Beyond the sonority of her voice and the serenade her cords create every time she sings; the sing-along melodies and vibrancy in her message, Sunayana Sarkar has an exciting story; one that is expressed loudly in her style of music – blues, folk, and rock – and in her unique sound, but more so, in her other job as a lover of rocks. Our chat would reveal that she picked up both passions during her childhood- one that spanned across many towns and cities, terrains and flora.
You may have heard her score for a character in the Hercules series, the Lion King movie, and the many other superb works she has done for Disney and other platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV. As a singer, composer, and voice-over artiste, this “Khar-Khuwa Bengali” powerhouse wears many more caps. It is her ability to combine the highly-demanding entertainment industry with her job as an assistant professor of structural geology, tectonics and rock mechanics at the Mukesh Patel School of Technology Management and Engineering in Mumbai that stands her out.
It all began with a fascination…
“I was born in Calcutta [now Kolkata] but soon whisked away from nursing home to airport and to the then sleepy little city of Darjeeling. Dad was posted there as a researcher, working with the CSIR [Council of Scientific and Industrial Research] supported Tea Research Association. The next few years were spent in the idyllic mountain terrain. Our bungalow overlooked the entire range of the Eastern Himalayan flanks and every morning, I would be mesmerised by the beauty of the orogeny. There were questions in my mind that I did not understand then, as a two and three year old. But rocks have a magnetic effect on some. The exposed Tethyan rocks on the mountainsides definitely had an impact on me,” Sarkar says.
But there were even more travels after that. From Cachar in Assam through Agartala in Tripura to Jorhat, Assam, much of these places were close to nature and some others had suffered the effects of industrialization. As she puts it, “Growing up at the cusp of a changeover from pristine forest covers in the Northeast to commercially affected wildernesses, was perhaps a future trigger for my interest in nature and environment,” she muses. The year 1990 would bring an end to all the ‘moving’ as her father retired. She would go on to get married in 1998 and moved to Mumbai, a city she still likes to call Bombay.
Sarkar first met music at the age of five, through her older sister, Nilanjana, who she says is a far more accomplished singer. It was her who taught young Sarkar the ropes, the technicalities, parts, and harmony of music. With a mind too young to clearly understand it all, she was fascinated by the beauty of the art. It was later on in boarding school that these skills were properly honed and perfected; a journey to the world of classical music, ushering her into the world of Disney. All of these, while studying to pursue another innate passion; geology.
Coming from a family of professional and leisure singers probably played a part. “Family gatherings tend to become private concerts”, she grinned. Her big break came in 1998 when she met Antara Chowdhary, daughter of late legendary Indian music director Salil Chowdhary, who asked her to come for an audition for a Disney project. She went and got picked for the Hercules series. Several years and projects later, she has grown to become one of the most prolific and accomplished singers and composers Assam has ever seen. But it is her work with Sound and Vision India that reverberates in her mind the most. “It is an honour to be working with them for the last 22 years,” she says.
“For every song that we dub into Hindi, auditions are conducted and the final song recorded with the approved artist. Some of the most amazing singers are involved in this work intimately. I have too many to name, who work with me regularly. It is a privilege to get to hear them singing live for me every now and then. Every song is a challenge and every project a stamp of excellence because the quality control maintained at these studios that I work with is stringent to say the least. We work with tight delivery deadlines and circumventing the stress and yet dishing up quality is sometimes the adrenalin rush in all of this,” she adds.
With the lockdown, things have slowed down. For her, writing was all she could do, as well as reaching out to her fans virtually, encouraging them, and sharing some knowledge on how to defeat the pandemic. With the lockdown now lifted, there’s a lot to be expected. “In fact, we have content for another album that is going to be out by the beginning of next year. The songs are in Assamese, English, and Bengali. We mainly dabble with the blues and throw in folk at times. It is an absolute honour to be accompanying four exceptionally talented gentlemen/artists with my vocals. With Manas Choudhary on bass, Ambar Das on drums and vocals, Nilanjan Sammadar on guitar, songwriting and vocals, and Anowar Hussain on the keys, we at Melange [band] have fun on stage for sure,” she says.
The other side of her is the academia and rock lover. “Let’s say that I have felt relieved when I managed to complete a PhD in earth sciences from IIT Bombay in 3.5 years and deliver a baby in between,” she hints. But the music has sought of overshadowed this academic feat.
Beyond all of these is the love and relationship she has with her son, Sunandan. Now 18, he is pursuing a career in mechanical engineering but has also developed a keen interest in music, learning to play the drums and the guitar. “Over the lockdown he taught himself how to use the software Ableton and is now trying to dabble in producing tracks. We have collaborated on two songs already. As a baby and toddler, he did not really have much of a choice when it came to music but latently veered towards the kind that I used to listen to. But in the later years, he broadened his horizon and now listens to a lot more than the rock, pop, blues, and folk that I usually listen to. He has been working as a dubbing artist and singer since he was three and so we are both proud of each other’s achievements. His latest favourite song of my repertoire is ‘Mann’ from the Mulan 2020 original Hindi soundtrack. Music is a huge part of both of our lives.”
Sarkar remarks, rather unfortunately, how talent and capital are no longer enough to make it big in the independent music scene today. She says good knowledge and management skills of social media are now a major part of the mix. “All one needs is an average understanding of available software and streaming platforms, some capital, and definitely talent. I firmly believe that the talent ultimately wins over. Look at how Sunidhi Chauhan has managed to hold her own in spite of a slew of new singers hitting the magnum share Bollywood music market! Her talent shines through” she stresses.
While the lockdown has forced her to revisit old passions like knitting, embroidery, and crochet, music continues to shine through as she draws inspiration from Jethro Tull, Joan Baez and Carole King, who she says continue to be omnipresent in her diurnal playlist. But beyond people, her songs continue to be inspired by haven “fallen in and out of love with rocks, trees, mountains, streams and a very small number of seriously amazing men”.
Cooking and writing remain a big part of her life, but her work leaves her no much time. “Cooking is therapeutic. I like to go into the depths of research when it comes to the geo-referencing of the recipe, attached folk tales, authenticity, and more. My dida or maternal grandmother was a fabulous cook and she always had awesome stories to tell. From the partition woes to war situations but the one thing that was always a constant in her stories was this love for cooking for family and friends. While she handed me those passions, she also managed to teach me Austrian white thread embroidery. I wish I had been able to spend more time with her because she must have taken so many more accomplishments to her grave,” she says with a wry smile.
We can look forward to upcoming projects including two albums, a book, a new venture that launches in a few days, and some other research work on tectonic history of Northeast India. For now, Assam and, indeed, the whole of India can continue to enjoy the joyous melodies she put on the airwaves. She believes Assamese music has come to stay, making reference to the works of Dr Bhupen Hazarika and Anurag Saikia, to mention a few.