If you have visited Kalakshetra to watch any of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s famed dance dramas, you would have heard the melodious and pitch perfect voice of Palghat K. Sai Sankar – a musician who has been teaching music at Kalakshetra for the past 28 years. An uncompromising musician and teacher, Professor Sai Sankar represents a generation of musicians who have remained low profile but dedicated to the musical heritage they have inherited.
Who were your teachers and mentors?
I started my training under S. Krishna Iyer from Palghat. In 1978, after my tenth standard, I joined Kalakshetra and was under vidwans Puducode K. Krishnamurthy, M.D. Ramanathan and Vairamangalam S. Lakshminarayanan.
Please tell us about your training in Kalakshetra.
I was lucky to study in Kalakshetra at a time when the learning was systematic and structured but had the freedom of a gurukulam. We followed the sampradaya very closely. I did my 5-year diploma training followed by two years of post-graduate studies and graduated with a first class.
When did you first sing for Bharatanatyam and who trained you?
In 1979, I sang for my first dance drama in Kalakshetra – Buddha Avataram. I was trained by Kamala Rani teacher. I also sang for Krishnaveni Lakshmanan’s solo programsme for many years. I have sung for Prof. Ambika Buch, Prof. Janardhanan and Prof. Balagopalan over the last two decades.
You have sung in almost all of Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas. Which ones are your favourite?
Without a doubt, the Ramayana series. The opening song Vageesa is my favourite. I like many compositions. An example from Sita Swayamvara is Ravana’s song in Gambheera Nattai. In Vanagamana, Dasaratha’s song in the raga Chittabramari is beautiful. In Paduka Pattabhisekham, there is a rare raga Gangalahari sung when Guha takes Rama, Sita and Lakshmana across the Ganga.
Was it a conscious decision to sing only for artistes in Kalakshetra?
Not at all. It just happened that I got involved with work in Kalakshetra and our artistes were performing widely so I got busy. I never had any career plan for myself!
Do you feel it is easy to be both a vocalist for Bharatanatyam and a solo kutcheri performer?
It requires a different mindset. To sing in a kutcheri, you need to spend the time to plan the concert and be in constant practice, as manodharma plays a large role. It is important to be in touch with kalpanaswara singing and niraval so that it flows on stage. As a musician for natya, I need to keep the dancer’s needs in mind and feel comfortable with the dance vocabulary.
What do you feel about the overuse of light ragas in today’s dance repertoire and productions?
That is a trend that must be checked. If it continues, what will happen to the traditional ragas and our music sampradaya? After all, Bharatanatyam grew along with classical music. It is part of the classical natya tradition. It adds depth to a dancer’s performance. What a Sankarabharanam, Kambhoji or Sriranjani can do for the depth of a Bharatanatyam recital cannot be underestimated.
How important is it to plan the sequence of ragas in a Bharatanatyam margam performance?
It is as important as planning the theme or emotion of each piece. Ideally you should have a repertoire where similar ragas don’t follow each other. For example, plan one raga with a prati-madhyam following a raga with suddha madhamam, as in Sankarabharanam or a raga scale with audava- shadava. This will be pleasing to the ear. The same should be attempted with choice of talas. Having a variety of talas in a programme will add flavour. This planning is of course the same for a kutcheri. In a natya programme, other factors like the emotion of the piece and the situation the dancer is portraying play a part in the choice.
Personally I feel that the main item in a Bharatanatyam repertoire should be in a heavy raga. A raga like Hameerkalyani, for example, as a main piece would not be so effective.
Have you received any awards or prizes for your singing?
I received an award from Krishna Gana Sabha and Natyarangam (Narada Gana Sabha) for best vocalist a few years ago.
Any advice for aspiring vocalists for Bharatanatyam?
My advice is to have sound training in Carnatic music and learn the songs with care. Sometimes learning only from cassettes and bad recordings results in mistakes which get reinforced. Whatever item it is, a padavarnam or javali or padam, musicians should learn it with proper notation first. We can include sangatis after that, but the original composition should be preserved.