Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Padma Sugavanam

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

(As part of Sruti's policy, honorifics and titles are avoided as far as possible, even when the writer or artist employs them as a mark of respect to their seniors. This blog post is no exception).

By Sushma Somasekharan

Meet Dr Padma Sugavanam, an A-grade artist with All India Radio, who trained under the gurukulam environment with guru Seetha Rajan. A winner of the ‘’Most Outstanding Vocalist’’ award in the junior category of the Music Academy in 2014, Padma loves old poetry and languages. In evidence during her recent conversation with Sruti were the aesthetics and vision of her musical pursuit. 

How did you come to learn music?

My parents noticed that I loved singing as a child; I had to be pulled away from mikes. Although they had no background in music, they returned to Chennai from Canada when I was hardly four, and decided that I should train in music.

I started lessons with Geetha Ramachandran, and later trained under Sangita Kala Acharya Seetha Rajan, in the Semmangudi bani. For twenty years, I trained in a gurukulam environment, spending nearly all my waking hours at my guru’s house. While I did my B.A. Music through correspondence, I soaked in music through the day -- listening, analyzing and discussing music, witnessing Seetha Mami’s practice, teaching juniors, researching. 

I am 35 now and married into a musically inclined family. My husband is a student of Hindustani music, and my mother-in-law is also trained, in the lineage of Sri Mysore Vasudevacharya.

When did you decide to start performing? It appears that you entered the performance arena at a much later age than your peers. Why is that so? 

When I was 18, I won the Sangeetha Shri award from RR Sabha (Trichy) after a gruelling 3-day competition with advanced manodharma. At 22, I was awarded an AIR A-grade as a double promotion when I applied for a B-High grade. These awards and grading gave me the added belief I needed, and concretised my dreams of performing.

Simultaneously, I was fascinated by scholars of the calibre of Prof N Ramanathan. My time with my guru instilled in me that academic scholarship was important. Hence, I pursued a PhD in Sanskrit and Musicology, interpreting musicological manuscripts from 2 BCE to 1600 CE. I also learned Telugu, and taught at the SV College of Music and Dance (Tirupati).

Music is ultimately a performing art, but marrying that performance with a strong knowledge in music theory was extremely important to me. I wanted to chart a path for myself, equally intense in theory and practice, academics and performance. This is why I performed very selectively until I completed my PhD. This time also helped me introspect and form clear views on music, before going full-steam into performing.

What was your PhD research about? What is its influence on your music today? 

My PhD was a research on Kohala, a dramaturge and contemporary of Bharata. His works have been lost, and it was a challenge to triangulate indirect inferences from other manuscripts and works. One author who referenced Kohala significantly – Abhinavagupta - has deeply influenced my musical aesthetics. 

Abhinava’s aesthetics has made me appreciate that music as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not enough if I focus on singing just the alapana, niraval or swaram well. The bigger picture has other intangibles that I need to get right. I think it is also due to the influence of his aesthetics, that I am a stickler for the ‘sound experience’ of my concerts!

You have spent much time studying both languages and music. So where do you find yourself now? Are you swayed more by the music or the language? 

Language is rightly called the mother of culture. In my opinion, language gives us forms of expression, including poetry and music. Sanskrit, for example, has the ability to create new words spontaneously (through grammar rules of samasa), the variety of phonemes (aspirated, unaspirated etc),and the rhythmic structure of syllables (hrasva, dirgha, pluta)–offers a fantastic playfield for composition.

Each language has its unique ingredients. Knowledge of Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, allows me to appreciate poetry and its import – it adds to musicianship. I find poetry and music equally beautiful, and inseparable from the overall aesthetic experience. While singing Chinnanjiru Kiliye in a concert in the US, I felt almost overwhelmed – it is hard to say whether it was Bharatiyar’s poetry (on love towards a child), or the music itself. I think it was both.

