Wednesday, 4 November 2020

The Akkarai Sisters

A three-in-one versatile duo

Sukanya Sankar

The early nineties saw an advent of inventions and trends such as the internet, cable television, online chat rooms, restaurant chains and the like. Amongst these sprawling developments, were two sisters, who hailed from Akkarai, a village in Suchindram to whom these didn’t matter! S. Subhalakshmi and S. Sornalatha – Akkarai Sisters as they are known, were solely focused on their practice. Their minds were occupied with only music and playing the violin. The seeds for such thoughts were sowed in their minds by their father and guru, Akkarai S.  Swamynathan -- who worked with the Indian Bank as manager, and is also a violinist and a relentless teacher. A musical family in the truest sense, their grandfather Suchindram S.P. Siva Subramaniam was a versatile musician, adept at singing and playing the violin, harmonium and mridangam. He was no mean composer either and his compositions are well-structured with several  ornamentations like swara-akshara, yatis and gatis. Grandmother R. Sornambal was also a musician, music teacher and a Harikatha exponent.

The sisters were based in Delhi during their formative years and Swamynathan made sure his daughters practiced a minimum of six hours a day! Apart from spending six hours at school, the rest of the day was reserved only for learning and practice. The Akkarai Sisters listened to concert recordings and radio broadcasts of yesteryear stalwarts – both Carnatic and Hindustani. They played along with the recordings as accompanists -- a unique training technique devised by their father. Thus, playing by the ear became second nature to the girls. Swamynathan was a strict disciplinarian and these sessions were non-negotiable! The family resided in the Indian Bank quarters in Delhi and the beautiful campus was always filled with sounds of children playing outside. If the sisters hinted on playtime, Swamynathan’s reply would be “Play with your violin….  that’s your playground”! The sisters however have no regrets. They feel that if they had lost out on those golden years of continuous practice and learning, they could not have been successful musicians today. While in Delhi, the sisters also learnt from V. Janakiraman, O.V. Subramaniam and later from his daughter Padma Natesan.

Every December, the family travelled to Chennai to attend concerts during the season and in December 1998, Subhalakshmi made her debut at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, accompanying vocalist Abhishek Raghuram, a concert which is still talked about! In 1999, Subhalakshmi had her maiden performance at the Music Academy accompanying vocalist Sriram Gangadharan. The family eventually moved back to Chennai, where the sisters began performing extensively. In Chennai the sisters learned vocal music from vidwan P.S. Narayanaswamy and Chitravina N. Ravikiran.

Subhalakshmi (born 7 November 1983), started learning vocal music when she was barely four. She even accompanied her grandmother at a Harikatha performance at that age and presented a solo violin concert when she was just eight! Subhalakshmi has also played several violin duet concerts with her father. Sornalatha (born 26 January 1987), followed in her sister’s footsteps in learning vocal first and they performed as a vocal duo when Subhalakshmi was ten. The sisters have also performed several violin trio concerts along with their father, Swamynathan.  

In a freewheeling conversation the young achievers share their thoughts on music and their journey so far.

Akkarai Sisters in conversation with Sukanya Sankar

Why did you choose to accompany and not remain as a duo for vocal and violin?

There is a joy and a very healthy challenge in accompaniment, posed to us on stage. Appa has told us that to be able to play whatever is thrown at you, is the beauty of a true accompanist. By facing all these impromptu challenges you gain a lot of experience. In duets, we have the choice to decide what we want to perform. It has its own beauty and challenges too. But the most fascinating aspect of being an accompanist is the spontaneity, which we love. In Carnatic music, one has to be spontaneous, not rehearsed.

In a highly competitive industry, how do you balance between accompanying and performing duets? Also with the rotation system in some sabhas is it easy to get featured as an accompanist, and as vocal and violin duos?

We have been in Chennai for over 21 years – and that many years of concert experience has given us a larger perspective about the field. We have never faced any problems with regard to concert opportunities  Of course, there is a huge difference in the ratio between vocal and  instrumental concerts (very few). This trend needs to be changed. 

