In Conversation: Sumathi Murthy
“The use of a political lens within music was something that, earlier, I had no idea about”, says Sumathi Murthy. Politics as interpreted via the entry points of gender, class and caste: there is an exclusivity within classical music – starting from the 17th and 18th century. There is music whose format and framework is accessible to everyone and there is music whose access is limited to the elite. Its reach is determined by lines drawn by caste hierarchies and in doing so, it leaves out the Dalit in its rubric. By way of comparison, she also speaks of the inception of cinema and its limited access in the same vein.
Murthy’s ardent love for the Khyal and Thumri system is located upon this above critique as foundation.
Speaking of her experience with Hindustani music, she mentions how its economic and cultural trappings are a part of its sanskaar ethos. She speaks of how it wasn’t a form she had heard from her childhood. When she did hear it though, there was a boredom that would creep in easily. Where some of the singing simply sounded like ‘barking, braying’. At this early point in her training, her focus had been on looking at the usage of words. She was not to appreciate the lines of limited access that this music drew in favour of the upper caste until much later.
The sub-genres of classical music that Sumathi feels a connect to is where songs about quotidian activities are sung – the act of fetching water, for instance.
Her interest in Sufi compositions was initially thwarted by the fact that women are not traditionally allowed to train in this space. Music teachers she approached refused to be of any help to her. As a way to further her interest and counter this obstacle, she began to listen to compositions by Amir Khusrau. In Sufi lyrics, she enjoyed that the lyrics were not shackled to strict definitions, that they were open to interpretation.
In many ways, this engagement with Sufi music opened up a new world for her. An unabashed speaking of love as an essential part of life shaped her politics. She points out how this awareness was something that couldn’t be boxed under labels of Marxist or Feminist. It existed in a grounded understanding of giving and receiving love. This way of being was sung about and practiced in different spaces, making it the obverse of classical music’s limitations. This form of music also involved not approaching a subject with seriousness, making fun of people within the precincts of Sufi music is an integral part of its nature.
While talking about singing protest sings, she clarifies that she is contesting the systems that encase classical music: patri, caste, the elitism. “It’s not that my protest songs are about, say, Narmada Bachao Andolan,” she says. Explaining this further, she speaks of an instance where she made the effort to break the concept of space exclusivity for a singing performance – after spending six months being part of rehabilitation work at the site of the Ejipura slum demolition drive by BBMP in 2013, there came a point where Sumathi sang ‘Allah Mere Maula’ in this same location. The singing of this song induced an emotional response, with volunteers crying and hugging each other, the song having brought about a feeling of rejuvenation amongst the volunteers and evicted residents.
Sumathi talks about how her first teacher who trained her to be a professional singer and her Guru were different people. From the former she was introduced to textbooks about music; she found these to be rather dreary. Later, the gap between her Guru’s music and that which theories of music focus on began to be apparent. Where her Guru taught her to understand music via practice, theories of music were limited by being privy to the lens of musicologists. It was her Guru’s training that taught her to sing creatively within structure; to recognize music in different spaces; to have the ability to perceive swara in animals – all of which influenced the way she interpreted music and sounds.
Since having stopped performing in conventional classical music concert spaces, Sumathi often gets asked, “have you stopped singing?” a question that is she finds deeply irritable. “Singing is as everyday and basic a part of my day as brushing my teeth every morning is.” To this she adds this remarkable and defining statement: “You can live without singing and still be musical.”
When asked about her political activism re the queer movement, there is again a clarification made as to not identifying with the labeling of it all, ‘not LGBTQ movement or anything’. She talks about how, at one point, she practiced a particular raga for 1.5 years but wasn’t getting the essence of it right. After speaking to her Guru about it, she understood that just like you love everything and everyone differently you also can’t treat every raga you learn the same way. In many ways, this worked as a pathway towards seeing new meanings in the realm of love and sexuality.
Once, soon after the Gujarat Riots of 2002, Sumathi was requested by a cultural association to perform on Guru Purnima. At the time, she was not aware that this association had links with fundamentalist organisations. The mazaar of her guru’s guru, Ustad Faiyaz Khan Saheb, had been destroyed in the riots.
In the green room, while practicing for her performance, something one of the organisers said made her connect the dots that read ‘RSS’. By when she was on stage she had changed her entire performance. She dedicated the programme to all her gurus and to Ustad Faiyaz Khan. She talked about the Gujarat carnage and the destruction of Ustad’s mazaar. To the outrage of some, she made it a point to sing only Sufi bandishes.
This self-aware rupture of rigidly hierarchical spaces in this manner by Sumathi is perhaps the most manifest example of her singing intertwined with politics.