Songs from the South

Carnatic vocalist Nisha Rajagopal on singing for theatre and exploring Hindustani classical music.

Written by Swetha Ramakrishnan | Published: April 1, 2013 10:09:00 pm

Carnatic vocalist Nisha Rajagopal on singing for theatre and exploring Hindustani classical music.

The first thing one notices about Chennai-based Carnatic vocalist Nisha Rajagopal is how serene she is under the spotlight. When she begins to sing,her voice covers a vast arc of emotions and expressions. Rajagopal,32,is among the promising singers of her generation. Apart from concerts,she performs in theatre actor-director Gowri Ramnarayanan’s play Sarpa Surta and Yashodhara,which aim to “blur the borders between music,dance,poetry and theatre”. Both plays (by Chennai-based group JustUs) were recently performed in the Capital,during which Rajagopal mesmerised the audience with her vocals. We caught up with her after the performances.

How long have you been learning Carnatic music?

I’ve been learning since I was five,with my mother as my first guru. We were living in Canada initially but moved back to India in 1992,so that I could pursue music full time. For three years,my family stayed in Delhi and I continued to learn from TR Subramanyum,who is associated with Delhi University. I moved to Chennai for good in 1995,and since then,have been performing at concerts and recitals.

How does one use Carnatic compositions in a play?

Gowri Ramnarayan,who has composed the music for both productions,worked with different ragams to match the songs with the situation. That’s the role of music in our production — not as an interlude but an intrinsic mood setter. In Sarpa Sutra,a story about the snake sacrifice in the Mahabharata,we used ragas Nagaswarali and Gambhiranata,which have marching beats in parts that portray Arjuna as a brave warrior.

What is the difference between singing in concerts and for a play?

Singing for theatre has been a very different experience because I’ve never had such an opportunity — I’ve only sung in concerts. It took me a while to get used to being a part of the play. I’m so used to singing on my own and having my own freedom.

You are a Carnatic vocalist,yet you performed Hindustani classical vocals for Yashodhara.

I wouldn’t call it proper Hindustani classical music — it was just the director’s and my take on it. We may have not done as much justice to it. I’ve been singing Carnatic music for 25 years,so it was definitely tough to do Hindustani vocals. I’ve only heard Hindustani music,I’m not trained,so it’s natural for me to adapt a Carnatic style in whatever else I sing. Many times Gowri Ramnarayan would stop me and say,“Ille (no),this is not how it’s done.” It was refreshing,nonetheless.

What interests you beyond music?

I’d love to continue with JustUs and maybe teach Carnatic music. Films are an option,definitely. Apart from that,I love reading and cooking — but I like eating more than cooking. I would love to watch movies,but I don’t get much time. Right now,theatre takes up most of my mind space.

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