Meghan Rabbitt of Yoga Journal sat down with the singer to talk about how she got her start as a musician, what singing mantras means to her, and why the new long-form Gayatri mantra is like medicine for the soul. Published September 17, 2018.
I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Deva Premal’s Gayatri mantra.
It was the fall of 2001 and I was on a New York City subway train, heading to work as an assistant at a magazine in New York City. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had fallen, and the city’s fences and walls were plastered with “missing” signs—pictures of men and women, many of them as young as I was at the time, who weren’t actually missing but who were victims whose loved ones would miss them forever.
It was a sad, stressful, traumatic time. And like so many New Yorkers, I found solace through yoga. After one class during which my teacher had played one of Premal’s beautiful mantras, I downloaded her first album, The Essence, and there was the Gayatri mantra.
It was both soothing and inspiring, haunting and uplifting. And when I listened to it, I felt this deep sense of peace. Without trying, I was able to drop my near-constant worries about more attacks on my city and where I might be when they happened, and I put aside the grief I felt for all of those innocent lives that were lost. I listened to the Gayatri again and again, and it quickly became my go-to for tough times.
Fast-forward 17 years and I jumped at the chance to see Deva Premal in concert in my new hometown of Boulder, Colo. She sang the Gayatri, as I hoped she would, and then she graced the Boulder Theater sangha, Sanskrit for community, with something special: an early listen of the long-form Gayatri, something she didn’t even realize existed until recently and a track that’s on her new album (see links at end).
When I spoke to Premal recently about her new album, I told her how much her version of the Gayatri mantra meant to me in 2001, and how much I loved her new, long-form version of the mantra I heard this year. She went on to tell me about what both mantras mean to her, how she got her start as a musician, and so much more.
Here’s our interview:
What inspired your new album?
The inspiration is always there. We always love to record the mantras, because that’s when you can really get them as close to how you want to hear them.
How did you get your start as a musician?
I started singing as soon as I could talk. I was introduced to mantras—or actually, I should say I was bathed in them—by my parents before I was born. Especially the Gayatri mantra. They chanted it to me when I was in the womb; my sister and I shared a bedroom growing up and we’d all chant the Gayatri mantra three times. As soon as I could utter words, some of them were the Gayatri mantra. My father also gave me a personal mantra—Sat Chit Ananda—and I’d repeat that after the Gayatri. It was something my father designed for me. My sister had one, too. I don’t actually know Sanskrit; I can’t read it. But I can make these sounds easily. I can memorize them. It feels like a language I’m at home in, in some ways.
Tell me more about what you remember about your parents…
I grew up in Nuremburg, Germany, a place so connected to Hitler. The rallies were there, and the grounds where he’d have his gatherings. I think my father’s mantra practice was somehow his way of creating healing there. He’d make it his practice to walk around the walls of Nuremburg three times a day, chanting mantra—a practice that took him 3 to 4 hours. I think of him as this prayer wheel; maybe somehow he was healing some of those terrible things that originated there. I hope it helped in some way.
My parents were students of Osho in Pune, India, and when I was 17, I went to Osho’s ashram to discover his teachings for myself. As soon as I was with Osho, I felt at home. In Osho’s world, mantras weren’t part of the practice. But his Indian disciples would sing mantras because it was in their blood. Like mine.
When did you start singing professionally?
My partner, Miten, and I met in India. Miten was a musician all his life, and he was a musician for the daily evening meditations for anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people at Osho’s ashram. When we got together [romantically], all I wanted to do was sing with him, so I could be with him all the time! That was my only aspiration as a 19-year-old. And then we realized I could hold a tune, and we really did sound good together.
We started traveling together around the Osho centers in Europe, sharing our music with these sanghas. We spent seven years like that, traveling in our little van. In one of those Osho centers in England, I heard a friend of ours sing the Gayatri mantra—and in that moment I realized, Oh, this is something very easy for me to sing. Suddenly the shyness I felt all those years before disappeared and my voice unfolded. Miten and I started singing the Gayatri mantra, and people would say, Wow, what is that?
The next step was recording it, because people were asking for it. I thought we’d make a little album just for our friends. Rishi, our Danish percussionist who’s touring with us now, was so generous and supportive; he came with his recording equipment to my mom’s house—the place where I was born—and we recorded The Essence. When it came out, we sold 1,000 in the first month and started getting all of these orders from the United States.
What do you think your fans will be most excited about on the new album?
On the new album, the mantras shine through in a way that’s unobstructed. There’s nothing between the listener and the mantra. It’s the reason I’m calling it Deva.
Is it an album that’s very personal?
Actually for me, the album’s name is a symbol of the transparency of it. Deva means divine. It’s almost no name—because there should be nothing, no personality, between the listener and the mantras. As much as possible, I’m not taking attention or distracting from the essence of the mantras with my voice, so that they can come through unobstructed. I want the experience of listening to these mantras to be direct, and lacking emotional expression. Because mantra isn’t emotional. You sing mantras with devotion, not emotion. It’s very subtle. So although it may look like, with this title, I wanted it to be a very personal album, it is actually the opposite. The real feeling is that there is no name, that there is nobody, just the divine.
What’s the song on this album you’re most excited about?
The Seven Chakra Gayatri Mantra [see video, ed.]. For many years, I didn’t know there was a long form of the Gayatri mantra. When I discovered there was, I thought, Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a melody that came out of me to share this mantra? But I’m not a composer, so I never came up with a melody. Joby Baker, our amazing producer on this album, said, “Let’s just do it. You’re going to make this melody.” He provided the soil—the key, the pulse, and the rhythm—and then this melody came out of me. The composing process felt right, and now it feels right to sing this melody. It’s got nothing to do with me. It was the melody needed to share this mantra.
It’s powerful to have The Seven Chakra Gayatri Mantra. You can tune into this long form and see where it fits into your life—if it touches you and fits into your flow. It’s beautiful to have it available because it addresses every single one of our chakras individually. It’s wholesome; it’s strong.
After Miten had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he was crying his eyes out with this trauma his body had suffered, trying to come to terms with it. During one particularly hard night he said, “I have to listen to The Seven Chakra Gayatri Mantra.” And it just changed everything immediately. Peace descended, and we could curl up and sleep for the rest of the night. Listening to that long form mantra was like our own medicine.
Meghan Rabbitt is the executive editor of Yoga Journal.
Review by Abhi: ‘Deva’
More info on devapremalmiten.com
Related article on Osho News
Miten on Deva Premal, Manose and Osho – interview by Punya