“When I see the faces, I know what to sing,” says Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, who loves all genres of music.

Aruna Sairam terms it a turning point. Two decades ago, during a performance at the Narada Gana Sabha, she had this “strong urge to sing an abhang”. “I knew this would raise eyebrows, but I decided to sing it anyway,” she smiles, sitting comfortably with feet tucked under her. The audience sat stunned, perhaps wondering how to respond. What was that, they asked her, a question that became “Where is it?” in her subsequent performances. The abhang has since become part of the Carnatic vocal concert repertoire.

“Going against the current” is how Aruna wraps up her remarkable musical path. “I had a gurukulam in reverse,” she says, narrating how her guru, T. Brinda, stayed with the family four months a year to tutor her.

Balance

On and off the musical platform, she made “conscious decisions irrespective of whether they were part of the thinking of that time.” First, she decided there would be a fine balance between family and music. “When we want to achieve something, we go all out, try to reach the peak, be number one,” but that wouldn't be a goal for her. A free evening would be spent with the family, rather than at a concert.

Through her vigorous training in Carnatic vocal, she kept absorbing all genres of music, be it Hindustani, English, Arabic, Moroccan, Korean or filmy. “Music engulfs me,” she adds, noting elegantly, “Tansen nahi hai, par kansen tho hai!” Her growth as a concert musician has been a “roundabout” as well. Her first stint of success as a Carnatic vocalist came in Europe at a time when such music wasn't known there. European audiences took to her in a big way, and she decided to reach out to rasikas in Chennai. “I felt I would be incomplete without that ISI mark.”

She made periodic trips to feel the pulse, understand the Chennai milieu. She would fund flights to be back with family. Gradually, her appointment book got crowded and her toe-hold became a regular presence. She decided to become a Chennaivasi. “A revolutionary musical journey for those times,” she laughs.

Her soul-filling music is a topic for discussion wherever her rasikas gather. She prepares a list, practises hard, trains for fitness, chooses her diet/outfit carefully. And approaches singing with a sense of duty to the audience. “Every time I perform, I feel like a start-up, cannot take anything for granted,” she says. But once on the dais, her strong intuition takes over. “When I see the faces, I know what to sing,” she says. “I can gauge the point where I have to depart from the plan.” And she's happy singing what she chooses at the moment. The audience is drawn into this ambience of joy and the connection is made.

“I've had the most amazing experiences during concerts,” she says and you nod. Her rapport with audiences has been phenomenal.

Respects feedback

Criticism? Oh, yes. “Too much was different about me,” she acknowledges, and has a healthy response to it. She respects feedback and believes she's been shaped, chiselled and “pruned like a bonsai plant” by criticism. But she presents her defence: “My evolution as a musician is a legitimate shaping up of whoever I am.”

Appeal: “I want to be accepted. I have all these faces, waiting to be seen and heard. Let me answer that call.” And the facts: “Two-thirds of my concert is heavy-duty Carnatic music. Tukkadas simply add to the effect.”

The Aruna effect, according to Hari Sivanesan, her protégé for the BBC project she is working on, is “her genius that enables her to intertwine different styles of music into her repertoire effortlessly. She takes her audiences, tuned ear or not, from the depth of Carnatic classical, to folk kavadi-chinthus, to Marathi abhangs on a unique musical journey.”

Aruna is reluctant to analyse it beyond saying, “Music is a creative process that unfolds itself.” Once the concert begins, it is surrender to a divine presence.

“Aruna uses her slightly husky voice to make her music deeply emotive,” says Mrs. YGP whose Bharath Kalachar conferred on her the Viswa Kala Bharathi title.

Aruna is still discovering the many aspects of music. “The last 12 months were spent doing intensely new things, the next 12 will set a completely new agenda,” she says. You feel this sense of wonder and excitement in her music, whether it's a classical ragamalika or “Jago Tumi Jago” in Bengali. With perfect shruthi, laya and bhava, she envelops her audiences in bhakti creating a special musical experience for them.

She concludes, “I have been guided by the strong conviction that Carnatic music is beyond language, region, religion and age.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012