vol. 7 Construction

Credit: Aditi Veena

01 / 02

Aditi Veena:
"I have realised I have a voice, and somehow people listen when I sing—that’s quite special."

Musician & Architect & Activist

A conversation about the beauty of nature, the power of activism, and how to build something from nothing


Feb 22, 2022 | As told to Cherie Yang & edited by Aidan McGrath

Aditi 'Ditty’ Veena's architecture education taught her the importance of tools. One of those tools—how to build something from nothing—has served her not only in her ecology architecture practice where she develops permaculture and sustainable wildlife systems, but in her music, allowing her to construct her songs verse-by-verse, from the ground up.

Nature is Ditty’s muse—a love that she inherited from her botanist mother, perhaps on one of their family picnics amongst the trees and plants. In our chat, we discuss the changing landscape of her hometown, and how it inspired her to take action—first through revolutionary architecture, and then through music. We also discuss her travels—and the hard truths she’s learned about climate change, which she is now trying to teach to others.

Ditty’s work spans environmentalism, activism, architecture, music and poetry—and whilst they don’t always precisely connect, these realms have culminated to give her the toolkit she possesses today: one which allows her to express herself, make her voice heard, and craft her ‘love songs for the earth’ for all to hear.

Find Ditty on Instagram or Spotify.

Listen to Ditty's episode on our Podcast here.

  • There was this relationship that everybody shared with the land that has sort of gone missing.
  • &: Let’s start at the beginning. I know you grew up in New Delhi and you picked up music from a young age. I would love to learn more about what it was like for you growing up there.

    AV:

    I have very fond memories of my childhood. Delhi as a city is very different to how it was in the nineties, especially the early nineties.

    In that time there was not so much population, of course, and also there were so many more open spaces. There was this relationship that everybody shared with the land that has sort of gone missing.

    For example, just in the form of the houses that they lived in. When I was growing up, we had a big garden and we had five trees in our house and everyone lived in low density bungalows, you can call them. And then in the 2000s, gentrification started happening at a very rapid pace—India got liberalised and all of these multinationals appeared. Their offices around Delhi started to grow, and millions of people started to come in to work.

    Something changed—something drastic happened. Before that, it used to be a really, really green city, but of course, that's not the case today. It’s one of the most polluted cities. It is the rape capital of the world and it's a difficult place to be in.

    I saw this transition from this really beautiful place going towards this very dangerous, almost unhealthy, suffocating kind of place.

  • I remember thinking, “Wow—how does one just get used to wearing masks all the time because of pollution?” And then shortly after we had to do the same in Delhi.
  • &: How do you feel about that happening to your hometown?

    AV:

    It's been a tough realisation for me. It's also something that I feel that people don't necessarily question—it's something that we accept, almost. I feel it's like if there's crime in the city we try to just align ourselves to the crime, “There's crime. Let's not go out at night.”

    I remember the first time I'd gone to Nepal, to Kathmandu—I think it was 2012—and it was the first time I saw people with masks everywhere, because Kathmandu had a lot of pollution at that time—and people had just gotten used to wearing them.

    I remember thinking, “Wow—how does one just get used to wearing masks all the time because of pollution?” And then shortly after we had to do the same in Delhi.

    I didn't want to stay there. So, in 2013, I moved out of Delhi. First I was in Pondicherry, which is a small little town in the south of India, and then I moved to Sri Lanka for about four years. After that I went to Goa.

  • Ditty performing outdoors. Credit: @heyyditty on Instagram

  • &: Wow. What was that like?

    AV:

    When I went to Sri Lanka I suffered harassment. This happens in south Asian cities. It's a common thing where women are harassed on the streets a lot.

    I met another women's activist—her name's Lakshya Dhungana and she's a filmmaker who’s Nepali-Canadian—and she was there working on women's rights with an organisation.

    We started this project where we started to perform on the streets at nighttime. I would go around with my guitar and she would be doing a lot of projections onto the walls where I was singing. And it was a lot of fun.

  • &: Did I read that your friend was arrested for performing?

    AV:

    That's right. In India, it's not allowed to perform on the streets, and it’s not allowed to film. So we were in Mumbai and she took out her camera and she was shooting and the cops came and they took her to the police station.

  • So even though I wanted to sing, I just didn't know where to go with it and what to do with it.
  • &: Oh my gosh. Going back to your descriptions earlier of how Delhi became more populated and polluted, was that what inspired you to study ecology and architecture?

