Videography by Sumaiya Sayed
GIRL ON AN ISLAND
Her voice, rippling with an otherworldly timbre, swirls around dreamy guitar chords, and it leaves listeners imagining her floating away to some cosmic nightscape at the end of a song. But Ditty (aka Aditi Veena) has her feet firmly planted on Earth, and the Goa-based musician and urban ecologist taps into the synergy between these two fields while living in tune with this planet’s rhythm. Verve launches the lead single, Garden, from her upcoming debut album, Poetry Ceylon, and has a heart to heart with the singer of ‘earthsongs’....
How do you see music and the Earth being connected?
In some ways, I think of the Earth as a beautiful piece of music. The natural cycles of water and nitrogen, the rhythms of the yearly revolutions around the sun and rotations around its axis are its punctuations in time.
The dance of our breaths, the rise and fall of the sun, tidal waves, the various patterns over time and space; these are rhythms that repeat indefinitely, just like a beautiful drum circle where foundational beats are laid and others can float off from there.
Is there an early experience or memory related to music/sound that has remained a consistent influence?
My family loved to travel. We were a big Indian family, with lots of us tiny tots, and we used to go up to the hills often. My earliest sonic memories are of crickets and flowing rivers — we would jump into the rivers with crates of warm mangoes, which we cooled off in the water and then feasted on.
I often like to shut myself up somewhere silent if I’m in the city while writing songs. Else, I am mesmerised by the sound of water. Rain, thunderstorms, rivers and trickling streams fascinate me. I love to write by the sea.
What is the most memorable concert/live performance you’ve been to?
In my teenage years, a senior from school — Sneha Ravichandran — sang The Carpenters at the morning assembly. I was deeply moved, and I knew then that I wanted my voice to have the same effect as hers. So, I started singing.
How do you use your songs as tools for protest?
I didn’t think about it, it just happened. I guess I use music to say the things I feel the need to say. I was really disturbed by some of my experiences on the streets — growing up in Delhi was quite traumatic. Moving to Sri Lanka was better, but the streets there are unsafe too. I was groped, followed several times by men and one time, at a bus stop, a man took out his penis and started masturbating while looking at me….
I was angry. I wanted to reclaim the streets, and music became the tool for that. With our project #StreetsForUs, I stood in the dark and sang while docu film-maker Lakshya Dhungana projected visuals on a bed sheet that hung behind me. We had the chance to talk to (mostly) men about how we, as women, feel on the streets.
How does your work in environmental architecture inform your music and vice versa?
I am deeply inspired by the natural world. Over the years, my understanding of it has led me to create a personal philosophy. Whether it’s my music or the natural buildings that I design, they are all expressions of the same ideas of oneness. We are fragments of something much bigger than ourselves; something much more complex than what our little minds can comprehend, and we can’t isolate ourselves from the truth, because that is what creates problems in the human world.
I find that the two disciplines fuel each other, one is so fluid and the other, quite structured. For example, when I study about urban ecology for a design project, it finds a way into my lyrics. Music sneaks into the spaces and gardens I design. For a long time, I tried hard to bring architecture and music together but as I continue to grow and refine my artistic sensibility, I have been discovering that they are merely two peas in a pod.
Photography by Sumaiya Sayed
And in what ways has this relationship with your natural surroundings evolved alongside your progress in both fields?
I quite often think of myself as a kaitiaki (a Maori word for a guardian of the earth). We have caused and continue to cause so much damage to the only home we have that things might never be the same again.
I’m slowly changing my relationship with myself and my surroundings to live ethically within the limits of nature.
Tell us about your time living in Sri Lanka and your album Poetry Ceylon. How did the shift in geographical landscape affect your creativity and world view?
I have such a passionate relationship with Sri Lanka, since it was the first time I had distanced myself from my roots for a prolonged time. I was an independent woman. It was for my first proper job as an architect that I moved there from Delhi and I was so lucky to have worked with Sri Lankan architect Amila de Mel on an old Geoffrey Bawa building and garden. The aesthetic and sensibilities of the island really spoke to me. I was going through the worst heartbreak that I had ever experienced, and the people opened their hearts to me. I found poetry there. The creative community in Sri Lanka welcomed me with so much love, and I found myself thriving as an artist. I was my own island.
I wrote the album Poetry Ceylon over the course of a year or so. I was learning how to be an independent woman, I was learning about the realities of ‘sustainability’ and ‘green’ industries and coming to terms with what we are doing to the planet. I thought that I would escape the cruelties against nature in this tropical paradise. But soon, I found that it’s the same story. Forests are being lost at an alarming rate. Endemic species are going extinct. The Chinese have unrestricted fishing rights in the Indian Ocean. Fishermen are bombing the fish underwater — and the building industry is having a field day. Poetry Ceylon is a pastiche of all of the above.
Would you be able to pick a few lyrics (from one of your songs) that you have a particularly emotional attachment to and give us some insight into their meaning?
‘Ohh city life,
I bid you goodbye.
I’m now a girl on an island.’
These are close to my heart. However, I much prefer the audience to find their own meaning.
Could you briefly describe how you incorporate the philosophy of sustainable living into your daily life?
My partner and I are on a quest to live a conscious, simple and minimalist life. We restrain from buying things. We recycle the clothes, furniture and equipment that we need. We strive for a zero-waste lifestyle, choose options like buses or trains over flights because of the lower carbon impact, live in a small space, and volunteer a few hours a week at a farm from where we source naturally grown food. Our design and education practice, Baag Studio, honours the earth. We conduct workshops to empower people to do the same, and we try to spend a lot of our time in nature.
In the near future, we hope to turn vegan, grow our own food forest and set up a community of like-minded individuals.
Are you optimistic about your generation’s ability to bring about real, long-term environmental change in India?
Things are changing, however, they’re too slow. The Earth’s changing faster than we are. Our actions are causing severe disturbances to the mountains, rivers and oceans — resources that have evolved over millions of years. If lost, they will be lost forever. We need to come together and stand beside mother earth now. She’s resilient and will survive, but not us, nor life as we know it.
Here’s a preview of what to expect in our Environment issue:
Image credits, clockwise from top: Photography by Arati Kumar-Rao; photography by Uma Damle; illustration by Neethi; photography by Shaunak Modi; illustration by Kashmira Sarode