She is known to be a stickler to tradition and for her finesse in handling ragas and compositions. An A-grade artiste of All India Radio, Chennai-based Carnatic vocalist V. Sumithra was in Thiruvananthapuram recently in connection with the Navarathri festival at Sree Durga Devi Temple, Sreekanteswaram. Excerpts from an interview
Music, a part of life
My maternal grandmother, Janakam Chari, and my mother, Padmaja, are both Carnatic singers. In fact, my grandmother used to conduct classes in Carnatic music at home. Having grown up to the sound of music, it is but natural that music becomes a part of me. I used to join her classes as a child, singing along with the rest. I knew music would be a part of my life even as a child. In fact I have never thought of an alternative career, not even playback singing. Playback singing is a totally different field and subject. You need a different kind of orientation. It is not my calling.
Studying the gurukulam way
At the age of eight, I started training under R. Vedavalli. I had classes in the gurukulam style. Vedavalli amma is my loving guide. She taught me the finer points and qualities of Carnatic music. Having been with her for close to 21 years now, I have imbibed many of her views on music. The good thing about her is that she drills her lessons through anecdotes. For instance, if she doesn't like the way you sit, she will say: “You know my guru was strict about the way you sit. She would insist I sit with my back straight.” That was my guru's way of telling us to sit straight! Most of all, she is a firm believer that music is for and from the soul and so do I. I started performing at the age of 11 and have received various titles and awards like Yuva Kala Bharathi and Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar National Award in 2008.
Well, having been under my guru for so many years, her style is bound to rub off on me. I think I may have imbibed her mannerisms and perhaps her style of singing. But I do feel I add my own touch to a concert, my own flavour.
Beauty of Sanskrit
I have a long list of favourite composers but if you were to ask me to pick just one, it would be Muthuswamy Dikshitar. His music, kritis…they are magical to me. I am a postgraduate in Sanskrit and just adore the language. In fact, I read Sanskrit books as a hobby. The lyrics in Sanskrit that Dikshitar has used in his compositions move me. And I guess it reflects when I sing his songs. I enjoy listening to music and love D.K. Pattamal, Alathur Brothers, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Soumya, T.M. Krishna…
Playing to the crowd
My guru does not believe in playing to the audience. She feels good music will touch the rasikas' soul and so do I. But it is okay to render one or two songs from the ‘popular songs' list. As an artiste it is important to have a repertoire of songs; time-tested and rare ones too. The list of songs and ragas should not be the same for each concert. If it is Kalyani today, it should be another raga the next day. Variety is after all the spice of life. There are also other subtle details you can give to add chutzpah to your concert. You can combine slow and fast numbers, in one concert you can have an expansive niraval while in the next concert, you can also have some peppy swara singing…
Approach to music
I am more of an open-throated singer. I believe in bringing out the aesthetics in a composition, so I usually give focus on gamakas, on bringing out the sahitya in the piece…I feel it is important to understand the lyrics behind a composition in order to bring the right feel and emotion to the piece.
The right accompaniment
The right accompaniment is important for any concert. The percussionists have to be in tune with the vocalist or else it will turn into a tug of war. The percussionists, if they are good, can complement the vocalist by lending subtle touches, be it on the mridangam or the ganjira. Suppose you are doing swara patterns, the percussionist can help highlight that pattern.
Yes, most of the crowd comprises the middle-aged and the elderly but there is a slow trickle of youngsters at kutcheris. I feel that in eight to 10 years there will be more youngsters attending kutcheris as there is a rise in interest amongst them in Carnatic music. Many youngsters are learning Carnatic music.
I have released many concert and thematic CDs, including a CD on Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, ‘Dakshin,' with ragas Sri, Ranjani and Sri Ranjani and a CD on Devi kritis for HMV. I also set to tune and rendered verses from the Soundarya Lahari, which was released as a VCD.
Keywords: V. Sumithra