My life has never been directed by the generally accepted notion of success; that it is the accumulation of wealth and status that begets respect and defines success. It is happiness, passion and integrity that is the guiding light of the path I’ve chosen, as well as my desire to be engaged in the moment. My upbringing and music have helped me in reaching this understanding.
I was born and raised in Upstate New York to Punjabi Jain immigrant parents. I was an anomaly to begin with and became further sidelined by my falling in love with music. Listening to 70’s Bollywood on my Dad’s reel-to-reel player was part of my childhood, as was singing to Styxsongs and blasting the Canadian power trio, Rush, when my parents left the house. At age 10, my drum teacher Rich Thompson turned me onto jazz, and my life path was forever imprinted with this music. I also grew up singing Jain bhajans (devotional songs).
Coming from a deeply religious background, the principles of Jainism are now imbedded in my identity and my outlook on the world. They are also on display in my music.
My parents not only taught me the ritualistic aspect of Jainism, but the spiritual side — and that Jainism teaches us to be open-minded and accepting of differing opinions. This fundamental Jain doctrine of anekantvada teaches us about multiplicity of viewpoints; pluralism. Jainism is also a very scientific religion and carries the understanding that everything is connected and that it is our duty to be mindful of the ecosystem and environment.
Growing up with this awareness, my lifestyle has always adhered to minimal consumption. Strongly tied to this is the most essential principle of Jainism, ahimsa (nonviolence); the belief that all living beings are equal and that we must minimize our killing or destruction upon the universe. This application of nonviolence in everyday life is conscientiously applied to food and being vegetarian, a hallmark of Jain identity. I’ve been vegetarian my entire life. In fact, in the past couple of years I’ve gone towards a more plant based diet because of my growing awareness of factory farming and my disgust with government subsidies and false advertising advocating and representing certain foods to be healthy and sustainable.
For me, music serves as a bridge for the two cultures I grew up with, the Eastern and Western. During adolescence, I had difficulty balancing or intertwining these two sides and music served as my expression and my attempt in reconciling that. Much of my musical creations have centered on this struggle.
In the fall of 2008, I started the band Red Baraat. Having seen brass bands in the streets of India during childhood visits, I wanted to meld those sounds with the American sounds of funk, jazz, hip-hop and rock. It was a natural and perfect arrival for me artistically. After several years on a musical journey of studying, performing, traveling, and teaching, I finally felt my expression connecting with people. The idea of Red Baraat was to be mobile and deliver a powerful, raw sound and to build community. Hence, a large band consisting of just drums and horns.
Our goal is to get a sea of humanity jumping, dancing and vocalizing with us. It’s music that brings people together and builds community.
We typically draw a crowd that is even more diverse than the players on stage and here is where the universality of what we do comes to fruition. This is no happy accident. It is the product of intention and design. Our underlining message is about embracing differences as an opportunity to have dialogue and learn from one another. If we can inspire one another through acceptance and kindness, then humanity is elevated above the divisions of politics and religion. We are simple creatures that desire community and if we can unite people of all backgrounds and ethnicities to partake in the exuberance of life through the universal language of music, then life is that much sweeter.
Sunny and Red Baraat performed at the Indiaspora Ball during the Inauguration weekend in January 2013