Since his first stage performance at the age of seven in Chennai’s Sastri Hall, flautist JA Jayanth has literally grown up in the concert halls of the city. And justifiably, for the traditional Carnatic music lovers of Chennai who spot and track the emergence of new talent, he’s a household name. A rare talent who made it big both in Chennai and elsewhere quite early in his life.
Jayanth, still in his late twenties, is the most recognisable and sought after flautist in contemporary Carnatic music who also commands a considerable cross-over following in India and abroad. He’s a prime time performer in Chennai’s prestigious Sabhas and also a regular fixture in Indian musical festivals in Europe and the US. He enthrals his audiences with an arresting gayaki style, riveting wizardry on his instrument, and rare musical wisdom.
Although rooted in Carnatic traditions, Jayanth has a unique sound that often traverses generic barriers, thanks to his early exposure to Hindustani and other forms of music and cross-cultural collaborations. Even when he is playing the most Carnatic-sounding ragas such as Bhairavi and Kamboji, the sound of his flute appears universal and cosmopolitan. It’s both pastoral and urban; and is peaceful, meditative and nuanced.
Among the younger generation, he is probably one of the most well-spoken and cosmopolitan artistes. His music has cross-generic influences, he performs across the world, does collaborative work and even have an un-Carnatic sartorial style.
Born in a family with a history of Carnatic music, Jayanth, who was raised in Nasik, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, ambled into the world of ragas and kritis as a toddler. He learned first under his grandmother and later under his grandfather, TS Sankaran, a well known flautist of his times, and a discipline of the maverick-genius musician TR Mahalingam (Mali). Instead of the foundational swaras and talas, Jayant learned music by singing with his grandmother and listening to his grandfather’s music classes at home. By the time he was five, he also started fiddling with the flute, almost imitating how Sankaran played. When he began training formally under his grandfather, he already knew a few kritis and the basic techniques.
What followed was a journey of learning, unlearning, relearning and the emergence of a promising talent who is on a constant pursuit of the perfect sound and a never-ending exploration for that magical point where the human voice and the sound of his instrument become one. In this new journey, he was lucky to have been guided by one of the greatest Carnatic vocalists of our times, Sanjay Subrahmanyan.
Jayanth, from a very young age has been accompanied by stalwarts such as Umayalmpuram Sivaraman, Vellore Ramabhadran and Guruvayoor Dorai. “The reason why I am in the concert circuit today is Vellore Ramabhadran sir who heard me when I was seven and recommended my name to the Sabhas,” he says. “All the senior musicians have been very kind to me and encouraging.” Today, he is accompanied on stage by some of the most prominent contemporary musicians.
In the third of our interview series of the Margazhi music season, G Pramod Kumar Explore Jayanth’s world of music through this fascinating conversation.
In contemporary Carnatic music, we don’t see many flautists and hence I guess people don’t know much about the instrument. Let’s start with the instrument itself.
The flute may be called an imperfect instrument because it cannot be exactly calibrated (to 440 Hz, the tuning frequency for musical instruments). Even if the flute-maker thinks he has calibrated to 440, if my lung capacity is higher and my blowing is stronger, it will end up being sharper than what it sounds to him. Therefore, there are certain attributes that a flautist needs to possess to play this beautifully. First and foremost, one has to be absolutely sensitive to the concept of pitch. It has to be 100 per cent throughout one’s life.
Another aspect of the “imperfection” is that the instrument cannot be customised because the size of the lips, the fingers and physical characteristics of the flautist vary from person to person and one has to constantly make necessary adjustments. In fact, flute playing is all about adjustments. It’s also about how often you get the adjustment right to sound good.
So, does it mean that you can’t keep the pitch stable without doing that?
You can, but there’s a certain amount of air that goes in for every note you play. You have to be conscious about that as a beginner itself. Once you start doing it, you will get used to it. There’s this constant vulnerability with which a flautist plays – that he/she might go off-key here and there. So, the ability to adjust optimally is quite critical.
That means the flute is like voice – you have to pay attention to your pitching like a vocalist does.
Yes, exactly. Another thing is also that a part of the air that I blow, goes out.
