Aruna Sairam's successful career has been built on a balanced, compassionate approach to life.
If being a successful performer is all about balancing the material and the spiritual world, then so is all of life. So submits a smiling Aruna Sairam, the eminent Carnatic vocalist whose serene music signals more clearly than words that she has achieved a peaceful equilibrium. "This conflict actually encompasses every activity of life," says the singer, who was in Delhi to sing at the invitation of the Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Satsangam, which marked its 38th anniversary this past weekend. "But I feel if there is awareness of what is important to us and what is less important, we will be able to keep the balance. Any right thinking person will be able to figure it out. As artistes we always try to put the depth and feeling and spirituality in front."One's thinking is always a product of one's upbringing. The celebrated singer, known for her eclectic range and collaborations with musicians from outside the Carnatic tradition, emphasises the role of her parents in building her holistic approach. "My parents combined a lot of formal and informal education. On the one hand I got up early and did my sarali varasai, janta varasai (solfa exercises), etc. My mother (Rajalakshmi Sethuraman) was my first teacher. She was trained by the Alathur Brothers and by Tanjavur Shankara Iyer. On the other hand, great thinkers, orators, dancers, painters were always visiting us. As a child I was constantly in touch with them."As legendary musicians like T. Brinda (who later became her guru), Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, T.R. Mahalingam (Mali), M.S. Subbulakshmi and Amir Khan, and dancers like T. Balasaraswati, Sanjukta Panigrahi and others visited the family's Mumbai home, the young Aruna saw the human qualities that made them wonderful friends. "I can only remember them joking, mimicking others, cracking lewd jokes. Even if my mother signalled to me to move away, Balamma (Balasaraswati) would say, no, let her stay. She should learn everything."Besides, there were scholars and orators like Ki Va Jagannathan, Sukhabrahmam who narrated the Bhagavat, Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar who related the Bhagavat through the dramatic compositions of the Oothakadu family, and others. "I got to know that no art form exists in isolation. Music is connected to dance, is connected to literature, to poetry, to architecture, and so on."
It was possible to excel both at studies and music when she was a schoolgirl, because there were no distractions like TV, feels the singer, who completed her B.Sc. in Chemistry and a B.Ed., besides a Masters in Music, and is feted not only for her range of voice, impeccable sruti and emotional depth but also for her readiness to innovate and experiment.Despite the rich inputs from home, she recounts, her decision to take up music more single-mindedly came when she was already a mother, albeit still in her early 20s. "I think there were many reasons. With hindsight I see it was a personal trauma, a crisis that made me realise the tremendous value of what I had been exposed to."Turning professional did not significantly change her lifestyle, she says, since home and young children took priority. "But whatever time I had left would be spent in furthering my music. A little practice, a little thinking. But it was very, very slow. You tell yourself, `Whatever I have to do, I do. The rest is bonus.' Every day when you get up, you have certain duties. But, for example, while doing the dishes you can roll a song in your mind. Because you can't lose hope. You can't get broken."She adds, "There are people who don't choose any other life. They are also great. But I am talking about myself. Before I knew it, I was studying, I was learning music, I was married, had children. In such a situation, it has to be combined. When you do that, you don't have to tell yourself that you abdicated any part of your life." This past Tuesday she was back in Chennai, receiving the Isai Selvam award from M. Karunanidhi. But the world-travelled singer who has made Carnatic music popular in Europe knows the greatest award is music itself. And the real listener resides within the heart. "Only when you connect to that, can your audience connect with you."