At the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards this month, an artist from India is in the running for the Best New Age Album. Periphery by Priya Darshini is a catharsis of her struggles. It reflects her search for identity, and her quest to overcome challenges physical and mental. Familia territory for the Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred New Yorker.
In 2007, Priya Darshini ran up the Himalayas, battling hypothermia, lack of oxygen, injury and 70-degree inclines. She was 23 then, and became the first and youngest Indian woman to run a 100-mile ultra marathon in the Himalayas. “The weather got pretty bad on Day One,” she recalls. “I was running from 6,000 ft to 12,000 ft on the border of India and Nepal, and many runners were pulled off the course for safety. The race director told me that he wanted to see me get through, and if I finished it, I would be the first and youngest woman to run it. There was no jeep support for the last 8-12km.” There were long stretches where her body nearly gave up.
“What made it most memorable was that right after I thought I would die I made it. The next morning, I saw the Himalayas for the first time from my window. There it was, the Kanchenjunga in its full glory, in heavenly, golden sunlight. It still gives me goosebumps,” says the songstress.
The journey from Chennai to New York
Priya grew up in a traditional setup in Chennai, where she was trained in the classical arts from the age of five. Her parents were students of Carnatic classical music, and their mothers were exponents of the veena and Bharatnatyam. After studying music from vocalist Bombay Lakshmi, a young Priya Darshini moved to Mumbai where she studied Hindustani classical under Sunil Borgaonkar, who still tutors her even today.
“As a child I knew I loved to sing and wanted to sing on stage someday. I didn’t know what my own voice or style was. All that was part of my process, and I am still processing,” says the girl who started out singing covers, jingles and progressed to Bollywood, with tracks in films like D Company and Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya.
In those days, it was tough for an independent artist to survive in Mumbai, and in 2005, Priya went off to the New York Film Academy to study jazz. When she shifted to New York, she had a long and arduous climb, playing at various open mike events, finding her voice amidst what must have been great consternation and worry. Periphery, her debut saw her writing “from a place of full authenticity. That is what makes it soulful. We went live in an abandoned Brooklyn church, with no retakes. we did every song top to bottom three times and picked the best take,” adds the artist.
But there was another journey taking shape.
Like music, fitness had always been part of her life. But when she ran her first ultra-marathon in 2007, Priya Darshini decided to take things up a notch. Her love for ultras saw her set up The WindChasers, a company to organise ultra-marathons and train fellow running enthusiasts. For this, she partnered with her mentor and ultra-marathon veteran Ram Subramanian.
With The WindChasers, Ram and Priya helped like-minded folks pursue their dreams with ultras held in the Himalayas and Nilgiris from 2009-2011. Priya herself ran the routes many times to iron out the kinks. “Figuring out how to survive during the race was an eye-opener. Ram and I wanted to offer the runner an experience that redefines their own possibilities. Watching a person’s process through such challenges and motivating them gave such immense joy. It also helped me stay connected to my roots,” she says.
Lesson from running: Know when to quit
Priya cautions those who want to follow their own ultra dreams. “I had become extreme and obsessive. On the third day, one misstep led to a serious knee injury. The medic suggested that I shouldn’t finish, but I didn’t want to stop. A cortisone injection was suggested. I refused, took painkillers instead, and finished in a delirious state,” she recalls. “What I learnt from all this was that it is very important to know when to quit. ‘Never quit’ is a great motto for life in general, but not when you are running. It is important to assess, be in touch with your body, and drop all ego. Now, I run for myself and I am super motivated, working out two to three times a day—martial arts, swimming, biking, running and sports.”
The WindChasers is no longer in business, but Priya’s not done pushing the limits. As she awaits her Grammy verdict, she is already working on two albums, including one that came out of seven years of struggle in New York.
And the running continues. Priya has her sights set on the Atacama Desert next, and also the under-explored and mighty difficult Namib Desert. “A girl can dream,” she smiles as she mulls over Racing the Planet, a rough-country endurance race spanning four deserts. But she now knows better than to run an ultra-marathon with a busted leg. “Balance is best, listen to your body and tap into your intuition.”
How to prepare for an ultra-marathon: Priya Darshini’s advice
- Understand what you are preparing for. Set a timeline after identifying a specific race, sign and pay up so you have a definite goal.
- Set aside at least five months to prepare. Train, ensure your body is in tune with your mind. Don’t do something too soon or too long, and don’t just run, build your core and stamina.
- Incorporate training in daily life with deep thoughtful planning.
- Stay connected, when busy, combine work with a workout at the office or every half-hour, push-ups, etc.
- Be mindful of how and what you eat, and understand your body wants.
- It is important to train every day for a few hours focusing on strength training, sports as an active lifestyle in addition to running.
- Make sure you are having fun at it.
- Know when to quit especially if you have injuries, which requires grave wisdom.
- Focus on exercise, nourishing the body and soul.