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Bhaav, bhakti, buoyancy

Aruna Sairam is all set for her first abhang concert in Chennai

Aruna Sairam will present a concert titled "The wisdom of Vittala" on November 18.

Aruna Sairam has always enjoyed singing a reverberant abhang or two in her Carnatic music concerts. But at The Hindu Friday Music Festival she offers an exclusive recital of abhangs, a first time experience for the artiste. Her "full bench" concert features accompanists from the north and the south. Percussionists Aneesh Pradhan (tabla), Prakash Shejawal (pakhawaj) and Pradip Rath (cymbals) join K. Murugabhoopathy (mridangam) and S.V. Ramani (ghatam). Sudhir Naik plays the harmonium while H. N. Bhaskar offers support on the violin.

What drew Aruna to this genre? "Growing up in Bombay was to hear abhangs from childhood — on the street, marketplace, bus, and during pujas at home." Her mother had a marble altar for her cherished images of Radha and Krishna, and invited abhang groups of different styles on celebratory occasions. She even engaged a traditional abhang guru to teach Aruna. He taught her not just the verses, but also the lines suitable for elaboration, and the techniques of accentuating "usi", its singular, irresistible offbeat rhythm. Young Aruna unfailingly watched the Sunday harikatha slots on Doordarshan, where experts narrated stories of Namdev, Tukaram, Gnaneshwar, or Pandharpur, with abhangs to illustrate and heighten the mood. "Though I was learning Carnatic music, abhangs were always running through my head, as part of the milieu. Since I know Marathi, I relished their intense bhaav all the more."

Abhang singing demands a grasp of many things. Ragas don't change definitively, they fade into one another. The rhythms are dynamic and dramatic. Each word of the song carries resonance. Knowledge of the life story of the saint composer evokes deeper feeling. Exposure to a range of styles is essential to develop one's own approach. A strong voice with a resonant timbre is a must, and here Aruna scores easily.

Bhajans focus on the inward journey. Abhangs are more exuberant expressions of the communitarian experience. "I'm drawn to abhangs because they are sung by pilgrims on their journey to the temples on foot. They dance, carry dolis, play the dholak and cymbals, and everyone joins in the chorus. This procession makes an undulating visual. I feel its pulsating rhythms and ecstasy when I sing abhangs." Her own visit to Pandharpur as a young girl has remained with her. That memory is at the core of her love for the genre.

Aruna is inspired by Bhimsen Joshi's approach. "He moulds the abhang to his classical style, without sacrificing its vital buoyancy."

Did she have to change her perspective to switch from Carnatic music to abhang singing? "It's not that I have to re-invent myself. I've been singing abhangs since childhood." She notes that they have a mesmerising power, appealing to everyone from the traditional Mylapore homemaker to globetrotting professionals.

Is she apprehensive about her first all-abhang concert in Chennai? "No," she replies. "The genre is not new to me, and I have been working towards its exclusive presentation. Besides, I have complete faith in the songs. The words of Namdev, Janabai, Tukaram and Gnaneshwar cannot fail to move hearts."

* * *

`Abhang was part of my training' -- ARUNA SAIRAM


What feature would you single out in abhang singing as most exciting?

The lyrics are so personal — the poet speaks with ruthless honesty — about himself or herself, about the world around, and ultimately about God. The rhythms enhance this quality — the emphasis is on the usi beat, the offbeat really. As you hear the abhang singer, you realise that both the word and its rhythm are equally important. In fact, the word gets its added import from the rhythm allotted to it. My guru drew my attention to this fact — and also told me how to choose the line for improvisation, it had to have something special in its meaning, its sound and beat. Minute details had to be taken into account in this process of elaboration.

Can abhang singing be learnt in a classroom? Doesn't it require the experience of group singing?

Constant listening is necessary to absorb any genre of music. With abhangs, I was lucky. I was exposed to many styles of abhang singing in Bombay such as Naradiya and Varkari paddhatis. I absorbed their nuances naturally, spontaneously. The frequent bhajans organised by my mother brought abhang singers to my home. So this style was as much a part of my musical learning as was classical music.

What would you single out as unique to this style?

The swaying movements of the dancing pilgrims journeying to Pandharpur energise the rhythms and melodies of the abhangs they sing. Their ecstatic movements vary according to the kind of road they travel. Such changes inhere in the beats, such shifts are revealed in the way one raga glides into another. Yes, I know Marathi. That helps immeasurably in empathising with the genre. Also, Tamils have a connection to abhangs through their own Thanjavur tradition. So, when I sing an abhang, I don't feel that I'm doing something that is distanced from my background.

* * *

Presenting sponsor: Geojit Financial Services Ltd.

Associate sponsors: Bose, Kingfisher Airlines, RmKV, AVT Premium

Hospitality sponsor: Taj Connemara

Event manager: Show Space

For tickets

Season tickets: Rs. 2,500 and Rs. 1,500. Daily tickets: Rs. 500, Rs. 300 and Rs. 100. Available at Landmark (Nungambakkam, Spencer Plaza, Citi Center). To book online: log on to


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