As you walk into a Chennai concert hall during the choc-a-bloc Margazhi season, if the voice you happen to hear is that of Kalyanapuram S. Aravind, the most likely sensation you will get will be that of a slight lift-off. A feeling of breezy goodness. You are most likely to feel unhurried and at peace even as he moves from the basic Shadjam to the upper Dhaivatham. The clarity and certainty of his notes and the depth of his expressions as he takes you through the slow paced alapana to the brisk swaras, the sangathis, gamakas and cascades of briga-gamakas and the cadences that give a sense of resolution will certainly leave you with a feeling of pleasantness.
And all of that in a highly pleasing, unambiguous and open-throated voice.
Trained by the legendary Padmabhushan Sangita Kalanidhi Madurai TN Seshagopalan, one of the greatest in Indian classical musicians and the most celebrated living Carnatic musician, Kalyanapuram Aravind is a talent to watch out for among the new generation of Carnatic singers. His legion of followers in Chennai’s concert circuit is quietly growing and he is certainly one of the recommendations you may get in the conversations with seasoned music aficionados in the city and elsewhere. They talk about his “sruthi sudham” (perfect pitch), bhava (expressiveness) and felicity with which he sings. For many, he is also vintage as he offers them a glimpse of the universe of Seshagopalan’s music.
The sureness and crystal-clear quality of Aravind’s music comes from his pedigreed training and the long period of practise. Starting off at four, he first trained under Seshagopalan’s wife Sudha followed by S Kasthuri Rangan and then again under the master himself, which he still continues. Watching his guru sing, train and perform at close quarters had opened up an astounding firmament of music before him. He has trained with him for years, travelled with him, accompanied him to concerts and sat with the audiences in overflowing auditoriums. And it was only in 2014, at the age of 23, that he made his debut in the Margazhi season.
A lot of his followers see him as a legacy-holder of Seshagopalan, particularly the unshakeable eloquence of his style and expressiveness. Some of the ragas and compositions that are associated with Seshagopalan, particularly the ones that the master himself has tuned, also make him dear to his audiences. “It’s a huge responsibility and respect when I handle those compositions and ragas. For instance, I have been very apprehensive about handling the Meera bhajan “Tum Bin More” that Seshagopalan Sir himself has tuned in Mishrahindolam. It has made such an impact that I am still afraid even to touch it. I enjoy the awe, and leave it there.”
“At the end of the day, I may just repeat the sangathis, but there are elements that are beyond its musicality. It’s only him who can sing it,” he adds when one tries to compare his style with that of Seshagopalan.
Also an alumnus of the prestigious SSN College of Engineering at Chennai, Aravind was a software professional for a few years till he plunged full-time into music. Just like in his music, he’s an absolute delight in this conversation too.
Shifting to music full time from software engineering must have been a big decision because you were financially secure and now you were getting into an uncertain future.
Yes, that’s the general view. But, I think once you take music as a full time career, definitely there will be a point when music as a profession will satisfy your lifestyle requirements. My parents were very supportive of this.
At what stage did you realise that you were going to abandon everything else and focus only on music?
It was at the engineering college itself.
Didn’t you feel like dropping out of college, like Abhishek Raghuram did?
Yes, I did, but it was not possible because my parents had spent so much time and effort to get me into this stream of engineering. I also had worked very hard till 12th to get admission to SSN. Even though the mind was under pressure, along with music I persisted with my studies as well. More than managing time for both, it was the mental bandwidth that was challenging. When music was occupying a lot of my mental bandwidth, any amount of work I do, it would be only the second or third priority. That was very difficult.
A fellow musician has told me that you are the real torch bearer of Seshagopalan’s school of music. Personally for me, I certainly get flashes of that lilting delight that I get while listening to TNS. Tell me about your grooming under him and your philosophy of music.
The description of “torchbearer of his style” is too huge for me because his music is like a vast ocean and I don’t think anybody can be a torchbearer. We can be carriers of small aspects of that vastness and try to present them with decent integrity. It’s so limitless and deep. If you observe his music, you will realise that there’s nothing that he hasn’t touched, starting with the varnam.
