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Musical Excellence and Sartorial Elegance: Conversing With Carnatic Vocalist Sudha Ragunathan

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By

Aparna M. Sridhar

(Intelligent, articulate and self-aware SUDHA RAGUNATHAN chats with Aparna M Sridhar about three decades of life in Karnatic Music, gently tossing back at critics the casual, unfair barbs about everything from her sartorial style to the “early” bestowing of top awards)

Sudha Ragunathan

Sudha Ragunathan’s is a story about sustained success, and as often happens when it is accompanied by early and broad-based recognition, glamour and mass appeal, it is also about a constant, unwarranted carping, against a musical career of considerable scale and depth, built on very solid foundations.

Those foundations go back to her rigorous training accompanying her revered guru M. L. Vasanthakumari, one of Carnatic music’s most glorious figures, the youngest of a trinity with D.K. Pattammal and M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Many a morning Sudha would be at MLV’s house for a practice session. She was privy to the daily turmoil in her guru’s life.To MLV were not often available the luxury of hours of focused practice, or immersive peace in music.

She saw MLV going through a series of health challenges, family issues and a large part of the wealth she had earned dwindling away. “During the day in her house, she always had to pay something, settle something, so many challenges that came by phone or by the doorbell,” Sudha says.“An artiste should be able to perform without worrying about sheer survival. But the times for her were so difficult that such was her situation.”

There would be an important concert in the evening and MLV would set everything aside and start getting ready at 5. An hour later she would take to the dais, and her audience would have no inkling of the stresses of her day. MLV’s inventiveness in combining fast paced brigas and the pausal kaarvais that she learnt from her guru GN Balasubramaniam, and her own deep passion for the bhakthi-laden dasarapadagulu in Kannada and the beautiful Tamil verses of Andal’s Thiruppavai enraptured audiences just as much as her contemporary MS Subbulakshmi was doing in her own way.

Having accompanied her on the stage for over a decade,Sudha says every concert saw MLV “rising like a phoenix, like a colossus. Watching all that put in a lot of grit into me. She would say ‘nothing is bigger than us, no challenge so big that you cannot overcome it.’The one thing that I learnt from MLV was that whatever the situation, I cannot allow it to put me down.”

Sudha’s biggest challenge arose on the death of MLV in 1990 at 62, when she was carrying her second child. In the midst of preparation for the impending Chennai December music season, there was no time to mourn the loss of not only a mentor but an individual whom she loved and held in the highest esteem. Sudha put her heart into the Margazhi season, and when her daughter was born she was named Malavika echoing the initials of her guru.

Through the 1990s, Sudha adroitly managed the transition of carrying on that learning and legacy, presenting it to new audiences. “It was very difficult and I would worry about how I was going to handle it. It was not like she had left me early. The ten years of watching her, giving her vocal support, travelling with her, observing how she interacted with people, organisers — everything came together at once. I used all that I had learnt from her to manage that shift.”

Sudha inherited the gift of MLV’s cerebral artistry as well as the fact that in many ways, MLV herself represented a transition from the older guard. But success had to be earned. Even MLV, who paid the highest attention to concert detail, did not escape theharsh and often hurtful criticism that often rules music appreciation. “She was a very strong woman. But in the last few years, when she sang with a very severe kidney problem she was a little bothered by the criticism,” says Sudha.


Breaking new ground

Sudha has been singing for over several decades now and is the recipient of the Indian Government civilian award Padma Bhushan and the Music Academy’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi Award. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Academy had felicitated musicians in their 70s and 80s. When she received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 2013, people said it was given too early. N Murali, president of the Music Academy, in his citation letter, pointed out that in selecting her for the award, the Academy had ‘broken new ground in making the transition to the next generation of musicians.’

Says, Sudha:“That changed the formula in everyone’s mind. People thought only if you are that old you deserve it. ‘That is when your music is mature.’ It’s like a life time achievement. I got a lot of flak for that. The same thing happened with the Padma Bhushan. People said ‘she went lobbying’, ‘she knows people.’ But I don’t really know anyone in Delhi.”