    AV:

    I'm not sure. I actually went to art school before. I’ve been singing since I was 14, but I didn't think I would become a musician, because at that time there were no opportunities.

    I was in bands, but we didn't know where to go with it, because mainstream music was just Bollywood. I didn't know what to do with my talent. Some people suggested that I go on American Idol because those were the only things that one could possibly think of in India to do, especially if you were singing in English, which I was.

    So even though I wanted to sing, I just didn't know where to go with it and what to do with it.

  • &: Were your parents supportive of your singing?

    AV:

    No. My father was quite conservative in that way—he wanted me to become a doctor. That's something all Indian parents want, I guess. [laughs]

    He was quite disappointed when I didn’t.

    Once they started seeing that my music was being accepted and I was being recognized in the papers, then they thought, “Oh, this is something respectable.”

    Before that, they used to think it's not respectable. The only places one could sing was in bars or in clubs, and my father used to always say, “Is that what you want? You want to sing in bars? That's not respectable.”

  • Ditty's parents. Credit: @heyyditty on Instagram

  • &: How long did that take and how did you feel about the lack of support in the lead up to that?

    AV:

    It was always really frustrating, I have to say. In fact, my mom had never even seen me play a concert until a few years ago. I started singing when I was 14—just in choir, and in bands. Then when I was 23, my father died from something called interstitial lung disease—and actually that's the first time that I started to write songs.

    It was a very formative experience for me, and somehow music helped me cope with everything at that time. That's when I started writing music—I was already 23, I was in architecture school and then soon after I moved out of Delhi and I started to work as an architect.

  • When I started working in that industry, I had decided I wasn't going to build. I was going to get into conservation and I didn't agree with the way that we build cities, the way we use materials—anything.
  • &: What was that experience like?

    AV:

    When I started working in that industry, I had decided I wasn't going to build. I was going to get into conservation and I didn't agree with the way that we build cities, the way we use materials—anything.

    So I thought, okay, I'm going to go into this, and I'm going to perhaps move to these other places, which were much better than Delhi where one can't see all the mess—but soon I realised that everywhere the situation is the same, and I learned the hard truths about climate change.

    At this time music started to really come to me. I was able to really sublimate some of these thoughts into songs. Then, two years later, I had a bunch of songs, and two years later I was in Delhi again playing a concert, and that's where this label found me, and I started working with them. So it was a long journey.

    I released my record only in 2019, and that was quite wonderful. It was such a validating and liberating experience.

  • Then I decided I was going to study architecture. So I dropped out and I went to architecture school and I loved it.
  • &: Wow. Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you went to art school first, and then you went to study architecture—how did that happen?

    AV:

    I was drawing a lot in school, and I used to paint—I thought I was going to become a painter. Then I went to art school, and I felt like this was not for me. I didn't find the university challenging enough—I was 18, and I felt like I wanted to solve more complex challenges and do more with myself. [laughs] Now of course, I don't think like that about any profession. Back then I felt like I wanted to do more, and I actually found some really wonderful books about architecture. I got really interested.

    I also had this subject called isometric drawing, which I used to love—I used to draw and draw in 3D.

    Then I decided I was going to study architecture. So I dropped out and I went to architecture school and I loved it.

    I loved architecture education—most of it, anyway.

  • What I really want to do through these classes is to get these students to connect with themselves, with the earth around them and realise that everything comes from the soil—and then make conscious decisions about what to build, to use, to not use.
  • &: What parts did you not enjoy about architecture school?

    AV:

    There wasn't enough ecology. There wasn't enough understanding of the land, especially if you are given the task to create something, create spaces and create environments and create cities—how can you not spend time listening and learning from the land?

    I think this was greatly missing for me—and this is what I'm trying to do now. Now, I teach at architecture school, and I teach urban ecology.

    What I really want to do through these classes is to get these students to connect with themselves, with the earth around them and realise that everything comes from the soil—and then make conscious decisions about what to build, to use, to not use.

  • &: Do you feel that it’s a challenge to try to get people to understand that point of view?

    AV:

    In my experience, no it isn't. In the last few years especially, interacting with the permaculture communities here and immersing myself into these wonderful experiences of connecting through permaculture, somatics, through movement, even—I think that when we connect through an embodied experience, it's much easier than trying to do it through a book or something.

    In my experience, I've seen a lot of people and students transform—including myself—and really, really be able to break some of the notions that we held before, and just go deeper.

  • &: How long have you been teaching?

    AV:

    It's been a year and a half. Well, I've been teaching in university on and off, but even before that I have been teaching—I've been doing a lot of workshops for a few years.

