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Touching the core of music

Posted on 06/10/2017 in The Hindu

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  • Aruna Sairam unfolds the many layers of her art to engage with it in newer ways and connect with the audience

    “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that...” Ludwig van Beethoven

    Aruna Sairam was raised in an environment where music pervaded every corner of her modest home in Bombay. Music enjoyed the same importance that the idols of Radhe-Krishna did in her house. Lotus buds lay at the feet of Krishna and after every prayer, Aruna remembers unfolding the many layers of the flower to reveal the yellow core within. As she grew, this was the imagery she carried — of discovering the secret chambers of music in order to reach the core to understand its very essence.

    Aruna was fortunate to find the wealth of music so easily within her reach, and so it was that from akaara saadakam to singing varnam in aarukaalam (6 tempi), Aruna found herself gliding from one level to another, assimilating knowledge . Her mother Rajalakshmi was her first guru, who besides initiating her into formal lessons, also opened the window to the world of Viruttham, which Aruna made her speciality.

    Theirs was a home, simple and fun-loving, into which music wafted, not just classical, but also film music from radios of neighbouring homes. Mother Rajalakshmi, who introduced Aruna into the various aspects of music, also laid a strong foundation in Pallavi (RTP). As her mother handled students at various levels, Aruna moved from varnams in the morning to jantaivarisai in the afternoon to possibly abhang in the evening and a full-fledged Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi late at night. It was an unusual way of learning — imbibing through osmosis and ‘regular’ class. The musicians, who visited the Sethuraman household, further enriched the ambience.

    From the age of ten, Aruna was T. Brinda’s disciple — first imitating and slowly understanding the nuances as she grew up . Aruna admits that she came under Brinda’s tutelage by default. Brinda made an annual trip to Bombay, spending a few months at the Sethuramans’ residence where she mentored the senior disciples, and ten-year-old Aruna sat absorbing padams and javalis normally taught to advanced-level students.

    Aruna’s strong foundation in the grammar of Carnatic music came from the rich lineage of gurus belonging to distinguished paramparas — A.S. Mani (Tiger Varadachari school) taught her the art of the kalpanaswaras, from veena artiste K.S. Narayanaswamy she learnt the logic behind gamakas, S. Ramachandran (Chitoor Subramanian school) took her into the world of niraval and T.R. Subramaniam (disciple of Musiri Subramania Iyer) mentored her in the finer aspects of RTP. Much later, she even worked with Pallavi Venkatarama Iyer on the subject.

    Cosmopolitan Bombay gave her exposure not only to different kinds of music, but also encouraged her to learn a few languages and this led to collaborations with musicians. Aruna has sung in 14 Indian languages in genres ranging from semi-classical, folk and classical. She absorbs the soul of the landscape even as she learns the song in a particular language. This quality was quite evident in a concert (Transworld Series), where she sang about the journey of the rivers, following their course moving from one region to another, taking her audiences along.

    In 1996, she slowly introduced changes. Criticism from some quarters was open — “This will not work!” But she persevered. The audience in the West was receptive while the conservative Mylapore rasikas too lapped it up, many of them swarming to the dais after her concerts. A star had risen.

    Aruna began rendering her favourite Oothukkadu songs, her linguistic skills coming to her aid. The viruttam, delivered with power, — a moving combination of diction and emotion — touched a chord in the listener. When she sang the viruttam for the Kalinga Narthana tillana, the Chennai audience sat riveted, actually seeing child Krishna dancing on the snake.

    It was a moment of realisation — if she did what she so loved and believed in, the audience would be with her. So she worked on her music — investing equal proportions of knowledge, intelligence, lyricism, appeal, language and rhythm based on a perfect understanding of mathematical calculation. People loved the abhang so much so that they did not let her wind up a concert without one of these ‘regulars.’

    The audience got a taste of her creativity when she rendered the Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP), which had refrains of Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Dikshitar. . Aruna included five ragas of Tyagaraja’s Pancha ratna kirtanas, three verses of Syama Sastri and Muthuswmy Dikshitar and juggled them in varied permutations and combinations, each telling a story.

    Right diction

    In her search for something new, she chose songs rarely sung in concert halls. She absorbed the local flavour of music, wherever she went. Thus, during her Dhaka trip, she learnt Nazrul Geeti with the right diction.

    While doing all this, Aruna never moved away from her mentors. She kept going back to them recollecting every lesson they had taught, finding newer meanings. She recalls her teacher A.S. Mani telling her about kalpanaswarams: ‘Kadal alai pol varavendum.’ (It must come like an ocean wave). This could happen only with constant practice and a sound knowledge of music, when the art and the artiste become one.

    K.S.Narayana Swamy made her pay attention to gamakam. She sings the arohana and avarohana of Todi. “The movement is not merely decorative. There is a purpose. There is no need for the audience of course to understand all this. It is only for the singer to figure out,” she says.

    Speaking about her experiences with jugalbandi, Aruna says, “It is important that the two artistes understand one another’s style. Each artiste should strive to give his/her best, embellishing the other’s singing in a harmonious manner.” Often we find that there is a predictable pattern, where artistes sing one or two compositions in their respective styles, before coming together to sing one composition together. “A true jugalbandi is where the artistes travel together through the concert, complementing musical expressions. Instead of both artistes singing the same raga in their styles, each can explore different ragas that convey the same emotions,” she suggests.

    Viruttam is an important part of Aruna’s repertoire. “It was my mother who guided and trained me in the nuances of singing the viruttam. In the initial stages, I would extend words with akaram passages. She made me understand the importance of assimilating the poetry in-depth and then weave in the beauty of the raga into the words so that they blend into a whole.”

    It was in the learning of padams that she had a greater understanding of sruti. “The artiste while singing in Athivilambakalam should keep the tempo flexible, akin to a rider holding the reins of the horse, knowing when and where to hold back or let go. Breath control is of great importance, for even a slight wavering of pitch will be magnified. Sharp edges in glides need to be avoided too.’’

    She has always kept the window of her musical world open to allow inspirations to filter in. The collaboration with internationally acclaimed Dominique Vellard singing Gregorian chant, led to a deeper understanding of two different kinds of music and yet they discovered that there were many common features.They were both spiritual in content; both adhered to a raga/mode pattern.“The result was magical. The beautiful monument where we performed had natural acoustics and the mikeless performance reverberated through the entire structure,” says Aruna.

    As we leave, Joan Walsh Anglund’s words come to mind: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

    Breaking barriers

    Aruna has successfully collaborated with many acclaimed artistes, including Christian Bollman of Germany, Indian musicians such as Shankar Mahadevan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer (New York), Mandolin Shrinivas and Malavika Sarukkai. Aruna had the distinction of performing at the official residence of the Indian President, besides performing at prestigious international venues — like Carnegie Hall, Theatre De La Ville and Royal Albert Hall. Among her special honours, most memorable are the invitation to perform as the first South Indian musician in the 117-year history of BBC Proms and more recently at the Ojai Festival in California.


    Aruna’s ascent on the musical firmament has earned her rich accolades and awards -notable among them being the Aruna has been conferred Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the U.S. Congressional Award of Excellence. She is currently the Vice- Chairman of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi.

    Watch out

    Aruna is excited about her forthcoming concert of Ambujam Krishna’s concert to commemorating the centenary year of Ambujam Krishna, composer who was prolific with her outpourings in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Hindi and other languages. Aruna has She is looking at the possibility of setting set to tune a few of the songs. Her earlier concert, which was released as a CD titled Arunaambujam brings back fond memories for Aruna, who is looking forward to this concert (presented by the TVS family), on October 12 scheduled for 12th October at the Music Academy.


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