The tune traveller: One who dislikes being restricted by the grammar of a single style

Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam’s eclectic upbringing is apparent in the versatility of her music and her ease with different genres 
Aruna Sairam performs at the Gobindgarh fort in Amritsar
Aruna Sairam performs at the Gobindgarh fort in Amritsar

Geography matters in the arts. Listening to Aruna Sairam traversing a gamut of cultures with her voice is to understand India’s binding power of melody.  The occasion: The Sacred Amritsar festival, a music and poetry event. Venue: 18th-century Qila Gobindgarh. Location: Amritsar, which Punjabis call Ambarser—the abode of nectar. The name fit that evening perfectly when the ambrosial voice of the feted Carnatic vocalist rendered ‘Maargi: Traveller Across India’ in a range of Indian oeuvres: first the traditional Saraswati Vandana in Raga Hindolam, then Tu Malla Tu in Dogri, followed by a Gujarati folk song, and ending the performance with the dramatic Kalinga Narthana thillana that elaborates the vanquishing dance of Lord Krishna on Kaliya’s great hood during a rainy night on the Yamuna, and a Kabir bhajan.

The thillana is a favourite: early in the year, she had essayed it at Radha and Raja Reddy’s dance gurukul in Delhi. While performing thillanas, she often draws inspiration from 18th-century composer Oottukkaadu Venkata Subramanyar, known for his contemporary compositions. Sairam’s mastery over craft is evident as she expertly manoeuvres the tonal ups and downs of compositions, rising to a crescendo, falling into a whisper and returning with the power of a rising wave. 

In Amritsar, just before she came on stage, the audience had been amped up by Dolly Guleria and her daughter Sunaini Sharma doing what they do best—Punjabi folk wedding music. Music is both concord and contrast. 

Sairam belongs to the Tanjore tradition of Carnatic music, and wears her vocal lineage as impeccably as her Kanjeevaram saris. She is not barrier-bound like many traditional musicians, considering she is 70 years old—very few outside the musical world know that she can sing in 14 languages and is at ease with both jazz and Georgian chants. She points out that Raga Hindolam and the Raga Malkauns of Hindustani classical music are similar. “Both are essentially the same raga, but with different names,” explains the Padma Shri awardee. The Dogri composition is a lullaby that was first sung by Lata Mangeshkar.

Sairam’s fascination for the music of MS Subbulakshmi and Mangeshkar is well documented. “Not just their music, but their personas too have impacted my work. They were the greatest in their field, but never rested on their laurels. I try to emulate their work ethic,” she says. 

The artiste grew up in a small railway quarter in Mumbai’s Matunga, where Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, M Balasaraswati, Subbulaksmi and T Brinda came to stay since they were friends with her parents, the Sethuramans, both music connoisseurs. Her folks encouraged her to listen to street singers and Marathi folk artistes. They enrolled her in her school’s Western music choir and took her to Western classical concerts at Mumbai’s NCPA. 

Of course, no schoolgirl could grow up without listening to Hindi film music, which then had strong classical roots. She would also hum to the Tamil film music streamed from Radio Ceylon. Perhaps, such catholic exposure is the reason why she dislikes being restricted by the grammar of a single style. Sairam started learning from her mother Rajalakshmi before T Brinda became her guru. One of her earliest memories of music is her mother waking her up for practice at dawn. Then just five, young Aruna would sing along with her mother. “They were sessions to cleanse the voice. To this day, I continue the practice,” she admits fondly. Now, it is a voice trainer who does it for her. 

She also vice-chairs the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Does she often perform in other languages? “Whenever I perform, I gauge what the audience would like to hear. I tweak my renditions to incorporate the flavour that the audience would most savour. My style, of course, remains the same, but I present it differently. For example, an audience in Delhi would need a little more explanation and contemporaneity than, say, one in Chennai, which prefers the traditional,” she explains.

Sairam, who was awarded with the French government’s highest honour—Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des—in November 2022, is also the first to incorporate abhang into a traditional South Indian concert. “My growing up years in Mumbai made me aware of the richness of abhang—devotional poetry sung in praise of Lord Vitthal,” says the artist, who believes bhajan in all its forms—from Kabir and Guru Nanak to bhakti and abhang—is important to Carnatic music. “Maybe it is not showcased as much, but the practice is there,” says Sairam, who works towards the musical education of underprivileged students through the Nadayogam Trust, which she founded in 2012. Through her music, Sairam believes in taking her audience on what she calls “a parikrama of the country”.

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