Song of Surrender

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Shreya Devnath

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

“I have always been crazy about music. I grew up listening to my mother sing and I loved what I heard, even though I had no idea what it was. I remember driving my elder sister crazy by continuously reproducing a particular whining hum that our old HP Deskjet printer made. I could not help it. Everything was musical and interesting to me.’’ 

Young violinist Shreya Devnath is determined to be the best she can be and loves to constantly pursue creative projects. 

She spoke to Sruti recently. 

Yours seems to been an extremely  happy musical upbringing.

My first exposure to Carnatic music was listening to my mother sing at home. I remember telling her I wanted to sing like her. She took me to her teacher Bombay Sri Ramachandran. I learnt vocal music from him for about three years. Unfortunately, I developed some problems with my vocal chords and was unable to sing anymore. This disappointed me greatly as I loved to sing. Though we consulted several doctors and therapists, the problem was never properly diagnosed. Upon seeing how upset I was, my mother decided to make me pick up an instrument instead. It was Smt Sulochana Pattabhiraman, with whom she shared a special relationship, who advised my mother to take me to Lalgudi Jayaraman sir. 

I started learning violin at the age of 11. Lalgudi sir initially had Smt Padma Shankar teach me some basic fingering, under his direct supervision. In fact, I was her first student. He would have regular sessions with us every couple of months when he assessed my progress, suggested to her what I should be learning next, and so on. This routine continued for about a year, before he took me in for direct lessons with him. 

What was it like learning from a genius like Lalgudi sir? 

Learning from Sir was much more than just going twice a week for music classes. He revealed a magical world of music to me. He was able to see the passion I had for music, even as an eleven year old, and built that passion up in exponential degrees. He was strict and uncompromising, expecting 120% out of me all the time, but never discouraging. 

Many a time, it seemed that when I did well, he was happier about it than even I was, and when I failed to perform, his dejection and disappointment would be so intense, it would really scare and shame me, much more than any anger he ever showed me. At the same time, he ensured that my eleven year old self never started drifting. 

He saw my affinity for mathematics and problem solving and so he and I would exchange puzzles all the time. He would give me one, and if I was able to solve it, I got to quiz him one too. As I grew up, he seamlessly shifted his approach to guide me into a more serious, intense pursuit of music. He encouraged me to think about things from various points of view and see music as a living, breathing, composite entity, where melody, rhythm, thought, word and emotion, all come together bound by aesthetics and beauty. 

What advice of your guru's would you like to share with us? 

He always insisted that everything we sang or played should be of a certain standard. There should be some reason, purpose and context, He said we could never accept mediocrity in the name of spontaneity. ''Do not play something, simply because it struck you at the moment. Think. Does it have a meaning in that place? Is it aesthetic? Does it add effectively to what you’re trying to say? You should give a lot of thought into every note you play.’’

Describe your schedule in music.

I started off by playing just solo. Gradually, I started playing accompaniment as well. Now, there is a healthy mix of both with an even balance. I also play collaborative instrumental duets, with other instrumentalists (violin-flute, violin-chitravina, etc). In addition, I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a musical production, Born to Sing, directed by Dr Gowri Ramnarayan, which toured the US earlier this year. 

I am, slowly and cautiously, reviving my singing as well. I have started singing for dance productions, most recently with renowned dancers Smt Urmila Sathyanarayanan and Smt Srekala Bharath. I was told, on different occasions, that it was not a wise move. However, I find the creative process in trying to produce jointly a common vision through the aural and visual media, tremendously exciting. The synergy in trying to communicate a cohesive idea through my creativity and skills, while simultaneously fusing it with the visual interpretations of the dancer is fascinating to me. When I resumed singing, I wanted to try something different, gain a different perspective of the art form. I decided to try it and I have loved every moment of it so far. 

In addition to performing in different capacities, I love to teach, whether violin or vocal. I handle workshops for different institutions. I also curate different music related projects and initiatives. Basically, anything that I find intriguing and challenging, that I might learn from, I do. Music has never been just about a career with a vertical progression for me. It is a journey that I am so very happy to go along and see where it takes me. 

How has knowing vocal music helped your violin? 

In this school of music, there is no violin without vocal music. Hence, it is inconceivable for me to separate the two and distinguish how one helps the other. One is part of the other. They are different expressions of the same values and content. That is not to say, I sing exactly what I play or vice versa. Each form of expression has its own aesthetics and dynamics. When I play one of my Guru's varnams in my concert, I play it in a particular way. However, when I sing the same varnam in a dance production, everything from the approach, to the tempo, to the way it is vocalised, is different. But both influence each other in many ways. 

It is fascinating to see the similarities and the differences. In my opinion, it is absolutely essential to know vocal music before playing an instrument. Our music is not written specifically for different instruments, unlike in the Western music system. Carnatic music is essentially vocal music which is being interpreted through different instruments. Not knowing how it is sung, not looking into the vocal medium to see its melodic form, rhythmic intricacies, and sahityam before attempting to play it is probably akin to trying to translate a piece of literature before looking at it in its original form, context and language.   

While growing up, what were you most afraid of? 

My Guru always held that there is no room for fear. He would say, ‘’Welcome challenges and meet them’’. Hence, I have never particularly been afraid of anything. If something is a challenge, I do my best to step up and deliver. I strongly believe that there is no shame in falling. But what is most important is that you have to get up, every single time. Try harder and do better next time. 

As a music student, I am constantly facing new challenges, finding myself short, and trying to rectify that. Doing that without losing confidence and focus is what I’m always trying to do. Faltering in that path in any way is probably the only thing to be afraid of.

Carnatic music is a competitive field. There are so many talented musicians, vying with one another. Despite the hardship, what makes this journey worth it for you? 

I agree that it is a tough industry. And that there are definitely many tremendously capable and talented musicians. However, I am not here to compete with anyone. In art, there is space for everyone. I am here because there is nowhere else I would rather be. I am obsessed with music, my violin, my singing, my Guru and I want to be in this for as long as I can. Yes, once you start performing, commercial success and vertical progression are seen as hugely important factors, and they are to a certain extent. 

Every performer needs a stage and an audience – it is a source of encouragement and affirmation for the performer. I’m very grateful for each opportunity that comes my way. On my part, I try my best to establish a connection with my audience, as that is what I am here to do, as a performer. When that happens, the audience and I travel together and that moment makes everything worth it. 


  1. The interview was very insightful and revealed your passion and commitment to the art. The last line about the journey of the musician and the audience encapsulates says it all.

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