Introspective. Dedicated. Fiercely Determined. That’s Saili Oak, a young, talented vocalist from the Jaipur gharana. We had a series of free-wheeling conversations with her about her Guru Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, and her journey of self-discovery through music.
How did your interest in music come about?
I come from a family of accountants, so my exposure to classical music was minimal. I was about three when my uncle bought me a keyboard, that I played incessantly. Later, I learnt to play the harmonium. Along the way, I discovered that I enjoyed singing, so after 10th grade, my aunt, who was Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande’s neighbor, set up an introduction. After that, there was no looking back.
Do you remember that first meeting with Ashwini Tai?
Yes! I sang Raga Yaman, after which she agreed to take me on for a trial period of 5–6 months. By then, I had listened to her recordings. I was spellbound and determined to learn from her.
I was diligent in my practice, and went back to her with questions, which she thought was very resourceful. Within the first few months, she accepted me as her student.
Did you learn from Manik Tai (Ashwini Tai’s mother)?
In the early formative years, Manik Tai taught me when Ashwini Tai was traveling, for consistency. Manik Tai was a perfectionist with infinite patience. The bandish had to be reproduced exactly the way she sang it, note for note. Manik Tai’s stress on perfect reproducibility was her way of preserving the essence of the gharana, which makes sense, considering that Indian music is an oral tradition.
Could you tell us more about the learning process?
I began by learning small pieces in Kedar, Durga. Over a period of time, I was trained enough to be able to make my own taans and alap. My first classical music competition was at Sharada Sangeet Vidyalaya, about 3 months after I started learning from Ashwini Tai.
It was a while before we started vilambit khyal. It gave me a lot of pleasure to revisit ragas that I had learnt earlier. For example, in Bhoop I had learnt “Sakhi Madhura Madhura” but when I started learning “Prathama Sura Sadhe” which was heavily influenced by Kishori Tai, I was overwhelmed, because it was so beautiful, I thought I’d never be able to sing it. I started to doubt myself. But I fell in love with it and that made me determined to learn it.
How did you balance school and riyaz?
Unlike others, I did not come from a family of musicians, so I had to go the extra mile with music in order to do my riyaz properly. I made a deliberate choice to enroll in finance so I could rely on my parents’ support for academics. It was tough to juggle examinations and music events, but I had the drive to make it work. When you love something, you’ll find time for it.
I remember you accompanied Ashwini Tai at a concert in the Bay Area in April 2015. She sang a Tansen bandish in Jaijaiwanti and you were completing her phrases.
That comes after a very long time. Now, I can relate to her thought process. The first time I accompanied Ashwini Tai was about 4–5 months after I started with her, during Diwali. This was a big moment for me. I began by repeating after her, gradually started to sing complementary phrases, and eventually, when she felt I had a grip on the raga, she said “ “Let us sing this raga together”.
Do you feel that your expertise on the harmonium helped you with improvisation?
Playing the harmonium helped me with notation. The disadvantage was that initially I was dependent on the harmonium, and if I could not visualize the notes, I could not sing it, especially with harkats in thumris, for example. It took me a while to solely rely on my ear.
Some of Ashwini Tai’s compositions are set to intimidating taals like Matta Taal(9 beats), Neel Taal (7.5 beats). Given her academic background (she has a doctorate in biochemistry), I have wondered if she has an analytical approach to composing.
Ashwini Tai taught us to never think of taal as a number. Matta taal is not the number 9, it is a mould you have to fit into. There is a learning curve initially, you can’t place yourself in the taal. Ashwini Tai’s taal-mala had a big double-sided tape to mask the numbers! When the visual aid is gone, you are forced to rely on your ear.
There is a static element to singing with the taal-mala which is very different from the fluid rhythm of a tabla. So, practicing with the tabla is essential. Vishwanath Kaka was always glad to patiently explain the intricacies to us.
Were there any ragas that brought you and your guru closer together?
I loved learning Tilak Kamod from her. It’s very intriguing and I don’t think I have been able to do it proper justice yet. I also remember once we started singing Yaman, and for 45 minutes we sang this one line “Neha kaise laga ho mora”. Usually she was far more liberal, but that day, she was Manik Tai personified, she wanted me to reproduce it exactly. I don’t remember all the notes and corrections, but that practice stands out in my memory.
It’s been 15 years, and I’m still realizing the depths of what she was trying to teach me. Some of those insights hit me years later, like a seed that sprouts when the conditions are right.
Can you share some of those insights?
For example, she would say, “Saili, don’t waste your notes”, and I’d respond, “Isn’t it beautiful when you use so many notes?” After all these years, I’m coming to appreciate the value of restraint. If I can convey the same thing in 3 notes, why do I need such long phrases?
My voice was very supple, and she had to rein in my over-swift taans. It took many years to get a grasp on Meend. She’d encourage me to be patient and say, “My hair hasn’t gone gray for nothing!” Recently, I have come to enjoy alap over singing a lot of taans. Fast is flashy, but not effective. I enjoy alap more than ever and I used be the exact opposite.
From her, I learned that it’s not just the taan that lingers after a mehfil, it’s the alap that connects your music to the listener’s soul. Speedy taans, amazing breath control, dynamic range are weapons at the artist’s disposal. One should rather use these to ultimately create an effect, rather than showing them off. Weaponry is needed but you should use it wisely, choose it well.
“Getting to know a Raga is like getting to know a person”
Do you have any favorite ragas?
