NEW YORK – Indian American Sheela Bringi, an instrumentalist and vocalist, combines Hindustani classical and devotional music with American blues and jazz, using various instruments including the harp, piano, bansuri (an Indian bamboo flute) and harmonium.
Having been classically trained with musicians in India as well as learning classical Indian music from her parents when she was a child, Bringi starts each of her concerts with a prayer to Goddess Sarasvati, the Hindu deity of music and learning, on the harp.
Goddess Sarasvati is important to her because the both of them share a similar instrument, “the stringed instrument that she plays when you see her depicted in a painting or statute is called the ‘veena,’ and what’s special to me is that the veena, in its ancient form, was actually a harp,” Bringi told NBC.
The harp first came into her life when her godmother gifted one to her when she was 14 and that is when she realized that with the harp she “had the ability to enchant people and bring them together.”
Living in Fort Collins, Colorado, Bringi grew up in a “musical household” both of her parents were trained in classical Indian music, who wanted her to explore the arts.
Bringi told NBC that “music was a refuge growing up and it helped her connect to her ancestral roots and take others on a journey of self-discovery.”
Music also helped her feel at ease and comfortable in her own skin and helped her better embrace her identity as an Indian-American woman and daughter of immigrants.
“I think part of the reason I threw myself into music when I was young was because it was a very difficult environment to grow up in when you’re the only person of color in school. There were a lot of ignorance and racism, and being made fun of by other kids,” she said.
Her mom, who was her first instructor, taught her many of the traditional devotional songs (bhajans) and was trained in Carnatic music and Sanskrit mantra chanting, she began vocal and piano lessons at the age of 5.
As a teenager, she trained in Hindustani classical music from North India under the instruction of Pandit G.S Sachdev and Ustad Aashish Khan, and continues to study the style with Sri Subhashish Mukhopadyay.
Bringi listened to Asian Underground, a British and Canadian blend of dance music with the styles of South Asia and was also influenced by singer-songwriter M.I.A., Norah Jones, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and jazz trumpeters Miles Davis and Jon Hassell.
One day while at a friend’s wedding, Bringi became interested in jazz and wanted to find a way to connect the two different styles of music, adding that having the exposure to both “has allowed her to collaborate with many people and speak music in ‘two languages.’”
“Being Indian and American, and a musician, I try to put the two things together. I try to build something new without losing contact to the traditional source. It might fall down, but for me, it’s important to try” Bringi told NBC.
“I think part of the reason I threw myself into music when I was young was because it was a very difficult environment to grow up in when you’re the only person of color in school,” she added.
Bringi released her debut album titled “Incantations” in 2014 and her second album “Shakti Sutra,” which is a mix of ancient Indian mantras and ragas with soulful rhythms, released two years later.
Her music features devotional songs and tributes to fierce warrior Hindu goddesses with a focus on the mystical and the themes she explored were the triumph of light over darkness, the nature of reality and the mind and the mystical nature of creativity and transcendence.
Currently, Bringi is busy working on her “Hindustani Harp Project,” which challenges her to play Indian ragas on the harp, her goal is to bridge both of her worlds together.