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Suma Subramaniam - Namaste is a Greeting and She Sang for India

Updated: 6 days ago

Suma Subramaniam shares NAMASTE IS A GREETING, a sweet, universal text shining a light on a word with significance far beyond yoga class, and SHE SANG FOR INDIA, a picture book biography about M.S. Subbulakshmi, a powerful Indian singer who advocated for justice and peace through song.

BOOK DESCRIPTION

Namaste is a Greeting by Suma Subramaniam; illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

Page Length: 32 pages

Ages 4 to 8, Grades P to 3


What is namaste? It's found in a smile, a friendship, a celebration. It exists in silence; it can be said when you're happy or when you're feeling low.


For one small girl in a bustling city, namaste ("I bow to you") is all around her as she and her mother navigate a busy marketplace--and when she returns with a little plant and chooses to give it to an elderly neighbor, it can be seen in the caring bond between them. In a sweet, universal text, debut author Suma Subramaniam shines a light on a word with significance far beyond yoga class, while artist Sandhya Prabhat makes the concept of mindfulness come alive in delightful illustrations likely to draw children in again and again.



She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice for Change by Suma Subramaniam; illustrated by Shreya Gupta

Page Length: 40 pages

Ages 4 to 8


Before M.S. Subbulakshmi was a famous Carnatic singer and the first Indian woman to perform at the United Nations, she was a young girl with a prodigious voice.


But Subbulakshmi was not free to sing everywhere. In early 1900s India, girls were not allowed to perform for the public. So Subbulakshmi busted barriers to sing at small festivals. Eventually, she broke tradition to record her first album. She did not stop here. At Gandhi's request, Subbulakshmi sang for India's freedom. Her fascinating odyssey stretched across borders, and soon she was no longer just a young prodigy. She was a woman who changed the world.


NOTABLE QUOTES

ADDITIONAL LINKS

TALK ABOUT THE EPISODE

CREDITS

AFFILATE LINK DISCLAIMER


Listen along:


FULL TRANSCRIPT:


[1:04] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids. I also LOVE discovering new-to-me music. And that’s going to come into play a little later in this episode.


This is a podcast all about exploring big ideas in children’s books and the way that stories can help us feel seen, understood, and valued.


Helping me out on today’s episode is Jonah.


Jonah: Hi! My name is Jonah. I’m 12 years old and I’m from Maryland.


Today on the Children’s Book Podcast, Suma Subramaniam is an Indian-American author who loves music, movies, books, knitting, mountains, oceans, sunshine, and rain.


Today we’re talking about her two debut picture books: Namaste is a Greeting and She Sang for India.


During the day, Suma hires engineers for a software company. And during the night, she writes for children and young adults. Her interests and passions in writing for children are mostly centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage.


Matthew: Namaste Is a Greeting by Suma Subramaniam; illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

What is namaste? It's found in a smile, a friendship, a celebration. It exists in silence; it can be said when you're happy or when you're feeling low.


For one small girl in a bustling city, namaste ("I bow to you") is all around her as she and her mother navigate a busy marketplace--and when she returns with a little plant and chooses to give it to an elderly neighbor, it can be seen in the caring bond between them. In a sweet, universal text, debut author Suma Subramaniam shines a light on a word with significance far beyond yoga class, while artist Sandhya Prabhat makes the concept of mindfulness come alive in delightful illustrations likely to draw children in again and again.




[3:35] Meet Our Guest: Suma Subramaniam


Suma: Hi, my name is Suma Subramaniam.

[Demonstrates pronunciation.]

I live in Seattle, Washington with my family and a dog that watches baking shows. And, uh, I'm also the author of Namaste is a Greeting, which is published by Candlewick Press and Illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat. And She Sang for India, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Illustrated by Shreya Gupta.


Matthew: Listeners, we pack a lot into this episode because we’re talking about two books today. But each is so strong and so individual that I didn’t want to leave either book out.


So, we’re going to spend the first half of the episode talking about Namaste is a Greeting, Suma’s picture book debut. We’ll then focus the second half on She Sang for India,

Suma’s nonfiction debut about M.S. Subbulakshmi, a famous Carnatic singer and the first Indian woman to perform at the United Nations.


Suma introduces Namaste is a Greeting by way of talking about the readers she had in mind when she wrote the story.



[4:50] What Kind of Reader Did You Have in Mind?


Suma: First of all, thank you for having me here, Matthew. I'm so excited to be here. And, um, to tell you about the kind of reader that I was thinking when I wrote Namaste, I had readers of all ages in my mind when I wrote this book.


So, you know, I grew up in India in a very small apartment. I was just about 300 square foot. But with a large family and also with people from all backgrounds. And when I say all backgrounds, I mean all kinds of religious backgrounds as well as economic backgrounds.


And, you know, uh, my family was not made rich by wealth, but we were made rich by people. So growing up I read everything that I got my hands on and it was wonderful because it meant that if a book was on the shelves, or if something, if there was a newspaper that was on the shelf, it was meant to be read and I could pick it up and read it.