Also, being women artists, there are so many men who don’t prefer female violinists as accompanist, and a lot of other politics is involved as well. As child artists we faced a lot of issues – like when the focus was on us, especially when we played better than the main artist, it did not go down well with a few artists. If we have to curtail from playing our full potential, we would rather not accept. We don’t perform just for the sake of performing; we would rather play only when we can give our 100 per cent. Accompanying is such a beautiful and challenging art and it is upsetting if that is compromised and diluted. Luckily, today we are in a position to choose to play for artists who are broad minded, such artists are fewer in number. So keeping all this in mind and since we had an advantage of performing together we kept that going and established ourselves as a duo both in vocal and violin. We have a lot of time to practice and focus on performing together.

As accompanists we are extremely blessed and grateful to have got the opportunity to perform with several eminent artists. As main performers, we miss performing with some of these artists who have a principle of not performing with women artists as main performers. 

How do you approach your vocal and instrumental concerts?

We believe that we have to balance the virtuosity of the instrument as well as the gayaki ang in our violin playing. Though Carnatic music largely revolves around compositions, it gives a lot of scope for creativity as well. Certainly, music can be made without compositions too, but we have a responsibility of being in a system that is predominately composition-oriented. If we present both vocal and instrumental in the same way, then the performance will lack colour and life as both have their unique characteristics. In our violin concerts we explore how to creatively use kalapramanam, the various bowing and fingering techniques.

We also feel that audiences in Chennai prefer vocal over instrumental. Some have the notion that they will not be able to relate to instrumental concerts mainly because they cannot identify the lyrics or the composition.  We want to break that notion and we are consciously working on that. In our violin concerts, we also sing a few kritis that the audience may not be familiar with -- one of us sings, while the other plays. We are happy this has been received well.

As instrumentalists,  we feel that our responsibility doubles as it is not just listening to the notes alone, it is also listening to the composition; we have to reveal the beauty of the lyrics and the raga too.

What aspects do you value in each other when you perform together?

Sornalatha: It is definitely a healthy competition. We gain a lot from each other. We perform together but as two separate individuals. When we present compositions, we make it a point to stick to the original sangatis as taught to us. But sometimes one of us has the urge to sing one extra sangati. Since we share a similar wavelength, we immediately sense that and the other person takes a back seat and allows the sangati to flow.

Subhalakshmi: Sorna is extremely good at laya and has an inclination towards exploring its different aspects. However complex the pattern may be she will think on-the-spot in a kutcheri and execute it with brilliance. So when we present laya oriented pieces, I give her the upper hand. We complement each other.

We have always believed that music has to be spontaneous, so we respect each other’s manodharma. If it is rehearsed then there is no charm in that performance. Music has to be from within, and while on stage we explore the most. At home, during our practice, we create and come up with several ideas. But on stage it is a different experience. The identity of a good musician is spontaneity and creativity; we feel it is okay to make mistakes as it is a part of the learning process and can  make us perform the next part better. Of course, after the performance we do feel  that we should not have made those mistakes, but that is unavoidable. We have to take that risk to evolve as a natural musician.

What about sibling rivalry both on and off the stage?

Subhalakshmi: We are very close to each other. Arguments do arise, especially during practice sessions. On stage, usually, I am the villain. I get angry quickly and very often give the “stare”! Off stage, we do have arguments but we patch up quickly. Sorna is more forgiving. Off stage, both of us stingingly criticise one another, of course for our betterment, as both of us have a lot of expectations from each other. Both of us are quite intense but the difference is that, she thinks before she reacts whereas I react instantaneously!

Have you ever felt dominated by the other?

Sornalatha: Never thought of it like that. We respect each other, for what we do on stage, off stage. We are quite open with each other and we discuss everything -what to avoid, what can be done been better. We also appreciate each other’s effort after a performance. In the concert, it may look as if akka is dominant but given her vast experience, she thinks of what is best for both of us and implements that.  Both of us together take the responsibility towards the success of the concert!

Subhalakshmi: Sorna is never dominant on stage. I get involved quickly and I am quite intense on stage so perhaps sometimes I feel I’m too dominant. I perhaps look that way, but that is not my intention. My intentions are always positive and only think of what is best for both of us.

Has violin influenced your vocal music and vice versa?

