Nirvaana Sugrim has always marched to the beat of her own drum. At six years old, she sat among people many times her age, playing a male-dominated instrument almost twice her size. When one academic degree did not fulfil her, she pushed for another. Currently an attorney, she wants to use her brazen yet humble approach to life to help others reach their full potential.
As a child, Sugrim found the pulsating rhythm of the dholak fascinating. She enjoyed how the two-headed hand drum carried the other instruments as she observed men playing it at Satsangs (Hindu gatherings for prayers and meditation) or Ramayana (religious story teaching important virtues) at Blue Star T&T, a non-profit organisation that focusses on developing all aspects of the individual. It was not long before she began to imitate the musicians.
“I was basically brought up there and also at the Chaguanas Hindu Temple. There were two drummers who were left-handers and I watched them over time. At home, Mummy bought a drum, I had a little stool and I just started. I looked and I learned. It's something I can't describe. It just came out naturally,” she laughed as she spoke with the Sunday Guardian in a recent interview.
When people visited her grandmother's home in Carapichaima for Satsangs, she and her younger sister, Nandita, would play while the adults sang; never mind that the instrument was almost twice their size. Despite being right-handed, Sugrim ended up playing left-handed just like the two musicians she carefully mimicked. This did little to curb her love for the folk instrument.
“I always say I have a very special relationship with my dholak. My dholak is like my best friend. I feel so connected with my drum–I don't play as much anymore because work has consumed my life–but whenever I do, I connect to God and spirituality and to my real self in a different way. It allows me to be free,” she shared.
Having lost her father in 2003, Sugrim said it was music that carried her through her school life. From Chaguanas Government School at the primary level to Saraswati Girls' Hindu College, playing music anchored her; that and a strong, supportive mother who had a recipe for success.
“My mum always ensured that we had a balanced life. It was not always about being a straight-A student and concentrating on academics. It was more about being holistic, so spirituality plays a key role in my life as well as music,” Sugrim said.
Mostly self-taught on the dholak, Sugrim attended formal classes to learn the tabla at the Trinidad branch of the Bharatiya Vidya Sansthhaan (BVS), an educational institution that teaches East Indian traditions and culture. However, the larger drum remained her passion.
Although people were amazed that a girl played the dholak and even more intrigued when Sugrim sometimes sang while playing, being a female in a male-dominated arena was never an issue, she said, adding that she knew of a few women who play the dholak locally.
“It is a male-dominated instrument; drumming on the whole...I just don't see it as that. I think that whatever they can do, I can do too,” she grinned.
She said the males around her were always willing to help her learn. Neither did her mother ever object.
“My mum has always been one who, whenever she sees her girls' talents, she allows them to blossom. She was never one to dominate what we did.”
However, when Sugrim had wavered at completing her Bachelors in Economics at UWI years earlier, her mother did insist: “You start it, you finish it!”
Nirvaana Sugrim, centre, playing the dholak as a child.
At the time, Sugrim was also pursuing a Minor in Politics and the heavy demands of the programme were proving too much. Spurred on by her mother, she finished her degree. But feeling a deep yearning for something more, she went on to attain an LLB with the Institute of Law and Academic Studies (ILAS) through the University of London and Staffordshire University.
“I always had a passion for being outspoken. It was always in my nature. I was very outgoing and always had a passion for law and what was right,” she recalled.
She believes that her decision made sense since the Economics/Politics/Law combination afforded a greater understanding of how things work and reflected the way she was brought up to appreciate all aspects of life.
After being called to Bar in 2018, she took up a position at the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), Ministry of Housing and Urban Development the same year.
At work, Sugrim is part of a programme that caters to “vulnerable” members of society. The LSA regularises squatters by developing areas that were squatting villages before 1998. Recipients receive certificates of comfort and later, deeds of lease. Sugrim serves directly under the Housing Village Improvement Programme which helps renovate and reconstruct houses in dire need of repair in particular areas of the country.
It is a “beautiful programme” of which she is proud to be a part, she said.
“What attracted me is that long time you know how you would say we build a village together? That is the spirit of the programme where the village comes together and builds the homes. The Government provides a grant through the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and the LSA manages the programme.
“When you increase people's socio-economic living it gives a different type of joy, as well as helps them to help themselves,” she said, adding that the programme has reached people in areas like Moruga, Marabella, Point Fortin, San Fernando, Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo, Sangre Grande and St Joseph.
On weekends, along with other mentors, Sugrim spends her Sundays teaching youths about holistic development through meditation and spirituality. As a child, being at the temple and Blue Star fostered her talents and those of the children around her, promoting their all-round development, Sugrim felt. She wants to pass this on to others. Similar to Bible study, they do Baal Vikaas, showing that spirituality should be present in all areas of life rather than just on days you visit places of worship.
“We grew up humble. It was difficult growing up without a dad, but in whatever difficulties we would have faced, having that relationship with God was the most important thing that was drilled in us,” she recalled.
She paid tribute to the two women who shaped her path the most–her mother, who was an internal auditor in the public service and godmother, Draupatie Maharaj, a former teacher.
“I'm forever grateful to have been born to such a mother and to have been impacted by such a godmother. They are such humble beings, yet powerful; they have been the perfect role models. They are my pillars.”
Sugrim also had high praise for her guru, Sri Vasudeva and her godfather Pundit Randhir Maharaj who played major roles in her upbringing. She also appreciates the teachers at primary and secondary school who encouraged her.
Surprised by lots of positive feedback she received when she was recently featured on Massive Gosine's Facebook challenge to salute talented players of the dholak or dhantal, she said she had sent in her photo “just for fun.”
Apart from cherishing her dholak, Sugrim said she remains committed to helping others, especially the youth.
“My goal is to keep learning something new and just be better than who I was the day before; improve myself so I can impart to others.”