So in that vein, I wrote this book for readers who were young and old and who would want to see a different take on mindfulness using the word “namaste”.


As a child, I bonded with my neighbors and friends when we celebrated and embraced our differences when we came together to, uh, celebrate festivals and events. And that's an experience that I wanted to capture in a book. And that's how Namaste is a Greeting was born.



[6:25] What is “Namaste”?


Matthew: Many listeners, I think, will associate the word namaste with the practice of meditation. I think that that is pretty common.


Suma: Mmm hmm.


Matthew: What does namaste mean to you?


Jonah: Namaste, to me, is a word that means peacefulness. Whenever I think of peacefulness, I think of the word namaste. If someone is doing yoga, they might use the word “namaste” or things like that.


Suma: So, namaste is a sanskrit word, and if we break that word into two, it is “namah” and “te”. And “namah” means “I bow” and “te” means “to you”.


Now, in my mother tongue, which is tamil, or the language that I speak at home, um, is called tamil or tamir, namaste is said differently. We say namaskaram or vanakkam. But the meaning is the same, which is “the divine in me honors the divine in you”. And it's an expression of respect and appreciation to any being that we greet. And uh, that's why I have must in also described in different languages, different world languages, if you look at the book. And I think the word as such is universal.



[7:46] Look-Fors in the Illustrations


Matthew: The illustrations that Sandhya Prabhat created for Namaste is a Greeting are beautiful, vibrant, and joyous. Sometimes, picture book authors and illustrators work completely separate from one another and what results is a bit of magic from each offering a bit of something to delight and engage the reader.


But in the case of Namaste is a Greeting, Suma was actually, in a way, telling two stories: that of the text, which communicates the heart and intention of “namaste”, and that of a girl, an elderly neighbor, and a selfless act of kindness.


And what Suma and Sandhya accomplish together here is what I think makes this book so lasting.


Suma: Sandhya really brought my vision to life in this book, in, you know, the most beautiful way.


I did write up a visual narrative for the book and I shared it with the publisher and then we went back and forth on the structure and also the story structure of the book. And Sanya brought in her vision. So we collaborated quite a bit, uh, before, um, you know, she started illustrating the book.


And, I'll talk about three specific pages that really moved me because it was so unexpected. And Sandhya, I mean, she did a fabulous job.


So the first one is at the beginning when, you know, the little girl brings her hands together at her heart and she, when she meets the elderly neighbor for the first time, and the neighbor waves back to her, and then towards the end of the book you'll notice a role reversal of this gesture on another page where the elderly neighbor brings her farms together and she turns her loving attention to this little girl. And the little girl waves back to the elderly woman. And the story comes full circle there because it doesn't matter how, you know, how a person greets another person, but it uncovers the power of mindfulness when the characters begin to harmonize and they honor each other despite their differences.


Another page that's close to my heart is in the middle of the book, when the child requests for a plant at the garden store. And she asks for this plant that's lonely and that's way up top, something that no one else wants because it's got a droopy flower and it's got fading leaves. But the little girl wants it and she wants to love it and care for that plant. And as we navigate through the pages, we see that her kind nature also reflects in her actions towards the elderly neighbor who is also lonely. And she expresses the same kind of, uh, empathy towards humans and plants and, you know, species that are beyond. That, that look like her and species that are not like her too.

And the power of such diverse friendships is the, you know, is, is the bonding and the hope that it brings in times of adversity. And I think Sandhya brought the vision of this book to life beautifully by expressing, you know, expressing herself in those pages that way.


Matthew: These illustrations are so beautiful, listeners. I’ll include samples in this episode on my website at matthewcwinner.com so that you can see them, too.



[11:37] She Sang for India


Matthew: It’s time we move into our second book, shall we?

She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice for Change by Suma Subramaniam; illustrated by Shreya Gupta

Before M.S. Subbulakshmi was a famous Carnatic singer and the first Indian woman to perform at the United Nations, she was a young girl with a prodigious voice.


But Subbulakshmi was not free to sing everywhere. In early 1900s India, girls were not allowed to perform for the public. So Subbulakshmi busted barriers to sing at small festivals. Eventually, she broke tradition to record her first album. She did not stop here. At Gandhi's request, Subbulakshmi sang for India's freedom. Her fascinating odyssey stretched across borders, and soon she was no longer just a young prodigy. She was a woman who changed the world.


Suma: I speak for all her fans when I say this, that there is no Carnatic music without M.S. Subbulakshmi, and there is no M.S. Subbulakshmi without Carnatic music.


So, she was the first of many. And she was the first Indian musician to perform at the United Nations. She was the first Indian musician to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her contribution to public service using her musical talent. The Ramon Magsaysay Award is deemed as a Nobel Prize of Asia.


And also she was the first Indian musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, which is the highest civilian honor to be awarded to any Indian musician in India. And her career spanned for more than seven decades. And in her time it was very rare for a woman to make a mark in the world. And she gave most of what she earned to charity.


So her story is one of quiet strength. You know? Her life is an example of how a small town girl with a great devotion to her craft realized her dream.