So, am I right in assuming that blowing of a flautist is like the voice of a vocalist?
Exactly. I could be traversing through two notes (plays a bit to demonstrate) when I blow. By simple blowing, I can actually produce three notes without using my fingers; say for instance the two /Ga/s and the the adjacent /Ma./So, imagine the vulnerability of the flautist. If the blowing is not absolutely perfect every time, you may produce the wrong note. It takes a lot of practice to master the flute.
Yes, sounds quite tricky. First you have to learn how to produce the sound correctly before you start playing the basic notes.
That’s right. Since Carnatic music is all about vocal music and vocalised way of teaching, I think one of the reasons why we don’t have many phenomenal instrumentalists – I mean technically phenomenal – is because of the lack of importance given to the instrument. How to master it, what are the different playing techniques possible, how to sound melodious with good tonal quality all the time and so on. It’s not the case just with flute, but even with other instruments.
In western music, you are taught how to play the instrument first and then how to play the music on it. Mastery over the instrument makes a lot of difference.
So, it’s not an easy instrument to pick up unless you have some exposure. How did you get into this? I am sure like every other Carnatic musician, you too would have started as a kid.
I started learning vocal music when I was a little over three from my grandmother. It was informal and without systematically going through the fundamentals such as the /varisais/ etc. Apparently I started learning the songs straightaway (laughs). I started on the flute only at five, and it wasn’t serious initially. Even on the flute, I don’t remember learning the basics. My grandfather would teach his students and I would observe him and play like him.
My grandfather was actually reluctant in allowing me to pursue music because of its career-uncertainties that he was aware of. Only after I learned and played some compositions before him to convince him that I was serious, DID he start teaching me seriously. By the time I was in Class 9, I was exposed to a lot of present generation musicians and that’s when I realised that I had to rework the techniques and started incorporating their technicalities into my playing style. I used to practice for 7-8 hours at a stretch those days.
But, there must be your grandfather’s imprint on your music
My grandfather belonged to the Mali school where there was a lot of /gayaki ang/(vocal style) and that certainly influenced my music a lot/./ After listening to my concerts, some people do come and tell me that they too felt it.
However, there has been a lot of evolution in Carnatic music in terms of vocalisation and presentation from the 1940 till now. So, to adapt to the vocal techniques that the musicians developed in the last 20 years, I had to rework my entire technique 10-15 years ago. When I was in Class 10, my grandfather slowly stopped teaching me; he would teach me how to notate and would only sing to me. I was expected to play it my way. In other words, my grandfather literally put me on my path and not his; he didn’t impose his style or techniques. I would spend hours on end figuring it out and reframing the entire thing my way.
An interesting thing about instrumentalists is that they have to be both technicians and musicians simultaneously. How to you balance between the two?
An instrumentalist has to think both as an instrumentalist and as a musician. When you start thinking only like an instrumentalist, you tend to compromise on some of the musicality in order to play certain faster phrases which will in turn produce things that are not aesthetically great. In my case, my grandfather always corrected me in those places.
Since you come from a strong gayaki background, what’s your reference? Is it vocal music, or instrumental music – more precisely flute music – or both?
It’s a combination of both. There are certain things that the flute can produce, but the voice cannot. During my “reworking” period in my teens I asked myself: there’s a lot of good music in both vocal and instrumental forms, how can I project all that on my flute? So I devised certain ways – with my lungs, my blowing, my fingers etc – and practices that would help me present Carnatic music in a much more polished way so that I can also bring out the lyrics in a vocalised fashion, like how a vocalist does. There are nuanced expressions and emphases in vocal music that I have to bring to the flute. In fact, during this period, I had to relearn my entire early repertoire to suit the new style.
In addition, I also started thinking about the instrument expressing over and above what a vocalist can do. For instance, if I have to play Sahana a few times in a month in Chennai, I have to make each version sound different in terms of musical imagination and also demonstrate the exclusive attributes of an instrumentalist. The rasikas that are looking for vocalised music start connecting with me only when my flute sounds like vocal music; but at the same time, if I am not able to do something exclusive on my instrument, why are they even coming to my concert? They might as well attend a vocal concert. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity.
