Saketharaman is among the top three of the younger generation of Carnatic musicians, and a prime-time performer during the Margazhi festival. An A-lister, the leading Sabhas in Chennai want to include him in their December schedule. Known for his virtuosity and classicism, he is also an innovator who finds immense possibilities within the grammar and framework of Carnatic music.
As a performer, Saketharaman shows the future of Carnatic music. Even while steeped deep in the traditions of classical music, including elements such as bhakti and devotion, his music is promisingly forward-looking. He is fearless with his manodharma and experimentation, and he is very expressive, energetic and robust on the concert stage.
His dexterity in delivering rare ragas, long and complex compositions – particularly those with a lot of variations – and his proclivity to explore lesser known areas of music without tinkering with the basic structure make him unique on stage. His purity of notes, diction, clarity of musical expressions – including complex phrases – precision of delivery and delectable laya make him a delight to watch.
Besides being a star performer, who has won several accolades such as the Yuva Puraskar from the Sangita Natak Academy and best vocalist award from the Madras Music Academy for three consecutive years, Saketharaman is also a prolific composer. He has composed about 100 Pallavis, most of which he uses in his rendition of Ragam Thanam Pallavis. He has set to tune many other texts such as Meera bhajans and compositions of Annamacharya, Sankaracharya, Puranadaradasa, Subramania Bharathi among others.
Trained by violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, one of the most celebrated names in Carnatic music, Saketharaman is extremely articulate about the art and science of music. As part of indianexpress.com’s Margazhi Special, Saketharaman spoke to G Pramod Kumar in Chennai about Carnatic music and what it means to him.
Since we are talking during the Margazhi season, let’s start with the most common question in the minds of Carnatic music lovers: What’s the Saketharaman special for the season?
I am trying out a few things: One, a lot of new ragas that have not been popularised much. For instance, in the last couple of concerts I have sung Vivadhi ragas such as Jyothi Swaroopini and in my concert yesterday, I sang Rishabhapriya.
Second, a lot of new compositions, that were classics 50 years back, but were somewhat lost. Nee Madhi Challaga in Anandabhairavi and Na Jeevadhara in Bilahari – which was a classic that Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman played 50 years back, but hasn’t been popular in vocal music for a long time – are examples. The third thing is definitely the Ragam Thanam Pallavi.
You have composed a lot of Pallavis yourself, haven’t you?
Yes, more than 100, in both Melakarta and Janya ragas. Usually I compose the Pallavis for my own concerts and I take others’ very rarely. I feel that’s the manodharma segment in a concert and it should be completely original. I have done some special ones for this season.
Are these Pallavis in single ragas or in Ragamalika?
The Pallavi is usually set in one raga, but sometimes it’s also set in multiple ragas. In the last season, at the Parthasarathy Sabha, I sang one – both in Nalinakanti and Bindumalini – with the combination of the words “Kripa Sagari”. SA GA RI is the swarakshara (both swaras and the word) and I sang a lot of combinations of those swaras in ragas such as Anandabhairavi and Varali. Usually, the Ragamalika sections come in the swaras or in the Thanams.
People also sing Pallavis in multiple ragas, don’t they?
Yes, I too have done it. Quite a few in Ranjani, Ashtagowlai (eight Gowlais) etc. in a single Pallavi.
You have done a “Saptha Raga Saptha Thala Pallavi” (eight ragas and eight thalas in a single Pallavi). How challenging are such innovations?
It will be difficult to choose ragas for such Pallavis, because they ought to blend with one another.
The challenge is that they have to seamlessly transition from one raga to another, and the text has to be appropriate. Sometimes, it will be based on the common swaras (e.g Nalinakanthi and Bindumalini); sometimes it will be based on ragas with similar names or nomenclature (e.g. different Gowlais). Usually I find the commonality in them, and then using one or two common notes, I transition from one raga to another.
There are times when people think you are in raga one, whereas you have already transitioned to raga two – that’s a seamless transition. So, the same line of text goes through multiple ragas. I have done a five-raga Pallavi in which all the names of women goddesses appear.
