There's nothing like conquering the big wide world and coming back to a hero's welcome in your own home town. Oh, all right — to many, New Delhi itself is the big wide world. But when O.S. Arun left the Capital 12 years ago to try his luck as a singer in Chennai (then Madras), it was a move from the comfortable and familiar to the untested and uncharted.
Recently he was back in Delhi to receive the Nada Bhushanam award from one of the city's oldest music organisations, Sree Shanmukhananda Sangeetha Sabha. He may be at home in the world at large by now, but there was a distinct air of pride when the city's Carnatic music fans gathered to watch him receive the title at New Delhi's Andhra Bhawan auditorium. The triumphal colours of the occasion notwithstanding, Arun remained humble, acknowledging the encouragement he received from the Sabha during his early years as a singer, especially the opportunities to sing at the annual shows for young talents.
Like most artistes born into a family tradition, Arun can't pinpoint his first music lesson. “I started singing from childhood because my father (O.V. Subramanian) used to give classes. Of course, I used to sit for classes also, but there was more of hearing,” he recalls.
It was during his senior school days that he decided to take up music as a profession. “I started my career in 1984, or maybe '83,” he says. The exact year may be hazy after a hectic two-and-a half decades in a profession where nights and days frequently have no boundaries, but Arun well remembers the other details. “It was a Tamil ballet by Aruna Subramaniam. It was at Falaknuma (auditorium in Pragati Maidan),” he says.
If the maiden professional performance proved auspicious for him, his fellow artistes too were a class apart. On the harmonium was the legendary P.V. Subrahmanian, the late critic and composer better known by his pen name Subbudu, and conducting the orchestra was Guru K.J. Govindarajan, who was among the pioneering Bharatanatyam teachers in Delhi. Arun was 18 at the time and had finished his schooling from the Delhi Tamil Education Society around a year earlier.
It was partly his varied interests and partly his decision to make a living through music that set Arun on the path to diversity. He sang for Kuchipudi, Kathak and sometimes Odissi too. At the same time, he continued working on a solo concert career. Besides short Carnatic concerts, he would sing bhajans too. “I would give concerts in Aruna Dalmia's house,” he recounts.
“But to really develop your music, you have to go to the ‘Mecca',” Arun notes. And that is what Madras was, then, as now, to Carnatic musicians. His elder brother, eminent vocalist O.S. Thiagarajan, was settled there and had been urging Arun to shift. “But to be very honest, I was flourishing in Delhi,” states Arun. When his father too settled there and began asking him to come over, Arun finally decided to take the plunge.
It wasn't difficult to adjust to the new city since, says Arun, his friends were also Hindi speakers — “my kind of people”. But professionally, the doors opened reluctantly. “The sabhas would say, ‘He's a dance accompanist,' and the dancers would say, ‘Oh, he sings like a concert vocalist',” says Arun, referring to the divide that initially made it difficult for him to fit into a particular groove and get stage engagements.
Today, the artiste credited with bridging this divide significantly in the minds of a number of musicians says, “I'm still doing the same thing (singing both for dance and solo concerts). People say the same thing, in a different tone. Now they say it as a compliment, that I am versatile.”
As his career picked up, Arun tried to evolve a distinctive style. “My style has a lot of punctuation.” Also, he says, he gives a lot of “exclusive bhajan concerts” in Chennai now.
With over 50 CDs, which he says “by God's grace have done extremely well,” Arun feels his “victory” is the children that come to his concerts, ensuring a young fan following for classical singing.
Speaking of children, Arun the youngster had enough occasion to bunk classes thanks to musical engagements. “Oh yeah, I was doing that all the time. But my friends were all like that. They all had a liking for music.” Obviously there were no hard feelings. “Recently I sang for my biology teacher's daughter's wedding,” he mentions, adding, whenever he performs abroad, his former teachers settled in places like Singapore and Malaysia eagerly attend his concerts.
Once during maths class, recalls Arun, a messenger came to say the words every student dreads: “The principal is calling O.S. Arun.” Fearfully he reached the principal's office, only to discover he was being asked to entertain guests with a song!
Arun had a chance to exchange sweet memories with his old classmates this winter, the '82 batch of DTEA. Their affection for their batchmate who made it big is reflected in their taking care to check Arun's availability before they booked a date. “My friends came from London, Mumbai, Singapore, Delhi. We had a nice time and we honoured some of the teachers. One of them was Gomathi Teacher. We sent my car to fetch her, and she was saying, ‘Oh, I am sitting in O.S. Arun's car',” narrates Arun fondly, clearly touched with the love of his elders and peers.
As if on cue, a gentleman overhearing the conversation turns around to Arun: “Hello, I am S. Natarajan, former Principal of DTEA. Congratulations on the award!”
Yes, congratulations, Arun. Life is a song. Here's wishing him many happy refrains!