She is unapologetic, fierce, gritty, and glamorous...a star whose light is just yet beginning to shine. Beneath the smooth vocals, edgy lyrics, and imaginative videos lies a multi-talented singer-songwriter Kayan aka Ambika Nayak. As she drops her new singles, we learn about her solidarity with the community, her advocacy for mental health, and her love for her cat.
Her music videos are slice-of-life style, offering insights and the angst of a young, modern woman. Her vocals are effortless, and soulful, with a unique timbre that adds a honey richness to her songs... So whether it’s an animated illustration of her in a convertible with her precious cat on her lap—the video for her latest single Count the Stars —or her biggest hit so far, Cool Kids , listening to Kayan is an escapist pleasure.
There’s nothing Ambika Nayak aka Kayan, a moniker she adopted during the pandemic while going Live on Instagram (which is her name spelt backwards) can’t do. She’s been a DJ, model, part of a musical duo, and is now one of the hottest new solo acts to come out of India—accelerated by her videos ‘going viral’ during the pandemic. She’s also got her first international collab, with No Shade . It feels like she’s just getting started.
Growing up in Mumbai in a family that cherished the arts (her mother is a Hindustani classical vocalist, her grandmother is a classical dancer, and her aunt is a writer), Kayan remembers trips to the theatre to watch plays and concerts, live. She herself trained in Carnatic music, kathak dance, and piano. “I would find it odd that none of the other kids in my school had this experience,” she says. In school, she never felt that she fitted in, and yearned to break free.
Break free she did, joining The True School of Music in 2017—in Greater Mumbai. “I ended up meeting like-minded people,” says Kayan. “For the first time, I was in a space where I enjoyed studying and learning, was introduced to new music, and was going out for shows and meeting new people.” One thing led to another, and she was deejaying and playing live in a band called Kimochi Youkai, with five other band members—after which she was part of an electronic duo called Nothing Anonymous (with Nirmit Shah). And when the lockdown hit Mumbai, her alter ego Kayan was born. “This was something I always wanted, to be my own artist and make my own music,” she says.
Kayan would go live on Instagram, where she would take her followers around her household activities, interacting with them. “I didn’t expect it, but my Instagram really grew,” she says, as she added live jam sessions and sang some of the new songs that she had been writing (she writes all her music and lyrics, by the way). She also posted her first music video on her YouTube channel. When she shot Be Alright, it was in 2020, on her birthday morning. “It was a total DIY situation,” says Kayan of the video shot by Iyanah Bativala, who used a camcorder effect for song. “We found three spots, my house, my friend’s terrace overlooking the sea, and cycling down the road.”
And now with her collaboration with Singapore-based rapper Yung Raja already behind her—a gritty fast-paced video shot on the streets of Mumbai, where you can see Kayan rapping effortlessly with Yung Raja—she’s looking forward to more collabs. “Yung Raja is a gem of a person, and No Shade was the perfect song to have him on,” says Kayan. “It was so much fun working with him; I’m proud of what we made together.”
She has another collab coming up with Kabir Kathpalia aka OAFF (the artiste behind the soundtrack of Deepika Padukone-starrer Gehraiyaan ). She has already sung So Good for this multi-instrumentalist singer-composer. “OAFF is a dear friend!” says Kayan. “The aesthetic of our video together, shot by Ishaan Nair, is so different from No Shade, which was directed by my co-director Lendrick Kumar.” In the future, she would love to collaborate with English singer Jorja Smith, whom she absolutely loves. Her song DFWM (Don’t F--- With Me) , the rather noir video (a collab with Oceantied) shows another aspect of her songwriting. “It all happens organically,” says Kayan. “I’m not afraid, and I’m unapologetic. I don’t want to censor anything to please anyone.”
As a model, Kayan is clued into fashion and works with her stylist to create elaborate storyboards for each of her videos—wearing custom-made outfits by upcoming Indian designers, along with international brands. “I look at the larger picture for Kayan,” she says, “and I like to push the envelope.” Her dream is to be clothed in Mugler, and she admires FKA Twigs for her quirky style. She’s also focused on getting fitter. “With my active lifestyle, I travel a lot, so I’m eating healthier, and training with a physiotherapist to strengthen by muscles,” says Kayan. At home, she loves to slip into pyjamas and a tank top—in white, her favourite colour.
Not averse to singing in Hindi in the future (“never say never!”), Kayan says that things are moving so quickly for people of her age, that it’s easy to get lost. “There’s a lot of pressure on this generation,” she says. “It’s about constantly doing more and more—you have to be mindful of it. Just look at Mumbai...hustle is the byword for this city; it’s just non-stop. I have lived my life like this since I was little. Mental health is super important, and more needs to be done than just talking about it. I believe in therapy. I don’t take it for granted that I can reach out to a therapist or confide in a group of friends I consider very close to me.”
And how important is community spirit for Kayan? “You can keep making art, and commercial art,” she says, “but if there is no community to absorb it or share it with, or get feedback from, what’s the point? I’m so glad I live in a time and space where we can fight for inclusivity and representation globally. But we need to see more of that. It’s a fight worth fighting for, in India and across the world. We’re not even close to where we should be, but there’s hope.”
Kayan seems set for great things, if her popularity is anything to go by. “I have a couple of unreleased songs, collabs with some of my favourite artists, and another one with my friend OAFF,” she says, adding both will be released as singles, as music videos. “Right now, I enjoy being independent, it’s far easier to release music; I have a solid team with great marketing resources, and in the future, I am open to working with a label I can align myself with.”
Tough girl Kayan admits that the one thing she can’t live without is the love she gets from her cat. “I would be really sad if it wasn’t there,” she says. Here’s to a lot of love, from her cat and her fans!
Image 1: On Kayan: Always Original SST Track Jacket, Adicolor Essentials Rib Tank Top, Satin Adibreak Pants, adidas Gazelle 85 Shoes, adidas Adicolor Parley
Sweatpants (on left and right), Samba Arsenal Shoes (on left and right), all adidas
Image 2: On Kayan: Dungarees, rib tank top, and Gazelle Shoes, all adidas
Image 3: On Anuv Jain: Adicolor Neuclassics Sweatpants, Adicolor Neuclassics Windbreaker, Samba Vegan Shoes, Performanced cushioned mid-cut socks, all adidas; On Kayan: Dungarees, rib tank top, and Gazelle Shoes, all adidas; On Shantanu Maheshwari: Rekive Woven Jacket, Adicolor Classics Lock Up Trefoil Trackpants, Monogram Thin Crew Socks, Ftw: adidas Superstar Shoes, all adidas; On Anjali Sivaraman: Long sleeve bodysuit, Always Original Adibreak Pants, and Forum Low Shoes, all adidas; On Ayesha Kanga: Corset, Firebird Faux Leather Track Pants, and Forum Low Shoes, all adidas
Photographs: Chandrahas Prabhu; Styling: Pranay Jaitly & Shounak Amonkar; Make-up: Krisann Figueiredo; Hair: Rakshanda Irani; Videographer:
Ratnakar Dave; Production: P. Productions; Fashion Assistants: Shubham Jawanjal and Chaitanya Balvant