How demanding is the Margazhi because of the number of concerts?
Across the year, I generally perform in about six to seven concerts a month. In December, it goes up to about 12, with a few in November too. About 30-plus organisations ask me to perform, but you know I can’t. So I keep a rotation policy. From next year, I want to do it a little more -maybe once in two or three years in certain sabhas, while some sabhas will be regular. The truth is that you cannot do justice to more than 8-9 concerts in a month. The cold weather in December is extra challenging for the singer. But, the good thing about Margazhi is that you don’t need to travel.
Are there things that you have been working on, but haven’t presented yet?
I have been trying a few classics, but sometimes they get postponed. For instance, I have been trying the composition Na Jeevadhara for some time now, and finally it came out yesterday. They are classics and take a longer time to practise because there are so many sangathis. Sometimes, if you also don’t have the right accompaniments, it doesn’t come out well. Narayanagowlai is another raga that I have been trying to sing, but is getting postponed.
What’s so special about Narayanagowlai?
It’s a lost raga. After Kedaragowlai came into prominence, that raga (Narayanagowlai) was lost. For it to be revived, you need to have the right kind of ambience, accompaniments and audience. I have sung it as a Ragamalika swara, but not yet as a full composition with alapana. ‘Sri Ramam Ravikulabdhi Somam’ and ‘Kadhale vaadu gaadhei’ by Dikshitar and Tyagaraja respectively are the ones I have been wanting to sing.
When you sing a rare big composition such as Na Rajeevadhara, do you practise with the accompanists?
I sent a recording of mine, and that of Shri Lalgudi, to them. It’s important that they also practise because when there are so many sangathis, even if one sangathi is lost, you lose the link.
How do you plan for a concert? What to include, and what to omit?
Most of the time, I try to include a Ragam Thanam Pallavi (RTP) because that’s something original in terms of manodharma, and I have composed the Pallavis myself. I would want my creative part to come out. Then, I will have a classic, mostly something that has been forgotten, which will bring the nostalgic element. I also include some old songs (e.g. Thanthai Thai that was sung by NC Vasanthakokilam about 60 years ago) and also some in local languages.
For instance, if I go to Kerala, I try to sing in Malayalam; or if I go to Karnataka, I sing in Kannada etc. In Margazhi, I sing a lot of Tamil songs. In addition, Thiruppavai, Thiruvamppavai, a lot of devotional songs etc. This is usually how it goes. Every concert has to be an experience in itself that people can take back home.
You get tremendous support from the audience. How does it work in enhancing the concert experience? And how is a concert day different from other days?
It’s mutually enhancing. They transmit to you, and you transmit to them. You don’t feel it in every song. There are certain songs in which you strike a chord with the audience, and then it takes off from there. On the concert day, I tend to practise a little less, but think a lot more. I also usually shut myself from all other distractions.
Although I don’t sing so much that day, I do it in the head – every sangathi, how much more creative I can get, how much more feel I can impart to a composition, what could have been the feel of the composer when he wrote it and how could I import it to my singing, how do I bring a little more bhava, etc. All these things will be going through my mind as I gear up for the concert.
Do you change your plan just before or during the course of a concert?
Usually the concert lasts for about two-and-a-half hours and sometimes it can go up to three hours. In the US, it can go up to three-and-a-half hours or four hours.
The contents of the concert may change depending on the pulse of the audience. It’s hard to tell in advance if the audience would like familiar ragas or prefer new ones – that’s where their response is important. For example, the concerts in November at Bhavan in Chennai is free, and the audience usually wants familiar songs. They may want to sing along with you. But when the NRIs start coming from mid-December, they want to hear new stuff.
In Kerala, they want you to sing familiar ragas while in Andhra, they would like for you to sing lighter ragas such as jog. Recently in Delhi, I sang Subhapantuvarali as the main piece, which I usually don’t do, and it clicked. So, it depends on the time, place and occasion.
