Song of Surrender

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Niranjana Srinivasan

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

Niranjana Srinivasan hails from the revered D.K. Pattammal school of music. Her parents initiated her into Carnatic music at the age of ten. What started as a chore eventually turned out into the passion of her life, and she is now a full-time musician. She attributes this magical turn of events in her life to her current guru Lalita Sivakumar. Her guru is the daughter of the late Palghat Mani Iyer and daughter-in-law of the late D.K. Pattammal. Niranjana recently spoke to Sruti.

Tell us about your musical journey with Lalita Sivakumar.

My earliest recollection of feeling really fascinated by Carnatic music was when I was listening to Nithya Akka (noted vocalist Nithyashree Mahadevan). Her music inspired me so much that I decided then that I would learn music only from her or her guru. With the support and encouragement of my family, I started my tutelage under Nithya Akka’s mother and my current guru Lalita Sivakumar.

I recall that Sivakumar Mama was apprehensive about mami taking me under her wing. He expressed concern that I had a long way to go and this would not be an easy journey. As he rightly pointed out, it was a difficult journey, both literally and metaphorically. My mother and I used to travel to Chennai by train every weekend and during all my holidays to learn from Mami. I also had trouble adapting to Mami’s pathantara as it is one that requires strenuous effort and ardent practice.

It is Mami’s affection and encouragement that completely transformed me into the musician I am today. She would ask me to enter all the competitions that the various sabhas conducted. It helped me believe in myself as a capable musician.

What made you want to pursue a master’s in music?

Upon completion of my under-graduate studies in Commerce, I realised that I would need to dedicate a full day’s worth of time to practise and listen to music if I wanted to reach a concert performing level. It also did not seem feasible to travel every weekend. That prompted me to take up music in university, as I knew the theory would help enhance my practical knowledge. I was very fortunate to have Dr. M.A. Bhageerathi (Head of the Department of Music, Queen Mary’s College) as my Ph.D mentor. She is a walking music encyclopaedia.

I have always admired Muthuswami Dikshitar’s kritis. His kritis are very technical, and it is no walk in the park to learn and perform them. Therefore, I decided to take up that challenge. My thesis was in Gaulantya ragas with special reference to the Neelotpalambal vibhakti kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar.

The process of getting through my doctorate was an arduous journey. It involved reading many books on musicology, identifying all the Gaulantya ragas which are rarely showcased in today’s concert platforms, visiting the Tiruvarur temple. Through this I gained so much theoretical experience that expresses the composer’s intention and bhava through notation.

How important do you think it is for music learners to attend lecdem sessions?

I have been a part of many lecdem sessions conducted by Dr. Bhageerathi. Based on my personal experience, I think it is important for music learners and students to attend lecdems to gain the best knowledge on a particular topic. Many a time, we overlook some musical aspects without realising their importance. These sessions help give those aspects context, thereby enabling the listener to incorporate that into his or her music — for example why composers have chosen vilamba kala for their kritis or how holding a specific swara a certain way can bring out the raga lakshana immediately.

Do you teach music? How has teaching improved your music?

Yes I do, I have a few students now. Teaching definitely improves one’s performance. Everytime I teach a kriti, even if it is one that I have performed several times before, I discover a new element which I would not have noticed before. Moreover, I believe teaching has helped me in sruti alignment. I can now hold notes without falling flat or going sharp.I enjoy teaching as it brings me memories of my classes with Mami. I recall all the funny anecdotes that transpired when I learnt a particular kriti from Mami.

What are some of the practice routines that you suggest for your students?

Sadhakam involves aspects like
  • generic practice of the old songs which one would have learnt
  • learning a new kriti or varnam or even
  • listening to a ragam or neraval performed by someone else
Apart from that, one should also do akaara practice on a regular basis. Akaaram involves practising janta varisai, alankarams and daattu varisais in different ragas. Any raga with the same ascending and descending scales can be used for akaara practice. These practices help you improve your grip on the swarasthanas.

Varnams can be practised in akaaram. This improves breath control and helps you to transit effortlessly from one swara to another. In my opinion, these practices are essential. Even the most gifted voice needs to be honed by sadhakam.

What is your fondest memory of D.K. Pattammal?

Pattammal Paati was already old when I started learning from Mami. Paati always sat out on the porch in the evenings and I saw her whenever I had classes in the evenings. My fondest memory with Paati was when Mami asked me to sing a song for her. I sang Manasa etulo and thought to myself how fortunate I must be to have this opportunity. She blessed me and told me that I had a good voice and that I would reach great heights with more learning and practice.

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