Ananya Birla crusades for better mental health and becomes India’s first Platinum artist in English
Ananya Birla is a rising pop-star from India. She is the first artist to achieve Platinum status in India with english-language songs (“Meant To Be” and “Hold On”) and recently released a third song called “Circles”with Universal and Island Records UK — which also just went Platinum! She has worked with Afrojack and Mood Melodies, shared the stage with Coldplay at Global Citizen, and gained over 40 million views on her Vevo. She splits her time between London and Mumbai.
She also runs a mental health initative focused on young people. After battling her own mental health issues while studying at Oxford, Ananya launched Mpower – which works towards dispelling the stigma associated with mental health illnesses and provides care in India.
Let’s find out more about her career and how she overcame her past struggles in our Q&A below!
Hi Ananya, nice to e-meet you. Before we get into your work as a singer, entrepreneur and mental health advocate, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a singer-songwriter from India. I spend about half of my time in the US, and the other half in Mumbai. I love travel, guitar, yoga and spending time with my friends, family and puppy Skai.
I run a mental health initiative in India, MPower, which provides treatment and campaigns to get rid of the stigma around mental illness. I also founded an organization called Svatantra when I was 17, which lends money to women in rural India to help them start businesses and become independent.
Great! US audiences might not be very familiar with you yet…so can you fill us in on some of your notable work and achievements in the music industry?
I spent a while gigging and doing open-mic nights around London when I was at college, before I released my first single at the end of 2016 with Universal Music. Since then, I have released three more songs, worked and performed with amazing artists around the world, and reached over 100m streams.
Last year, I became the first home-grown artist to go Platinum in India with an English song, which I have managed to do three times now with my songs Meant To Be, Hold On and Circles.
What are the biggest differences between being an artist in India and the US?
Bollywood music kind of rules the music scene in India, and other genres like pop, hip hop and rap can get squeezed out. It can feel like artists are pushed to fit-in and be the same as everyone else, whereas in the US people embrace musicians that are new and different. I love that there is so much talent here, working on all types of different music – there is something for everyone.
What is Mpower all about and how does it help people?
I battled with my mental health when I was at university in the UK. It was a really tough time and it was made worse because I was too scared to talk to anyone about the way I was feeling, thinking they might undermine my ability or see me differently.
I was very lucky to eventually get the support that I needed. But when I returned to India the issues around mental health seemed even worse. Because of the lack of awareness and investment, it is so difficult for people there to get help.
I created MPower because I wanted to change that by campaigning and providing care for people living with mental health issues who are too often ignored or discriminated against. We have built a world-class care centre and we also run big awareness-raising music concerts, which bring together thousands of people from all over India.
MPower is focused on India, but the message is a global one – we need to stamp out the stigma around mental illness.
How can people take advantage of what Mpower has to offer?
Although mental illness is just as common as physical illness, it is surrounded by shame and fear which isolates people when they need support the most. With Mpower, we want people to feel that it is OK to not be OK sometimes. And for them to know that there is help available should they need it.
When people are struggling they can either come to our amazing care centre, speak with one of our team members on the phone or even reach out online. Increasingly people are getting in touch with me or the organisation via social media which is great because it is so accessible, especially for young people.
We are still in our early stages, but already we see more and more people opening up about their mental health without feeling misplaced shame. We plan to continue to expand across India, opening centres and engaging with more schools and colleges to teach them how they can support people who are struggling.
Why do you think mental health issues are seemingly increasing among young people?
I think young people today are under a huge amount of pressure – from their parents, communities, schools, and from themselves. It can leave people feeling like they’re never quite good enough.
Social media also plays a big part. It can give you unrealistic expectations and lead you to compare yourself to others. It’s sad that whilst we have social media and the internet and we’re communicating and connecting digitally all the time, our generation seems to be feeling isolated and lonely, perhaps more than ever before….
It’s still the case that huge numbers of teens with mental health issues are suffering alone and in silence. But, I think that people are starting to get more confident about coming forward, identifying how they are struggling, and seeking help. It is so inspiring to see more and more people speaking out and ‘owning’ their mental health.
At Oxford, you experienced panic attacks. What exactly did panic attacks feel like when you were experiencing them?
I experienced anxiety and panic attacks whilst at school in England. It’s a combination of emotional and physical feelings and everyone experiences them slightly differently. For me, it was overwhelming fear, a pounding heart, shortness of breath. There were days I felt too overwhelmed to leave the house.
How did you get better?
The first step in getting better was accepting that there was a problem. Once you do that, you can begin to understand the issue and find methods to help yourself. For me, things like deep breathing, regular exercise, yoga, spending time with my friends, and taking a digital detox were helpful.
Once I had acknowledged it, I was able to talk about it with people close to you. It is tough to open up at first, but sharing something you’ve been keeping to yourself for a long time can feel like a weight has been lifted. I also came across friends who had experienced similar things which made me feel less alone.
If it is available to you, talking to a professional is the best possible way to equip yourself with the tools to manage these issues. There is a wonderful sanctity about therapy. And, whilst it can be daunting to open up to a stranger, having an outside opinion and the security of confidentiality can be extremely reassuring.
What’s the biggest challenge you have faced so far as an entrepreneur?
When I launched Svatantra at 17, the finance industry was dominated by experienced, middle-aged men. Even my own team was much older than me! I had to prove that I was willing to learn, and that I had a strong enough vision to see it through and get back on my feet if I made a mistake. I reinvented myself daily, getting tougher, stronger and more committed to making Svatantra the business it is today and delivering a positive impact.
And what do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?
All my songs are so personal to me and are generally based on own experiences and I think my fans recognize that. Nothing makes me happier than when I get a message from a fan who says that they connected to my music and that it made something that they are going through a little bit easier. That feels like the biggest achievement to me.
You were born to a wealthy family. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of you because of that?
Some people assume that my life might be easy and that I don’t have challenges or worries. I have been very lucky to be born in to a family that has achieved a lot, but it doesn’t mean that it has been a totally smooth ride. Particularly, growing up came with all the usual emotional and social challenges; the self-doubt, the feeling ‘not good enough’. Plus I had the pressure of living up to what my family has done, and having people I didn’t even know constantly questioning my decisions and direction.
I have always wanted to be independent and carve my own path. I get so much emotional support and love from my family, and that’s all I really need.
If you could go back in time and give only ONE piece of advice to your teenage self, what would you say to yourself?
Have confidence in your ability, take risks, and listen to your heart.
Tell me something people would be surprised to know about you?
I am totally obsessed with sneakers!
Biggest pet peeve?
Hummus. On everything. All the time.
Losing a friend. My last song Circles was a celebration of friendship, I truly believe it is the most magical and powerful force in the universe.
What’s the last movie you watched, and give me a review…but you can only use TWO WORDS for the review : )
Bohemian Rhapsody – Iconic and Inspiring
The one thing I cannot live without is__________.
Most embarrassing moment IRL you wish you could do over?
I have a habit of tripping over at the worst times. I can be a bit clumsy! This included an awkward fall at some big event in India in front of a pretty prominent audience which included former UK Prime Minister David Cameron…
What else are you working on or have coming up next?
My next single is out in January and then my EP a little later in the year, which I am working on right now in LA.
Could we get a selfie of whatever you are doing at the moment? It’s something we ask to keep it real for the fans!