Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Preethy Mahesh

By Anjana Anand

Known for her pitch-perfect and soulful voice, Preethy Mahesh is an asset to a Bharatanatyam dancer. She has trained with legends in the field and her training can be seen in the quality of her performance. An “A” grade vocalist at All India Radio and recipient of the best vocal accompanist award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Preethy Mahesh is at the peak of her career. Recently she made the bold decision to step back and take a critical look at her music and progress – a much needed decision for any artiste in her artistic journey. Preethy speaks candidly about her experiences and need for introspection at this stage of her career.

Tell us about your early years of learning.

I come from a traditional family where Carnatic music is part of our life. I have a good voice, and my parents felt that I should not waste a God given gift. Initially, I learnt music with a teacher living nearby. My serious foray into Carnatic music came when I started learning music from D. K. Jayaraman at the age of 12. Unfortunately, when I was 19 and had just started performing, Sir passed away. I was so fixated on the Pattammal bani that I just could not learn music with just anyone. I was very confused about my future in music after his demise.

Was it an early decision to become a musician?

I had no ambitions at all. I learnt music because it seemed the natural thing to do hailing from a family that loved music. My grandmother had dreams of me becoming a famous vocalist. She insisted that I do early morning sadhakam but I did not go through gruelling practice sessions. It happened very naturally and at my own pace.  After DKJ passed away, I wanted to pursue my studies but my parents felt that my future was in music. I had the usual dreams of doing my MBA and going abroad to study, but that path received no encouragement at home. I was like most girls at that age with no mind of my own. I did a
B.Com at Meenakshi College and kept my music up with Smt D. K. Pattammal and
Sri PS Narayanaswamy. Somehow, nothing seemed to inspire me. When I was with DKJ Sir, I had a lovely group of peers and I missed that interaction. Then to my joy, I met Tanjore Sri S. Kalyanaraman and began to learn from him. Once again my involvement in music was sparked. His style was very different but I found his teaching very challenging. He taught me different techniques and I felt I was at a peak in my ability to absorb and learn. It was short- lived, for Kalyanaraman Sir also passed away a year later. After that, my music took a backseat and I moved on to other things.

What made you come back into music?

I got busy with family life and my only connection to music was teaching informally at home. When my older daughter was 6, I enrolled her in Bharatanatyam classes at Bharatakalanjali (run by the Dhananjayans). One day when I was talking to Smt Shanta Dhananjayan about my music, she asked me to sing. Immediately she said, “We have an arangetram coming up. I would like you to sing for it”. I was taken aback! I had no experience singing for Bharatanatyam and I had no idea that I would ever sing professionally again. My exposure to Bharatanataym even as a rasika was poor. It was this performance which brought me back into music in 2002.

Actually when I was 15 or 16, I had sung for a Bharatanatyam performance, when Srekala Bharath took me to K.J. Sarasa’s house to sing ‘Kapali’ in Mohana raga for her to choreograph. I also sang for Srekala once again a few years later.

Do you enjoy singing for dance?

Absolutely! I get so much joy from that. In fact, at one point when I got back into music, I started receiving vocal concert offers, but I did not take them up. I was a full fledged vocal accompanist by then and I knew that music concerts were a completely different ball game. The kind of practice and guidance I needed would have been different. Also since I did not have a guru by then, I had no motivation to become a mainstream Carnatic vocalist.

My exposure to dance came only after I started singing for dancers. I realized how much I enjoyed dance, and every rehearsal was so enriching. Before I knew it, 14 years had passed !

What were the initial difficulties?

The challenge was understanding Bharatanatyam  and  getting used to the presence of a nattuvanar next to me! Initially, I did not even understand when a jati was going to start or how it was structured. It took me some time to understand the teamwork involved in an orchestra and of course, the technicalities of Bharatanatyam.  The nattuvanar had to signal that he was going to start reciting the jati and that I should stop singing! Slowly, I began to understand the whole system.  I became a true rasika of Bharatanatyam because of this experience.

You sang many years for Priyadarsini Govind. 

Priyadarsini heard about me through some common friends and asked me to sing for her performance in Nepal. This happened in 2003. After that,  there was no looking back. We have a tremendous rapport and I enjoy singing for her. I have travelled all over the world with her.  Audiences loved our dance-music combination. 

You had a very smooth and successful journey in music all these years. Yet,  you suddenly decided to take a sabbatical from the Bharatanatyam field. 

I have been singing for Bharatanatyam without a break for more than a decade now and I am extremely happy with this field. However over the last couple of years, I started feeling that I was lacking somewhere in my music. Some dissatisfaction crept into me . I have been thinking a lot about it and I realize that I need to focus on my own practice and get back to the music I used to sing in my early years. I sense a certain lack of depth in my music now and my voice is not cooperating as it did before.  I cannot ignore the warning signs.

Do you intend to return to the field as a concert artiste?

Not at all. As I mentioned earlier, being in the Bharatanatyam field has brought me immense satisfaction. I am only taking a break to work on my own music and voice. It is time to break out of the comfort zone I had slipped into over the years.

It takes a lot of honesty and clarity for a popular vocalist to listen to her inner voice.

Well, I am very clear that I want to continue as a Bharatanataym vocalist. The difference is that when I get back to the field, I want to sing with renewed enthusiasm and depth in my music. For that, I need time to sing for myself. I want to practise all my old pathantaram and work on my voice. It is something I had taken for granted. Unless we constantly keep upgrading ourselves, we cannot give our best . I want to come back to this field with the strength of a  Carnatic vocalist not just as a Bharatanatyam accompanist.

The irony is that as vocal accompanists we have no dearth of performances and are singing a variety of compositions through the year. I now realize that it not quantity but quality which is the problem.  As accompanists we are singing all types of compositions, some of which may not be best musically. Over time, there is a danger of losing our individuality and not challenging ourselves in terms of musical depth. This can affect the elasticity of voice and quality of music. I think it is vital for a musician to continue her own practice and upgrade herself musically.

Have you composed music for productions?

No. I enjoy singing old compositions. The musicality of traditional compositions inspires me. I derive much satisfaction from singing the compositions of the Tanjai Nalvar or Dandayudapani Pillai. These great masters knew how to compose for Bharatanatyam. They were able to combine the classicism of Carnatic music with the beauty of movement in Bharatanatyam. I do not think that as a musician I am equipped with that skill so I choose to sing those gems rather than make a feeble attempt at composing.  A good composer needs a different skill set. 

Any fond memories of performances?

All of them actually! I have always travelled with a great team all these years. I enjoyed our performance in Jerusalem in the early years of my career. I was inspired to be in the place where Jesus Christ was born. Performances in Paris with Priyadarsini Govind and Alarmel Valli were also high points in my career. We had such an appreciative audience.

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