Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - By Sam­reen Tungekar

When 27-year-old Vidya Iyer, pop­u­larly known as so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion Vidya Vox, an­swers the phone in Los An­ge­les, she sounds even more de­light­ful than she does in her blends of In­dian songs with Western mu­sic.

A psy­chol­ogy grad­u­ate, Vidya didn’t tell any­one about her su­per singing skills when she was in school. “I loved science. I still love it; I’m a nerd in that sense,” she says. “I grew up singing as well, but it wasn’t un­til col­lege when I met clar­inet­tist and com­poser Shankar Tucker that I re­alised the power of YouTube. I started tour­ing with Shankar and his band dur­ing my col­lege and univer­sity days. So on week­days, I would work at a car­di­ol­ogy of­fice, and on the week­ends, I’d sing. I loved how mu­sic made me feel, so I de­cided to give it a se­ri­ous shot. My mom gave me two years to fig­ure out my singing plans and if they did not work out, I was to go back to med­i­cal school.”

So Vidya moved to Mum­bai for two years, to learn Hin­dus­tani mu­sic. On her re­turn to LA, she up­loaded her first video, and a singing sen­sa­tion was born.


Vidya was born in Chen­nai, but grew up in Vir­ginia. Still, she claims she’s a true blue Ta­mil­ian. “My mom would make us speak Tamil at home, I’ve grown up eat­ing dosa,” she says. “It was al­ways two worlds that I grew up in. My bus driver would be play­ing Backstreet Boys and the kids would be eat­ing peanut but­ter jelly sand­wiches, and I’d be here with my idli samb­har… I used to fight with my mom to give me a ‘reg­u­lar’ lunch – ba­si­cally what Amer­i­can kids ate.”

The ‘curry’ jokes at school hit Vidya hard. “Pu­berty and ado­les­cence was tough as it is, plus I was from a dif­fer­ent coun­try al­to­gether,” she says. “Kids are mean! Ev­ery­one’s like ‘aw you smell like curry! Why do you have such weird lunch?’”

Lunch was not the only way that Vidya was dif­fer­ent from her school mates. Dat­ing wasn’t per­mit­ted, nei­ther were video games, and TV time was lim­ited. “Growing up, I had such a Tamil house­hold that a part of In­dia never re­ally left me,” she says. “My mash-ups felt so or­ganic be­cause I felt so con­nected to In­dia. In­dian kids in the US who are go­ing through the same things as me can feel proud about be­ing In­dian.”

With South Asian ac­tors like Priyanka Cho­pra, Deepika Padukone, Ku­mail Nan­jiani and the like on screen, In­dian kids in the US have amaz­ing ex­am­ples to look up to, adds Vidya. “I didn’t have any­one like this when I was growing up. Now if some­one asks where you are from, you just say, ‘Umm the same coun­try as Priyanka Cho­pra!’”

Bul­ly­ing in mid­dle school was so scar­ring that Vidya started hid­ing her In­dian iden­tity, never men­tion­ing any­thing about her home­land, and buy­ing lunch at school. “But by the end of high school, I re­alised this was ridicu­lous,” she says. “I started par­tic­i­pat­ing in bhangra groups, danc­ing to songs like Kan­gana Tera Ni etc. By the time I went to col­lege, I had to­tally em­braced my In­di­an­ness, but I still didn’t tell any­one I could sing.”

Shy­ness was the cul­prit be­hind Vidya’s se­cret tal­ent. “I find it dif­fi­cult to talk about my­self. I’m just shy,” she con­fesses. “When my sis­ter joined my univer­sity, she told ev­ery­one that we can sing. And then guess who was singing all the na­tional an­thems at all events!”


Learn­ing Hin­dus­tani mu­sic in In­dia, per­fect­ing the ac­cent and then blend­ing it with Western songs… did Vidya al­ways know this would get an au­di­ence? “I grew up on Queen, ABBA and at the same time, Nityas­ree,” she points out. “So I thought, how can I marry the two worlds? Peo­ple have been do­ing mash-ups for gen­er­a­tions, and I re­alised that when I went to con­certs. This was the best way to show that I can sing both styles in the same song and be from both cul­tures.”

