Song of Surrender

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Girija Ramaswamy

Music for Bharatanatyam

By Anjana Anand

Girija Ramaswamy is a versatile musician who has made a mark in Carnatic music as a Harikatha artiste, vocalist for Bharatanatyam, cutcheri singer and dedicated teacher. A graded artiste of Doordarshan and All India Radio in vocal classical, Girija has been active in the music and Bharatanatyam field for over four decades. She is at present a lecturer in music at the Tamil Nadu Govt. Music College. Her unflagging enthusiasm has been the key to her success.

Your mother played a big role in shaping your music.

I come from a musical family, and without a doubt, it was my mother who made me the musician I am today. My grandmother used to sing beautifully. Although she never took it up as a profession, she had great interest and knowledge in Carnatic music. My mother Savithri Srinivasan learnt Carnatic music from the Music College in the 1960s, passing out with distinction. She used to practise regularly even after I was born. She was well versed in Telugu and could write poetic lyrics at a moment’s notice.

I learnt many things about life from my mother. She was very active till her demise about a year ago. She constantly pushed me to further my growth and learning. There was no question of rest. In fact, she would say that our end should be the only time we take rest – once and for all! That motivation has kept me going all these years. I am always looking for new ways to kindle my interest and learning.

What was your early exposure to music?

When I was about three years of age, she was practising a kriti in Mayamalavagowlai and I started identifying the swarams. Realizing that I had a talent in music, my mother decided to teach me Carnatic vocal. At five, she decided to train me in Harikatha and she requested Sri Saidai Tevaram. T. Natarajan (her Tevaram teacher) to teach me. At first Vaadyar said I was too young to learn Harikatha but at my grandmother’s and mother’s insistence, he finally agreed. The first two stories I learnt were the Kannapa Nayanar Charitram and Karaikal Ammaiyar. Along with my mother I also learnt tevarams from him. Besides learning continuously from my mother, I took part in a lot of competitions in tevarams, padavarnams, padams, keertanams and so on. I acquired an extensive my pathantaram. I can only thank my mother’s strict mentoring for that.

I was more her disciple than her daughter. My guru bhakti towards her was more than my relationship to her as her daughter. In fact, I was more a child with my father! With my mother, I obeyed her to the hilt and never questioned her – even as a mature adult.

Do you remember when you first performed on stage?

I was seven and my family wanted to arrange my arangetram. They were not sure how to go about the arrangements but my vaadyar told them to hold my first concert at the Sankara Math nearby. I was so tiny then and was almost lost in the big crowd there. One of the chief guests Vaidyasubramaniya Iyer presented me with a silver lamp which I still light in my puja room everyday. I soon started performing everywhere and was known as Baby Girija. For my second performance arranged in Alwarpet, I remember my mother coming late for my performance as she was in the taxi behind mine. I cried and refused to sing until I saw her! This is my 47th year as a Harikatha artiste and I can say with humility with the blessings of many great vidwans and well wishers I have been able to develop my talents to this level.

You received many awards and titles at a young age.

The first title I received was ‘Kala Rathnam’ from Pudukotai Sri Santananda Swamigal. I then received the title ‘Naavanmai Mikka Nallisai Selvi’ from my guru in 1970. In 1978, I received the second prize for classical music from All India Radio. It was presented by Lalgudi Jayaraman sir. I received these titles at a young age but at no point did it give make me proud. My mother believed that as you grow as an artist, you must become more and more humble. 

I remember that once I attended my school exams with flowers in my hair as I had to perform right after the exam. As children do, my friends teased me and I retorted that I was talented and could do many things. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, my mother overheard this! She took me to one side and told me that what I had said in pride was wrong and that learning is a lifetime journey. She said that every time I went on stage, it was a test and I was not to ever think that I knew everything. Her words ring in my ears even today. She showed me the path to my music and my life.

What are some of the memorable moments in your career?

When I was about 13, I won the Padavarnam competition and the judge was none other than Brindamma. I remember her saying to me with a twinkle in her eye, “Girija, people say that only I am capable of singing padavarnams but today you have proved otherwise’. I treasure her words of encouragement.

