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Creating from Stillness: A Conversation with Hasheel

I just know that if I'm being present when I'm playing, then that's when I'm being the most creative, that's when I'm able to play the most intricate and pretty things, the most beautiful things. 

My first impression when seeing classical vocalist and bansuri player Hasheel Lodhia perform live was how it seemed as if the music was flowing through him. Eyes closed while on stage, it felt like he was pulling from an infinite flow of notes that only he could access.

Within my own artistic practice, I’ve often found the act of creating to be a struggle: to find the right words, to lay out the best arrangement, to maintain consistency. I tend to look with envy towards artists like Hasheel for how effortless his expression comes across. However, after having the chance to speak with him about his creative process and his relationship to his art, I understand that struggle doesn’t have to be a part of creativity, but it is instead an element we introduce to the equation when we don’t take time to connect to the stillness within. It’s a form of connection that is easy to lose in a climate where artists are measured in streams, dollars, followers, and metrics, but cutting through this static can allow us all to tap into that same infinite flow.

In our conversation, Hasheel explored self-doubt, being a life-long learner, collaborating with others across genres, and embracing both queer and South Asian identities. The common thread connecting all of his words was the importance of understanding oneself, and that the journey inward can guide the art and the life we share with the world around us.

Noyz: You started in music at a very early age. With a lot of artists, we tend to hear that they started to experiment with the arts or dabble in them in their teen years or in their 20s, but it seems like you had a path chosen for yourself at a very young age. Because it's been with you for almost your entire life, how has your relationship to your art changed?

Hasheel: That's a really good question, no one's ever asked me that, because you're right, a lot of musicians discover themselves in their teens, whereas I was thrown into it when I was three years old. My dad was my first teacher, essentially, we would sing on the way to school every morning, and until I was about nine, he had taught me everything he knew and said, "Okay, you're ready to move on." I guess he saw the talent in me, otherwise he wouldn't have taken me for professional lessons after that.

 He said, "I've taught you everything I know, so now it's time for you to continue learning," and every Saturday, he took me to singing lessons. When I was 13, I picked up the flute. It was much easier for me to pick up bansuri after having sung my whole life, because all the theory was there. I knew how to sing, I knew how to create music. I had already been performing at that time, so I had the confidence to pick up the flute and just play it. In terms of how music plays a role in my life, it's a really hard question to ask, because it's been part of my life for so long, I've never known my life without music. 

Often, when I don't perform or when I don't practice, I get really antsy, and I don't feel like myself ever. I think for me, it's just this life force, it's a means of expression for me. I sometimes feel that I can express myself when I'm playing in notes more than I can express myself in words. If there was ever a universe where people communicate just via music, I feel like I'm somehow part of that universe and just stuck here on earth. I wouldn't even say it’s second nature, it's almost like my first nature, and talking is my second nature.

Noyz: Have you ever had a period where you've needed a break from your art? Personally speaking, sometimes when I'm writing a lot, or if I've had a string of shows, I feel like creatively, I can benefit from a recharge or a refresh by just taking a gap from any sort of creation.

Hasheel: No. Never. Literally never. If I go a week without playing or singing, I feel it in my bones. Because all of my performances are improvisational, there's rarely a writer's block. I only get that writer's block when I'm in the editing process, when I'm working on a track that I have to listen to over and over again. Then I'm like, "Okay, I need to take a break from it," but I never need to take a break from playing or singing because the music feels like an infinite endless pool of creativity that I'm drawing from.

I know that if I'm being present when I'm playing, then that's when I'm being the most creative, that's when I'm able to play the most intricate and the most beautifully. When I'm distracted, I play robotically and I can feel it, and my audience and my listeners can feel it as well. I don't think I need a break from my music, but I do need to be quite grounded and present when I'm performing.

Noyz: You've been under the tutelage of a lot of teachers and masters for both vocals and bansuri. Being in those environments where you're there to learn and surrounded by other students, do you ever sometimes feel that self-doubt, like you don't belong in those rooms?

