Six Years in India: A Russian artist's ode to her love for India

Anna interprets six Indian songs through her renditions in Six Years in India project

Anna Bychkova - 1 Anna Bychkova | Manoj Chemancheri

Similar to how a familiar scent can transport us to distant times and places, music holds the remarkable capability to unlock a treasure trove of personal memories. This enchanting relationship between music and memory forms the foundation for Six Years in India, a distinctive and personal musical project of Anna Bychkova Nair, a Western classical singer and voice-over artist who was born in Odessa, Ukraine (while it was part of USSR), who grew up in St Petersburg, Russia, and now resides in Thiruvananthapuram.

A student of the renowned Bulgarian opera singer Alexandrina Milcheva, Anna skilfully interprets six carefully selected Indian songs in Six Years in India. These renditions, infused with a touch of her Western classical style, serve as vessels to unveil chapters from her remarkable journey—a journey of falling in love with India and an Indian, and subsequently, residing in four different cities across three Indian states, all within six transformative years.

Anna was born into a family deeply rooted in music. Her great-grandmother, amidst picturesque landscapes near their home, would sing gentle lullabies to her while cradling her in her arms. Her mother's education in a music school further cemented this familial connection. This musical heritage extended beyond Anna's immediate family, as many of her relatives continued the tradition, working as professional musicians in orchestras across Europe.

Anna's early years were marked by watching her mother play the piano, and she recalls, "I used to sing a lot, and to keep me quiet during our walks, my parents would offer me snacks." Her mother, however, was concerned about whether she should pursue a professional career in music.

Nevertheless, by the age of seven, Anna's fingers delicately danced across piano keys, and her voice began weaving its melodies. This deep connection between Anna and music flourished as her family relocated from the port city of Novorossiysk to St Petersburg. Her formal musical education thrived in St Petersburg, where she enrolled in St Petersburg Children's Music School No. 11, affiliated to the Philharmonic Society of St Petersburg. Her parents ensured she received a comprehensive musical education, and she excelled in piano playing while her voice evolved under the guidance of dedicated instructors.

The school introduced Anna to a diverse musical world, where she sang with a choir, travelled across Europe, and embraced various languages and cultures. This exposure broadened her horizons, fueling her passion to share her voice with the world. A significant turning point came when she participated in the international youth music competition 'Hopes, Talents, Masters' in Bulgaria at the age of 15. It was there that she crossed paths with her teacher, Alexandrina Milcheva, an encounter that would profoundly change her life.

Anna's musical journey took a significant turn when she became a student under Milcheva's guidance. However, instead of enrolling in a music conservatory, Milcheva encouraged her to pursue an alternative academic path while continuing her musical education. Anna chose to study language at St Petersburg State University, located near her music school. Her academic focus shifted to English language and literature, delving into phonetics, literature, and culture. This choice unexpectedly unveiled India's historical ties with Britain, sparking Anna's fascination with the country.

Indian culture continued to intersect with Anna's life through interactions with Indian exchange students, her work as an interpreter for Indian-origin doctors from the UK, and her father's admiration for Indian cuisine from his time in London. In 2012, Anna's life took a romantic turn when she met Nair (full name withheld on request), an Indian, in St Petersburg during his assignment as part of an Indian delegation of engineers. Being a linguist, Anna worked with his as an interpreter. Love blossomed in St Petersburg, as Nair introduced Anna to various aspects of Indian culture, including milk tea, Shah Rukh Khan, and the iconic song Chaiyya Chaiyya from the film Dil Se. The memories from those beautiful days in St Petersburg are vividly reflected in her rendition of Chaiyya Chaiyya, the first song in her Six Years in India series.

The couple believed they were destined for each other, yet the path to marriage wasn't straightforward. By the end of 2014, both families agreed to their union, but because of certain professional commitments of Nair, the marriage happened only in November 2016.

During these three years leading to the marriage, Anna immersed herself in Indian culture at St Petersburg. She started learning Hindi, explored the basics of Bharatanatyam, and mastered the art of chanting the Gayatri mantra. She attended lectures on Indian culture at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and was drawn to the philosophical ideas of Buddhism and Jainism. Anna also extensively explored Indian cuisine by visiting almost every Indian restaurant in her city and learning to cook Indian food.

Anna's desire to understand India deeply is reflected in her rendition of the profound song O Ri Chiraiya from the Satyamev Jayate TV series hosted by Aamir Khan, which she chose as the second song in her project. This song, with its confessional tone addressing injustices against girls and women, became one of Anna's favourites. “I really admired that a star like Aamir Khan decided to talk about social issues openly,” says Anna. “I felt like instead of reading what others are saying about India, at least it has more value and credibility because an Indian talks about the issues openly.”

The third song in the series is Anuragathin Velayil, a Malayalam romantic song featured in the 2012 movie Thattathin Marayathu. Its significance lies in the fact that it's in Nair's mother tongue, making it a personal favourite, and it was released the same year the couple met. Meanwhile, the fourth song, Lag Ja Gale, marks Anna's first performance of a Hindi song. She deeply connected with the song's theme of longing, reflecting on her own experiences. Lyrics like Shayad Phir Iss Janam Mein, Mulaqat Ho Na Ho (In this life, we may or may never meet again) resonated with her, but destiny brought her together with Nair.

Post-marriage, when Anna and Nair started living in India, a realisation hit her as the couple shifted from one city to another: there exist many different versions of India. Mumbai was the couple’s first city of dwelling. In Mumbai, Anna found a lot of connections via music, especially through the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes Western classical music. However, a shift to Kochi presented a distinct culture that left her questioning her sense of belonging. She says: “When you move to a place, first you have euphoria and then there will be a second stage where you feel like, do I belong here? So that was a big question mark. I couldn't find the many opportunities that I had in Mumbai. And I started blogging more. I started writing more. But I got slightly confused at that point of time [thinking whether she could continue with opera singing].”

Anna initially struggled to adapt to Kochi, feeling she wasn't making enough effort to adjust to the new environment. However, an India-born friend who had moved from Mumbai to Kochi shared similar challenges, which prompted Anna to be more forgiving of herself. In Six Years in India, Anna acknowledges her journey of learning and adapting to the diverse cultures in India. This acceptance of the different cultures can be seen in her fifth song of choice, Mere Rashke Qamar, a Nusrat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan song featured in the 2017 film, Baadshaho, set in Rajasthan. It became their preferred song during long drives in Kerala.

Their third city of residence was Ahmedabad, offering a lifestyle distinct from Mumbai and Kochi. But it was the pandemic era, and life was stuck in the apartment. Anna explored the complexity and charm of silence in an otherwise talkative nation, which is reflected in her rendition of the final cover song of the series, Khamoshiyan.

“We dive into new circumstances keeping our feelings at bay, but what if there is a way to give ourselves a chance to take our time to connect both to a new place and the place you left, with your new self on a deeper level?” This contemplation has been the driving force behind Anna's entire endeavour. Today, Anna and Nair are based in Thiruvananthapuram. Anna continues her quest to understand the evolving landscape of 'new India' while nurturing their two beautiful children. She collaborates with local artists in the city to channel her musical talents, and aspires to be a professional playback singer. For her project, she collaborated with recording, mixing and mastering professional Deepak S.R. and guitarist Advaith Sreekumar. Through her songs, she wishes to inspire generations to come in the same way those six songs in her project Six Years in India connected with her story and her memories,

Furthermore, she raises a significant question, both to herself and the world at large: “Can art and music serve as companions through life's highs and lows, illuminating the pivotal memories that shape us as individuals?”

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