I was the first artiste to record Harikatha for Doordarshan. It was for fifteen minutes and we did not have a TV in those days. I peeped through a neighbour’s window to watch that broadcast!

In 2000, I received the Kalaimamani title for my music for vocal accompaniment for Bharatanatyam.

When did you start singing for Bharatanatyam?

In 1980, Mr. Sankaran from the sabha recommended my name to Dr. Vyjayantimala Bali to sing for her. At that time I did not know what a Bharatanatyam repertoire consisted of. However I chose the padavarnam ‘Atimohamkonda’ in Mohanam. I remember this varnam very well because it requires so much breath control and is so slow paced that when I was young, I found it boring! My mother advised me to learn these varnams as she said it would also help my chronic wheezing. How right she was!

For Vyjantimala’s performance, I sang ‘Sumasayaka’ in Kapi, which I learnt directly from her. In 1981, I got married and moved to Calcutta for a few years. On my return, I joined the Padma Seshadri school to teach music, slokas and Sanskrit. Mrs. YGP asked me to sing for Madhuvanti Arun. From then on, I sang for many dancers –Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Krishnakumari Narendran, Rhadha, KJ Sarasa, Dr. Saraswathi Sunderesan, Parvati Ravi Ghantasala and Shobanato name a  few. At one time, I sang solely for Sarasa Amma’s school which had many performances. The only time I took a break was for my Harikatha performances. I was happy to receive the Sudharani RaghupathyEndowment award from Natyarangam in 2012 for my music for Bharatanatyam.

How did you learn compositions for Bharatanatyam performances?

I would notate all the songs as Sarasa Amma sang during practice. I did not have the habit of recording as we do today. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan also taught me many songs from Rhadha Aunty’s repertoire. I gained experience learning from Dr. Balamuralikrishna and Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan when they composed music for dance dramas.

You taught in Padma Seshadrischool for many years. Did you enjoy teaching?

I loved teaching. So many children have passed out having learnt music from me. I have learnt so much myself from teaching these children. Mrs. YGP often said, ‘Girija, you may be a great performer but let me tell you the satisfaction you will get from training and moulding the lives of children is unparalleled.’ She was absolutely right.

Did you aspire to become a Carnatic kutcheri performer?

I never planned anything. I think our path is predestined. It is true that I lost out on opportunities to become a kutcheri artiste because I entered the Bharatantayam field. Sabha organizers hesitated to give me a slot for Carnatic concerts as they felt I was already singing at their sabhas for Bharatanatyam performances.

Do you teach Harikatha?

Many people have expressed an interest to learn, but honestly, I do not know how to teach Harikatha! This art form has so many aspects to it – music, story telling, sound knowledge of mythology. I imbibed all this at a very young age and it came naturally to me. At PSBB, Mrs YGP encouraged me to teach Harikathato my son which he performed very well in his school days. I encourage my students at college who have good musical skills to learn Harikatha. They learn small stories and perform for the annual day. Unfortunately, after that they do not continue their leaning in this form. Harikatha requires regular practice. Only through experience and performances can you improve.

Which form do you enjoy most, Harikatha or singing for Bharatantyam?

I would say both. Both these forms have some common ground. In Harikatha, I sing and do some abhinaya to animate my stories. In Natyam, I sing and someone else does abhinaya. They require different skills. In Harikatha, you have to be somewhat of a linguist. Speaking in different languages depending on where we perform is important in reaching out to the audience. I make it a point to speak a little Kannada in a performance on Purandaradasa in Karnataka or in Telugu in Andhra. In Bharatanatyam, we have to be alert and watch the dancer carefully. With experience, I have learnt to sing watching every move of the performer. In some performances, a vrittam which the dancer and I performed on stage impromptu has worked even better than the practised items. I am also careful about the pronunciation of lyrics irrespective of the language.

My philosophy in life is simple. I am not ambitious in my musical career because I believe that opportunities will come to us if we are dedicated to our art form. When they come, I believe we must take each performance as an exam and excel. This way, we can focus on the process rather than the result. It makes life so much more satisfying and stress free.

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