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Monday, September 27, 2021

International artist Sukki Menon plans to combine burlesque with Bollywood

Sukki Menon plans to bring her show to India soon even as she campaigns to get rid of the taboo attached to this performance art

Written by Alaka Sahani | Mumbai |
Updated: August 10, 2021 1:32:57 pm
Sukki Menon, Sukki Menon burlesque, burlesque artist, burlesque show"I grew up watching Bollywood movies. I have watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai on repeat," said Sukki Menon. (Photo: Aidan Orange)

International burlesque artist Sukki Menon (stage name Sukki Singapora) has her heart set on performing in India soon. Menon, born to an Indian-Singaporean father and a British mother, quit her IT job to pursue a career in this age-old performance art. The self-taught artist, who came from a traditional family, not only embraced the art form which is still considered to be a “taboo” but has also created her unique presence with elaborate costumes and stunning hairdos.

Before the pandemic changed the way the world was moving, Menon would divide her time between Los Angeles and Singapore. In fact, the artist, who moved back to Singapore from the UK in 2013, became the first woman to perform a full and ‘legal’ burlesque show in Singapore a couple of years later. In 2019, she appeared on the Netflix reality show Singapore Social, which has found a significant fan following. At present, she is working on furthering her career in showbiz under the guidance of prominent Hollywood acting coach and casting director Matthew Barry.

Menon, who is currently living with her family in London, talks about the challenges she faced as a bi-racial youngster while growing up and why she wants burlesque to be accepted as a legitimate and an empowering art form for women around the world. Excerpts:

You were earlier employed as an IT professional. What drew you to this art form?

Both my parents are doctors and they wanted me to study science. The pressure was on me to become a doctor, lawyer or IT professional. I majored in geography with a bachelor of science degree. I was nerdy and took up an IT job. That’s what my parents wanted for me. But I wasn’t happy. Sitting in the corporate environment wasn’t for me. I wanted to express myself.

Being bi-racial, I always felt out of place. I was too pale to be Indian and too brown to be British. I started to discover vintage fashion. You can’t go into vintage fashion without hearing the word ‘burlesque’. It turned out to be everything I wanted at that time — strong women, sex positivity and feminism. In addition, it is unbelievably artistic. I knew I had to do this.

Sukki Menon, Sukki Menon burlesque, burlesque artist, burlesque show “I do everything — from designing my costumes to hair and make-up — myself. It’s my hair that requires maximum time,” she says. (Photo: Karolina Skorek)

How did you start moonlighting as a burlesque artist in Manchester?

There is a professional comedy venue down the road in my neighbourhood that was auditioning for a burlesque dancer. I approached the owner and said that I was a professional burlesque dancer even though I had no such training. They asked me to start next week. I had a week to teach myself. My first show was in front of 300 people. I just went for it.

It was not the best performance but the spirit of burlesque is to have fun, to take the audience on a journey. They asked me to come back every Friday and Saturday. During the day, I was in my office and, on the weekends, I was learning to be a burlesque dancer.

Did you have prior training in theatre or dance?

I had an affinity for classical ballet and learnt it from the age of 7 till I was 15. I didn’t pursue it as my parents saw ballet as an extracurricular activity. From ballet, I knew how to place my body elegantly.

When did you take the plunge as a full-time burlesque artist?

After juggling two different careers for a year and a half, I quit my job in 2013. Even though I wasn’t earning enough at that point to pay my bills, I knew that burlesque was my calling. After that, I contacted every single burlesque club and promoter, and embarked on this world tour completely organised by my friends and me. This was also an initiative to raise awareness about burlesque, still seen as a taboo.

How would you sum up the importance of burlesque for the uninitiated?

The word ‘burlesque’ means to poke fun at. The art form originated in the 16th century from Italian theatre and lowbrow regular folk used it to mock highbrow culture. It was a move to reclaim the society they were not a part of.

In the 90s, it witnessed a resurgence. Later on, it evolved to the contemporary style which is very much a creative free-flow. The core value of burlesque is that the performer expresses herself. It is an intrinsically feminist performance.

How much time does it take for you to get ready? And how many suitcases do you travel with?

I do everything — from designing my costumes to hair and make-up — myself. It’s my hair that requires maximum time. I have this uncontrollable desire to design architectural creations through my hair. I see myself as an extension of my art — a walking canvas.
There are a lot of suitcases I travel with. Occasionally, I travel with a seven-foot-high ring prop as I perform in it. Recently, I created a huge rainbow unicorn for my show. I am quite good at deconstructing and travelling with them. It’s like how members of a band travel with their equipment.

How often do you collaborate with other artists?

Recently, I came across an amazing rapper and we combined hip-hop with burlesque. I do YouTube burlesque performances. All the backing dancers on my show have a story about overcoming adversity. We need to find young girls who are talented but they don’t have to have a background in dance. That’s not the spirit of burlesque. It is about empowering real women. I believe in sisterhood and raising women up creatively.

Sukki Menon, Sukki Menon burlesque, burlesque artist, burlesque show I had an affinity for classical ballet and learnt it from the age of 7 till I was 15, she said. (Photo: Andreas Sourbis)

Have you performed in India yet?

Before the pandemic, I was in talks with some people in India regarding this. But it didn’t work out. I know India is ready for it and I’m ready for it. So, it’s just a matter of time.

Are you open to collaborating with Indian artists?

I grew up watching Bollywood movies. I have watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) on repeat. There are some individuals I would love to work with and there are some projects in the works. And the combination of burlesque and Bollywood is right around the corner.

What has been keeping you busy these days?

I try not to travel unless it’s absolutely necessary. Burlesque is live entertainment. To film anything you have to face the camera. This pause has allowed me to think about where I wish to be. I loved doing burlesque on television and I absolutely love being on screen. I am working on several projects over Zoom. By December hopefully, things would return to some kind of normalcy.

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