Hasheel: Often, to be honest, because every time I go to India and am in front of my teachers, I feel guilty that I'm not there more often than I am. Every time I'm here in Toronto, I feel guilty. I'm part of the gurukul group chat where they would post, "Okay, here is the list of this month's classes," and I'm just like, "Well, I'm not here for any of those. Shit." I feel guilty for not being there when I'm here, but at the same time, I feel a little bit of imposter syndrome when I am there because it's been so long since I've been back. All of the students around me, who are fully immersed in music, who are practicing eight hours a day, they're accelerating beyond me.

There are not a lot of bansuri players in Canada, so people don't get to hear it that often. Once I'm in India, I'm a dime a dozen. There are so many people who play bansuri much better than I do, so it's a very humbling experience for sure when I go back.

I don't often get those humbling experiences here because there's no one else to look up to for flute. Even for vocals, there aren’t a lot of singers. I do really have to go back to India to continue my learning. I'm forever a student, that's what drives me to continue learning, is this idea that you are always going to be a student of music and there's always room to grow and expand and practice more. That should be what drives all musicians, I think, is this idea that you are always a student.

Noyz: On one of your recent Instagram captions, you said one's learning is never complete. What areas do you currently feel you are still wanting to expand your learning?

Hasheel: The discovery of the self is one of the biggest journeys for any classical musician. Because the more you can meditate and the more you can learn to be silent, you discover that true creativity comes from stillness, that all creation comes from stillness. Yes, you can be inspired by other things, but then you're mimicking. When it comes to emoting in a particular raag, you have to really be grounded in yourself. You can't be thinking, "What other phrases do I know in this raag?" because then you're just playing a cover.

I find that the more I meditate, the more confident I am in my emotional state at any present moment, that gives me the ability to tap into that stillness and play much better than I would have imagined if I was thinking too deeply. Of course, I'm practicing my technique. I'm learning how to be a more proficient player, working on my tonality, speed, etc, but I think the true learning is the learning of the self. It is the stillness and finding what grounds you so that you can be prepared when you go on stage.

It can be a stressful situation on stage, you can be in front of thousands of people but you must still find that quiet space within and perform as if you were performing for yourself or for God.

Noyz: You've done extensive collaboration with a lot of different folks from a lot of different genres, from Green Sky Project and Karma Project, to Lady Pista and Yanchan. What excites you about collaborating?

Hasheel: I think the ability to stay true to yourself while creating something new is something that's really exciting. A lot of that has culminated into a project that I produced with a friend of mine. It's called Chai and Jam.

Noyz: I was watching some of those videos.

Hasheel: Chai and Jam is essentially a union of two different genres where we invite musicians who have never met before to perform in front of a live audience. We record it and we release them as episodes. It's usually Indian classical, R&B, and Jazz.  We think those genres go really well together. None of the artists have met, they don't know who they are until the time that they go on stage. I think this idea of communicating through music, especially with people that you don't know, is truly powerful.

That's where the power of music can teach people. Yes, you have existing songs that people can relate to, but connecting with one another, especially a complete stranger and creating something beautiful from nothing, when people see that happen in front of their very eyes, those are groundbreaking moments. I love collaborating with people that I don't know. Because once again, I'm not a person who's very good with my words or particularly can express everything I want to express using words.

I can do it way better through music I think, or at least I can do it truer to myself in my music. The ability to get to know someone through this medium is really cool.

Noyz: Sometimes with the arts, we have to live multiple lives in order to keep our creative pursuits going. In your case, you were at one point considering medical school, and you've also run your own events and hospitality business. What skills do you feel that you gain from running a business that are transferable towards being a self-sufficient artist?

Hasheel: I think my event management skills come into play quite often. I think a lot of musicians should learn how to run their own events, because I know so many musicians that aren’t great at that. They need a manager, they need someone to assist them even with even small things like, sending a bio or a tech rider. I think it's really important to have both a creative mindset, but also be organized.