Yes it has. Knowing to play a fretless instrument helps in more precise understanding of notes, minute details, gamakas and positions. This helps us when we sing as we can visualise the movement of the notes.  Similarly, the learning from singing also adds value to our violin renditions. Whatever sounds good on the violin may not be good for vocal music and vice versa. When we play the violin, there are times when we want to showcase the expertise of the instrument through our music, like varying the kalapramanams, podi sangatis and such. But if you use the same variations and techniques in singing, it may sound inappropriate and sometimes out of sync when it’s not executed well. There are times when it automatically flows during the concerts. So we consciously approach both differently and try to make sure we don’t go overboard. Our years of musical experience have given us the maturity and proficiency to draw that line and execute both with ease.

Has music taught you life lessons?

Through music we learnt so many things in life. Initially, when we started travelling for concerts, especially outside the country, we did not know many things -- we would be very quiet, all we knew was to go on stage and perform.

Subhalakshmi: I used to be very shy and quiet but at same time very observant. Colleagues have said I am a perfect traveler and that is because I observed minute details from a very young age. I only learnt through experience. Music has given  me this experience and courage to face the world. I have witnessed several situations where accompanists were not given due respect and were blamed if a concert didn’t go well.  Back then I did not know how to voice my feelings. But now I know that these things have to be addressed; I have to be true to myself and my art. My introversion broke when I saw these incidents happen around me and I started speaking up.

How did the fraternity accept this?

Subhalakshmi: I always believed in being honest and true to my conscience. I never feared to voice out my opinions and the people whom I have spoken to, be it the organisers or the artists, have understood my point of view. I also strongly believe that there’s no point in talking to people who don’t believe in it at all.

Besides, I also feel many artists who can voice out on behalf of the fraternity are not speaking up. Of course, there are a very few exceptions!

Unfortunately, the field is ‘main artist centric’! Even if the accompanying artists/ co-artists want to speak out, they are afraid to do so as they might lose out on concert opportunities. Of course there are exceptions to this. Only if we speak for music, the standard will improve for the better.

Do you both consciously listen to a lot of violin concerts? Who are your inspirations?

Yes, we do listen quite a bit. Having listened to stalwarts every day since we were children, they seem so familiar, we have always imagined them live. Our practice sessions were also tuned this way.


Our top favourite is Lalgudi Mama – his reflexes on stage and how he adapted to the singer while accompanying -- is the true identity of an accompanying artist.  MSG sir is also our favourite – we admire his technique, precision, and the way he handled vivadi ragas with absolute ease. Also, the pure tone and clarity of T.N.  Krishnan mama is soul stirring. We have also been greatly influenced by the music of  nagaswaram maestro T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai.

Our grandparents have always inspired us. Grandfather’s ideas were unique, specially his flow of thought in Tamil. He was mostly self-taught and was a genius. We make it a point to include at least one kriti of his in our kutcheris. When we worked on his compositions, it was a real eye opener for us. He has incorporated several good messages in his compositions; he has even demonstrated how to compose a kriti in one of them! Thatha used to compose for all of Paati’s Harikatha programmes. Thatha passed away in 2003 and we celebrated his centenary in 2017,  when with the help of my grandmother, we released a book of his 25 select compositions along with transliteration, translation and meanings.

Do you both also compose?

Sornalatha composes. She has composed a few kritis in Tamil and Telugu and a pada varnam in Tamil. Most of our pallavis are also composed by her. We all feel she has inherited Thatha’s genes!

You’ve accompanied many artists – with contrasting styles. How do you approach that?

Appa has always ingrained in us that the biggest challenge for an accompanist is to play exactly how the vocalist sings and the one who does that well is a true accompanist! When we are on stage, we have to reproduce what has been sung or played. As we get very involved in that process we manage to capture that feeling through our instrument!

Of course, this is not possible without rigorous practice. That’s where I think Appa’s unique practice method really helped. Since we were familiar with playing along with so many styles, it was a natural process for us to adapt to any style.

How do you keep yourself physically and mentally fit?

Actually that’s one thing that we have recently been thinking about. When we are taught to sing or play an instrument we are never taught to take care of our body --the vocal chords or our posture. Like in sports – both technique and physical fitness go hand-in-hand. I really wish we all had learnt yoga or some such form of exercise at a young age. Now we do yoga so we understand what is required to maintain physical fitness.

Concentration is another key aspect -- sometimes lack of concentration can lead to mistakes on stage. It is very important that we learn to move on during live performances and not mull over it. Overconfidence is another important aspect. When we get on stage there is always bhaya-bhakti; it is important to maintain that balance. With overconfidence you can lose that balance; our father has always helped us keep this under check. We have never heard him overly praise us for any concert! (laughs)

Where do you source your violins from? Are they very expensive?