We often hear some lone voices against the Ariyakudi format, which say that a Carnatic concert doesn’t necessarily need to follow a set structure
I am convinced that the Ariyakudi format is here to stay. There’s infinite freedom within the boundaries of that format. There’s a fence which defines the grammar, but within that you have so much freedom. It’s thought through so much.
For instance, the varnam that one starts the concert with helps warm up the voice so beautifully. Every day when I get up, I practise a couple of varnams. Then there are ragas such as Pantuvarali or Mayamalavagaula – it’s always like a one-down in cricket, like a Rahul Dravid – a reliable raga for your voice to get better. Not that you have to sing it in every concert, but a fallback if your voice is not cooperating. If your voice is already warmed up, it’s fine. But the prathimadhyamam is absolutely important.
The way you build up a concert is very important. You can’t start with a 40-minute-long big composition and then taper it. You should do the other way – you can slowly build up, just like you build a house. You start with a little madhyama kala swara, then a short alaapana followed by a big piece, and then the RTP. You end with some lighter pieces because even 50 years back Ariyakudi sir would tell mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir that it would be the last few pieces that people would go back home with. Even GN Balasubramaniam had introduced many lilting, lighter pieces for the last 15 minutes or so of his concert. So, in this format, the audience goes home with a happier or lighter heart, even while remembering all the things that happened in the concert. As I said earlier, it’s thought through so much.
You also realise its importance in international performances. I perform in Learn Quest Festival in Boston, and the audience is mostly North Indian. They say that they don’t have this kind of variety in Hindustani because the singers usually take two ragas and elaborate on them. Here, there is something for everybody to take. It’s like a wedding meal – many items, whatever you like, you take. It’s here to stay.
What’s does music mean to you professionally and personally?
A performance is very different from what we do at home. A performance has to have three E’s.
First, it has to be entertaining: for the listeners, that also includes a lot of lay people paying for the tickets, so it cannot be dull.
Second, it has to be educational: you have to sing new aspects, you can’t belt out just the hits of Semmangudi and GNB, but sing compositions and ragas that people haven’t heard much, and also revive lost melodies.
The third is the elevating aspect: it has to touch one’s soul, which also means that it has to be spiritually elevating as well.
Forget about the concert, what’s the overall philosophy of your music?
It comes down to three basic things – raga, thala and sahithyam. All of them, when combined with bhava, is music to me. All these have to be in good proportion. One can’t be compromised for another. To me, the most important is the bhava, the expression. There’s raga bhava, sahithyam bhava and bhakthi bhava. All these have to go together. This is the philosophy of my music. If it’s not touching your soul, it’s not music.
There are two things in music – ‘bhramippu’ and ‘rasippu’. The first word means that you are in awe – you say wow after hearing something. Rasippu is about the aesthetics which touches your heart. Moments of awe should be fewer, and the rasippu moments should be more.
All the compositions of the Trinity were not meant for concerts, but were offerings to god. When I sing them, I am not looking only at the classical element, but also at the combination of music, sahithyam and the bhava about god. When these come together, the feeling is surreal. Like “paramanandam”, the absolute bliss.
Do you also feel a little high after a concert?
Yes; it’s not only after the concert, but also every time after I sing. And it’s not just the highs, but lows too. After every concert, I can sleep only at three or four in the morning. Suppose a concert doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, you feel low.
Are you referring to the low that some ragas give you?
No, it’s not that kind of low. Even if a brooding raga turns out well, it’s a super feeling.
Does the intrinsic emotion of a raga affect you?
The combination of notes in a raga is very important. That’s why we don’t employ vivadhi swaras a lot, especially double vivadhis. Recently I listened to a concert in which there was this ragam called Sucharitham. It denotes the ‘beebatsa‘ rasam, which is disgust. If a musician sings a Pallavi in this for an hour, the audience will go mad.
Just as they can elevate you or calm you, musical notes also have the power to give you a headache. When you sing alien notes – say a Vivadhi ragam – and when the notes are so close to each other, it creates contempt. So, you have to avoid them as much as possible or sing for short periods.
