CHENNAI: Constantly shuttling between different cities and countries, and singing multiple repertoires in endless concerts, Aruna Sairam was effortlessly at ease when we met her before she could fly to her next concert in Mumbai.
“When I started out in the field, I did not know what rationale I applied to myself to keep continuing. I must have been or still should be crazy. Well, whoever ends up doing something unusual and different is,” she quips. Aruna says that everyone else in the ‘music ladder’ — from vidwans, scholars, musicologists to opinion makers, fell in place once she received a ‘thumbs-up’ from the ultimate target — the audience. “I am thankful that I didn’t think rationally. Had I done so, I would have been stuck in the complexity of the process of wheeling through several other groups of people. Instead of thinking in several directions, thinking in ‘one right direction’ helps!”
Always on a journey to explore, and questioning ways of further improving the way she sings, Aruna is a think-tank herself. She has a long chat with us and makes it so easy to keep chatting…
excerpts follow How did you see your own music from a world view?
(Laughs) I never realised that I was doing something unusual. Back then, everything was an opportunity for me and I took it up as it came to me. Long before I had made it in Chennai, I had the chance to perform for Europeans who visited Bombay and also travel to European countries. So, how do I present our music to them?
They don’t know Krishna, Rama, or even Kalyani or Kambodhi. So how? I had to feel music from my heart and get a universal view of it. When I went there, I was a ‘nobody’! They had giants like Mozart and Beethoven who left a rich legacy of music.
But I understood that instead of feeling small about myself, I should become big by looking at my music from a world view. I used to travel to Switzerland to teach music and present lecture demos to students between five and 18 years!
Small ones used to cry and many used to leave the room when I started singing — for them, it was a strange deep voice emerging from the throat. But, this was all an experience and having gone through this, I was able to get my music everywhere (smiles)
What is the ‘acid test’ you do before presenting new music to your audience?
I sing in 14 different languages —both regional and international. So, when I work with a colleague to produce something new, we have our own moments of inspiration.
For instance, there was a time when I was singing a Sanskrit sloka which was about ‘Mother Meenakshi’ and a colleague from France sang an Italian song to ‘Mother Mary’ (smiles). I hung out with his family for over a week, we used to eat, spend time and sing…then suddenly one day, as we were taking a walk, he sang and I sang and I went ‘hey! We have something!
So, it takes time to arrive at such music that involves several rich cultures. But, I make it a point to share and tell the audience about music that pleases and moves me. The acid test is to enjoy the piece, learn it and then present it.
Have you had moments of ‘being chained to the ground’?
(Grins) Oh, yes! I was in Germany and travelling for about three months to teach in a music college. There was a question in my mind, a blind search to learn more and ‘fly’…so, I landed in the house of a ‘guru’, a voice master who is the teacher of renowned opera singers — the top ones. So, he comes and the first thing he asks ‘Tell me, why are you here?’
I realised he wants to get to the point and I gave him an essence of it. I said, ‘Sir, I sing and I am reasonably established in my country and other places. But, when I sing I want to fly. I feel like I am grounded and chained. I want to break through and fly!’
That’s all I could get to tell him and the next minute we were singing! The next four days changed my perception and he made me understand that you don’t sing from just your throat, but the whole body needs to sing in alignment — he gave me that awareness though experiential trainings. Until then, I didn’t understand the concept, but after that nobody had to tell me about it, I
You have become synonymous with the concept of abhangs. How did it become a regular in all your concerts?
Abhangs have several forms and shapes — it can come from folk music, labourers’ music, story teller music or it can even be a Bhimsen Joshi music.
There are several layers and genre in which abhangs are handled. When I listened to it as a child, I felt a sudden connect and I didn’t do anything consciously. I even went through learning it with an abhang singer. But, I never thought it as a concert repertoire, until one day when I sat and thought about the Theerta Vittala song — I felt moved by it.
That’s when I decided to perform it on stage because within I knew I enjoy it so, I wanted to give it to the audience and there was an instant connect and it appealed to everyone. The abhang corresponds to a people’s movement — it’s the expression of human emotion at a simplest level. It’s simple and unpretentious. From then, there hasn’t been a single concert without me singing that