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Baby Sreeram has a penchant for aesthetics

Baby Sreeram at The Music Academy library, Chennai.

Baby Sreeram at The Music Academy library, Chennai.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Imbibing music from several stalwarts has helped the vocalist explore the depths of the art

There is a lot more to Dr. G. Baby Sreeram, faculty member at The Music Academy’s Advanced School of Carnatic Music, than meets the eye. With a sparkling, confident on-stage persona, she is known for weighty classicism in her vocal music. She grew up in a large, orthodox Brahmin family in Thiruvananthapuram with 11 children. Music was enmeshed in the fabric of her life with practically every family member attuned to it. They were not well off. As she puts it, “Our family had music. But nothing else.” Her paternal grandfather, Bhagavathiswara Bhagavathar, and his ancestors, had been vidwans at the Travancore court while her maternal grandfather had been a palace cook.

Baby’s natural proclivity to music was found early. Even at the age of 7 or 8, she could elaborate ragas correctly after merely hearing a phrase. However, a severe asthmatic, being in and out of hospitals did not allow for any regular lessons. Her father insisted on his daughter’s listening to every Carnatic radio programme. She intently followed teaching lessons on the radio. “One kriti would be fully taught in two weeks.” Her uncle, working in All India Radio, would procure the notations. She learned many pieces in this manner. From the eighth standard, she began teaching to supplement the household income.

For about a year, Ananthalakshmi Venkataraman, one of her grandfather’s students, taught Baby some compositions. Baby’s elder sister learned violin at the Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music and would bring back the material to practise at home. Baby would learn it quickly and then help her sister, both spending about four hours on the exercise daily. “So many stalwart musicians like Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, G.N. Balasubramaniam and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer had worked in the college and set an excellent syllabus with several varnams and krits,” she says. During weekends, she would practise with Sekhar, a student of Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer.

Formal learning

Baby’s unusual pitch of 2.5 meant that she was constantly dismissed from participating in music competitions. She took part in exactly one, in college, at the insistence of her classmates, and won the first prize. Baby graduated in Music in 1992 from the Kerala University. The same year, she got the Indian Government’s CCRT scholarship impressing the judges T.N. Krishnan and Guruvayur Dorai. She was asked if she would relocate to Chennai. She replied that if she received the scholarship, she would. It was given on the spot with the suggestion that she learn from T.M. Thiagarajan (TMT). At the age of 20, she embarked on her first formal tutelage under a guru.

With no family in Chennai, Baby stayed as a paying guest in several homes. “Living in a hostel would not have allowed me to practice”. She would go to TMT’s house in the morning. “He would give excellent notations -- so good that one could sing the song directly from it”. She would then go to the Kapaleeswarar temple and practise. She would spend the rest of the afternoon at the Sampradaya Library, then in Luz. “That library was such a treasure trove. It had an excellent collection of recordings archived,” she recalls. She would select and notate at least two to three songs daily from the library’s collection and learn those as well. She taught music to a few students to make ends meet. Baby also composed songs and Sampradaya asked her to perform a concert exclusively of those. That, in January 1993, was her maiden concert in Chennai, accompanied by R.K. Shriramkumar on the violin and K. Arunprakash on the mridangam.

Later that year, she performed for Nadopasana at Sastri Hall. “I used to attend concerts there practically everyday. When asked, I mentioned I was TMT’s student. They then asked me to perform.” The following year, she won the All India Radio competition, which gave her a Grade B certification. Meanwhile, she completed her Master’s in music from the Kerala University through correspondence. Sangeetha Sivakumar asked her to meet Maitreyee Ramadurai of the Music Academy After an audition, she got a slot in the Spirit of Youth competition in 1996 and went on to win the best performer award. Unaware that the winner gets a slot in the December season, she never applied for it. She sang for the first time at The Music Academy in 2012 at 1.30 p.m. and remained there until 2017 when she was moved to the first morning slot.

