Dubai-based Manika Kaur is an Australian-born Sikh kirtan singer who donates all the proceeds from her album sales and concert tickets to charity. Growing up in Melbourne, Manika was surrounded by spirituality and music. Her family’s regular travels to India exposed her to the problems of poverty that she now addresses through her music. So far, her music has raised funds for a Sikh temple and currently supports a child sponsorship program in Punjab, India. Manika's most popular music video has over four and a half million views on YouTube.
As a child, what did you dream of doing (or becoming)?
“I always talked about becoming a singer but being a Punjabi girl with conservative parents made this dream feel impossible. I would constantly hear the ‘worst case scenario’ stories of the music industry.”
Can you tell me about your childhood memories of growing up in Melbourne with your family, Sikhism and music?
“I love Melbourne, I feel proud to be Aussie! Australians are laid back, non-judgemental, happy-go-lucky and I loved being a part of that.
My favourite memories with my siblings are our ‘jam sessions’. We would rock out on our harmoniums and tablas [traditional Indian instruments] — singing kirtan [songs based on Sikh scriptures] together as a family. My Dad is tone deaf and sounded like he was howling at the moon. My Mum [was always] listening intently — ensuring that we were pronouncing each word perfectly. We had fun and those moments were charged with magic.
How did you decide to become a kirtan singer?
“I grew up in a spiritual environment which from a young age exposed me to kirtan. The gurdwara I attended was in Blackburn, Melbourne and I have fond memories of learning and singing kirtan there.
In 2006, I married and moved to Dubai. At the time there was no gurdwara. The Sikh community in Dubai applied for permission for a gurdwara — many families had lived in Dubai for over 20 years. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum gave permission and also donated the land to the community in July 2006. It was at this point that I prayed for a way to be involved.
Soon after I had a dream where I saw myself holding a kirtan album. On the cover of the album, it was written ‘all proceeds from this album goes towards building the Dubai Gurdwara’. I turned the album over and I saw my picture and realised that I was holding my own album. When I awoke I simply knew that this was something I was supposed to do. All the pieces came together: we ended up creating a free album that went to raise over 1 million dirhams (more than AUD $360,000), which was all donated to building the Dubai Gurdwara.
With such a wonderful reaction towards this album I knew I wanted to create more kirtan albums that promote peace and wellbeing.”
Watch Manika Kaur sing a tribute to Guru Ram Das Ji featuring shadow hand puppets. YouTube: Manika Kaur
What is Kirtan for Causes?
“Kirtan for Causes is about creating beautiful music that nourishes the soul of the listener, as well as raising money and awareness for worthy causes.
The main focus is to educate impoverished children in Punjab. Kirtan for Causes works with several schools and initiatives and we currently sponsor over 2,000 children. There are millions of children who, if given the opportunity and support, would be able to break out of the painful cycle of poverty. The hope is that a family would ‘adopt’ a child and take the responsibility of mentoring and helping that child to go to school, university and even possibly helping them to get a job and be independent.
The kirtan I record draws attention to the issues in the hope that people will get involved. If they don’t, 100 per cent of proceeds go towards the cause. I am heavily involved in every part and meet the children every year."
Through the process of donating the proceeds of your music, what have been some stories or experiences that have kept you motivated?
“Gurpreet Kaur is one of the girls that got sponsorship through this initiative. When she was 16, her mother passed away due to cancer. Her father is an alcoholic. She had to go live with her uncle, was separated from her siblings and had no chance at an education.
Once her sponsorship started, she was a top student. We funded her university education and she was the first girl from her village to go to university. She graduated with a Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering in 2015. She is a motivated and talented young lady.”
You’ve lived in Dubai with your husband since 2006. What do you miss about Australia?
“I constantly miss Melbourne — the quality of life and the air. Every time I land at Melbourne airport I just can’t wait to get outside and take a deep breath. I miss the people, the food and of course — Tim Tams [chocolate biscuits]!”
Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?
“I would love to do it at the Blackburn Sikh Temple [in Melbourne]. We would cook a delicious vegetarian meal of paneer kebabs, naan, parathas, Indian spiced vegetable skewers and of course daal!
I would invite L-FRESH The LION. I would want to talk to him about doing a spiritual rap on my new album. I would invite Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa and tell her that she's amazing and to keep it up! Finally I would invite Pauline Hanson [Australian politician]. Together at this beautiful Sikh Temple we can show Pauline Hanson that we are all one and that her message should be one of unity. We could remind her that her family migrated to Australia and people are more than the colour of their skin. Maybe we can create the 'One Nation' we want in Australia by trying to understand one another instead of blaming and dehumanising groups of people.”
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
“I wasted so much time being shy and afraid to ask for what I wanted. I would tell myself to speak up, be brave and try out for more things, don’t worry about being good or bad at something and don’t concern yourself with other people’s opinions — just go for it!”