Ananya Birla is a musician, mental health campaigner, and businesswoman. In 2016, she made her musical debut and went platinum in India with her next two singles (she was the first person to ever do so with an English language track). Her latest single “Circles” released on June 8 and has already reached nearly nine million views on YouTube.
Ananya didn’t follow the usual pop star path. By 18, she had founded Svatantra Microfinance —a company that allows women in rural areas to have access to bank accounts and business finance. At 21, she set up MPower Minds, which supports those living with mental health issues.
In 2015, she founded CuroCarte (an online interiors boutique offering a global collection of artisanal objects) and was soon after named one of Miss Vogue’s 28 Geniuses under 28, as well as being a recipient of the CNBC Young Business Women Award.
“I was born in Mumbai, India, and my first formal musical training was in Indian classical music. I idolized my mom, and after seeing her play the Santoor, which is a beautiful traditional Indian instrument, I begged my parents to let me start lessons.
Like most teens, I developed a love for angst-y, emotional music. Kurt Cobain and Eminem were my ultimate. I was a shy kid and seeing how they poured their most intimate, raw feelings out for everyone to see was mind-blowing to me. They talked about things that I too felt, but was not able to articulate. And I was inspired.
I locked myself in my bedroom, started trying to write down the things I was feeling and became set on learning to play the guitar. I would spend hours strumming away to YouTube tutorials, trying to get to a point where I could play along to my favourite songs.
My family was successful in business and I didn’t want for much but my parents were keen to keep me and my little sister and brother grounded and to ensure we weren’t sheltered from the reality of life for many people in India.
We visited villages where the whole family would sleep in one room, older relatives were bedbound but unable to access or afford treatment and there was no electricity or plumbing. I was always aware of the huge gap that exists in India between rich and poor, but these experiences had a huge impact on me.
These were regular people, a loving family with dreams and potential, doing their best but restricted by their situation. Those experiences stuck with me.
When I was 17, it spurred me to launch a microfinance business called Svatantra. It helps Indian women deep in the countryside to grow their businesses and become self-sufficient by giving them access to fair and affordable financial services. Many of us take for granted access to something like a bank account or a loan, or even the internet, but these are tools that can help people to change their lives.
At 18, as things were really picking up with Svatantra, I left for university in the United Kingdom.
It should have been amazing – I was following in my family’s footsteps by studying economics, and I was living in a quaint student cottage in a picturesque little city.
But I initially had a really difficult time adjusting. The still streets of historic Oxford could not have been more different from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. I felt completely out of place and alone. I was also balancing demanding studies with building up Svatantra, Skyping my team from early in the morning and studying at night.
I began to battle anxiety and panic attacks. Some days I couldn’t even leave my room. I was totally terrified to reach out for help, nervous that people would either undermine my abilities or trivialise what I was experiencing.
It was during this dark time that I would escape to London. Firstly to see gigs, and then to perform at open-mic nights myself in whatever grungy little venue would have me. I loved every minute of it. I had a found a place where I belonged.
It wasn’t long before I returned to Mumbai and, with the help of my mom, got the support I needed with my mental health. However, it became very clear to me that it was not so easy for other people. There are only 3500 psychiatrists for the 1.5 billion people who live in India, and someone attempts suicide every 3 seconds.
Svatantra was thriving, it was at a point where I could delegate the day-to-day running to my team, and after discussing with my mum how important it is that people like me who have a public platform speak out to stamp out the stigma around mental health, we agreed to set up MPower Minds.
Today, we work on awareness raising as well as providing support and help for those with mental health issues and their families. We have a wonderful care centre in Mumbai. We also host events like music concerts throughout the year, the last of which drew 20,000 people
I have been able to balance MPower and Svatantra quite seamlessly, primarily because they are both driven by personal passions. They are very different organisations but they both have a pioneering feel and are linked by their huge hearts and desire to serve as agents of positive change.