In 1997, AIR moved her to A Grade directly. After the CCRT scholarship concluded, she learned from P.S. Narayanaswamy for about a year. In 1995, she married musician Palakkad K.L. Sreeram, who is proficient in playing many instruments. She started on her Ph.D., having got a Junior Research Fellowship – “The fellowship funds I received were more than the combined income of all the members of my family,” she says. She researched bhashanga ragas (ragas with additional notes not belonging to the identified parent raga).

TMT had said that many bhashanga ragas had actually been upanga ragas earlier. They had probably been influenced by therukoothu, harikatha and kalakshepam where songs had to be heard over distances without amplification, resulting in many sanchara-s in upper octaves. When emotional content had to be added, other elements were augmented “There are practically no rare bhashanga ragas. They are almost always popular.” Baby extensively researched 44 bhashanga ragas, exclusively through compositions of renowned vaggayekkaras and stalwart musicians. She notated 77 songs, distilling the best through listening. She explains how a raga can be expounded using those kritis as benchmarks. “A student can get a picture of the raga and learn compositions through my book,” she says. In 2004, she was awarded her doctorate by Kerala University.

Baby is known for her vivid imagination, clarity and thoughtful delineation of manodharma aspects, all of which she attributes to a long list of veterans — vainika R Venkataraman, flautist K.S. Gopalakrishnan, violinist K. Venkatachalam, vocalists Parasala Ponnammal, Prabhakar Varma, Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer, M.D. Ramanathan, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.L. Vasanthakumari, D.K. Jayaraman, D.K. Pattammal and artistes at Sri Swati Tirunal Sangeetha Sabha and Navaratri Mandapam. She stresses that music aspirants should engage in active, analytical listening. TMT is known to have said that Baby and E. Gayatri were students of his with karpoora budhdhi — as quick as camphor.

Baby prefers to teach a student a ragam’s lakshana with a varnam in that raga. She follows up with several kritis in the same raga, going from simpler to the more nuanced. That way, she says, the crux of the raga, its contours and characteristic phrases, get imprinted. Taught this way, she believes that even similar sounding ragas such as Poornachandrika and Janaranjani or Mandhari and Amritavarshini can be clearly distinguished. “Going by arohanam and avarohanam can inhibit thought processes,” she says.

Alapana structuring

Raga alapanas should be structured using songs of recognised composers as a guide, she explains, making learning many pieces crucial. “The clues are all in the songs themselves,” she says. The opening phrase of any major kriti, according to her, is a perfect start to bring out the crux of the raga instantly. The charanam illustrates delineation of the lower sancharas. The anupallavi is a roadmap for the upper notes and combining all the octaves provides more dimension. According to Baby, niraval is an art, finding different expressions from different musicians. TMT pointed out K.V. Narayanaswamy for his clarity combined with excellent sense of laya. She took inspiration from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on how to fill in a line beautifully. Students would definitely find it helpful to be given pointers from a trained teacher, for niraval can seem forbidding, she says. “Niraval is not just giving different tunes to a line,” she insists. “It is giving a different dimension of the raga to add to the essence of the lyric”.

The aesthetics of the music is of great importance to Baby. She explains how a plain sangathi is necessary to provide contrast. “One should also know where and what to abstain from.” She pays a lot of attention to the volume — “If I sing a phrase softly, it is because I intend it to be so. Sahitya is important here.” Baby knows the meaning of every word of the song she sings.

Baby has composed prolifically since the age of eight and in rare ragas like Ambasri, Komalangi, Charukuntalam, Amarasenapriya and more. She has also composed kritis with swaraaksharam (where syllables of notes and lyrics match), three swarajatis in the style of Syama Sastri, Ata tala varnams, thillanas, etc. She has, however, abstained from composing for a decade.

Baby does even household chores, like laundry and cooking, singing all the while. It is when she teaches her son, 20-year-old Bharath Narayan, that she actually sits down to sing. “I don’t go seeking name or fame . I also firmly believe that God will take care of things.” This leaves Dr. Gurumoorthy Baby Sreeram mentally free to explore the depths of music.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 11:52:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/baby-srirams-penchant-for-aesthetics/article30809617.ece

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