Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, who received the Isai Perarignar award last week, chats with fellow musician Anil Srinivasan about inspiration, tradition and innovation in music.

We are seated in an office circumscribed by a flyover. There is a busy swell of traffic, a cacophony of autorickshaw engines peppered with the ubiquitous volley of horns and smog. This is certainly not the atmosphere for music, I think to myself. How can any classical musician survive this noise?

And yet, it has only served to strengthen Aruna Sairam's resolve to rage against the dying of the light. To her, the ability to fight against popular diktat and the collective voices of the “safe majority” has been the journey of a lifetime. She does not seem to mind the traffic and the unmelodious din of the world without. She welcomes it, engages in it and finds her inspiration from it. As she sings “Rama Rama Prana Sakhi” accompanying herself on the tanpura, I find myself transfixed at how she can focus amid this melee.

Much has been written about Aruna's journey from Mumbai, finding her calling under Sangeeta Kalanidhi T. Brinda and her stupendous rise to Carnatic stardom almost suddenly, despite a tenure that goes back by four decades. I focus this conversation on some aspects of her music and her beliefs, and as I look back, this is one interaction that continues to beguile me with its forthrightness and candid intelligence.

So how do you feel now? Do you enjoy being you at this time of the year?

(Laughs heartily) Of course I enjoy being me. I think I have engaged in several roles over this lifetime: as a student, as a young bride, as a mother, as a teacher and as a vocalist. To me, each has been a lifetime in itself. I have learnt to be patient, and to enjoy being complimented. There was a time when I was told not to enjoy the compliment but focus on where I went wrong. I have changed that. I count each day as a blessing and revel in the joy I see on every rasika's face when the curtains open. I have endured the pain of criticism and non-acceptance. Now I enjoy each performance and savour the happiness I bring my listeners.

What matters to you more: tradition or innovation?

You talk as though these were bipolar opposites. Tradition exists to show you who you are. Innovation should be encouraged to show you who you could be. When I sing a say, “Payyada” (composed by Kshetrayya, translates to “My Lord has forsaken me and gone away”), I am aware that I am allowing over 500 years of a certain encapsulated pathos to translate itself in my voice. But the music calls out to me to add to it. When I sing this padam, I am echoing Brindamma's training, my mother's expectations, each of my gurus and their exhortations and the composer and his passion. But I am stridently voicing my own take as well. Aruna, at that point, becomes a traditionalist innovator or an innovative traditionalist. The differences are blurred. Only the music speaks.

Innovation is an approach to an existing body of work that has not been thought of before. In that respect, each of us is innovating constantly. How I choose to interpret and add to a rendition is different from how even my guru Brindamma would have approached it. Only two things matter: be true to who you are, and be sincere in what you want to articulate. If this happens, the music will transcend categorisation and analysis.

What motivates you to ride the storms of criticism? Who inspires you?

I am sure you are tired of the cliché that criticism only helps build your character. But I am living it. Each passing year reminds me of the distance still waiting to be crossed. Rather than dwell on the past and constantly analyse or cross-analyse what people have said about me before or about music should be and should not be, I find it more productive to close my eyes, focus on the composition at hand, and use the composer's vision and guidance to help me cross the next few miles in the path I have in front of me. My family, my gurus and their faith in me and my fans motivate me all the time. Music itself is my biggest inspiration.

You enthralled listeners at the recently-concluded Brhaddvhani “Universe of Sound” festival with a lecture-demonstration on melody. What importance do you place on a musician's need to speak out?

A musician lends a very important voice to the process of social interaction. A musician connects to a different vibration and delves deeply into who he or she is on a daily basis through his/her sadhana. Sharing that process is as important as performance. In a world characterised by a babel of thoughts and perceptions, sometimes we need to find these spaces where we can talk, express our views and in turn, be informed of what the audience feels and is affected by.

Music is and will continue to be shaped by the mood of our times. This is why I choose to place myself in the middle of things, among the throngs that you see on the flyover outside my window. You must engage in life, and you must delight in that engagement. You cannot treat music as a voice that is lone and separated from reality. This will shape you as a person and, in turn, your music. Fight your fights and say what you want to say. But when all that is done, return to your music. You will find that the world without and the world within become one and the same and your music will coax you to become the best that you can be.

The writer is the Executive Director, Brhaddhvani (Centre for Research and Training in Music), Chennai.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012