Her hard work, dedication and commitment to music have brought Sudha Ragunathan success and the most coveted ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ award.
“Sudhaji, your music combines intellectualism with bhava,” Pt. Jasraj’s succinct compliment offers a comprehensive view of Sudha Ragunathan’s music.
Adding the touch of iridescence to the beauty of her music is a voice that the London Evening News described as ‘Heaven-sent.’ The music and the voice make for a winning combination, as is evidenced by the plethora of awards and performance opportunities that have sought her. In 2013 has come the most coveted of music awards in the Carnatic context, the ‘Sangita Kalanidhi.’ Her commendable success is the result of an undated rendezvous with destiny and impressive self-effort, very much in the manner of the worthy music she projects on a God-given voice.
“I dedicate this award to my Mata, Pita, Guru and Devah. They made it happen,” says Sudha. Sudha’s mother Choodamani was a trained musician blessed with a strikingly beautiful voice. Circumstances stood in the way of her becoming a professional, but the tenacious lady moulded her unfulfilled aspirations into a dream that she dreamt for her second daughter, Sudha. The way the three-year-old repeated Sai bhajans after her was enough and more indication of the child’s inherent musicality. Choodamani willed to hone that talent and entreated the Supreme Grace of Sai. She and her husband Venkatraman were Sai Baba's ardent devotees. Venkatraman was a Bangalore-based publisher of law books. Though not an avid music lover, he was non-interfering by nature. Choodamani regularly took both her children to concerts, especially those of her favourite musician, M.L. Vasanthakumari. Sitting there, drawing patterns on the mud-floor, little Sudha would wonder wide-eyed, ‘How is she able to sing for this long!’
A few years later Choodamani gave birth to a baby boy. But the additional demands on her time in no way distracted her from her dream for Sudha. She chose this period to start nine-year-old Sudha on formal music lessons. Around the same time, an unexpected downslide in Venkatraman’s business caused him to close shop and move with his family to Chennai in search of a livelihood.
The parents, nevertheless, decided that there would be no compromise on education, academic or musical.
Choodamani put Sudha under the tutelage of vidwan T.V. Viswanathan and later under vidwan B.V. Lakshman. With impressive perspicacity, she decided that participation in music competitions would benefit her daughter hugely. She enrolled Sudha in every possible competition and zealously sourced teachers who would teach her daughter the stipulated songs.
Choodamani was right in her decision. Sudha’s repertoire increased by leaps and bounds, as did her confidence. Simultaneously, she completed her schooling with laurels, opted for the Science group and moved on to score 95 per cent in PUC from Ethiraj College. With such scores she aspired to be a gynaecologist. But the twist in this story happened in the form of advice from two of her teachers at Ethiraj College who emphatically counselled her, “It is not given to all to become a musician. You have it in you. Take a subject like Economics or History that will give you time to pursue music.”
Sudha reminisces, “I do not know whether it was the timing or just the way they said it but their words made a deep impact on me.” Even as Sudha moved on to her post-graduation, Choodamani, to her delight, noticed a distinct transition of her daughter’s focus from academics to music.
The decisive turn happened, however, with Sudha winning the Central Government Scholarship for music in 1977 and subsequently, MLV’s consent to teach her.
Interestingly, it was Venkatraman who facilitated the meeting with the doyenne.
Commenting on that crucial period in her life Sudha says, “Realising that I wasn’t in control of what was happening, I took a crucial decision - to make it big, irrespective of what I did.” This fire in her set the pace of her career graph.
“I have no time for formal teaching. You have to be sharp and grasp whatever you can when I sing.” MLV was very matter of fact in her approach. Sudha just strummed the tambura in her Guru’s performances for a year, before she graduated to being her second voice. She found the experience of sharing the stage with her teacher inestimable. Every concert was worth its weight in gold. MLV’s legendary flights of imagination as she explored ragas, her intellectually-stimulating swara matrices, her brilliant RTPs …Sudha had the privilege of being exposed to them all at close quarters. Returning home, she would mull over MLV amma’s music, listen to her recordings, sit with the notations and go back the next day fully equipped for yet another enthralling session. During her musical interactions with MLV, Sudha would always be on tenterhooks, for MLV was not given to open praise. The first telling indication of her assessment of Sudha’s capabilities happened in the early 1980s after a concert of MLV in New York. The students of Stony Brook University, who had come for the concert, requested MLV that Sudha give a solo performance at their school. MLV not only graciously agreed but also spontaneously requested her accompanists Kanyakumari and Mannargudi Easwaran to join Sudha in the concert.
Sudha’s progress under MLV convinced Choodamani that her dreams were not far from turning to reality. She had a kindred soul in MLV.
In 1982, Sudha’s wedding was arranged with Ragunathan, a bank official. When informed of this happy news, MLV requested to meet Ragunathan. On that occasion she said, “I am entrusting you with the custody of a girl who is a promising musician. Safeguard her like a diamond and project her lustre to the world.” Ragunathan assuaged her concerns and firmly assured her of his support to Sudha.
“It was the first time I was hearing my Guru praise me. I was deeply moved by her concern for my career. Here, I must add that music as a career is very demanding especially for a mother with two children. Despite all the support I received, there were times when I felt like calling it quits. If I persisted it was only because of my commitment to the art and to my Guru.”
It is this unswerving focus that has translated into the stupendous success she has achieved today.
Apart from giving innumerable performances, she has sung in movies and participated in collaborative efforts even in places such as like Jerusalem, Morocco and Bergen.
Appreciation for her music has come in the form of a galore of achievements, awards, a packed calendar and a stunningly vast rasika base. But what gratifies Sudha the most is that her mother has lived to see her dream fulfilled. ‘How much we had to go through for you to achieve this today!’ smiled 80-year-old eighty-year-old Choodamani, when informed of Sangita Kalanidhi. Hard work as it has been, Sudha feels no satiation, much less the need to slow down. On the contrary, the fire in her has taken additional dimensions.
Through Samudhaya, her social work initiative, she works towards taking Carnatic music to the grass roots, children of corporation schools, remote villages and even to prisoners.
“Music has the capacity to bring out the finer emotions in anyone, even the most hard-hearted. I experienced it during my performance at the Puzhal Jail.”
The Sangita Kalanidhi award is an important milestone in Sudha’s career. She is overwhelmed by gratitude. “I look upon this award as an opportunity for me to thank all those who have stood by me - my family, my accompanists, my rasikas, music organisations and the press.” Even as she says this her thoughts go back to her dedication.
“I have talked about the role of my mother, father and guru. In the final reckoning they are all different manifestations of God, Sai Baba, as I recognise him. It was He who named me Sudha. I sat on His lap as a child and twirled His hair in innocent frolic. He did my aksharabhyasam, my formal initiation into the world of education. The first song that I sang was a Sai Bhajan…”
An emotional Sudha closes her eyes and brings her palms together, her voice trailing off.