The allure of Indian classical music is manodharma? What are the elements of music that you improvise? Do you plan your improvisations?
In my opinion, premeditated excellence is better than mediocre spontaneity. In the name of spontaneity if you try everything and fail, you are not doing justice to the audience because you are also a paid professional. That said, if you are premeditating everything, you are losing spontaneity. So, there has to be a balance.
The composition should be pre-planned: you cannot say that you are going to add a sangathi on stage. In “kalpithasangeetha”, where it’s already composed, the manodharma aspect should be less. The composer has already done it, if you can embellish with a sangathi or two, absolutely, but not too much to tamper with the composition.
In Raga Alapana and kalpanaswaras there’s a lot of possibilities for manodharma. For instance, in the Kalpana Swaras in Bilahari I sang at the concert yesterday, the violinist (S. Varadarajan) was playing with a lot of imagination and I was responding to those phrases. If you take two-and-a-half hours of my concert, I do eight compositions which is about 45-minutes of pre-practised music. The rest of it is manodharma. Or in other words, two-thirds is manodharma.
How does kalpanaswaras work, where you do a combination of swaras so spontaneously? It has to be scientific and rational too.
Kalpanaswaras come with years and years of practice. Yes, there’s so much rationality to everything you do (demonstrates a kuraippu in a korvai). See, masters such as Semmangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer and GNB have thought through all this so much.
Have people pointed out to you that you put your talam very strongly?
When they play Nadais such as Mishra Nadai or Sankeerna Nadai, I need to put them properly. The great mridangist Neyveli Narayanan jokes that I have torn a lot of my kurtas by hitting my thighs. Talam, like sruthi, is very important. They are like the father and mother. One has to keep talam, particularly during the thani avarthanam.
How adventurous are you on stage when musical ideas strike?
It happens in every concert and sometimes it fails too. Yesterday I did a grahabhedam (a tonal shift) from Bilahari to Yamunakalyani – it happened on the spot. But sometimes it fails when you try to come back to the original raga. It’s like a ‘chakravyooh’, you know how to enter, but you don’t know how to exit, because sometimes you miss the aadhaarasruthi. But when you get this idea, you don’t want to let it go. It’s okay to fail because you learn from it. That’s why they say, fail cheap.
You have composed about 100 Pallavis. Can you speak about some of the special ones?
There’s a “saptha raga saptha thala saptha swara Pallavi”, in which the theme was based on the saptha swaras. So all the ragas that contain the names of the swaras were used – Poorna Shadjam, Rishabha Priya, Deva Gandhari, Simhendra Madhyamam, Lalitha Panchamam, Daivathangi Nishadam etc. Then, I also used saptha talas (the seven talas) – eka, roopakam, jampa, tripuda, ata etc. While doing it, I also had to come up with the numbers because they had to fit into each of these. It’s a mind-boggling exercise. After much thought, I fixed the number at 18, because it was divisible by all these angams. You have to do the math to come up with a theme like that.
Last year, I did the ‘Ashta Gowlai Pallavi’. Dikshitar has composed it in praise of goddess Nilolpalaamba in eight gowlas. So I sang that Pallavi with all the five nadais (pancha nadais) and pancha gathis as well. I come up with these thematic things on every occasion. I have also tuned about 25 compositions of Adi Shankaracharya, Meera, Purandaradasa and Annamacharya.
When you set text to music, do you look at the text and come up with the raga? Or is it the other way round?
Yes, I look at the text – what does it say and what’s the rasa. I have set to tune a composition in Vasanthi, which is a sad raga. This was Annamacharya’s last composition in which he goes to god, prays to him and reaches him.
If I compose it in Mohanam, which gives a happy feel, it doesn’t mean what the sahithyam says. You have to be careful about every word of the text and avoid misreading it, misrepresenting it, or breaking it in the middle. When I take any text, I refer to an expert on the sahithya to avoid padachedam (breaking the word). Since you sing in different languages, correcting the language is a continuous process – people do point out and help.
Any other innovation that you are working on?
