Friday, June 12, 2015

Susheela Raman: Fusion puts Tamil bhakti music on global stage | Article published in the Times of India

My article on Susheela Raman can be accessed at the Times of Inia epaper site, Chennai edition on page 6

or  at

I give below the manuscript version of my article:


Where words become sounds: Susheela Raman’s art of ecstasy

by M.D.Muthukumaraswamy

                  Susheela Raman’s uses of the texts of Tamil sacred Bhakti songs in her hybrid music are certainly controversial since they tease, jar, and retune the native ears steeped in Tamil Bhakti tradition. While tunes, like tales, are known to be promiscuous as they travel across cultural boundaries to acquire new contexts, listening publics, and musical partners, words, in contrast, are bound to their native contexts, belief systems, and fidelity to meanings.  Religious traditions develop musical systems to preserve the integrity of words in their sacred texts, and any compromises or liberties that would affect the integrity of words would wound and rupture emotions cultivated by beliefs. Susheela Raman declares in her official website that she has always made music a vehicle of emotion with the same intensity of purpose that she offers herself and her music to her audience. She further says, “I don’t want to respect artificial barriers between music, I want to channel everything into the experience.  The music of the subcontinent is hugely varied and is always changing. It always has new dimensions to explore. Talk of ‘fusion’ sound like a compromise between unmoving cultural blocs. But music is not like that here, or anywhere. Music is like a Goddess that is always changing its mind, never straightforward. To earn her blessings and stay close to her, musicians have to try new things.”

      How do we, the native speakers of Tamil, come to terms with the emotional experiences offered by Susheela Raman’s compositions? When Susheela sings ‘Paalum Thelithenum’ (milk and pure honey) an Avvaiyar’s prayer to Vinayaka recited everyday by millions of Tamil children with a twang in her velvety voice, the invitation is surely compelling. What is to be lisped with childish innocence assumes a husky edge in Susheela’s beginning line and when she repeats the word ‘thunga’ (elephant trunk) unnecessarily and distorts and elongates ‘thoo’ in the word ‘thoomaniye” (pure and precious treasure)  maniye’ is completely lost on us and we are far removed from the prayer we know of.  We have already forgiven her for mispronouncing the word ‘theli’ in ‘thelithenum’ with a lighter ‘l’ which is a common mistake even the television newsreaders commit. We do not know why the line offering four eatables to Vinayaka invites swaying of the hips from Susheela and even before we come out of our wonder Susheela makes the gesture of spinning a top and lifts her one hand like a cricket umpire while requesting the three kinds of Tamil from Vinayaka. The psychedelic soft rendering of ‘Vinyaganey’ in tonal varieties is a saving grace and so is the electric guitar interlude and both are appropriate for her ecstatic gyrations, eyes-shut trances, and wild hair whippings.

      For Susheela, the high voltage Bhakti ecstasy is not to be achieved through slow ascendance; she simply plunges into it in the very first opening line as she does in Vel. K.B.Sunderambal, Madurai Somasundram, and Bangalore Ramani Amma would have also begun their first line of Murugan Bhakti song in a high pitch and would have gone for a higher pitch with the progress of their songs as their celebratory festive ambience would have demanded it.  Susheela has no such compulsions and her European audience would not have cared less had she opted for a more sober opening.  However, Susheela’s first leap into ecstasy is a style that facilitates her fusion of different genres of music as evidenced in her rendering of Madurai Somu’s classic ‘Marudamalai maamaniye murugaiyya. In the native rendering set in kanada darpari raga Madurai Somu would ascend into emotional heights only after a few syllables. Kunnakudi Vaidhyanathan’s violin accentuates Somu’s climb and the ecstatic bursts come nearly in the end. What Susheela does is to begin in the second half of the original Tamil song, and replace the native Morsing, Gatam, and violin interlude with the signing of Mian Miri Qawwals from Lahore. Followed by the Tabla Susheela launches her ‘Marudamalai maamaniye’ from a still higher pitch with a faster rhythm. The effect is terrific because of the newness of the Quwwali singing merging perfectly with the Tamil bhakti high singing. The faster rhythm does not allow Susheela to distort words and the song stays on a height hitherto unknown for a while. When she hands over the mantle back to the Quwwali chorus the similarity of rhythms smoothens the transition. Susheela’s frenzied whipping of the hair does add its visual quality to the orgasmic outbursts. In a way Susheela discovers and demonstrates the inner flow and the connectivity that exists between Quwwali singing and Tamil bhakti music.

       When Susheela sings ‘Velundu maiyilundu’ with the interceptions from Quwwali musicians singing ‘Nuri Nuri’, the mixture already feels like a natural flow. It also becomes clear that the meanings of the words no longer matter to anyone except the singers themselves, and the affective dimensions of music reach the audience as pure rhythmic sounds and bodily gestures. 
      For the European audience Susheela’s eclecticism could be part of her appeal. UK-born Susheela grew up in Australia singing the South Indian classical music her Tamil parents encouraged her to train in. Her training shows its beautiful results when she when renders something soft and soulful like ‘Kamatchi”. Without the distractions of the backing band we could almost hear the Australian twangs in her classically trained voice. When Susheela’s voice itself is ingrained with such fusion one cannot really complain of the feet stomping, hands flaying, head banging, and hair flogging. Don’t we all know that world music is all about being embodied with music?

      Listening through Susheela Raman’s three albums, Salt Rain, Music For Crocodiles, and 331/3 one would be surprised to learn how Tamil bhakti music’s aesthetics continues to be at the center of her works. One might even rediscover the value of Tamil bhakti music’s value in their inherited contexts. In the native contexts the bhakti music is a vehicle for devotees to achieve communion with their gods guided through the meaning of words and the ecstatic experience is the result of such communion.  In the Susheela Raman variety of world music the ecstasy, and emotional heights are already there as rhythms, sounds, gestures, and ambience. Devoid of word meanings, we experience words mingling with other sounds to create pure music. Perhaps only through such channels and loss of word meanings, native Tamil bhakti music could reach out and achieve its universal appeal.
      For Tamil bhakti music is both ancient and contemporary, and it is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the Tamils living worldwide. For instance, while the poem ‘Paalum thelithenum’ is a Sangam age composition attributed to Avvaiyar, the grand old lady of Tamil poetry, ‘Marudamalai maamaniye murugaiyya is a film song written by Kannadasan. Along with the Saivite and Vaishnavite bhakti movements Muruga worship had seeped through Tamil history from the ancient times, and it achieved majoritarian canonical status in the fifteenth century as evidenced by the corpus of songs written by Arunagiri Nathar. Trance behavior and Tamil Muruga bhakti are intimately intertwined, and it takes a Susheela Raman to identify its potential to syncopate with other musical traditions of ecstasy such as Sufi Quwaali music of Pakistan. We do not know whether Tamil diaspora appreciates Susheela’s music. For the European audiences and even the Bangalore audiences who Susheela started enthralling recently, Tamil bhakti music’s civilizational meanings will remain remote.


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