Spirited Vitthala chants or robust Carnatic kritis, Aruna Sairam strikes a chord with music lovers. She speaks to Chitra Swaminathan about traversing musical genres
Vitthala not just powers Aruna Sairam's singing; he pervades her home too. On a wall of her fuss-free drawing room is a lovely portrait of Srinathji embossed in gold and black. Beautifully decorated idols of Radha and Krishna with clay sculptures of a cow and a calf placed nearby recreate Brindavan in all its pastoral glory.
It's a pleasant December morning but Aruna sweats it out — posing patiently for pictures under harsh lights and grappling with the day's hectic agenda. Amidst the constant ringing of the door bell, the pungent whiff of dried red chillies being roasted in the kitchen and her secretary reminding her of an impending meeting, Aruna reveals one of her resolutions for 2011. “Bring more souls closer to the swaras! And to implement it, I am working on a few projects. I want laypersons to experience the joy of Carnatic music. It is not just for well-seasoned listeners.”
The genesis for this was a two-hour informal meeting with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi after performing at Rajiv Gandhi's memorial this year. She spoke about how all those pursuing classical traditions were doing a great service to the nation as art and heritage are integral to a country's development. And, Aruna felt she should look beyond performances and view classical music as a means of collective growth.
“I was overwhelmed when I received a heart-warming letter from Sonia Gandhi inviting me to perform. Fond memories flooded my mind — I had sung at Indira Gandhi's 25th death anniversary and as a 10-year-old before Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and was thrilled to see him listen intently.”
So, the New Year will begin on a refreshing note for this celebrated Carnatic vocalist who moved to Chennai from Mumbai a decade ago. When Aruna decided to pursue her passion full-time, her elder daughter was married while the younger one was going abroad for higher studies. Even before she moved to Chennai, she used to perform in Mumbai and had travelled all over Europe singing Carnatic kritis. But, her art and heart longed for Chennai.
“Actually, it was at my elder daughter's suggestion that we made this crucial move. She couldn't bear to see me feeling lost and anchorless after my father passed away. And, my engineer-husband Sairam, who has always been a great support, even quit his high-profile corporate job,” says the vocalist, who is glad she was around when her daughters were growing up and could share their childhood. “That's as fulfilling as getting a heart-felt sabash from the audience,” she smiles.
Any regrets about tasting success late in life? “I consciously avoid wallowing in the past so that I don't let go of new opportunities to learn and grow.” Ask her about her ‘action-packed' kutcheris, where her hands keep beat in the air, and she laughs. “Oh, many tell me it's like theatre — a little dance, drama and lots of song. How's that?” she laughs.
She did not come to Chennai with big dreams. Aruna just hoped to perform at a few concerts and see some rasikas in the hall. “Believe me, I never expected to see crowds teeming outside halls or waiting in queues to buy tickets to hear me. The other day, when I went at noon for a sound-check to the Chettinad Vidyashram school auditorium for the Margazhi Mahotsavam kutcheri, I was touched to see quite a few listeners already there for the evening performance. They were happily tucking into their packed lunches. It was a picnic-like atmosphere. Such scenes are exhilarating for artistes but, at the same time, terrifying. You are nervous about offering a musical experience the rasikas would cherish; you are always anxious about fulfilling expectations.”
Though currently riding a musical crest, her initial life in Chennai was definitely not a song. While Aruna took time to find her feet in the city's musical firmament, music-lovers did not instantly take to the brave experimenter's full-throated individualistic style and multi-cultural approach to music.
Aruna grew up in a house that had for visitors music maestros such as T. Brinda (her guru), Ustad Amir Khan, M.S. Subbulakshmi and ‘flute' Mali. Not just classical musicians, even abhang and bhajan singers were a regular. For instance, on tulasi puja, the house would reverberate with abhangs and the sounds of chiplas and manjiras.
Her tryst with abhangs eventually turned into a full-fledged companionship; they helped bring about a turnaround in her musical career. Aruna began by singing a vibrant abhang or two as tukkadas in her concerts. Despite being in Marathi, these short pieces made a big impact on listeners. “They love the bhakti bhava and ask me to include more abhangs,” says Aruna. She complied, and how! Her powerful ‘Vitthala, Vitthala' chant now echoes from Mylapore to Melbourne.