S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Monday, 7 January 2019


Young Voices         Conversations with emerging artists
Keerthana Sankar grew up in a musical environment, learning from her father from the age of two and able to identify ragas by the time she was  four. She has been learning vocal music from Madurai R. Sundar (senior disciple of T.N. Seshagopalan) for the past 13 years. Keerthana also started learning the violin at the age of five from Jay Shankar Balan, and has been undergoing advanced training from Delhi P. Sunder Rajan in vocal and violin since 2009.
Keerthana performed her vocal arangetram at the age of 15 and has since been regularly performing in the US, Canada and India. She has won numerous awards at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival, and was also a winner of the Pallavi Darbar competition held in Chennai in 2017.
Keerthana is an accomplished violinist and has played for several senior vidwans. She bagged the “Best Violinist Award” in the sub-senior slot at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha during the December music season and has also had the privilege of performing with violin maestro V.V. Subramanyam and mridangam maestro Guruvayur Dorai.
Keerthana has a degree in neuroscience from the University of Michigan and is currently a third year medical student.
I had first encountered Keerthana at the Cleveland Aradhana in 2003 where she and her sister were participating in the music competition. Later, in 2008, she played the violin for a vocal chamber concert I had arranged for Vikram and Vidya Raghavan. This was before her official arangetram and I remember being impressed by her firm hand and vigorous bowing.  In subsequent years I have heard her accompany several senior musicians and her violin never disappoints.  Like many young violinists, she has been making inroads as a vocalist as well, with performances in Chennai and at several locations in the US.
Keerthana Sankar spoke to Shankar Ramachandran
Tell us about your music teachers.
I had classes once a week with both teachers, Madurai Sunder (uncle) and with Jaishankar Balan (uncle). Madurai Sunder has a totally different approach. He seldom says much in class.. He is very observant, but there is this silent expectation that is so hard to live up to. Slowly, over the years, you kind of gauge what he is singing and internalise it. That is how I grew from his classes. It totally shapes you—what to sing and what not to sing.
On the other hand, Jai Sankar would sometimes be so upset that I had not practised that he would say “Just go home and come back later”.  That would never happen with Sunder.  The summer before my sister Kamya and I had our vocal arangetram in 2009,  we spent nearly every day at guru Sunder ‘s house—that was a huge summer of growth for us.
It was around that time that I started learning violin and vocal from Sunder Rajan (uncle); from the age of 14-15.  I learn on Skype and during the season and summer I travel to Chennai to learn from him. Those classes are amazing. He has so many new ideas all the time.  He is so good at exploring different schools of kanakku. You always leave his classes thinking about music in ways you never have thought before. 

Every class is like a test.  He encourages you to sing what he demonstrates, but when you try to repeat it you realise it is not as easy as it seems. You try to grasp as much knowledge as you can from him. That is how his classes work.
It is because of him that I was exposed to so many rare ragas like Balahamsa.  It is so helpful for me as a violinist because you never know what is going to be thrown at you on stage.  He teaches me a lot of rare songs too. 
Do you remember some of your early concerts that stood out for you?
Yes, there was this time I sang with Kamya in either Toronto or Montreal when I was 15.   I go back and listen to it often. We sang Sri Satyanarayanam.  I sang the raga,  it was heavily influenced by vidwan T.N. Seshagopalan as I was passing through the “ TNS phase”.  I just got lucky my voice could move fast through some of those phrases.
I sang in New Jersey earlier this year,  and  I think as I kind of grew up a little over the last few years I have calmed down a little and my music reflects that.  There is more thought to putting the concert list together. It felt like it was a better balance overall.
What are your other interests?
You mean besides music and medicine? I played tennis in high school. I was not very good but I really enjoyed playing. I learned French in high school and my first two years of college. I can probably speak the language well enough to get around in  Paris.  My mother only speaks to me in Tamil so I can also speak a little bit of  it.
What do you think you have achieved  so far?
Before I started medical school I was really worried that I would not have time for music. But now I am happy that I have really improved even after starting in medical school. This is something I can never let go. I can’t live without it. So, to be able to still learn and improve has been the greatest accomplishment.
Why medicine?  You could have chosen a less demanding subject and had more time for music?
I was always interested in biology throughout school and fascinated by how the human body works. I have never found that kind of interest in any other subject.  It is just another passion like music is—I just have to pursue it no matter how hard it is. I think I can really make an impact in this field. I can connect well with people and I like what I am studying and get to be practical and to help others with it.
What are your favourite ragas? 
Todi, Dhanyasi, Reetigaula. I gravitate towards sadder ragas. I also love Dikshitar kritis and  songs with interesting tala structure, words and phrases. I like singing Sanskrit compositions.
Do you have more violin concerts during the music season than vocal?
Yes. There are a lot more opportunities to play the violin because during the season so many artists are looking for a violinist to accompany them. 
Did you face any obstacles because of your gender?
I can’t think of any.  Actually, the main obstacle in Chennai is not being from Chennai.
But you are not from the US. Weren’t you born in the heart of  Tamil Nadu?
Yes. I was born in Tirunelveli, but that is not the perception.  And I did grow up in the US.  We have more to prove as NRIs. People have lower expectations, but I think that is changing a lot.  As you keep coming and they hear you play, that bias melts away. People are starting to see what kind of talent there is in the US now.      

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