Regarding my philosophy of music, I largely imbibe ideas and thoughts from what my guru has taught me. His idea about Indian music – whether it’s vocal or instrumental – is that the raga is the main pillar. Anything that we do in our musical system is about the raga. As my guru says the “ragaswaroopa” is the key to every aspect of our music. Whether it’s the kriti, alapana, neraval or swarams, it should be an expression of the raga. Presentation of swarams cannot be mechanical, it should be the raga in its entirety. This is the philosophy of music that he has ingrained in me.
Therefore, when I sing any aspect of music I keep the “ragaswaroopa” in mind. Every raga has its subtle form. The same swarams that represent two ragas can be given two different colours depending on the “ragaswaroopa” that’s there in the mind of the musician. When I sing, the mental image of the raga comes in front of me as the primary goal.
The ‘swaroopa” may be complex and the music in performance is quite dynamic. Therefore, you are sure to discover new dimensions and subtle variations as you keep singing. How do you respond to them?
The conception of the raga happens on the stage. There’s no planning the alapana before a concert. It happens right there. The development of the raga happens only based on what idea comes to me in the previous instance – I mean the flow of the raga is decided by the previous phrase. What happens in this kind of approach is that if I am going to sing two concerts on consecutive days and sing two different kritis in the same raga, the colour of the raga is going to be different on each day based on the “ragaswaroopa” that I am able to perceive on that particular day. It’s a very interesting and satisfactory process in which one gets to explore the raga based on that particular day’s mindset and mood.
Since Carnatic music is also about compositions, how much do they influence the “ragaswaroopa” and how you delineate it?
Definitely the composition has its influences. The main ingredient of the mood itself is the composition. If I am going to sing Shree Subramanyaaya Namasthe, I would have contemplated it in a 100 ways since I have learned it first. And a lot of that composition and Kamboji associated with it would have permeated into me. Therefore, whenever I think of Shree Subramanyaya, a particular flavour of Kamboji would start emanating. So, the composition definitely influences.
The audiences are able to guess the composition from the alapana itself, right? It’s because the artiste is keeping the structure and bhava of the composition in mind while singing the alapana. The Kambhoji in Thyagaraja’s O Rangasayee is different from Dikshithar’s Shree Subramanyaya. In Subramanyaya, it’s full of gait and valor of Lord Subrahmanya Swami whereas in O Rangasayee, the grandeur represents how Ranganatha reclines on the serpent and how grand his appearance is.
Since we are on alapana, I often wonder how Sri T N Seshagopalan gets so much material to sing those never ending alapanas. For instance, singing an alapana in a raga like Desh for half an hour. How does one do it when the scale, its scope and phrases are limited?
My guru says if you look at the raga in terms of how to express the phrases, the raga is going to seem limited; but if you see it as a living entity in front of you, with a “swaroopa” of its own, it will be like looking at the Himalaya and trying to write an article about it. I am be seeing the Himalaya in front of me and I am trying to describe it in its entirety without recollecting anything.
Regarding your question about his alapanas, it’s not just Desh, he has sung rare ragas such as Navarasa Kannada for 12 minutes. He uses the term “nadaathmayaroopa” of a raga – it’s his very personal and intimate experience that he alone can explain. From what I understand, he sees the raga in its physical form in front of his musical eyes and he describes what he sees. So, he doesn’t need to think how to expand it. He sees the raga, it’s as simple as that.
So, do you also follow the same path?
I certainly try to do that. After many years of singing, I hope to be able to enjoy the “swaroopa” of the raga.
It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? For that kind of imagination and vision to work, you also need appropriate skills, don’t you?
I strongly believe that if a particular phrase is occurring to you on a particular day, your mind knows that your voice will be able to execute it because our ideas are generated based only on what we have done and what we have been equipped with. It’s very logical – you will only sing things that you are able to sing.
Is this is from your personal experience?
Yes. For instance, I cannot try to sing like Ustad Salamat Ali Khan just because I like his music. If I want to, I should probably take some time out, observe what he does and make sure to acquire the skills to sing his sangathis, practise those sangathis and get them right. Probably, I can try mimicking his iso that I will know exactly where I am heading to in terms of the techniques I should equip myself with. Once that’s done, the mind will know that this technique has been mastered by me. Ideas will then start flowing in the form of manodharma in a way that it will be possible for you to execute in your voice. There will be no lag between the thought-processes and your execution. Even on a bad voice day, many people think that the musician has been able to pull off a concert well. It’s not that we are able to pull it off, it’s because of the nature of the mind that will only generate ideas that are suitable for that day. In my opinion, the manodharma is going to flow naturally according to the felicity with which you have practiced.