That’s a delicate balance in which you have to be truly voice-plus.
Yes, which quintessentially means getting the tone right and the sound of the instrument right. Although people have listened to a lot of instrumental music, they are still not able to understand what’s a good tone. I think it also calls for a lot of nuanced understanding of instrumental music. So, to summarise, I give lot of emphasis to tone, the sounding, and the range. But remember, the flute has a handicap of limited range of octaves – one and half upwards and downwards.
Tell me something about your unusually long “double bass flute” that has been the talk of the town over the last couple of years. Since it was new in Carnatic music, who made it for you?
It’s 104 cm long and three octaves lower and has been inspired by Hindustani music. When I told my flute-maker that I wanted one, he had no clue because nothing like that was ever done in Carnatic music. I had to sit with him and work it out. It’s hard to procure bamboo of this length because of its shrinkage, and my flute-maker had only two pieces of sufficient length. The tricky part of the manufacture of the flute is that only a handful of what one makes will turn out to be useful. The remaining ones may not be calibrated well, or the bamboo gets infected.
Since it’s three octaves down, there must be no equivalent of voice in that.
Yes, there’s no equivalent of violin as well.
That means you are trying to bring in a new sound that we have never heard in vocal music or any other instrument in Carnatic.
Yes, you can say that. Through the double bass, I am trying to bring the Drupad effect into Carnatic music. It’s not to make Carnatic sound like Hindustani, but to enhance the experience of ragas such as Bhairavi, Todi, Ahir Bhairav and so on by adding that Drupad effect. It took almost two years to get the flute done and I am slowly mastering it. Probably in another year I will be able to play a ten-minute piece.
So, currently how much of it do you use it in your concerts?
It’s impossible to play a full kriti or a song on this, but we can pay parts of the alapana. I have played Todi, Mohanam, Ahir Bhairav, Sahana etc. I am trying to bring in as many Carnatic ragas as possible; at the same time I also play ragas that are phrase-oriented.
Wouldn’t it be difficult to get the gamakas right at the lowest frequency?
It’s very difficult. I had to change my flute holding technique; but thankfully because of the sensitive audio systems, the sound is picked up really well and the natural flavour of the bamboo isn’t lost.
Do you use special microphones for this flute?
No, I can make it sound more “sophisticated’ by adjusting the acoustics; but I would like to keep my music sound natural or rather unadulterated.
When you switch to double bass in the middle of an alapana, how do you bridge the frequencies and retain the musical continuum?
I use other bass flutes also (demonstrates three successive flutes to show the descending note positions). While changing flutes, I am projecting what the flute can do even while ensuring that the music is intact.
It requires a lot of practice that’s methodical. More over, I choose the bamboos myself because I don’t want a mismatch of frequencies between them. I don’t want the tone and depth to change when I switch the flutes. Although it can’t be called scientific research, I have travelled to Kerala forests with my flute-maker to study bamboos. A six feet bamboo shrinks and becomes three and a half feet. The diameter also reduces substantially. The tone differs with the size and diameter of the bamboo. The thinner the flute, the squeakier it’s on the ear. So, I think for Carnatic music of the present generation, the bass needs to be retained, at the same time ensuring that the top octave is not too sharp to hurt your ears. It should be pleasant there too.
So, do you have a flute that can go to the third octave?
Yes, I also use the tiniest flute. Just 15 cms (shows one). These flutes are mostly used in cinema music (plays a folkish Salil Chowdhary tune). I use this for certain folk numbers such as /Kavadi Chinthu or/a bit of Pahadi. Sometimes I also finish a raga with this. It adds a certain variety to a concert.
What about using other types of flutes? Say, those used in Western music, Japanese music etc?
I have played the key-flutes that are used predominantly in western classical music and also the heavy Japanese Shakuhachi flutes. If I lay my hands on a flute from a different genre or tradition, I may be able to figure out the position of the notes, how to blow etc in about 15-20 minutes. The only time I played the key-flute for a recording was for movie-music composed by Harris Jayaraj.
Okay, let’s move on now. Why don’t we see flute accompanying vocalists, except one or two?
