Holding the new wave

REINVENTING THE TESTED IDIOM:Sudha Raghunathan.Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

“M y voice needs rest, I wouldn’t want to talk now,” says Carnatic vocalist Sudha Ragunathan, gently pushing away a request for an interview. The concert that evening in Bangalore justified her firm refusal.

That evening, in a concert that followed an award presentation to her by Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira, captured Sudha in her form.

After the demise of her guru M.L. Vasanthakumari, Sudha came to be regarded as one of her eminent disciples. With more than 250 CDs to her credit, she bags the maximum concerts during the Chennai Music Season. “This award means a lot to me as I am so much a Bangalore girl. I spent 13 years of my initial years here,” says Sudha, who heads Samudaaya Foundation, which works to provide healthcare to the needy.

Sudha answers questions ranging from her initial years in music, her guru MLV who shaped her persona and career, demands of the present generation, and more.

How do you take care of your voice?

The sound box is fragile, it’s like a new born or a glass bottle, and as a vocalist I need to be protective, and follow a voice-dharma to be responsible towards my rasikas. During the music season in Chennai I almost go on a mouna vrata (observe silence as a fast) for six weeks, except for my singing. I believe in a lot of meditation and yoga for focus and voice-precision. And on my concert days, it’s strictly a list of non-oily, non-refrigerated items in my menu. That covers up half the calendar year, as it’s packed with concerts and recordings.

Your foundation in music?

My mother, Choodamani, was a vocalist who initiated me into bhajans in Bangalore, when I was three. I can’t forget the days when I used to be her constant companion at the Ramanavami concerts. She herself was a great fan of MLV!

I was tutored by B.V. Lakshman to begin with. In 1977, I bagged a Central Government scholarship that helped me come under MLV, and there was no looking back. My parents had anyway decided to move to Chennai, which opened up new opportunities in music for me.

And then it was the MLV School that took over?

The M.L. Vasanthakumari schooling was in every walk of my life.

Her Fort High School concerts had left an indelible mark on me. When I approached her for lessons she only said, ‘Listening to more and more music is the first step in learning’. My initial years were spent paying attention to her style and listening to other stalwarts that she insisted upon. She was happy with the raw material that I already possessed, but it took me years of study, practice and singing to absorb her format. Never did she insist on formal classes and lessons. It was uninhibited, informal, on the house, practical learning, more so along with her on stage!

What did your guru really insist on?

She was strict in an informal way! She would never be unkind, but mildly sarcastic. That would hit me, especially turning up late for class and wrong timing with swaras and sangatis.

I was mostly an obedient blotting paper, although she made it clear that one should never ever be a photocopy of one’s guru. The GNB Parampara or the MLV School as you have noticed has transparency in each sangati or phrase, the chiselled framework has no ambiguity, and we believe in brevity of expression, not a sagging musical story. Taking my guru’s advice, I brought in a fair amount of bhakti-bhava along with my guru’s teaching. MLV was large hearted and generous. In the years that I accompanied her on stage, she would relegate some portions in the higher octaves completely to me. ‘Nothing is impossible’, she would say, and that keeps me going.

Is this generation more demanding on performers?

In a way, yes. My concerts abroad are all not purely classical. I address global audiences and when we have to take Indian music across, it gets challenging. You feel nervous to see halls filled with total non-Indian audiences, waiting to understand our music. At the festival in Jerusalem, several in the audience said they were in a trance when I took up the serene ‘Shanti Nilava Vendum’.

During the midnight hours at the 13th Century abbey in interior France, I sang ‘Bo Shambho Shiva Shambho’ – they clapped for a non-stop five minutes! Packaging and presentation are GenNew demands. I believe that with every mountain you scale, you have to move to greater heights.

My guru MLV was strict in an informal way! She would never be unkind, but mildly sarcastic. That would hit me, especially

turning up late for class and wrong timing with swaras and sangatis.