China’s pop and fusion princess Sa Dingding says she started imagining India when she was a five-year-old living like a nomad, with her grandma and sheep on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
Today, as a 25-year-old living in Beijing with international performances every month, China’s first Sanskrit singer is like a free poster for Incredible India.
“I believe I have lived in India in a former life,” Sa told Hindustan Times at the Universal Music studio, located in a Beijing square with Asia’s largest rooftop digital screen. “I have longed to visit India and would love to work there…”
She combines Chinese folk music with western electronica to sing her own songs in Mandarin, Tibetan chants, and Sanskrit poetry with Tibetan pronunciations. Alive, her best-known album that includes Sanskrit, sold about two million copies in Southeast Asia since its release last year. “We shipped limited stocks of Alive to India, but then we began focussing on Europe,” said Sunny Wu, a Universal Music executive.
This year, Sa plans to holiday in Delhi and the Buddhist sites whose names she could not recall. “My grandmother taught me to read ancient Tibetan books, so I got interested in Sanskrit and Indian culture.”
In a country where India only means Bollywood dance and spicy food, Sa also comes across as China’s own Madonna. She showed up in a short skirt and boots for the interview, just hours after recording till 5 am. Thick mascara and morning yoga taught by her Buddhist teachers hid the fatigue. Oh yes, lately she also sleeps with a crystal ball, to recharge.
“Yoga purifies me,” she said, her hair cascading to her hips. “My yoga is not TV yoga… it’s from ancient books. It helps me deal with different people without a struggle.”
Alive fetched her an international award this year. “If the campaign to promote her doesn’t backfire, Sa Dingding deserves to be the first Chinese singer-songwriter to become a celebrity in the West,” said a review in The Guardian last year.
Inside the many sides of Sa is a girl who grew up in the post-eighties China on the verge of globalisation and many contradictions. On her first trip abroad to Italy as a 17-year-old, she wanted to “return home as soon as possible”.
At 18, she launched a debut album and won an award as China’s best dancer-singer. But touring Europe made the Buddhist abandon vegetarianism, since greens left her too weak for stage. After every trip, she returns to live with her Mongolian mother and Han Chinese father in Beijing.
Tibetan-Sanskrit texts also inspired her to sing in a language of her own, with words she made up inspired by emotions evoked from music.
But her modern inspiration is Madonna. “Madonna was very brave to speak up about sex and religion,” said Sa. “I speak up too…on Chinese music and culture. I have always challenged my parents’ generation. They don’t understand many of my new ideas.”
Her website has a touch of Chinese nationalism, proclaiming her as an artist “shaped by modern China” and ethnic diversity. “Before we start to talk, we know how to sing,” she says online, about childhood on the grasslands.
Thrust into the role of Olympian China’s spokesperson, she gives safe replies when the world media demand her views on Tibet and China. You’ll know more when China’s latest export stops by Delhi this year.