The Darbar Festival this autumn gave London audiences the opportunity to hear for themselves the glorious voice of Carnatic vocalist Sudha Ragunathan. On 1 January she is to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi, Carnatic music’s most illustrious award. Ken Hunt fills us in on the background to her emergence and growing reputation and she talks to him about her musical education and unorthodox learning experience.
Time will tell how much 2013 marked a turning-point in Sudha Ragunathan’s career. While the singer is no stranger to European stages, whether for her South Indian classical recitals or her crossover collaborations, hitherto, in Britain, she had remained little known outside of cognoscenti music circles. For those in the know, whether at home or abroad, her name is a byword for musical excellence and her reputation as a stupendous song interpreter is a given. In 2013 the sumptuous vocalist arguably began a new phase of her relationship with both domestic and international audiences.
In the summer of 1988 she gave her first US recitals. Four years later she broke new ground with her first US album, Tamil Melodies from Amutha Isai Vani Sudha Ragunathan. In the rush to release it in December 1992, Amutham Music missed off catalogue information. The Nanuet, New York-based label became the de facto wellspring for her breakthrough and career-consolidating recordings outside India. As with Tamil Melodies… with its Indian orchestral settings conducted by H.M.V. Ragu (a name impossible to resist mentioning), Kaleeya Krishna (1994) had orchestrations, in its case under the baton of Vazhuvoor R. Mānikkavināyakam. In the latter project’s case it presented a thematic suite of Oothukkādu Venkatasubbaiyar-composed devotional songs to Lord Krishna. Composer-themed musical programmes pepper her career path. Amutham’s Pāpanāsam Sivan Kritis (1999), for example, focused on a composer of more recent historicity, Pāpanāsam Sivan (1890-1973) in a more typical ensemble setting of violin, mridangam barrel drum and morsing jaw harp percussion and tanpura drone.
To give a flavour of her cross-cultural projects, over the summer of 2000 she was recruited as part of a project, developed from an idea by Helmut Bürgel – the artistic director of the Voices Voix Stimmen Festival in Lörrach in Germany. Dubbed the Global Vocal Meeting, it found her touring alongside the Swiss singer-songwriter Corin Curschellas, the male Malian vocalist Abdoulaye Diabaté, the male singer Rinde Eckert from New York, the Hungarian Roma singer Mitsou, and the Madagascan group Senge. Le rythme de la parole II/The rhythm of speech II (2005) took the principle of multicultural collaborations still deeper with contributions from Iranian, Malian and South Indian musicians.
Ragunathan first performed in Britain in 1994 at West London’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the following year sang at a Tamil Orphanage Trust and the London Sri Murugan Temple. Before the internet explosion, her rising reputation largely remained buried within the Tamil community and relatively low-key Hindu mandir temple-network engagements. (South Indian art or devotional music recitals have sadly never or, to err on the side of generosity, have rarely been publicised in ways to compare with their more visible Hindustani counterparts.) In September 2013 she returned with a flourish. Indicative of her rise since 1995, she headlined the Darbar Festival’s Saturday night finale – one of a sequence of Sky Arts concerts televised internationally that November.
In the post-concert afterglow, the London audience was let into a secret from the stage: in January 2014 she was to receive the 2013 Sangita Kalanidhi. The Madras Music Academy’s award breaks down as sangita, ‘music’; kala, ‘art’; and nidhi, ‘treasure’. Let’s rewind to explain the significance of Sudha Ragunathan receiving that award. A majority would agree it is Carnatic music’s most illustrious honour. Since its inception in 1942 the Academy has conferred the prize on one recipient annually. In gloriously truculent style for certain years – 1946 and 1975 are but two examples – nobody got anything. When it comes to achievements and attainments, the award has boosted and elevated South Indian art music standards. Plus, refreshingly, it is predicated on artistic worth over recorded music sales or box-office ‘ringtones’.
