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This Sangita Kalanidhi aces music with a scientific spirit

S. Sowmya

S. Sowmya   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan


Organic tutelage coupled with a precocious curiosity and commitment have taken S. Sowmya to the peak. She will preside over the 93rd annual Conference of the Music Academy, beginning December 15, and be conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title at the Sadas on January 1, 2020

As the second youngest female recipient of Sangita Kalanidhi — legend MLV being the first — Sowmya evokes the adjectives ‘scholarly,’ ‘erudite,’ ‘cerebral,’ etc., among fellow artistes, old or young. Given her long list of award-winning academic and musical accomplishments, it is no wonder that many leading musicians flock to her for paradigm shifts in perspective, bouncing off ideas and learning new songs.

It is likely that Sowmya, who is 50, belongs to the longest line of Guru-Sishya Sangita Kalanidhi-s — beginning with Tiger Varadachariar in 1932, T.S. Sabesa Iyer (1934), Dr. S. Ramanathan (1985) and Sowmya in 2019, perhaps bearing testament to the excellence of pedagogy of this bani. Adding in her long tutelage with Sangita Kala Acharya, T. Mukta, Sowmya has a covetable, direct lineage with a high quality, diverse repertoire that is tough to replicate.

In this day of frills and thrills, Sowmya is markedly different. An analogy she gave, at a recent programme on the depth of the Brinda Mukta bani, is apt. Looking at fire, one sees beautiful hues of yellows and oranges. However, should one touch it, the heat is scalding. “My Guru would say that the music should be substantial and it alone should speak — gesticulations, dramatics etc., should be eschewed.” Following that credo, Sowmya displays minimal movement in concerts and rarely takes any breaks between songs. She weaves in creative prayogas and swara patterns with just fractions of the scale; behind the seeming simplicity is assiduous thought, while delivering the raga’s essence beautifully. She pays attention to subtleties, reinforced by her training under Mukta. “It can be the same notes, technically, but a delicate handling can deliver a completely different flavour from one done with a punch.” Sowmya challenges herself constantly, taking up kalpanaswaram and niraval at uncommon starting points, such as at madhyama kala stanzas.

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 10/04/2017: Carnatic vocalist S. Sowmya. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 10/04/2017: Carnatic vocalist S. Sowmya. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan


Her father, Dr. M. Srinivasan, started Sowmya off with small songs. He had learned vocal from flautist Dindigul S.P. Natarajan. Srinivasan was a Chemical Engineer with a Ph.D. from IISc Bangalore, also known for his keen knowledge and appreciation of the nuances of the music, with renowned musicians learning songs from him. He was the lynchpin who enforced rigorous daily practice on Sowmya. “He would make me sing whatever I had learned each day as soon as I came home — if I made a face about the repeated singing or forgot anything, it entailed a tongue lashing or a spanking. To avoid this, I would mull over everything learned on my way back from class.” Family members recollect how he would wake up Sowmya early in the morning for practice even while on short vacations. Srinivasan continues to be a ready reckoner available for Sowmya’s daily consultation. At age six, she joined Dr. S. Ramanathan’s tutelage, effectively becoming a member of the family.

About her guru

“He was a Jeevan Mukta — a true Guru in every sense of the word,” says Sowmya emotionally. It was always a group class. “Even within the group, he would know exactly who made an error and what it was. He was the embodiment of patience — at the most he might raise an eyebrow.” Sowmya explains that he would never repeat an error. Rather he would keep singing the correct version. “With Mukta amma, if past lessons were not repeated correctly or I could not get something quickly, she would send me home. It was always my loss if I did not assimilate instantaneously.” Ramanathan would explain the meanings of songs and technicalities practically like a game. “The way he would say it, we could picturize the song, much like a movie,” she says. Neither teacher allowed for recording or notes during the lesson. The lyrics alone could be written after class. Sowmya recollects trying to notate a padam once. She gave it up as an impossible task soon enough, much to Mukta’s amusement.

