(April 26, 2022) One of her earliest memories of music is listening to her now 92-year-old grandmother singing as she was fed. Today, the award-winning 35-year-old Carnatic singer, Sushma Soma, enthuses about how music was always her passion. Kicking off her journey as a singer at just four, the Singapore-based artist has under her belt an impressive repertoire of performances at several prestigious venues – such as the Indian Embassy Brussels, the Bhavan London, and the Madras Music Academy in Chennai.
In 2021, Soma collaborated with Bharatanatyam exponent Mythili Prakash at the Reflektor Festival, Hamburg curated by Anoushka Shankar as vocalist and co-composers.
“My most precious childhood memories were listening to Tamil songs on my grandfather’s transistor radio, and waking up to the sound of MS Subbulakshmi’s morning prayers. My grandmother would sing, in fact she still sings so sweetly. I started training at a young age, all this shaped my path,” shares Sushma during an interview with Global Indian.
Her recently released second album, Home, incorporates environmental issues and raises awareness about sustainability through her music. Sushma created the album along with Aditya Prakash. “Home combines my Carnatic sensibilities, and my passion for the natural world. The starting point was a series of incidents that left me feeling gutted; from the pregnant elephant in India who tragically died when she fed on a pineapple stuffed with explosives, to the loss of indigenous plants and wildlife in the Amazon forest fires. This album is special as it stems from so many things I care about – forests and wildlife,” shares the Carnatic singer, who has won several awards in her career, including the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council Singapore, 2020.
Her archival work with the National Archives of Singapore was also given a special mention at the Singapore Parliament in March 2019.
The Land of Lion
A Tamilian from Chennai, Sushma was hardly 41 days old, when her parents shifted to Singapore (1980s). Growing up, she felt like a minority in Singapore. “Back in the day, Indian expats were not a common sight in Singapore. I grew up around kids who would talk in Chinese or English. While I knew the language, I was deeply connected to Tamil, which we spoke at home. That’s why I loved visiting my cousins in Chennai on vacation,” shares the Carnatic singer.
At four, Sushma started learning the basics of Carnatic music from a teacher who lived right across the street. Being around her teacher, Sushma shares, made her fall in love with music. “She used to perform at temples and would take me along. So, I have been performing on stage since four. During many events, my parents would come back stage to take me home. But I would stay back, because I just loved being around my teacher,” Sushma reminisces.
A diploma in Carnatic vocals at Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFA) in 1993, although she loved to perform, she continued to pursue a traditional career. A mathematics lover, she was obsessed with books growing up. The artiste attained a degree in accountancy from Nanyang Technological University, and a job at one of the Big Four accounting firms. However, it was not long before she realised that her heart was not in her work and she felt a “growing obsession” for music.
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When she said as much to her father, a chartered accountant, he was shocked. “He freaked out that his daughter was leaving a set career for music. However, he never stopped supporting me,” says the Carnatic singer.
A musical journey…
Not long after leaving her job Sushma shifted to Chennai in 2009, where she lived with her uncle and grandmother. She started training under well-known artiste Lalita Sivakumar, an experience she defines as “a blessing.” Over the course of the next decade, back in Singapore, Sushma performed solo and in collaborations across the world – London, Luxembourg, Brussels, San Diego, Los Angeles, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore just to name a few.
“I constantly find myself seeking that one moment during my performances, where it is just me and my music. These moments are fleeting, and rare, but I keep chasing them. For the past five years, I have been trying to express my emotions through music, and that is very liberating and empowering,” shares Sushma, who is currently student of RK Shriram Kumar, a leading Carnatic musician and musicologist.
Actively engaged in the arts as a researcher, educator and writer, Sushma shares that she always reads up about the theme of her songs. “I think that is something that my husband instilled in me – to research about anything before making a song about it,” she laughs sharing, “My husband, Srinivas, is one of the first I share my songs with, and only when he likes it, I finalise it.” Sushma’s husband is an IT professional, working in Singapore.
Busy with rehearsals and events, Sushma shares that she enjoys long walks which are “like meditation. But, of late I have started listening to podcasts on human behaviour to understand our psychology,” shares the Carnatic singer, who loves to bake.