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The One Too Many Voices Of Suman Sridhar

The Bengaluru-based vocalist unpacks Marathi rap, spoken word, Tamil street slang, jazz and opera in her upcoming solo album

Lalitha Suhasini Aug 10, 2015
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Photo: Taras Taraporevala. Hair & Makeup: Tesoura Salon, Mumbai. Clothes and accessories: Suman Sridhar

Photo: Taras Taraporevala. Hair & Makeup: Tesoura Salon, Mumbai. Clothes and accessories: Suman Sridhar

If you’re in your 30s and grew up on Hindi film music, chances are your mother [or you] will hate everything that Suman Sridhar is doing to Fifties film songs such as the OP Nayyar-composed “Jata Kahan Hai Deewane” from the film CID. The song titled “Fifi” has been featured in the soundtrack of the upcoming Anurag Kashyap film Bombay Velvet.

But 32-year-old Sridhar, a singer with remarkably elastic vocals, is well past that phase of wanting to please, even within the context of her own, alternative music spectrum. She says, “Once you realize your material is not meant for people to cheer always and it can evoke multiple feelings in people including unpleasant things, then it becomes less important whether the audience is jumping up and down [at your show] and then the barometer becomes more about how I was able to convey what I wanted to.”

Most alternative music followers are familiar with Sridhar as the lead vocalist of the Sridhar/Thayil [S/T] band, which has been on a break since they launched their album STD in 2012, about the same time that Sridhar moved to Bengaluru. Sridhar has been performing solo since and tells us that it hasn’t always been this to remain detached about her audience – wanting appreciation but not needing it. Says the singer when we met her in Mumbai recently, “That shift happened only last year [2014]. Hanging out with visual artists [in Bengaluru] grounded me in this way of practice and performance. There, they are completely removed from the audience and it is about the individual artistic practice. Today, I can perform to one person and have a ball.”

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The singer looks as composed as she sounds, her pixie-like frame and features at ease. Sridhar has made good use of her time away from Mumbai to work on her solo album. She says, “I can’t necessarily produce like clockwork. I needed the time off and I needed the distance from S/T to just let the music percolate.” In case of an artist like Sridhar who brings multiple references and add several layers to her music, the process is perhaps tougher.

There is no genre that she has left unturned. She picked “Pudhe Sarka,” a metal song by comedy-metal band Workshop from Mumbai when she was asked cover a song by an Indian band, sang operatic parts in the theatrical production The Flying Wallas, did a Western Classical solo recital in Mumbai, sang the blues in a play about the Mahabharat, and performed spoken word pieces at poetry festivals. Sridhar grasped Hindustani classical music early, waking up to “hardcore alaaps” when she was four guided by her parents who were performing musicians as well.

It is this entire range that will be showcased on Sridhar’s upcoming solo album and the singer uses the loop station to bring her many voices together onto one canvas. She says, “The loop station has opened up my entire process and takes off from this idea of multiple selves and me jamming with my multiple selves. One can not only layer voices on it but content, genres and text as well.” Much like her music, there is no linear theme running through the album either with tracks about consumerism, sexual violence against women, gender and sexuality sitting comfortably alongside a playful song about love called “Before Sleep,”  featuring Micah Nelson. “He’s Willie Nelson’s son,” says Sridhar casually, referring to the iconic American songwriter and activist Willie Nelson, “He’s 25 or something and an excellent musician. He’s played charango.”

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There are several somber moments on the album. One such moment is a track called “Feio,” named after a jazz composition on the legendary American jazz musician Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew. Says the singer, “Feio means ugly in Spanish and the song explores femininity and the sacred feminine and how a woman can also be ugly and that’s the other side of what our industry is obsessed about – beauty.” Sridhar began jamming on Davis’s “Feio” and came up with a Carnatic-influenced melody, to which she added recordings of insect sounds and frogs croaking. She says, “I have samples of Miles and these field recordings coming in at one part. The entire piece is very trance-like and meditative and it’s about what is ugly. A female voice is meant to sound beautiful but then I use my voice in ways that are not necessarily so and at some points you can’t tell whether it’s the insect or my voice.”

As Sridhar balances rap, song and spoken word on her new album, she’s carving a brand new template for up-and-coming female voices in the country.

Preview some of Suman Sridhar’s solo work here

Suman Sridhar kicks off The Black Mamba Tour ft The Oracle and will perform at

blueFrog Pune on August 12th, 8.30 pm onwards. Entry Rs 300/-

blueFrog Mumbai on August 13th, 9 pm onwards. Entry Rs 350/-

blueFrog Bangalore on August 14th, 9 pm onwards. Entry TBC

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