On Vidyarambham, Delhiite Tamil Saraswati Rajagopalan recalls the crucial tutelage of two Malayali masters in her veena career

Her main guru’s family belonged to Koduvayur in serene east Palakkad, but it was in noisy Bombay of the 1970s that the teenager took her veena lessons from K S Narayanaswamy. These days, Saraswati Rajagopalan’s performances in Kerala find their share of audience that includes senior-generation aesthetes who even get a sense of déjà vu.

For, the instrumentalist sticks to an unostentatious style typical of the Tanjore-style veena-playing which had been popular in Kerala, courtesy Padma Bhushan Narayanaswamy, among others, of yore.

“Kerala’s classical music lovers are very discerning. Disciplined, yet open to varied sensibilities,” says Saraswati, a Delhiite for 40 years now. “I got a direct exposure to it during a long 2007 itinerary when I gave recitals at places such as Wadakanchery, Guruvayur, Irinjalakuda, Tripunithura, Muvattupuzha and Kottayam. The impression remains.”

Today, amid Vidyarambham, the musician’s cultural memories speed back to another festival. Ganesh Chaturthi was fast approaching and a band of seasoned artistes was to stage a show in their city of Bombay when Saraswati was asked to join the orchestra with her veena.

The 12-year-old passed the short-notice test: the gathering was impressed with the girl’s skills to gel with the motley music even as her notes bore a classical resonance redolent of her native south India.

Eighteen years later, in 1987, an amusing coincidence awaited Saraswati as she turned yet another leaf in life. A job she got in All India Radio, Delhi slotted her in the ensemble section called Vadya Vrinda.

That profile has enriched the musician’s eclecticism, but her tryst with the national capital is much older. “We moved to Delhi in 1973,” the artiste reveals, citing that an official transfer for her father triggered the second round of migration for the family that has roots in the Cauvery belt of down-country Tamil Nadu — the cradle of Carnatic music.

Her interaction with varied cultures, too, helped broaden Saraswati’s musical contours, not to speak of what she learned from performances in foreign countries. “Nonetheless, I have never felt the urge to fiddle with the grand features of the Tanjore school of veena,” she notes, tacitly explaining her gimmickry-free rendition that clings to curved notes and tends to replicate human-throat modulations.

Interestingly, Saraswati has had training under three veena teachers of varied styles — before she took a Masters in music at a later stage. Of them, the illustrious Narayanaswamy (1914-99) was known for his Tanjore-genre nuances, which weren’t the hallmark of the others: late T.S. Raghavan and Radhamani Sharma.

“When hands change, techniques too alter — at least subtly,” says Saraswati, who has a big pool of disciples within India and abroad. “In any case, what matters isn’t the method of the finger movement along the frets. Aesthetics is what lends individuality to a school.”

The artiste did her MA in her thirties at Delhi University, thanks to encouragement from a frontline Kerala-born violinist. Prof T N Krishnan, a native of Tripunithura south of Kochi, was then heading the varsity’s music department.

At 56 now, Saraswati continues to learn music — by listening to records of yesteryear maestros. “Lalgudi Jayaraman, M.S. Subbulakshmi, K.V. Narayanaswamy, S. Kalyanaraman, D.K. Jayaraman…. Not that I seek to reproduce them. I imbibe their spirit of beauty. I notate the compositions, and then work on them.”

Her long period of interactions with Hindustani exponents has taught Saraswati certain things basic to jugalbandi experiments. “The fellow instrumentalist should have respect for your art — and a mindset to complement; not outdo,” she says.

Zooming out, she observes that the average Westerner is fascinated by “meditative” timbre of the veena. Such global appeal has prompted Saraswati to lately embark on a mission to spread the popularity of her instrument. As a founder member of the 2007-incepted Veena Foundation, she has been playing a key role in organising a flurry of veena festivals across the country.

Its annual editions have since travelled with different team of players to other cities — Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai…”

More In: Kochi