“I wish to be reborn as a classical singer,” says Vanaja Sankar. The Carnatic vocalist with three decades of experience behind her is the Principal of Sree Swathi Thirunal College of Music (SSTC), Thiruvananthapuram. Vanaja was the principal of the two other Government music colleges in the State – RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura, and Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Palakkad. The only individual to have earned this distinction, Vanaja is a recipient of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award 2012. Excerpts from an interview:
Taste for arts
My maternal grandmother, Pappy – I think Parvathy was her original name – was a good singer, although she was not trained in music. My father, the late P.P. Sankar, used to sing and play the flute and the ghatam. He was also self-taught. Having grown up in such an atmosphere, I was a regular at the art and cultural competitions in school and college. I started taking music lessons from my father and then from Kesavan Bhagavathar, a relative. I have learnt Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. On seeing my interest in dance and music, I was sent to RLV College (in 1976) from where I did my seven-year course in music (Ganabhooshanam and Ganapraveena courses).
Opting for classical music
It was at RLV College that I decided to become a classical singer. Till then I was never serious about kutcheris and used to sing at ganamelas and for drama troupes. But after I gave my debut classical concert at Chottanikkara Devi Temple in 1980 while doing my Ganabhooshanam course, till date I have given only classical concerts. Parassala B. Ponnammal was the Principal then and I was fortunate to have been taught by some of the best names in Carnatic music at RLV, such as Changanassery Janardanan, Aryanad Sadasivan, Avaneeswaram Ramachandran, Ochira Balakrishnan and Tripunithura Lalitha. In those days we had concerts every now and then at the college, most of them were announced just a few hours prior to it. After completing my course, I was posted as music teacher at Government Girls High School, Peruva in Kottayam district. In 1987, I joined Chembai College as assistant professor and then as professor at RLV College.
As an administrator
When I studied at RLV, there was a lack of facilities, such as classrooms and musical instruments. If there were 40 students, there would just be 10 veenas to practise on. Since I had experienced these difficulties as a student, during my stint as Principal there, I ensured that I attended to those problems and I succeeded in that endeavour.
As a teacher
Not just in music, in every other art field, instant fame is what most students and, most important, their parents aspire for. The seven-year course of study has now been truncated to five. Dedication is lacking among students these days, so too their resolve for perfection. They are not making full use of the facilities they have. It is heartening that now the government is providing a lot of support to music students, the Sadhana and scholar-in-residence programmes being examples.
I’ve performed across Kerala. A special concert was the one I gave at Chembai Swamy’s house at Kottayi in Palakkad. Composing and singing for a CD, ‘Yeshusuprabhatam’, in Sanskrit, was also a different experience. I make it a point to write and compose new kritis.
The late Maharajapuram Santhanam. I am still in awe of his rendition.
Youngsters and classical music
Our common perception is that classical concerts always appeal to a select audience, especially senior citizens. But, I have found many youngsters attending the concerts and even requesting for some special kritis.
A balancing act
I’ve found many women classical singers ending their career with marriage. But I’ve been lucky to have found all the support from my husband, T.P. Raghavan. I strongly believe that if you have a passion, you should be able to carry it forward. Where there is a will, there is a way.