Portrait of an Artiste

Famed Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, on the December Margazhi Season, learning from the iconic T Brinda and how collaborative improvisations are the way forward

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Published: March 15, 2018 12:17 am
Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam Aruna Sairam

For the last one week, renowned Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam has parked herself in London, where she is busy with rehearsals for a concert titled “Back to the Blues”, a collaboration with British sarod player and composer of Indian origin, Soumik Datta, which will resonate at St John Smith’s Square today. The two, along with Pirashanna Thevarajah on mridangam and moorchang, Cormac Byrne on bodhran and percussion and Al MacSween on piano will explore the connections between Carnatic, Hindustani and Western music traditions. So, the popular krithis of Tyagaraja will meld into the realm of Hungarian-Austrain composer Ligeti, and that of American composer Philip Glass. The presentation of this tectonic shift is being helmed by Datta with Sairam as its pivot. It’s interesting how the Carnatic vocalist has been open to the idea that sounds radical even on paper. While Hindustani classical and jazz see eye to eye on the concept of improvisation, Carnatic, the seemingly more structured and mathematical genre, is the harder one to bend.

“It seems that Carnatic classical is more structured, but I must hasten to say that there is scope for a lot of improvisation, too, particularly using alaaps, sargams and a lot of mathematical pyrotechnics. This concept in jazz, where there is one refrain and every musician takes off that and comes back. The chromatic scale, rhythmic complexities, all of that vibrates with Carnatic. With Hindustani, there is the strong foundation with the raga and tala. So, I thought there would be a heady mix of three different things. Only when you try is when you”ll know what comes out of it,” says 65-year-old Sairam in a Skype conversation. She was approached by Alka Bagri, director of the London-based Bagri Foundation, to present this collaborative work.

In the past few decades, Sairam has emerged as one of the more modern, versatile and amenable musicians of our times, extending boundaries and yet finding herself rooted in tradition. Her concerts, a lot of them during the famed Chennai’s December music season, are attended by a cross-section of people, with younger audiences in abundance. She regularly does collaborative concerts outside the country. It’s also interesting that Sairam enjoys meeting her audiences after her concerts and has been far removed from the mythical aura that classical musicians often acquire. Apart from her skill in presenting ragam, taanam, pallavi, she also played a significant role in highlighting neglected compositions such as that of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, among others.“If you look at tradition, it has been taken forward by very open-minded individuals. Today, because it’s in the past, we try to freeze it and say that it’s tradition. But, if you look at each one of those developments, it happened because of the avante-garde thinking of these artistes. Dikhshitar went to Banaras and picked up so many ragas. True traditionalists are always open-minded,” says Sairam, who is currently also the Vice Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

She also credits her receptivity to growing up in the Bombay of the ’60s and ’70s, in a liberal household with parents who were cultural impresarios and hosted a slew of artistes in their Matunga home. Legends like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, M Balasaraswati, MS Subbulaksmi and T Brinda, among others, would all make their way to Sairam’s house for food and conversations. “Most South Indian artistes wanted to just eat the food they liked,” she says with a laugh. “There was never any difference of North or South in our house. It was just music,” she adds.

On one such trip the legendary Balasaraswati, who was to perform at Patkar Hall on Peddar Road told Sairam’s mother that she wanted to eat some good pongal. Sometime later her cousin, the iconic T Brinda (foremost representative of the Veena Dhanammal legacy) made her way to their house. Sairam was 10 and had begun learning under her mother Rajalakshmi Sethuraman, who was also trained in the Veena Dhanammal school. Brinda, who ran her tutelage with an iron hand, had come to teach her senior students and Sairam’s house was the venue. “I stood in a corner and heard as nobody was allowed into the room. Next day, I was humming what she was teaching the previous day. It was the following year that she offered to teach me. The acceptance was a reward itself,” recalls Sairam.

The age-old, arduous method that Brinda used to teach was also quite sound. “She was a musician’s musician. One time that she wouldn’t begin a class because a senior student brought a pencil and notebook. She kept looking and said, “I need to start the class. Can you please keep the notebook away and open your ears. I’ll repeat everything as many times till you say you’ve got it. It was a completely aural training,” says Sairam.

She was later mentored by M Balamuralikrishna, S Ramachandran and KV Narayanaswamy and was greatly influenced by Pt Bhimsen Joshi. Sairam constantly wanted to polish her voice and, despite the kind of training she had received, sat for voice training with German voice maestro Professor Eugene Rabine and New York-based voice teacher David Jones.

A regular at Chennai’s popular December Margazhi Season, which she would attend for weeks with her parents as a child, her shows, in the last few years, have always sold out. She disagrees with musician TM Krishna’s (TMK) thoughts over calling the sabhas Brahminical and casteist and says that “so much ado over this was unnecessary”. She says one needs to extend the open-mindedness to one’s music. “Through the music, if you are not putting a wall, saying that this is eclectic, this is intellectual, this is very special and this is mythical, then it’s open. All these messages can be given through music. My guru, T Brinda, was not a Brahmin. The Madras Music Academy awarded three members of the family, T Brinda, her sister T Balasaraswati and their brother T Viswhanathan, with Sangeetha Kalanidhi awards. Three Sangeetha Kalanidhis in one family is unheard of. Where there was merit, it was always recognised,” says Sairam.

She adds that as far as TMK’s point of children from other communities not taking up the classical arts is concerned, not everyone wants to be a musician. “The Chettiars and their philanthropy towards the arts is legendary. If you ask any offspring of the family that if they’d like to take up music, their inclination is highly unlikely. They are likely to be more inclined towards business. But if they do take it up, no one will stop them from becoming a musician,” says Sairam.

She recalls the owner of a kiraana shop, whoalways visited her concerts. “He was a seedha-saadha man, anything but an insider to the whole music scene. He was always there, bringing me some stuff from his shop. He would say, ‘Amma, I loved the concert’. Everytime music can reach out. You just have to show your love through music,” says Sairam.

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