The Secrets of Raageshwari - By Tom Hawkings - 2007

For Rave – UK/ Asia/ Middle East - Travel Edition 2007

From bright-eyed teenage pop star to avid new age philosopher… it’s been quite a journey for Raageshwari Loomba. In an exclusive and wide-ranging chat with RAVE’s managing editor Tom Hawking, Raageshwari looks back at her career, talking about her music, her aspirations and her unexpected spiritual awakening.

Quotes: “A Fat pay cheque has never impressed me. I want to work with wonderful people – flexible, prolific and intelligent people.”

“Today I’m at a position where I know what I want, and that only happened because there was this huge step of falling ill and having that time to rediscover myself.”

“The doctors said, ‘You have facial paralysis… you have to rest for at least a year to a year and a half, and just hope it gets better.’”

“We’re always concentrating on what’s not happening in our lives. All our lives, we’re thinking about what we don’t want. Very rarely do we say ‘I want this’.”

“The world,” says Raageshwari, “is just magical. You have a satellite like the moon moving magically around the earth, and the earth around the sun. It’s just… energy. Everyone is linked by this energy, and your energy is strongest and most powerful when you’re happy. If you remain in this state of mind, then your vibrations will be so strong that the universe will make sure that that the reality you envisage happens.”

This, it’s fair to say, is not the sort of thing you’d expect to be coming out of the mouth of your average Indi-pop singer. But then, Raageshwari isn’t your average Indi-pop singer. A film and music star at 15, she was afflicted in her early 20s by a career-threatening illness – more of which later – that laid her low for five years, an eternity in the transient world of the Indian music industry. Then, out of nowhere, she made a triumphant return last year with the fusion- and Middle Eastern-influenced Sagari Rayn. We spend most of this interview speaking about the positivist philosophy she has embraced, one that she expounds on at great length.

This is all a far cry from the wide-eyed young thing who burst onto the Indian pop scene in 1997 with her debut album Duniya. “The music you make has so much to do with the person you are,” says Raageshwari. “I look at my first album now, and it was exactly what I was all about – just out of school and really just looking at life how youngsters look at life… like a tourist, really.”

Still, she looks back fondly on those days – recording Duniya and releasing it despite the objections of music companies who deemed it “not sexy enough”. “The video for Duniya was made in the Maldives, and we were the first to ever shoot there,” she recalls. Even today, she speaks with characteristic fervor about the place – “Water as far as the eyes can reach, the sun coming up, so many colors… Everyone was crying… they were just so overwhelmed by the magic of such a beautiful place.”

Her experience with her first film, made at age 15, was less positive: “I was a child, you know. I didn’t even have a boyfriend, and here I was filming these romantic numbers with this guy I’d never met. I was so stressed.” As a woman in the Indian music industry, she still encounters such pressures – “I do not approve,” she says, “of the way that women are positioned visually in Bollywood today” – but her approach nowadays is simple: “I just say no. Fat pay cheques have never impressed me. I want to work with wonderful people – flexible, prolific and intelligent people.”

Raageshwari, it’s clear, is someone who knows exactly what she wants. Her poise and confidence are remarkable – but then, of course, she’s had to battle her way past her fair share of obstacles. The most well documented and career threatening of these was the illness that she suffered in early 2000: “I’d finished my millennium show, and I’d just launched my album. About ten days after the show, I woke up, went to my washroom, started brushing my teeth, and I realized that my mouth couldn’t hold the water. It seemed a little strange, so I rushed to my parents and said ‘Something’s wrong.’”

She was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a nervous disorder that leads to paralysis of the facial muscles. The illness would see her laid low for five years, and at first it was uncertain whether she would ever recover, let alone sing or act again: “The doctors came to me and said, ‘You’ve got facial paralysis, it’s a nervous problem, you have to rest and take it easy.’ I said, ‘Well, give me whatever pills you have, because I’m on tour, I need to get on stage.’ They said, ‘No, you know, you have to rest for at least a year to a year and a half, and just hope it gets better.’”

The most insidious aspect of the illness was its slow, seemingly inexorable advance – as Raageshwari explains, “What happens is that first you lose all facial expressions. Eventually, the left side, which is numb, gets pulled by the right side, which is active, and your face gets completely distorted.”
Still, she says, “I always was a positive person, and I was thinking, you know, I’m going to be fine. From day one I started to think, ‘I have to get back.’ And I soon came to realize that the medication they were giving me was really not working. They give you steroids, but all they do is get you really bloated and give you huge mood swings, which isn’t my personality at all. My dad said that you need to heal it from within.”

