in the US on one of his famous tracks Sajna Door. Tell us more about the experience.

DC: Ali Zafar was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area and we had the opportunity to meet. Ali had his guitar and we started jamming – we went on for about 2 hours! It was a lot of fun – very natural and organic. He loved my voice and invited me to join him live for a concert at the Palace Of Fine Arts for a duet. On the day of the performance, I did a sound check with him and the band and then went on to perform with him. He was very gracious, respectful, and generous with his compliments as he invited me on stage. I was very comfortable performing with him and the band. The warm reception from the audience, the beautiful song with the combination of English and Hindi parts, and the back and forth with Ali on the duet made it a very enjoyable experience for me. 

This is a still from Devika Chawla's music video, Kalli Kalli Raati. The image shows Chawla in a red dress, standing beside a tree by a lake, looking pensive. (Image courtesy: Devika Chawla)
A still from Devika Chawla’s music video, Kalli Kalli Raati. (Image courtesy: Devika Chawla)

IC: Belonging to Delhi and living in San Francisco, who or what are some of your biggest musical inspirations (both Indian and Western)?

DC: I grew up in a Punjabi family. Family traditions and celebrations featured Punjabi music at weddings and prayer ceremonies. Some of my earliest memories are folk songs like Latthe Di Chadar and Kale Rang Da Paranda. At the same time, my father would listen to western music like ABBA and  Frank Sinatra, while my mother would listen to Bollywood music sung by Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, and Mohammed Rafi

After moving to the US, I got to experience and love the vocal performances by Bette Midler and Gloria Estefan, the phenomenal energy and impact of rock musicians and bands like Bon Jovi and U2, and the soulful, signature sound of Sade. One of the most impactful influences was the album Night Song, created in collaboration between Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook. It was a beautiful fusion that presented Punjabi music/qawwalis in contemporary style.  

IC: Tell our readers about your previous songs Kehnde Ne Naina, Barkha Bahaar, Ek Tera Pyaar, and Dil Tenu.

DC:  My songs have been a journey of emotions that mirrors all the ups and downs we go through in love – a soulful admission of deep love in Kehnde Ne Naina, a deep loneliness waiting for the one you love in Barkha Bahaar, a feeling of being giddy and invincible in love in Ek Tera Pyar with Bohemia, and about heartbreak and memories in Dil Tenu. It has also been a journey across genres, sounds, and experiences. 

Kehnde Ne Naina can best be described as a Punjabi lounge, lo-fi song. I gave the vocals a touch of Hindustani classical music, and collaborated with Shahi Hasan who is the producer of Mann Ki Lagan by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. We wanted to create something different – a modern production brought to life with guitars and drums more than traditional instruments. This track was featured on Sony Music’s Sufi top selling compilation called Teri Deewani featuring Kailash Kher, Rekha Bhardwaj, and many other great artists from the South Asian continent. 

Barkha Bahaar, the main track from my second solo album in the Contemporary Sufi genre and released by Saregama Music made it to the top of the non-film music charts in India. The video was shot with the Golden Gate backdrop in San Francisco and it had a global essence – bringing together visuals, sounds, and elements from the east and the west.

YouTube video

Ek Tera Pyar was incidentally the second song I collaborated on with Bohemia. It was a bit of a departure for me given many of my songs were mellow and laid back. It was a lot of fun getting into a new space and genre. Punjabi hip hop was emerging and taking shape, and it was great to be at the forefront of this creative journey. Bohemia and I had developed a good working chemistry after we created our first song Dil together, and this one just fell in place very easily. Universal Music released the album and the rest is history. Phir Ek Tera Pyar, the much awaited sequel, was released by YRF Music during the pandemic.

It’s painful when someone you love doesn’t love you back and leaves you. Their memories haunt you. I was deeply affected by those who experienced this sadness and these emotions over the last few years of the pandemic. As I sat in my home music studio, playing with some notes on the keyboard, Dil Tenu revealed itself in the form of a dialogue with the one you loved, the one who left you…

IC: What are you working on next?

DC: I have a few solo projects that are in the making. The first is a soulful Hindi/Urdu song that I wrote which is being produced by electronic music producer Holmes Ives, and another with producer Jayhaan who collaborated with me on Dil Tenu. I’m also exploring ideas with Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash on Sarod for our third collaboration after the first two (Holle Holle and Jaaniya).  

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She has worked for over a decade in print, television, and online media. Her diverse interests in the culture beat include books, music, travel, films,...