Carnatic vocalist Neela Ramgopal, who turns 75 on Sunday, looks back on her life and music.

Single-minded dedication and immense passion for music are the hallmarks of an illustrious career that has brought senior Carnatic vocalist Neela Ramgopal much acclaim and many accolades.

The artist, who will be celebrating her 75th birthday on May 23 (Sunday), exuded grace and graciousness during a recent interview at her home in Bangalore, sharing invaluable insights into the various aspects of Carnatic music, gleaned from her vast experience as prolific performer and respected guru.

Touching upon the significance of voice quality in Carnatic music, she avers that though it is important, it is not the sole criterion for a successful musician.

Even if the voice is not perfect, the quality of music is bound to bring recognition. According to her, “There is only one method for voice training, and that is practice. Eat music, drink music, think music!” Also, the music ‘samskara' should be present within the artist for manodharma to develop.

Importance of niraval

While singing niraval, both the lyric and the music should go together, and the line taken up for niraval should be complete and understandable. She says, “For example, in the Kharaharapriya krithi ‘Rama Nee Samanamevaru' doing niraval for just ‘Palukupalukulaku Thene' leaves the meaning incomplete. If it is not possible to do niraval without mutilating the meaning, it is better not to do it at all. Besides some compositions have no scope for niraval. Fortunately the perception about this has changed over the years and there is more awareness now, because teachers explain the significance of the lyrics to students.”

A good concert, according to her, should include a ragam tanam pallavi, and at least three hours are required for this. As for the adaptation of Hindustani ragas such as Patdeep for RTP, even though the effect may be different from that of a raga such as Bhairavi or Thodi, it is still pleasing to the ears, and indicates the preference and imagination of the artist. These days, the audience enjoys Marathi abhangs even though they do not, strictly, belong to the Carnatic repertoire; artists sing them to make the performance more colourful. “In ragam tanam pallavi, I think, if you are capable of doing it, you can, but it will not have the same flavour or ruchi as our classical ragas.”

Having researched and recorded compositions in each of the 72 melakarta ragas, Neela opines that all of them cannot attain the popularity of a raga such as Sankarabharanam.

“The vivadi ragas have their own dos and don'ts. You cannot listen to Neethimathi or Gangeyabhushani for a long time because of the vivaditvam. Even ragas such as Rishabhapriya and Sarasangi, which have no vivaditvam, cannot be equated with Sankarabharam or Thodi, categorised as ghana ragas by the great masters.”

Over the years, the repertoire of artists has changed. Says the veteran, “In those days, they used to master about 30 kritis, and were comfortable with them, and every concert was a success. Now, artists learn more songs as they have to cater for different needs. For instance, for Ramanavami, one needs to learn several songs on Rama. We have to learn many more songs, which we have not mastered like the old people. That is why, the repertoire has increased, but the quality has not improved.”

Need for more

In earlier times, “Every artist was special in his/her own way, and had established a mark, whereas now, we have no stamp of our own.”

Classical music can be enjoyed by the uninitiated also, and is not just for a niche audience, feels Neela. “Music should appeal to everybody and it is not necessary that you should enjoy the technicalities if it is sweet to the ears.'

About the music appreciation levels among the public, she opines: “Generally, they enjoy oft-heard songs and ragas – ‘Teliyaleru Rama', or ‘Vathapi Ganapathim' and Khambodi, Thodi or Hindolam. “Unfamiliar compositions and ragas do not evoke the same levels of enjoyment. That is why thematic concerts are welcome, as unknown kirthanas of different composers, as well as the wider repertoire of the artists, can be presented.”

A performing artist, Neela feels, should be decently dressed, maintain a straight posture and a pleasant face, and be friendly with the accompanists.

Too many gestures and distortions of the face are not acceptable, as they indicate “discourtesy to the audience as well.”

Word of caution

She also cautions young aspirants, “Unless the guru tells you that you are ready and capable of performing, do not do so. In our days, unless we were perfect, we were not given a chance to perform on a concert stage. Many parents are eager that their wards perform and make a name, and so push them. But the student should take orders from the guru, who is discerning, and that is very important.”

Neela Ramgopal's undiminished levels of motivation are evident in her inspirational concluding remarks:

“One lifetime is not enough to perfect music. I want to be born again and sing again. Everyday I ask myself, what is it you have learnt today? I believe everyday you must learn something new, and try to improve yourself and widen your knowledge. Even now, I listen to great masters as well as those from the second generation, and understand their music. In the process, I try to improve myself.”