It has been an eventful year for Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, especially as she performed at the Ojai Music Festival in California, the first Carnatic musician to do so in the 70 years of the festival’s history. We caught up with the singer, where she opened up on her musical journey, Margazhi memories and more. Excerpts…
Tell us about growing up and learning Carnatic music in Mumbai…
I remember that one day I was watching a film with my parents, and the next day, someone like Balamuraliji (M Balamuralikrishna) visiting us at home and engaging all of us in some very serious discussion on Carnatic music. Then Odissi exponent Sanjukta Panigrahi and her husband Raghunath Panigrahi were regulars at our house in Bombay. When they come home, the conversations would eventually turn to music and dance, and Sanjukta would do some abhinaya as Raghunathji sings. So, I grew up in the midst of rich music and dance culture. Also, my exposure was not just limited to music and dance. Even harikatha exponents used to come home and tell stories. My mother was also a musician and she taught me music till I became a disciple of Sangeetha Kalanidhi T Brinda
Do you think life would have been different if you grew up in Chennai?
I accept life as it unfolds. What was wonderful about my childhood was the maestros walking into my life and influencing me. I met artistes from across the country in Bombay, and that was special. Had I been in Madras, I would have met another set of maestros, may be all of them would have been Carnatic musicians. That’s all the difference would have been.
So, at what point of time did you feel that you should come and settle down here?
Music has always been something like ‘life and breath’ for me. But I had my children growing up in Bombay. So, till the time they were old enough to do things on their own, I didn’t want to move from there and settle down in another city. But that didn’t stop me from performing in different cities. Since I was in Bombay, I often had opportunities to perform in Delhi and Calcutta as well. I would also come to perform in Madras during every Margazhi. It’s just that I was not settled here. And I was gradually considered among my peers as somebody to watch out for. And by 1980s, I was also performing a lot in Europe. But after my children grew up and were old enough to be independent, I also had this thought seeping into my mind that it was time to go settle down in Madras and rub shoulders with the top-notch musicians here. And my husband, too, agreed to it immediately. That’s how I moved here. Now, it’s been 15 years.
Tell us about how you feel becoming the first Carnatic musician to perform at Ojai Music Festival in California…
Oh! That was simply an amazing experience. This year, it was the 70th edition of the festival. It is a place where the best in music congregate every year. The curators told me that they wanted hardcore Carnatic music that I would perform for the audience in Chennai. So, I did a typical Carnatic concert with my regular accompaniments — mridangam, violin and ghatam. Many in audience were hearing Carnatic music for the first time. But it was well received by the audience and they all liked it so much that I was invited for the next edition even before I boarded the flight from Ojai.
Being the vice-chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, how do you think it helps you to look beyond music to other art forms as well?
I travel to the remortest parts of the country and witness art forms that are from those places. Being the vice-chairman of Sangeeth Natak Akademi, I interact not just with musicians, but with dancers and theatre artistes as well. The art forms that we handle are not restricted to classical, but every form of performing arts in the country. It is commendable that many of these artistes from remote villages give their best to preserve the art forms despite their financial difficulties. We are also trying to put in place schemes that gives them sustainability financially.
Any young Carnatic musicians you look forward to listening?
There are several of them including, Nisha Rajagopal, Abhishek Raghuram, Sandeep Narayan and Saketharaman, to name a few. What is amazing about these young musicians is that they’re really serious about music. Five minutes into their concerts, you’ll realise how much time and energy they would’ve put in to raise the standard of their performances. And that’s really appreciable.
What are the challenges while performing back-to-back concerts, especially during Margazhi season?
I ensure that I don’t exceed doing a certain number of concerts during Margazhi. This season, I am doing only six concerts. For me, before and after a concert, I need at least a day or two’s break. The physical and emotional investment that you put in for a concert is so much that it almost takes equal amount of time to unwind. So, make it a point to perform only once or twice a week during Margazhi.
How do you choose pieces for a typical Margazhi concert?
Since Margazhi is the season during which the activities are at its peak, I choose the best of my compositions for my concerts. Now, I am composing a new one for my Academy concert on December 28. But before you get started with complex pieces, you need to set the mood of the concert. For that, I do one or two pieces. Also, I ensure that the elements of musical trinity — Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri — are performed during my concerts.
Any interaction that you can recall with the legendary Carnatic vocalist M Balamuralikrishna, who passed away this year?
There is this one incident which is still etched in my memory and it talks volumes about his personality. I was in Bombay then and I was still finding my way as a singer. I met him at a seminar. He was one of the speakers at the seminar. After so much hesitation and fear that he might spurn me away, I went up to him and introduced myself as Brinda amma’s student and told him that I wanted to meet him for so long. He replied, ‘Oh! You’re T Brinda’s student. You’re Aruna Sairam and you’re introducing you to me. I’ve heard about you. You really don’t have to introduce yourself to me. So, when are you coming to meet?’ For me, as a struggling musician then, it meant so much to hear that from a senior musician.
Tell us about your most memorable Margazhi moment…
This incident happened at the Music Academy. I was performing in the pre-evening slot which was held for budding artistes. I was yet to make it to the senior slot. So, that was like a ‘make or break’ concert. Had I performed well in that concert, I would have been invited to perform in the main slot next year. The concert was going on well and it was time for me to wind up. And back then, the academy was so strict that they insisted the artiste started and finished the concert on time. When the time was up, a long bell would ring and the curtains come down. I was singing a virutham, a free flowing poem and then thought of finishing the concert with another composition. But as the time finished, I didn’t want to embarrass myself with the curtain coming down while I was singing. So, I finished the virutham and improvised with a namaskaram at the end of it. But least expected, the audience gestured not to bring the curtain down and then gave me a standing ovation. That meant a lot to me. And next year, I was invited to perform in the senior slot.
Any other memorable gesture by the audience?
This one which happened at a concert at Amsterdam is one of most unforgettable incidents. In Europe, the organisers generally don’t encourage people to come to back stage to meet the artiste. But in India, I am used to meeting hundreds of them after the concert. That’s when you realise how well the concert was received by the audience. So, in Amsterdam, when people didn’t come and meet me after the concert, I thought they didn’t like it. But as I was walking to the main door while leaving the concert hall, I could see many people standing outside the hall with their cycles. I thought they were going for some cycle ride. As I stepped outside the main they all raised the front front wheel in unison as they were giving me a cycle salute. It was a silent applause, but the silence of the applause was so deafening. I was so touched by their gesture.