After teaching a piece, Ramanathan would often draw their attention to how a particular note was handled in that raga. The students would do round-robin kalpanaswaram. “He would add in restrictions — beginning only from shadjam, for example; using only a few notes at a time; incorporating jantai; taking up a different ragam for each round, the next ragam being a mystery. He would not call it an allied ragam exercise, but it was seamlessly incorporated in the sessions most enjoyably,” she elaborates. These restrictions enforced discipline and brought forth new ideas. “We learned to fully explore the scope of just a few notes and not traverse the entire octave for each round,” she says. Similar guidelines were imposed on alapana and niraval.

In 1983, she accompanied Ramanathan to a festival at Nerur, where one of the samadhis of Sadhasiva Brahmendrar is located. A scheduled artiste had not arrived and the organisers asked her Guru if she could sing instead. She gave her first concert that day, a full-fledged one. In 1986, she gave her first performance at The Music Academy. She was 17.

Sowmya further enhanced her repertoire by learning compositions from other authentic sources — Papanasam Sivan kritis from Sethalapati Balu, Rukmini Ramani, etc. and Mysore Vasudevachar kritis from his grandson, S. Rajaram, and so on. Her concerts were attended by Ramanathan, Mukta and other doyens including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, T.M. Thiagarajan, B. Rajam Iyer, S. Kalyanaraman and R. Vedavalli. Ramanathan and Mukta, on occasion, would suggest changes to be made. She recollects when she sang a phrase in Nayaki as PMGRS, Ramanathan asked her to sing it as PMRGRS instead. Artistes then were spare with outright praise but clearly indicated that she was doing well. One memorable occurrence was Titte Krishna Iyengar and B. Rajam Iyer effusively praising the Ragam Tanam Pallavi in Narayanagowla she presented at the Music Academy. Krishna Iyengar was renowned for that raga.

Sowmya dislikes the concept of arohanam and avarohanam, which she thinks is restrictive. “How can you encapsulate Nattakurinji, for example, within a specific scale,” she asks. When she teaches even a varnam, therefore, she imparts the lyric itself rather than teach the notes. “There are so many ways to sing SNP in Sankarabharanam, for example,” she says. “By singing the words, a beginner will be able to form a picture of the raga and can then explore the myriad interpretations over time.”

Sowmya got the Government of India’s CCRT scholarship for veena when barely seven. Ramanathan trained her on the instrument too. Knowledge of the veena, besides giving visual reference to music, pushes her to work harder in vocal. “I often reflect on how to better portray in vocal what the veena does more effectively,” she says. In-depth rumination on the integrity of notes and phrases specific to ragas reflects in her alapanas. She will not sing some now oft-heard phrases. She demonstrates how, many musicians, for example, often stress the madhyamam in Thodi making it sound distinctly like Saveri. She suggests that students take the effort to listen to themselves. “Alfred Tomatis, a French researcher, mentions how people often cannot hear themselves properly, requiring courses on ear training. They are necessary. If one cannot hear one’s mistake, it can never be rectified.”

Her articulation, academic orientation and research affinity are all discernible in her lecture demonstrations — concise, precise and sure. “If I don’t know enough about something or don’t believe sufficiently in it, I will not talk about it. I am merely taking a leaf out of my Guru’s book — he practised these qualities every day. He never dilly dallied. Neither did he speak unnecessarily.” Her guide, Prof. K.K. Balasubramanian, at IIT Madras, insisted on a methodical approach that she maintains to this day.

“He suggested that I first discover what has already been done so that we can contribute something new. He also insisted that I take systematic notes promptly of ideas and concepts.” On the faculty of The Music Academy’s Advanced School of Carnatic Music, Sowmya is sought after as a teacher otherwise as well. Many performing musicians learn from her. “I consider teaching an important moral responsibility. I mull over how to pass on what I have learned faithfully yet absorbingly.” She asks practitioners to put themselves in the composer’s shoes, learn the meanings of the lyrics and sing songs faithfully.

Penchant for rare ragas

She has a penchant for taking ragas such as Pahadi, Ganta, Maanji, Atana, Narayanagowla, Nayaki, Yadhukulakhambodi, Darbar, Andolika and Ritigowla for main pieces. “So many yesteryear stalwarts have sung these ragas. My Guru expounded several in detail. These raga-s were rendered elaborately then but rarely now. But they are so beautiful and there is much in them that I enjoy bringing out.”

