Aruna Sairam offers an exclusive recital of her vibrant abhangs and has always enjoyed singing a vibrant abhang or two in her Carnatic music concerts.

Charismatic Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam is known for her full throated and personalised style. She is well known outside India with performances at venues like Carnegie Hall, New York, Theatre de la Ville, Paris, and the Festival of Sacred Music, Morocco. The hardcore training she had first from her own mother, later from eminent gurus from entirely different stylistics — T. Brinda and T.R. Subramaniam — has enabled her to hold her own in duets with experts in Gregorian chant, Egyptian or flamenco music.

Aruna Sairam has always enjoyed singing a vibrant abhang or two in her Carnatic music concerts. But it was at The Hindu Friday Review Music Festival 2006 that she first offered an exclusive recital of these Marathi devotional songs.

Abhang singing demands a multi-level grasp of techniques. Ragas don't change definitively, they fade into one another. The rhythms are dynamic and dramatic. Each word of the song carries implied meanings. Knowledge of the life story of the saint composer evokes deeper feeling. Exposure to a range of styles is essential to develop one's own approach. A strong voice with a resonant timbre is a must.

Obviously Aruna Sairam has all these attributes. How else could she have become famous as a singer of abhangs, even in Maharashtra, the home of this singular genre? And a wider circle of lay listeners across the country recognise this senior Carnatic vocalist by her abhang singing!

Her "full bench" recitals at The Hindu November Festival 2010 at Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Bangalore, feature accompanists from the south and the north — Raghavendra Rao (violin), J. Vaidyanathan (mridangam), S. Karthick (ghatam), Niranjan Lele (harmonium), Sai Bankar (tabla) Prakash Shejwal (pakhawaj), Pratap Rath (additional percussion).

(Aruna Sairam will perform as part of the Friday Review November Fest on November 10 at 7.15 p.m.)

‘Complete faith in the songs'

How did you get drawn to abhang singing?

Growing up in Bombay was to hear abhangs from childhood — on the bus, street, marketplace, and during home pujas. My mother had a marble altar for Radha and Krishna, and invited abhang groups of different styles on special occasions. She even engaged a traditional abhang guru to teach me -- not just the verses, but also the lines suitable for elaboration, and the techniques of accentuating "usi", its special offbeat rhythm. I also watched the Sunday harikatha slots on Doordarshan, where experts narrated stories of Namdev, Tukaram, Gnaneshwar, or Pandharpur, with abhangs to heighten the mood. That is how, though I was learning Carnatic music, abhangs were always running through my head, as part of the milieu. Since I know Marathi, I relished their intense bhaav. So you see, I don't have to re-invent myself to sing abhangs.

Bhajans focus on the inward journey. But don't abhangs highlight exuberant community celebration?

A visit to Pandharpur as a young girl has remained with me, and is at the core of my love for the abhang tradition. I remember how, during their journey on foot, pilgrims carried dolis, danced, sang, played dholak and cymbals. Everyone joined the chorus. I feel the pulsating rhythms and ecstasy of that dynamic visual whenever I sing abhangs. And yes, abhangs mesmerize everyone from the traditional Mylapore homemaker to globetrotting professionals.

Who inspires you most? Any apprehensions about presenting only-abhang concerts?

Bhimsen Joshi. He moulds the abhang to his classical style, without sacrificing its vital buoyancy. Apprehensions? The genre is not new to me. Besides, I have complete faith in the songs. The words of Namdev, Janabai, Tukaram and Gnaneshwar cannot fail to move hearts.

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