There were nearly 230 entries from Massachusetts to this year's NPR Tiny Desk Contest. Five panelists — Noah Schaffer, HEESU, Isa Burke, Tim Hall and Amelia Mason — were tasked with choosing a favorite. But it's hard to pick just one. So as we prepare to reveal the panel's top choice, we're highlighting a couple entries that left an impact.
Singer-songwriter Varsha would often hear her peers describe a favorite song as their personal anthem. “I’d never found my anthem, so I decided to write one myself,” she says.
The result is “Woman,” a song that describes many of the facets of femininity through the lens of the Hindu goddess Durga. That may sound like an epic work, but Varsha accomplishes it in just two minutes and 44 seconds, with a pulsating tabla joining a tight R&B/pop unit.
“Being a woman, you get told you have to categorize yourself – you’re smart, or you're beautiful, or you’re funny, or you’re kind,” observes Varsha. “We feel like we have to pick and choose and limit ourselves to who we are, and that is more emphasized if you’re an immigrant or woman of color. I just wanted to write a song about how being a woman can be all of those things, or none of those things.”
Varsha chose the song for her Tiny Desk entry because of how it both spoke to women all over the planet as well as to her own story. “The song is important to me because it’s not just about the experience of being a woman, but specifically a South Asian woman,” a group that she points out is not often represented in the Western music industry.
Speaking from her current home in Nashville, the recent Berklee graduate says that after growing up in a Hindu family that lived at different points in China, Singapore, Ohio and Texas, she had a complicated relationship with her spiritual identity. “I’m making strides towards learning that part of where I'm coming from. I’ve read a lot about Durga and how we have a million gods, and many are reiterations or manifestations of each other, and they show themselves and reincarnate themselves depending on what is needed.”
In order to reveal those different manifestations of Durga, Varsha turned to a unique songwriting tool. “I went on Hindu baby naming websites,” she laughs. “Each name had a slightly different meaning depending on what aspect was highlighted. I took the meanings of those names and made them affirmations of womanhood in the lyrics.”
While Varsha has recorded other songs that veer from straight up rock to edgy R&B, she included “Woman” on an album, “Monsoon,” that seeks to combine Western and South Asian styles. Speaking of the tablas played by Rushabh Parasnis, she says “I had a prayer in Sanskrit underneath the chorus, and the tablas were not only a representation of the sonic roots of the song, but also established a groove and rhythm that is more native to India.”
When it came time to record the video at The Record Co. in Boston, Varsha brought her bedside table from her apartment to use as the tiny desk and ended up singing from the floor as she sat next to the tabla player. “I didn’t really think about it – we had a larger-than-normal band and we were trying to fit everyone in the frame!”