Suman Sridhar has nothing to prove to an audience
When you watch Suman Sridhar come unhinged ”“ twitching, twisting or stomping her feet like a petulant child ”“ in an act that raises the bar for almost every other Indian performer on stage, you wouldn’t believe that being on stage has been one of the more testing challenges for the singer when she started out. A few years ago, Suman told me how she would stand paralysed on stage, performing glued to one spot. This was back in 2009 when Zenzi, Bandra was still open.
She also harbored creative insecurities ”“ not knowing the repertoire of artists and bands that Jeet would throw at her including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the biggest names in rock and roll history. Again, it’s tough to believe this of an artist as talented as Suman. She tears down the walls between genres shifting from Hindustani classical to jazz [try “Punk Bhajan”] and modulates her vocal range to sound like an annoyingly baby-voiced singer or a smoky blues siren or a cheeky tapori in an instant. While working on their debut album, STD, Suman also turned into the geek in the band, balancing out Jeet perfectly. “I was the nerd who figured out cables, software and everything,” she said. Eventually, it no longer mattered whether she knew the entire discography of a certain guitar god or not.
With time, her performance also changed. It would have never happened if she were sitting around jamming, she said. It’s the audience that fed her act on stage and emboldened her. Of course, facing the audience also posed its own trauma. In the early years of Sridhar/Thayil, Suman would feel dejected when the group’s shows were met with cold stares from a crowd, who thought the duo was really weird, or worse, blank incomprehension. This is also why Suman preferred [possibly still does] gigs at smaller venues such as the erstwhile B69 and Zenzi in suburban Mumbai to club shows. College students, metal heads and scenesters who brought their own booze make for a better audience more often than not and this was the crowd that showed up at these venues to either boo or raise a fist for the bands on stage. No dumb spectators in this lot. Zenzi Mills was another favorite venue and S/T chose to bring their Art Of Noise project to life at this club in 2010. I clapped my eyes on a theremin for the first time at this gig that I can only describe as a surreal, psychedelic trip with no help from hallucinogens. Suman, Jeet, Anousha Anand better known as Noush Like Sploosh, drummer Nikhil Vasudevan and the incorrigible Stefan Kaye all got together for a bizarre jazz, noise and dance project that also involved Alice In Wonderland at some point. “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t” ”“ these lines from Lewis Carroll’s book sum up the gig.
More recently, Suman performed with a jam band at the JD Rock Awards. While the rest of the artists in the band chose to cover tracks by bands that had already attained veteran status, Suman picked Mumbai comedy metal band Workshop’s “Pudhe Sarka.” Much like the Art Of Noise project, there was a lot of screaming from Suman, which sent some of the audience members out, but the singer sure needed balls to go up there and do what she did. Like most of her shows, it wasn’t just about singing. There were shades of Suman’s Fall In Line show to her jam session, which she ended by throwing fake currency notes at the audience. Of course, I was rooting for Suman to win Best Female Vocalist and for STD to snag the Best Album award. The categories were open to public voting, so there wasn’t much I could do except some painful hand-wringing when the results were announced. Suman and S/T don’t need awards for validation.
On a day, when all I wanted to do was crawl into a dark space, it was the anticipation of getting to S/T’s show that kept me going and the realization that if Suman could find the courage to fight her fears, then so can you and I.Â See you at the gig tonight.
Watch the promo video for The STill show that kicks off at Blue Frog, Mumbai tonight