BY Kenneth Lobo
DJ Pearl is easily one of India’s most successful and recognizable electronic music DJs. She was a flight attendant before she decided to follow her passion for music. And as an electronic music evangelist she has been an inspiration for young people across the country.
With the kind of passion Pearl brings to her music, you’re always in safe hands. She crafts incredible journeys in her DJ sets. She’s an outspoken online presence on all the goings-on in the country whether it’s about the politics of the dancefloor or women’s safety. Pearl’s the co-founder of Submerge, India’s first and largest electronic dance music (EDM) brand, with TV presenter, DJ and husband Nikhil Chinapa and their close friend Hermit Sethi. Together, they helped create Sunburn, Asia’s biggest EDM festival. And then went on to pioneer another equally successful electronic music property called Supersonic, partnering with media giant Viacom18. She’s also consistently put the country on the international map as a destination for quality artists.
None of this would have taken off, however, if a “tiny girl” hadn’t taken up a cabin crew position with KLM, Holland’s national carrier. It was her sister Nyka, who was already employed with Singapore Airlines in the late ‘90s, that first planted the seed in her head. As Pearl recounts, she baulked at the idea. And for good measure also pointed out that she was too short for the job. But as the Mexican aphorism goes, “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.” In the next few days, she noticed an ad for KLM cabin crew for India. And to everyone’s surprise, she got through. “I was maybe a quarter of an inch too short from their cut off,” she says. “The Dutch are the tallest people in the world! During the height test, I remember thinking of all the art and I took a deep breath and stood up just a little bit straighter.”
Art is Pearl’s first love. It motivated her to reluctantly accept a career in the airline industry. She grew up with books about artists like Thomas Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso, Vermeer, Rubens, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Gaugin and Matisse. After an economics degree from St Xavier’s college, she enrolled at the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, but quit her stint as a management trainee to train under Rameshwar Broota, a respected contemporary artist and head of the art department at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi, before the KLM came calling. “All my doubts [about working as a flight attendant] were cleared when I landed in Amsterdam and found myself in a museum starting at the Masters – in my first week,” she says. “I also spent a lot of time in art shops on my layovers there – I had never seen such shops or art supplies and couldn’t get enough of it.”
Amsterdam also introduced her to the city’s renowned nightlife scene with clubs that had incredible sound systems and legendary DJs. “You couldn’t peel me away from these places after that. I just had to hear more. And dance of course,” she says. “I started seeking that music out and the mainstream stores pointed me in the direction of the more obscure record stores. Soon, I started spending all my daily allowance on those records and all my time in those stores – jet lagged or not.”
On one of many such trips, Pearl was treated to an unbelievable set by Dutch DJ Michael Kliess at Club NL, a new venue. She sought out the artist after his set to tell him to make his way to India some day. Remarkably, Kliess was preparing to do just that in a couple of months. The Dutchman mentored Pearl, introducing her to his remarkable record collection, sharing DJing tips and allowing her to practice at his console. He also set Pearl on her way as a promoter, by helping to book a couple of Dutch DJs, sorting out contracts and explaining how to run that side of the business. Pearl’s evangelism also helped convert her boyfriend and now husband Nikhil Chinapa, who did all the ground work in India.
Club culture in India was still in its infancy with a handful of top-notch venues spread out across India. In classic DJ mode, Pearl craved to push the sound and experiences she had in Europe, to audiences in India. “I had no decks and no place to practice so I called a DJ I knew from my sister’s wedding and asked if he could help,” she says. “He pointed me in the direction of this club called Someplace Else in Kolkata where DJ Teenu Arora used to play. DJ Teenu Arora took me under his wing and I started assisting at his club.” For a while building on her passion for music, Pearl also retained her KLM job, which allowed her access to records, and a paycheck that ensured she could buy them. “So I worked at both till I literally ran myself into the ground and fell sick,” she says.
Another temporary setback was breaking the news to her parents. “My mother was absolutely mortified with the idea of me becoming a dj. I had to go live with my grandmother till she settled down with it,” she says. “My father was a bit calmer about it. He, in fact, took me to meet a relative’s friend who hired out sound systems. I was assigned to a DJ Deepak, who I went to a couple of weddings with to see how it worked.” Pearl learned about DJing on CD players from him in “a garage, in the freezing cold, where all his equipment was stored. I drove with him through some of the seedy streets of Delhi looking for CDs and second hand mixers.” And her parents came around very quickly after the first few months, and have always been her biggest supporters.
Of her flying experience, Pearl says that she would never replace those of years of her life for anything. “I’ve cleaned up after people who got sick, washed baby bottles, pushed wheelchairs, dealt with drunk passengers, taken care of sick people. You name it, we experienced it all, and are the better for it,” she says. “I once consoled a girl taking her brother’s coffin back home from the States. We had 16 babies on a flight once, all from Calcutta, on their way to their adoptive parents. I’ve met these parents, beside themselves with joy and crying when they held their child for the first time. It’s eye opening and so completely humbling to meet so much humanity on such a personal level.”
Today, Pearl engages with close to 80,000 fans through her Facebook fan page, and countless more through her gigs and headlining slots at India’s best music festivals. She’s a tastemaker and opinion-shaper who continues to have what she describes as “a crazy one-minded focus for DJing”. Her circuitous route to DJing has allowed her a clear vision on the path others who are interested in the culture should follow. “The time we have on Earth will pass by in the blink of an eye, so go for it – do exactly what your heart tells you, don’t look back and definitely stop caring about what the world will say,” she says. “The world will just have to deal with it.”
And what of her first passion, painting? “I don’t know about ironies or coincidences but looking back I feel as if I was almost almost steered in this direction,” she says. “Creativity is a strange force, it must express itself one way or another. I still dream of painting though. I will be chasing up on that dream as well I can assure you. It hasn’t left my system.”
Social Media: https://www.facebook.com/PearlOfficialPage
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