Straddling two worlds

Dr.Prakash Boominathan  

Starting salary of a software engineer from a reputed engineering college? Lakhs. The income of a Carnatic musician of the same age? Yes, it does sound sordid to talk of mammon in the same breath as divine music? It does seem like an apples and oranges comparison, but won’t questions about the financial viability of a career in Carnatic music occur to youngsters?

Many youngsters are learning Carnatic music these days, but quite a few seem to have playback singing as the primary option. Or are they eyeing the reality shows with stupendous prizes? Is it possible to be a successful classical and light music singer?

Mahathi, the great granddaughter of Sangita Kalanidhi Pazhamaneri Swaminatha Iyer, trained in Carnatic music, before she sang a film song for Ilayaraja. At that time she was in class XI, set on becoming an engineer. But K.J. Yesudas advised her to take to music full time. She has sung popular film songs but continues to present classical kutcheris too. What has been the reaction of rasikas of her classical music to her singing in films?

“There is nothing filmy about my concerts, and so my rasikas don’t mind,” Mahathi says. What does her guru T.N. Seshagopalan say? “He has mixed feelings about my singing in films.”

Dr. Shobana Vignesh (Mahanadhi Shobana), a student of P.S. Narayanaswamy, has sung in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films. She says, “It is possible to do both. Some of the nuances I picked up by singing film songs come in useful when I sing bhajans at the end of my concerts. But I never deviate from classicism, because my gurus have given me a very strong foundation in classical music.”

Does singing in films lead to people singing in a false voice in classical concerts? “Not necessarily. I think it is a matter of perception. People just assume that once a person sings in films, he or she sings in a false voice.” Mahathi admits that there are some who look down upon classical singers who sing in films.

Ragini Sri did not have the advantage of having a family background in music. Serious learning began only when she became a student of Sulochana Pattabhiraman. Until then she hadn’t even heard of niraval or alapana! Somewhere along the way, she decided she wanted to be a singer. Her training gave her the confidence to participate in contests conducted by TV channels, even winning one of them.

But when she began to sing film songs, she realised that she needed to train separately for this. “For Carnatic music, I practise in G sharp. For film music, I train in C and D,” Ragin Sri says. “I’ve cleared grade 8 in vocals and grade 5 in theory of the Trinity College of Music. I think training in different streams gives one’s voice versatility.”

But does she want to be a Carnatic vocalist or a playback singer? Ragin Sri is philosophical and pragmatic. “Whichever works out, I will take it as the path Destiny has intended for me.”

Bharat Sundar’s story is different. In a sense, he came to Carnatic Music by singing film songs. “When he won a prize in a music contest at a function in his father’s office, his parents put him in music classes. “In Jaya TV’s programme ‘Ragamalika’, I lost in the semi-finals, and as a consolation, I was given a set of CDs of concerts of various vidwans. These CDs were my first exposure to the Carnatic music concert pattern.” Bharat Sundar, who is now training under P.S. Narayanaswamy, was adjudged Carnatic Music Idol 2010. Does he also plan to sing in films? “My preference is for Carnatic music. I won’t turn down offers from film music directors. But I will make up my mind depending on whether I like a particular tune. I listen to film music, rock, blues, the Beatles and so on.”

If he is set on a career in Carnatic music, why is he studying for CA? “To keep my parents happy,” he laughs. But it will take years for him to make money as a Carnatic musician, I point out. “I’ve set my heart on it and I am not going to worry about monetary aspects,” says Bharat firmly.

G. Abilash, a class XI student, has won many prizes in Carnatic music contests and also sung in Music Academy’s Spirit of Youth Porgramme. He is currently a student of A.S. Murali. He listens to all kinds of music, but he wants to be a Carnatic vocalist. What if film offers come his way? “I will turn them down, because I don’t want to be distracted from my training in classical music.” His mother says, “He is very young. He may change his mind later on. But we will never pressure him either to accept or reject offers from film music directors.”

As far as playback singers are concerned, there have been those who had trained in classical music and those who came to films with no prior training. P. Suseela, was a student of Sangita Kalanidhi Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, and she says, “It is easier to grasp tunes if you have been trained in Carnatic music.” But isn’t it necessary to train the voice separately for the two genres? “I didn’t train separately for film music. Nor did film singing affect my classical performances. Even after I became a playback singer, I did give classical concerts.”

P.B. Shreenivos says training in Carnatic Music is a definite advantage to a playback singer, although he himself came to films with no such training. “The biggest handicap for the untrained person is the inability to notate,” he says. “Through hard work, I taught myself how to write notations. M.S. Viswanathan once said that in notating songs I was one of the best. But to be able to learn notations without classical training is not easy, and requires innate swara gnana.”

Realising the value of Carnatic music training, many who aspire to participate in reality shows or sing in films take to classical music these days. Mahathi says,” Among the more than 500 applicants to our Mahathi Arts Academy, most wanted to learn Carnatic music only because it would help them sing film songs.”

Technically speaking...

From a scientific angle, what is the difference between singing for films and singing Carnatic music? Dr. Prakash Boominathan, Professor, Speech and Hearing Department, Sri Ramachandra University, explains. “It is wrong to call falsetto a false voice. It is a voice mode. When you sing falsetto, two things happen. The vocal chords are stretched maximally. At the posterior end, there is a gap. This will help increase pitch. Through this gap, there is an artistic leaking of air.”

What happens when someone tries to straddle the worlds of film music and Carnatic music? “There might be problems, but these can be avoided if one doesn’t abuse the voice. For Carnatic music a chest voice is needed, and in the higher octaves head voice is used. For the chest voice, there is maximum contact of the vocal chords. In head voice the chords tend to come into contact, but the stretch is maximum. In falsetto the chords barely touch each other. Falsetto is safer on the chords than the head voice.” Boominathan adds that in film songs, falsetto becomes necessary because of difference in pitch between the male and female voices. “Maybe if there had been male-female duets in Carnatic music right from the beginning, falsetto might have become an acceptable part of Carnatic music too!” he adds.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 10:46:09 AM |

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