Born Sudha Venkataraman in Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu in April 1958, Sudha Ragunathan is the middle of three children – her sister Chitra Venkatachari preceded her and then came her brother Prasad Venkatraman. At home the family spoke Tamil. “Because all of us studied in convent,” she explains, “English was important, too”. “Convents are the breeding ground for fundamental English,” she says, “and the way we carry ourselves. It’s really good there. They do a very good job of teaching you and putting in the confidence in what you deliver.”
She pauses. “Since all three of us studied in convents we were able to nurture that art of learning languages. That’s why I know about six languages – a little bit of each but more of some. Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, English, I can speak fluently. Then a little bit of French and Malayalam. In the case of the five languages I can speak them to the extent of holding a conversation.” During her Darbar recital she also sang in Sanskrit.
Her mother V. Choodamani had studied music and she provided a grounding in South Indian art and devotional music genres. Other teachers followed. Then she received a Government of India scholarship. “When I got the scholarship, my mother suggested I should learn from a woman artiste,” she told Chennai-based newspaper, The Hindu in October 1995, “and that brought me to MLV.”
MLV was M.L. Vasanthakumari (1928-1990). Shortening names to initials is a long-standing, anglicising convention. Turning M.S. Subbulakshmi into the less-of-a-mouthful ‘MSS’ – reminiscent of the old abbreviation mss (‘manuscripts’) – in the late 1960s into the 1970s caught a mood. It resonated alongside globally familiar examples from US politics like ‘FDR’ and ‘JFK’. The singer was arguably the first to popularise the convention in a musical context outside the subcontinent.
“My mother was one of the main reasons why I put in so many hours of learning and getting into music,” she smiles, “because I think it was her dream to be a musician; but fifty to seventy years ago in our community women were not allowed to perform on stage. When her career was suppressed I think she had a dream that maybe one of her children would rise to taking this up as a career. She targeted me and I think I fell in line with her thoughts! And slowly progressed to the extent that she was very happy when I said, yes, music was going to be my career.”
Nevertheless, she might be said to have almost drifted into music as a vocation. Her career path, one might say, was heading towards economics. When had it occurred to her that music was it? “I was 17 and at the end of that year I received a scholarship to learn under M.L. Vasanthakumari. When I made up my mind that my focus might be on music as a career, though I did do economics, this thing happened and I got the scholarship. It kind of strengthened the thought and it made me feel that I was going in the right direction. To get a guru like her, a teacher like her is, I think, something that one longs for and, even when wished for, it doesn’t happen sometimes. It fell into my lap. I couldn’t do anything but just to accept it!
“In fact, the Sangita Kalanidhi that I’m getting on January 1, 2014 from the Music Academy, the year I went to MLV in 1977, MLV got the Sangita Kalanidhi.” (At 49 MLV remains its youngest-ever recipient.) “She was extremely busy and tied down with her very hectic schedule. It was not fair of me to demand any time from her. I thought any little strand that she dropped I’d just pick up and I’d watch her and observe her. That was enough for me to take in everything that I wanted. All of this I did at home, looking at books, listening to tapes, all of this.”
MLV did not necessarily employ orthodox teaching methods. How had she approached the matter of repertoire, as opposed to teaching her songs? “There were a couple of kritis [a tiered song form of a Hindu hymn kind] that I actually learned from her by sitting down [with her]. In fact my ‘teaching lessons’ were very, very few because her style of teaching was similar to how we sit in a library and read up a lot of things. Her style of teaching was like that. You had to do it all by yourself – looking at her notations, listening to her music on stage, at home from the tapes. You had to store this in your brain and reproduce this when you sang with her. When I did vocal support with her, that’s when it started to get polished.
“She claimed that was her style and I should be prepared for it, these challenges. She said, ‘Don’t think of it as a challenge: think of it as a style of teaching or a style of learning. It will help you all through life because any time anybody gives you a kriti or asks you to sing something and gives you the lyrics you’ll be able to do it immediately. This will open the doors.’”
It did. For Sudha Ragunathan and us, that is exactly what it did and is still doing.
With thanks to Kavichandran Alexander, Sharanya Mahadevan and Winston Panchacharam.