Suneeta Rao’s new single Vaada Karo came out between the recent cyclones on the western and eastern coasts – an unplanned and yet aptly timed release for a song that talks about climate change.

The 54-year-old singer wrote the lyrics to a melody Dhruv Ghanekar had composed 11 years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter. “I woke up thinking, what kind of world are we leaving for our children?” Rao told

The track features percussion by the band Dharavi Rocks. There’s a Hindi rap break by Balaji Devendra aka Crazy B.

The video will be act as a fundraiser for the non-profit organisation ACORN Foundation, which works with residents of Mumbai’s Dharavi area.

Vaada Karo, Suneeta Rao.

Rao’s voice is as sharp as it was in her Paree Hoon Main days 30 years ago. Vaada Karo is Rao’s latest contribution to socially relevant music. Her 2008 song Sun Zara dealt with empowering the girl child. She has been involved with ACORN Foundation for several years.

Rao’s career as an Indipop icon emerged from her early training in Carnatic music, Bharatnatyam and ballet as well as stage appearances and modelling assignments.

A strong influence was her mother, the classical singer Komala Sista Rao. Suneeta Rao has been sharing recordings of her mother’s ghazals on YouTube. She also manages a Facebook page about Sista Rao’s work as a musician.

A ghazal by Komala Sista Rao.

“The little classical training I received was because of her insistence,” Suneeta Rao said. “She said even though I was doing pop music I had to have a basic foundation in classical singing to sound authentic. Most of the songs in my albums Talaash and Indian Girl were raag-based and all of it was from my mother’s vast repertoire of bandishes. For example, Hoton Ka Pyala from Talaash and Lage More Nain from Indian Girl.”

Rao got her break as a singer in 1989 when composer Louiz Banks introduced her in the television programme Pop Time. Banks composed the funk-and-disco-themed songs for her debut album Suneeta Senorita released that year.

Senorita, Suneeta Rao.

It was the Lesle Lewis-composed Paree Hoon Main from Dhuan in 1991 that put her on the map. In contrast to Suneeta Senorita, featuring funk, disco, and Latin pop influences, the songs on Dhuan were mellow and pensive.

The song was released “at a time in my life when I was doing a lot of introspection”. Rao said. “I was 23 years old, a feisty adolescent full of questions about life, and already starting to experiment with fusion.” Her newfound love for blues and rock artists such as Rock Machine [later called Indus Creed] also influenced the album.

Rao felt that Dhuan, about smoking and drug addiction, rather than Paree Hoon Main, would be the chart topper. “Even Parwana Deewana with its subtle blend of sitar, tabla, and rock drums was a favourite of mine,” she said. “But destiny willed otherwise, and I’m not complaining.”

Paree Hoon Main, Suneeta Rao.

The music video by Ram Madhvani, shot in St Xavier’s High School and a bungalow in Bandra in Mumbai, features Rao alongside a young girl and her teacher. The video isn’t about child abuse, as internet detectives claim.

Rather, it’s a “simple song about the beauty and ethereal qualities of a woman and the innocence that remains through her life”, Rao said. “The video had a small hint at a story of a little girl who had a crush on her professor, like all little girls do.”

Rao self-funded the video, which cost Rs 3 lakh, by “begging and borrowing and ultimately being sponsored partly by Colgate and partly by my uncle [advertising executive] Bobby Sista, to whom I will be eternally grateful”.

She mailed the video tape herself to MTV’s Singapore headquarters. “The record company had no intention at the time to spend any money on making the video,” she recalled. “I did it all myself.”

Follow-up albums, starting with Talaash in 1996, brought Rao’s dancing skills to the foreground. Its popular track Kesariya blended Rajasthani folk with synth-pop. The song emerged from a trip by composer Ranjit Barot to Rajasthan and was inspired by a rhyme sung by local children.

Kesariya, Suneeta Rao.

Another hit was Chhoti Chhoti Baatein. Composed by the bassist Raju Singh, the song’s prominent bassline makes it ripe for a rock cover, an idea Rao said she will be considering.

Why did the Indipop success not lead to a playback career, a route taken by several pop artists at the time?

“To be honest, it was a conscious choice to focus on original Indipop music,” Rao said. She did sing a few film songs for Anand-Milind, Anu Malik, Viju Shah and Bappi Lahiri. An early collaboration was with AR Rahman for the Tamil film May Madham (1994).

Adi Paru Mangatha, May Maadham (1994).

Independent pop offered Rao “much more freedom to grow musically which was fabulous for a young girl like me with a different voice and different aspirations”, she observed. “I was simultaneously doing music theatre and applying abroad for further studies as well, and due to the increasing number of shows I often could not make it when called back for recordings. But one has to make choices and sometimes things are not in one’s hands. I would have loved to sing more songs in films, especially later on when the industry opened up and became more open to voices like mine.”

Despite the challenges of building a career away from Bollywood, Rao is proud to have “managed to perform consistently over 25 years and carve a niche for myself”.

She added, “To be called a popstar for me is the ultimate compliment, and I hope it will encourage others to present themselves with their own individuality.”

Also read:

Press play (and wipe away the tears): The ultimate 1990s Indipop songlist