Song of Surrender

Saturday, 12 January 2013

From Mumbai, with music

BOMBAY JAYASHRI in conversation with V. RAMNARAYAN.

Who gave you your first music lessons?

My parents. My father, who was working for a company, unfailingly woke up at four every morning and did sadhakam, before leaving for work. My mother was known as Paattu Mami. Both Appa and she taught music, and there were classes almost the whole day at home, and I was around, learning by osmosis. My grandfathers – Narayana Iyer and Viswanatha Iyer – were connoisseurs of music. Viswanatha Iyer, my maternal grandfather, learnt from GNB, who was a friend of his.

My early music lessons were from my father. I clearly remember the four songs he taught me: Santanagopalakrishnam, a kriti in Khamas, the Ranjani varnam, also Ranjani niranjani in the same raga, and Seetapatey, another Khamas kriti.

My father died when I was very young, and Amma had to teach music for a living. When I was nine or ten, my mother thought it was time for someone else to keep a vigilant watch on my music learning, introduce some discipline to it. She sent me to T.R. Balamani, a friend and well known teacher at Matunga. Balamani Mami was not really a performer but a devoted teacher.

To which school or bani did Balamani belong?

She was born in a small village in Kerala. She went to school in Tripunitura, near Kochi, and learnt music there. When she moved to Chennai, she joined the Government College of Music as a student of Carnatic music. There her guru-s included Musiri Subramania Iyer, Brinda and later T.K. Govinda Rao. She faithfully followed her guru-s’ teaching and her style was an amalgam of all their styles.

Was she a strict teacher?

Yes. She did not approve of any other music like film music or north Indian music. But she was very loving, treated me like her own child. There was always idli or something ready for me to eat in Mami’s kitchen. It was a tiny flat, like my parents’ flat and most other middle class homes in Bombay.

When were these classes, during the week or weekends, and how far was your teacher’s home?

The classes were held in the afternoons. My school had a shift system and my classes there were in the morning. I took a bus from Chembur to Matunga where Mami lived. Initially, my mother’s friend walked me to the bus stop, but later I went on my own. Her daughter too was Balamani Mami’s student for a while.

Did you sing in the bus?

I must have. I remember that once the man next to me in the bus was singing a Carnatic kriti. And I asked him how he knew Carnatic music. He gave me some reply and continued to sing. It didn’t occur to him to ask me how I knew Carnatic music.

Did your teacher take you to concerts?

I hardly attended any concert in Mumbai. I remember only five concerts – M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.D. Ramanathan, M.L. Vasanthakumari, Nedunuri and Chitti Babu, during the late 1970s.

Balamani Mami was constantly preparing me and her other students to compete in a number of music competitions. It was very important for her that her students won prizes. And I invariably managed to do that.

She was responsible for giving me a strong foundation and making me kind of concert-ready, capable of doing niraval, swaraprastara, even ragam-tanam-pallavi.

Any music at school?

I sang the school prayer almost everyday. Another girl shared my burden of the prayer song through the years at school. For some reason, I kept my Carnatic music training a closely guarded secret, perhaps because my school, St. Anthony’s, a convent school, was rather cosmopolitan, with many Catholic students. The students spoke a variety of languages, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and so on. I don’t remember too many Tamil friends, perhaps because I was shy about my Carnatic music training and didn’t want my schoolmates to know. I tried my hand at dance and drama too! Apart from coordinating music in plays staged in school, I managed to play small roles in them.

I took part in the Campa Cola and Bournvita competitions, always winning prizes. No particular genre was prescribed in these competitions. The songs could be broadly classified as light music. Till class ten I sang Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle songs. My favourite film song was Satyam Shivam Sundaram and I won many prizes with it. I loved Asha Bhosle’s songs in Hindi, Marathi and so on. I practised film songs as diligently as I did classical music.

Did you continue to sing in college?

