Margazhi in the future: Aruna Sairam's vision for Carnatic music
Aruna Sairam has a dream. “I want one day to see Carnatic musicians lean on each other for guidance and support system. One day I hope that people will be able to ask the questions that today you cannot ask.” She touches upon subjects that make most uncomfortable. Like money, for instance. “There is no benchmark for remuneration that a young singer who is upcoming can go to,” she says, adding “All these conversations happen behind closed doors.”
In a career spanning over half a century, the nuggets of wisdom Arunaji (as she is called by most) has spilling over — have us drawn in and hanging on to her every word. Much like one of her stage performances as we get into the Margazhi season, except instead of a sabha we are sitting in the living room of her Alwarpet home, sipping on tea. She opens up on marriage and how to choose a life partner when pursuing a career path as uncertain as one in the world of Carnatic music. “You’re life is thrown into surprises every second minute!” she shares with a laugh. “So your spouse doesn’t need to know your music inside out, but he or she does need to be able to empathise and stay grounded, and understand that this is part of the deal,” she relates, with candour.
The pieces of the music puzzle that she can have impact on with her prestigious stature as a Padma Shri awardee and Vice-chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, she pursues as passion projects outside of her concert schedule. For 2018, there two big plans that will be pursued through the Akademi, we are told.
The first, is an initiative to provide medical aid to artistes who are senior citizens and have nobody to care for them. “Did you know that the great Bismillah Khan, a Bharat Ratna — died in penury?” she asks, her expression a mix of indignation and disbelief. “Toward the end, it was such a dire situation, the family started selling off his shehnais... ” she trails off.
The second, is to have indigenous music woven into the curriculum of students in classes one to five across the country. “Children will learn five songs in a year, which is quite doable, including one in
their native tongue. We have already met with the Prime Minister on this and had a conversation,” she says. In doing this, the hope is to give youngsters the access to learning music, but also in time to “build young audiences that can appreciate talent on stage”.
First music lesson
We take a quick detour. Does Arunaji remember her first music lesson? Her face lights up. “It’s etched in my memory,” she says. But the real story dates back a month before the class because nine-year-old Aruna was not a student of the legendary T Brinda just yet, her parents’ friend Shrimati Alamelu (singer Hariharan’s mother) was. The high profile lessons would take place in her family’s tiny apartment in Mumbai (before she would make Chennai her home in later years) every day during the summer holidays and little Aruna, curious, would sit in the next room and hum along. “One day, Brindamma noticed me doing this and I froze, petrified,” she recalls. But the encounter led to her being promoted from the next room to the honour of listening by the door. A big step up in those days, we are told. “A month later, I was asked to sing — and I did. Everything that I learnt from the other side of the door,” she remembers. The next day, she finally got to step inside.
Oddly enough, we hear from Arunaji that years of practice do not make the run up to a concert any easier. “It becomes harder in fact,” she offers us a glimpse of unlikely perspective,
“You see it’s easy to build a reputation, but much more difficult to keep one. The
audience always wants to know — what next?”
Reinvention has meant embracing social media, “I went from 5,000 followers last year on Facebook to 45,000 and now I love it,” she shares with us gleefully. Aside from concerts this season, the 65-year-old enthuses, “I hope to do my second Facebook live soon. I always get the best questions there.” And one of the biggest lessons she has learned has been, ironically, not to compartmentalise home and stage as separate. “As you go through the vestiges of life, you learn that what you experience is going to come out as emotion however you express yourself,” she shares wisely. Although, this can happen in the most unlikely ways. “You might find it very strange, but the day I have had a fight with my children or with my spouse — the concert is fantastic,” she reveals, taking us aback. All the angst that I go through — all that energy I put into my performance,” she tells us simply.
What does a good day on stage feel like, we wonder out loud, after countless performances, the metrics of measure have likely changed many times over. “Like... I am soaring,” she responds after a pause to think. “On that first note, or by two songs in I am in a free space, a space where I am not going be judged,” she elaborates, “The audience may like it or not like it, but that is secondary. I am in a different world, my world.”
Remember to breathe
• One daily ritual
I get up and do my pranayama (deep breathing) first thing in the morning. Breath is the prana of
what I do.
• One thing your fans don’t know about you
I know all The Beatles songs by-heart. I especially like Yesterday and Yellow Submarine.
• One ingredient you wouldn’t expect in a recipe for a bad throat.
Ghee. It helps lubricates the vocal chords. I use it in a mix
of hot milk, pepper, turmeric, ginger and palm sugar.
The next concert is happening on December 9 at Narada Gana Sabha, 6 pm.