In her conversation with Sruti, the Sangita Kalanidhi designate traced her career briefly, from her early days with her guru M.L. Vasanthakumari, through the period that followed MLV’s death, to her present status as one of the most popular stars of Carnatic music. She exudes an air of confidence tempered by her innate humility and friendliness. While acknowledging the need to reflect and introspect after achieving the pinnacle in Carnatic music in terms of recognition, she did speak of the vast learning ahead of her, mainly by adding to her repertoire and improving her technical prowess as in the area of ragam-tanam-pallavi.
What does this award mean to you?
It means everything. It gives you the angeekaram, it is the seal of approval – that you have been moving in the right direction, and gives you that responsibility and frame of mind to pursue it further. It asserts, “You have been on the right path, travelling towards a goal, and here we are to recognise that.” It gives me greater happiness, because the year I was awarded the scholarship to go to study with MLV Amma was the year she was made Sangita Kalanidhi – in 1977. I was there looking at her with stars in my eyes at the Music Academy. We don’t work towards awards, but we try to do things the right way. In this journey, the kutcheri is a test every time.
Are you a nervous starter at concerts?
Not a nervous starter, but aware of the need for the right takeoff, audio, voice. Your ideas have to be right. Everything comes tumbling down into your brain. Even today, when the curtain goes up, the bell rings, there is that uneasy sensation in the pit of the stomach. Butterflies!
Will the title make a difference to the way you sing? Is this a time for you to pause and take stock?
Truly so. It will make me introspect, think about what more I can do for the art form, how I can chisel my style a little more, take off the rough edges, make it sound more elevating.
More meditative, perhaps?
Yes, but people have already started noticing it.
Is there anything you want to do better?
I’d like to improve overall, perhaps take up ragas I haven’t sung thus far. In my thirteen years with my guru, there were some ragas I never heard her sing. Nor did her guru sing some of those. “Sobhikkaatho ennavodi?” she would say, fearing that her rendition of those ragas would lack sheen. I should have the courage to handle all ragas.
Who were your mentors after your guru’s death?
I did not approach anybody else for a while for fear my style would change. In my notion, my music was still not fully formed. I was mature enough to handle it, but I wanted to wait for a few years. That is when Calcutta Krishnamurthi Sir said I could learn new kritis from his pathantara. He was very fond of me. He had just lost his son Ravi, then.
What difference did that make to your music?
It did not change anything, but enhanced, reiterated the belief that the GNB-MLV style was right for me. He always talked about saukhyam, little nuances one could add. He encouraged, emboldened me to sing some ragas, he made me more creative, made me go beyond what MLV had given me. “Make a path for yourself,” he said, “don’t be happy and satisfied with what you imbibed from MLV. Move forward. Your voice is different from hers. Exploit your voice.”
What regimen do you follow to look after your voice?
I try to stay quiet after continuous concerts, or when I feel there is a tickle in the voice. I am completely off cold and sour stuff, especially during the season, careful about what I eat.
Do you still listen to MLV and GNB?
Very much, especially ragas.
What about someone like Kalyanaraman?
Yes. I listen to him a lot – if I want to listen to ragas like Manoranjani, Ranjani, or Rasikapriya. His approach has a different texture.
Do you follow GNB’s step by step method of raga alapana, especially in ragam-tanam-pallavi?
I follow that in concerts of sufficient length. Now concerts are so compressed, with so many audience expectations like Dasar kritis, tillanas, Tamil kritis or ragamalika, so the time available is short. Sometimes the concert structure gets skewed as a result. The pakkavadyam artists sometimes take as long as I do. A tani avartanam by two percussionists takes at least 15 minutes. We have to meander within the space they give us. When they give us the space, and the whole evening is ours, then we can indulge in manodharma.
How often do you get a chance like that? Abroad or here?
Yes, abroad, and at 3-hour concerts in Mumbai, at Shanmukhananda or Fine Arts, Chembur. I recently gave a 4-hour concert at Chembur, a special Independence Day concert. Otherwise, you do feel the pressure of time, looking at the clock and trying to move forward.
How do you handle audience demands?
Sometimes they become very repetitive. I used to heed them, try to please them until about two years ago. Some listeners complain, “I came for this song or that and you never sang it.” You feel hurt that you sang for three hours, and they speak of the five minutes you did not sing. It was a kind of guilt trip. Nowadays, I give them suitable replies, like, “I have sung your request in tapes, you must have heard it many times. I will oblige you next time.” I stick to my plan.
Is ragam-tanam-pallavi your forte?
It isn’t really my forte. I am not a great expert, but what I do I try to do well. Dwitalam, four-raga pallavis, thematic pallavis like Dasavataram. I can’t claim to be an expert.
Do you want to consult experts?