When I went to college – R.A. Poddar College at Matunga – a group of four of us participated in all kinds of events in Mumbai – Navaratri, Ganesa Chaturthi – with guitar, violin and tabla. We sang film songs of Asha, Lata, Rafi and Mukesh. In time, the group really grew large, with some 20 members. We started traveling all over Maharashtra and Gujarat, even buying a bus to cart us around.

All this led to opportunities to sing for advertisement jingles. I enjoyed doing them in the Bombay scenario, as most of the songs were done in many languages and I was comfortable with many – Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi. An ad would first be recorded in Hindi and then the other language versions. The lyrics would have to be fitted to the tune. And for TV ads, we had to do lip sync as well. We had language coaches ensuring we got it right in all the languages.

We jingle singers were one big happy family, and I thought it was an incredibly fashionable thing to do. Almost every well known singer in films was at one time a singer of jingles.

There must have been interesting experiences during this period.

One incident involved Hindustani flautist Ronu Majumdar, a childhood friend of mine, who learnt music along with me. I hadn’t seen him for a while when I ran into him as I was entering a recording studio and he was leaving it. I think he was there to play the flute for a film song being recorded there. “What are you doing here?” he asked me in surprise. When I told him, he said, “What! You are singing jingles?” in a rather dismissive tone. Here I was, proud that I was the jingle queen, singing songs in so many languages, and my friend was making light of it. I made a silent vow to show him one day how good I was – in a pure spirit of friendly rivalry – and years later we came together in thoroughly enjoyable jugalbandi-s.

When I eventually took the plunge into a career in Carnatic music, the choice was not easy. In jingles, the song was my own, no one else sang it, and in classical music, I’d be singing songs sung by thousands of musicians. What was it I could bring to them that all those singers did not? Such was the thinking of my young mind then!

What were the other Bombay influences that went into the making of Jayashri the musician?

I learnt dance from guru Kalyanasundaram of Rajarajeswari Kala Mandir for seven years. It was a big occasion when our guru asked us to perform abhinaya at the school. One day, I was eagerly looking forward to joining the group, when he said, “Jayashri, you sing today,” letting the other students dance. I was disappointed, but to this day haven’t found out whether I danced badly or sang so well he had to ask me to sing. The training enabled me to appreciate singing for dance as different from concert singing. I learnt to appreciate dance.

Did you learn Hindustani music?

My mother made me learn any and every kind of music around, if it was good music. Every time she heard someone good at a Navaratri festival or Ganesa Chaturthi, she found out about the musician and made me learn from him or her.

Hemant Kumar’s nephew, Gautam Mukherjee was staying in our colony, perhaps composing music for a Hindi film. He had moved from Calcutta to Bombay for the duration of the project. My mother heard him sing at a festival and took me to him to learn music. He taught me many geet and sang beautifully, but I cannot forget my first meeting with him. He was just 22 and I a mere 14. He was sitting there with harmonium at full bellow. He was not singing, not even humming, but kept staring at me. Then he asked me, “Want to learn music?” skeptical of this Tamil girl wanting to learn Hindustani songs. After I sang something for him, he asked me unsmilingly, “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?” He continued in his stern manner, “Go home and sit before a large mirror and practise singing for two hours.” I was tempted to ask him, “Why should I do that? I’m not dancing, am I?” but did not have the courage. He asked me to come back after a couple of weeks. When I went back, he asked: “What did you see in the mirror? Anything good? You shake your head, twitch your nose, make faces, look exactly like a monkey. And you make such complicated gestures. You are not singing anything complicated, anyway.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and soon I started crying loudly. I told my mother I did not want to go back. I was particularly hurt as he was a young man. It would have been OK if he had been a 60-year-old. Amma sent me back to him. Looking back, I am so grateful to him. He taught me stage presence and the visual aesthetics of singing.

I learnt Hindustani classical music for about eight years from Pandit Mahavirprasad Jaipurwale and his brothers. During this time I learnt several songs in Gujarati, and also saw Gujarati dance ballets at my guru’s place.