One possibly is that flute is louder than the voice. In addition, Carnatic flute is always one octave higher than the human voice. A more natural reason is probably that in terms of the range and sound-balance, violin is more suitable to follow human voice with finesse. When it comes to me, I didn’t have the time to think about it because I have been busy with my own solo career.
My grandfather had played with MLV. Last August, I had accompanied Bombay Jayashree and Abishek Raghuram in a dance recital by Shobhana ji. Jayashree akka asked me if I could play the flute because the theme was Krishna. I was a little apprehensive becauseI I had never accompanied voice, but it tuned out to be good. I played the entire concert with the bass flute to match their pitch. And Jayashree akka told me that the flute wasn’t overpowering.
Are there ragas or compositions that are more amenable to the flute?
Yes. Mali sir was very popular for /Ninnuvina/ in Navarasa Canada. It’s been said that faster compositions which have discontinuous notes are quite suitable for the flute. But to me, there are also certain ragas such as Reetigowla (for instance /Paripalayamam)/. The first time I heard Sanjay sir singing it, I thought it would sound very good on the flute because of its meditative quality. It depends on the musician as well. Compositions such as /Entha Muddo/ (Bindumalini), /Nanda Gopala/(Yaman Kalyani), /Viriboni varnam, O Rangasayee, Thamatham tagaadayya/ (its fast gamakas, it doesn’t have the cut notes that the flute can produce) /Pibare Ramarasam/ and /Jagadodharana/ (particularly on the bass) sound very good on the flute compared to other instruments.
I may be wrong, still let me ask this question. Since you can produce three adjacent notes with a single blow without using the fingers, aren’t Vivadis and double-notes easy for you?
Vivadis are actually tough on the flute because they are played by partially closing the hole. Getting the precision with the half notes is not easy. For instance, if I were to play Chandrajyothi, getting that /Ri/ right every time makes it challenging.
Double notes are also tough on the flute, but with the right practise, it’s easy to master. It’s something that you handle with your fingers. The flautist has to have fast fingers because that’s the only weapon he/she has.
When you play, do you think notes, or do you think music?
There are stages. When I am in a concert, it’s voice that becomes music. I will be singing internally. For instance, when I play /Paripalayamam/, I play the sahitya, each syllable. I have made my practice sessions also like that. So, if you look at a graph, say Jayanth singing and Jayanth playing the flute, it will be identical. But when I play Tanam or swaram, I shift; I let my fingers do the singing.
My grandfather gave me an important tip 18 years back. When he was teaching me /Paramathmudu/ in Vagadeeshwari, which is a Vivadi raga, I was finding it difficult to understand those Ri and Ga because both are essentially Ga. He said, “don’t think of it as Ga-Ga, think of it as Ri-Ga.” It was a very simple advice and it worked. Now when I play other Vivadi ragas such as Rasikapriya, I understand the years of experience behind that advice.
How do you learn new Ragas and compositions? Does somebody teach you or do you learn on your own?
I have been learning from Sanjay Sir from 2013.
When my grandfather took me to him requesting him to teach me, he asked me if I was going to sing or play the flute in his class. I said I would play because that’s how I would bridge the gap between voice and the flute. He said okay, he would sing and I would repeat it on the flute. In each class, I would record it, bring it home and practise. That’s when I realised that there’s so much difference between a song that’s being sung and a song that’s been played on the flute. So, I started looking at my technical drawbacks again and how to get them right on the instrument. I used to practise 5-6 hours a day those days. To get that nod of approval from Sanjay Sir was very difficult and that made me practise even harder.
A part of what you said must have been musical and the other part technical, I mean the “dissatisfaction” of the music that you could reproduce on the flute.
Yes, exactly. I had to master specific techniques to overcome all that. My fingers used to pain badly. I even developed this ganglion on my hand (laughs).
A big part of vocal music is how one uses voice-techniques. How do you bring them to your instrument? For instance, vocalists such as Abhishek Raghuram even employ techniques of opera singers. Can you make your instrument adopt distinctive voice-characteristics like that?
