At her first ever veena concert way back in 1970, she drew a large crowd. And Baby Gayathri became a household name. Whenever and wherever she played, she became a crowd-puller. What’s more, her popularity saw many parents encouraged their children to take up the veena.
A child prodigy, Gayathri was trained by her mother, vidushi Kamala Aswathama, and her late father, G. Aswathama, a music director for films. Later, she studied under T.M. Thiagarajan (TMT) for further forays into classicism.
The crowning moment of her career as a musician has come in the form of her recent appointment as Vice- Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Music and Arts University. Gayathri talks about her stint at the music college and her plans, during a chat in her beautiful office overlooking the backwaters of the Adyar river.
Understanding our amazement at the scenery, she smiles at us; it reminds me of the way she would smile at veteran mridangam vidwan Kuttalam Visvanatha Iyer, who accompanied her in several concerts, whenever she negotiated a tough phrase.
“It was in 2011. I wanted to quit the music scene after having been here for more than four decades. I wanted to explore the space beyond concert platforms, at my own pace,” she begins. “I was just planning to shift to Mumbai with my husband. Then, an incredible thing happened. I was chosen as Honorary Director of the Government Music Colleges in Madurai, Coimbatore, Tiruvaiyaru and Chennai by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa. It was the best thing to have happened to me.”
Immediately after taking over, Gayathri embarked on a project to change the syllabus by setting up an expert committee comprising stalwarts such as T.K. Murthy, P.S.Narayanaswamy, Prof. B. Krishnamurthy and B.M. Sundaram. Taking into account the need of the students toaday, varnams such as Mohanam and kritis such as ‘Samaja Vara Gamana’ were introduced. “Most of the students do not have any exposure to Carnatic music whatsoever, and have to be taught right from sa pa sa. They would be have been baffled if I had started teaching them Sahana and Kedaragowla varnam from day one. There was this fear of losing them midway. The new syllabus is being followed for almost two years now, and has been welcomed both by students and the faculty alike. We have already conducted one examination under this syllabus.”
Here, Gayathri acknowledges the contributions of musicians such as T.H. Vinayakaram, U. Shrinivas, G.J.R. Krishnan, Sandeep Narayanan, Gayathri Venkataraghavan, Bharath Sundar, Priya Murle and Akkarai Sisters who, under the Isai Vallunar Scheme, interacted with students, and stressed the importance of practice. Musicians such as Bharath Sundar, Rahul, T.R.S.Manikandan and Hari Ram conducted practice sessions for vocal, violin, mridangam and veena departments, which was again a big success. In fact, students want more such sessions.
From a hard-core musician to administrator… how has she handled the change? “Actually I am not an artist, in the complete sense. I always had an investigative and administrative streak in me. Art has helped me approach every issue in a balanced manner and be creative. Legends such as Musiri, Prof. T.N. Krishnan, TMT and Sandhyavndanam Srinivasa Rao have all occupied this Chair and I understand my responsibility in upholding tradition and values nurtured by them.”
From Honorary Director of the Government Music Colleges to Vice Chancellor is really a big leap forward and the deeply spiritual Gayathri has taken it all in her stride. “The credit goes to our Chief Minister who floated such a University dedicated to music and the arts in Tamil Nadu, for the first time. Since Chennai is the most happening place with respect to the fine arts, the university will be based here. I consider it a blessing. I have already relinquished my post of Honorary Director post to plunge into activities involving the University.”
“I know it is a tough assignment and I have to live up to the confidence our CM has reposed in me and do my best to put this University on the global map. Here my outlook will be broader from an elevated status quite different from my earlier job. All the four music colleges, including fine arts and sculptors’ colleges of the Government of Tamil Nadu, will now come under this University.”
Apart from recruitments through the employment exchange based on educational qualification, Gayathri plans to have a panel of visiting honorary professors comprising professional musicians based on their grades with All India Radio and public acclaim.
A great responsibility has been vested on Gayathri. This centre for learning is bound to become a hub for the fine arts, what with its sylvan surroundings and departments for Sculpture, Painting, Dance, Visual Communication and Folk Arts, besides Music, under Gayathri’s watchful eye and musical wisdom.