The pandemic has not been easy on anyone and yet, when it changed things drastically, many performers adapted to the new normal by switching to the digital platform. For Aruna Sairam, however, it was a period of quiet introspection and learning. She did not seek online concerts because she felt that only live audiences, with whom she could connect, had the power of reciprocity. But she had other moments of cheer — such as being awarded the Kalidas Samman in 2020. “Every award, big or small is a reiteration of the work that we do as artistes and makes us reaffirm our commitment to the art,” says Aruna.
Then, on November 4 this year, Aruna got the opportunity she had been waiting for — an invitation for a live concert at the grand Elbphilharmonie hall in Hamburg. “Performing there was amazing. The rows of layered seats rise high all around the stage, creating a proximity to the magical musical experience,” she says.
For Aruna, the concert was also special because seated in the audience was her German teacher Renate, who had come to listen to an old friend and student. Renate brought back memories of how her musical link with Germany began.
Way back in 1987, when Aruna Sairam was finding her niche in the music world, she got an invitation to be the visiting professor in a German music hochschule (institution) in Saarbrucken. She was excited about the three-month assignment because it was her first big overseas musical outing, and it would give her an opportunity to be a representative of Indian classical music.
With Indian classical music an elective at the hochschule, Aruna soon realised none of the students had opted for it. Clad in a sari, she would sit alone in a room and watch the students pass by. “I thought why am I here? I recalled my years in Bombay and the kind of training I had received under several greats. I decided to make the best use of my time there by learning German music,” says Aruna.
So she approached Renate Bellmann, who wondered what she would want to learn. Over an Indian meal at her apartment, she told her about how she had been in Saarbrucken for three weeks not doing anything. “I told her students here don’t seem to be interested in Indian music and lack the intellectual curiosity about other cultures.” The next day Renate invited her to the director’s room. When she walked in, Aruna was surprised to see the room packed; all the professors at the hochschule had been called to hear her out. Aruna told them that she had expected something more like an exchange programme. And that she had come with the intention of sharing knowledge and hoping to gain some too. Soon it was decided that over eight weekends, she would be hosted by each professor at their residence, where Aruna would talk about various aspects of Indian classical music.
By the end of eight Sundays, the whole scenario had changed. A bond had been sealed, new doors had opened. For Aruna, it was a new beginning. The German experience had taught her to communicate better, through music, and this was something that has stayed on with her. Her concerts after this experience ceased to be the same. She waited for the audience to respond and enthralled them with what they had come looking for. She had begun to feel the pulse of her listeners.
In the fall of 1987, she was once again invited to teach, this time at colleges in six different German cities. Renate Bellmann also opened her mind to the techniques of the voice. She introduced Aruna to Prof. Eugene Rabine, who became her voice teacher. Eugene helped her experience singing as something that involves the entire body.
Aruna has since visited the country several times, winning over audiences with her music and also entering into collaborations with Christian Bollmann and Michael Reimann.
The recent concert at Elbphilharmonie was a continuation of her artistic bond with Germany.
The Chennai-based author writes on art and culture.