Song of Surrender

Monday, 9 December 2013

Musicians in Classical Dance

(A new series of interviews)
By Anjana Anand

Dr. Vanathy Raghuraman

Dr. Vanathy Raghuraman, daughter and disciple of Sangita Kalanidhi, Dr. S. Ramanathan, has been a vocalist forBharatanatyam for the past two decades. Following in her father’s footsteps, Vanathy Raghuraman ventured into research and obtained a doctorate. An approachable singer, ever willing to encourage young artistes, she has performed with stalwarts like C.V Chandrasekhar, the Dhananjayans, Kalanidhi Narayanan, and Vyjayantimala to name a few. 

Her honours include the “Best Singer for Dance” award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 1998 and 2004, and the title Sangita Vipanchi from the Balamurali Krishna Trust in 2007.


Her success stems from her training in Bharatanatyam as a young girl in Madurai. 

Vanathy Raghuraman spoke to Sruti:

Your background in music?

I learnt music from my father. We are a family of musicians and I was always surrounded by music from a young age. I was giving concerts before coming into the dance world. I did my Bachelors in Music from Queen Mary’s College and Masters at Madras University, where I also completed my Ph.D. My thesis deals with musical instruments and dance details from the Kamba Ramayana.

You are one of the few musicians who also learnt and performed Bharatanatyam….

I was always interested in dance. I did my arangetram under the tutelage of Trigokarnam S. Ranganayaki Ammal. I used to come to Chennai from Madurai to perform with Kameswaran’s and SujataVijayaraghavan’s dance group. Once we moved to Chennai I came to the Dhanajayans and studied with them for some time. I also learnt the varnam Manavichekona from Anandhi Ramachandran of Kalakshetra. SK Rajarathnam Sir also taught me. At that time, I sometimes sang for some dance programmes but not in a serious way. I am glad now that I also learnt nattuvangam from Sri Seetarama Sarma. After my daughter was born, I took a break.

How did you start singing for dance after that?

My nieces from my husband’s family in the US were having their arangetram and asked me to sing for them. I did not have much experience singing for dance, so I went to meet Dhananjayan sir to guide me. He and Shanta Akka took a lot of interest to train me in a meticulous manner. I used to sit in their classes and learn the items performed in their school. The first varnam I learned to sing was Ati moham konden, which I sang for their student the very next day!

From then, I have mainly been singing for the Dhananjayans. 

Over the years, I sang for others like Vyjayantimala, CV Chandrasekhar and Lakshmi Ramaswamy, to name a few. I used to travel extensively for arangetrams abroad, sometimes months on end. Now I have slowed down a little and prefer taking performances here and at my own pace.

Without a doubt, my Bharatanatyam training has been the reason why I enjoy singing for dance. Being a good singer does not automatically make you a good dance musician. From the Dhananjayans, I learned when to sing and when not to sing! For example when the dancer is performing a sanchari, Dhanajayan Sir would insist that I give a break for the instrumentalists to take over. This not only gave some relief for the listener but also a chance for the accompanists. This technique is crucial for the success of a show. Besides these tips, I found it easy to sing because I could watch the dance closely and understand where to take a sanchari or what sangati to sing, as I am familiar with the dance mudras and vocabulary. When I am singing, the dancers do not need to fix the number of times to repeat a line, as I often keep a visual cue. I also identify with the mood of each scene and sing accordingly.

Did you miss perfoming as a cutcheri artiste?

Not at all. I loved singing for dance, maybe because I was a dancer myself. I found it interesting to work with different dancers. Each one has her own style – Kalanidhi Mami’s rendition of padams or Vyjayantimala’s preference for certain sangatis to suit her composition—which keeps me on my toes.

What are the challenges you have faced?

Singing for many dancers means acquiring a huge repertoire of songs, with each school differing in the way the composition is sung! That requires practice and alertness. Also getting used to the style of each performer takes time. Some dancers give you the freedom with just a cue to move to the next line while others prefer a fixed number of repetitions for each line. At times, dancers are particular about certain sangatis that must be sung as they would have composed the movements accordingly. That is a pleasure to observe. Sometimes dancers who do not have music knowledge ask me to sing songs from recordings which have not been sung correctly or lack classicism in the rendition. I avoid singing for them. 

You have composed music for dance. 

I have tuned songs chosen by dancers for the traditional margam and for dance productions. I have worked a lot on tuning Sangam poetry and lyrics from ancient Tamil literature. For these items and productions I use traditional panns to suit the era of the compositions. Rather than modern ragas like Revati or Vasanti, I set most of these compositions in traditional ragas. I enjoy composing for dance as I can visualize what the dancer wants.

Dr. S. Raghuraman has been a great support in your career. 

My husband Dr. S. Raghuraman has encouraged me as a musician from the time we were married. Later, he too got involved in the dance field as he is a Professor in Tamil with a lot of knowledge and interest in the arts. He has a passion for the Tamil language and has been encouraging artistes to share our rich literary heritage which is suitable for natya. He has been helping dancers with their productions by giving research inputs as well as penning lyrics for dance productions. I have tuned many compositions he has written. He was a great support for my Ph.D as well.

Please name some productions for which you have composed.

Ashta Nayikas and Rasa of Sangam Age for Kalanidhi Narayanan, ‘Maname Brindavaname’ for Malavika Sarukkai, Puranaanooru, Aalaavadu Eppadiyo and Aindhum Aiyanum for Dr. Lakshmi Ramaswamy, a production on Urmila and Sita for Dr. Draupadi, and ‘Ramayanam’ for Hariharan.

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