What some critics missed or perhaps resented, is the significance of her achievement – not just in consummate skill and musical excellence, but in an appeal that transcended generations, even bringing to Karnatic music new groups of listeners. Sudha Ragunathan was the introduction to Karnatic music for many a youngster in the early nineties, showing them its melodic power and rhythmic energy in a fresh and appealing way.

It is a negativity that has persisted through the decades. Having skipped the 2015 December season due to medical reasons, Sudha sprang back in 2016 and people were keenly watching how she would fare. “Last year when I came back to sing, everyone was not only wearing glasses, they were wearing microscopic glasses. Probably thinking, ‘Where can we put her down, where can we tell her that she was right in not singing last year.’ I could feel that antagonism.

“When a critic is very harsh, or when a critic chooses to use very hurtful words, I think it does bother the artistes. I have seen MLV amma being a little upset with these things because she felt that no concert can be absolutely perfect. Sometimes you have to just trample all this criticism like an elephant and go ahead. If you get affected by each and everything how can you move forward?”

People close to Sudha know her to be an extremely giving, sensitive, emotional person, even fragile at times. MLV would tell her to practice and improve herself through her music. “There’s not a single day that she has said to me that I sang well. She has not listened to a concert of mine. I’ve grown up the very hard way. But people see only the Sudha of today. They don’t see all the muck that has happened before. I have arrived at a point where I realise that you can’t always appear to be a good person. Now I will do what I want to do.”

Male partisanship is ever present. “I don’t know why people compare. People will talk about a male singer and say that his Todi or Bhairavi was outstanding and about how he went into the depths of the raga. The lady would have done equally well but they will say, Ennairandhalum melotama irandhidhu. (In the end it was superficial or peripheral.)”

Then there is that perpetual saw — ‘she is too glamorous’. “My question is, why shouldn’t the lady be glamorous? When you use the word macho to describe something that is verymasculine about a man why shouldn’t women be glamorous or graceful?”

Sudha Ragunathan changed the way women artistes dressed for concerts and the image they projected both on and off stage. Gone was the self-effacing lady artiste, to be replaced with the poised one in bedecked lustre. “I know I was a trail blazer for this kind of dressing. That was also something that I took from my guru. I had seen her dress so impeccably. I would have thought that if someone had a disturbing day they would not be in a frame of mind to even get ready for a concert. Just drape a saree and go and sing and finish that event. But she would take the same pain that she would have taken on a joyful day. She would be absolutely perfect and behave as if nothing had gone wrong that day. I think all of this stayed as vivid images in my mind. I also realised that okay, there was a following for this. There was a childishness in me that said let me capitalise on it. After all I am not doing something that is over indulgent or ostentatious.”

The transformation was spurred by the demands of a modern day life in classical music. “There’s so much stress, so much to do, so much work, not a moment of respite.This profession definitely requires a lot of self-sprucing, voice maintenance, figure maintenance. When you put on weight it affects the voice. How much you sleep, whether you keep your mind calm, what your regime is, all of that comes into our music. Music is not just the delivery through the vocal cords. What you eat shows in your vocal chords. How your day has been at home, shows. Have you travelled much and then just jumped onto the stage? Everything will show in the way the voice is delivered, in the gravity of the voice, the tonal quality. I do give considerable importance to the way I maintain myself.”


Excellence and maturity

Of course Sudha cannot be defined only in terms of what the critics have had to say, for she brings considerable thought to her music.

Sudha is keenly aware of the changes that are happening, the questions being asked — after all she was a close witness to the last major transition in Karnatic music. “Individual perceptions matter and people are doing different things, but I hope the next generation will not get confused with all this when they sit and think ‘do I go the way Sudha is taking me, or the way TMK (T M Krishna) is taking me or the way Sanjay (Subrahmanyan) is taking me’,” she says.

