Ballads for the Lockdown

The gentle melodies of Anoushka Maskey’s songs explore hard truths about the pandemic, loneliness and life in a changing world.

In MAY, as she was heading home to Gangtok, Anoushka Maskey began brooding over the plight of the millions of homeward-bound migrant workers who, unlike her, hadn’t been able to take the train. Her own journey from Bengaluru, organised by the Sikkim government, had been bad enough, with chaos and crowds at every station along the train ride, but it seemed to pale before the experience of those who had had to walk for hundreds of kilometres to get home during the lockdown. Upon reaching the state’s quarantine facility after two days on the train, Maskey wrote:

It’s a long walk home/ Past a few more sunsets/ Open roads to roam/ Making beds of pavements/ No, there’s no sign of aid when she wakes up/ Her whole world in a bag that she packed up/ Not a glimpse of humanity she sees/ Even in death, no dignity.

Titled Whole World in a Bag and set to a folkish tune, the 23-year-old singer recorded the song with a guitar. It was produced by her friend and collaborator, Mumbai-based producer Pranay Bakshi. Maskey herself was planning to move to Mumbai in August this year, she says, over a Zoom call from her home in Gangtok. But that prospect seems very distant now.

The self-taught singer never thought that her first musical project, which released in August, would be made entirely in her bedroom and “based on small stories and elements from the lockdown”. From Flesh and Bones, in which she describes the loneliness that many experienced during the pandemic, to Trampoline in which she talks about struggling with the idea of change and how life can slip by, unnoticed, the 10 songs on her debut EP, Things I Saw in a Dream, showcase Maskey as a songwriting talent to watch out for.

“Things I Saw in a Dream would not exist if it wasn’t for the lockdown. I was locked up in my Bengaluru apartment initially and these pieces were literally my emotions translated into songs. Being with myself brought out little things that I would not have normally noticed,” says Maskey.

As soon as she began to find fans on Instagram and YouTube for the first EP, with appreciation coming from around the world, she dropped a second EP, C.E.A.S.E. in September. The second EP has four songs, in which she sings about the world ending in an apocalypse, with human beings ceasing to exist. In these songs as well, Maskey’s soft voice is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, a ukulele.

The singer-songwriter learnt to play the guitar by holding it upside down, and this is how she plays even today. She was about 10 years old when she picked up her older brother Abhinash’s guitar and began playing it by holding it wrong side up. He didn’t correct her but taught her how to play like a left-handed person. Maskey says that interest in music developed because, when they were growing up, Abhinash would be “blasting music” all day in the house. “He would play the guitar and I would hold onto something, pretending it was a mic, and sing in these hilarious jam sessions. He told me I could hit a note. So I began to sing and the American folk style just stuck with me,” says Maskey, who loved writing poetry and short stories as a child.

After graduating from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, in 2017, Maskey worked in event management, and began performing in local clubs. She met Bakshi at a gig in Bengaluru and they started making music together. The two are now working on their third release, a single which will be out in November. “This time you will see a collaboration,” says Maskey. Her next work is likely to be a commentary on contemporary political and social issues. “We are planning to explore a lot more relevant themes in times to come,” says Maskey.
The singer was born Anoushka Shreshtha, although Maskey is also a family name. She prefers to be known as “Anoushka Maskey” to her fans because she thinks it’s a better stage name, for when she’s finally able to perform before a live audience. “For now, I will sing from the bedroom,” she says.

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