Did you perform Hindustani music?

No, I didn’t learn enough to perform Hindustani music, but learning it has had a positive influence over me. It has broadened my understanding of music.

Did you enjoy learning music or was it an imposition?

I have always loved music. What I objected to and occasionally rebelled against was the constant practice for competitions, and having to display my prowess before visitors. I always wonder why a musician has to do that, unlike an accountant or a doctor. They are not asked to show off their knowledge and expertise. The need to constantly compete in contests and win prizes sometimes got on my nerves, too, but the music itself was something I always loved.

All this hectic activity must have affected your studies?

Oh yes, I constantly had to bunk college to attend music classes, competitions and recordings. My college was very helpful. I was exempted from strict attendance, and my teachers accommodated me when I had to miss tests. They were all very fond of me, kind to me, though I did not have a great academic record, thanks to my musical activities.

What did you study?


Did you pass?

Yes, I have a B.Com degree!

When was your first Carnatic music concert?

My first Carnatic music concert, if you could call it that, was at a Ganesa Chaturthi festival in Chembur in 1982, when I was almost 18. My mother believed that my career should get off to an auspicious start and what could be a better start than receiving blessings from Ganesa?

Was it the same year that you sang for the first time in Madras?

No, that was much later. In 1982, I accompanied a family that attended the December season concerts in Madras year after year. I stayed with an uncle and went to the Music Academy everyday and listened to the morning and afternoon concerts. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, though I was overawed by the apparent knowledge levels of the mamas and mamis in the audience, so quick to recognise the raga-s on offer.

It was only in 1987 that I first sang in Madras. I took part in the Music Academy competitions in various categories and won a number of prizes. My mother was really inspired by that, and the seeds of the idea of shifting to Madras were sown then: “If Jayashri can do so well living in Bombay, surely she’ll do better if based in Madras,” she thought.

When we came again in 1989, accompanied by Balamani Mami, I won prizes in six categories of the Music Academy competitions. I remember that R.K. Shriram Kumar competed as a vocalist, too.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Vijay Siva then asked me to participate in the YACM competitions. This was my first concert in Madras. I won the best concert prize and received it from Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman (see photo), who had earlier visited us in Bombay. After listening to my singing at home, he had invited me to Madras and take lessons from him. Lalgudi Sir reminded me now of that conversation and said, “Come home tomorrow.” Vijay Siva who was on stage said to me, “Do you know what that means? Make sure you go tomorrow.”

Did you go to Lalgudi’s place the next morning?

Yes, I did. This was a turning point in my music career. Initially, I thought I would learn music from him for about a week! But I stayed on for a month, then two months, and finally several months. I was still staying with my uncle. My family, especially my mother, was worried that I was passing up chances of performing, and concentrating solely on learning.

What made you do that?

Lalgudi Sir gave me the confidence to believe in myself. He said my unusual background gave me an advantage in Carnatic music. “Only you can do it,” he would say, referring to the kind of emotive content he believed I could bring to my singing, with my exposure to music in different languages and genres. For someone from an orthodox musical background, he was surprisingly open and accepting. He too enjoyed the music of a Lata Mangeshkar or a Mehdi Hasan. After a couple of hours of strenuous practice, he would say, “Now, close your sruti box and sing a Lata Mangeshkar song.”

Initially I wondered if he was just being nice to me, but soon realised he was not the kind of man to praise someone just to make that person feel happy.

I had always been very fond of his sensitive violin playing, his rasa-soaked music. I was aware of his rich lineage, the great Lalgudi bani. He introduced me to a different dimension of music. Under his guidance I began to appreciate songs, their meaning. Often a whole class would be spent explaining a single word of a song. He would even indicate which songs would suit a particular kind of voice.

Even at this juncture I never thought of pursuing music with the intention of performing. I had no such ambition. Ironically Lalgudi Sir transformed me into a singer with what it takes to be a professional musician, but I did not perform for nearly four years. I realised what it meant to lose yourself in music.

