(Conversations with emerging artists)
(Conversations with emerging artists)
By Sushma Somasekharan
Born and raised in California, Vani Ramamurthi, a student of the sisters Ranjani-Gayatri, is one of many youngsters from abroad who have found Carnatic music to be their calling and made Chennai their home recently. Her voice embodies bhava and melody. Vani spoke to Sruti about her musical journey.
How did it all start?
I started learning Carnatic vocal at the age of five in Irvine, California, from Smt. Padma Kutty. A dedicated teacher, she literally breathes music and offers her soul to each and every student. From the start, she placed utmost importance on the fundamentals of music such as sruti and layam.
My parents created such an environment for me and my brothers that music was a natural and constant part of life, not merely an extracurricular activity. It was a family affair. We woke up in the morning to an alarm clock set to Sri KVN’s music; the snooze button was never needed. At almost any given time, at least one of the three of us (me and my 2 brothers) would be in some room in the house practising, either vocal/violin, solo/together. Music was played in the car; we attended concerts regularly as a family. It was omnipresent and our lifestyle wrapped itself around it!
How did you come under the tutelage of Ranjani-Gayatri?
I started learning from them in the summer of 2002. After a brief meeting in the US a few months earlier, my family and I met them personally when we came to Chennai. My brothers and I sang a couple of songs and before I could realize what was happening, we were taken to the next room and Gayatri aunty taught us ‘Marakata lingam,’ in Vasantha. That day, I embarked on the most significant and meaningful journey of my life!
My perception of music changed drastically after my first summer with them. I began to appreciate music on a whole new level: the beauty behind each swaram, the importance of each and every nuance, the purity and richness of sound that stems from open akaram.
I spent every subsequent summer vacation (for eight years until I finally moved here) in Chennai to continue learning from Ranjani aunty and Gayatri aunty. Many years I would travel alone, but missing friends and home wasn’t enough of a reason to stop me from coming! To this day, I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to know them on such a personal level and learn from them. Their inspirational music and personalities spark my unyielding desire to learn more and more!
Also, I’m immensely grateful to my grandmother for so graciously providing me with the most comfortable home in Chennai.
You grew up in a household with brothers who are also musically inclined. Surely there were squabbles about music?
We hardly fought about music, to be honest. My brothers, Arun and Shiva (disciples of Sri Delhi P. Sunder Rajan), and I started learning vocal music together. They concurrently started playing the violin. Somewhere down the line, my brothers’ passion directed them towards the violin; they perform both as duet artists and as accompanists.
They are like my 24 hour hotline; I can clarify any musical doubts with them at any given time. Practising with them is extremely beneficial for me. Apart from having a great time and creating invaluable memories, I learn so much from them. As our music training has diverged over the years, it adds more interesting facets and dynamics to our musical interactions. Today, it wouldn’t be strange at all to see me online on Skype at 3am, practising with my younger brother Shiva, back home in LA. As kids, all three bof us have performed together! These days, it’s either a duet concert by them, or one of them accompanying me. It’s always a huge comfort when they are on stage with me!
Being able to share this wondrous art form with my brothers is a blessing and it creates a truly special sibling bond amongst us.
How has living in Chennai changed your perception of music and your approach towards it?
While living in Chennai, I find that music becomes truly immersive. Here, it’s more than a livelihood, it is life itself. Though music can be cultivated and developed anywhere in the world, I feel that Chennai is the place I should be. There are ample opportunities available to gain experience both in performance and listening, enabling me to grow at a substantial rate.
The best thing about living here is the constant interaction I have with my gurus. I treasure each moment with them whether in class, playing the tambura at their concerts, or even a phone call.
What’s your favourite venue in Chennai?
Whether you’re treading the majestic grounds of the Music Academy where the rich legacy and tradition lingers in the air, or at the more contemporary Arkay Convention Center, you’ll find yourself a refreshingly unique experience.
I have an affinity towards Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium in Mylapore, where Brahma Gana Sabha customarily holds concerts. I’ve had some glorious experiences there as both a performer and a rasika. My first ever December Season concert was held there in 2011. A combination of flawless acoustics and palpable vibes of encouragement from the audience created a beautiful ambience that allowed me to sing with a sense of joy.
The following season (2012), I experienced one of the most mesmerizing concerts by my gurus at that venue. I could feel the energy ricocheting off the walls during the Kantamani ragam-tanam-pallavi. The venue has a certain intimacy between the artist and audience.
Have you found it difficult to be accepted because you are an NRI artist?
I have never really thought of it as even the tiniest of hurdles. My place of origin has not had any effect on my efforts here. Though the ‘woes of an NRI’ is a recurring tea-time topic, I try to not dwell on the matter. After all, music is a meritocracy. Able and talented individuals will be suitably rewarded in the long run.