Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Artists on Freedom 

What does freedom mean to you? As we step into the 75th year of India’s Independence, the concept of “freedom” changes over time and space, and varies from individual to individual. On this august occasion, Sruti reached out to a few personalities – two veteran artists-achievers, a musician-scholar-writer, two senior Bharatanatyam exponents and two senior Carnatic musicians, in an effort to understand what freedom means to them. 

This is what each one had to say. 

Aruna Sairam (Veteran Carnatic musician and Sangita Kalanidhi)
In all these years since our country attained freedom, the transformation it has undergone is phenomenal, and we need to be not just happy about it, but indeed ecstatic! I would like to quote Bharatiyar here, in his Bharata desamendru peyarsolluvaar: Kasi nagar pulavar pesum uraithaan Kanchiyil ketpatharkke oru karuvi seivom Today you and I are communicating exactly as he predicted! With all the complaints about the condition in our country today, the strides we have made in making use of technological advances are phenomenal. And not just the elite or rich, but also the vegetable vendor on the street, who is savvy enough to accept payment through Google Pay! I would say this is the great freedom that we have achieved -- empowering the common man! Freedom is actually a state of mind. With freedom your mind opens up. Personally, I found my own musical identity and artistic freedom through a lot of introspection. I had the best of gurus – Brindamma (Sangita Kalanidhi T. Brinda) -- who kindled the student’s mind to explore the facets of manodharma sangeetam. Mind you, she was a taskmaster when it came to kalpita sangeetam, but where an alapana was concerned, she did not ‘sing and show, asking me to repeat’. By making me practice a kriti or a varnam in a particular raga, she enabled me to understand the contours of that raga by my own effort. This grooming was what made me develop my own style of raga singing. The seeds of artistic freedom were sown there. Brindamma would often say “Medayile namma thaan raaja, keezhe iranginaal namma kaaja” meaning “on stage we should be brimming with confidence that we are the masters of our craft”. This confidence gives us the freedom to excel, which in turn gives more confidence -- like a chain reaction. My parents also believed in experimentation, and taught me to appreciate various aspects of the art, while discerning what was classy and of good quality. Well, with all this, as long as I was singing only what I had learnt, I still did not find that freedom. Even though I was singing right, with all the components intact, what was missing? Why did it not attract the audience? I realised that I was not expressing myself fully -- I was uni-dimensional. There was more to me. Should I take the freedom to experiment and express my other parts? That was my challenge. Hard core purists would see it as a breach. But I took that call to break out -- Brindamma had implicitly as well as explicitly given me the freedom -- she did not want me to be her clone. I discovered that balance even in singing niraval -- between adhering to conventional rules and expressing emotional content by taking some liberties within the structure. This is finding freedom in expression. In kalpanaswara singing, I found the path to sarvalaghu swaras, always spontaneous, rather than pre-meditated swara patterns. This was due to the thinking process that A.S. Mani put me through. As they say, the ‘true guru’ is one who liberates rather than shackles the disciple. I have been extremely fortunate in that aspect. This freedom has helped me find a good balance, presenting the heavy classical, interspersed with contemporary composers during the first half of a concert, with the abhangs and other pan-Indian forms during the second half. In the 1990s, using my own mike and mixer was not looked at favourably. But I felt the need for better sound quality, and took a stand taking care not to offend the organisers. This was a significant step in artistic freedom. Today, this has thankfully become the norm. The eternal play between balance and freedom is the hallmark of life, whether personal or in any artistic pursuit. As a mother, as a daughter, wife, sister -- we play so many roles -- how do we balance these? In the name of balancing, we cannot let ourselves suffocate. We have to have freedom of expression. On the other hand, unbridled freedom is the other extreme. In the name of freedom we cannot create shock waves. Every step in my musical journey has been towards finding this delicate mid- point between freedom and balance. When I sit to do a concert, there are no cobwebs in my mind that I have to achieve this or that. I am able to let myself flow with the music. This for me is ‘Freedom’.

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