Preethy Mahesh, who has sung for celebrated Bharatanatyam dancers, dwells on the pros and cons of being a background vocalist.
Ever since Carnatic classical music as solo recitals began dominating the musical culture of south India as solo recitals, the background vocalists of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam have been treated with a certain amount of condescension discrimination not only by their more “privileged colleagues” but also even by the rasikas. This is one of the several reasons that have compelled most of the background vocalists to switch to the world of solo Carnatic music recitals concert after serving short stints with the celebrated dancers on stage.
A few vocalists have, however, shown a rare commitment towards the functional nature of their music sans displeasure and grievance. Preethy Mahesh is one among them. The expressional compactness of her diction, tasteful renditions of the varnams and padams and the vivaciously rendered javalis and thillanas have an electrifying impact on the dancers and the audienceprekshakas. Alarmel Valli qualifies the singer as “one with liquid gold in her throat.” Excerpts from an interview with the musician:
Was it a voluntary decision on your part to become a background vocalist for Bharatanatyam?
I was trained by eminent musician D.K. Jayaraman. I used to give solo concerts and knew nothing about Bharatanatyam or its music. It was by sheer chance that I got into this field. I have had an enjoyable 10 years of singing for dance performances, having met and worked with many wonderful artistes. I hope to continue giving my best.
How do you differentiate the experience as a Carnatic vocalist and as a background vocalist, especially I mean, from the practitioners' and listeners' point of view?
Concert singing is different and needs complete devotion and dedication. Similarly dance music has its own challenges. It is not easy to do both. Since I am busy with rehearsals and programmes throughout the year, I am left with hardly any time for practice. Not having a guru or a master to correct and guide me is also a reason why I have stayed away from the concert platform.
Singing on stage for dance is demanding. Dance music, of course, does take a back seat from the point of view of the audience. A musically sensitive audience alone can recognise and appreciate the efforts of the background musicians. The singer who accompanies the dancers should be backed by rigorous rehearsals. He/she must be alert, and should spare no efforts to be in sync with the dancer without overshadowing the performer or drifting away. With devotion and expertise gained over a period of time, the singer can give his/her best without being either loud or unduly subdued.
You have sung for Q.I have heard you singing for Priyadarshini Govind, Sobhana and Alarmel Valli. How does the stylistics of each of these highly individualistic dancers influence your approach to and involvement in singing?
All these three dancers are strikingly unique and amazing in their own way. Priyadarshini Govind, with whom I have worked with the most, is best known for her abhinaya. Since I have felt that my strength is bhava, we have always gelled very well. Years of working together has helped us build a solid yet fluent rapport on stage.
Sobhana is a spark on stage. So beautiful and spontaneous, her emphasis is more on tala. She enjoys and generously compliments good music. She does not believe in rehearsing too much with the musicians as she prefers coming up with elements of surprise on stage, which she is always capable of creating. In her recitals, the musicians are at liberty to revel in manodharma, and there is definitely a lot of excitement from the beginning till the very end!
Alarmel Valli is a perfectionist. Her deep knowledge of music precedes her expertise in dance. She pays attention to all the subtle contours of music. She makes sure nothing is left to chance. Everything is well-planned, rehearsed and set. It is challenging for a musician to work with her, and I feel honoured singing for such a legend.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable a discomfort while switching from the sahitya bhava of varnam, padavarnam or kirtana to the technically demanding jatis almost abruptly?
Initially I used to get annoyed while breaking away abruptly from the music, but gradually I got accustomed to switching over to jathis from melody. Now it seems abnormal not to have a rhythmic takeover. In its absence, it seems like the tempo is lost. Also the break gives a few minutes of rest and relief for the singer.
Do you have an inadvertent resistance to sing exclusively in relation to the visual dynamics? In other words, do you genuinely value the visual grammar of Bharatanatyam more than the boundless resources of Carnatic music you have access to?
It comes naturally for me to see the dance and lend my voice accordingly. Though dance-based singing calls for constraints, the musician still owns a clear space for improvisation. Of course this cannot be compared to the infinite space of a Carnatic musician. Carnatic music is an ocean in which structured style and manodharma are equally important. Unfortunately in dance-music these are not prominent. It is a sad truth that most dancers do not have a sound knowledge about the aesthetics of music.
Do you feel both the vocalist and the dancer benefit by substituting a traditional thillana with some mystic or obscure lines from an esoteric spiritual work?
If anything can be done to break the monotony of the thillana, I would be happy. Music plays such a significant role in dance that the repetitive lines of the thillana can tire the ears. It would help to keep the pallavi short, that is the korvais be kept minimal but introduction of words is not the solution, as that would change the norm itself.
A lot of Hindustani ragas such as Valachi, Behag and Madhuvanti is heard in invading the atmospherics of Bharatanatyam. Do such experimental inclinations appeal to you? If yes why? If not, why?
Having javalis or padams towards the end of the recital in Hindustani ragas can be enthralling, just like how in Carnatic music concerts thukkadas are delivered after a heavy centre-piece.