Musicans for classical dance
By Anjana Anand
A Kalakshetra alumnus who has been a vocalist for Bharatanatyam for three decades now, Radha Badri needs no introduction. A talented artiste who could have easily made a mark as a musician on the concert platform, Radha Badri has been an asset to the Bharatanatyam field. She shares her experiences with Sruti, speaking with fondness and nostalgia about her alma mater.
You were exposed to a lot of Carnatic music from a young age. Tell us about your early experience.
I was born in Tiruvaiyaru. My grandfather was in charge of the Tyagaraja Aradhanai and a galaxy of stars stayed with us while performing during the festival--ML Vasantakumari, Rukmini Devi, G.N Balasubramaniam, MS Subbulakshmi, and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, to name a few. My sisters learnt music and they are good musicians though they do not perform. One of them studied at the Tiruvaiyaru Music College and my older sister plays the veena. I never learnt music formally then. I used to hear my sisters sing and of course the cutcheris of great musicians who performed at Tiruvaiyaru.
How did you come to Kalakshetra?
NS Jayalakshmi, one of the early students of Rukmini Devi was related to us and on a visit to our home, she heard me casually hum and suggested that I join Kalakshetra. My initial intention to join after my tenth standard did not happen, though I went for the interview conducted by M.D Ramanathan and Budulur Krishnamurthy. Later, I finished my twelfth standard and became a music student in Kalakshetra. Athai (Rukmini Devi) gave me a scholarship to finish the course.
Who were your gurus?
My formal training started in Kalakshetra and I was under the tutelage of Mani sir –a direct disciple of Papanasam Sivan, Balasaraswathy (the vocalist), Vairamangalam Lakshminarayanan, Salem Chellam Iyengar and D Pasupati. I passed my diploma with distinction and my post diploma with a first class.
When did you start singing for Bharatanatyam?
In 1983-84, I started singing for variety programmes in Kalakshetra. The first dance drama I sang for was Kurma Avataram and Seetarama Sarma Sir taught me the music for it. I used to sing sitting behind him. I started singing on my own for Choodamani Pradanam, Sabari Moksham, Jayadeva and Usha Parinayam, to name a few.
How did you learn the music for each dance drama?
Kamala Rani teacher had very clear music notations written for each dance- drama. Sai Shankar and I would sit in our free time and learn the songs one by one. He was also singing for dance dramas then. It was not difficult as the notations were clear and we had heard the music many times during performances and rehearsals.
You studied music in an institution and had many gurus. Do you feel it is better to be under one teacher?
Not at all. When we join an institution, we are prepared to learn from many teachers. As far as music is concerned, I feel this is a good thing. Unlike in Bharatanatyam, where there may be many different styles within the form, in Carnatic music, the differences are not so pronounced. I was able to get the best that each teacher offered. It only enriched my music.
When you left Kalakshetra in 1991, did you continue as a vocalist for dance, or did you focus on kutcheris?
I was doing music concerts very regularly. I sang for the 12 noon slot at the Music Academy for sometime and then in the 2-4 pm slot. I was also singing for Bharatanatyam. I first started singing for the Dhananjayans and Malavika Sarukkai. From 1992, I started singing for Krishnakumari Narendran, Ranganayaki Jayaram, Srinidhi Chidambaram and Shobana. There were not many female vocalists at that time so I became busy singing for Bharatanatyam.
No, not at all. It is because of Bharatanatyam and Kalakshetra that I had an opportunity to be around great artistes and see them at work. Many say that vocalists choose to sing for Bharatanatyam because it is financially viable. That is not the only reason. If that were true, I would be singing for two to three performances a day!
I have a lot satisfaction singing for natyam. I enjoy working with dancers and want them to feel comfortable on stage. Interacting with artistes of high calibre has been the most satisfying experience. I have sung with artistes like SK Rajarathnam and Adyar Lakshman. They are so inspiring. For Srinidhi Chidambaram’s performance, SK Rajarathnam Pillai and Sethuraman would sing in the first half of the performance and I would sing for the second half. I still remember the beautiful niraval by Lakshman sir for sancharis. The music and the dance travelled together without overpowering each other!
What were your memorable moments at Kalakshetra?
It was the whole way of life which shaped my thoughts and ideas about art. We never thought of each art as a separate form. That is why I said earlier that I have no regrets about being a dance vocalist. My memories of singing for legends like Ramankutty, Kunhiraman, Janardhanan, Balagopal and Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, with Rukmini Devi overseeing us, are most precious to me. If I had not been in the Bharatanatyam field, I would have never have had these wonderful opportunities. What more can I ask for?
How has the training in Kalakshetra helped you?
Firstly, the very fact that Bharatanatyam and music coexisted helped us understand each other’s form. The most important training was learning to sing without referring to the book. We were taught to absorb and retain everything. That helped me internalize the music I learnt. I sang without looking at my reference book for all the dance dramas – like my Kalakshetra colleagues. Pudukottai sir would not even let us keep our pen and book with us while learning music.Today I realize how important it is to sing without the distraction of the book!
How did you manage your time as a performing artiste with family responsibilities?
It is hectic but I do not take more performances than I can handle. Even during the season time, I don’t sing for more than one performance a day. I give a lot of importance to family commitments. Of course, my in laws and husband have been very cooperative. That is essential for an artiste in this field.
What changes in the margam have you observed over the last couple of decades?
Earlier there was a clear margam structure. Nowadays the opening item can be keertanams or other non - conventional items. The second half always had a padam, javali or a keertanam by Gopalakrishna Bharati or Muthu Tandavar. Today in a varnam, some artistes interpolate other verses to expand on the theme of the varnam. These are some of the changes I have observed.
Any advice for aspiring vocalists?
I think you have to come with an open mind to sing for dance. Alertness and willingness to work closely with the dancer are essential. As Bharatanatyam vocalists, we have to remember that a successful performance is the coming together and blending of music and dance. Also I have found it useful to focus only on the performance I am singing for in the evening. Only after that do I think about what to prepare for a rehearsal on the next day. If we do not learn to focus in this manner, it can be quite exhausting as each school will have its own version of the same item. Also as far as possible, we should try to learn songs from authentic sources. It is our responsibility to preserve the music as it has been handed down to us.
What are some of your awards?
Certificate of Merit – Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Outstanding “Young Talent Award” for Vocal – S. Viswanathan Award (1994) and ‘Best Concert Award’ (1995) - Music Academy, ‘Kalaimamani’ from the Tamil Nadu Government – 2001.