Chai with Manju: Singing Superstars – Sudha Lakshmi Rao

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Photo by Rasik Mehta
Photo by Rasik Mehta

Sudha Lakshmi Rao is one of the lead singers of the group “Saptaswar” and has won a very special place in our hearts with her rendition of Geeta Dutt’s songs. She is known to perform equally well in both Hindi and Tamil.
How were you introduced to singing?

Both my parents loved music and were trained in classical music and also had a great love for Hindi and Tamil film music. My mother tells me that as a baby, she would leave me in my crib while she carried on with her chores with the radio playing Tamil and Hindi film songs on Radio Ceylon and I would never bother her as long as the music played. My earliest memory is singing at a school function when I was 6 or 7.
Did you have any formal training? If yes, from whom, and at what age did you start?

I started Carnatic music lessons with Sirgazhi Subramanian when I was seven and continued till my early 20s. I then branched into light music and found that this was my niche and that my classical training helped immensely.
When did you first perform on stage and what song?

When I was 8, I took part in a music competition and sang a Bharatiyar (famous Tamil freedom fighter and poet) song in praise of Lord Karthikeya. As performances go, in middle school, I sang my first solo ever for a musical “Tracers of Lost Parts of Speech.” It was titled “Conjunctions Connect.”
What do you think is unique about your approach to singing?

I just love music — be it Indian, Western, classical, light or folk — and try and invest the same enthusiasm and interest whatever be the genre or language I am singing. I relate to the mood and emotion of the song and just let myself go. I try not to imitate singers but I do like to preserve the mood and tone and modulation of the original singer if I can. Therefore, each performance demands a different approach each time.
How do you prepare before going on stage or before a performance?

I do try my best to keep my voice in good shape most of the time and especially before a performance, avoiding iced and sour drinks and food that might affect my vocal cords. I try and keep a calm frame of mind and avoid noisy places and situations where I might have to strain my vocal cords. I have on occasion had Pranic healing done to get me feeling better and I sincerely believe it has helped me. Gargling with rock salt and warm water also helps and keeping your throat moistened always helps.
Which artist inspires you the most?

It’s very difficult to pinpoint just one artist — there are several who have been my inspiration and idols: M.S.Subbulakshmi, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhosle, P. Susheela, Noorjehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Ella Fitzgerald, Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra, S.P.Balasubramaniam and Shankar Mahadevan, to name a few.
Which performance did you think was your best or most satisfying?

Regarding the best, I think that is not for me to say — but most satisfying — yes that I can answer honestly. When I performed for a Geeta Dutt tribute with a live orchestra in Madras in 2002 — and was able to sing my all time favorite “Waqt ne Kiya” and “Koyi Chupke se aake” and also “Nanhi kali sone chali.” But my most electrifying (and infinitely satisfying) moment on stage was when as a Saptaswar quartet, Raghu, Rahul and my daughter Krithi and I performed the U.S. and Canadian National Anthem at the Celtics game in January 2011 in the TD Garden in front of thousands of people. It was a mind-blowing experience and one of our proudest moments.
Did you ever think of singing as a profession?

I was what you would call semi-professional when I was in India and singing with my music group there. My employers were completely supportive in my pursuit of music. I did not take it further than stage performances as I found that this was my strength and that I was not really keen to be a recording artist or maybe I just didn’t have what it took to be a recording artist.
How do you balance your passion for singing with work, family, etc.?

My family and employers have always been supportive about my music. I started singing regularly with a group only after my daughter was born — my husband took care of both kids while I was away most evenings performing. I didn’t travel that much with the group so that was a relief. My former employers both at an art gallery that I worked in and the Destitute Home were completely encouraging and understanding — allowing me to leave early if I needed to. Presently, I am a homemaker and empty nester, making it much easier to balance my music and housework.
What are some of your future goals?

My goal is to ensure that my music can bring meaning and happiness to my listeners and as often as possible, support a good cause. Would love to keep singing for as long as is possible and at some point be able to perform with my daughter who is very talented and has a very unique style and voice. I also would love to present my own music column, radio or TV show if I ever get the opportunity
Message for INDIA New England readers:

Music is what we can carry with us till the very end. If you find you are interested and have the talent, then go for it — building up and banking on your strengths and working hard on your weak points.
And finally, here is her instant response to Rapid Fire Questions:

Music is … beautiful.
Fame is … irrelevant.
Money is … necessary evil.
Love is … something that I have been blessed and showered with.
Secret of a good marriage is … [jokingly] absence makes the heart grow fonder.
My best quality is … being accommodating.
My biggest fear is … losing my family.
My biggest strength is … my family and friends.
My next show is … Madhubala in February 2013.
My last word today for Chai with Manju is … Had a great time. Thank you.

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