Chai with Manju: Singing Superstars – Meena Sundaram

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Photo by Rasik Mehta
Photo by Rasik Mehta

Meena Sundaram is a well-known physician who is passionate about music and giving back to community. She has her own unique style and thrives on interactive performances which has specially won her way into the heart of New England audiences.
How were you introduced to singing?

I was introduced to singing at the age of 7 when my mother enrolled me in Carnatic music classes, apparently I used to love to sing along and dance to songs on the radio preferably on top of chairs or tables so she guessed I might be interested in music. I have always sung Bollywood music, copying songs on the radio, tapes, etc.
Did you have any formal training? If yes, from whom, and at what age did you start?

I started classes at the age of 7 in Carnatic music from Smt. Nammalvar and continued with the late Shri Pallavur Mani Iyer till the age of 16. I stopped learning music after I joined medical school and had a hiatus for a number of years, though I kept singing film songs in shows with various bands in New England. In 2002, I resumed music lessons, however this time in Hindustani classical music with Shri Warren Senders and am fortunate to currently continue to be his student. My first teacher Smt. Nammalwar’s daughter was visiting from Bangalore and attended one of my recent events ” Sangam” for Ekal Vidyalya and mentioned that my teacher is now completely hearing impaired and that she would convey to her mother that she enjoyed my singing and attended a concert for a great cause.
When did you first perform on stage and what song?

I used to sing as a child in parties and building functions. My first memory of a true performance is probably in 7th grade in a school competition where I sang Runa Lailaji’s version of “Damadam Mast Kalandar” in front of the whole school. I remember being scared but also thrilled at the experience. It was the first time I heard loud applause and compliments; that really bolstered my confidence. In fact my friends from school still tease me as the Damadam girl.
What do you think is unique about your singing and your approach?

I am a very emotional and passionate person and that reflects in my approach to singing. I love to feel the words and emote the lyrics as I sing. Apart from learning the nuances of the song, I focus on its picturization and watch the videos closely. I am an interactive performer and absorb a lot from the milieu of the song and totally thrive on audience participation and reaction. To me, it is almost like acting in that you enter the world of a song, dwell in it and leave after five minutes to enter a different world.
How do you prepare before going on stage and before a performance?

I like to focus on the material at hand and the overall feel of the event. Apart from learning my songs, I engage with other participants in the event and that binds me to them and our varied roles in the event. That really helps make the whole program seamless. I do drink plenty of water and avoid voice overuse before an event.
Which artist inspires you the most?

The two artistes who have been my musical inspiration are Lata Mangeshkarji and Asha Bhosleji. Lataji brings precision of sur, flexibility of voice, excellent pronunciation and enunciation of lyrics and amazing harkats in her songs. Ashaji brings style, projection, power and sensuality in her singing. One can spend a lifetime learning from both of them and not even skim the surface of their talent and musicality. I adore and admire them immensely. Among the gentlemen, my favorites are M. Rafi Saab, Kishore Kumar, Hariharan and Rahet Fateh Ali Khan Saab.
Which performance did you think was your best or most satisfying?

I take every project and performance seriously and try to give it my best shot. I am very self-critical (my musical friends will agree) about my own abilities and try to work hard to improve myself and contribute my best to the overall event. Whether it is one song or an entire show, the satisfaction comes from being part of the activity, giving it my best and getting a good response from the audience.

That said, a couple of performances come to mind for specific reasons. In 2008, I wrote, produced and performed a play featuring children called “Mirabai — the Musical” as a fund-raiser for Udavum Karangal (Helping Hands) that works with destitute and underprivileged people. The kids and their parents did a fantastic job and singing for the show with young singers and watching the entire project unfold was a pleasurable and proud experience.

Another event was “Rooh-e-Sahir” in early 2012. The magical words of Sahir Ludhianvi truly inspired me and I was swept away by the lyrical beauty of this event which also included poetry and A Capella songs etc.

A qawwali I participated with a team of artistes for Hindi Manch Sa Re Ga Ma in 2011 both at the main event and at the Hatch Shell was satisfying in the teamwork and coordination it entailed and wonderful community and friendships it generated. And most recently “Sangam,” a program I co-produced for Kumkum Pareek Malik for Ekal Vidyalaya stood out for the confidence Shri Puran Dangji the chairman placed in me, the cause of education Ekal works for and the wonderful team that stood with me. So there has been a lot of joy, satisfaction and learning in each and every performance.
Did you ever think of singing as a profession?

I have never thought of singing as a profession. Since I have the privilege of being a physician, and I know you will agree, Manju, the pleasure from healing and helping people is one that is not easily received and cannot be given up during one’s lifetime. I love my patients and enjoy taking care of the ill. Music to me is a pervasive force within me akin to breathing and is best expressed in the context of service to nonprofits, fundraisers etc. I do not like to benefit financially from music (It would lose its charm and feel like a commodity for me) and I thrive on the social network, friendships and causes I have the good fortune to associate with without any personal gain. Any donations that come my way are also given back to my many favorite charities.
How do you balance your singing with work, family, etc?

As a mother and a physician, Manju, you know how difficult it is. I am so fortunate to have the support of my husband at home helping rear my 10-year-old son and all my friends in music who help me with any projects we are working on. It is a cooperative effort that does need detailed attention to scheduling but where there is a will, there is a way.
What are some of your future goals?

My goals are continued self-improvement and learning in music and to be involved in a variety of concepts and programs with the many talented performers and organizers in the New England area. I am hoping to contribute to many events and fundraisers and mentor young performers and singers who will carry the beautiful music of Bollywood forward.
Any message for the readers?

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” — Plato
And finally, here is her instant response to Rapid Fire Questions:

Music is … my life, my breath.
Fame is … short lived.
Money is … not very important.
Love is … very important to me
Secret of a good marriage is … [jokingly] Do not tell your husband what you are doing.
My best quality is … being human
My biggest fear is … death
My biggest strength is … family and friends
My next show is Madhubala on February 16, 2013.
My last word today on Chai with Manju is … I love Chai.

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