Talks By The Firelight 1.5: Rhythms and Ragas
Aruna Sairam, Indian Classical Vocalist
It was two days since Festember ’18 had embarked on an Arabian Odyssey. Amidst the festive fun, Day 2 of Festember saw Sangeetha Kalanidhi Smt. Aruna Sairam entrancing us with her amazing lecture on Carnatic music and its allure. A few members of Team Festember were most fortunate to interview her after she had delivered her guest lecture, as part of Festember’s Carpe Diem series of lectures.
Often regarded as one of the finest pioneers of Indian Classical music, Smt. Aruna Sairam is also referred to as the Music Ambassador of India, for successfully taking Indian music to the global arena. Her refreshing approach to the age-old performing art and her mesmerizing performances have left many an audience in awe. Steeped in expression and divinity, her songs never fail to evoke devotion in every listener’s soul. In her guest lecture, she narrated a few glimpses of her own past including how much she wanted to become a chemical engineer. However, stating that “Life takes its own course”, she explained that music not only gives us joy but also teaches valuable lessons in life.
“The focus of every musician lies in the notes which he/she is about to play immediately. Similarly, if you are lost in a sea of thoughts, restrict your thoughts to a boundary. That’s how you focus.”
In the interview that followed the guest lecture, she talked about Carnatic music, its nuance and its features. When asked if the ability to sing with feeling comes naturally or with practice, she said that although everyone is given certain gifts in life, what really matters is how we develop those gifts. “I for one sincerely believe that 99% of us are musically gifted,” she remarked. Musical intellect is a natural instinct that comes to all. But how many of us focus on it is important. So if we focus on it, we think about it, we keep devoting some time to it, and that’s how one progresses as a musician.
“To appreciate Carnatic music, you need a little initiation. But once you get the taste for it, you’re hooked to it for life.”
As someone who has helped propagate Carnatic music around the world, she has experienced many other forms of music from around the globe. However, she believes that Carnatic music is unique in the sense that the oscillations in the notes are very specific in the way they move in Carnatic music. In Hindustani music, which has a gliding movement to it, we hear the original note distinctly. On the contrary, in Carnatic Gamaka (oscillation), the oscillation is more like a pendulum, making it less straight on the note and more around the note. So, one would hear more of the surrounding notes than the actual note. She demonstrated the difference to us by singing in both styles. Listen to them by clicking on the links below.
This is a different aesthetic approach very particular to Carnatic music and exposes Carnatic musicians to a structured way of thinking.
“If one is exposed to Carnatic music first, any other form of music can be handled easily.”
She pointed out that many musicians from different genres — Vijay Iyer, Shankar Mahadevan, Dr. L. Subramaniam to name a few, were all originally Carnatic professionals.
She also added, “Carnatic is one style where the Bhakti, or the devotion aspect, is not diversified from the music”. The lyric is as important as the music. Any song or composition that one sings, there is always a spiritual content in it and is always offered to the Lord. In all other music, music as an art is generally separate from spiritual music. These two are the specific features of Carnatic music which she thinks are very special.
When asked about her modified approach to Carnatic music, incorporating the singing of Abhangs and other styles, she says that experimentation is welcome as long as the core of the song involves pure Carnatic music. She also believes that to innovate and collaborate is to take Carnatic music to the next level. She assures that the future of Carnatic music is very bright and experimenting with fusion has only taken it forward.
Talking about the importance of music in a technology-driven society, she says, “I would say the more and more technical we get, the more we need music. To save our souls. We keep working with technology to the extent that we don’t even move around a lot, let alone interact with fellow human beings. With so much technology around us, it’s more like a solitary existence.” She thus feels that for a technocrat, the easiest way to get relaxed, to feel uplifted and to be inspired would be music.
As we approached the end of the interview, she took some time to share her pearls of wisdom, when she advised aspiring musicians to start off by choosing what it is they want to do, like being a vocalist or an instrumentalist. “Depending on where and which level of competency you are in, you will definitely require a mentor to take you to the next level,” she explained. All it takes then is to focus and practice and get to a point of professional competence, from where one can consider options on how to have a career in music. She also adds that there would always be people to help us out at any point in life. When asked whether she would subscribe to the idea of senior Carnatic musicians starting a forum to take Carnatic music to the next level, she graced the question with an immediate “Yes”.
Smt. Aruna Sairam’s guest lecture proved to be illuminating, with her mellifluous voice captivating the audience. It was an incredible experience for Team Festember to interact with one of the most experienced and distinguished artists in the Indian Classical music scene.