For example, I have a folder full of headshots and they're organized by category as well as a bio written out in different lengths. If someone needs that, within seconds I can send it to them. I think there is an administrative skill set required, because a lot of the pre-show work is communications.

You should be able to sell yourself, your sound, and the experience that you're trying to create for the audience.

Noyz: I feel like, as artists, we can just get so focused on, "I just need to make the thing first," that we can sometimes neglect everything else that comes with it, the rest of the package.

Hasheel: Oh, you have no idea how many shows that I've sold before even making the show. I've sold many shows to organizers based off of a quite brainstorm in my own head and then once the contract is signed, it's like, "Okay, now I need to produce it." I just sold an organizer on a live qawwali show with dancers and now I have to bring all the musicians together and be like, "Hey, are you available on this date?" All of that for me happens after the fact. Once I put my mind to it, I know I'm going to get it done.

I think it's the confidence, it's the ability to know your capabilities, which is also important, because for me, not a single show is the same. I'm constantly selling people on a new idea that even I haven’t heard before. I'll give you an example. Last year I was invited to close Harbourfront’s summer series at Toronto Music Gardens. I thought maybe it should be a more acoustic unplugged set. I'm not going to bring in a DJ I'm going to bring in just acoustic instruments.

I ended up bringing together Yanchan on mridangam and Anton Apostalov, who's an incredible acoustic guitar player. The three of us hadn't performed together, but I knew in my head that it would sound good. That's what I sold to Harbourfront. I got everyone together and we didn't even rehearse until the week of the show. I just had the confidence that it would sound good and that the three of us would work together really well.

Noyz: You've been involved in stage productions as well. How did you get involved in live theater?

Hasheel: Currently, I'm one of the composers and lead musicians for the Mahabharata, which is produced by WhyNot Theatre. We produced the show at Shaw Festival earlier last year, and then we took it on tour to London where we performed to a sold out run at the Barbican Centre. That was a long journey. The show was over 10 years in the making. About 6 years ago, I was one of the first musicians in the room. The process was extremely fluid. We had the actors play out a scene. They were improvising and workshopping through the stories and I would just jam along.

I think that's what set the tone for the music for this show. When we perform, we're still improvising but it’s structured. Doing theater for me is very difficult because I'm doing the same show over and over again. I'm not used to that. After the second show, I get quite bored.

Noyz: That must be a pretty big change. Like you said, a lot of your performances are improvisational, and then to do something like this, which is more structured.

Hasheel: It's the same script, same lighting cues and costuming, same music cues. It's difficult to be able to do something that's so different from what I'm used to. Western musicians do that all the time, but they're literally reading sheet music, so it's identical every single time they play it, but none of us are reading music. None of us have notes, and there is a bit of improvisation to what we're playing in the show. However for the most part, it's the same, and it requires a lot of patience.

Noyz: Doing a production of the Mahabharata, what do you feel an historical epic like that can still teach or still offer in modern times?

Hasheel: Oh my God, there are so many lessons that come out of that that are so relevant to today. It is a modern telling of the story. Although it takes place thousands of years ago there are certain moments where you look up to characters and admire their qualities as a human. Even though the five Pandavas are sons of gods, they are human and relatable each with their own flaws.

The Bhagavad Gita, which takes place as a 20-minute opera, is truly the highlight of the show. It is one of the first Sanskrit operas ever written. Meher Pavri comes on stage as Krishna and sings this aria with subtitles. As a whole, you come out of it and you get this sense of like, there's so much beauty in the world. Even though things can be confusing, there's always this wisdom that can be taken out of each and every moment. I think that's a really beautiful takeaway piece from the Mahabharata.

Noyz: In a recent post online, you talked about embodying strength and compassion: shakti and karuna. How do you feel most comfortable expressing these qualities?

