Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam exudes innocence amidst professionalism, simplicity amidst grandeur. She speaks on her music and influences.
Aruna Sairam exudes innocence amidst professionalism, simplicity amidst grandeur. Perhaps it is the way the recipient of the Padma Shri (2009) and numerous accolades across the world takes delight in the smallest instances of aesthetics or culture. In New Delhi recently to perform in the Delhi Celebrates festival organised in tandem with the Commonwealth Games, she was awed at the description of the ongoing Navaratri season, when street corners blossom with neighbourhood Ram Lila performances.
Told of dedicated amateurs who have participated in these without a break for over half a century, she exclaimed she would like to meet such individuals, just to pay her respects to their devotion. Devotion too, is the key to her success as an artiste. At her recent performance, which was organised, by, among others, the Punjabi Academy, she says she “impulsively” included a shabad rendition, which was greatly appreciated by the audience. As a Carnatic singer she is known for her collaborative works with artistes from other genres, as well as for her lively abhang recitals. Connecting with her audience is vital to her as a performer, she says, even as she gives a more scholarly rationale for her seamless inclusion of different devotional genres in a Carnatic music concert.
Excerpts from a conversation:
On the contention that forms like abhang, shabad, etc. don't belong in a classical Carnatic music concert
Let me go back a little into Carnatic history and ethos. If you go into the Carnatic mind, you find there has always been interest in and influence from music of North India. You will find a lot more South Indian listeners at a concert of Hindustani music than you find North Indians at a Carnatic music concert. Of course the wind is changing now, but this has been the general case. GNB (vocal maestro G.N. Balasubramaniam) invited Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to perform and honoured him so liberally that some Carnatic musicians actually felt snubbed in comparison!
He loved his music so much that he would learn and perform some pieces in Hindustani music just as a tribute to Bade Ghulam Ali. And if you take my gharana (her guru was T. Brinda), the Dhanammal school, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the guru of Gangubai Hangal and others, visited often. There are still two tambouras there, gifted by him to the family. So this tradition of amalgamating from the North Indian tradition is there.
This is the kacheri sampradaya (concert tradition). If you take the bhajana (devotional) sampradaya which feeds into the kacheri tradition, you will find the whole gamut of the legacy left by our saints from all over the country included in it.
The Harikatha (the art of religious discourse through the medium of music and storytelling) of the South is a result of the hybridisation of Carnatic and Maratha culture. And the style of playing mridangam for classical concerts developed from Harikatha. They earlier used to play only the theka, but now the mridangam ‘sings' along with the vocalist. This happened through a whole process of alchemy — by seeing how the Central Indians were accompanying music. So this cross-cultural exchange has been happening. To my mind it's very natural.
On her influences and concert priorities
In my family we had a very strong bhajana sampradaya. My mother (Rajalakshmi Sethuraman, her first Carnatic vocal guru) would organise Radha Kalyanam every year. We also had Bhagavad saptaah every year. So I had on the one hand a very heavy duty classical training and on the other a bhajana sampradaya background.
In the first part of the concert I keep to a strict format. First I establish that I have a proper classical legacy. You see, there has to be some accountability between what you are intending to do and what happens. If you say it is a Carnatic music concert, it should adhere to the format. It's all about perceptions.
On why music classes are full of children but audiences are grey-haired
Even when I go to the U.S., there are so many schools teaching classical music and dance. You get to know as soon as you land. But neither the teachers nor the students turn up at the concert. It is part of the teacher's job to encourage students to go to concerts.
Encouraging music as a profession
Mentoring is very important. Aside from the guru, somebody needs to watch the ones who have the zing. They need that little push to have the confidence to take it up as a profession.
On voice culture
One has to adapt to the microphone. In those days people belted out in a pitch of F or E — Sundarambal, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and others… And they have adapted. By the time M.S., Balamuralikrishna, etc, came, the approach had changed. Only, one should find the balance between singing and crooning. One cannot have a falsetto voice. The classical fire has to be alive.
On the challenge of retaining freshness as a frequent performer
It's an effort to keep yourself refreshed. You need to get into the solitude of yourself and your music. That's why I never do back-to-back concerts. I always come at least a day before and stay a day afterwards. People ask why are you not performing more often. Most of my colleagues do about 16 concerts in the (Chennai) music season between December 15 and January 15. I do only eight. Even that means two a week, and is too much. For the organisers it is also a question of box office. If your tickets sell they want you to perform, but you have to learn to say no without hard feelings. Otherwise you burn out.