SNA Award recipient Aruna Sairam on her love for her roots and for collaborative projects.

Grace and charm combine in the persona of vocalist Aruna Sairam, one of the recipients of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards-2013 that were given out this past week in New Delhi. In the Capital to receive the honour and perform at the Festival of Music, Dance and Drama that goes alongside, the Chennai-based vocalist presents a picture of one who is at once happy to remain in one place and happy to move with the times. It conjures up the image of an elegant swimmer riding a giant wave. Hasn’t she been riding the gentle-gigantic power of the ocean that is Carnatic vocal music since childhood?

As the SNA citation comes to settle beside the Padma Shri she received in 2009, an overview of this artist’s training and performing trajectory reveals a nature constantly in quest, an approach both adventurous and meticulous. One wonders if at this stage, the singer feels she has yet more uncharted paths to explore, or whether her search has brought her to that place in time and in her music that she was instinctively in search of, a point where one feels, “This is what I want to do”.

“This is what I want to do,” she agrees. “I want to do traditional music in which I have been trained and blessed with a gift. But I also like to work with great artists. I love to innovate. I love to do both these things.” So she is still game to try experimental and collaborative work with artists from other traditions, “as long as it is not sweeping me off my feet and wrenching me away from my roots.”

In sync with the thought, she is soon planning to travel to the Canadian Rockies, where she will be a part of the eminent faculty invited by a Jazz centre to introduce youngsters to different world traditions. “Young Jazz students will be coming to learn. I will be giving them an idea of our approach to music, a little exposure,” she explains.

By this time she would have collected valuable musical material and experience that could be shared with students, but does she teach? “I don’t have a single disciple,” she says, but admits that teaching is an area she intends to get into. “I am waiting for that single moment. I am sure it will come.” Youngsters in the music field do approach her, she says, adding, “My inability is that I am performing, and also I have started an organisation, the Nadayogam Trust. Through that I am trying to create the conditions so that I can teach.”

The trust holds out hope of a much wider reach than simply giving lessons, with its work of archiving, classifying and categorising the study material available. “There are some two to three thousand books and several hours of recording.” Besides, she says, “My own individual way, how I studied and researched — each artist has an individual search, a method — I would like that to be archived so that after me it can be accessed: this is how this person researched.”

Besides a book on her guru T. Brinda “specially targeted at children like a comic, with clear illustrations about her life so very young people can read it in a very casual manner,” and gifting violins to six financially needy students from the Tirupati Music College, a significant initiative of the trust is to introduce old artists to the young generation. “There are some very old artists who have a fund of knowledge and are waiting to pass on this knowledge. At the same time there are some young artists who could benefit from this. I am trying to create a bridge between the very old and very young.”

Her effort is to make the young “aware of the entire ecosystem of music — the composers, the technology of sound, the instrument makers, the listeners, the accompanying artists, the writers….”

Recordings of old musicians are also being made for the archives. “We have a space, a music room with recording facilities.” Intimate concerts with select audiences have already been organised. One of the elderly musicians featured was SRD Vaidyanathan. “He was a great nagaswaram maestro, specialising in very rare forms with difficult tala structures and many other things.” His music may have otherwise suffered 21st Century oblivion, as not long after the event he passed away.

“We also have very young musicians, give them a platform. To have an informed audience and feedback is also a very good thing,” she notes. In that respect she is already playing a role of elder and mentor to the community of young artists. “Yes, that is absolutely the idea.”

First trained by her mother Rajalakshmi and later prepared as a fine concert artist by Guru T. Brinda the celebrated vocalist, Aruna Sairam went on, as a young musician, to further her knowledge of different aspects of Carnatic music from other gurus. Her website details these: S Ramachandran (nereval singing or musical improvisation on a portion of the song’s text), A.S. Mani, a disciple of Tiger Vardachariar (swara singing or improvising the solfa passages), T.R. Subramanyam (ragam-tanam-pallavi) and veena vidwan K.S. Narayanaswamy (subtleties of gamaka or note ornamentation). She has also consistently investigated her voice and how to make it the apt vehicle for her heart’s expression. Her stint with German voice master Eugene Rabine proved a turning point in her career. She has since also worked with maestro M. Balamuralikrishna and the New York-based expert David Jones.

As a professional she has made a name for herself as an experimenter — her collaboration on Gregorian chants made culture headlines over a decade ago, and her adoption of the devotional form of the Maharashtra region, Abhang, has now become an integral part of her approach.

About the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar, she says, “These kind of awards definitely make one feel very proud and I wanted to acknowledge that I am grateful to be receiving it, and it is thanks to the interest shown by everyone, the connoisseurs and pandits media.”