Vijay Siva: Traditionalist to the core

Carnatic vocalist Vijay Siva

Carnatic vocalist Vijay Siva   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Torchbearer of the DKJ/DKP bani, Vijay Siva is not the one to compromise on classicism

Total conviction, clarity of thought, unstinted devotion to patantharam, wholehearted commitment to the cause of music and the courage to follow through — these make Vijay Siva stand out in the realm of Carnatic music .

Vijay’s start in music was rather serendipitous — his mother was teaching a student the Ritigowla varnam when, out of the blue, young Vijay, all of two years old, sang the next sequence NDMNNS perfectly, and in tune. The surprised mother, realising that the child had insidiously absorbed the constant music in their home, began informal tutelage. Vijay soon performed short programmes at school and elsewhere, also singing the final 45 minutes or so at wedding concerts that his mother performed. Having aspired to be musicians themselves, Vijay’s parents (A.N. Siva and Akhila) had agreed that all their children would be given options in music and the leeway to explore them to their hearts’ content. Vijay and his two younger siblings (sister Poorna Vaidhyanathan, a violinist, and brother Manoj Siva, a mridangist) were, thus, encouraged to pursue musical passions .

Akhila later requested her guru , D.K. Jayaraman (DKJ) to suggest a teacher for Vijay. Jayaraman asked for a cassette of Vijay’s singing. Subsequently, he asked Akhila to bring Vijay over and began teaching the boy. It was January 26, 1977 — Vijay was not yet 10.

Since DKJ’s passing when Vijay was 24, he has directed himself. He did take periodic guidance from D.K. Pattammal (DKP), self-learning a few songs and singing it in front of her. She would make necessary corrections, sometimes graphically indicating sangatis with her fingers. The pieces for which recordings of DKJ or DKP were available, he used those. For others, he employed his own knowledge of their style, internalised from years of learning, to anticipate how a piece should be rendered. K.V. Narayanaswamy said that if one is set on following a patantharam in the absence of guidance, thinking sincerely on how the guru might have interpreted the song would surely set one on the right path. Indeed, such is Vijay’s understanding of the bani that it is impossible to tell which piece he learned from the guru or which he learnt himself.

Vijay Siva: Traditionalist to the core

Vijay’s music exemplifies the firmness in patantharam that characterises the DKJ/DKP school. Kritis are rendered precisely the same way, every time, right up to the pallavi refrain. Recordings of DKJ and DKP decades apart back this up. Connoisseurs notice that Vijay’s alapanas are generally more elaborate than those of his gurus. DKJ never tried to make his students mirror him — he gave them freedom to give in to their individual imagination — which Vijay does. “He made us feel we had sung the entire raga ourselves when, in fact, it was his guidance at the precise junctures that made us come up with a ‘good’ alapana,” says the senior vocalist.

Vijay almost always knows the word by word meaning of the songs that he sings and if not, takes tremendous effort to find it. He hastens to say that there might be rare exceptions. In Muthuthandavar’s ‘Ayyane Natanam’ in Saveri, there is a line ‘Chozhan kai vettunda thooya anbar sahaaya...’ He had understood the meaning of the entire song except the first four words of that line, and this, despite enquiries. Mrs. Y.G. Parthasarathy, who had been Principal at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan school when Vijay studied, attended a concert where he sang this song. She later asked, “Which Chozha king was he and whose hands did he chop off?” Vijay acknowledged not knowing the answer. It weighed on his mind, though. At a satsang he attended three years later, he asked this question of the upanyasakartha. Finally, he got the answer. The line referred to Raja Raja Chozha (chozhan) using his own hand (kai) to break (vettunda) the stones for the Chidambaram temple.

“One can learn Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada through Dikshitar, Tyagaraja and Purandaradasa kritis and apply the knowledge,” he says. He never uses notes or any aids at his concerts. “We would be taught a song one day and had to learn it thoroughly by the next class. The question of using paper beyond the first day did not exist,” recalls Vijay. Prior to a concert, Vijay reviews the songs he intends to present, sing them if necessary and also recite the lyrics of the song to aid memory. He mentions the anecdote of Paramacharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam stating that publishing a book on Vedam might stop practitioners from putting in the effort to imprint it in the mind.

