Song of Surrender

Monday, 19 May 2014

S Rajeswari

Music for Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand


To meet S Rajeswari—who has been in the music and dance field for over five decades and hear about her journey from rigorous practice sessions with music stalwarts to kutcheris to natyam performances and to academics—is inspiring.

What strikes you about this unassuming artiste is her confidence and varied musical achievements rooted in a strong pathantaram. She has no regrets about not being a frontline Carnatic vocalist. As she says with a smile, ‘Our duty is to learn. How we use that knowledge is left to Him.’


You have had training from many stalwarts in the field.

I was very lucky to have the best gurus guiding me through my career. I started my training at the age of six or seven under Tanjai Balasubramaniam. I was exposed to classical music as my father, a music enthusiast, was a sabha secretary and we had many musicians coming to our house. My aunts and sisters too learnt music. I continued my training with Ramnad Krishnan. As he became very busy with his performances and could not teach me regularly, he encouraged me to continue my learning with someone who could spend more time honing my talent. Madurai Krishnan agreed to teach me and for the next seven years, I was under his tutelage. Each of these gurus laid a strong foundation in music for me and contributed in different ways to my skills. I was simultaneously trained in Tevaram and Tiruppugazh by Dharmapuram Swaminathan. I learnt so much about tala and laya with this training. I broadened my knowledge in vivadi ragas through S. Rajam. And how can I forget my wonderful years of learning with D. K Jayaraman!

Your education in music did not stop there. Your journey into music theory and academics continued.

Yes. I joined the Central College of Carnatic Music and was blessed once again to learn from giants like T.M. Thiagarajan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, and T Brinda. It was here that a turning point in my career took place. I was 43 when I completed my B.A in Music from Madras University and in 2006 completed my M. Phil. The journey is not over. I would like to do my Ph.D. soon.

Time management seems to be the secret of your success. How did you balance performances and classes?

My day started at 4 am when my father woke me up for practice. There was no chance of sleeping later than that, as his second wake-up call was by splashing water on my face! I started cutcheri performances from the age of 11 . I sang at the Music Academy when I was 15. I was actively singing in all the sabhas by then. I won the AIR competition in both the light music and classical music categories. In 1995, when I performed in the senior slot at the Music Academy, my guru D.K Jayaraman blessed me. My learning never stopped in this period.

Your early focused start in Carnatic music points to a career as a star kutcheri performer. How did this path suddenly change?

You can call it fate! I said earlier that the Central Music College was a turning point for me. In 1967, the college had arranged a lec-dem by veena vidwan S Balachander. I was a student watching and participating in the workshop. A lady who was keenly watching me leaned over and told me that I was singing well and asked if I would go meet her at home. It was none other than the dancer Kamala Lakshman! When she asked me if I could sing for her performance, my father encouraged me to accept her request as she was a senior artiste and it would give me a new experience. His only advice was that they should not change my singing style or control me. I sang for Kamala till 1975 when she moved to the US. I was doing solo cutcheris as well during this period

Looking back do you feel that the move to accompanying Bharatanatyam artistes deprived you of opportunities as a solo artiste

I don’t feel that the quality of my music was in anyway affected by this decision to sing for Bharatanatyam. In fact it added another dimension to my music in terms of emotion, understanding of sahityam and pronunciation. However, it affected my opportunities for solo performances as people felt they had heard my music in dance performances already! When I came back to India from Mauritius in 2000, I applied to all the sabhas informing them that I was available for any concerts and performances but nothing materialized.

Did you find it difficult to adjust to your new role as a Bharatanatyam vocalist?

Not at all. I think once your foundation is strong and you understand the soul of Carnatic music then you can adapt it in any way to suit other art forms. The biggest plus points were that Kamala and most of the artistes I sang for gave me complete freedom with my music. I had an instinctive understanding of what was needed for Bharatanatyam. I used all the techniques of ragam rendition, tanam and neravel to suit the mood and emotion of the dance. My performances with Kamala were a hit. People said the combination of music and dance was a perfect blend.

I have sung for Anita Ratnam, Sudharani Raghupathy, Vempati Chinna Satyam, Chitra Visweswaran, Alarmel Valli, Srinidhi Chidambaram and Rajashri Goutham, to name a few.

You also did nattuvangam and learnt Bharatanatyam…

Yes, I learnt for sometime from Adyar Lakshmanan Sir and was a rasika of Bharatanatyam even before entering the field. In fact for many years, I taught Bharatanatyam till I moved to a house where I was unable to conduct classes at home. I think my foundation in tala especially fom Tevaram and Tiruppugazh singing gave me an understanding of the requirements for nattuvangam and jati composition. It was a natural progression.

What is the main difference between singing for Bharatanatyam and concerts?


The music is the same. I never diluted or changed my music just because I was singing to complement the dance. It is important however to choose the sangadhis and prayogas which suit the abhinaya being performed. Or to plan the neravel or raga alapana based on the what the dancer is communicating. That sense is required to make a performance a success.

In a solo cutcheri one has free rein. The presentation of Carnatic music with all its technical nuances is the focus and the vocalist is the leader.

Tell us about your other roles besides being a solo performer and accompanying vocalist for natyam.

In 1979 I joined my alma mater (Government Music College) as a lecturer. I worked there for 26 years as Professor and later Principal in charge. In 1980, the TV station conducted a music meet for 12 episodes directed by S. Balachander and I sang Carnatic music and Lakshmi Shankar performed Hindustani music. Amazed at my sruti alignment, she asked me if I had a tambura attached to my voice box!

In 1996, I was sent by ICCR, New Delhi, to Mauritius to teach music at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture for four years. I groomed many students in Carnatic music there.

I am at present the arts director at a junior college called La Chatelaine. I teach music at home and to students abroad on skype. I would be happy to train up and coming dance vocalists and pass on my knowledge and experience to them.

You have also composed music for Bharatanatyam.

Yes. I composed many songs for Kamala and full length works like Tiruvachakam and Rukmini Kalyanam. I have composed many jatiswarms and varnams for artistes like Jaya Mani and Rajashri Shankaran.

What is your training like?

My students are trained in a methodical way. I take only individual classes and teach them both practical and theory of music. One of my students in Singapore – Saraswathy Kishan a dedicated and bright artiste– runs Lahari, a forum for music promotion where I am the visiting Professor and Director . Both Saraswathy and I have written a book Ganamrutha Varshini, a Carnatic music guide for students and parents.

Name some of the CDs you have brought out.

I have recorded basic lessons in Carnatic music produced by HMV in 13 volumes, Slokas for children, Marriage songs, Ganesa Stutis and Lalita Sahasranamam for Cosmic, to name a few.

Memorable moments in your career…

A performance in 1983, in which I was singing for Vempati Chinna Satyam, lasted from 630 to 1015 pm. MGR, the chief minister then, attended the function and although he was only supposed to stay for a short time, ended up staying for the whole show. During his speech he mentioned that he had been following my music career for a long time and that he had bought a bhajan cassette of mine which he regularly played in his car while travelling to work. In 1984, because of the efforts of MGR, I received the first Kalaimamani award instituted for dance musicians.

Many great musicians like M.S Subhalakshmi and D. K. Pattamal whom I admired also gave me their stamp of approval after listening to my music. Such words of praise from legends and rasikas alike are my true awards.

I was happy to receive the ’GandharvaNipuna’ award from ABHAI in 2009 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2010 for contribution to dance music.

I enjoyed a performance with Dhananjayan Anna, when he performed a vruttam impromptu and I sang for him. Once during Kamala’s performance, a rasika asked her to perform an item on Muruga which he had written. During the interval, I tuned it and Kamala danced.

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