Chatline: Recognition may have come her way, but singer Sithara Krishnakumar tells us that her strength is continuing practice

It took a song. A soulful folk number has spurred Sithara Krishnakumar into the orbit of musical celebrities. Accolades and attention have tagged along, including the Kerala State Film Award for the best female playback singer this year. In the mainstream, Sithara will be earmarked by Celluloid’s “Enundodee ambili chantham” until the next big milestone.

Sithara the singer though is not a newcomer. She has been quietly making her music heard with film songs in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. In Malayalam too, there were noteworthy ones — “Pakalin” (Traffic), “Kannarampothi” (Elsamma enna aankutti). The concert audience, though, was more in sync with her talents, the ease with which she handled ghazals and Hindustani pieces. But with “Enundodee…,” Sithara perched herself above a clutch of talented voices.

“Enundodee…” is not merely about the attention it drew to the voice. The song allowed her honesty as a singer, says Sithara. “Folk songs have truth.” With the film Celluloid set in the early 20th century, its music was a test to the music director, lyricist and singer. “In terms of the musical thought of the time, there was nothing much to fall back on,” she says. It may have been a daunting prospect, but there in lay its beauty. Sithara’s training proved her strength.

“The song did not have the pretensions of modern music. It was all heart and my voice could be free. I could be myself, my honest self,” says Sithara on a visit to her hometown near Kozhikode city.

Sithara is particular about the region she calls home, “I live on the border of Kozhikode and Malappuram,” she says, stressing the motley influences the region brings.

Living on the Calicut University campus, Sithara imbibed the region’s spirit of music. When her father’s friends gathered at home, music was the talking point. “I have often heard them talk about musicians like Babukka (M.S. Baburaj),” says Sithara.

She grew up splitting herself between dance and music. She trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and Carnatic music. After a few years of Carnatic training, she gradually veered towards Hindustani to find herself. But, to begin with, Carnatic was a natural choice, she says. “The music at home was Carnatic. My great grandfather was a good musician. I still use his harmonium,” she adds.

By the time she stepped into high school, ghazals had begun to lure her with its poetry and pathos. “Friends used to send me collections of Jagjit Singh and Hariharan. I grew addicted to ghazals,” recollects Sithara.

When she sang ghazals, listeners remarked that her voice has met its match. Slowly, the one-time disciple of Palai C.K. Ramachandran took up tutelage under sarangi and tabla player and vocalist, Kochi-based Fayaz Khan. “I don’t train in Carnatic now.” But she fondly remembers the kindness and blessings of her Carnatic guru. “I remember he was the one who encouraged me to perform Hindustani music at the Chembai music festival,” she says.

The joy of riyaz

Her guru Fayaz Khan is one of her reasons for shifting base to Kochi. To her, he is the teacher who teaches his students to love music uninhibitedly. Sithara talks eloquently about her guru, now recovering from injuries after a grave accident in which he lost his wife. “The way he teaches, he doesn’t allow you even a second of laziness. Practice at times extends from eight to eight, but he generates that kind of interest in music,” she says. “He will lead you through a thumri or a ghazal by singing it well himself. He gives himself to the student,” says Sithara.

Practice is what Sithara has firm faith in and one that she diligently abides by. “My opportunities have come from practice. Fame and money might be big in cinema, but that was never my first goal,” she says. Sithara wants to stride a fine balance, guided by “the rhythm of practice on one hand” and “career on another”.

Success in films will never translate to complacency, she asserts. Training and learning continues at Rabindra Bharati in Kolkata where she is pursuing her masters. “I am the only South Indian in class. The syllabus and schedule are hectic and I am trying to catch up,” says Sithara.

While at work, the singer learns lessons of a different kind. “With every recording session I learn a lot.” She doesn’t entertain any illusions about the role of a singer in a film. To her, the singer is merely part of a musical team, “which has the music director, lyricist etc. Your voice is used as a tool, chosen as it fits into a cinematic situation,” she explains. Film music, she says, is about, “What you should be singing and what you should not be. It is about a song reaching safe hands. It is in live singing that your musical and classical training come to the fore,” she adds.

Sithara comes across as a music student who hasn’t let any opportunity to learn go by. When she took part in reality shows a few years ago every feedback was taken note of. “My drawbacks were corrected by judges who had years of experience. Musically, a lot of cleaning happens at these competitions,” she adds.

On the film front, Sithara is set to record for veteran K. Raghavan master for the movie adaptation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s Balyakaala Sakhi. She will sing the female version of the song “Thamara Poonkavanathil” sung by K.J. Yesudas. On the personal front, Sithara gears up for more roles, as her baby is due soon.