Wales Arts Review celebrates Parthian’s publication of Seventy Years of Struggle and Achievement: Life Stories of Ethnic Minority Women Living in Wales with a short essay from professional singer Sunita Menon who writes here on how her singing has enabled to her connect with cultures across India and Wales.
I was born in the state of Kerala, India. My father was an army officer, and every three years he was transferred, so the first half of my childhood was quite nomadic, and we moved all over to places like Delhi and Bombay. When I was in Year 7, my father retired from the army and took a job in Kerala, and we settled in Cochin, where I remained until I graduated.
From the time I was a child, I’d always wanted to be a singer, and I can’t remember wanting to be anything else. I grew up listening to my mum sing in Hindi, so suppose I inherited my talent from my mother and interest from my father, who wanted me to learn Carnatic classical music.
Kerala is one of the most happening states in India when it comes to arts and culture, and I had a fantastic time doing music when I was growing up, and I don’t remember too many weeks when I was not competing in musical youth festivals, each with over 500 competitors. Later on, I represented my university at the national level on three occasions.
While the Carnatic tradition was my initial introduction to music, in college, I got introduced to Western music, and after I graduated, I joined one of India’s biggest rock bands, called 13AD. I was their lead female vocalist for about four and a half years and toured the length and breadth of India with them and abroad, which was a really fascinating journey.
Before I got married, I tried to do a stint in a courier company called DHL. I worked there for about a year, and I hated every minute of it. I realised I’m not cut out for a 9–5 job, as I like to be doing different things every day. Along with singing, I love painting and cooking and doing creative things around the house, which all excite me, and a mundane job would have killed me.
I came to Wales after I got married to my husband, Sudhir, who was working here. I’ve only ever lived in Wales, but it’s been brilliant, and the people have been so nice to me here. But for my first six years, I did absolutely no singing, as I didn’t have any contacts. Then, a GP in Wales got to know from somebody that I’m classically trained, and she wanted to take some lessons from me. She also wanted to learn Hindi songs, and in time, she introduced me to her core group of friends, who asked her to organise a show for me. So I have to give it to her for introducing me to music again after a great break.
My first show in Wales was for 250 people. Here, that’s considered massive, whereas in India, I’m used to performing for 5,000 people, which is still not considered a huge crowd, so it’s taken me some time to get used to the Welsh concept of huge numbers. There’s much more happening in places like the Midlands, and the Welsh music scene is a bit too quiet for my liking. It’s a lot different and better now than when I first came, but I still feel we can do more. But I’m grateful for the wonderful platform that WAWAA has given me as a way for people to come to know me.
Most of the time, I perform here, but there’s only so much I can do in this country. So during the summer, and the Easter and Christmas holidays, I go to India to perform. I’m known in the Bollywood industry in India, so my musicians there always try to encourage me to stay. But I have commitments in Wales, especially my two beautiful girls who are my priority. After I’ve seen them into university, I’ll have a lot more time on my hands to pursue my interests. And for me, I don’t feel age is a factor. Age is just a number, and my whole life is there for me.
My older daughter is an extremely passionate dancer, and there’s music in both of them in some form or the other which I’m really happy about. So I tell my kids and anybody I meet to follow your passion with conviction and believe that it will happen. There’s no way it won’t happen. I know because I faced only obstacles when I was growing up.
My entire family are professionals, my brother and cousins are orthopaedic surgeons, and I’m the only artist in the family, so although my father really pushed me to learn music, he still wanted me to be a professional with an interest in music rather than a musician. On top of that, I come from a very conservative family, so when I went into a rock band, it sent shockwaves throughout the entire family, and it was very hard. My father didn’t talk to me for about a year and a half. But then later on, when he started seeing me perform and the kind of musicians who were giving me respect and honouring me, he really changed and was very proud of me.
I love singing and only sing what I want to and that gives me joy. One of my strengths is that I can sing in about sixteen or seventeen languages. When I’m doing shows for Banglas or a group from Tamnar or Gujarat, I’ve been able to give them what they want to listen to, and if I have a Western crowd, I will sing purely Western music.
I used to perform at a regatta in Kerala for the Indian Naval Academy, which is the largest military academy in Asia. Every year they’d invite thirteen or fourteen countries to compete, so if there were Brazilians, I’d do a Portuguese number and an Arabic number for Arab countries and a Baila for Sri Lankans, so they were all happy. For me, music is the best way of connecting cultures. It’s something everybody can relate to and is the easiest medium for bringing people together.
Seventy Years of Struggle and Achievement is available via Parthian.