“There is a common thread running in all our music even though all of us sing differently and all of us focus on different things. Your music can remain for eternity but your presence in terms of giving a concert on stage will wane after a period of time. You want to do the right things and want to leave behind a normalcy, not get the next generation worried about the right formula for success.”

ML Vasanthakumari in her youthful days

Like MLV, Sudha’s innovations and experiments in music have come from within the traditional space. “I feel there is so much to innovate within the traditional framework, so why mar or disturb that. Whatever creativity or manodharma I want to bring in here I do it within that framework. I do it in the swaras, or the kind of ragas, or in the krithis and themes that I choose for my concerts. There is so much of material and no dearth of scope for innovation.”

“The audience is expecting more and more. Every year, every concert they want something different. When they hear the same song they want to hear it in a different svaroopam. They can be very caustic, very critical, very demanding. You have to keep rising above all that. Not only satisfy them but satisfy yourself too. This year and last year, I have strived to improve myself in these aspects, even when I sing the same krithi it’s with more emotion, with more svanubhavam.”

She is not comfortable innovating if it means “shaking the foundation of the format my guru gave me, whichshe took from her guru GNB, or what he took from Ariyakudi. It is not written anywhere that you have to begin in a particular wayorthat you have to do certain things in a concert. It is just that it has been happening that way.”

Sudha belongs to the shishya parampara of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengarwho gave Karnatic music its current concert format. “The reason was perhaps that the climax builds up. It’s a slow warm up. Everyone gets into the mood of the concert. It’s a rare day when the moment you sit you have a connect with the audience –most times it is slow progress with a concert. Slowly the voice opens up, warms up. The format covers a complete spectrum of what we have learnt, what we know and what we can do. Almost always I adhere to this pattern.”

Where will her music go from here?“The struggle never stops. Now the challenge is bettering my wares, doing what I do better, leaving behind something. My clock has started ticking so I have to know what I want to leave behind. MS amma left certain things, MLV left certain things, I am still doing things that they have done. I don’t know if I have carved anything which I can claim as being my own. Maybe it will just come because the awareness is very strong in me.

It is perhaps Sudha’s ability to sing to varied audiences and her openness to new experiences that made her the automatic choice to sing at the United Nations on October 2, 2016 to mark the birth centenary of MS Subbulakshmi who had sung at the same venue 50 years ago, and to commemorate Non-Violence Day.

The gathering comprised mainly of bureaucrats. A make-shift concert room was readied and the sound check completed the day before. “Despite all that I was a little nervous because there was going to be a mixture of an audience. There were people who really knew music. There were people who had heard chaste music. There were a few who had listened to MS 50 years ago! There were diplomats who probably knew nothing about music or perhaps particularly about Karnatic music. The challenge was to reach out to them somehow.”

Of course, being artistically actualised is not enough, “If you sing what you as the artiste wants to sing, then what service are you doing to the audience? Of course, if you want to sing only whatever the audience wants, then that it is another category. How do you make every person in the audience feel they are important, to address their wants, to sing what they ask, and make them feel that ‘I was able to get into her music in some parts.’ I have crossed some phases of terrible criticism for this.”

“You are a human, shruthi, talampohadapohun (Shrutior talamwill slip). If you are absolutely conscious of the music and if you are physically fit on that day, if you concentrate and focus, then perfection happens.”

After decades of classical discipline and paying attention to detail, Sudha says, “I don’t think that only (technical) perfection matters, it is the emotion, the entirety of the music that matters. Holding a Sa for 40 seconds or perfectly, definitely adds to the magic of the concert being a success, but I think it’s the emotional content, your complete involvement in going into the depths of the music, that matters more than just these few things.”

(The above interview- feature on reputed carnatic vocalist Sudha Ragunathan appeared in the February 2017 “Saamagaana-The First Melody” magazine published in Bengaluru,India. The magazine devoted to Music is edited by Aparna M. Sridhar who is the writer of this article)

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