The meld did not come easy. “Ini­tially, Shankar and I spent weeks on the songs. It also de­pends on how Shankar pro­duces the song, with its many lay­ers,” she says. “It was a challenge, but now I’ve been do­ing it so much that I can tell within a verse if the song is work­ing or not.”

Shankar Tucker is a tal­ent in him­self, but his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Vidya has taken them both to big­ger heights. At a con­cert in In­dia last year, Vidya de­clared, ‘There’s no Vidya Vox with­out Shankar Tucker!’ And she sticks to that state­ment.

“Shankar adapted In­dian mu­sic to the clar­inet and he was pro­duc­ing a lot of dif­fer­ent things with dif­fer­ent peo­ple on his

“In­dian kids have great ex­am­ples to look up to now.... Now if any­one asks where you’re from, you say, ‘The same coun­try as Priyanka Cho­pra!’”

chan­nel. He wanted to try his hand at pop, and he was re­ally good at it. I wanted to try mash-ups, and well, it just worked,” says Vidya. “We have been do­ing videos every week ever since. He di­rects all our videos, and he also does cine­matog­ra­phy. When we started out, I was so broke! We couldn’t af­ford to hire a crew so Shankar would di­rect and shoot the videos, and then we’d edit it to­gether. It was a growing ex­pe­ri­ence. And our cre­ative dif­fer­ences just make our work bet­ter.”

Vidya cur­rently croons to all the songs from Pad­maa­vat, she’s well aware of the raps Bad­shah brings to the mu­sic scene in In­dia, and is all praises for Jonita Gandhi, Shirly Sethia and other In­dian YouTube stars. “In­dian mu­sic, es­pe­cially Bol­ly­wood mu­sic has so many in­flu­ences! You can have a rap num­ber and also have a song like Holi re­made for Pad­maa­vat. ” she says.


YouTube aside, Vidya has 835K fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram and 84K on Twit­ter. “I’m ac­tu­ally kind of bad at do­ing In­sta­gram sto­ries, but I try so I can con­nect with peo­ple who lis­ten to my mu­sic,” she says. “I don’t re­ally care about be­com­ing fa­mous or any­thing, I just re­ally want peo­ple to lis­ten to my mu­sic.”

She ig­nores trolls, know­ing that mu­sic is sub­jec­tive and per­sonal, and sim­ply sticks to what­ever she thinks mat­ters. This ap­plies to ev­ery­thing in her world, not just mu­sic. “The amount of hate I get for wear­ing a bathing suit at a beach is in­sane,” she says. “If a man does the same, he’s praised. And if a girl does it, it’s con­sid­ered nu­dity. When things like these hap­pen, I do speak up and counter the com­ment. Growing up, I saw peo­ple be­ing shamed for wear­ing cer­tain things, so I am quite pas­sion­ate about the idea of let­ting women be free,” she says.

As a woke mil­len­nial, Vidya is sup­port­ive of the #Me­Too move­ment against sex­ual ha­rass­ment and sex­ism. “I think it is a great time to be a woman be­cause we can talk about these is­sues, and that’s hap­pen­ing be­cause we’re lift­ing each other up,” she says, shar­ing her own ex­pe­ri­ence with sex­ism. “We had a re­ally rude direc­tor dur­ing a shoot. I was try­ing to give him sug­ges­tions, but he just didn’t lis­ten to me! I had to tell Shankar to talk to him, and he lis­tened to him. Thank­fully, in my ev­ery­day life, I choose bet­ter peo­ple to work with. But it hap­pens more than you know, with con­cert pro­mot­ers and oth­ers.”

“The amount of hate I get for wear­ing a bathing suit at a beach is in­sane. If a man does it, he’s praised!”

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