There’s a thematic concert coming up on a TV channel on Anjaneya. I am trying to get all compositions of the masters on Lord Hanuman. Only a few of them have come to the concert arena. There’s another one on the great Tamil composer Papanasam Sivan, who has composed in every form – varnam, thillana, thalaattu, film songs, etc. We are putting together all that he has done.
The level of memory a musician like you requires, with a big repertoire of ragas and compositions, is immense. How do you manage that?
Remembering a raga, the arohanam, avarohanam, swaroopam, etc. have never been a problem. They are in our blood because of our years of learning. I did my first performance 25 years ago and have been learning music for about 30 years. When you learn new ragas, you add to that stock of memory.
Some ragas sound similar when some people sing – am not sure if it’s a problem with the listener or the singer. Say Hari Kamboji and Khamas; Poorvikalyani and Pantuvarali; Sudha Dhanyasi and Abheri…
The singer has to be careful about this. It happens because of the similarity of notes and phrases. You should avoid ambiguous phrases. For instance, Rishabhapriya can sound very much like Shanmughapriya, where the difference is only one note. Because Shanmughapriya is very famous, you cannot hold on to the phrases that are common to both. You have to avoid them as much as possible, although you cannot avoid all of them.
That’s the challenge when you take up rare ragas, because of its similarity with the more famous raga. When you introduce new ragas, they sound like some ragas known to you because of the familiarity. That’s where the singer’s skills come in.
No wonder successful Carnatic musicians are educated mostly in subjects that demand a lot of rigour and memory…
You need to be analytical and rational. Learning about 2000 compositions, and singing them, is not simple and requires a method. I don’t use any notes or devices while singing. You have to practise the sahithyam a lot because how much ever you practise, you may forget one or two lines, or a word, during the concert.
Does proficiency in science and math help in Carnatic music?
I think they are mutually applicable. I remember that after four hours of music classes at Lalgudi sir’s after school hours, preparing for an academic examination the next day used to be very easy. The brain would be so sharp that I could finish my studies in two hours. I think the rigour of music training helps with academics. It also helps you with discipline, internalising things like respect for other people, elders and women, and your overall character.
How many times do you practise a composition before you finally sing on stage?
After I learn it, about 30-40 times before I take it to the stage. When you learn a composition before the age of 20, it’s very easy to remember. But after you’re 20-25, the memory diminishes and that’s when you need to practise more.
How long do you take to learn a composition? Say a kriti?
It depends on the complexity and grandeur of the composition. There’s a composition called Mari Mari Ninne in Kamboji popularised by the Alathur brothers. It takes months. There may be some compositions you can master by singing a few times, sometimes even a couple of times. A familiar language and raga, lighter compositions etc. are easier because you already know the raga and you understand every word you sing.
Where do you learn new compositions from? And what’s the process?
Mostly from violin maestro Nagai Muraleedharan, and also recordings. He knows a lot of compositions by the Trinity and compositions that are often unheard of. He has learnt from gurus, by hearing from others, recordings, padantharam, etc. I also give my own spin to them. Certain styles will suit certain people. Style is created because of your strengths and weaknesses. While you avoid certain things, you can certainly create things anew. You are not memorising the composition, but learning it, and giving it your own spin.
How much emphasis do you give to bhavas such as bhakti?
Can anybody do a two-hour concert just by alaapana, without singing about god? Probably possible in Hindustani, where they do one or two lines. In Carnatic, let somebody try out two hours with just raga alaapana and swaras without any compositions. Will that work?
Yesterday when I sang Nee Mathi challaga in Ananda Bhairavi, I could literally see ambaal. So to me, music and the sahithyam are equally important. I strongly feel, every word I pronounce. I am a complete believer in god. I come from such a family. Every composition I sing is an offering to god. By singing Rajeevadhara, it is said Tyagaraja had revived a dead child. Such is the power of the song. I will never dissociate the bhava from the music. My ultimate goal is spiritual.
You are one of the famous disciples of Lalgudi Jayaraman. You have learned from others as well – particularly on different aspects of music. Could you please elaborate on your musical training?
