When we saw Suman Sridhar perform at B69 in October, the metal venue in Andheri (E), she dressed in a T-shirt with a big red star on it, her hair a wild mop of curls. She blended right into a scene typically populated by black T-shirts moshing to the music of bands like Bhayanak Maut and Demonic Resurrection. Her solo set did not induce headbanging, but she got hoots of approval for her rapid spoken-word song about women in jail and another track called “We Don’t Have Graffiti, We Just Have Paan Spit”, which ended with her chanting “bhenchod” in her jazz-voice style.
It was a new side to a singer who entered Mumbai’s indie music scene in 2007 as one half of Sridhar/Thayil. Sridhar had shaved her head to match the bald pate of her partner, Jeet Thayil. Dressed in a shiny, strappy dress, she emphatically enunciated the words to “This Be The Beat”, flapping her hands and singing “Lungful of junk / Trunkful of spunk / Hunkful of gunk / Dumpful of slump”. At another gig at Blue Frog, Sridhar showed up in a black figure-hugging jumpsuit and stockings, belting out Indian classical alaaps for the song “Punk Bhajan”.
Sridhar’s stage presence is in the same league as singers like Monica Dogra (the Shaa’ir in Shaa’ir + Func) and Shefali Alvares, who are also known for their eye-catching costumes, theatrics and booming voices. However, Sridhar is neither as lanky as Dogra nor loud like Alvares. Rather, the 29-year-old performer is the pixie of Mumbai’s indie scene, who pops up in places you’d least expect. Her voice has appeared in Bollywood (Shaitan, Luv Ka The End), television (Coca-Cola ads), and even theatre – she played the Little Prince in Jaimini Pathak’s play The Day I Met The Prince, based on Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s novel.
With all the attention she’s getting, and given that Sridhar/ Thayil’s future depends on whether they can continue writing songs together (she lives in Mumbai, he in Delhi), Sridhar is putting a solo album together. “I’m working on improving my piano skills, and I have about four songs written,” she said, adding that she wants to see how much she can “produce with my own hands”. This would mean none of the trumpets, drums or orchestral flourishes that are part of Sridhar/Thayil songs, but more like her B69 gig, where she accompanied herself on the piano.
Growing up in Chembur, music was the last thing on Sridhar’s mind, although her mother had trained under Prabha Atre and her father played the tabla and harmonium. “I didn’t listen to my own music until I moved to the [United] States, until I was 14,” said Sridhar, referring to the time her father got a job in New Jersey in 1997 and she discovered Busta Rhymes and Lauryn Hill. “I went from an all-girls Catholic school [St Anthony’s] and I was transported into hallways of sex, drugs and teenage pregnancies,” she said. Although the crowd in the New Jersey region is a mixed bag of immigrants, Sridhar joked that she would watch The Jerry Springer Show and Oprah to learn the American accent and the American life so she could fit in.
Feeling like an outsider didn’t stop Sridhar from auditioning for her school’s production of My Fair Lady. She did a monologue of the Eliza Doolittle character at the auditions, but got the part of one of the singing maids who perform “Poor Professor Higgins”. “Freshmen didn’t get singing parts, but this was a proper role,” said Sridhar.
Years later, when she was 25, Sridhar’s singing abilities led Bangalore-based Anmol Vellani to create his production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit The King. At a social gathering in Vellani’s home, Sridhar sang a Billie Holiday song. “She was so good that the idea popped into my head of doing Exit The King, but setting it not in a king’s court but in a bar run by a mafia don,” said Vellani. Sridhar played a queen who sings seductive jazz.
That was the first time, in 2007, that writer and poet Jeet Thayil noticed Sridhar’s vocal abilities. “I heard this unusual kind of jazz phrasing and at moments I could hear Western classical music,” said 52-year-old Thayil. His previous musical experience includes playing the guitar with the 1970s psychedelic disco group Atomic Forest and performing with singer Senti Toy and Ubertar inventor Paul Rubenstein in New York in the band Bombay Down. Thayil had not performed music since the late ’90s, and he says that hearing Sridhar sing made him want to take up music again. After a chance meeting at a party, the two hit it off. “Jeet is a poet and I guess that’s the thing that brought us together,” said Sridhar. “We are full of one-liners. Words.”
By 2009, Sridhar/Thayil had also put together an opera called The Flying Wallas, which showed off Sridhar’s shining soprano. Sridhar credits her vocal abilities to her training at Rutgers University, from where she graduated in music in 2001 after dabbling in the liberal arts for three years. “I thought the best I can do with a liberal arts degree is write a paper and prove my analytical and reading skills,” Sridhar said. “The south Indian that I am, I needed something a bit more quantifiable. I can learn what a treble clef is, and learn to read and write music. It would be a skill.”
Sridhar’s year of training included performing with an improv contemporary ensemble, being a member of an all-woman choir and a jazz ensemble, and having a voice tutor. “I went to a university that had a very oldschool, traditional take on music,” said Sridhar. “If there was the slightest sign of fatigue, overwork or allergies, my tutor would ask, ‘What were you doing last night, were you in a smoky bar or were you singing jazz?’ as if jazz was a bad word.”
Jazz has turned out to be a good word for Sridhar and her collaborators. Bartender, Mikey McCleary’s album of remixes, features her voice on “Khoya Khoya Chand” and “Pukarta Chala Hoon Main”. McCleary met Sridhar when he was making music for a series of Coca-Cola television spots featuring Kalki Koechlin and Imran Khan. “I was looking for an interesting voice that would sing in Hindi but give it a unique twist,” he said. He got Sridhar to sing racy versions of “Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho” from the Hindi film Hanste Zakhm and “Aaj Ki Raat” from Anamika. “She makes very strange sounds when she warms up,” McCleary said about recording the songs. “You would expect her to do scales or something, but it just sounds very alien.”
Sridhar’s performance last July of a Western classical vocal set for Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy’s Young Talent series was not as otherworldly as her usual performances. She stood quite still, trilled like a bird and hit the high Cs with ease as she sang a portion of the Italian opera La Serva Padrona and Benjamin Britten’s cabaret song “Johnny”. But a certain discipline was lacking. “She defied the mode of a classical performance, dressed in her French chic ensemble,” noted Stop-Gaps conductor Alfred D’Souza about her golden skirt and tight-fit blouse – performers usually wear an evening gown. “But she has a pleasantly sweet voice, perhaps not suited for opera without a little more training. Musical theatre would certainly be her forte.”
By Aditya Kundalkar on April 11 2012