WE DON'T BUILD SPACESHIPS. WE ARE SPACESHIPS.

suman

DATE:MARCH 27TH, 2014

Suman Sridhar is among a handful of artists and performers who have left a lasting impression on India’s fledgling independent music scene. Raised with a foundation in the traditional and classical performing arts, Sridhar has forayed into contemporary music and theatre, sessions’ recordings for feature films, sound design and performance art. She co-founded the contemporary music duo Sridhar/Thayil, which Rolling Stone India magazine called “two of the most uninhibited people that ever came together to play with music.” Sridhar’s new works seek the intersection of mediums as a means to break form — improvised and staged experiments as a political, poetic and psychological end. Ahead of her performance this week with DJ Uri and saxophonist Pawan, she spoke to us about art, politics, gay songs and how a visit to Berlin proved to be a turning point in her career.

JUMP TO:

Suman Sridhar is among a handful of artists and performers who have left a lasting impression on India’s fledgling independent music scene. Raised with a foundation in the traditional and classical performing arts, Sridhar has forayed into contemporary music and theatre, sessions’ recordings for feature films, sound design and performance art. She co-founded the contemporary music duo Sridhar/Thayil, which Rolling Stone India magazine called “two of the most uninhibited people that ever came together to play with music.” Sridhar’s new works seek the intersection of mediums as a means to break form — improvised and staged experiments as a political, poetic and psychological end. Ahead of her performance this week with DJ Uri and saxophonist Pawan, she spoke to us about art, politics, gay songs and how a visit to Berlin proved to be a turning point in her career.

Your recent interpretation of musician Mina Kava’s song from the ‘60s, An Evening in Gay Maharashtra, received plenty of press. Did you get the feeling it reached people beyond the scene?

Usually, releases circulate only within the music scene, but Evening in Gay Maharashtra was released at a crucial time, just before the Gay Pride march and immediately after the Indian Supreme Court reinstated an archaic law criminalising homosexuality. The song resonated not just with the queer community, but with the larger public debate around civil rights and sexuality. The growing strength of puritanism and the religious right in India is of concern to all of us – that is the chord Gay Maharashtra strung.

Director Natasha Mendonca’s lens captures the performance through an experimental and authentic perspective, which makes the video stand out amidst the barrage of slickly produced and formulaic works in the industry. This is what makes Evening in Gay Maharashtra not simply a music video but a work of art— it has screened across India as part of the IAWRT film festival and BQFF.

What was your reaction when you first heard the track? How did your own interpretation take shape?

A friend sent me a link to the 1969 song Evening in Gay Maharashtra once Naresh Fernandes revived interest in what would otherwise have remained a relic. That was the first time I heard the song and I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes (if you see the Youtube fan video comprising of montages of Maharashtrian women in nine yards and images of Matheran and Madhuri, you’ll see what I mean!).

I began to perform it live, and every time the song would ring with a different meaning depending on what was happening politically in Bombay and in the country – be it the 2012 police raids of night clubs or the media discussion around banning mannequins in lingerie to prevent sexual violence against women. Such is the absurdity of our socio-political realities! There is no greater performance art than the spectacle we witness every day, put on by the powers that be. And so Evening in Gay Maharashtra became a journey, evolving with each live performance, and spontaneous phone video, until a team of artists under the direction of Natasha Mendonca met in June of last year to collaborate and create the video as an old-school single take. It is part of a series of videos on gender; the next one will release later this year.

While Gay Maharashtra has been getting all the press, you recently also composed a sound piece Feio with Natasha Mendonca for a collaboration between Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson? How did that come about and what is the idea behind the piece? 

Feio is a multi-part sound epic that I’m working on. The riff you hear in Natasha Mendonca’s video Moon Quest in collaboration with Olafur Eliasson and Ai Weiwei is the recurring melodic pattern in Feio, a humming chorus of Tamil women. The melody itself is based on raag Durga and has a Carnatic lilt to it. The larger inspiration for Feio is the tune of the same title from the Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew. ‘Feio’ means ‘ugly’ in Spanish. I am lyrically and sonically exploring the duality of the feminine principle— angry, yet sacrificially giving, feio yet breathtakingly alluring.

Natasha & you have collaborated frequently on different projects. Is there a certain dynamic to your work flow?

Natasha Mendonca is an award winning experimental filmmaker and visual artist who is known for her compelling cinematic language and poetic explorations with form. She has shown her works at major international film festivals across the world and also works in underground community spaces. The versatility of our profiles enables us to engage rigorously in creating cutting-edge performance and video art. Her direction is very collaborative, yet pointedly astute and visionary. Most importantly, our collective practice is grounded in theory and concept as much as it is in the body and craft— this makes for a constantly evolving and inspired exchange.

I haven’t read too many interviews where you talk about your time in Berlin, but Anil (Kably of the Bagel Shop) mentioned that it was a particularly refreshing break for you.

My stay in Berlin for three months coincided with the release of Khoya Khoya Chand from the soundtrack to Shaitan in July 2011. Simultaneously, I was offered two opportunities— to bask in the glamour of Bollywood success or to play my very first solo set accompanying myself on the keyboards. I chose the latter and performed as an anonymous artist in an underground pub. There I was in a foreign city, strangely connecting back to my roots— the sheer pleasure of writing and playing music, raw and untameable. I now look back upon that time as a turning point in my artistic journey.

Speaking of breaks, has the downtime from Sridhar & Thayil enabled you to focus more on your sound design / experimental performance art / visual art pieces?

Academia has always called out to me, having dabbled in philosophy and political science courses with a minor concentration in Women’s & Gender Studies at a university entrenched in the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I found myself freezing that part of my brain without any outlets when I moved back to Bombay. The break from Sridhar/Thayil has definitely been fruitful in that I have begun integrating the various sides of me.

Performance and music is as much about art, writing and reflection— thinking is in the doing and vice versa. I have drawn and painted all my life; professionalisation as a musician with S/T briefly disconnected me from the visual artist within. But I have been reconnecting to that side of me. The art context, interestingly enough, creates more room for rigour than the music context, at least in India, considering most of the gigs here are liquor brand sponsored.

I have been really enjoying devising experimental performance art and sound design in collaboration with mask-maker and painter, Megan Kelley (Flying Kite), Berlin conceptual artists Georg Diez and Christopher Roth and visual artist Tejal Shah.

For someone who engages in public debate through her music, social media channels and personal conversations, do you feel isolated in your commentary sometimes? Does the independent music scene feel like it exists in a middle class bubble where everyone gets to pretend that socio-political goings-on have little or no impact on live gigs or dance floors?

The de-colonisation of our minds is a process lasting well beyond 1947. I find that western aspiration trickles into every aspect of contemporary India. The current trend is to blindly embrace American neo-liberalism, what with the homogenisation of our visual and cultural landscapes. This mass climbing of the middle class is apathetic to the class of people left out of the story of so called progress. Since the music industry is so closely linked to the advertising, entertainment and film industry, critique and reflection is very often neglected and sneered upon. But staying connected to grassroots community keeps me grounded and engaged politically.

You’ve collaborated with DJ Uri in the past, who through his various avatars – educator / hip-hop / funk / bass music DJ – is as much as a shape shifter as you with your voice and projects. What’s the experience been like and what can we look forward to at the festival?

Look forward to DJ Uri and I mixing a heady dose of instinct and improvisation.

Is there a method or process to how you almost eerily slip into another persona on stage?

I’m a traveling circus, part craft, part chance, always in costume.

Article by Kenneth Lobo