And, like many other women in her era, there were rules by which Subbulakshmi had to live and a girl could be told that she could be anything she wants to be. But who is ever content with living a rule driven life? No one.


And she broke those rules. And she did that by her unparalleled dedication and love for music. And she used her voice for change and peace for well over seven decades of her music career.


And through her life, we can learn that the ability to heal ourselves and the world is within us. And it doesn't have to be dramatic. We could just use our talent.


Matthew: I asked Suma if there was a piece of music performed by Subbalakshmi that was particularly special or memorable to her. She said, “There are so many favorites!”, but asked if I might share an excerpt from “Bhaja Govindam”. Let’s listen together.


[Excerpt of “Bhaja Govindam”]

I’ll include a link to the full song in our show notes so that you can enjoy it in its entirety.



[15:31] Music as a Form of Activism


Matthew: Subbalaksmi’s story is one of music and of activism. It struck me that many of us might have a different image of activism in our minds. But then I was quickly reminded of how musicians and music have been acts of protest and activism since the very beginning.


So I asked Suma if she would mind talking about the relationship between Subbalakshmi’s life and music as a form of activism.


Suma: Yeah. You know, I, this was just such a wonderful question because, uh, it had me thinking about how I grew up and, you know, what kinda activism did I have to look up to, uh, Matthew.


So when I, uh, grew up, I didn't, I didn't see girls in books. I mean, I did see them in girls books and media, but they were always secondary characters. They were sidekicks and mothers and grandmothers and sisters, but they were never heroes or superheroes.

And I had to lean on, you know, the women in my family were not necessarily famous. But they were the feminists that I looked up to, and they showed me how to evolve, you know, into, um, uh, who I am today. And, um, you know, and, and just become, become a person of activism, you know, who can do something about it.


And now if we look at just children's book industry, there are a number of books that celebrate musicians who are involved in activism, for example, Drum Dream Girl, Freedom in Congo Square, When Marion Sang, Muddy, Dancing Hands, and so many others.

And I grew up listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi all my life every morning and even today, I wake up to her music. And not just me, I know that there are many Indian households that wake up to her first thing in the morning. Not just homes, but they're played her music is played in temples and everywhere.


So these lists of books that I just told you, they go deeper and deeper and they feature, uh, people with many different musical styles and forms like western, classical, jazz, folk, salsa, and also music with the east. The world as we see it right now is constantly going through political and social unrest. It happened at the time of M.S. Subbulakshmi. It's happening right now.


And while there are so many people out there expressing their opinions in different ways, sometimes good, sometimes aggressive, using aggressive mannerism, you know, art and music are great tools to channel our energy and bring about a positive change, especially in the minds of young people.


So if we look at accomplished musicians, right? They rather invest their time in creating good art than being involved in acts of violence or all things that are negative. They're better off and they're better able to articulate their thoughts and their feelings through music, because music heals them in a deeper sense and it becomes spiritual for them. And it also helps 'em explore a number of possibilities.


For example, like, one doesn't need to know the language to appreciate good music. Right? And currently we see collaborations on YouTube and various online streaming platforms, which is amazing because world cultures come together. There's a fusion of, you know, world music out there. And the experience is worth our time so much more than spending on, you know, hating people. And eventually it transforms every.


Transforms us like deep inside and it becomes a meditative and mindful practice, which is kind of the need of the hour right now. And it appeals to everyone, it appeals to people of all ages and all cultures and all speaking people from anywhere in the world. And what is life without music and art?



[19:49] A Message from Suma Subramaniam to You


Matthew: Listeners, I hope you will agree that Suma Subramaniam has shared such wonderful stories and wisdom with us in our time together today.


As we close this episode, Suma had a message that she wanted to make sure reached you. All of you. And each of you.


This is a message for you to take with you as we leave.


Suma: You are loved. And this holiday season I hope you pay attention to species of all kinds who are lonely or who are having a difficult winter, and you give them a little bit of your time.



[20:35] Closing


Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.


Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Suma? Where can listeners find you?


Suma: First of all, I'd like to thank you for having me on this wonderful podcast and really having children, having, you know, listened to it as well. And I've been a fan of you in this podcast for a really, really long time. I'd love to say a big hello to all of your children and also. Thank them for checking out She Sang for India and Namaste is a Greeting.


So my website is sumasubramaniam.com and I'm also Suma Subramaniam on Facebook and Suma_Subramaniam on Instagram.


And for as long as we're gonna stay on Twitter, it's Suma_V_S. That's where everyone can find me.


Matthew: Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


Want a copy of She Sang for India or Namaste is a Greeting? Jonah, where should people look?


Jonah: Check your school or public library, your classroom, or, if you want to support independent bookstores, you can purchase a copy at Bookshop.org.


Matthew: I’ll have a link in the show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


We are a proud member of Kids Listen, the best place to discover the best in kids podcasts. Learn more at kidslisten.org.


Anything else you want people to know, Jonah?


Jonah: (closing thought/message)


Matthew: Yes. I love that. Be well. And read on.


End Of Episode

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