Svatantra’s clients unfailingly inspire and motivate me. Life can be very tough for these women, but the strength, intelligence and perseverance I see is amazing. The business is doing a fantastic job in shaking off the outdated view that a women’s place is in the home, taking care of the family (unpaid).
Women should be able to live up to their potential as individuals, not feel stunted because of the restrictions imposed on their gender. When women are able to earn and own and determine their own futures, entire communities are uplifted. Thanks to my team, we now have over 380,000 clients and are continuing to grow.
With everything I do, I want to encourage women and girls to find something that they love, then work hard on it and go for it. Age should never be a barrier and neither should gender. If you can’t pursue your passion as a career, then try to enjoy it as a personal project: what’s important is that you don’t permanently disregard or forget the things that really excite you.
Throughout all of this, I had continued to use music as a way to help me cope with the struggles I faced. It was the one thing that had been there for me through everything, in good times and bad I had turned to music to express myself and experience that sense of belonging again.
The journey towards making music my main career focus wasn’t terribly smooth. There was a lot of expectation, particularly back in India, for me to go into something more conventional or to join the family business.
People didn’t see music as a career path for me for a number of reasons — I had studied economics, started a fintech microfinance business and was quite shy. In many people’s eyes, it was more of a hobby than a realistic profession.
A lot of my Indian friends both back home and in the U.K. and U.S. who enter the creative industries have faced the same sort of dismissal – we struggle to get taken seriously and have to work doubly hard to prove that our life choices were ‘right’.
Today, I am so happy that I followed my passion for music. I know how lucky I am to wake up every day doing something I love.
I think audiences in India are starting to understand that I made the right choice since my last two singles went platinum! But I also want to prove to the rest of the world that India can produce a successful, global musician.
I have been exposed to such a broad spectrum of music (good and bad) because of growing up both in India and the west. I think consciously and subconsciously that is reflected in my sound. I want my music to connect with people around the world but I would never want to shake off my Indian roots. It is a huge part of who I am and I try to keep elements of that in my music and my videos.
My music is always inspired by personal experiences and the experiences of the people I love which resonate with me. I often say that authenticity is essential to my music and I think that’s because I had such a difficult time finding my own identity. I wear a lot of hats, I have my business, my mental health charity MPower, and my music career. People have always tried to box me in, either as a businesswoman, a musician or because of the path my family took.
Young people spend too much time trying to defining themselves, it can be really stressful. We shouldn’t be forced to label ourselves as one thing versus another. Your life should be made up of the things that make you feel fulfilled and enable you to make a positive impact. We all have a left brain and a right brain after all, and I like to use both!
I love that my music enables me to travel, and meet such inspiring and diverse people. These all inspire and shape my music. But I really miss my family, friends and dog back home. Technology is great to ease the separation anxiety – but nothing compares to being with your family in person. My absolute favourite thing is a cosy movie night with the family when I am in Mumbai.
It may sound cliché but happiness is central to my vision for my future. What makes me happier than anything is doing what I love and spreading love whilst doing it. Whether that’s through MPower or Svatantra, or even my e-commerce business Curocarte which I hope will continue to help artisans around the globe in the fight to keep their ancestral arts and crafts alive.
With my music, I want to connect with people of every of nationality, gender, sexuality, social background. My greatest hope is that all sorts of people listen to my music, relate to the lyrics or emotion, and feel a bit better about something they are going through.
I have a lot more music coming out, including my first EP at the end of the year. I want to play more live music and eventually tour around the world. I also plan to have a couple of songs with a more Indian vibe. We have unique and beautiful musical aspects from bhangra, to classical music and instruments such as the flute, and tabla that I am really keen to incorporate. There is so much amazing music in India and I think the rest of the world should hear more of it.
I am a big believer that everyone can, and should aim to, leave the world a better place than they find it. Music has given me a platform to connect with people and I want to use that in the best possible way.”