(Conversations with emerging artists)
By Sushma Somasekharan
The recent years have seen many young musicians from parts of India outside Chennai, as well as overseas make waves in Carnatic music. Many of these young musicians take pride in preserving the true essence of the music without diluting it and ensuring that they are flag bearers of the rich heritage of the music. This interview with Sandeep Ramachandran, a young violinist who moved to Chennai from Singapore, and Apoorva Krishna, a Bangalore-based violinist, will reassure music patrons that the future of Carnatic music is indeed in safe and passionate hands – literally!
Tell us about how your music journey started.
Apoorva: My inspiration for music started from a young age as I grew up constantly listening to music at home. My late great grandfather Sri S Rajagopala Iyer was a musician and the author of Sangeetha Akshara Hridaya—a book on laya intricacies. My grandmother Shakuntala Murthy was also a vocalist. When I was six years old my parents took me to a violin solo recital of my guru Smt. Anuradha Sridhar. My parents realised that I was fascinated by the instrument, and so they took me to her house.
During that time, her mother, Lalgudi Srimathi Brahmanandam was also present and she initiated me into violin playing. I continued my training under Anuradha Sridhar for a few years in the US. We moved back to India when I was in sixth grade and I furthered my learning from Lalgudi Srimathi Mami since then.
Sandeep: I started learning violin at the age of 7 at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society from various tutors there. My father used to take me to classes every weekend. Over time, my interest in the art form blossomed. Once, when Sri N Vijay Siva visited our home in Singapore, he suggested that I learn from Sri RK Shriramkumar. That sparked my musical journey with Shriram sir. I learnt from him whenever I came to Chennai on vacation.
The very first song he taught me was the Ata tala varnam in Bhairavi. In 2008, we shifted to Chennai from Singapore, and that allowed me to spend more time with Shriram sir. I count myself very fortunate and blessed to learn from such a learned vidwan and scholar. It is not only his outlook on music, but also life on the whole, that has shaped me on my musical journey so far.
Tell us more.
Sandeep: To say that Shriram sir is immensely knowledgeable would be a complete understatement. He is a treasure trove of knowledge – many musicians today seek his input, advice and opinion. What awes me is his humility and guru bhakti despite being such a great vidwan and having accomplished so much. He takes a lot of care in moulding our music the way he has absorbed it from all the great stalwarts whom he has been associated with. He is very encouraging, yet gives me a disapproving look whenever I play something suspect. Under his tutelage, I've come to imbibe many of these values in my life as well. Besides being my guru, he's been my philosopher and best friend.
How is it performing solo vs performing with a vocalist?
Apoorva: Accompanying a vocalist can be very challenging, but I enjoy the spontaneity and style variations that I am exposed to and imbibe when paired up with different musicians of Carnatic music.
Sandeep: I've been performing with vocalists in most of my concerts. While playing solo, it is incumbent upon the violinist to satisfy both his and the audience's musical hunger. On the other hand, being an accompanist, the violinist is required to be well equipped to handle the challenges and surprises while playing for a variety of artistes. Playing as an accompanist also benefits the violinist as he or she is exposed to new ideas and creative thoughts that may be absorbed and inculcated in his or her own music, which leads to a constant evolution as a musician.
Apoorva, how do you ensure that the new ideas and various styles of music you’re exposed to do not affect your own padantharam?
Apoorva: Accompaniment playing is an art in itself. The key is to find the fine balance required to support and enhance a performance without overdoing or overstepping in a concert. Sometimes, I get a new idea while accompanying a main artiste during a raga alapana. I try to feature it in my response in a subtle manner. But I ensure that the Lalgudi bani stays throughout my performances, be it solo or accompaniment, because that is my identity and I would not want to astray from my pathantaram.
In all honesty, would you be able to tell the school of music when you listen to a violinist?
Apoorva: Oh yes, most of the time, I'll be able to identify which school of music they belong to.
What would you attribute the success of the violin as an integral instrument in Carnatic music to?
Apoorva: In my opinion, a violin is like a shadow, inseparable from the voice at least in a concert setting. It has received its stature, thanks to our illustrious forefathers and mahagurus. The reason for this is the fine blend that it makes with the tanpura strings to raise the overall quality of music in the performance. Right from the beginning of a concert, till the end, the violinist is always closely playing the instrument to accompany the voice of the main artiste, like a shadow. I think that this role cannot be completely eclipsed by the flute or veena, even though they could add their individual flavour or colour by themselves.
Sandeep: I personally believe the violin has the innate ability to mirror and mimic the voice. In many concerts, especially by mahavidwans, one has heard the violin following the voice in unison, serving almost as vocal support. This, I feel, is a unique feature of the violin. There have been concerts where the flute or the veena have accompanied the voice too. In fact, it was the veena that used to play the accompanying role before the violin was introduced into Carnatic music. Concerts having these instruments present a different outlook and experience and enrich the concert in their distinctive ways.
Share a moment when you were truly caught off guard on stage.
Apoorva: This was at one of my violin solo performances as a part of a day long series of concerts. Due to some miscommunication, we only found out while setting up our instruments on stage, that the percussionists had brought their instruments tuned to different pitches; the mridangam at F and ghatam at E. The ghatam is an instrument that has a fixed pitch. Since the show had to go on and there were hardly ten minutes for the concert to begin, I requested the mridangam artist to raise the mridangam's sruti to F sharp, as the ghatam artist who performed in the previous concert kindly agreed to lend us his C sharp instrument (which is the panchamam of F sharp).
Sandeep: Once when I was playing in a concert for my good friend Vidhya Raghavan at Chromepet, a dog came on stage and sat right next to me while I was playing kalpana swarams. I didn't know how to react then. It's very amusing when I think about it now.
Sandeep, let me bring you off stage and outside of your classroom for a moment. What are the songs or raga that come to your mind and reflect your mood when I present you the following situations?
1 Reading a review of yours in the paper - "Enduku peddala vale buddhi iyavu"
2 Drinking a good filter coffee – “Marubalka”, because it needs a lot of energy to sing the song
3 Listening to a disappointing concert - "Nyayama Sri Meenakshamma?"
4 Having a good lunch at one of the sabha canteens - Nilambari, because a good lunch followed by sleep is bliss!
Apoorva, if you could ask Sandeep a question, what would it be?
Apoorva: How would you plan to spread Carnatic music among the masses and reach out to more and more rasikas amongst the present generation?
Sandeep: I think it most important for us to be true to music, to be proud of our art form and pursue it with vigour. The duty of each musician is to be committed and dedicated to the art form. This will help in attracting recognition from all.