MUMBAI: She appears the very picture of calm amidst the vigorous vocals and pulsating rhythms around her. With her eyes closed, a mantra on her lips, her amber robes and meditative air very much in place, Ani Choying Drolma gently sets the tone for composer A R Rahman's carefully constructed fusion song 'Zariya'. The YouTube video of the song has rung up more than 13 lakh hits and many Indians are being quickly initiated into the cult of this singing nun from Nepal.
"I am a bit of a revolutionary and an unconventional nun," says Choying, over the phone from Kathmandu. She's just back from The Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan where she sang and also talked about her life, which is quite the story. At 42, she has 11 music albums to her credit, legions of fans and has performed in various parts of the world. The money from it all goes to fund a school for young nuns.
"I have always enjoyed singing. But I never imagined myself to be a singer," says Choying, whose talents were first brought to wider attention by American guitarist Steve Tibbetts. Apart from melodic chants - which Choying perfected at her nunnery -- she also sings special compositions, some of which have turned her into a veritable pop star in Nepal.
But when she recorded her first album, 'Cho', in 1997, Choying didn't realise her life would change this drastically. 'I had many wishes and never had the confidence to fulfil them,' she says. Once glowing reviews for that album began to appear in international magazines, Choying began getting several invitations to perform at music festivals and concerts. 'When I came back from the tour, I had lots of money. As a nun, you don't expect to have money at all. I became confident and thought of making a difference,' she demurs.
Then as now, her main concern has been her fellow nuns. "As a child, I grew up knowing that girls don't get to study much. It was enough for them to cook and serve," says Choying. That hurt. A bigger problem was her father's domineering ways. "He couldn't control his aggression and me and my mother suffered. I had to go through a very violent atmosphere," says Choying. "I started looking at alternatives. I decided to become a nun."
She found the Nagi Gompa nunnery in Nepal's Shivapuri "a paradise" and joined it at age 10. The guruji there instilled positive qualities and other teachers encouraged her to sing devotional songs at ceremonies. It also gave her a window to the outside world, especially of music. Choying began to get hold of cassettes, and lists favourites like blues singer Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman and lots of old Bollywood melodies.
Yet once her public performances began, criticism, too, came her way — for being unorthodox. Whether it was performing, driving a car or adopting a child, Choying soon learnt to shrug it all off. She knew it was mostly because of her gender. "As a girl you are not expected to do anything and that provokes me. Nuns can't drive but monks can. I was 25 then and decided to ignore these things," she says. Still, she admits that with time her anger at discrimination has diminished. "I channelize my energy towards more positive things now."
One such 'positive' has been her fulfillment of a long-pending dream to collaborate with Rahman. "I found him to be a very spiritual person. It was great to work with him as I love his music, even his tragic love songs," laugh Choying.
The nun's diary currently has two more concerts in India pencilled in, and another wish for good measure: "I would really like to translate my songs into Hindi and had requested Javed Akhtarji to help me. The problem is that there is no time". But she knows it sometimes pays to wait.