In the flow of things

Hailed as the carrier of the GNB legacy of Carnatic music, Sudha Raghunathan, the prized disciple of the legendary M.L. Vasanthakumari, is the recipient of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title for 2013. In her career spanning nearly three decades, the atmosphere of Carnatic music has changed. While there is a large new enthusiastic audience, it is certainly not the kind to take easily to the chaste, traditional idiom. Change is inevitable, says Sudha, and it is important to give music in easy nuggets to keep the art form alive. Excerpts from an interview…

Were you always determined to choose a career in music? I actually wanted to do medicine and become a gynaecologist. I never really thought of becoming an economist or anything else. Having learnt music from my mother, Choodamani, she ensured that I participated at all music competitions right through college. One of my most cherished prizes was winning the Central Government scholarship for young artistes for advanced training in Carnatic music. The recipient is given an opportunity to learn under a great guru. My parents were keen to have me learn under MLV amma who was at the peak of her career then. During our interaction, she told me and my parents “Mine is not the traditional way of teaching. You will have to spend a lot of time accompanying me, away from home, just watching me. You will have to work hard and be sharp. Are you willing to do all this?” she asked. And whole heartedly that very instant I said “Yes!” That really was the turning point in my life and no looking back after that! Music became my mission!

Was music a part of your early years as it is in most Brahmin households? How serious was it?

Music always prevailed in my family, as my mother herself was a singer. While I played with my toys, I internalised all the singing that was happening at home by my mother and sister, and even while my mother taught other children. I can virtually say that right from when I was a three-year-old, I have been playing around with notes! I later learnt from guru B.V. Lakshman. Then, it was more like a hobby, something I did in my free time. But as I kept singing and gained a lot of appreciation, I felt encouraged to continue, and my love for music gradually grew.

When you look back, do you think your career as a musician or your life itself would have been different without MLV?

Definitely. If not for MLV amma, the direction of my career would have been very different. Aspects like grooming, confidence, and spontaneity in presentation were her hallmarks. Being alongside her, accompanying her to concerts and singing with her gave me an identity, as if I were stamped to be her progeny. I stood to gain in great measure.

The life of women of your previous generations was marked with remarkable conviction that could ride over all social impediments. Yet, not once, did they speak of ‘feminism’ as we understand it now. How did it impact you as a person and as a musician?

MLV amma was an authority in her own right. While she never spoke directly about ‘feminism’, the characteristics and values that she upheld – positivity, confidence, self-reliance, courage, stage presence … made her a very strong personality, bringing to the forefront her stature and identity as a thorough professional and a woman of admirable conviction. The way she handled her career and groomed her students, all reflected her pride in being a woman. She taught me so much and I make sure I command the same respect both on and off stage.

What kind of personal struggles did you have to face in shaping an idiom of your own? Is sadhana lonely?

Of course it has been quite a struggle of sorts! Initially, when I was in college, I worked hard to live up to my guru’s expectations. Then marriage and the phase of managing expectations from the new household and domestic duties….parallel to it, my continued practice and sessions/concerts with my guru. Just as her music was spontaneous, Amma’s teaching too was spontaneous. There were no formal learning methods – one just had to observer her keenly and follow. She would just give a list of songs and tell me to be prepared the following day. It was like groping in the dark… truly challenging and demanding. I felt it was very imposing then, today, when I look back, it has paid rich dividends! It gave me the confidence, it gave me the drive to excel, be strong and take on any challenge! I could do it only through complete surrender to her. My love for her and her music gave me the courage and strength to rise up to her expectations.

Yes, sadhana is lonely and has to be. It is important that you are away from the crowd, introspect, meditate, search, learn, accept and to love what you are doing…you need solitude for that. More than being lonely, it is aloneness that is required!

In one of your interviews you had said that senior accompanists refuse to play for a woman.

I have come to accept that and do not argue. They must be having their own reasons. It could be that the women singer’s shruti is a problem and hinders their creativity. It could also be that they need to have their own space and a distinct identity. This question should actually be directed to them.

You have been chosen for the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title. On the pinnacle of success, does a traditional artiste sit alone?

It is the dream of every performing artiste to achieve the Sangita Kalanidhi and it is truly an embellishment to every musician’s career. This is, to me, a pinnacle in achievement and gives me a great sense of fulfilment that the award my guru and greats like MS amma and DKP amma have earlier received is the one that I would also be receiving. It gives me the confidence that I am in the right direction and am grateful to my guru and the Almighty.

You are a composer. You have collaborated with artistes of different genres and sensibilities. While the first one is perhaps an organic extension of the artiste in you, is the second more an order of the times?

Music definitely plays a large role in giving Indian arts its distinct identity. Indian classical music has its own identity and continues to draw audience, in fact in greater diversity. I collaborate with musicians from the other parts of the world to create a platform to showcase our music. We need to make our music progressive to cater to the changing audience profiles. Change is good, necessary and is a mark of progress. Our focus should be on also simplifying music that it reaches a greater section, while upholding its intrinsic values.