Song of Surrender

Thursday, 16 March 2017

N Bhagyalakshmi

By Anjana Anand

N Bhagyalakshmi is an established vocalist who has been instrumental in coaching students at Kalakshetra in music for a decade now. A versatile artist, she strives to perfect her art and has accompanied many leading dancers with vocal support. She now teaches full-time at Kalakshetra. Bhagyalakshmi is also the spouse of the well-known violinist Natarajan Sigamani. Her passion for Carnatic music is evident in this conversation with Sruti.

Can you describe your background in music?

I pursued my diploma in Veena, training under Professor Rajeswari at Kalakshetra. At the same time, I also began studying music and completed my B.A in music. I wrote the Madras University exams for the Sangeetha Siromani. Back then, it was equivalent to an M.A in music.

When did you start singing for dance ? Who were the artists you accompanied early in your career?

I began singing for Krishnaveni Lakshmanan after I finished my diploma in Veena. She gave me many opportunities. I was also accompanying the dancer Sujatha Srinivasan. I then had this break singing for Malavika Sarukkai--in 1992. There was no looking back. I never imagined I would sing for her permanently but our association lasted almost eleven years. In a month, we were busy with performances for at least fifteen days! I learnt a lot from Malavika. She is a thorough professional, and I appreciate that about her. Be it rehearsals, or the routine and her practice, she was very inspiring.

Any memorable teachers you particularly recollect learning from?

My most memorable experience was learning from Dr. Balamuralikrishna. He was a fantastic teacher and gave me many helpful hints on how to sing a particular ragam, how the ‘ucharippu’ is most important in a song and so on. At a festival in Narada Gana Sabha, Mahalakshmi, a student of Kalakshetra, performed only Balamuralikrishna’s items. I had the opportunity then to learn from him again for the kutcheri. After I left Kalakshetra, I continued my training with Charumathi Ramachandran and I learned a lot of her repertoire. At this point, I also began to accompany her sister, Lakshmi Vishwanathan in her dance performances. I also trained under Vidwan Bombay Ramachandran, imbibing a many kritis and varnams from him. What I learnt from these gurus has really helped me evolve as a musician and helps me even now as a teacher. From my mother, who was my first teacher, to Bombay Ramachandran, they have all guided me to travel this far. I would like to specially mention Rajaram Sir who was my mentor, my father-like figure. Of course, my most important pillar of support throughout has been my husband, who is also a violinist and encourages me in everything I do.

At one point you were very actively singing for dance and then took a break. Was that a conscious decision?

It was not really a conscious decision. My daughter was born in 2005 and I had already stopped singing for Malavika in 2004. Between 2005 and 2007, I looked after my child, hence did not perform anywhere. It was a dilemma for me as I was torn between singing for dance and taking care of my child. However, the transition to teaching came smoothly and happened naturally. In 2007, Leela Samson asked me if I would like to teach at Kalakshetra, and I immediately complied. I came back to Kalakshetra, and it has been such a beautiful experience these ten years. I haven’t travelled much after I took up teaching. Right now, I love coaching my students. I also take Skype lessons from students countries such as the US and Denmark. However, I make it a point to sing for dance kutcheris during the season.

Any awards you particularly recollect?

In 1995, when Malavika Sarukkai danced at Narada Gana Sabha, I was her accompanying vocalist. That year, I received the best singer for dance award and it was covered by Sruti magazine. In fact, I still retain a copy of it! I am delighted that I was honoured with the prestigious award, even as I recall it now.

I also fondly remember singing for CV Chandrashekar’s daughter (Manjari?) at Krishna Gana Sabha around 2000-2001, where I was awarded the best singer.

In Baltimore, U.S.A., I was conferred with an honorary citizenship by the Mayor.

Can you tell us about some of your trips while singing for dance, and any experiences that you cherish?

I recollect a number of memorable experiences in my singing career. One particular favourite is singing for Malavika Sarukkai at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was a moment of pride for me.

We also attended the Festival of India in Brazil, and travelling to Japan, Philippines and Singapore from there on. Another cherished memory was singing for Malavika at the Theatre De La Ville in Paris. We performed the same repertoire for six days, but each day, it was a different audience. It didn’t feel like a concert at all! We also did a memorable tour of Germany covering 18 cities in 22 days!

Of course, of all memories, the most wonderful was when we performed at Pandit Ravi Shankar’s house. He appreciated my singing and that was an unforgettable moment. Then, there were so many other concerts – at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Jacob’s Pillow at Massachusetts – each of them a gem of a memory.

I used to sing for Rhadha even while accompanying Malavika. I enjoyed singing for Rhadha. It was the pristine Vazhuvoor bani with Rhadha, from alarippu to manduka sabdam and so on. I still sing for Rhadha and A Lakshman. By the time, Malavika had begun exploring thematic performances. There was much creativity among artists and the dancers, and both Rhadha and Malavika give ample opportunities for the musicians to be at their creative best. I also thoroughly enjoyed singing Krishna Karnamritam for Seetharama Sarma Sir. I absolutely relish singing for the creative aspects in dance.

How do you keep in touch with music? Tell us something about your association with Kalakshetra.

As I have already mentioned, I am actively involved in teaching music now and perform sometimes during the season. I sincerely thank Kalakshetra because that is where I learnt a lot – it was the institute that gave me knowledge and my music. I learnt practically everything from Kalakshetra. I would especially express my gratitude to Rajaram sir, who was the principal then. My co-artists have been very helpful and they have made me what I am today. I would also thank Leela Samson and Priyadarsini Govind for inviting me to be a visiting faculty. I would like to impart the knowledge I received from my gurus to my students at Kalakshetra.

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