Violins are very expensive, specially the vintage ones.  Some of our violins are very old, those which we have inherited from Thatha and we do have a few violins  gifted to us by our well wishers. In the last few years we have bought some violins from an artist who deals with vintage violins. Vintage violin is indeed a masterpiece -- be it the grains of the old maple wood, the resonating tone, and the workmanship… It is absolutely stunning! 

How do you service your violins?

There aren’t many skilled luthiers in India, who can service violins well. It would be nice as artists if we could learn certain technical intricacies. Our grandfather was extremely skillful and could repair any string instrument with ease. We regret not having learnt this art from him. Nevertheless, we would certainly like to posses this skill sometime in our lives. 

How has the pandemic affected you? Did you do anything special during this lockdown?

We did miss performing live, but we used this opportunity to dedicate a lot of time to practice. It has been a calm period, with no time constraints and deadlines, it felt like our childhood days of practice. We also love gardening and that’s a passion we seriously pursued during this lockdown.

We also worked on a special project suggested by Ganesh, a disciple of our grandfather. He had requested us to tune the Vaidyanatha Ashtakam. We were very happy to undertake the project. Sangamam was a nother project we worked on as a tribute to our grandfather and Lalgudi mama marking their 103rd and 90th birth anniversaries respectively. We did a medley of two compositions; one of each. In this project, Sornalatha even performed konakkol!  We started learning konakkol from mridangam vidwan K.U. Jayachandra Rao.

In both these projects, we did everything by ourselves -- from singing, playing, to recording, mixing the audio and video. It was a fulfilling experience both musically and technically. 

Another interesting project was Pookkaalam, a Malayalam poem, by Kumaran Asan. This was our first ever Malayalam single and we released it on the occasion of Onam.

These are among the many projects that we did during the lockdown period.

We would like to dedicate all our achievements to our parents, mother Janaghi who has been our pillar of strength and support, and father Swamynathan who still remains our best and worst critic. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Violin Maestro T.N.Krishnan passes away

Sruti deeply mourns the passing away of veteran violin vidwan T.N.Krishnan. T.N. Krishnan, a child prodigy, learnt his art from his father Tripunitura Narayana Iyer, a martinet of a teacher. Born on October 6, 1928 into an illustrious family of musicians acclaimed in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of Indian classical music,Krishnan’s talent was burnished by long association with the great vocal masters of the era. He was known for his ability to present the most complex nuances of Carnatic music with disarming simplicity, and his strong bowing technique that produced ringing clarity and purity of sound.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Hamsadhwani donates for artistes/stage technicians benefit fund

Hamsadhwani , Chennai has always supported social causes in its three decades journey as a responsible cultural institution.Our founder R.Ramachandran has in the past helped raise resources for earthquake, floods and Tsunami affected people  and in keeping with his ideals we respond to this difficult situation for artistes with assistance. We are aware of the economic hardship that artistes/technicians  are facing due to the disruption in cultural programmes .

We dedicated our 30 th Anniversary celebrations to all those who are in the forefront fighting the Pandemic and helping save lives .On this occasion, we conveyed our gratitude to the artistes fraternity and felt it would be appropriate to make a contribution towards artistes benefit fund .

Accordingly Hamsadhwani
  presented a cheque for Rs Fifty thousand  to Global Carnatic Musicians Association and Rupees Twenty Five Thousand to the Tamil Stage Drama Producers Association and Shri Ramnath Mani,President, Hamsadhwani  and R.Sundar, Secretary   of Hamsadhwani handed over the amounts personally to Sangita Kalanidhi Smt Sudha Ragunathan, President , GCMA  & Shri Y.GEE.Mahendra , President of Tamil Stage Drama Producers Association on 10 th October, 2020.

Hamsadhwani communicated to GCMA and the Tamil Stage Drama Producers Association to   identify the artistes/technicians  who need help and support with financial assistance.

Both Smt Sudha Ragunathan and Shri Y.Gee.Mahendra lauded this touching gesture from Hamsadhwani Team and hoped this would inspire others. R.Sundar, Secretary hoped that other cultural organizations would come forward to help the indigent artistes in these Pandemic times. He expressed his wish that cultural events should resume only when things become safe and conducive for gatherings.