My sister (Carnatic vocalist and Harikatha exponent Vishaka Hari) was learning from Srirangam Krishnamoorthy Rao at home when I was just four-years-old. Apparently, when he was teaching her the raga Ritigowla, I overheard it and repeated the phrase – SA GA GA MA MA NI NI SA. That’s how I started learning.
For the first couple of years, I was not too interested; subsequently I underwent formal training under Savithri Sathyamoorthy for some time and then got selected for a four-month crash course on manodharma under the great violin exponent Lalgudi Jayaraman, whose son was my father’s colleague. There were 14 of us, and his plan was to select one of us as his permanent student. I was fortunate to be selected. That was in 1992. For 20 years since then, I learned everything from him. I also learned a few padams and javalis from Geetha Raja and Nagai Muralidharan.
But many musicians don’t sing padams and javalis. Do they keep away from them because of the sringara and erotic nature?
Not really. They are classical. In the last part of a concert, singers want to give a lighter feel, but they are heavier and hence get avoided. In doing that, you are actually losing a lot of melodies. This season, I will be using a lot of javalis.
Are there enough padams and javalis in Tamil?
Mostly in Telugu. There are some in Tamil too.
Have you also been influenced by others, say past and present masters, from whom you haven’t directly learned?
Every musician has been influenced by the masters – GNB, Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur brothers etc. What I took from GNB is his analytical approach. He was an educated person, and it showed in his music. The concept of sruthibhetham was introduced by him; also the idea of porutham and madhyama kala singing.
What I learned from Semmangudi is that the concert should never be dull and that energy is very important. That’s when the audience also gets energised. From Madurai Mani Iyer, it’s kalpanaswaras. Nobody can beat the infinite possibilities of combinations.
From Alathur brothers, it’s the padantharam, and from Sanjay Subrahmanyan, his professionalism and ethics and the kind of hard work he puts in for every composition.
Any contemporary musicians who influenced you a lot?
Any contemporary musicians that you found compelling?
Abhishek and Kunnakkudi are my favourites. They are mind-boggling.
Any influences from other streams of music – Hindustani, jazz or western classical?
I listen to Hindustani and film music.
Because of the way he composes. For example, take the song Kandu Pudichen Kandu Pudichen (from the Tamil movie Guru Shishyan). It’s set in Subhapantuvarali, which is a raga with a lot of pathos, but see how he has made it playful. He makes a gana-type song in Subhapantuvarali, which is amazing.
Ilayaraja is a phenomenon. His music is beyond learning and training and all that – there’s something divine about him. He tunes so fast, which is impossible. I hear from my friends in film music that he writes the notes for instruments all by himself and doesn’t allow even one note to be changed.
In Hindustani music?
Rashid Khan and Pandit Venkatesh Kumar are my favourites.
Do you employ some of their techniques?
Yes, absolutely! The way they give importance to the tharasthayi shadjam. Typically only few Carnatic musicians have given that kind of importance to it, except Madurai Mani Iyer. They imagine the note to be a circle, and hit right at the centre of every note. Also the Akaraam. Less of Akaaram in Carnatic. Those are the things I try.
The vibrato, gamaka techniques, those tans?
We have a lot of gamakas, but they give a lot of importance to sudhaswaras. Also, a lot more oscillation. Tans give importance to Akaraam. You need to practise for that.
Do you have any favourite ragas? What are the most common ragas that you may have sung the most?
My favourites keep changing. Every time you prepare for a concert, you fall in love with certain ragas. Anandabhairavi, Sahana and Neelambari are among my current favourites. You savour every note in those ragas. Earlier, it used to be the big five. Now I have fallen in love with vilambit ragas, ragas that are naturally vilambit.
Are you open to singing in movies?
Only if it’s purely Carnatic. In regular playback singing, you may start producing false voices, modulation etc. Ours is open-throated.
Do you keep track of the politics of music, such as the charges that Carnatic music is Brahminical and exclusive?
There are enough examples and names to show that they are baseless. All that matters is quality.