Vijay articulates musical concepts with vivid, easy-to-understand explanations. He selects the niraval line carefully. There should be the equivalent of a comma and a word should end (“one should not end in ‘Tyaga’ if the word is ‘Tyagaraja’”). Two, four or eight aavartanam sequences will give a good rhythmic feel and be convenient for the mridangists. ‘Sthobam’ should be observed for the selection of the line itself — the words should be auspicious and pleasant to the listener. He gives two examples of what should be avoided. “In Tyagaraja’s ‘Etula Brotuvo’ (Chakravaaham), there is a line ‘Patti goddu reethi bhakshinchi thirigithi’ which means ‘I was aimlessly roaming like a stray cow.’ Rather than such a line, words that extol God or speak of virtues would be far more appropriate. In the song, ‘Swarna Kala Bhairavam’ by Swarna Venkatesa Dikshitar, there is a line ‘Bootha preta pishasha gananaatha Parameshwaram Prabhum’. “Yes, it is talking about God’s qualities but do we really want to listen to the words ‘bootha preta pishasha’ over and over?” Rasikas’ sentiments must be respected,” he says.

Vijay Siva: Traditionalist to the core

The corpus of available songs from renowned composers should be used as the boundary for one’s own manodharmic explorations. One should watch out carefully for how frequently a phrase has been employed and ensure that one does not abuse it. In Tyagaraja’s Begada song ‘Nadopasana,’ in the word ‘vishwamella’, Tyagaraja uses the madhyamam that particular way only in that song and just once — therefore, if singing that song, one can sing that variation only once. “It is such things that a Guru looks out for and we should continuously refer to,” he says. Certain songs in Gowlipantu use the shuddha madhyamam while others use the prati madhyamam – artistes should sing such ragas based on the kriti that they intend to render. Syama Sastri used antara gandharam in Ananda Bhairavi, which means that it should be used only when singing his kritis, he explains.

Vijay firmly advocates open-throated singing with an acoustic tanpura against “whispering music to mouth-kissing mikes.” “Singing full-throatedly is itself excellent voice culture,” he emphasises. For advanced voice training, he consulted Peter Calatin and, later, Ananth Vaidyanathan, learning how best to use the entire body and its various organs most effectively for music. Vijay stresses the importance of maintaining general good health and suggests time-tested techniques such as yoga and walking rather than heavy gym workouts. He consciously refrains from packing his concert schedule, insisting that he needs time to improve his skills, introspect on music and maintain health.

He believes that being a good human being and a good musician are intertwined and one should develop in both aspects simultaneously.

Vijay is professional in his approach to concerts, giving his all in every programme. Says violinist R.K. Shriramkumar, longtime friend and contemporary: “Vijay plans all the concerts based on the occasion, place, duration and the accompanists. He prepares the list for the concert well in advance, informs his accompanists about it, enables them to master the songs by organising a few practice sessions or by sending them recordings. For him, the success of the concert depends on all of them putting in their best efforts and presenting it with a united frame of mind.”

Vijay shares a written contract with the organisers stating their obligations and his expectations including legal rights, copy rights, camera rights, etc. He also specifies that no titles or prefixes be used with his name and that garlands be avoided. He says that he has not had any issues since both parties know exactly what to expect. “I too have sung concerts spontaneously, deciding then and there on stage, but I believe that a well-planned one is already 50 per cent executed. Besides, how does one know if someone really is singing spontaneously? It could be practised to appear spontaneous,” observes Vijay.

Vijay narrates an episode from over two decades ago. He was invited to sing at the wedding of the daughter of V. Ramamurthy ( IAS). The latter called Vijay on the day of the wedding requesting to postpone the starting time of the concert by a half hour. When Vijay and his accompanists arrived 15 minutes prior to the new start time, just three people were sitting inside the hall — the sound technician, M.S. Subbulakshmi and T. Sadasivam. They had come for the concert as per the time on the invitation, meaning, Vijay was actually 15 minutes late. He fell at their feet explaining the situation. Sadasivam told him that ‘they’ would have always started on time. Having never forgotten that, Vijay has since ensured that he always arrives, and is seen, at the posted time.

Vijay learned the mridangam from Kumbakonam Rajappa Iyer and has accompanied many artistes. He is also a trained theatre actor. He played Muthuswamy Dikshitar in the recent play, ‘Trinity,’ by The Madras Players, acting and singing his part. Shriramkumar puts it perfectly, “Vijay has carved a musical niche for himself while not digressing from the path laid by DKJ.”

Inspiring traits

Fellow DKJ sishya, Varalakshmi Anandkumar says, “Vijay inspired awe in everyone because of his prodigious talent, straight forwardness and clear cut ideologies. And we admired him for his convictions. Ever helpful, he does charity quietly. His cut and dry demeanour belies an intensely humane persona. His spiritual leanings go beyond appearances and the depth of some of his thoughts are consoling to those going through the ups and downs of samsara.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 7:48:20 AM |

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