A Slice of Culture
A column with an eclectic mix of South Asian cultural stories from the world.
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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
In April 2022, Singapore-based artist Sushma Soma released her second album HOME, a reflection of her relationship with nature and the environment, and her response to the events around the world. The record was created with Aditya Prakash, an award-winning vocalist and a young virtuoso of Carnatic music.
Recognized as one of the “10 women leaders in music” in Singapore (Hear65), Sushma was awarded the prestigious Young Artist Award, the highest honour for young arts practitioners in Singapore, by The National Arts Council, Singapore, in December 2020.
In this exclusive interview with India Currents, Soma talks to us, among other things, about the idea and inspiration behind HOME, the experience of collaborating with Aditya Prakash, and the multiple roles she plays as a writer, researcher, and educator.
IC: Tell us about your album HOME.
SS: The starting point for this album was a series of incidents that left me feeling gutted: from the pregnant elephant in India who tragically died when she fed a pineapple stuffed with explosives, to gorillas scrambling for safety amidst armed militia violence in Congo, to turtles getting entangled in plastic bags, to the loss of indigenous plants and wildlife in the Amazon forest fires. I was also struggling to reconcile my love for the natural world with my everyday choices, starting from the careless consumption of single-use plastic, to the blatant wastage of resources.I hope this album can play a small part in reminding us to snap ourselves out of apathy.
HOME is my expression of wonderment, pain, conflict, shame, gratitude, and so much more that I feel towards this incredible planet. This has also been an important journey for me with Carnatic music as I have engaged with the form without letting my preconceived biases about the form—that it is niche and appeals to only a specific audience—influence my musical choices in the album.
Snapping Out Of Apathy
I hope this album can play a small part in reminding us to snap ourselves out of apathy, complacency, and convenience, and take action to preserve and save this beautiful, intricate, emotional, and intelligent ecosystem that we share together—the only “home” we’ve known.
IC: Tell us a little about the album’s seven individual tracks.
SS: NATURE is a musical exploration of the overwhelming beauty and wonderment that is nature. Inspired by the Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, this song takes the listener on a journey into the magical qualities of nature.
MAN explores the casual and whimsical attitudes of man towards nature. The song uses sounds from our everyday lives that impact our environmental landscapes, juxtaposed with a playful melody inspired by a song composed by Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar. These compositions, known as nottuswara are distinct in the Carnatic repertoire, because they are inspired by the Western Band music during British rule in the 1700s.
The Elephant’s Funeral
MA imagines the journey of Mother Earth—from that of compassion and love to frustration and rage, emotions not often explored in the Carnatic voice.
THE ELEPHANT’S FUNERAL was motivated by the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala after she was fed a pineapple stuffed with explosives. Affected by her death on a very personal level, I wanted to express my utter devastation and disappointment in my fellow humans.
Infuriated by what I perceive to be a war between man and nature, IVORY GAME was conceived to show destruction using the same words “lobha,” “krodha,” “moha,” and “mada”—this time not by the casualness of our everyday choices, but by the violence caused by embodying these vices.
As the song title suggests, GRIEF is my expression of grief and shame. The rough translation is: how can I stand before you in my tainted mind?
IC: Tell us about collaborating with Aditya Prakash.
SS: Aditya has one of the most incredibly inspiring and creative minds I’ve met yet. Working on HOME took up as much (if not more) time and bandwidth as his own solo album, and I am so grateful for his generous sharing, and the challenging and incredible learning journey he made me embark on.
We’ve collaborated several times before, but what makes this collaboration special is witnessing his journey with his everyday choices. From using single-use plastic lids and cups, and driving to the nearby supermarket, to thinking about buying only what he needs, and questioning the environmental impact of his choices—it was gratifying for me to see the change brought about by the process of working on this album.
We started this project by imagining strings and keys as an integral part of the music. But in the end, we found ourselves exploring within Carnatic music itself to convey the narrative in mind. It was so liberating—the experience of discovering the endless possibilities within the form that we have been training in.
IC: Tell us how your Indian roots and identity influence your music.
SS: I grew up in Singapore, but came to Chennai for my holidays every year. Both my grandmothers sing. My paternal grandfather loved listening to Carnatic music on his old transistor radio, and I’d lie down next to him on his old bench and listen to MS Subbulakshmi and other legendary singers with him.
As immigrants in Singapore, my parents felt that it was important for me to stay rooted to Indian culture and to them, the way to do that was through music.
IC: Tell our readers about your critically acclaimed album “Sa.”
SS: Sa was my debut EP, released in March 2020. The idea to create it came about because I wanted to work with some of my close Carnatic musician friends outside the Carnatic concert sphere. It is an anthology featuring some of my favorite songs, and an original composition that Aditya Prakash and I created using fundamental Carnatic exercises as the basis.
IC: You are also a writer, researcher, and educator.
SS: I am a part-time lecturer at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, where my students are studying to be music teachers in primary schools. It’s one of the most gratifying roles I’ve had to take on. Their questions push me to find out more about the form and find better ways to articulate what I know.
I ran a column titled “Young Voices” in Sruti Magazine, one of India’s arts magazines, wherein I interviewed young Carnatic practitioners. As someone who had not grown up in Chennai, this column allowed me to interact with them, and be inspired by their journeys.
As a researcher, I investigated the journey of Carnatic music in Singapore through the practitioners here. And in the process, I archived the works of all the practitioners in a portal we launched in collaboration with the National Library Board, Singapore. To be able to chart out the journey from the start, and to reflect on how I could be a part in shaping the scene here, moving forward was important for me.
IC: Who or what are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
SS: My mentor RK Shriramkumar is one of my biggest musical inspirations today. He inspires me to find beauty, nuance, and stillness in the music. Experiencing music through his lens has completely changed my relationship with the Carnatic form. I am so grateful.
I am also inspired by musician and author TM Krishna, whose questioning challenges and inspires me to find relevance for the music in my life today. Choreographer and dancer Akram Khan also inspires me; his productions have impacted and bothered me. And I realize that is what I aspire for in my work. I want there to be introspection and questioning.
I also look to my dear friends Mythili Prakash and Aditya Prakash, whose artistic sensibilities I respect.