Music

Soaring notes

When I ring the bell at Sunitha Sarathy's apartment, Masha answers the call. Masha is a golden retriever with the girth of a hippopotamus, and the sight of this huge dog puts me on the back foot. “She is incredibly friendly,” the singer says of her barking and seemingly fearsome pet. True, Masha is indeed wagging her tail.

Sunitha is as much a surprise as Masha. Having seen her as the stern-faced judge who dissected performances with a scalpel on ‘Sangeetha Mahayudham', a children's music reality show on Sun TV, I am not prepared for her natural amiability. “I looked solemn concentrating on the performances with a knitted brow, and many viewers began to see me as unfriendly,” Sunitha explains. “Whatever I did, I did in the best interests of the children.”

Having sung for a commercial jingle at age four and appearing on stage at age six, Sunitha could in fact be forgiven if she held others — even children — up to high music standards. She sees herself as a perfectionist and this quality, she says, has done her more harm than good. For one, it has made her extremely self-critical and often prevents her from readily venturing into unfamiliar music territories.

Her resume is the envy of many — around 200 film songs in various languages, performances as singer-keyboardist-percussionist across a wide spectrum of Western music genres including classical, jazz, soul and R&B, neo-soul and quiet storm, and a prolific output of gospel songs — yet she wants to wait for a while before starting work on her first album.

Living under the same roof as an accomplished musician who is given to calling a wrong note a wrong note, is probably one of the reasons for this diffidence: her mother Susheela Sarathy, who has been the pianist and conductor of leading Madras choirs — at present, she manages those at Santhome Church and Lazarus Church — is her bitterest critic. “Even now, she can be scathing in her review of my performances,” says the daughter.

Contact with music luminaries, including her violinist-uncle Das Daniel, from an early age is another reason for being obsessed with perfection. “A concert involving top-of-the-line musicians from India and abroad — at the German and other consulates — would be followed invariably by an after-party at our house in Santhome,” remembers Sunitha. These parties would end in impromptu jamming sessions. As a result, Sunitha had an easy initiation into the world of music. She has not sat in voice-training classes and she learnt to play the piano and percussion instruments by ear.

“I could not have learnt music any other way. As a little girl, I had an untameable spirit and was unwilling to submit to the rigours of training,” recollects Sunitha. “When my mother would practise with members of the Madras Ecumenical Choir — including doyens such as Thangadurai Samuel — at St. Raphael's, I would be perched on a tree, listening to the music and watching parakeets at the same time.”

Sunitha's irrepressible talent conquered all, including her initial flippancy. Spellbinding performances at Santhome — including devotionals in Latin and Franz Schubert's ‘Ave Maria' — elevated her to star status among Madras' church music circles. She has had the enviable honour of rendering the ‘Easter Proclamation' — a typical Catholic chant — for three years before an overflowing San Thome Basilica.

Invitations to perform at concerts — especially, western classical — kept pouring in. At Stella Maris, where she studied English Literature, she was among the most popular students. For three years, she won the best vocalist title at IIT's inter-collegiate Saarang festival and helped her college regain its lost music glory.

The breath-taking range of her voice — which allows her to sing in multiple registers — led to flattering comparisons. Hailed as the Whitney Houston of Madras, she was welcomed into happening bands of those times. She has sung for The Eleventh Commandment, a rock band consisting of Suresh Peters and ‘Berklee' Prasanna. Offers to sing for films were however turned down. Her parents — especially her father — were wary of the film industry.

The resistance broke down in 2000, when Sunitha won the Virgin Voice Choice contest — a joint initiative of Channel [V] and Virgin Records. Out of 45,000 entries, 1,500 contestants were shortlisted. Ten made it to the finals in Mumbai, which Sunitha won, hands down. There was one more hurdle to scale and it existed in Sunitha's mind.

“It was the perfection bug again.” The much-needed confidence came from Harris Jeyaraj's ‘Thoodhu Varuma' song in “Kaakha Kaakha” (2002). “That song launched my career in film music.” Success as playback singer appears to have given her the confidence to take on new challenges. She is part of two bands, The Sunitha Sarathy Band and The Agenda, which is rooted in R&B and jazz but is also known for its bold experimentation with various other genres. “It is not enough. I still have to be pushed into doing certain things.” Sunitha's husband Rahul Gopal — who plays the drums for The Agenda — has bought her an iMac and a MIDI keyboard and prods her into honing her song writing and composing skills. He plays the supportive role that her mother used to, when Sunitha was younger — and she is thankful for it.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 12:20:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/soaring-notes/article2555165.ece

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