Yes. That’s one area I can work on and should – go to an expert, start experimenting and do a little more innovation in that area. That would be very interesting. When I teamed up with flautist Shashank the other day at the Bharat Sangeet Utsav, we did not do the usual trikalam, but went to 1-kalai and then did trikalam.
How did this idea of pairing with Shashank come about?
Usually Shashikiran asks me to do something different. I sang with Balamuralikrishna Sir once. Another year, I did a national integration concert.
How was your rapport with Shashank, given that he is a youngster and an instrumentalist?
I was nervous. The flute can really overshadow the voice. It offers much more variety. The voice has its limitations. Everybody who knows music was skeptical about the idea of the concert. They thought Shashank would overshadow me. Why are you flirting with danger, they asked.
Wouldn’t you have a sruti problem with the flute?
Yes, it is a problem. We managed, as it was a fairly short concert. He is a sensitive artist. He adjusted and we tried to give in to each other.
What is your sruti?
My sruti used to be 5.5 kattai ,but it is now 5, but I switch to 5.5 on and off. Shashank didn’t have a flute for 5. So I sang at 5.5.
Is singing a divine experience, or a fun thing?
It is certainly a fun thing. Eventually there may be days when you do reach an exalted point in a concert – when there’s no audience, no you, only the one line you are singing exists.
Such an experience can occur at practice, maybe?
Sometimes when you are practising, you’re just crying while the sruti goes on. Because you touched some sangati you have never done before; you’re nervous about doing it on stage, and you get it. It’s a eureka moment.
Can a eureka moment happen on the concert stage?
It’s absolutely thrilling when it happens on stage. Sometimes you have done a swara passage and you think you can’t go beyond it. You land correctly with perfect sruti. You feel a saukhyam, peace, a feeling of liberation.
Can it be a communal feeling on stage?
Sometimes the accompanists utter a bhesh or bale on stage. Sometimes they may be restrained on stage, but later recall that moment when everything stood still. Sometimes the little interval between two phrases matters so much. It happened at a recent Brussels concert. My accompanists were Raghavendra Rao (violin), Skandasubramaniam (mridangam), Guruprasad (ghatam) and Raman (morsing). It was a studio concert at the 300-seater at Flagee, which hosted the Europalia India festival. The concert was at 12.30. I said to them, “Who will come at this time? Let’s be our own audience and applaud each other.” When we entered, the hall was full. How they listened! The predominantly European audience focused on little phrases, tiny pauses. I could feel it. It was a meditative experience. I felt absolute peace, without the paraparappu, the anxiety to do briga flourishes, rush through sangatis and finish the concert. The accompanists said they too felt the mood.
After the concert, a dignified looking person came to me and said, “I came all the way from India to listen to this concert.” I knew this person but could not place him. He said “I’m Lalit Mansingh. The concert was out of this world.” He said MLV once stormed into his office when he was Director General of ICCR and said, “What wrong have I done to you? Why do you not send me abroad on concert tours?” Mansingh added, “Maybe we made a mistake there, I know we fell short of her expectations, but I’m glad her music lives through you.”
MLV Amma did have such feelings of hurt. She used to wonder aloud if people did not consider her worthy of honours.
What have you added to what you learnt from MLV?
Maybe a little more visranti, more spacing? I never felt that I could ever reproduce what she did with her music. She was a genius. However much I listened to her, and tried to reproduce her music, I knew I fell short somewhere. But then of course when I open my mouth you know I’m her sishyati. The stamp is unmistakable.
To follow my own path was not a deliberate plan, but just happened. Also, for the first few years after her death, her impact was great, as I was always listening to her. I was almost a carbon copy, then. I could not think beyond those sangatis. (Demonstrates Mohanam). Now I have come out of that. I try to mix GN Sir and MLV Amma. I do longer phrases on the sa or pa, try to be more karvai-oriented.
Have you reduced the briga element a bit?
I think so. The pace of the kritis has come down a bit. (Demonstrates niraval on Raka sasi vadana, to show how she has slowed down) That hair’s breadth makes a big difference.
Why are you still performing after more than three decades? What does it really mean to you? Is it the fame that keeps you going?
Music is a part of me. I am not performing to achieve more fame. I have much more to achieve. I sing because I love it, I am never bored with it. Suddenly, I come across a Dasarpada when I browse through my song book, and find it so good that I sit and tune it. I know Kannada, so I know the meaning. There are so many, many kritis that I still don’t know. When you start learning new kritis, it opens up a whole new world. It is sheer joy. In the past, every artist was known for kritis of his parampara – GN for Ragasudharasa, Kiranavali, or Gavati, MLV for Shanmukhapriya, or Baro Krishnayya, Semmangudi for Kharaharapriya, or Mayamalavagaula. They stayed within a territory in their journey. Today’s audience wants you to do much more, it wants you to do collaborations, thematic concerts, sing one raga for the whole evening, pay a tribute to Tyagaraja or do a concert of melakartas and their janya ragas. There’s so much more to learn.