Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghuraman, a recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Dance Music, tells Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty that she doesn’t deem the genre any less than concert singing

A 10-year-old girl in an ornate pavadai, with exhilaration running amok on her face, goes to her accomplished singer-uncles to ask them what they thought of how was her vocal performance presented at a Delhi temple early that evening. The answer came promptly: “Oh, how beautiful you looked on stage in that outfit!”That 10-year-old, today at 36, is Sudha Raghuraman, an accomplished Carnatic singer from Delhi, a coveted name not just for kacheri (concert) singing but also for lending her voice to dance recitals, a feat that has bagged her recently the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Dance Music. With a smile, holding a cup of tea, a relaxed Sudha at her East Delhi apartment recalls that acerbic remark from her uncles, well-known Carnatic vocalists O.S. Thiagarajan and O.S. Arun. In that memory, laced by that smile, there is as much fondness for growing up in a joint family — comprising 20 members in a small house in the city’s Karol Bagh area — as for her uncles’ commitment to music, calling a spade a spade, not even sparing a 10-year-old they doted on otherwise.

“I should have never asked them that question. I was asking for that sarcastic remark. This is one of the many little instances to tell you that there were enough critics at home itself, so it was pretty hard,” she says. It is difficult to believe when Sudha says she didn’t have a good voice as a child. The reason why her grandfather, O.V. Subramaniam, a key name in Carnatic music, put her under the tutelage of V. Janakiraman to learn the violin.

“I learnt violin for eight years,” she fills in. While learning violin was never her choice, it could have been dance, she says. “As a child, I wanted to be a dancer. I would come back home after my uncles’ performances and copy the tillanas. This would offend my parents (her father was vocalist O.S. Sridhar) as I was good at recognising ragas as early as three years of age,” she recalls. This childhood fondness for dance is one of the reasons she felt “extremely happy” receiving the SNA Award. “Many times, I am asked whether I consider dance music as something below concert singing. I don’t think so. Even if I am singing for a dance recital, I consider it my recital. I really want to sing for dance. I do not sing for the dancer but for the art form. Dance is a visual medium, it needs music to enhance its beauty,” she says. Sudha commends SNA for introducing such an award category, calls herself lucky that the cultural body raised the age limit of the award given to young artistes from 35 to 40, though in the same breath she adds, “It has come a bit late.”

Bharatanatyam dancer Kanaka Srinivasan, she rewinds, was the first to call her to lend her voice to her recital. “Then Leela (Samson) akka called me…One by one it began to happen.”

Sudha says dance music and concert singing complemented each other in her case. “If I got an offer to sing for a dance recital, I got an offer to do a solo concert and vice versa.”

In Delhi, she points out, people don’t consider singing for dance recitals any less than concert singing, but in the South many tend to put a vocalist in a bracket. “Though the trend is changing there too. There are collaborations happening between dancers and musicians, like that of T.M. Krishna and Priyadarshini Govind, Leela Samson and Bombay Jayashri, Malavika Sarrukai and Aruna Sairam,” she adds.

Her own journey in dance music has been one of learning. “Initially, I used to sing it like a soloist in a kacheri. With time, I began to understand what is dance, began giving more attention to the meanings, the rasa, the bhava, the little details, and I became better, could give what I would want to cater to the dancer. The padams and the javalis that I sang before are different from how I sing now,” she states. Sometimes, she notes, if the styles don’t match between the singer and the dancer, it can be disastrous. “That is why I don’t sing for all dancers.”

Sudha has been associated with all top dancers. “Dancers and musicians can learn so much from each other. I always try to take good things from the solo aspect of Carnatic music and intersperse it with the dance format, and vice versa,” says the vocalist who estimates she must have by now composed music for over 200 dance productions.

One of her cherished memories was singing for a documentary, Sindhu Darshan, years ago. “There was the voice of the great Balamurali Krishna and Amitabh Bachchan and there was my voice in it. What can I say,” she flings her hands in the air.

So how did she find her voice? Sudha narrates a story. “When I was in 5th standard, I had to participate in a school singing competition. I was learning music because to learn the swaras (notes) I also needed to learn some sahitya (lyrics). I was reluctant to take part, but my teachers (at Delhi Tamil Education Association School, Pusa Road) forced me into it, saying you belong to a family of vocalists. I sang the Brindavani (raga) tillana of Balamurali Krishna and won the first prize. It gave me confidence. I went to my grandfather with the prize, told him I want to learn music. He instead asked me to concentrate on the violin.”

Two years went by. Sudha kept up her interest in singing. “By then, I was an adolescent and my voice changed. So one Vijaya Dashami day, my grandfather heard me. He then blessed me, took me as his disciple, told me, ‘I can’t teach you basics now, I have to straightaway put you to learn the kritis.’ I am extremely fortunate to be born in that family.”

Since that day, Sudha has not looked back. She has also not picked up the violin since. “I was a CCRT scholarship holder in violin. My guru wanted me to continue. Soon after I began to learn singing, my guru passed away, I was emotionally attached to him and I stopped playing. Last year, my husband (flautist G. Raghuraman) bought a violin for me. I have no time for it now, and also, I can’t do on the violin what I can do by my singing.”

(Sudha Raghuraman performs Carnatic music at the Navarathri Music Festival at Sri Ayyappa Temple, Sector 2, R.K. Puram, as part of the Srimat Devi Bhagavata Navaha Yagyam this Sunday (7 - 8.30 p.m.)

Art of sustenance

Today, Sudha has an extremely busy calendar. She, however, points out that it has never been easy to survive in a city like Delhi being an artiste. “One wise thing we did was to buy our own house early on. It gave us a base. We worked hard to pay back the loan so that we don’t need to compromise with our career by performing at each and every event however below-standard they may be.”