Gayatri Sankaran has developed notations in Braille to make it easy for the visually-challenged to learn Carnatic music

You just need to have a good ear for music. Isn’t it?” asks Gayatri Sankaran, a visually-impaired Carnatic vocalist who has developed notations in Braille. “Loss of sight was never a handicap for me. I enjoyed my soul-talk with tunes,” she smiles. “Kurai onrum illai” former President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had said after Gayatri’s concert at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in which she rendered many of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s popular songs. “And nothing can sum up my life better,” says Gayatri, who was the first visually-impaired woman to be conferred the Padma Shri (in 2006).

It is while pursuing her Ph.D. (stylistic analysis of Kallidaikurichi Vedantha Bhagvathar) that Gayatri realised how difficult it is for the visually challenged to have access to kritis with notations. “It’s impossible to memorise all the notations. So we are always dependant on someone to read them out. Hence I decided to start notating them in Braille. A few basic segments of the Carnatic repertoire are available but I wanted to take it further by including geethams, varnams and a few kritis,” points out the vocalist, who has been carrying out these exercises in association with the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped. “In fact, we are looking at coming up with notations for almost all popular Carnatic kritis in Braille.”

Gayatri took to learning music from her mother at an early age. An impressed Rukmini Devi told her to join Kalakshetra for further training. Gayatri went on to do her diploma and post-graduate diploma courses in music at Kalakshetra. “The turning point of course, was the guidance I received from the late violin wizard Lalgudi Jayaraman. He helped me understand music in its entirety by looking beyond the ragas and compositions to instil emotion into my singing.”

An A-grade artiste at the All India Radio, Chennai, Gayatri has been pursuing her passion for the art in a holistic way. “I want to raise more awareness, particularly in rural areas, about the benefits the Government offers to the visually challenged. It’s very important for them to know the opportunities available to them in various fields or even the support they can get if they want to be self-employed,” says Gayatri, who has been making efforts to reach out particularly to visually challenged women. “Safety is a big issue. Some times when they trust the wrong person it could put them in a dangerous situation. I also guide them on how to be more independent and go about their chores by themselves. The ability to handle things on your own is the first step to gain self-confidence.”

Gayatri is currently working on exploring the harikatha tradition as part of the Senior Fellowship programme through the Ministry of Culture. “I want to become a harikatha performer. Listening to discourses is my favourite pastime. I find the epics, mythology and historical anecdotes fascinating. Now that’s what you call learning by ear,” she smiles.