Musicians in classical dance
By Anjana Anand
Chitrambari Krishnakumar is a versatile artist who has adapted with ease to the Bharatanatyam field. She was selected by the Eyal Isai Nataka Manram (1995-96) under the scheme recognising promising young artists. Since then she has won many awards including the ‘Best accompanying artist’ award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. She also teaches music to students. A B-high grade vocalist with All India Radio, Chitrambari is happy that her music has brought her recognition and that singing has become an integral part of her life.
Does your family have a background in music?
I come from a very musical family. My parents sing. My paternal uncle was a disciple of GNB and I started my training with him. It was at my mother’s insistence that I took to music full time.
Who are your gurus?
My late uncle S. Balasubramaniam and Charumathi Ramachandran.
When did you start performing?
I used to sing a lot of Tiruppugazhs. I also sang light music on stage for a long time. It was only after joining Queen Mary’s College that I came to a stage when I started giving kutcheris.
How did you decide to join the music course in Queen Mary’s College?
Actually, it was not completely my decision. My mother filled up the admission forms and submitted them. I then completed the course and continued my Masters at Madras University. However, I soon realised that my interest was performance oriented. I think my decision to join a formal course was more for a degree certificate.
How did you first enter the Bharatanatyam field?
It happened quite by accident in 1994. My friend Shanthi Sreeram who was singing for Srekala Bharath, woke up on the morning of the performance with a bad throat.With no other option in hand, she requested me to sing for the performance that night. It was an evening of Swati Tirunal compositions. I will not forget that day as I had to learn the whole repertoire of songs in a few hours. My friend sat next to me during the show and gave me cues to move to the next line of the sahityam. That was my grand entry into the Bharatanatyam world.
You sang for K.J. Sarasa’s school for many years.
Yes, I was with them for a long time, singing regularly till 1999. I have also sung for Kamala Narayan, Rhadha, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Hema Rajagopalan, Malavika Sarukkai, Srekala Bharath, Urmila Sathyanarayan and Sheela Unnikrishnan to name a few.
How did you adjust to becoming a Bharatanatyam vocalist?
When I began my music career, I had no connection with Bharatanatyam. After I began singing, I started enjoying the art form and today, I am glad to be in this field. Of course, going for rehearsals was the down side as I was living very far at that time and had to travel a long way for all the practice sessions. Also, as I am from the GNB school where speed and briga are part of the bani, I had to adjust my singing style for dance. However, I benefited in many other ways. My repertoire of songs, especially padams and javalis increased rapidly through my concerts with artists like Lakshmi Vishwanathan.
Any other changes?
Earlier, I used to just sing a composition by noting the number of repetitions. Over time, I started watching the dancer and responding to the mudras she held when moving to the next line of music. Today, I am familiar with the Bharatanatyam language – enough to sing accordingly. So in a way, singing for Bharatanatyam has made me adaptable and a rasika of dance.
Do you feel it is difficult to switch from being a concertartist to a Bharatanatyam vocalist?
Not at all. If your foundation is strong, then you bring classicism to the music which enriches the dance. Of course, one has to be adaptable. Otherwise, music and dance will go on their own individual tracks. Once you have a strong basic training, you can adapt the music to suit its need. My Kalyani raga in a concert will sound different from that sung in a Bharatanatyam performance. In the latter, I have to bring out the emotion and situation that the dancer is communicating. It is still Kalyani but the intent is different. I strongly feel that once you know the rules, you can play around convincingly so that the core of the music is not affected.
When I sing for niraval whether in a music concert or for Bharatanatyam, I always keep the original sahitya spacing (‘aas’) of the song. That is something T.S. Parthasarathy always advised me. He used to say that the beauty of the niraval was in improvising within the fixed sahitya structure. That is why each form of manodharma is different and exhibits a different skill set. I try to follow this even in a Bharatanatyam performance.
Have you composed any music for dance?
Yes I have scored music for dance-dramas like Surya, Arupadai Veedu and Chidambara Kuravanji.
Any interesting incidents in performance?
Many. Once I had to sing a todayamangalam, Jaya Janaki in Khanda Chapu, for a dancer. I don’t know what happened that day but I started singing Purandaradasa’s Jaya jaya Janaki kantha which is also in the same tala. Only when I saw the dancer’s bewildered expression did I realise what I was doing! One never knows what happens on stage regardless of rehearsals. That is part of the excitement and spontaneity of stage performance.
(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)
[Note: Chitrambari Krishnakumar referred to her gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]