Rock it South Asian style!

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SHRADDHA ARJUN on Susheela Raman and Kutle Khan at Parramasala 2012

Paalum theli thenum, paakum arupum…, crooned Avvaiyaar back in 1st century CE, offering her prayers to Lord Ganesha, to bless her with the three Tamils which enrich the sangam: iyar tamil (prose); isai tamil (poetry); and nadaka tamil (drama). But why does Avvaiyar ask for only for Tamil, when she could have asked for so much more from the Lord? She asks for Tamil so that she could pen even more shlokas and stotras about Lord Ganesha.

Cut to 2012. Susheela Raman enters the dais in a bright fuchsia top, as the spotlight follows her haunting voice that enchants with the exact same shloka, and the audience is spellbound in anticipation of what they are about to witness. The strings of the guitar, strummed with finesse by Sam Mills, beautifully compliment her voice. It feels as if it was always meant to be this way. Two completely different genres of music and styles combine to create pure magic.

Who is Susheela Raman? This question is perhaps very easily answered within the first few minutes since the concert begins. Susheela belongs to a Thanjavur Tamil Brahmin family from India; she was born in the UK and raised in Sydney. Her music is an eclectic mix of sounds that belongs to these countries – a reflection of what most of us feel as immigrants. It has an instant appeal.

Some would define her music as jazz and blues based; however, it is very difficult to label or identify the genre into which her music falls. It has an almost Sufi-like quality to it. There are moments on stage where it seems like Susheela is in a state of trance, ecstatic and almost lost. Having said that, not a single note or beat is missed at any point during the performance.

A majority of the audience is familiar with her music and the rest are pleasantly surprised by her performance. She goes on to sing in praise of Ganesha – Vinayakane followed by Sarvanabhava. Karunaitheiyvame… followed by Kanthan undu kavala ila maname …

Kutle Khan joins Susheela on stage with the morchang. This is an interesting percussion instrument for several reasons. While it is extensively used in Carnatic music of South India, it’s also used quite a bit in Rajasthani folk music. This adds an interesting flavour to the performance.

Khan is a renowned musician whose expertise in playing the morchang, bhapang, dholak and khartals is unmatched. He mesmerises the audiences with his vocals and the morchang. We also had the opportunity to hear him play the bhapang.

Nathoo Lal Solanki makes a stylish entry on stage to play the nagara, and he proudly shows off his handlebar moustache, to instant applause. The man is not all about the moustache; his performance supersedes his grand entry on stage.

It’s interesting to witness the brief jugalbandi of the nagara and the tabla periodically. The tabla artist is Aref Durvesh, the longest serving member of Nitin Swahney’s band. He is a creative tabla artist who has managed to take traditional performances on this instrument into a new space by combining the tabla beats with jazz, hip-hop fusion and urban music.

The music at no point seems patchy, it is a seamless mix of styles, with equal importance given to each and every artist on stage.

It has been said, “The cheapest way to see a place is to hear its music”. Sitting at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta with my eyes shut for a split second, I could visualize the vast expanses of arid sand dunes in Rajasthan, and the various Murugan shrines atop hills in Tamil Nadu.

Susheela moves on to Paal Pazhani and then to her version of the popular Hendrix number, Voodoo Child.

Sam Mills, her better half, has had the privilege of working closely with the Bauls from Bengal, which have had a huge influence on him and his music. The performance features two Bengali songs as well.

By this time Susheela has coaxed the audience into standing up and clapping rhythmically, which continues as she performs Vel Muruga Vel!

Speaking about her music on The Dewarists, the popular music show, Susheela had said, “Music for me is like a physical need, it’s a kind of inner hunger… to be ambitious, it’s not an easy road, it’s an absolute necessity to stick by what you believe in… and you’re doing it because you want to do it, you need to do it…”

Watching the crowd, a mixture of Indian and Caucasian who perhaps had no understanding of what the song meant, I felt as if they had somehow managed to understand the intent and feeling behind it. For me personally, it brought back memories of the bhajan sessions during festive occasions in Chennai.

The audience demands an encore and Susheela returns on stage with Sam on his guitar to perform Nagumomo, a request from the audience. It well and truly calms everyone down, and is the perfect song to finish with.

By then, I have a burning question for Susheela. As she’s signing copies of her album and talking to her fans, I ask her, “Have people criticized your style of singing religious shlokas and hymns?”

“Yes, in Mauritius, it was a big issue,” she replies, which brought back the memory of a post on Susheela’s Facebook page: “Very happy and privileged to be in beautiful Mauritius… but very unhappy to be told… that we cannot play the Murugan-related songs Paal or Ennapane, which are centrepieces of both the album Vel and our live show, because some minority ultra-conservatives within the Tamil minority are upset by them. We have been given a choice, after a 26-hour journey: either agree not play the songs or cancel the show, which has been sold out/much anticipated. Hrrmph.”

So how did Susheela counter this argument? Her response is, that her music is free.

At this point I had to thank her for it was truly beautiful to listen to some very rare and ancient Tamil songs here in Australia.

Susheela Raman’s performance is indeed one of a kind. It is honest and sincere and at the outset, it may seem like a simple mix of various genres and compositions. However when one begins to pay attention and discovers the finer details, one realizes how much research and thought has gone into the process of composing these songs. They are all quite similar to Susheela Raman herself – passionate, enigmatic, forthright, spiritual and unique!

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