One needs to listen a lot to develop the content of the manodharma – not listening to lift ideas from them, but listening to enjoy. When you do that, it subconsciously enters your mind and starts expressing itself when you explore the raga.
Once you are beyond a certain threshold of skills, this manodharma influenced by listening dictates you to sing like that. But you need to reach that threshold of skills, right?
Definitely. Until then, you have to be very diligent in practicing your basics. In my case, I had plugged and played phrases from keerthanas in my alapana. When you do that in the initial stages of your career, the raga is going to be microscopically perfect because the keerthanas are not going to mislead you in any way as they are already set in that raga. So, the initial raga alapana or swarams should be from the keerthanas. You can lift them and place them in your singing. There’s nothing wrong in that; but the only thing you have to be mindful of is that when you are lifting a phrase from a keerthana and placing it in an alapana, it shouldn’t be blatant. It should have a context to the preceding phrase and the one that’s coming after.
Otherwise it will sound like humming strands of different kritis. A medley that will confuse the audience.
Exactly. It won’t sound like a cogent alapana. So, the preceding and following phrases should be in such a way that my placing of the phrase is very natural and aesthetic. It will help us in not making mistakes early in our career and it will also start building a flow.
There is another thing I have tried. If I know ten kritis in Kambhoji, I will sing them for five days. I won’t sing any manodharma, just the kritis. The Kambhoji tune that’s in the kritis will start seeping into my mind automatically. That will enable us to give us something impromptu which will be an assimilation of all the kritis put together.
It will fire your imagination and will throw up new ideas, right?
But I find you quite modest about your own musical equipment. For instance, those Hindustani tan style gamakas, the briga-gamakas, the effortless nadaswara-phrases etc that make your music delightful are not easy to master and execute.
It takes a lot of physical stamina. Carnatic music is a physically intensive form as compared to Hindustani because the gamakas are so intricate that when you sing them at a faster pace, they demand a lot of physical effort. Breathing plays an important part in executing phrases such as the long gamaka oriented fast-phrases (which are generally considered as Nadaswara phrases, but my guru says that, that is how vocal music has been in the earlier days) that my guru sings. I have been astonished looking at how he sings such phrases so effortlessly.
Since it’s physically demanding, it’s a no-brainer to say that it requires years of training, isn’t it?
Yes. Many voice-trainers say that you have to suspend your breath and sing. The suspension of breath is very useful in many sangathis, My guru would say “fill the air in your lungs as if you are filling the fuel tank of your car.” The cushioning effect of the air should always be there when you sing some phrases and brigas. Otherwise it will cause the muscles in the neck to tighten unnecessarily.
I guess you are referring to singing from diaphragm
Yes, the brigas, jarus, gamakas …everything comes from the breath you take with the diaphragm.
In fact, Carnatic music training has all the elements such as the varisais, alankaras etc that automatically take us there.
The teachers, too, should possess the skills, don’t they?
Yes, they will demonstrate how to sing, but the actual work has to be done by the disciple. My guru used to teach me the specifics of breathing, filling the lungs with air to sing longer phrases etc.
Were those his own insights and or did he learn them from somebody else?
He is a musician of amazing insights. I have heard from many senior disciples that he used to sit and practise up to 16 hours a day during his early days in Madurai. He has also told me about a lot of stuff that he has discovered through intense personal explorations. For instance, when you are not able to sing a sangathi the way you want it, you have to find out why; you have to observe and find out how your body responds etc. It’s amazing how he has conceived these things purely by exploring the anatomy of the human body which is unique to each person.
Personal discoveries are a precious source of learning because they come with a lot of practical wisdom. It also provides you with solutions when you are stuck.
Yes, that’s why I am eternally grateful to my guru. He would ask you to sing a particular note from this area of your throat, or this area of your chest. When you try that, you get to a point wherein your comfort zones are discovered.
The beauty of Carnatic music is its microscopic detailing. Some singers have an ambiguous style in which they cover up the deficiencies in their detailing with mannerisms.
