Friday Review

The voice that binds

Aruna Sairam at the event

Aruna Sairam at the event  

In a conversation with Meena Banerjee, Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam talks about the meeting ground between Carnatic and Hindustani music, and the importance of audience.

Celebrated Carnatic vocalist Vidushi Aruna Sairam was in Kolkata recently to participate in ‘Arpan’, a uniquely designed all-women conference by ITC Sangeet Research Academy. In the final slot of the final evening of this Puja offering, she enchanted all with her inspired singing and amiable persona. Both these virtues are essential in evolving listenership among interested, albeit uninitiated listeners; but very few of the conservative Carnatic musicians step forward to do so. Usually, they take it for granted that the kritis they sing during a grand concert are familiar with all and, if not, there are ‘concert guide books’ to help them!

When asked about her noticeably different approach, Sairam answered in a very matter-of-fact manner, “This is due to a sequence of events that happened in my life. The unusual situation was that I am a South Indian by ancestry; my parents belong to Tanjore and Trichi in Tamil Nadu; but they started their life in Bombay (now Mumbai). My mother Rajalakshmi Sethuraman, a vocalist, initiated me into music. Both my parents were interested in all genres of music and my father, a connoisseur of arts, wished to expose me to the same. All the great artistes, with no demarcation as musician, dancer, painter or littérateur, visited and stayed in our Mumbai house; be it Ustad Amir Khan, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or Balasaraswati, MS Subbulaksmi and Harikatha, the exponents from the South. The difference between dance and music or South and North was never there.”

And yet she does not feel that she is ‘an authority’ to assess the similarities and difference between these two streams of Indian music. “Whatever I say is from my bird’s eye view. The raga and tala are the two anchors of both the systems. The beauty lies in the cyclic application of swaras (sa to sa and back) and talas (sam to sam). But the style of gamak-laden swara-application is vastly different. Hindustani music focuses on steady notes and applies a particular type of gamaks while in Carnatic music mostly oscillation leads to a note. Even common ragas appear different due to this difference in swara-application. One needs to get accustomed to it to identify the raga.”

She goes on to add that raga development is very much “like architectural work”. “The building blocks of Carnatic music rely heavily on phrases while Hindustani music, at times, lays emphasis on notes. As for the innovative part, the genre of khayal enjoys a lot of loose area for innovative development. We can find that in pallavi to some extent because it has a refrain only. But while singing the kritis we do alap, bol-alap (neraval) and kalpana-swara (sargam). Despite all, the amount of composed or structured part is more in Carnatic music. We try to keep the structure of the composition intact.”

One learnt that when Sangeet Kalanidhi T Brinda, known for the Dhanammal bani, came to Sairam’s Bombay home as a guest once. That chance meeting became a life-long association of Guru-Shishya. Sairam’s musical style is a rich blend of Dhanammal school and the influences of her many other mentors who helped hone her skills in swara and pallavi singing, taught her the finer nuances of ragas replete with swaraprastaras, augmented her repertoire of padams and jawalis apart from traditional kritis and helped enrich her literary skills as well.

Always open to new vistas, she further enriched her repertoire to add new dimensions to her music with her research into Mallari and by learning compositions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (1700 – 1765). She played a key role in propagating these brilliant, yet relatively neglected compositions on the contemporary concert stage. Blessed with a clear diction in Sanskrit, English and Hindi as well and hugely benefited by reputed voice trainers, who helped her exploit the full potential of her voice, she ushered in a welcome cosmopolitan approach to Carnatic concert presentation, while remaining firmly rooted in its classical grammar and tradition. Widely admired for her theoretical knowledge and articulation, she regularly participates in lecture-demonstrations.

She has received many national and international awards including the Padma Shri. Despite all these decorations and accolades, she floored me with her honest answer when I asked whether she sings to entertain. “If one claims that music is ‘Swantah sukhaya’ only, then it is a fallacy. The minute there are two/three people sitting in my music room, I will immediately become conscious of their presence and begin to ‘perform’. Why talk of people, even if I sing for my deity, I try to please Him. During Navaratri, I will not sing songs on Krishna. Once on the concert platform, I must think about all the listeners. I believe that the way I have taleem in music, they too have acquired proficiency in some other subject and for some reason they are here to listen to me. It is, therefore, my privilege to reach out to them and treat them with whatever I have in my melodic treasures. After all the audience is a part of one’s music!’

For Sairam an occasion and its location is important, because “with reference to context my mood is created. Suppose I am in Tamil Nadu, I naturally speak in Tamil. I arrived here directly from the UK. There my mode of communication was English, but here I must include at least one Bengali item!” (and she did).

“I also accept wedding concerts simply because at least the hosts display their preference for classical to pop and aim at creating an auspicious environment. It is anticipated that there will be hustle and bustle. I do not expect everyone to listen to my music and accept it as a wonderful practice session where I can try out new things. For happy occasions I like to sing ragas like Kharaharapriya, Todi, Kamboji - with positive energy.”

Goaded by her deep sense of social responsibility, Sairam keeps donating proceeds from her concerts and records to cancer hospitals and to rehabilitate destitute families of musicians. How does she, as the vice chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi, plans to help musicians and propagate music?

‘We have a wonderful team led by Shekhar Sen-ji and eminent musicians like Shivkumar Sharmaji, Ajoy (Chakrabarty) da, Birju Maharaj-ji, Vishwa Mohan-bhai. We have proposed various plans, including re-introduction of performing arts in regional languages in primary schools and make road-signs like, ‘You are approaching Bengal, the land of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore’ to sensitise and educate people about our rich heritage. We now

hold meetings at different states to spread the movement. I am glad the youngsters are taking classical music seriously. Albeit the path is difficult, they are blessed because music is an art that nourishes and enriches the soul.”

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 4:19:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/The-voice-that-binds/article16083294.ece

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