Padma Shri awardee and Sangita Kalanidhi Aruna Sairam is the reigning queen of classical music and an authentic representation of the long lineage of women singers from South India. She has absorbed the finer nuances of Western and Hindustani music to beautify her performance, but ultimately it is her own aesthetic sense that makes all the difference. The leading light of Carnatic music enthralls listeners and transports them to a divine spiritual realm experiencing the joy of the blissful music as they feel the pure emotions and soulfully connect with her Abhangs. Carnatic music’s most prominent vocalist, Aruna Sairam talks to RITZ in an exclusive interview as she reminisces her journey, love for music and what it takes to be a Carnatic singer.
Text: Ancy Donal Madonna
How did your journey begin and who was your inspiration?
It wasn’t all inspiration in the beginning; it was a lot of perspiration I should say, because it was like getting up every morning and practicing, and as a kid, you just don’t want to wake up early to do singing exercises. So it wasn’t all that pleasant but after some time everything became a habit and I started developing a taste. So slowly I got used to the idea of singing and here I am.
Did you always know that music would be your career?
Very late, after my children were born and when I was well into domestic life, that’s when it hit me but by the time my responsibilities were far too many for me to embark on it full time. So I had to wait for some more years to full-fledgedly fling myself into it. So it was a long story!
Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something else? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing?
I was always good at academics and after my Bachelor of Science, I thought well if I can’t sing professionally let me become a teacher. So I pursued my Bachelor of Education but it was short-lived and I gave up after some time. So it was a very chequered story.
How do you think you have grown as a musician since you first started?
Well, it’s been a long process of development up till sometime in my life, music was love, passion and accomplishment which was there in addition to living a regular life of a homemaker. It was much later that it became a burning passion and my profession. After that I realized that I have much to grow, whatever I know was still not enough to enable me to become a very seasoned concert artist. So the learning process continues even today.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected challenge to it?
The surprise is the kind of acknowledgment that I have received. I was not prepared for it and didn’t think people would take to my music and love what I did. So that’s the blessing from Him.
Every day I had to keep polishing my skills and awareness to meet the demand of the audience because the audience here are well educated and they know a lot. On the other hand, there are also people who don’t know anything about music but just come listen. So the real challenge arises here because you have to present a very heavy duty classical form communicated to people who don’t know a thing about it and also attract them and have them reverted to their seats. So even if you want to please the pundits or satisfy the rasikas it is a challenge.
So where did your love for music first come from?
I never lost touch with music, it was just the level of frequency as once in a while I do concerts. I started going to Europe for performances and that was a huge learning curve, when I saw the professionalism of the artists there I was so inspired and decided that I should be doing this for my life.
You have performed in many places in India and other countries. Which city or state in India and abroad do you like the most?
If I wear different hats I like different things, but the baseline is ‘Namma Chennai’. To get the applause and standing ovation from the audience here is so difficult and that makes me very happy because I know that I have done something worthwhile. But when I visited different countries I realized they listen to music from different perspectives like in Paris in Theatre de la Ville after the performance they all stood up on the chair and hooted and I was so amused.
You have performed thematic concerts with National and International musicians. Which collaboration do you cherish the most?
Again each experience is a learning experience because when I performed with a French colleague Dominique Vellard, I learned the value of practice and repetition and how he prepares for a concert. So that is what I gained from him apart from developing a taste for that kind of music. But when I performed with Shankar Mahadevan and Zahir Hussain, I found them playful and cool so that’s the quality I picked up from them as I tend to get nervous before a performance. So every time you perform with an artist you tend to learn something, improve and get inspired.
You have been bestowed with a lot of awards and recognitions including the recent ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ for your excellence in music. So how do you feel about it?
I feel validated and acknowledged and at the same time, I know that none of this would have been possible without my acquaintances. So in the makeup of any individual, there are thousands of little nuggets of things that happen to shape you and I feel grateful for each one of them.
There is a perception that Carnatic music is an ancient tradition so would you say there have been substantial changes in the format over the years or have the changes been organic and consistent with the way things were?
Yeah, the system of ragas, talas, and all the lyrics in a Carnatic composition are still either spiritual or devotional oriented you don’t find any mundane or profane lyrics in Carnatic music. However modern we get and perform with a guitar, drum or double base that aspect has not changed. I worked with a band Agam who does Carnatic fusion and even they sing Tyagaraja’s piece and are doing fusion with it.
How has music changed over the years?
Well, there are so many young artists now who are talented and they bring in the whole young scene to the Carnatic field today. And there are a lot of collaborators doing fusion concerts and we see more of them at weddings too. So yeah there are a lot of changes.
Do you change according to your audience’s expectations over the years?
Of course, I do change because I believe that going into an auditorium is to sing and communicate with the audience. I always go one or two days before and try to get to know the place, culture, language, and their likes as it gives me the intuition of what should be presented. So that’s how I came up with a Hebrew song for a performance in Israel and the audience were in tears.
The younger generation is all into western music and do you think this will bring down Carnatic music?
I think Carnatic is too strong to be brought down that easily. Yes time will change and the way we work with Carnatic will go through transformations but the music itself has survived and has grown and I’m sure it will grow.
When people speak of performers, the comparison between artistes has always been divided by gender. And this holds true even today. Why do you feel this is so?
The tendency of comparing a female voice with another female voice and vise versa is normal. But I feel that when you are growing as an artist you should take inspiration not only from artists of your gender but from both genders. I think because both these perspectives are very refreshingly different and are necessary.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
A love for music, if they love music everybody can be inspired to listen to more Carnatic music and come for concerts. I want people to come and find out what Carnatic music is and not rather say I don’t know anything about it. So that is the spirit and if I can contribute to inculcate that in the audience, my life is made!
How do you prepare yourself on the day of a concert?
My routine is to practice music and prepare my body and mind. On concert days all my preparations will be in the morning and I get ready three hours before a performance so I don’t sing or talk much before the performance and try to stay calm.
How did you develop your sense of style?
I didn’t pay much attention to attire till a friend of mine took me to an artist who taught me the aesthetics and impressed me on the importance of looks when you appear in public. Since then I have been conscious of my dressing and developed my own sense of style.
There was never a goal, nothing in my childhood pushed me to become a concert artist. Everything what I am today is for the love of music!
When I was in Paris for a chamber concert, I noticed that the theatre had a poor audience as there were no takers for Carnatic vocal. It was perceived as an alien art form. Being a votary of such eminent form of music, I couldn’t accept it and it pushed me to prove what Carnatic music is all about. So that was my striking moment!