In my early days, when I sing a fast phrase, my guru used to tell me that each note should be chiselled like a carving. And each note should be heard in its utmost perfection. Human beings are creators of habits. When we reach a particular stage of practice and a particular level of “sadhana”, we attain a stage wherein our mind starts extrapolating that particular sadhana to whatever we sing.
As Ramakrishnan Murthy had told me, at a certain stage one actually starts flying above the technicalities and grammar.
Technicalities and grammar fall in place effortlessly when one starts reveling in the raga and enjoy the journey of exploring and experiencing it from a birds eye view.
Are you anywhere closer to that stage?
That’s an ever-evolving stage. Even great musicians of 40-50 years of experience would say that they need to explore more.
But I suppose at least you are in a happy space when you sing concerts.
Yes, I am in a happy space; but the greatness of music is that every new thing I start discovering gives me a sense of inadequacy – that I should discover more because that one thing that I just discovered requires so many other things that are still undiscovered by me.
Probably that’s why Carnatic singers continue to sing even after they finish a concert
Exactly. Once I went with my guru to a concert in Kancheepuram where he sang Venkatesha Ninnu in Madhyamavathi and he came up with a swara pattern on stage. While coming back to Chennai after the concert, he kept developing on that and produced the entire structure – the entire mathematical progression, the way you should develop and end with a korai.
Moving on to swaras, what’s your approach to swara singing?
Swara singing also should be an expression of the raga. If you take the analogy of a garland, swaras are the individual flowers and raga is the thread. This is the kind of visualisation one should have while singing the swaras. There are two schools of thought: one is that one should focus on the fluid sarvalaghu swaras, and the other is that there should be mathematics in bringing the swara patterns together. Either way, the raga should be the priority. If you sing sarvalaghu swaras, at least I imagine them as raga alapana interspersed with swara syllables.
Coming to mathematics, it should be very intelligently conceived without marring the raga’s swaroopa. Aesthetics is very important. As my guru says, it’s the duty of the musician to ensure that the listener enjoys it. The number of swaras that are involved in a “moorchana” should be intelligently chosen to create a mathematical phrase.
How much of it is extempore? How does it happen in a very short period of time, I mean how does the mind conjure up things at such brisk speed?
In my case, I started off doing these math-patterns by thinking how the kriti-phrases are structured. But once you start doing the same thing, as I said in the case of alapana, the mind will start extrapolating things on its own and it will start giving you ideas – numbers with aesthetics. It’s all based on how long you have been in music, how long you have been practicing etc. Humans are creatures of habits, the more you do it, the easier and more spontaneous it will get.
How much is pre-prepared in your case?
Mostly I start in a set pattern, but soon I get inspired. Today, there are so many gifted violinists who can come up with impromptu developments from what we sing. That gives us new ideas as to how this particular maths (from what they play) can be extended to another math. One has to be very attentive to understand what they are playing and take ideas from that.
Mind throwing up maths aligning with musical aesthetics sounds a little bemusing.
It happens only by practising, repeating, listening and constantly thinking about it.
Yes, you are not counting those combinations while making them.
Yes, that’s not going to produce music. It will produce some swaras. As a musician one should definitely develop the mental vision or canvas of how it should be.
Clearly, it’s largely skills and imagination; but how much is gift?
While on a trip to Thiruvannamalai with my guru, some people told him that however much they practise, they were never going to be like him, to which his reply was that “without practice, even a genius wouldn’t be able to bring out his talent”. So, my point is that we would never know how a genius expresses – whether through practice or natural gift. Ultimately, only through practice will it see the external world. So, “gift” is a very philosophical thing and hard work is the guaranteed route.
What’s your personal experience? Are there people who are so gifted that they don’t need to put in that kind of practice to be equal to the people at the top?
Music is definitely a very subjective art. A person can practise ten times and acquire something that another person may take 100 times while yet another may get it the first time itself. That ease of getting it right may vary from people to people. That’s the innate ability, but Carnatic music is also very technical. You need specific techniques to be a performing musician.
Can “gift” help in such areas too?
Our art form is very scientific. Everything that’s rendered on stage has a logic. So, there is nothing that’s randomly sung. If somebody sings something, there must be a personal logic. When we are supporting something with logic, it’s definitely intellectual beyond a point.