  • It also became a place for knowledge exchange—so every week or two we would have workshops where people could come and share their knowledge about soil, about microbes, just aligning ourselves with the earth more and more as we went.
  • &: You had your own architecture practice in Goa, and I know you specialised in landscape conservation and repairing ecosystems. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

    AV:

    We were essentially designing a lot of permaculture systems, our primary focus being food forests. We were trying to do ecological restoration—for example, in one project for a sustainability centre called Sensible, they had a piece of land that was really wild. There was a lot on it already. But they wanted to set up a café that would feed people from the land—and so we created this food forest which was actually one of the first community managed food forests. A lot of the people around Sensible got involved in the project and they took care of land and of the seeds.

    We created a little seed bank, and then we started to eat this food that came out of there. The surplus would be divided amongst the community.

    It also became a place for knowledge exchange—so every week or two we would have workshops where people could come and share their knowledge about soil, about microbes, just aligning ourselves with the earth more and more as we went.

    We would set up these projects everywhere, whether they were land based or social permaculture projects—even projects which delved into barter economy or exchange, where people could feel more supported and figure out what is the abundance that they can share with their communities.

    Last year I had to shut down the practice. My project partner ended up moving—he was English and he moved back to England—and with COVID we actually lost a lot of work. We had to shut it down but that's okay. It was a really nice ending for me because ending it began a lot of other things.

  • &: Was that something completely new to Goa when you started this practice?

    AV:

    Actually, it was stemming, it was upcoming. We did meet a bunch of people who were just starting out. Goa is actually now getting really saturated and I need to find a new home—some really awful things are happening in Goa at the moment where the government is slashing down all the forests and it's a really tough time for people there because there have been a lot of protests, it has been a big movement—but somehow the government still continues to do what they want. So it's a difficult time.

  • Ditty in a forest. Credit: @heyyditty on Instagram

  • &: You mentioned that closing that practice actually brought about a lot of new beginnings. What are some of these new beginnings?

    AV:

    At the moment I'm working on setting up an organization called WeWild, essentially to enable rewilding in south Asia.

    This is really exciting because there's a lot going on around climate change at the moment, and there's a lot of journalism and there's a lot of literature from the perspective of the west, and often this gets pushed at us people in south Asia somehow. So I'm figuring out how we can create a narrative that includes the stories of the south Asian subcontinent and includes the indigenous knowledge and wisdom that we already have, and brings those stories to the forefront.

    It has three components. One is a movement—creating a podcast and journal talking about the world and examining the idea of the wilderness to help align people, and then a network of native plant nursery projects on the grounds of institutions working towards forestation, and then the actual projects, the actual reforestation that happens.

    This has been really wonderful. I started working on this last year and slowly a few more people joined me. And now, we're a small little team. We have just received a forest seed grant and I'm really, really excited to see what comes out of it.

  • My mum also has this very special connection with food and with plants—she loved preserving foods, she would dry everything. Every fruit, every leaf, everything—she would turn it into something good. All of that really stuck with me, I think.
  • &: It sounds fascinating. I would love to hear how your love for nature and ecology came about. I think I read that you were inspired by your mother growing up—she was a botanist?

    AV:

    Both my parents really loved the natural world. A lot of my childhood was spent outdoors—I don't remember ever being indoors. Now I feel quite awful when I see my nieces and nephews growing up here because they don't even go out to play. They have these tumble houses—they're essentially buildings which have these big swings, you go there to play—and it's quite sad.

    But my brother and I were always outdoors playing sports—and also, my mum, she loved picnics. She loved cooking, and every weekend we had picnics and every day we would just go out. I grew up looking at trees a lot, getting to know the trees and the buds.

    My mum also has this very special connection with food and with plants—she loved preserving foods, she would dry everything. Every fruit, every leaf, everything—she would turn it into something good. All of that really stuck with me, I think.

  • But actually, these are love songs to the earth—and I have realised I have a voice, I can say these things, and somehow people listen when I sing songs—and somehow they feel something when I sing. That’s quite special. That's how it came together.
  • &: So, let's bring in the conservation architecture practice with your music. How do they intersect—or do they intersect?

    AV:

    For a long time, I was trying to make them intersect.

    Even in architecture school, my thesis was around revitalising an urban precinct through performance in gardens—it sounds so random and weird, but I was trying so hard to get all these things to go together, and I think that was not the right way.

