Sumathi Murthy: Hindustani Music’s Lesbian Melodies
“Oh, it wasn’t anything ‘natural’ as such..” Sumathi Murthy replies, when I asked her if it was an inborn interest that led her to pursue music. Her mother spotted the talent and she started learning Hindustani classical vocal music when she was nine. Reminiscing about her guru, Late Pandit Ramarao Naik, under whom she trained for 16 years, she says that it was through his guidance that she cultivated a passion for this art. He revealed to her a thrill of discovering new things and discovering them again and again, until it translated into an effortless enthusiasm. “Music is like your lover”, her teachers taught her. She adds, “Learning music is like being with your lover, you think about music and you are engaged in it at each and every moment”.
She started performing Hindustani classical vocal music from the age of 12. Her performances have spanned across different cities like Mumbai, Mysore, Gulbarga, Bidar, Kolkatta, Thiruvananthapuram, Pune etc, and various prestigious festivals like Savai Gandharva festival at Hubli, Flights of Fantasy Ganjam Nagappa festival and Sacred Music Festival at Bangalore to name a few. So, does she still perform at these festivals? “No, not anymore” she says. For the last five years, she has been experimenting a lot with different music genres and the above-mentioned spaces are more or less, conventional. So, her drift from these spaces was only inevitable, and so is her excitement as I drift our conversation toward her creative explorations!
Mentioning some of her work, she talks about her research on Thumris wherein she studied the ‘gender issues in music’. Women have been performing this art for a long time; she depicts stories of these women and how they subvert conventions. She feels that it is important to bring out such issues. Last year, she scripted a play called “Sanchari” based on Raag Kalyani that portrayed its entire history of around 800 to 900 years and was produced as a tribute to the 100th birthday of her guru, Pandit Ramarao Naik.
And, of course, there are myriad ways in which her experiments with music take colors of the rainbow! One such instance is her work with Dr. Floy (a French Bass Guitar artist) on a project called Sakhiri- a multi media show of mixing genders, electronics, visual images, poetry and music. While in 2005, she worked as a composer, singer and lyric writer in the conceptualization of this collaborative work, more recently in 2009, she also helped to add more fusion and queer music tracks to it. Queer music? The term does stump you; however, Sumathi says, “There is gender neutral Sufi poetry and there are musical compositions where the gender is not clear”. Then, it seems as if queerness is in interpretation of the listener while the emotions remain undiluted!
In fact, as a part of Sakhiri, she also helped in conducting a workshop for hijras in Bangalore, which helped them to write and compose a song on their life and struggles. Following the same thought process, unmistakably, one cannot miss Sumathi’s work with a host of NGOs on issues that include not only gender and sexuality, but also, women’s rights, health, hygiene and environment. She has composed music for documentaries, written scripts and articles on social issues and worked as a coordinator on various projects.
Sumathi started cultural activities in LesBiT( a support group for lesbian, bisexual and trans persons in Bangalore). Her association with Sangama(a sexuality minorities human rights organization) has been a long one; in the past, she was a part of advocacy division of the organization, she organized a theatre group for Sexuality Minorities in Sangama, and worked as coordinator for various projects based on lesbian/bisexual/trans (LBT) women. “You cannot live in an ivory tower”, she says, “You have to get down and look at the realities around you and work towards making the situation better”.
Among all her creative endeavors, she is passionate about composing music. And, when quizzed about what’s in store for the future- music direction, for film, is her prompt reply! “I have always been interested in directing music for a movie. However, the details are still being worked out”, she says. And what about her favorite Hindustani music artists? “I like them all…it’s not about a person, it’s about their music that you listen to and enjoy”.
Opposition and disagreement- yes, she has faced them too. But, they are more related to the other conventions of gender, caste, religion, and communalism that her music may have defied. She quotes her experience in an article on Tehelka. She may not have faced the same on ‘queer’ aspect of her music, perhaps because people are more accepting or because she performs in niche spaces. However, she believes that it is important to bring forth issues such as gender and caste in public; and at the same time, as far being queer is concerned one has every right to be open and expressive about it. And, she is doing just that!
She performed at the Nigah Queer Fest in Delhi, in 2008 and more recently, at events preceding Chennai Pride, 2010. However, she doesn’t note any difference between an LGBT and a general audience. “Wherever I perform, I’m still a musician and I’m still queer”.
That brought me to the last question, regarding her twin identities as a lesbian and a musician. However, I felt that the answer was quite evident. For Sumathi, they are more than just ‘twin identities’; they are intermingling identities that diversify into colors of the rainbow and yet, dissolve together like tones of a raga.