However, the feel of one’s music, the bhava that one is able to get across to the listener, cannot be attained by practice. It will happen only with experience from within. But the intellectual part can be obtained by practice. For example, my guru used to take up a vast canvas of RTPs in different talas, different eduppus and different nadais, different korvais and do all that’s possible in them. Do trikalam, do tisram, chathusram, chatustra-tisram, do different kalams in chatusra-tisram, probably try khandam in tisram etc – practising and exhausting everything that’s possible in practice sessions. He says that beyond a point, it would become your second nature that given any random RTP, you can do it with considerable ease so that it would appear to have been created on the spot. But that “on the spot” is because of what you have already done at home. That’s basic science.
Do people forget it if they don’t practise regularly?
It’s like ABCD. We don’t revise ABCD, do we?
I am asking this because I have seen people forgetting piano keys because of lack of practice for long periods of time.
I think it’s totally different because in our case the technique has already become a muscle memory. Moreover, the content may not be physically practiced every time because it can be happening in the mind as well. However, one has to do the voice practice every day so that it works the way we want it to.
Okay, since you mentioned voice, tell me how important are the voice and voice techniques to one’s music? Also, the overall feel of the sound.
See, this might actually seem a little a little strange: Carnatic music has grown leaps and bounds in terms of content; now we have started growing in terms of sound as well. My guru used to regularly tell me how a particular sangathi should sound. He used to explore different ways of creating sound from the voice. For instance, to bring a sense of peace with the word “shantham” is to modulate one’s voice accordingly. But that’s only the theoretical part. How do we practically do that? That’s what every musician should look at. Ultimately, all said and done, music is sound. Whatever knowledge we have, only when the audience hears the sound of that knowledge they will get to know what we are trying to communicate. I should train in such a way that my voice strainful to the listener as well as me. It should be flexible enough for me to execute whatever comes to my mind. As I said earlier, in a concert stage, the manodharma may adjust itself to the voice, but deep down the heart every musician will have some aspiration to reach. That goal should be clear and one should start training one’s voice to attain that. That’s nada. That’s why Saint Thyagaraja said “Nada Thanumanisham” and not “keerthana thanumanisham” or “swara thanumanisham”. Getting that rounded quality of voice is fundamentally important.
Do you get inspired by phrases from popular music? Inspiration from popular art and culture? Catchy tunes that you hear?
Personally, I don’t consciously do that. But, say, if I listen to Ustad Rashid Khan’s Charukeshi with all my ears and heart, probably its inspiration might reflect in my music. Consciously, I don’t do that.
I am asking this because in film music some songs and background scores sometimes have beautiful raga phrases. When you listen to that, it may strike a chord with you, you may hear phrases that you have never heard in a raga before. Similarly, Western classical music has a lot of individual melodies that might fit into a raga framework.
It definitely happens. The beauty of our system of music is that the phrase that we encounter like you mentioned gets morphed into a Carnaticised expression.
Do you listen to Hindustani music?
Yes, I do, quite a bit.
Who are your favourites and how do they influence your music?
Ustad Amir Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborthy, Pandit Vasanth Rao Deshpande and the like. They need to be observed not only for their music, but also how they have used their voice to create their music. Pt Ajoy Chakraborthy has a thin voice and Pt Bhimsen Joshi has a baritone and broad voice. They express Yaman in their own unique ways according to the capabilities of their voice. So listening to both of them, I get ideas about how I should express Yaman in my voice. Even though I sing Carnatic ragas, the thought process is the same.
Increasingly Carnatic musicians are singing more Hindustani ragas than before
Definitely. My guru used to say that Carnatic music has the capability to make anything that we listen to, our own. The best example is ragas like Sindhubhairavi and Desh. When they are heard in a Carnatic concert, they sound Carnatic. Muthuswamy Dikshitar had lived in Benares for many years and hence had adopted Hindustani ragas into our system. See how Dwijavanthi had been taken from Jaijayawanti and given its own colour and flavour. Ragas have gone from here too, see how Hindustani musicians have made Hamsadhwani their own.
In between characteristic Carnatic ragas, using Hindustani ragas with relatively flatter notes are a relief in a concert.
