Asian Music and Dance

Aruna Sairam mentors Hari Sivanesan

Aruna Sairam is the darling of Carnatic vocal music and the first ever from her tradition to sing at the BBC Proms. She talks to Ken Hunt about her early years and the turning point in her adolescence. Drawing on her experiences of life and art, Sairam has been involved in a mentoring programme with the young London-based vina player Hari Sivanesan. 

They do things differently in the South and, consequently, for many people Carnatic music is a locked box. Many admirers and apprentices of the younger Hindustani hybrid tradition perceive its ways as being more difficult to negotiate – as if the grandiloquence of a northern exposition of, say raga ‘Bhimpalasi’ is easier to appreciate than a tauter exposition of its exact southern forebear-counterpart ragam ‘Abheri’. But help is at hand. Aruna Sairam is the sort of original talent who not only does things to raise ‘Carnaticity’ to the status of an open book but delivers things very, very differently. A stupendous vocalist, never to have seen her singing live must rank as a major musical tragedy. You do not know what you are missing.

“…never to have seen her singing live must rank as a major musical tragedy”.

Of Tamil stock, she was born in Bombay in 1952, the second child of Sethuraman and Rajalakshmi. “They were middle-class people. My father was an officer with the railways. With the railways – it’s a government department – you don’t earn that much but somehow their overriding interest in music just kept things going. They could entertain people at home in the simple atmosphere that we could provide. People loved it because of the passion that my parents had.”

Of her mother, she says, “She was born in a south Indian village near the town of Trichinopoly [Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu] and her father was a landed Brahmin living the life of the comfortable landlord. That was the lifestyle. But, as you know, women were disciplined and they had to work hard. That was the upbringing my mother had. But he made sure that she had a musical education from some of the greats. Like, there was this duo called Alathur Brothers from the town of Trichinopoly and she trained with them. She also trained with a great musician called Thanjavoor Sankara Iyer and later specialised in raagam-taanam-pallavi [a highly improvised and extended three-movement ragam exposition] with another maestro called Tinniyam Venkatrama Iyer.

“She married my father and she came and settled down as a young bride in Bombay. She was a typical metropolitan housewife. Then my brother Raja and I were born. But luckily, because my father was also interested in music and together they loved music and musicians, the home was a very musical home. My mother was either singing all the time or teaching or we had visitors who were artists and singing or sharing something about music. In a week I think nearly 60 per cent or 70 per cent of the time was spent with music. That was a very rich atmosphere to grow up in.”

“Any given musician would …head straight for my parents’ home”.

She smiles. “Any given musician would park their luggage in some hotel and head straight for my parents’ home, because they loved the food, they loved the atmosphere, they just loved to be there. That was very special. My mother could rustle up a meal for twenty people in no time. She was very good at that. My home was the first great influence because it opened the windows for me to meet people like Amir Khansahib, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madurai Mani Iyer… All these musicians came home – can you believe! – into a little 650 square foot apartment in Bombay.”

“Very quietly she (mother) took me once to South India, to a temple.”

Her first music teacher was her mother. Subsequently, she became a disciple of Sangita Kalanidhi T. Brinda. Gurus are important. Instead, I ask her for an epiphany. An incident from her early teenage years immediately springs to mind. “There was this time in my adolescence when I had major difficulties with singing and I wasn’t happy with the way I was singing. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not cut out for music. Maybe I should be doing something else.’ You know, those kind of self-doubt things. My mother was anxious that I was going through this phase. Very quietly she took me once to South India, to a temple.

“This was a temple where the goddess is called the Goddess of Sound. We went there and there was this story… My life is full of listening to stories. I think stories are another very important part of shaping me.” (We had already talked about the abiding influence of hari katha – katha kālakshepam in Tamil – a part-recited, part-sung form recounting stories [katha] about Hindu deities.) “There’s this story of this young poet whose poem I sang at the opening of the [BBC Proms] concert. [Thirugnyana Sambandar] was walking and his father was taking him on his shoulders because he was just about 3 or 4. As he was singing he went to this little village and got a gift of golden cymbals. Miraculously from somewhere. But gold cymbals don’t play because gold is not a sonorous metal. He made the gestures but he couldn’t make a noise from it, but he was singing new poems and he was a blessed child. 

“The story goes – and it’s all mythology – that the Goddess, [Parvati] the wife of Shiva who was the goddess in question, told Shiva, ‘Look, this child is struggling because he can’t make the sound, so I’m going to transform myself into a Goddess of Sound. I’m going to go and make these cymbals sound so that this child can continue his divine message.’ Immediately there was a temple constructed there and this Goddess was sitting there as Osai Nayaki. ‘Osai’ means ‘sound’ in Tamil; ‘Nayaki’ means ‘goddess’.

“From that day I never had a question about being able to sing”.

