Friday Review

When Mumbai met Mylapore

There’s a joke that music historian V. Sriram narrates. A connoisseur once called him and asked: “So, how does this Ranjani-Gayatri sing? Is she good?” Reading about it did evoke laughter, but even in a case of ignorance such as this, there was a metaphorical truth. The musician sisters Ranjani and Gayatri who have been riding tall over the Carnatic music universe, are two distinct artistes; yet, the unity that they forge through their music is of a single entity. So this innocent caller, in a manner of speaking, was not too off the mark. Let’s dwell a bit more on the connoisseur: Before the stage is set the listener in a Ranjani-Gayatri concert has already set expectations. They already know that towards the end of the concert they are going to send up chits asking for their favourite abhang, a thiruppavai and if luck favours them, also a bhajan. They will later queue up to meet the graceful duo and tell them – you both have such amazing understanding.

The sisters, who originally made their mark in the Carnatic scene as violinists, and later transitioned to being vocalists on the behest of their guru P.S. Narayanaswamy, have a huge repertoire. Trained in violin and vocal, they also took lessons in Hindustani classical. They are at ease with many languages and comfortably pack in many genres of music. Tapping into their eclectic musical reserve, Bhoomija brings them for a concert to Bangalore, ‘ Different tongues, one heartbeat’.

Excerpts from an interview with the expressive duo:

Growing up in Mumbai, the language of your inner courtyard was not the language of the streets. What did being a Tamilian – which includes filter coffee, carnatic music, thair sadam etc -- in Mumbai mean?

The initial part of our childhood was like that of every other child. In Mumbai, the city of staggering diversity, we were exposed to a multiplicity of experiences. But in our own neighbourhood in Matunga, we were surrounded by Palakkad-accented Tamil, there were four temples and we constantly listened to Tamizh Tevarams and Thiruppavais. Our grandmother used to wake us up early and during the Marghazhi month, temples would reverberate with vedic chanting. It was a typical agraharam and we never missed anything beginning from filter coffee to sambar. Marathi was right there, co-existing harmoniously in our world, through the mellifluous abhangs that we always heard.

How did you react to the other languages around you? Mumbai is so inherently cosmopolitan that one hears a multitude of languages, not just Marathi.

School was our first exposure to Marathi, Hindi and Gujarathi. Irrespective of whether you know the vocabulary or not, the sounds get registered. So certain cadences of language stayed. That’s the gift of Mumbai. Fluency doesn’t really matter, we knew the flow of the language and understood it perfectly well. Exposure makes experience richer and adds to the palette of colours you already have. Music, as a result, acquires a different aesthetic. Every region thinks we are native to them.

There are so many compositions that are part of one’s growing up years, but meaning in its full form comes much later in life. Are language and lyric always part of the musical experience?

Gayatri: Music has a language of its own, and they do make a lot of meaning. But lyrics give it a special dimension. Vocal music is the epitome of all music, so what is vocal music without lyric? The meaning of words keep growing.

Ranjani: There’s a lot to take away for everybody. You are not left behind if you don’t know language. We sang at the Durbar Festival in London. Only five percent were Indians. We sang many Tamil compositions which, personally for us, helps emote better. It may not necessarily help the listener, but it will reach him.

When we performed in San Jose, we sang a Viruttam. A member of the audience had tears in her eyes. ‘What did you do?’ She came up and asked. Unifying ideas is music. Bhashe aneka, anubhava eka.

Many musicians declare themselves as areligious, and since the content is mostly religious in Carnatic music, how can this be negotiated?

For us, personally, music should reflect who we are and where we come from. It shouldn’t just be bhakti music. And since lyrical content is only one of the layers, it is perhaps possible to deal with a composition in a strictly musical sense. The layers are important, it is up to the rasika which layer he wants to take.

( Gayatri adds) The lyric is a prop for a musician. It certainly heightens the experience. Sometimes, I also think we obsess over it to a fault. Energies are disbursed to perfecting language whether or not it enriches you. Where is the musical uniqueness in just stressing upon language? But the composition is the core of Carnatic music. It cannot do away with language. Every artiste finds his own language.

Which is the language that is closest to your heart?

Ranjani: I don’t need a prop. Telugu is the most suited language for music. Tamil has a special place, but Telugu is more suited. We are however not on a mission to promote any language.

Gayatri: We celebrate the abhang as much as we celebrate RTP. Learning a javali is far simpler than learning an abhang. It takes a lot of effort. How you present how authentic you are is very important. We have tried to structure it in a very classical way. That is why it has found acceptance in Carnatic cutcheris. In fact, there are legendary musicians like ML Vasanthakumari and Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer who also included the abhang in their repertoire. So, we are not first to do it. At this concert we are doing, each song will be in a different language. Everything will be in a classical framework though. We will sing Malyalam, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, Manipravala and more. We want to weave it as a continuum. Expression of the many great saints is so different but what they are saying is the same. They will all flow into each other, which we have not done before. We will give it a different spin.

Is being on the top difficult? It not only demands constant pushing boundaries in terms of music, but also competition, reinvention, repackaging etc.

We love to keep doing things. To keep thinking about our music. It boils down to keeping body and mind intact. If we get caught in only material aspirations then music suffers. Even when we are doing mundane work, it is music that is always running in the main track.

We never imagined we would take it up as a career or profession. For that matter not even our father – he thought we should not take it up professionally. There are many times when we have contemplated if we should go back to other things in our life, but that is impossible. Music is our life.

It is such a pleasure to watch you both perform. You are constantly recognizing the musician in each other and not just being sisters. You appreciate each other, enjoy each other’s music. Do you ever have differences?

Ranjani: When you get into that zone you cannot help appreciating. It is a natural response, not stage managed.

Gayatri: Of course! We do have our share of differences, just like all siblings in this world. But we are predestined to be together. We have another sister who also sings well. But she is not singing with either of us, it was ordained to be Ranjani and me. We take joy in our togetherness, someone beside you is always a huge support. I feel very blessed to sing with my sister.


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 2:34:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/When-Mumbai-met-Mylapore/article14001441.ece

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