Yes, they do have an important role. My guru has sung RTP in Surutti and Desh.
Let’s get a little philosophical now. What’s the purpose of your pursuit of music? Some say it’s the quest for the perfect note, some say it’s a spiritual journey, some say it’s the exploration of the unknown and so on.
I think it’s all that you have mentioned. If I hear the purest shadjam so much in alignment with the tanpura when I sing, I get a blank feeling. Similarly, if I am visualising Lord Krishna, I get lost and go blank again. When I am exploring the raga in the length and breadth of its utmost beauty, if I get a phrase that I have never ever thought of conceiving, that too might make me go blank. All these three have happened to me.
Do you remember what you were after when you had gotten full time into music years ago? My question is when you were not mature enough to choose it as a career, something would have driven you into music. What was it?
In the Margazhi festivals in which I used to accompany my guru to the sabhas in early 2000s, I hadn’t understood all the facets of music that he had presented on stage. But I saw the awe that he had created in the audience. Frankly, it was a major factor that drew me in. I was 14-15. I wanted to create the same awe, even though I didn’t understand the inner nuances or details of what he sang. I used to wonder, “oh my god, what kind of music is he singing! Is it even humanly possible!” I wanted to create that kind of magic in people. Later on, I realised that my teenage idea was silly. I realised that only when you go deeply into music and the raga, regardless of the outcome, the awe factor comes in.
From whatever I understood, you seem to be spiritually oriented and Carnatic music to a large extent is about bhakthi, but don’t you also want to sing about other human emotions such as love, separation, beauty, nature and so on as they do in Hindustani?
Our music has space for everything. For instance, in Ashtapadi if you remove the two characters namely Radha and Krishna as divine beings, it’s purely about the attraction and love between them. Similarly, the emotions in patriotic compositions by Subramania Bharathi also have a universal meaning. I think our music has all the shade of emotions, it’s about how you connect with them.
Can one experience these emotions even while being indifferent to, say bhakti for instance. In other words, for a listener who is completely unaware of the intended emotion, can the music itself create it in them?
My personal take is that probably the raga you choose automatically can create it. Let’s leave bhakti for a moment, the music itself is based on an emotion. That emotion is conveyed in the raga itself. They can’t be separated. Whether I consciously do it or not, it’s already there in the raga. As regards bhakthi, whether you have it in you or not, an appropriate raga – say Anandabhairavi – creates it in you. If you do have bhakti in you, you will have a more immersive experience
Do you enjoy other forms of arts such as painting, movies, dance etc.?
I have a particular interest in photography. In music, you use sound to create a canvas; in photography, you use light. Even in photography, becoming one with the art form – the frame that you are looking at – is what gives you the best photo. I can’t call myself a professional, but I do take photos when I go out.
In your performances, you don’t usually go into a “zone” as it were like some do; you are right there, quite present with the audience.
All the creative stuff happens only in the present. The moment or the “now” is where it happens. You can’t lose track of that “now”. We are not here to meditate on stage right?, we are here to present something intellectual as well.
This sense of being present gives the impression of an artist who is very sure of his/her art
There’s nothing wrong in getting engrossed or getting into a meditative stage, but we are not on stage for that. Ultimately, singing at home is one thing and singing on stage is another. We are here on stage only because the audiences are there to listen to us. It’s therefore our responsibility to get their pulse right.
You can go up to two and a half octaves from the lowest Shadjam. How easy or difficult is that?
In terms of range, there’s a myth that it’s something to do with the voice. It’s actually something to do with your breathing. A note is always sung from the throat, whether high or low. People try to visualise high notes from somewhere above and low notes, from somewhere below and some even think that low notes are easily accessible. In fact low notes also create the same level of strain if not sung properly. So, it’s the control of breath that makes the range so expansive. The posture is also critical.
In a concert, what gives you utmost happiness and satisfaction?
Alapana and neraval singing. My neraval has developed over the years and I feel happy about how it has become more sophisticated in terms of raga nuances. I also feel a little more freedom in exploring the raga without holding on to the support of any limited framework. I think I am able to visualise the raga in a more subtle fashion than before and execute it with more freedom.
Final question. Do you consider yourself a risk taker on stage?
I have started taking risks (laughs).
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