I try to achieve what the voice produces through my blowing. For instance, where I hold my breath – whether in the upper part of the body or in my tummy – is important. We have to develop appropriate blowing techniques whether it’s bass notes or brigas and faster phrases or vocalised gamakas. For the faster phrases and gamakas, you also have to use your fingers synchronously.
In fact, if you are sufficiently skilled, there’s no limit to the gayaki style on an instrument. The moment the vocalist does something new – not that we should depend on the vocalist to do that – we can also bring that to the flute. When an instrumentalist sees or hears something new, he/she should pick them up. We should keep our eyes and ears open for new things.
What are the characteristics that are unique to your music?
I think the tone and the range of sounds on a single flute and other flutes put together, and a truly gayaki style that is still evolving. For instance, when MS Amma sang /O Rangasayee/, she didn’t break for breath in between and hence I should also follow the same when I play the composition on flute. Similarly when Sanjay sir sings, I should be able to exactly reproduce his modulation and gamakas.
I also employ the nadaswaram /briga-pidis/. When you attempt on flute things that are innate to nadaswaram, they should sound pleasant because the flute cannot be as loud as the nadaswaram.
You have told me about the influence of Hindustani classical music on you. Can you highlight a few elements.
The most striking is their perfect pitch. And that comes from the remarkable rigour of their riyaz (practice). I am not too sure if we are spending that many hours. Then the aesthetic of longer, sustained notes. It certainly has an influence on my music – in certain ragas, Javalis etc.
I have also adopted some of the western violin techniques, for example, the staccato style cut-bows that I employ when I play tanam and swaras.
How do you play the cut notes? Is it through blowing or the fingers?
By playing double-tongued.
The strange thing is that if a student asks me how to do it, I can’t open my mouth and show it. So, it’s very important that flautist has very good ears and the ability to devise techniques that are suitable for him/her. As I said earlier, on flute, one has to find truly personalised techniques. It’s an art of perceiving the abstract.
If you observe how my grand father and I play, the styles are completely different other than certain basic elements such as adherence to sahitya and sustenance of notes.
Since your grandfather comes from the Mali school and you come from your grandfather’s school, how much of Mali is there in you?
There was a time when I used to copy Mali sir a lot; but in 2006, Vellore Ramabhadran (renowned mridangist) Sir asked me: “If people wanted to listen to Mali they could always listen to his recordings, why would they come and listen to you?”. I was in Class 8 and that opened my eyes. That’s when I started reworking on my technique.
And N Ramani, another doyen from the Mali school and your grandfather’s contemporary?
Not much. He had a different style. I have heard that he also used to play like Mali Sir when he was young and he also changed in the course of his career. Although he was my grandfather’s contemporary under Mali Sir, they had different styles. The idea of bass flutes was introduced to Carnatic music by Ramani Sir. Actually I got to know about it only after I started playing my bass flute.
What about the influence of other flautists and instrumentalists?
I have listened to all flautists and might have sub-consciously imbibed the best elements from all of them. KS Gopalakrishnan (KSG) is my favourite Carnatic flautist after Mali Sir. There’s a certain pensive mood when KSG Sir plays and I try to personalise that.
When you take the whole of Indian music into consideration, Hariprasad Chaurasya ji is the ultimate flute player. I have taken so much of his sound in ragas such as Bhupali and Aahir Bhairav. The parallel I would like to make is the sense of tranquility and peace that you get when you listen to Mehdi Hassan Saab’s ghazals.
I have also taken elements from Shivkumar Sharma Sir’s santoor and Vilayat Khan’s sitar, particularly the way he plays certain gamakas. When I play certain ragas such as Bhagesri, I may even borrow some phrases from some movie songs. They add extra flavour and flourish.
Tell me about your cross-generic, cross-cultural experiences and the cosmopolitanism of your music
I have been fortunate enough to perform in diverse settings – from the Sabhas of Chennai and temples of Kerala to the Churches, Cathedrals, conservatories etc of Europe. I may have to rework the format and structure of my concerts according to the settings, but what I play is the same Carnatic music.
When I went to Europe last year, the presenter of the concert told me that he was not there to tell me what to sing and what not to sing, but he wanted me to ensure that the combination of notes or the ragas that I would present back to back were not similar. See, at the end of the day, music trickles down to sound which is genre-neutral. The moment we understand that, we will be far more successful.
