There’s “no respite”, says eminent Carnatic vocalist Sudha Ragunathan — but then, this is a welcome onslaught. Ever since the announcement of her being conferred with the Padma Bhushan, the congratulatory messages have assailed her thick and fast.
Today Carnatic music has a following across the world. There is a view among highly ranked Carnatic musicians, however, that they are not accorded the kind of star treatment one associates with Hindustani musicians of equivalent stature. There may be reasons for this, starting perhaps, with the glamorous aura that developed around Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha and others, thanks to their iconic image in the West.
Sudha agrees that there is a “vague divide” discernible between the manner in which the two major classical music genres of the country are perceived. “It’s invisibly there. But it’s getting better, now that Carnatic music is getting recognised,” says the artist, adding, “It’s no fault of anybody’s.” The great maestros of Hindustani music, including Zakir Hussain and Amjad Ali Khan, have taken Hindustani music to so many continents, she notes, that it’s only natural that the people there would have a greater affinity to their music.
From her own experience, she has seen that if in the early 1990s when she first began performing in Europe, Carnatic music “had few takers,” the newer listeners were highly appreciative. “People said things like, oh, we’ve never heard this kind of music before, it’s so soothing,” she recalls. “Now, Carnatic music is being represented very well and propagation is being done.”
If her concerts draw large crowds that are not limited to the expatriate South Indian community, it is also equally true that for her native Tamil Nadu, she is not merely a popular vocalist but a fashion icon too. When she became the face of Pothy’s ‘Parampara’ silk sari range, featuring with silk finery and tanpura atop a rock amidst swirling waters, in an ad and on hoardings around Chennai, she created quite a stir. “If a sari manufacturer is ready to take on a musician as an ambassador and put your face on hoardings, it shows that we are known to people.” It was her husband who convinced the initially “sceptical” Sudha that since many in the audience do come to appreciate her sartorial sense as well as her music, she may as well take this step into the fashion world.
Among the few well known — and youngest, as well as arguably most recognisable — disciples of the great M.L. Vasanthakumari, Sudha, like her guru, is versatile too, taking up a variety of genres.
There comes a time when one wants to try out different modes of expression, says Sudha. However, she points out, “Nothing can move me from my roots.” She recently signed on to be the music director for Vasanth’s film “Thaneer”, based on the Tamil novel by Ashokamitran.
She is also considering writing an autobiography. “It will take half a dozen years,” she warns. “It will include a lot about my guru’s life, and my training.” MLV, says Sudha, shaped her as a person and also as a musician. “She was a very courageous woman, very strong willed. All of that somehow seeped into me. So I would definitely dedicate a whole chapter to her.” But writing a book requires continuity of thought. “I don’t see that happening now.”
In the rarefied air of India’s classical arts, where pain is either an off-pitch note or the intensity of the human soul’s longing for union with the divine, it’s possible to forget life’s more tangible trials. Schools without toilet facilities, hospitals out of reach of the poor, the unending pain of the sexually abused...how can these matters intrude into a life dedicated to riyaaz , to achieving the perfect meeting point of pitch, enunciation and emotion? But those who let these shades of reality into their world often find themselves better off, as did Sudha.
Founder of the Samudhaaya Foundation that raises funds for welfare projects in different areas of healthcare, she says, “Only when I stepped into all these orphanages and corporation schools did I realise. I said, what am I doing? I’ve created a little cubicle for myself!”
Not denigrating her art, she is cognisant of the intangible contribution she makes to the lives of her listeners. “I do give something to society, but the people who come to my concerts are not the ones I’m talking about.”
Incidentally, she also makes it a point to perform in corporation and government run schools of Chennai. “Recently, I went to a government school in Ashok Nagar. I asked how many of them had ever been to a concert or a sabha performance. Not a single hand went up.”
And, she feels, one need only look into the eyes of the children to feel a deep sense of satisfaction when interacting with them. “They’re so innocent; they’re not asking anything from you.”
Since founding Samudhaaya in 2001, says Sudha, “We have given about 3.5 crore rupees to society.” This sum includes donations for projects such as buying a bus for an NGO to ferry patients to hospital, paediatric cancer care, funding for an outfit that provides callipers to children, heart surgery for the economically deprived, and others. The recipients are selected after a screening process in which she involves herself personally, and, says the vocalist, she hardly gets to know “from where the money comes,” thanks to the “very large-hearted philanthropists” who respond to her annual appeal.
Presumably due to this support base, she remarks, “It’s not as if I spend all my time and money for that.”
Thus she also takes out time from a year-round schedule of performances to teach music. “I have about eight to ten students, out of which two or three are already concert singers,” she notes.
But, like tradition, that forms and sustains itself over time, music has no shortcuts. The artist adds sagaciously, “It will take some time.”