Building her own legacy

A photo shoot with a member of one of the richest and most prestigious families of the country definitely requires a bit of preparation. As we ready ourselves for the shoot and interview of 22-year-old Ananya Birla, daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, we decide to ask her mother, Neerja Birla, how Ananya was as a kid. “She was always an inquisitive and curious child. She observed everything; like a sponge she absorbed from her environment. Ananya has grown to be a thoughtful, courteous and beautiful person and we are very proud of her,” says Neerja. 

Working with Ananya for our cover  shoot, we get to witness this first hand.  Early on during the shoot, there is a  minor disagreement on the sets. It is  regarding an outfit for the first shot.  Ananya’s stylist Gabriella Demetriades  thinks that the dress she is wearing is  perfect for the shot; photographer Subi  Samuel and I have our reservations. A  little discussion later, we agree on what  would look best. The young Birla scion  is mostly unaware about this till the  first shot is on. 

As one of her assistants fiddles with the playlist in the studio, trying to put on the best track to calm Ananya’s mood, playing songs of Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi, Charlie Puth among others on loop and we get ready for the next shot, Ananya enters and calmly walks up to Samuel. In a sweet tone she says, “We like working amidst good vibes.” She then raises her hand signalling a high-five and with the high-five, the atmosphere eases.

As we sit down for a chat, she tells  us that she usually shuts herself from  any negativity and focuses on the positive. Ananya has been in the limelight for the last six months, less for being a Birla scion and more for pursuing her passion—music. Her last single, Livin’ The Life, came out in November and the next, Meant To Be, is slated for a Julyend release. “I am so excited. It’s a love song, written from a very deep part of myself and it is evolving into more of me. It’s very different from Livin’ The Life. I have experienced the entire story of the song. Plus, it’s very relatable. I guess when you are authentic with yourself, this happens,” she chuckles.

It is a no-brainer then that this is the highest phase of her life. She loves  the fan comments and the applause  she gets on a daily basis. But she also gets her fair share of criticism. Many thought that the song was auto-tuned. Some even commented that she has been able to do this because of her lineage. “It doesn’t really matter actually. I don’t read all of those comments,” she says. “Some effects were put in during production, but there was no autotuning done to my voice.”

She thinks, with time, as she continues to churn out more songs, people will realise the talent she possesses. “It was just my first song,” she says, as she recalls a fan meeting recently where a young girl pinched her to see if she was real. A call from an on-duty jawan from a bad network zone to say he loved her song was very encouraging. “The love is just pouring in and that’s enough.”

Devraj Sanyal, the managing director and CEO, Universal Music Group, India and South Asia, who signed the music deal with her, simplifies, “From her debut single Livin’ The Life to her upcoming new music, you’ll see how she’s developed as an artiste. It’s amazing how much she has evolved. We can’t wait to get her new music out.”

He says that as a record label, an artiste is an artiste irrespective of the background. He recalls how the first question they asked Ananya was ‘how much time are you ready to dedicate to music?’ “We knew she had her hands full with the multiple roles she plays with her businesses. But her response was absolutely clear—she said music was her passion and she was now ready to make it the centre of her life,” says Sanyal. The studio recorded a few demos and saw her enthusiasm and her willingness to work hard. “She’s been an absolute delight to work with. Her work ethic and her hunger to learn will see her progress miles ahead,” he tells us on email.

Ananya is delighted that her parents loved her song. “They both were very proud that I am following my dreams and passion, keeping my values in place,” says the loving daughter, who has two tattoos on her two fingers in her parents’ handwriting. Neerja believes her relationship with Ananya is that of soul sisters and she is happy Ananya has followed her passion for music. 

“Music has always been a part of her DNA and an integral part of her life. Whether it was playing the santoor, singing, or even dance, she has always had music by her side,” says Neerja.

In fact, her parents have always pushed her to participate in activities other than studies. “I have always been very creative,” she says. Besides music, she has also pursued swimming, table tennis, calligraphy and chess. Ananya’s interest in santoor came from her mother, who used to play the instrument. She was only eight years old then. Her masterji, Dinesh Bhai Sampat, has stuck around since. Later, she also learned the guitar by watching YouTube videos during her days at Oxford University, England, where she studied economics and management. “It hasn’t been tough actually, except for bleeding fingers for a bit,” she says with a laugh.

While one may believe being a member of a prestigious family would mean an easy ride through life, Ananya has faced some difficulties, even early on as a kid in school. Her surname got more attention than her. “But I was as simple as anyone else. However, as a 12 or 13-year-old, I started realising that people are perceiving me as different.” She changed schools while growing up. But, not because of the attention she was getting. “I changed schools because I wanted to take up A-levels (a secondary school leaving qualification in the UK) later.” She left Bombay International School to join American School of Bombay and finally dropped out and opted for home-schooling. “It wasn’t a very linear journey, but quite interesting,” she says, adding that the home-school part was quite gratifying for her. “I could finish a day’s syllabus in three hours and move on to other activities that were of interest to me.”

She may have been perceived differently due to her family, but Ananya has never felt the burden of her lineage. “I have never seen it like that,” she says. In fact, she looks at it as a means for self-motivation. “It’s like any other family. The surname hasn’t really got in between any of my relationships. Rather, I am lucky to have people around me who understand me and who I am.”

If it is music that propelled her into the public eye, Ananya was just 17 when she entered the business world with Svatantra Microfin Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbaibased start-up microfinance institution. The company that launched in March 2013 helps customers of low-income group attain self-sustainability. “I have always been or have grown to become aware of the pain around us. I wanted to do something to make a difference to this world. But I wanted to do it in a very sustainable manner; microfinance seemed to fit the bill as they pay us back. It’s a tool that helps people grow,” she explains.

If 17 seems too young, Ananya was part of a start-up at an even younger age while studying at Oxford. “It was based on the concept of building small laptops for children to learn how to code. They are doing great in San Francisco but I am not a part of it anymore,” she says, adding that since she had always planned to come back to India, she let go of it.

Then, early last year, MPowerMinds was launched. Ananya is a co-founder with her mother. “It’s strange to say that I have co-founded it with my mom,” she says, almost taking a jibe at herself. The idea was to work on mental health. Her website says that while studying in England, Ananya worked at a student helpline, where she was exposed to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions through her interactions with patients. On returning to India, she wondered why talks about mental illness were so hushed here and that laid the foundation for MpowerMinds. She recounts the incident of a young boy who committed suicide recently by jumping off a hotel in Bandra. She was saddened by the statistics that suicide rates in India are only going to increase in the next few years. She believes her venture will increase public awareness about mental health. “We have a holistic centre with all sorts of therapies—psychological and psychiatric. It’s the need of the hour.”

Juggling so many ventures cannot be easy. It is tiring, she admits. But that is the only way she knows. “I touch the bed and pass out. There’s a little bit of compromise on the time you spend with family, but being in touch on WhatsApp groups makes up for that.”

Currently, music is her focus because that is the career she is building. But she says that doesn’t mean she is ignoring her businesses. “I am focused towards that, too.” She believes that in the long run she will be able to straddle both worlds. With age, won’t managing so much get tougher? “It’s going to get easier because I will be wiser,” she replies. After a little thought, she adds, “I don’t know if I really want it to get easier, but I know I want it to become more interesting.”