She is the archetypal girl-woman with a restrained exterior that cannot quite mask the enthusiasm and teen-like energy that only a 23-year-old can possess. Ananya Birla is a remarkable woman who, in many ways, is the true destiny’s child. Born into one of the most illustrious families of India, Ananya, the daughter of Aditya Birla Group Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, has the legacy of a famous surname to bear but that hasn’t deterred her from making waves in two rather diverse fields – business and music.
On the former front, she founded Svatantra Microfinance, a company that provides micro finance to rural women and CuroCarte, a luxury e-commerce platform. She is also an active campaigner for mental health awareness through Mpower, mum Neerja’s initiative and was recently appointed Youth Brand Ambassador of India on Canvas, a programme launched by an NGO. Ananya has won awards galore for her entrepreneurship, and life would have taken the predictable route – as it would have for an heiress of an industrialist family – had not passion reared its stubborn head.
Her heart lies in music, an interest that began as a child and bloomed during her university days in Oxford. She started with gigs at Open Mic sessions and then got into the real deal: making her international debut single Livin’ the Life, an EDM and pop track mixed by Dutch DJ Afrojack, composed by Ananya herself and produced by American producer Jim Beanz. Just for the record, the video has been seen over 18 million times on VEVO and YouTube, and the single crossed 2.5 million audio streams. In July, she released her second song Meant to Be and is now giving finishing touches to the third that was recorded in Dubai.
Her musical dreams are soaring but her vision for her company has not wavered! Ananya is happy traversing two opposite worlds. Thus, attending seminars and giving lectures at international business meets come as easy as posing like a pro in front of our cameras. A bundle of energy yet diplomatic to the T, Ms Birla gives us a peek into her life…
What brought you to Dubai?
I am working with these Dubai-based producers who call themselves Hollaphonic on a new song that’s part of the album releasing next year. I love the track, it’s cool and fun. Also, after Livin’ the Life, I released Meant to Be which is quite EDM-pop in its genre. But this new song is more EDM. With every song, I try to put more of myself into it so that a listener feels the same away about it as I do.
Talking about your music, you were initially trained in Santoor. How did Western music happen?
I began with Santoor, my mom used to play the instrument and I used to always be around her. One day she suggested I train in it. So that’s how it began but over the years, I turned to EDM and Pop. I was attuned to Western music; at the end of the day, music is music. But Santoor helped me a lot. Believe it or not, it’s actually an easier instrument to play than a guitar! Perhaps it was because I learnt it at an early age. It made me more intuitive so when I hear a song now, I know what chords they are. I think my ears have become more acquainted with music.
We hear that you started off performing at clubs in London. What was the experience like?
Yes, I started with Open Mics at pubs and cafes. I’d search for these nights and land up there! It was a unique experience because Open Mic meant you register and go up on stage, introduce yourself and do your thing! I was nervous initially; people would not even pay attention, busy as they were with their drinks! But I still loved it. The response changed from area to area, pub to pub; my favourite was Brixton because everyone just loved music and there was no judgement there. I had some crazy experiences (smiles).
What kind of crazy experiences?
Well, people, who were completely drunk would come up to you and say funny things! It was a huge learning experience. More than anything else, I finally realised that I wanted music as my career. Until then I couldn’t face the fact that I actually wanted to get into music.
Don’t know, maybe it was because no one in my family was into music! Also, while growing up, you hear all these stereotypes about the entertainment world which are not necessarily true. So I was a little scared. But I felt that if this is what I wanted to do in life, I should do it because life is too short.
Ananya, you are really young but you are clear about what you want from life. From where did this self-assuredness come, especially given your business roots?
I really have no idea. I think deep within, we all know what we want to do. It’s just some sort of fear or blocks we have. You need to face yourself, which is what I did at a young age.
How did you balance studies with music?
My first year in London was all about Svatantra and then studies at Oxford. I would wake up, go for a jog, come back and go for my tutorials. Other days, I would first do a Skype call to manage Svatantra in Mumbai after which I would go about my day, writing my essays, playing football and so on. It was a tough balancing act but I loved it.
Then you started three ventures along with your music. What is the story behind them?
Svatantra came from the fact that I wanted to provide affordable financing to women in rural India. If India had to progress, this is where we had to begin. CuroCarte, resulted from something I always had a love for. I have always wanted to source handmade products from over the world and provide them to people who were interested. It’s a venture where you can own a unique piece in your home that you won’t find anywhere in the world. There is a lot of potential in this sector. Mpower is basically a movement to stamp out stigma of mental illnesses. My mom runs a holistic centre where we provide psychological and psychiatric help with a number of therapies as well. It is one of the best facilities in the country.
How do you manage all three with your music?
All three ventures have separate teams but there is a central team that co-ordinates everything for me. Everyone on this team also works with me on the music. Music is a personal experience and you have to be true to yourself to get the best results. You can’t be yourself around too many people, hence I have the same team and we are all on the same page.
How do the two sides to your life influence each other?
The creativity from music can be used for business and the strategies from businesses can be used for music (smiles).
Aren’t you spreading yourself too thin?
Not really, it’s just my business and music that demands my attention. I am ambitious and young and now is the time to work hard. I am genuinely passionate about it. And if you’re passionate, nothing is impossible, literally.
Every article I read about you, begins with your surname. Does privilege create pressure?
No, I have been blessed. What hurts me is when people question the platforms I get. If someone has a platform, then why shouldn’t they use it? My parents support me with everything I do; that’s what gives me the strength and courage.
What separates entrepreneurs like you from the ones from your father’s generation?
We’re more prone to taking risks and there’s more scope for innovation since we have been exposed to technology since childhood. Of course, there is a lot to learn from the older generation too.
Business-wise, who inspires you outside of your family?
Elon Musk. His vision can seem crazy, but I think it’s possible.
Who do you consult when you are stuck?
I prefer learning from my own mistakes. Whether it is right or wrong, at least it will be mine.
You hail from a traditional, conservative community, the Marwaris who are known to shun attention. But things are changing now. You yourself are quite out there on social media (her Instagram following is over 178k). How do you maintain a balance between tradition and modernity?
It’s important to keep your values in check and my parents have really taught me honesty, integrity and respect. In terms of tradition or community, it’s best not to overthink these things because a lot of it (the mores and expectations) are built up over time. It’s best to just go out there and do what you have to do.
Who are the people you are closest to ?
My best friends, they work with me, and my mom and dad.
How do you define luxury?
Luxury is something you’ve emotional connect with; it’s something more than just what it is.
Are you a material girl?
No, genuinely not. I’m always in my casuals.
You have a crazy following on social media.
It’s about being real and accessible. Social media for me is to reach out to people and be yourself. People reach out to us and tell us about our music which is very important. On personal level, I don’t like social media but for music is a great platform.
Where do you want to take your music?
I want to be at the Grammys. I want to be someone who can take Indian western singers international. There’s so much talent in our country, and I want to create a platform for them. I just want to be there for the love of music. Music makes me happy. I want to perform all over the world. I also want to use music to help health institutions around the world.
Finance and music. Will you continue to straddle both worlds or will you choose one among them?
Both will run parallel to each other but my soul is music.