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Odyssey of a musician

SAVITHA GAUTAM

Aruna Sairam went down memory lane tracing the years back in Mumbai.

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Musical odyssey: Aruna Sairam.

“My earliest memory of music was listening to my mother’s voice as she sat in front of the Radha-Krishna idols in the little marble temple at home, singing Meera bhajans to ‘wake up’ the Lord. I used to sleep in that room and her voice would envelope the atmosphere,” said Aruna Sairam at ‘My Musical Journey,’ an event organised by Sruti magazine to commemorate its 25th anniversary. She sang the bhajan which her mother used to sing for the select gathering, a pattern which she followed throughout the event where she recalled the contribution of all her gurus in shaping her unique singing style.

The Carnatic vocalist spoke about her musical odyssey which began in a 750 sq.ft. apartment in Mumbai. “My parents were artistically inclined. Visitors for us meant musicians, dancers, Harikatha exponents and so on. So the atmosphere at home was charged with artistic sensibilities.”

Classical training

That Aruna began her classical training under her mother Rajalakshmi Sethuraman is common knowledge. “She would always encourage me to innovate and try out something new,” remembered Aruna. But it was under the legendary T. Brinda that Aruna bloomed. “Brindamma stayed with us for two months to teach senior vocalists. I was initially never allowed into that room. I would sit in the next room and listen to them. After a while, she allowed me to sit near the door of the room. Then one day, she asked me to sing with the group. My joy knew no bounds.” It was much later that Brinda took Aruna under her wing.

“You know, she never taught me to sing ragam. I would sing and she would comment on various aspects but she would never sing and teach any ragam. That was because she, like most teachers of the time, never wanted her students to become her clone. She wanted me to create an identity of my own. Also, we were not allowed to take down notations when she taught us. We had to write them down later by memory. This, she said improved our analytical skills as well as memory for lyrics.”

Mastering swara kalpanas

If her lessons with Brindamma taught Aruna to sing with bhava, her stint with A.S. Mani helped her in mastering swara kalpanas. Her ‘training’ under veena vidwan K.S. Narayanaswamy taught Aruna “the logic behind every gamaka.” Her gamaka in Thodi illustrated her point.

“Then there was T.R. Subramaniam, who egged me on to join the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi for a formal degree in Music. It was under his guidance that I learnt the nuances of pallavi singing, something I was always apprehensive about.”

Talking about how she introduced abhang to the concert platform, she said, “I was initially hesitant. Then it struck me that classical music is steeped in devotion. And so are abhangs. That when I decided to add abhangs to my repertoire.” She sang “Theertha vittala,” the first ever abhang she had learnt, much to the audience’s delight. “I had been trained by stalwarts, but when it came to concert presentation, I was a novice. When I came to Chennai in 1973 to perform for the first time in the junior slot at the Music Academy, I was a nervous wreck. I had no clue how to plan a concert. But with sage advice from my gurus and friends, I slowly found my way. What’s more, those days I would only see vacant chairs, no heads. But with time and experience, things got better,” recalled the ever-smiling singer.

Interesting anecdote

However, the most interesting anecdote that evening was how she learnt Oothukadu Venkatasubbier’s Kalinga Narthana thillana, one of her sought-after renditions. “I had heard the piece as a child, but had never learnt it. A few years ago, I got a recording of this thillana by chance. I was travelling to Switzerland at that time. So I took the tape with me. There, I stayed with a Swiss couple. They had a cowshed and it was here that I practised the thillana for a week. My first audience for that thillana? The famous fat Swiss cows! But somehow, it seemed apt. It was a fantastic experience.”

Her collaboration with Dominique Vellard, the French medieval music scholar, was another high point in her career, Aruna mused. “I was truly fortunate to have so many gurus, each one a master in his or her own right. I owe everything to them.”

However, her concluding line, “Music is a way of life for me,” said it all.

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