By Noor Anand Chawla
In a country known for its incredible diversity, true cultural ambassadors are those that can transcend the boundaries of their traditional craft while keeping its soul intact. With her unique approach and varied repertoire, Indo-fusion violinist and vocalist, Sunita Bhuyan is certainly a prominent cultural ambassador for Indian music. Riding high on the success of her recent largescale musical collaboration, ‘Synthesis – The Indian Muse’, she joins Loudest for a candid chat. Excerpts from the interview:
Q1. Hello! You have had a diverse and interesting musical career. We would love to know about your journey in the music industry so far.
A: I actually ventured into music full time later in life, as I worked as a Human Resources professional. I was trained in classical music from age eight, under the guidance of my mother and her guru Pt. V.G. Jog. I also have a Masters degree in music from Prayag Sangeet Samiti in Hindustani Classical. Alongside, I also did an MBA in Human Resource Management, because my guru was clear that we must focus on academics along with music. He emphasised that a thinking mind is very important for an artist – he was very progressive that way. Music was a genetic gift I received from my mother – it just came naturally to me. I could play by the ear.
When I joined my guru after training with my mother, he said I was already prepared as she had taught me the right technique. So, I began performing on stages across the world. I went to Singapore, Kolkata, Bombay, so many places. During this time, I learnt to emote on stage, by understanding the audience’s pulse, and before long, winning the audience became my mission.I believe I have the unique ability to take the violin in many different directions. I also had a single clear agenda. I didn’t want to be typecast as a concert violinist. 10 years back, the violin was restricted in its reach as it was believed to be a classical instrument, and not as an instrument with immense versatility. I wanted to break that myth and make the violin a medium of communication.
Q2: Alongside your musical career, you have also made a name for yourself in the corporate sector. How did you balance these two divergent fields?
A: With a specialisation in Human Resources, I began to train young corporates, who were very qualified but lacked the skills they needed to manage teams. I’ve done this for years –travelled around the globe picking up the best practices in this field and teaching them to clients here. As a wellbeing practitioner I formulated and implemented health and wellness programs through standard and alternative platforms with focus on yoga, meditation, arts and music to empower, engage and enrich. Gradually I became a specialist using music as a tool for structured Human Resource and leadership interventions. As the Chief Mentor at Atos Prayas Foundation, I have been working to spread the message of holistic learning and development for young children of underserved communities across India.
That is how I balance these two aspects of my life – music and human resources. Recently I have started a new program on music and mental health, which I feel is the need of the hour. It hasn’t always been easy though! I’ve faced gender bias too. People assumed I was popular only because I made music and chose my Assamese mekhelas well. It took a while for people to realise there is a structure and logic to my program, based on a foundation of technique and in depth experience of both fields over 25 years, which is why it became successful and popular.
Q3. You describe your work as that of an Indo-fusion violinist. What does this entail?
A: Violinists have always been regarded as instrumentalists - not as solo artists or headliners. I felt that primarily in Assam, where I would never be invited to headline at their mega music festival ‘Bihu’. I wanted to change this narrative around the violin. Due to my frequent travels around the world for work, I started imbibing the music of these countries. I found it very easy to pick different styles because of my classical training. So I started merging these sounds together. Fusion is just a strategy for me, it’s not a distinctive genre.
Q4. Please tell us about your role as an Ambassador of Assamese folk music.
A: My entry into folk music was to break the myth that the violin was only a classical instrument. I have been fortunate to be able to learn from my varied musical interactions. In Mumbai, I was often invited to forums and conferences where I would perform Assamese folk. At one such conference in 2010, I met Gauri Yadwadkar, the Head of Content at Times Music. She loved my unique sound and shortly after, signed me on for a contract for my album Bihu Strings.
I also started performing this unique style of music when I travelled abroad because I already had a corporate audience in these countries. That really helped me promote the album I made with Times Music. I had the unique ability to flip between corporate venues and the performance stage easily. My first fest was in Glasgow in 2014, then I started directing multi-artist ensembles across different styles. I’ve worked with the musicians of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Gaelic school, as well as with mainstream classical musicians, African musicians and even combined Gaelic singing with Assamese folk.
This also led to the development of my module C-Sharp, which is about creativity and music. Through this I create internal programs for organisations, where I combine music to help with training and Mental Health initiatives. In the last 1.5 years, I have attended and been part of numerous forums such as the prestigious Grace Hopper, SHRM, Atos Innovation summit, Amazon concert, Inclusion summit, fund raisers and many others. I also curated programs for the Nehru Centre London during the pandemic.
Q5. Please tell us about your association with ShowCase Events.
A: I met Nanni through Atul Churamani – at the Paddy Fields Festival in 2018. We connected very quickly. At the time, she was planning a special festival called Sounds of the Brahmaputra, which hasn’t happened as yet, but hopefully will soon. During the pandemic, she had started her new vertical ShowCase Studio. She invited me to collaborate and I in turn, invited many of my amazing co-artists to her ‘In Conversation’ series. It’s been a pleasure and honour to play the role of Advisor to ShowCase Studio. I also enjoyed being part of their latest production ‘Synthesis – The Indian Muse’. Due to personal problems, I almost didn’t make it for the song but she insisted and waited for me! That’s the special bond I share with Nanni and Showcase.
Q6. What was your experience of working on Synthesis – The Indian Muse?
A: We were all in different places but we wanted to make it work. I was most hesitant about the video footage, but realised the ethos of the song would connect people. That is actually what has taken the song organically to such a large reach. When the intent is good, the universe transpires to make it perfect – everything fell in place correctly. I just hope we can perform it live someday!
Q7. Any exciting projects in the works?
A: There is one that just got over – it’s called the Seven Sisters Project. Nine female artists from the North-East are making music to spread the message about saving the environment. We’re also lined up to perform at next year’s fests in the US and UK – hopefully we should be able to travel by then. I’m also working on the mental health and music collaboration with the Brain Research Centre, which the Hinduja Foundation is putting together.
Q8. What advice do you have for people entering the music industry now?
A: I would say it’s most important to build your craft and create a unique identity without following others. Don’t get too hassled with followers on YouTube and Instagram – that is aparallel world. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll create your own niche.