Hasheel: I've always been quite expressive about who I am, because I'm equally proud to be Indian as I am equally proud to be queer. I think that both of those are identities that are ingrained in me. By shutting out one of those identities for the sake of the other, I'm not doing myself or any others any service. I know a lot of people, unfortunately, who are forced to prioritize their brownness therefore they can't be queer. Or they prioritize their queerness, and then therefore, they feel like they can't be brown. That's a huge problem, especially in the South Asian community, where we have so much stigma against sexuality. Therefore, I've made it a point to be both and hold them with equal regard, because both of them have such a huge influence on my art. My work is very Indian and it's also very queer. What I've noticed is that because of the confidence with which I do that, it almost encourages other people to be okay with it. It almost forces other people to be accepting.

I will say that it’s also a privilege to be out. Because of my classical training, it gains a lot of respect, especially in the temple community. I go and do some taans and whip out this crazy classical bhajan, everyone's going to be like, "Waah, waah." They're going to respect you because you're an artist and classical artists are always highly regarded in South Asian culture. Then the minute they come up to me, to congratulate me I will be like, "Thank you! Have you have you met my husband?" and introduce them to my husband. Either that or I'll be wearing a bindi, which no man would ever wear in a mandir.

Those choices make people stop and think. If I didn’t have any talent to offer, they might just disregard me as a human, but because they've already enjoyed my music, it almost forces them to respect me.

There's actually a documentary that came out called RaagRani. It was produced by Small World Music, and it covers this intricate balance between my two identities. Not a lot of people have the privilege of being able to do that, and because I do, I'm going to take it and run with it.

Noyz: It's like the music and the training that you've had can be an icebreaker, or a way for people to let their guard down to seeing the complete version of you.

Hasheel: Yes, and my husband and I both have extremely wonderful parents who are supportive of us and I think that lets others also know like, "Hey, if they don't have a problem with it, why should I?" It's an important conversation starter for sure. We didn't even want to get married at first, but we did it more as a statement. We're doing it because our parents are supportive of us and want us to get married, so we wanted to show people that we can do it.

Toronto Life wrote an article on us and it gave our relationship the public credit that I think people need to see in order to be inspired. It's not necessarily about us being on the forefront of that conversation. It's more of it just being like, here are two Gujarati men who got married, and it's probably the first time in the world.

Noyz: I remember reading the Toronto Life article and thinking that this was my first time seeing a queer South Asian story being told where the focus wasn't as much on the stigma or the changes that need to be made societally, but it was more so just about the joy and the love that you and your partner and your families have for each other.

Hasheel: Yes. We wanted the article to be very normalized. We wanted it to sit in a world where nothing felt different or off about it.

Noyz: With that though, is there sometimes a pressure or an expectation to be a spokesperson then for the entire queer South Asian community?

Hasheel: No, I've never felt that pressure. It's funny because I'm also a performing artist, so I love the showmanship of it as well. I don't think I put extra pressure on myself to wear jewelry, for example, when I go to a wedding or something. It's just something that I naturally want to do because I'm a performative person and that is just how I would want to dress every day. If I'm going to the park, I'll randomly put on a kurta and walk around taking up space as an Indian in Toronto.

It empowers me so much. I don't necessarily think there's extra pressure, I just have this innate sense of wanting to show up and represent who I am.

Noyz: Fill in the blank here. Creativity helps me--?

Hasheel: Creativity helps me breathe.

Noyz: What is your why?

Hasheel: My why is to be grounded and to help others ground.

Noyz: How do you define happiness?

Hasheel: Happiness is a way of life, a way of being, and there are as many versions of it as there are people.

Noyz: How do you define power?

Hasheel: Power is something that you give yourself. The minute your power relies on others, it can be taken away from you.

Noyz: What are you listening to right now?

Hasheel: I actually just bought a vinyl from my last trip. It's by a South African jazz artist Bheki Mseleku, and I was about to put that on.

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