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A paree's tale

Her voice is made for jazz, but Suneeta Rao still finds herself singing Indipop



Suneeta, the orginal pop diva. — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

A CHARMING black-and-white music video with a school campus, a telescope, an unforgettable teacher, a lilting tune, soft light, and ample focus on a dusky woman's face and her chunky jewellery. The music video still remains embedded in our memory, for it was one of the first Indipop videos to actually have a point. The song: "Paree". The singer: Suneeta Rao.

When asked where she had hidden herself away after the [V] Jammin number she recorded with K.K., Suneeta frowns. "I'm very much in the public eye! Maybe it's the TV audiences that are seeing very little of me. Live audiences are getting tons and tons of me!" Known as a livewire on stage, Suneeta packs in plenty of zest in her performances. But considering she doesn't have too many covers to her name, doesn't she tire of singing the same numbers over and over again? "I'm not bored of them yet, if that's what you mean," she says, "Paree and Kesariya get at least three encores in every concert, and I have to oblige."

But she does improvise, she assures. "At a recent concert here in Hyderabad, I took a costume-change break and in that time, the DJ played Koi Kahe and got the audience in a frenzy! I had planned to sing Paree after that, and that plan was effectively ruined. So I draped the dupatta over my head and sang the Carnatic song Dorakuna ituvanti seva before moving on to the jazzed up version of Paree." Overwhelmed by her versatility, the entire crowd apparently bowed down to her and the show kicked after that.

Charming number

Till date, she is wonderstruck by the durability of Paree. "When I first recorded the song, I didn't anticipate such popularity. I guess it had a sensuality and grace that was appealing, even to non-Hindi-speaking audiences."

As she talks about her childhood to "days in the limelight", Suneeta absent-mindedly hums indistinct tunes between sound bytes. "I grew up on Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, and a lot of jazz, funk, ghazals and Carnatic music. I have learnt Carnatic all my life, but I think the biggest influencing factor was my mother's ghazals. When I heard her sing, I just knew music should be nothing but classy."

An ardent lover of Urdu poetry, she tries to infuse it even in her Indipop songs. "I ask my lyricists to use Urdu words in the songs. Even if the listener doesn't understand it, the soothing and rounded texture of the words will remain in his/her mind."

Suneeta's career began with modelling and jingles for an endless list of commercials including Wheel, Thums Up and Rich Café. She also acted in plays like Evita, Grease Lightning and Bottoms Up. Her first break came in 1989, when she appeared on Louis Banks' show Pop Time, after which her Hindi pop album Suneeta Senorita hit the racks. But it was only when she did Paree that she took the country by storm. "I realised then that I couldn't just release an album and go on to something else. I had to stick around and do more."

One among equals

Since she was one of the early female pop stars in the industry, and one from the South, you'd expect a little struggle to get to the top. "Not really," says Suneeta, "I never faced any prejudice about my South Indian background because I had a strong influence of ghazals already. But I did face a lot of flak about the Western influence in my Hindi. So even when film playback offers came, I wasn't very happy with the songs I was being offered." Most of them were stereotypical cabaret numbers that didn't do much for her sensibility as a singer.

When you hear that sultry voice, you can almost hear the jazz ring in it. "Aha!" she says, "I would've loved to just do blues and jazz all the time, but I know I can do more... and people in India don't want their Indian singers choosing English over Hindi. Anyway, my sisters are doing a lot of this. Between the three of us, we cover almost the entire spectrum of music!" Happily enough, it turns out that Aarti Rao, Bangalore's popular jazz voice, is one of Suneeta's sisters.

Same as ever

The image that Suneeta started out with hasn't much changed today. She still wears Western cuts in Indian prints and fabrics; she still goes wild with junk jewellery; she's still comfortable in her skin.

"The clothes I wear on stage and in videos are tailor-made for my image and according to the nature of the song. But I've always been meticulous about my appearance and even if I were an economist, I'd dress like this. It's got nothing to do with money or status. Your look must be original, and even if you have the world's worse colour sense, you must not be apologetic about it. But it does bother me if somebody pays more attention to the image than the music."

Although she leads a jet-set life, she isn't written about too much, and the page threes of the world sort of "glide over" her. "I have never been a come-and-see-me person, I don't do any PR and I'm not skilled in creating controversies. I've even been reprimanded for these things. I look at it like this — if you consider my words worthy enough to fill your news space, you may write about me. I don't work my grey cells too much on this."

ROHINI MOHAN

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