Admittedly, there was hardly any precursor for Ganta in which she presented a Ragam Thanam Pallavi last year at The Music Academy (in 2010, she delivered a 40-minute lecdem on Ganta and allied ragams). “I knew Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s ‘Sri Kamalambike’, a thiruppugazh taught by Mukta amma and Thyagaraja’s mangalam. I sang those repeatedly and tried to comprehend as much as I could. I also told myself that I should think of Ganta as an independent entity, getting into it just as I would a Thodi or a Bhairavi or a Sankarabharanam.”

Sowmya has gone through many health problems over the years that have affected her voice and her stamina, but she has never called attention to it. “Each of us has our own battles, which we have to fight. One should not mope.” Indeed, she is known for being cheerful, pleasant and friendly. She shares a palpably vibrant equation with all her accompanists on stage. “We are all equals. I lay no conditions and there is no question of main artiste and accompanying artistes,” she says. She often takes suggestions on the spot from accompanists and rasikas. “I am used to that. My father would come up suddenly with ideas of what to sing or where to do kalpanaswaram.” She now sings for herself and the space has ceased to matter. “I don’t plan my concerts,” she says. Her pallavis are rarely pre-determined. “If Embar Kannan is playing, I will ask him to suggest a ragam. With R.K. Shriramkumar, I will ask him to come up with a pallavi line. As I sing the alapana, he will decide on the line. As he plays the ragam, I will set it even as the percussionists ask what talam it is going to be in.”

Sowmya has faced a problem encountered by female artistes — many male violinists and percussionists refused to perform with her. When some of these artistes subsequently approached her wishing to play, she politely refused, choosing to stick with her friends who had always been there for her. “A gamut of interesting excuses is given. It also has to do with numbers — there was a time when most performers were male — it was easy to exclude women. Later there were more women — it became necessary to play for them. Now it is majority male again.”

An observation of the struggle of mridangam vidwans to maintain the pitch against the hall temperature, lighting, etc., resulted in her Ph.D. dissertation — “A study of the effect of temperature variations on the pitch of a double-headed drum (mridangam).” She acknowledges the support of Dr. Premeela Gurumurthy, at University of Madras, who encouraged her to pursue this topic. “It was a delight to go back to organic chemistry and basic sciences. I really enjoy the manodharmam of the molecules,” she chuckles.

On the Sangita Kalanidhi award, Sowmya says: “Those who have got it have been trend-setters — people to learn from, people from whom I have learned. To be in that august company is a responsibility — it does not seem like recognition for what I have achieved but more like I should continue to work for the art.”

She would like to see youngsters to get into the depth of music while avoiding politics completely. “ Just be true and sincere. If you have that spark, you will arrive and you will last. Attention should be paid to how to evolve in music. At some point, you should think of what you are giving back to music. Do think long term. What learning points are you providing in your concert? Musicians should be socially responsible too. Think of the underprivileged. Live and help live. It is heartening to see that many more of this generation are doing this — much more than in mine.” Her Sukrtam Foundation was set up for this purpose.

She is in favour of giving younger artistes opportunities in The Music Academy’s academic sessions. “For youngsters to want to participate, we should give them ownership – it will motivate them and others, whilst being educative. So many are committed and sincere to the art form.” Sowmya says that artistes should not avoid such opportunities fearing public criticism. “It is never about the person. Only about the fact. Learn from the mistake and proceed,” she suggests.

Sowmya is bringing back the Raga Lakshana sessions. “Ragas have evolved over time. The audiences too have changed. These sessions used to be packed when it was conducted earlier,” she remembers. She is also reviving theatre in the season. Enacted by the students of The Music Academy’s Advanced School of Carnatic Music, these thematic presentations will find them engage in costume design, choreography, acting, all part of our cultural fabric.

Academic topper

Sowmya’s academic achievements include a Ph.D from the University of Madras (2012), an MSc in Chemistry from IIT Madras in 1992 (winning the IIT Blue award for all-round competency in academics and extra-curriculars), first rank and Gold Medal in MA Music from the University of Madras in 1998 and more. She is a polyglot — besides taking advanced courses in Sanskrit from the Madras University, she is proficient in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi which reflects in her singing through accurate word-split, meanings and emotion as, perhaps, the vagayekkaras intended. An indefatigable researcher, she has an extensive library of her own.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 8:54:41 PM |

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