“So, we went there and the story was unfolded and told to me. And then the priest, he sang a beautiful, beautiful piece in offering to that Goddess. That was a moment. I said, ‘If this man who’s completely uneducated musically can sing like this, just because he’s in the proximity of the temple where he gets his inspiration, I must somehow figure this out.’ From that day I never had a question about being able to sing in future. But until then I was always in tears, I was always confused. I said, ‘I can’t sing and I can’t do it and I’m not cut out for this.’ And stuff like that. 

“Clarity comes to you.”

The temple is Tirugnana Sambandar near Chidambaram. I fix her a look in a very non-Indian way. Is it a place where she goes to recharge? “I do! I do! I certainly do! I keep going there often. It’s been a lifetime’s journey to this temple. There’s something very special about that place. I go there every time I get a chance. It’s now happily driving distance from Chennai, so we can hop into the car and go there. I do that time and again.”

“I decided that mentoring is not teaching”.

Aruna Sairam has an innate gift for cosmopolitanism. Aside from her musical gifts and authority, that may have been a factor in her being chosen to mentor the London-based Tamil vina player Hari Sivanesan as the second of the BBC World Routes Academy teacher-pupil programmes. Or mentor-mentee Beebspeak. “I had to take stock as to what I was going to do and I decided that mentoring is not teaching. It’s slightly different from teaching. I thought…,” she pauses, “…a mentor has to give an overview to this young, talented person who’s already trained by a teacher here and he’s already performing in his own right in the places that he does. I thought if he comes to me, then firstly if he could get an idea how a person like me who has put in more years in the field prepares for a concert, that would be useful. Or how I think about a performance or how I think about music. Or where I source my inspiration for my music or how I think about the repertoire in a particular concert. All these processes, I thought, would be interesting for him to know because then he could apply [that knowledge] to himself. That was one area where I would talk to him. Of course, we did work on certain pieces. There was a fair amount of teaching going on, but the focus was on these other aspects, using that particular piece as a peg to let him know how I was thinking and how I would do things. 

“I also wanted him to maybe question himself. Because he’s in this peculiar situation of being in London and he’s working. He has a job and he has also to make music, so at some point in time he will have to really decide whether he wants to continue with the two or he wants to go one way or the other. I was sure that he would have this question coming up to him soon, if not already, so I thought if I could give him some greater sense of identity and grounding as a musician that would help him to view himself in a different way and from that point to think what he wants to do – that, of course, is his prerogative – and where he needs to grow. I did a fair amount of that, I think.”

What did she get from this period of mentoring? “Very, very interesting,” she beams. “I believe deeply in the guru-shishya [teacher-disciple or pupil] relationship. We call this ‘mentor-mentee’ but it is the sapling of a guru-shishya relationship. It’s not yet a full-fledged one.”

She takes stock. “For me, this is a journey because, if I may say so, I’m performing in a peak-performance mode right now, performing all over the world and travelling and so on. I don’t teach on a full-time basis. And I know that I have to start. I feel that urge but also the concertising is so active and has got its own mindset. And its own preparation needs. I am still figuring out how I will get the two together and spend quality time with a student. So, while I was in this cusp of making my life more orderly to achieve the aim of starting to leave behind the knowledge that I got from my gurus, this came along. This was a very interesting experience and an outlet for me to test myself and how I could do this. Because it means commitment, it means spending so many hours thinking of the many things I could do to support the knowledge that I am passing on. It was a very good experience and I’m more convinced than before that very soon I have to start the process of teaching. For me, it’s been a milestone in that sense.”

When it comes to delivering the Songs of the South, Aruna Sairam is the living embodiment of everything that is riveting and exciting. What anyone listening to the live Radio 3 broadcast from the BBC Proms missed was how she bodily shoots off torrents of non-verbal semaphore in support of the musical message. She could never sit on her hands, so to speak, while singing. Even in its cross-legged, seated position, her upper torso dances during a performance. Her hands grab down notes from out there. Her arms are like woomeras firing notes just that extra bit further. Interspersed with this feast of body language, her right hand audibly beats time on her right leg. The radio broadcast, with its superior sound fidelity, picked this up. 

I mention worrying about the post-recital black-and-blueness of her right leg. “Because of the talam [keeping time]! True enough,” she agrees. “That’s true.” She pauses before continuing. “I just get into this mode when I start singing and I don’t know what I’m doing. I must say, when I was a much younger person – and before I had this level of acceptance or whatever – I was told it was not very ladylike to do this. I was young and for a moment I took it seriously and did try to sit still and sing but it never worked. I couldn’t sing at all and said, ‘Look, I’m going to be myself.’ I had to tell myself that and I haven’t ever looked back since.”

With thanks to Madeleine Castell and Rosanna Chianta at the BBC Press Office and apologies to Chitravina Ravikiran for the brazen theft of ‘Carnaticity’.



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