These ideas of positivity and healing from within are a constant theme in Raageshwari’s conversation. When I suggest that her illness must have been a horrible experience, she hurries to interrupt: “No, no, no. Not at all.” Rather, she says, “I see it as a celebration.” A celebration? Yes, she says eagerly. “Today I’m at a stage in life where I wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been for my illness. It was just facial paralysis. When you look at the news channels, and see other people’s lives, you just count your blessings. I’m just so glad that I’m at that stage in life where I can see the difference and see life through a broader perspective.”

Surely, though, it can’t always have been this way? There must have been moments when Raageshwari doubted everything? “Going back to 2000, yes, obviously I wasn’t in this state of mind,” she says. “I was a young girl living out of suitcases, very - very hyper, tons of energy… I think at that moment, yes, there was a fleeting thought of feeling sad and disillusioned, wondering why this would happen to me – I don’t drink or smoke, I’ve lived a healthy life.”

It seems that any doubts were short-lived, though: “That’s what’s life is, you know? The more you look around, the more you realize that that’s how life is – the best people are leading lives they don’t deserve, while people who are aggressive and ill-tempered are in charge.”

But where does all this positivity come from? Raageshwari explains that it stems to a large extent from the spiritual epiphany she experienced whilst stuck at home with her illness.

“There was a huge growth that happened while I was ill,” she explains. “Today I’m at a position where I know what I want, and that only happened because there was this huge step of falling ill and having that time to rediscover myself. I got introduced to yoga and meditation, and that kind of holistic healing started to take over my life. If you really, really believe in something, it will come true. I read this most amazing book called Ask and It Is Given, and also saw a film called The Secret. I really wish that people – especially youngsters – could feel what I feel. I know that when people read this, half of them will probably think, you know, ‘What on earth is she talking about?’ I just wish that people could understand this kind of thinking, because there is so much worry in our world today about things that are irrelevant.”

New-age self-help material has always come in for plenty of criticism, but speaking to Raageshwari, it’s hard not to be caught up in her seemingly boundless enthusiasm for her chosen philosophy. “It is,” she says, “a simple secret.”

Many people over the years, she argues – rattling off a list of people that includes everyone from Einstein to Hitler – have known exactly how to get what they want. “We’re always concentrating on what’s not happening in our lives,” she says. “Very rarely are we more aware of what we want than the fact that it’s not happening. All our lives, we’re thinking about what we don’t want. Very rarely do we say ‘I want this’. The secret is that even if your life is not successful, you create this environment where you just think that you’re leading the life you want, and it will come to you. Thoughts become things.” What, then, does Raageshwari want?

Decisively, the singer says that she wants three things: “First, great, great health for my family and friends, and for myself. Secondly, of course, I want brilliant success professionally, but not without success personally. Thirdly, I would love to have a greener planet.”

All laudable goals, indeed. The cynic in me, though, can’t help but wonder whether there’s something, anything, that scratches this veneer of positivism. Whatever might lie beneath, though, is kept carefully hidden. Is there some pain, or fundamentally negative experience, that drives the relentlessly, near-evangelically positive outlook? If so, it's a side to Raageshwari that very few see, because her public persona is flawlessly sweet - flawless, perhaps, precisely because it's so genuine.

The answer, if any, lies in what makes the singer so driven toward success - the experience of seeing her parents struggle to make ends meet, working two jobs each, rising at 5am to work all day, returning late in the evening. While her father has always been her foremost musical collaborator, even when he was working such long hours that she was barely able to see him. On her website, she describes him as “my hero” and “the man who drives my team”.

Today, she speaks glowingly of her upbringing: “I come from a very simple family, where education was valued. When people look at me, you know, they think I’m an NRI or a rich glitzy type, and I’m totally not. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful support system.” But it's the combination of her own experiences and the experience of seeing her parents struggle so desperately that has made her the remarkably grounded, centered individual she is today.

“It’s not like I polish my halo every night," she protests laughingly. But really, it’s hard to envisage Raageshwari being unpleasant to anyone. In the harsh, male-dominated world she operates in, this might well appear to be a weakness. But then again, perhaps it’s not.

More than anyone we’ve come across at RAVE, Raageshwari seems able to balance her femininity with the ability to get what she wants – faultlessly charming, but with both the steel and the vision to achieve her goals. It’s a remarkable talent, the ability to stay a fundamentally decent person and still carve out a successful career, and an example that any young woman in the dirty world of the music industry would do well to emulate.

Sagari Rayn is out now on Music Today.