When Music Performance alumni Gloria Ragesh arrived at Collarts, she was fresh out of high school in Geelong and had only ever gone up to Melbourne for school excursions and the occasional trip. But after the eye-opener that is meeting a diverse community of students, Gloria embraced differences, her own culture, developed her sound, and it's all manifested in her band JOTHI. We caught up with Gloria for Cultural Diversity Week to chat about her journey of love and acceptance.
Take us back to your first few months at Collarts. What was that like for you, fresh out of high school?
I was bright eyed. I'd never gone to Melbourne regularly before that. So the first few months were eye-opening. I met a whole bunch of different people from different lifestyles and points in their life, with different varieties of experience. Seeing so many different people, who are different in their personalities and what they've done in their life, taught me to be more accepting and loving of everyone.
At that point, I had made no music. I was singing covers. I had never written a song, which is crazy to think about now. If anyone saw me at the start of my Collarts journey and they saw me now, they'd be like, Who is she? I don't know this chick.
How has Collarts supported you in that journey from that young inexperienced cover-singer to someone who writes their own songs and plays in a band?
Every teacher that was in my degree had such an impressive and extensive musical performance background. I wanted to drive myself to be at their level.
The teachers were also very supportive. I remember being in a vocal technology unit, and I was bawling my eyes out because I was sad about a boy. [Lecturer] Ainslie Wills said to me: “Why don't you write about him?" And I was like "I've never written a song before". But that was the first song I ended up writing. I never felt like I was being talked down to. They were always lifting you up.
As for the community, being thrown into an ensemble with random people is great. It's unexpected, and you learn to work with a whole different bunch of personalities. I love the friends I've made at Collarts. I had a picnic with them yesterday. We've all gone through the same struggle. It's just that mentality of we're doing it together, and we're getting through this together. It also turns out everyone from my band went to Collarts at some point. It's just so crazy to think that if I had not gone to Collarts that I wouldn't have this band that I love so much.
Have you always been interested in music from a young age? Was your household always full of music?
My parents have always been in music. They own a church now, but they had a Tamil church in Singapore when I was living there. My mom would sing and my dad would play an Indian drum called the tabla, or sometimes another drum called the mridangam. It'd be us in our house, with a small congregation of people and singing a bunch of Tamil songs. I think I get my voice from my mom, and get my rhythm from my Dad.
Tell me about your song ‘Goliath’ and where that came from.
I remember being on the VLine on the way to Melbourne, and after class, I had a date. I was so nervous, and I was writing in my journal that I use for inspiration. But looking out at the grass, I was like, "I'm the green in the deserted dry land. I'm that green flower. I'm that piece of life in that dead grass." And then I just started writing. ‘Goliath’ is definitely about the anxieties of life. Goliath is a biblical creature that was a huge bully, who is defeated by David from a stone to the head. I decided I'm going to be David, and I'm just going to take the reins and tell anxiety I've got a hold of my life. I'm okay. It doesn't affect me.
I used to make sure that Goliath was always at the start of the set, because it would remind me to calm down during a set.
What about the single cover for Goliath, as well? Where did the art behind that come from?
That was inspired by my tattoo on my sternum of this Indian queen called Abbakka Chowta, a warrior queen. She's this powerful Indian woman, and I have at least three Indian women on my body, I'm pretty sure: Phoolan Devi, etc. Indian women are so divine, and women in general are so divine. And I just want to be reminded of that all the time when I look at myself.
I wanted someone that looked so strong and self-assured that you wouldn't even think she feels anxious. You would think she could beat that, and she feels good.
Is meshing your culture with your music important to you?
My culture's definitely important. I want to incorporate it in any way I can, but I'm also very careful not to appropriate anything. I can't appropriate my own culture, but my band members, you know? But here's a couple of little Tamil lines in my songs, and sometimes I'll wear my nose chain and a putu. I express it as much as I can.
For the longest time I was shunning my culture, because when I moved back here I felt so ostracised from general society. I had this crisis during lockdown, and I was like, "No, you need to own it. You have to. It's your culture. You should wear it proudly."
Has using the language in your music played a part in understanding yourself and your heritage?
I wanted to continue the celebration and normalcy of my culture. Tamil, to me, feels so sacred, and me not being able to speak it as fluently as I used to affects me a lot. And so even just practicing Tamil helps, which is why I put it in my music. it gives me a chance to say lines I wouldn't normally say because they're lyrics instead of sentences. In a way, using my language in my music and incorporating it helps me understand it even more.
What about the fashion and jewellery component?
I've always been outgoing with my fashion. I've always wanted to express myself in the best way that I can. I think that fashion is a huge part of the way that I express myself. I love accessories, and being Indian certainly helps because we definitely love to accessorise to the max. I have this stash of beautiful necklaces and gold bracelets, and all of that just sitting in my room collecting dust.
I thought, "Why am I not bringing it out ever?" There's not many Indian weddings. Not a lot of Indian people I know here. They're all in Singapore. I thought I may as well put this to good use and find another way to incorporate the culture within myself with the music. Visuals can be such a big part of your art and your music. I want there to be a strong connection.
What have you learned about yourself since embracing your heritage?
I've learned to be patient with myself because I used to get frustrated that I couldn't speak Tamil fluently anymore. I didn't know as much about carnatic music as I should, which is South Indian classical music, and is beautiful. I was just really upset at myself for not being as advanced as I should have been in my culture, but I had to learn to be patient, and to constantly educate myself in so many different aspects.
Educating yourself and seeking out the answers by yourself is so important. That's what I changed in myself, trying to figure it out myself and find that information, and always asking for help if you need help. Education is so important.