Meet Supriya Nagarajan: The Carnatic Vocalist Inspiring A New Generation Of Women Composers

Image Credit: Harry Wheeler

Supriya Nagarajan, a Mumbai-born Carnatic Vocalist who now resides in Dewsbury, talks to The Indiependent about bringing South Asian arts to the UK, her synaesthesia, implementing digital technology into live performance, and her new mentoring scheme for young, female composers of colour.  

Artistic director and CEO of Manasamitra, a South Asian Arts Organisation based in West Yorkshire, Supriya brings her primary passion as a musician and composer into all the projects she does, describing her work as “cross-genre, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary…cross everything”, highlighting that she never stays in a box. 

Starting her career as an accountant banker for HSBC, Supriya moved to the UK in 1997 for work, but made the switch to her first love, music, in 2005. She brings the South Indian Classical tradition of Carnatic music to UK audiences through bespoke performances and installation work.

“Because I was new into the country, I wanted to place my vocals in a different context,” she explains. “For me, it was very important that it reaches out into the wider public domain, rather than stay in the Indian diaspora, with people that just follow that music. So it was always my endeavour to get it out.”

And get it out she has. Her most recent production, The Sound of Tea, brought together cultural practices from all over the world to celebrate something that acts as a social connector both for Brits and Indians: tea. As a synesthete—someone whose perception of senses (such as smell or taste) can lead to the stimulation of a different sensory pathway—Supriya explains that she can see her music, and so she wanted to bring this aspect into her experience of tea: “I can see it, I can taste it, I can smell it, but what will it actually sound like to bring all the senses together?” Hence, The Sound of Tea was born. After spending some time on a tea plantation in Darjeeling, Supriya composed her show based on her synesthetic response to each different type of tea. 

Image Credit: Duncan Lomax

Audiences were given the chance to sip some tea out of bespoke Japanese tea cups, whilst listening to Supriya’s vocals sung in Tamil, a language whose script she identifies with. On top of this, Chinese theatre artist Fenfen Huang performed a bespoke tea ceremony, poems written by poets all over the world were recited, and there was even a Didgeridoo playing. It was a truly collaborative process, Supriya tells me, with a “good mix and team of people”—from musicians, to poets, to Supriya’s good friend who is doing her PhD on tea, “everybody had to do their bit to chip in and make this work”. 

But Supriya didn’t want the audience to merely listen and spectate, so she turned to Mick Grierson from the University of Arts London to create something that would allow audiences to interact.

“He made what I call “tech tables” for us—five beautifully carved touchscreen tables that are connected to our sound artist, Duncan Chapman, who relays the music to them,” she explains.

So if audiences touch the screen, they can experience their own little world of music whilst experiencing the music of the performance itself, which is “not intrusive, but rather complementary”. 

When asked about how the pandemic has affected her work, Supriya simply replies: “I’ve actually not stopped. I’ve just sort of shifted, changed gear and moved in a different pathway”. Turning to podcasts, online collaborative concerts and pre-recorded or live-streamed gigs, Supriya has found a whole new medium to share her work, and is grateful for the Arts Council’s funding that has helped to keep Manasamitra going. She also explains how rewarding it is to be able to reach an international audience online. However, she admits that “nothing ever beats doing a live gig; it’s never going to be the same online”.

Image Credit: Duncan Lomax

Moving forward, Supriya has recently assumed a new role as a radio host for Worldwide FM. She has also been involved with various different projects across the country, such as being commissioned to write a piece of music that responds to Barbara Hepworth’s work, and composing for the music duo Animo. One of the most exciting things she has lined up is her new mentoring programme for young women of colour. She tells me her inspiration behind this.

“In my own journey, I didn’t have any role models. I didn’t have somebody I could go to and say, you know, how did you do this? How did you get over that? And so for me, it was a case of, if I struggled for a role model, then maybe I should actually be a role model for somebody else. I also looked around and saw that a lot of South Asian women don’t see themselves as composers. And I was astonished, because South Asian music, especially Carnatic and Hindustani, are all about improvisation, and improvisation is composition—you’re composing in your head as you improvise”.

Supriya hopes to take on between six and ten mentees over the next year, and encourages anyone who’s interested in applying to keep an eye out on Manasamitra’s website and social media. 

My last question for Supriya, which I felt compelled to ask, was “what is your favourite tea?”. To which, she tells me “Japanese Genmaicha”.

“It is basically black tea with roasted Japanese red rice in it,” she explains. “I drank it when I went to Kyoto for the first time and absolutely fell in love with it, and now it’s available across the UK. It smells a little bit like popcorn, and it just lifts my spirit a little bit”.

She also loves Darjeeling Silver White Tips and, of course, you can’t go wrong with a good old cup of Yorkshire tea. 

To learn more and keep up with Supriya and Manasamitra’s work, follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud.

Words by Francesca Lynn.

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