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Youth in Action: The former accountant on a mission to promote classical Indian music

As part of a series to highlight youth activism, TODAY speaks to young people in Singapore who are not only passionate and vocal about social issues, but are driving positive change through their actions. In this instalment, musician and teacher Sushma Somasekharan talks about how she does her part to keep a classical Indian art form alive through her music, teaching and research.

Youth in Action: The former accountant on a mission to promote classical Indian music

Ms Sushma Somasekharan left her job as an accountant over a decade ago to pursue her dream career as a Carnatic vocalist.

As part of a series to highlight youth activism, TODAY speaks to young people in Singapore who are not only passionate and vocal about social issues, but are driving positive change through their actions. In this instalment, musician and teacher Sushma Somasekharan talks about how she does her part to keep a classical Indian art form alive through her music, teaching and research.

 

  • 33-year-old Sushma Somasekharan left her accountant job a decade ago to pursue her dream career as a Carnatic vocalist
  • She also teaches the pedagogy of local music and introduction to classical Indian music 
  • She spearheaded a pilot project with the National Library Board to archive the works of Carnatic music practitioners from the 1940s to the 1960s
  • She said young people can do their part to preserve traditional art forms by being open to it and patronising organisations working to preserve it

 

SINGAPORE — Carnatic music, a form of classical music native to Southern India, is such a passion for 33-year-old Sushma Somasekharan that she left her job as an accountant over a decade ago to pursue her dream career as a Carnatic vocalist.

"My parents freaked out because my dad is a chartered accountant himself, so he was thinking: 'Oh my God, is my daughter really leaving everything for music?'," she said with a laugh. 

It was Ms Sushma’s family who first introduced her to Carnatic music, as a way to keep her rooted to Indian culture when they moved to Singapore in the 1980s. 

She grew to love the music herself and completed a diploma in Carnatic Vocals at Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFA) in 1993.

But in the meantime, she continued to pursue a more traditional career. She attained a degree in accountancy from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and got a job at one of the Big Four accounting firms.

Still, she knew that her heart was not in her work and she felt a “growing obsession” with music.

"I would be doing work and I'd be humming all the time,” she said. 

In 2009, she decided to take a leap, moving to Chennai, India to study Carnatic music full-time and make it her life’s work. 

Today, Ms Sushma, who produces and performs under the name Sushma Soma, splits her time between Singapore and Chennai and has conducted many performances in Singapore, including at the Esplanade. 

She also spearled a pilot collaboration with the National Library Board from 2017 to 2018, digitalising and archiving the works of Carnatic music practitioners from 1940s till today that have shaped the local scene. 

The pilot project archived the entire discography of 20 music practitioners, and this archive is now part of the National Online Repository of the Arts.

"Carnatic music is something that has existed since the 12th century, and it has grown in a very beautiful way. It has evolved in a lot of ways and I think without having context to it, we can't really appreciate what we have today," she said. 

She is contributing to that evolution in her own way. She has explored ways of making her music more familiar to modern audiences of all backgrounds by adding Western musical elements such as guitar strums and keys to her songs.

Ms Sushma also teaches the pedagogy of local music at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and introduction to classical Indian music at both NIE and NTU. In her classroom as in her music, Ms Sushma hopes to make Carnatic music relatable to all.

"I ask the students to recognise the elements they identify with. Can they identify Indian music around them in their lives? Can they recognise instruments when they hear them?" she said.

Ms Sushma teaches her students vocals and short Carnatic songs, and encourages them to meld these songs with genres of music they are already familiar with. 

"It was so interesting to see how one group last semester even fused one of the Indian songs with a popular Chinese song that they knew," she said. 

To Ms Sushma, her teaching is instrumental to her music, because it gives her the chance to affect future generations' perceptions of Indian classical music. This is important to her, as she feels classical Indian music is underappreciated.

"Carnatic music is a traditional art form, so if you ask me whether it's as popular as Bollywood music, it's not," she said, adding that it is important for young people to care about classical art forms too. 

“Traditional art forms give us insight into our history and reveals how society of today has been shaped over the years,” Ms Sushma said.

They also create a shared experience for people from different generations, she added.

When asked how young people can do their part, Ms Sushma said they should be open to classical art, and patronise organisations and artists who are working to help preserve traditional arts.

“There are several things that have surprised us when we have chosen to be open to it, and things in life we grow to love as we give it more chances,” she said.

“Don’t decide that it’s not for you before giving it a fair chance.”

Related topics

classical Indian music Carnatic vocalist accountant youth in action

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