I have performed with Hindustani musicians, other Carnatic musicians and also some western performers both in India and abroad.
In such cross-generic collaborations, I always remember what my father told me once after listening to a duet by Palghat Mani Iyer and Zakir Hussain. He said, see how Zakir Hussain has picked up the intricacies of the Carnatic rhythm and played them. “You should also learn Hindustani melodies and bandishes.”
Of my collaborations with Hindustani musicians, I will forever be indebted to Ronu Majumdar ji because he agreed to do a jugalbandi with me when I was very young. He was such a senior musician, but still had no problem teaming up with a newcomer like me. That was my first ever jugalbandi, a memory that I always cherish.
Compared to Carnatic music, Hindustani gets far more cross-over audiences abroad. How does it happen?
The only Indian musicians that the West talks about even today are the Hindustani stalwarts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain. And in flute, they know only Hariprasad Chaurasya. Historically, Hindustani musicians have a base spread across Europe and north America just like Carnatic has a base in Chennai. They have foundations and chairs in European cities and universities. And the audiences are mostly western. I think Hindustani appeals to be their idea of the Indian sound.
Do you play for movies?
I have played for a few of Haris Jayaraj’s compositions.
Is playing for movies demanding?
Certainly yes. You need to be very skilled and posses a different perspective; but there’s a risk of you losing your originality because in movies the flute needs to sound much lighter and less classical. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it? – they use classical instruments, but don’t want the classical sound.
They want your skills, but devoid of your classicism
Yes, sort of. If I do that during the day and a concert by night, it will be a struggle within. I will be at a major risk of losing my identity. A handful of classical musicians have found the right balance though.
How do you prepare for a concert
I don’t rehearse anything and also don’t keep a song-list except for the December concerts to ensure that I don’t repeat. Sometimes some of my co-artiste friends complain it’s difficult to follow the arithmetics if not informed earlier. So I make it a point to share with them my plan and ideas before the concert.
And the preparation for Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP)?
I keep telling the mridangists that before we do the final korvai, the build up has to be to such an extent that it will take the audience to a high. I tell them not to necessarily follow what I am doing, but do something else so that everything eventually falls in place. I observe these elements from Jazz music.
Are you a risk taker regardless of the stage and the accompanists?
Do you fail?
Oh yes! Sometimes I may appear to be trying too hard, but that’s okay if it finally works.
Does Chennai like people taking risks?
Varies from person to person. Some people like it and some people don’t. Some even ask me why I don’t practise 200 times before taking it up on stage.
Your raga alaapanas are very attractive, peaceful and have a universal meditative quality.
I like to paint the entire canvas. I don’t restrain myself.
I like Chandrajyothi, Todi, Bhairavi, Sindhu bhairavi (I play it in every concert), Poorvi kalyani, Nattakkurinji, Bhoopali and Ahirbhairav (both of which I play on the bass flute), Rasikapriya, Madhyamavathi, Subhapantuvarali (tough on the flute), Pantuvarali, Ritigowla…there are many (laughs)
You are the only instrumentalist who learned from Sanjay Subrahmanyan and also one of his very few students. What has been the influence of his training and music on you?
He has been a huge influence on my idea of music, thought processes and techniques. For instance, how would a vocalist approach a raga and how would one do that on the flute without a break… (sings a phrase), a lot of alapanas, tanam etc. I also had to develop a technique to match his energy. It was as if I had to relearn the playing technique completely. In simple terms, it was like a re-birth for me as a flautist. When I listen to my recordings in the years from 2005 and now, it sounds like two different artistes. The approach, the tone, everything is so different. I think every musician should reinvent himself or herself.
And lastly, tell me about that unusual surname of yours. The A of your initials JA stands for Ambedkar. How did that happen?
Many people don’t know the Ambedkar part of my surname (Laughs). It was thanks to my grandfather who was a very progressive man. He was greatly influenced by BR Ambedkar and his life story and hence named me after him. In fact, Ambedkar got this surname from his Guru, whose progressive values also had a major impact on my grandfather.
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