    I mean, I learned a lot. I learned what performance can be, how you design for performance outdoors, what kind of boundaries you’re breaking in a performance when there is no procedure—when there's no divide between where the audience and the artist is standing.

    At the same time, I think what I’m doing now is a more natural way that they've come together—and it started in Sri Lanka when I wrote this record, where essentially the songs were just my musings.

    For example, one song was about how the sparrows had left Delhi, and how we don't see how fast the species are disappearing—but even though we don't see how fast they're disappearing, there are some solid examples in front of us. Like the Sparrow—it's called a Little Chidiya in India—and everyone used to have these little birdhouses that they would put outside their homes, and the sparrows would nest there—and now all the bird houses are empty.

    One song traces how Delhi changed over the years and how I felt about it all. I felt like there was no freedom to live a good life, no freedom to breathe, no freedom to walk; to be. So there were a lot of musings—when I started writing this music, someone once asked me, “are there any love songs, or are they all about this stuff? And they're so melancholic.” [laughs] But actually, these are love songs to the earth—and I have realised I have a voice, I can say these things, and somehow people listen when I sing songs—and somehow they feel something when I sing. That’s quite special. That's how it came together.

    Songwriting has become a place that I’m really able to go to—I sit for hours and I play and I sing. I'm now at a place where I know I can access that beautiful tool and I can create songs and sing about things that haunt me that I would otherwise not be able to say so easily.

  • &: You said that a lot of your experiences brew and brew into songs. Is it a slow process, or is it something that just hits you?

    AV:

    I can't say there's one process, but it's definitely very emotion-based. If I'm feeling strongly about something, and those emotions are bubbling, then I try to just sit with my guitar and sing and see what comes.

  • ...this is something I think was a really good education in architecture school, because it taught you how to build something from nothing.
  • &: Are there conditions you need to have to enter into your process and create?

    AV:

    Yeah, conditions—I was just going to talk about them, because this is something I think was a really good education in architecture school, because it taught you how to build something from nothing. I keep going back to that kind of learning, or I try to experiment different ways of constructing songs—and some conditions that are always present, the way I sing, or my guitar, how much I can play on the guitar.

    I'm not a trained musician, so there's a lot that I feel like I can’t do, but a lot of the process is just intuitive listening and writing.

    I thought about learning guitar, but then I decided not to go to a university or something like that. I’ll just continue using YouTube or other tools. It's been a really great process. Of late, I've also been working with other artists and I've learned so much from them, seeing how they construct songs and trying to adapt that to my own process.

  • I think most of the poetry I write is very much in the moment—it just comes to me. Songs are more constructions for me, where I'm working through them.
  • &: You also do poetry. Is it the same for you, poetry and songwriting?

    AV:

    They don't feel like the same thing, no. I think most of the poetry I write is very much in the moment—it just comes to me. Songs are more constructions for me, where I'm working through them.

    But somehow, I'm also trying for them to come together. Like my first record, I wasn’t sure whether to release some songs on the record, because they were just poetry—some people said to me, these aren't songs.

  • &: Do you do both equally?

    AV:

    No. I write more songs. I definitely sing more than I do poetry.

  • &: Fascinating. Would you say that music and songwriting is a form of catharsis or release for you?

    AV:

    Yeah, most definitely. It's so much for me. It's an anchor, it's a release, it's catharsis, it's expression, it's a tool, it's a friend—it's so much.

  • It’s a tool to be able to sublimate—to be able to express and a tool also to be able to communicate these ideas with the larger world—to stand up for myself, in many ways.
  • Oh my God, it's such a comforting friend. Just to be able to go there and feel held, especially when I'm going through something or, even when I'm happy
  • &: A tool and a friend—can you expand on those two?

    AV:

    Sure. It’s a tool to be able to sublimate—to be able to express and a tool also to be able to communicate these ideas with the larger world—to stand up for myself, in many ways. You had asked about how I felt about it not being safe anymore in this city, and, I feel like what can we do in that situation? What can an ordinary citizen do? But for me to be able to go out on the streets and do this kind of thing, I think is a really powerful tool.

    It's a tool to be able to see different parts of the world. I've travelled to all these wonderful places. I'm actually the only woman in my family who has. It's been so freeing, so liberating as a woman to be able to do these things.

    And as a friend? Oh my God, it's such a comforting friend. Just to be able to go there and feel held, especially when I'm going through something or, even when I'm happy—I guess connecting with myself through that and feeling like I have the space to kind of lean on to.

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02 / 02

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When you have a craft, you can always get better at it or be more experimental or challenge yourself or collaborate in different ways

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