You sound so passionate about languages, and poetry and its combination with music. How would you define your musical values? What can a listener expect, when she comes to your concert? 

My musical values are to pursue excellence rather than popularity. Only if I am true to myself as an artiste, can I be true to the audience. I present music that is true to my sense of aesthetics - a traditional pathantara with weighty sangatis in consonance with the pristine raga bhava which also reflects the essence of the lyrics of the song. I also work hard on the sound experience – vocal clarity, tonal purity and resonance (I place a mike for the tambura).

Although I am considered to possess a flexible and fast moving voice, I believe in singing with restraint. I sing vilamba-kala items in every concert – I love the grandeur and majesty of the slow gait. I am from the old school in this respect – I prefer Test cricket over T-20! Even in Hindustani music, vilambit is considered the true test of an artiste’s mettle.

The ideal concert for me would be a sublime experience - where the artistes and audiences acquire a match in wavelength. I enjoy subtlety in musical expression, and admire musicians who gain popularity without resorting to populism. Music should intuitively appeal to the uninitiated, even before it intellectually appeals to the scholar. That’s the experience I want to give to my listener as well. 

What would be your one lament about the ‘’kutcheri scene’’ today?

I believe that the common rasika (i.e. non-disadvantaged, non-underprivileged), needs to take ownership of ‘asraya’ – since we have long moved away from ‘Rajaashraya’, where the king patronized musicians. Today, several sabhas struggle for funds because most rasikas are habituated to expect free concerts. Paying Rs 400 is fine for a pizza, but not paying Rs 100 for a 3-hour concert with 20 years of sadhana behind it? This culture has numerous undesirable consequences, and it needs to change.

Your opinion on collaborations and other genres of music. 

I enjoy all genres of music - but don’t want them getting mixed up. Music is without boundaries, but it should not be without identities. Classical music should not sound like fusion, and vice versa. Today, there is a trend of presenting a non-native version of Pooriya Dhanasree under the name of Pantuvarali. I love both these ragas but wish they would flourish with distinct identities, in their own genres.

I appreciate creative collaborations. Collaboration with dancers, is a welcome trend (in fact, in ancient musicology, dance, drama and music, were almost inseparable). I am now collaborating with a scholar of Tamizh and Vaishnavism, to present pasurams on a divyadesam relating to an area of my research interest – Bridal Mysticism. I am firm on the view that I will not experiment for the sake of experimenting; I would like to collaborate in a meaningful way, with serious musical thought and sensibility.

There are opinions from the public that Carnatic Music has not roped in newer and fresher audiences and is a dwindling art form. Having spent much time in the teaching side, in your opinion, how can the teaching structure be adapted to be more inclusive of all interested students and be made compelling for the new comers? 

Carnatic music has excellent ambassadors for the future – talented, professional in approach, well-educated, articulate – and this tribe is increasing as more youngsters take to music. In the foreseeable future, Carnatic music should flourish as a niche art. Hence I do not agree with the opinion that it is a dwindling art form.

I do think that sabhas, audiences and formats of presentation – will all change. We will soon have Carnatic music presented through virtual reality platforms. As Darwin said, it is not the strongest or most intelligent species that survives – but the one most adaptable to change. We need to adapt our music to new pedagogies, new formats of presentation, taking full advantage of technology. Amidst these changes, though, we need our musical values to remain unchanging.

Chitravina Narasimhan has developed a brilliant music pedagogy, to teach young children through association with day-to-day objects – where the child is constantly learning, without even realizing that something is being taught. We need to develop such pedagogies outside the rigid classroom structure, and introduce classical music through non-musical objects, folk music, drama and so on. I too picked up many facets of music in the gurukulam, just by being in a facilitating environment.


  1. Happy to see you in this interview madam.you are an excellent guru..my best part of learning is from you only.you are always in our hearts

  2. Thoughtful, insightful-questions and answers. I look forward to hearing Padma in Chennai.