I think this has a lot to do with the artist’s personality. Given my love for simplicity,I tend to prefer ragas like Bhoop, Yaman & Bageshri, rather than jod-ragas (combined ragas). I have a marked preference for the “Komal Nishad“ ragas — everything from Bhimpalas until about Kanada. I learnt Mogu Bai’s Nayaki Kannada, “Mero Piya”, but I never spent enough time with it, to make it my own.
Q. As a musician when you are singing a raga, you are unfolding a universe of your own creation. Can you tell us something about this process?
I’ve only started to think about this recently. I don’t feel I have the experience to talk about this, but Ashwini tai says you have to spend time knowing the raga, just like you would get to know a person. Ragas have their own persona: your temperament influences how you react to the raga. As you spend more time with it, you start to uncover the intricacies. You learn which notes you can converse with, which facet of the raga’s personality you can communicate with.
Just as we have layers to our personality, and present different facets of ourselves to our parents, friends, co-workers, the way the notes speak to each other within a raga are different. The Sa speaks to Ga differently than what it speaks to Re. This is a matter of realization, it can never be taught. The guru can guide you up to a point, but then the student is on their own path of interpretation. This is why classical music is a journey of a lifetime.
You mentioned earlier that this is something that you have begun thinking about recently. What triggered the thought process?
Moving here to the US from India, and the subsequent physical separation from my guru has probably prompted the journey to start to delve deeper into the study of ragas on my own. I can now approach a new raga with her perspective. Ashwini Tai has not simply taught me about raga and swara, but she has imbued me with her aesthetic sense and approach.
Can you deconstruct the process of getting to know a raga?
At this point, I feel I “know” very few ragas. The first few sessions are all about the technicalities. I practice the swaras: hold the notes as long as possible, pay attention to the shrutis. Then I concentrate on the bandish, focusing on each syllable and how it falls on a particular matra. As Kishori Tai says “Prathama Sura Sadhe”, you have to get to know the swaras first.
After I have familiarized myself with the bandish and the swaras, then I begin to explore musical phrases to see what speaks to me. It is a struggle and there are a lot of hits and misses.
Bandish is the concrete face of the raga, and every bandish brings out a different facet of the raga. So I try to learn as many bandishes as I can. Just practising the asthayi and antara of a bandish tirelessly and singing it correctly is also a kind of riyaaz. I also listen to how others have rendered the raga: how has the artist used the swaras to convey the maximum impact? As you spend more time with the raga, you begin to realize what it wants you to convey.
But there are some ragas like Ahlaiya Bilawal, that I have not really been able to know, despite practicing it innumerable times.
Do you write down your alapi, taans?
If you write it or record it, it stays in the book or tape, not in your head! I don’t recommend it.
Has your intrinsic knowledge of any ragas changed over time?
The initial phase of the learning process is more about the breadth — the number of ragas. As one progresses, one starts focussing on the depth of the raga. So indeed, I look at most of the ragas differently that what I did 15 years ago.
Would you be able to reflect upon where you are on your musical journey?
It’s an ever widening horizon. You’ll never know where you are and how much more is left. I used to think that stalwarts like Pt. Jasraj or Kishori Tai were being modest when they said they are still learning, but now I know they really meant it. The journey of learning music does not empower you; rather it humbles you.
How has music changed you as a person?
I have learned to be patient and to be calm. Music has also taught me to be liberal and learn that change is the only thing that is constant. Of course, my association with my guru has been a huge influence on my life.
How important are public performances to your growth?
Ultimately it’s a performing art, so these opportunities are crucial to development. Building a rapport with the accompanists, overcoming stage fright, developing a stage presence are all possible only when you perform. At the age of 18, I received an award from Pt.Jasraj. Having gotten an opportunity to be able to perform in front of the stalwarts since a very young age helped me overcome my fear and not let the nerves get the best of me. Competing in Zee Saregamapa was very helpful as well: when you are facing 3–4 cameras every week for a year, there is no fear left!
“Giving up on a comfortable lifestyle for something that has an uncertain future, is a tradeoff that is an eternal struggle”
What challenges have you faced with taking up music professionally?
I have been a top grader since my school days and have a CFA degree from the US. Giving that up, for something that has an uncertain future, is a tradeoff that is an eternal struggle. You just have to take up the plunge to follow your dream. There’s a financial opportunity cost, but my passion makes me push through it.
Teaching for long hours is a challenge. It takes a toll on the vocal cords. So finding a right balance between riyaz, performances and teaching is essential. I try to limit the number of hours I teach during a week, allowing me to take on a limited number of students.
As a teacher, what is it that you hope to impart to your students?
It is incumbent upon me pass on what I have learned from my Guru to the next generation. With beginners, I do what I can to generate and maintain interest and build from there. My advice to students is to be patient, and not expect too much, too soon. The transformation is extremely gradual and not visible day to day. The light bulb won’t go on until a long time!
Please tell us something about your recent (and future) collaborations.
I have worked with Reena Esmail, a doctoral candidate in Western classical music, to conduct a workshop creating western arrangements of Ashwini Tai’s compositions. We are planning to repeat it this summer. I also worked with Trevor Hall, a pop artist, which was an interesting & organic experience.
I’m currently working on a line of covers where I’m classicalising melodies that are close to my heart. A recent one is “Malavun Takdeep” which is in Raga Prateeksha, featuring Ragini Shankar on the violin. I’m always open to collaborations where I can actively contribute to the work.
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Saili as much as we did! We conclude with one of our favorite clips, Bhoop Nat. Watch how Saili sweetly & deftly handles this jod-raga, displaying all the hallmarks of her Jaipur Atrauli lineage.