Conquest of Carnatic sisters
The ragas of RaGa have transcended the pandemic using the universal language of classical compositions
It is the second half of a Carnatic music concert. Vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri are on stage. Very often, the auditorium gradually empties after the taniyavarthanam (where percussionists flaunt their rhythmic prowess and creativity) of the main piece of the concert is over. They choose to miss the last leg of the concert (thukkada) that comprises a mix of padams and javalis. But at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at Mylapore, Chennai, in December 2021, rasikas waited with bated breath.
Over the last two decades, concerts by Ranjani Gayatri, known both by their first names and portmanteau as RaGa (no relation to Rahul Gandhi), have become incomplete without abhangs—their signature pieces. Last year, Ranjani and Gayatri quickly adapted to the online medium and began sharing a series of short recordings on their YouTube channel called Ranjani-Gayatri, which has over 78.5k subscribers.
In a 2020 recorded show on Vaikunta Ekadasi day concert that has odes to Lord Vishnu, the sisters sang five ragas by five composers in five languages. Earlier this week, they brought out their rendition of Adi Shankaracahrya’s Subramanya Bhujangam, set to Ragamalika and aesthetically shot at the Arupadai Veedu Murugan Temple, Chennai. The harmony of duality to achieve balance is apparent in their musical expression, which defies the convention attributing moods and rasas to specific ragas like bravery for Raag Atana or elation for Kadanakuthuhalam.
It is how the singer interprets them according to their perception. And that duality complements each other in their famous kancheevarams as well which are of identical design in reverse colours. The story goes that sometime in 1998, the sisters went sari-shopping in Chennai. Gayatri picked up a beige sari with a black border pallu and found that Ranjani had chosen a sari with the opposite combination. Today, they even match colours and look to the musical theme of a show.
In the last few months, they have started the RaGa Travelogue, which are performance videos shot on-location in the middle of their travels. From the beaches of Goa to the ghats of Benaras, different colours of India are emerging on their timeline. They have departed from tradition while preserving the integrity of the music—they essayed a Carnatic concert on resolving conflicts based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and sung to accompaniments such as the tabla, pakhavaj, which are unlike the traditional percussion instruments of Carnatic music like the mridangam and ghatam.
Ranjani rues that YouTube has become a marketplace of distractions. Gayatri, too, believes that while YouTube holds great potential, there is also risk involved. “Predominantly during December of every year artistes give ticketed performances in Chennai. The rest of the year, the concerts in most public places are non-ticketed and accessible to all. I’m not in favour of making too much music available on YouTube. The artiste loses the right to those songs as they can be easily downloaded by anyone.
One then wonders if there is any point in bringing out albums when so much free music is floating around anyway,” says Gayatri. Last September, the singers decided to focus on live performances. “At the end of the day, performance art has to be performed before a live audience. There is reciprocity in the art when you do it that way,” says Ranjani. As violinists, the RaGa sisters have accompanied several greats of Carnatic music like DK Pattammal and Dr M Balamuraikrishna. “To play for them was a blessing,” says Ranjani. “It’s like those dots on a huge canvas. You join them over the years not knowing where this is going but eventually, it takes a meaningful form.”
Back in 1988, the sisters visited Madras for the December music season and witnessed the veethi bhajanai that happened in the Mada streets of Mylapore. “We heard the great Sethalapathi Balasubramaniam sing in those early morning hours during those sessions. When he sang viruthams (devotional verses) in those hours of dawn, people would sit down on the footpath and get teary-eyed listening to him. When we began performing on stage, the singing of Sethalapathi Balu mama inspired us to sing viruthams. People lapped up the viruthams we sang,” recollects Ranjani. They have garnered a phenomenal following for their rendition of abhangs. “We brought our own style into abhangs,” explains Gayatri. “We took the thukkada segment seriously and gave it as much importance as we gave to other pieces of the concert. Every part of a concert offers you opportunities for creativity.”
Serendipity works in strange ways. By 1999, they had started gaining popularity among the rasikas. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD) temple in T Nagar, Chennai, had organised a concert where a senior artiste was to perform. But due to a health setback, the artiste had to cancel the event. TTD reached out to Ranjani Gayatri to fill in. “We played the violin more often back then and this was a vocal concert. The space was packed and people were squatting on the floor or sat all around the premises just to listen to us. It was a turning point in our career,” reminisces Ranjani. The rousing reception and subsequent success made them discover themselves as vocalists.
Not just singers, RaGa teach Carnatic music at home in RA Puram, Chennai, to students from the city and around the world via Facetime. This outlook perhaps comes from their guru. Around 1996-97, their father asked their guru PS Narayanaswamy if the girls should build their career as classical musicians. “Our guru said, ‘I can vouch for their talent. But I cannot say if they will do well in a career in classical music because it is the music that chooses its ambassadors’. And I truly believe that,” admits Ranjani. Singing for the last 30 years, their debut performance was at Indian Music Group, Mumbai, at the age of 13 and 10, respectively. They have clocked in hundreds of concerts at prestigious music centres and won several awards. In pre-Covid days, in what is a testament to their phenomenal following, fans would queue up by 4 am before the Music Academy, Chennai, for seats. “It is heartwarming to see Punjabis and Maharashtrians come during the season to enjoy the kutcheri experience, though they began by following our bhajans and abhangs. We are where we are because of this dedication. Musically, this pursuit will go on,” affirms Ranjani.
Ecstasy of Devotion
✥ Abhangs were an important aspect of the Bhakti movement that swept through Maharashtra in the medieval era.
✥ Saints like Dyaneshwar, Namdev, Tukaram, Eknath, Chokamela, Janabai and Bahinabai placed an emphasis on the bhakti marga to attain the supreme.
✥ The concept of bhakti was explained through these abhangs and was easily understood by the masses.
✥ They usually are sung in praise of Lord Vithala of Pandharpur. In its sweep across the country, the bhakti sampradaya broke the barriers of gender and caste.