When did you start performing again?

Towards the end of 1992. Soon, more concert opportunities came.

Was your music different now, as a result of the Lalgudi impact?

Yes, of course. I was very influenced by his violin music. The way I sang now was vastly different from my earlier style. I had to face the criticism that my singing seemed to focus more on vocalising the subtle nuances that made Lalgudi Sir’s violin playing special, and that I was no longer giving full vent to my voice.

That was only a phase in your musical career.

Yes, I am now a different singer. By 1993, I had stopped going to my guru on a daily basis, though he continues to be my guru and until recently was able to teach. The way I sang during that phase – and much of the criticism was fair – was my own doing. It was my fault that I was unable to fathom the depth of my guru’s teaching, that I was interpreting it on a superficial level. In time, with serious introspection, I came to understand his intent – that of imparting sensitivity and intense internalisation of both raga and content. Today, I believe my music reflects the best of my varied upbringing in greater measure than before.

You are known for your sruti suddham. Is it natural or acquired through hard work?

Natural ability is no doubt a part of it. But one does work hard at it. I am inspired by some great voices – like Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mehdi Hasan. I listened to them all at least once in two days. I used to listen to the past masters of Carnatic music a lot, but not so much now.

Do you do any voice training?

I do yoga and pranayama regularly, and that helps my voice, I believe. Of course, I try to take care of my voice, but avoiding ice cream and cold drinks doesn’t seem to prevent sore throats and colds!

You have expanded your repertoire substantially over the years, and seem to have diligently worked at perfecting the enunciation of lyrics. How much does the devotional content of Carnatic music matter to you?

I have great bhakti for the raga, for the music, even more than the meaning of the verses. After one of my concerts, a listener came up to me and said that she had enjoyed my rendering of Krishna nee begane and that she could visualise Lord Krishna. She was certain that I was singing with the image of Krishna in mind. I told her that I was focusing only on the beauty of the raga Yamunakalyani. This has been interpreted as my lack of belief in God. All I meant was that when I sing, it is the beauty of the raga that overwhelms me. It is rarely that you think of Krishna’s peacock feather or his butter-stealing antics, while singing on stage. This can easily be demonstrated by alternately speaking the lines and singing them. If I merely utter the words, Krishna nee begane baro, rather than sing them, do you feel any bhakti? Is it the raga or the verse that inspires bhakti?

You have been involved in jugalbandi and fusion efforts.

Ronu Majumdar and I first met in Pandit Jaipurwale’s music class. Even then, he composed a lot. He’d make me sing those pieces too! I sang them in small chamber recitals during Ganesa Chaturthi or Dussehra. We also did a few recordings for local circulation. My whole family became Ronu’s fans. You could listen to his Abhogi forever. He’d play the flute while I sang Carnatic kriti-s, exploring Khamas, Andolika or Mohanakalyani in his own way. Which is why, when we came together on the concert platform decades later, the fusion really worked. We knew each other’s music thoroughly. I have also collaborated with Shubha Mudgal.

It was a great experience singing for Leela Samson’s Navarasa. It was a revelation for me; my early dance training helped, no doubt. She was very clear about what kind of music she wanted and could bring out the best in me.

Another memorable experience has been singing with a Finnish orchestra at Helsinki, thanks to my friend Eero Hameenniemi. We have had two such concerts so far. Eero has been coming to Chennai for several years, and appreciates Carnatic music. He has also studied ancient Tamil literature, and I sang verses from Sangam literature with the Avanti Chamber Orchestra to music Eero had composed.

T.M. Krishna and you have been involved in collaborative efforts like Voices Within and Svanubhava. What has impelled you to venture into these projects?

It is important to give back to Carnatic music, which has given us so much. Among other things, we are also ensuring a future constituency of rasika-s and a link between past, present and future.

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