Asian Music and Dance

Hari Sivanesan

Hari Sivanesan talks to Jahnavi Harrison on his experience of being mentored by the legendary Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam, thanks to the BBC Radio’s World Routes programme.

Like several young Indian classical musicians his age, Hari Sivanesan is a homegrown British success story. From his parents starting him on the veena, “They wanted me to get a bit of culture because they felt homesick,” to playing with Ravi Shankar as a teenager on his Chants of India album, to being chosen to be mentored by arguably one of the most dynamic and versatile Indian musicians of our time, Hari has had an amazing journey so far. 

Like Aruna Sairam, he’s been a little different from the beginning. He was mostly uninterested in practising the set scales and compositions that he was assigned, but was forced to sit down for a set time each day nevertheless. Instead, he ‘messed around’, experimenting and exploring the sound landscape of the instrument. In lessons with his guru, London’s beloved Sivasakti Sivanesan, he would find that he had already discovered and grasped playing techniques that other students were just being introduced to. It made him a rapid learner, and gave him the tools with which to express, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Lucy Duran described, “his prodigious and soulful talent”.

The opportunity to train with Sairam came just as Hari was settling into his job – the BBC hunted him down to interview for the chance. He won it, and shortly afterwards found himself flying to Chennai to meet Sairam for the first time. “I felt a little naked in front of her, she really just took me to pieces – in a nice way,” he adds, with a trademark giggle. “With Carnatic music there’s a lot of emphasis on this is how the song is, this is how your guru plays it, this is how the raga works, so this is how you play it. There’s a lot of boxes. It’s great that it’s preserved the tradition, however, sometimes it can take you away from remembering that you are your own person and that your expression of your music is your own. Arunaji, in a very unconventional way, took me and shook me so that all those preconceptions and rules fell apart. She deconstructed my music, and then she asked me what I thought about each element, without giving me her own answer. One day she asked what I wanted to play for the opening of the Proms. As usual there was a ten-second silence while I thought about the conventions – a varnam? A Ganesh krithi? She said, ‘Stop, stop, stop! What’s the first thing you think of? What do you want to play?’ The first thing I said, she replied, ‘that’s gut instinct.’ She taught me something I had forgotten to do – to introspect.”

For anyone familiar with the traditional mood of Indian arts training, this is somewhat of an unusual report. “Don’t get me wrong,” Hari clarifies, “there’s nothing like the diamond of the guru-shishya parampara, but to be exposed to a great musician in such a raw way is priceless.”

It’s quite a rare opportunity for a British-trained musician to get, and one that clearly had a greenhouse-effect on a qualified sprout like Sivanesan.

“My brain was going pop, pop, pop, pop with all these innovations and ideas…She told me that had I been her student, she would’ve given me what she did, drop by drop over weeks and months and years. She would’ve made sure that I’d understood, applied and absorbed every drop before giving the next.”

It’s no surprise that the experience was an intense one. Hari had only two periods of training with Sairam, in between working. In the run-up to the Proms, one of his Facebook status updates read “I wish I could fit a mini veena in my bag – spending so much time on the Tube, if only I could use it to practise!” Though his performance at the Royal Albert Hall was short and digestible for unaccustomed ears, there was no slacking in absorbing all the lessons Sairam was passing on. “She never said ‘you haven’t done enough’, but there was an unspoken expectation – I felt I had to work harder. She would say ‘Have you worked?’, and that would be it.”

Though Hari is now back to his day job marketing for a software company, driving all over the country for meetings and struggling to find time to practise, the experience has clearly left a deep, lingering impression. He gets quite impassioned as he describes one of the most beautiful, spiritual moments he shared with his mentor. “We were doing rehearsal at the Proms, and I did my little piece – with the acoustics and everything I thought it sounded quite nice. Then she began to sing her opening piece, a Viruttham. She sang just two notes – ga, ri. My whole body was instantly covered in goosebumps. Everyone in there said the same thing afterwards. It’s her spirituality. I was left thinking, in the ten minutes of my piece, was I able to do what she just did in two notes?”

Hari Sivanesan will be performing at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 19 May 2012 and at the Purcell Room, London on 27 May 2012, promoted by Milapfest.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox