Tuesday, August 18, 2009



As I have already made clear, my knowledge of fine arts like Indian classical music, dances is not even worth two paise, and can be written on the back of a postage stamp! For me, though, any fine arts performance qualifies as a good one if, at the end of the day, I come back satisfied having spent a worthwhile time.

That was exactly the feeling, and much, much more when I exited THE PARK after a great speech—should we say performance, or should we say a lecdem—by Aruna Sairam, the famous Carnatic vocalist.

Aruna recalled her early days in Bombay, the never-ending visits by famous singers, her encounters with them and the quality time she spent listening to and learning Carnatic music. Her interactions with her guru, a rather hard taskmaster and another of those icons of Carnatic music, Brinda, were enjoyable. The standout among them was about the one time when another student had brought a notebook to take notes of the music class. Brinda apparently was fidgeting and shifty—not yet prepared to begin her classes. Finally, as the students gathered courage to ask her, Brinda, seeing the notebook, chided the girl: (Enna, kaadhu kondu varaliya?) “Have you forgotten your ears at home?”

The lecture was also more about what singing in Madras meant. She confessed rather candidly that the decision she took to move to Madras to further her singing career was late. She rued the day when there were hardly a handful to listen to her on her first two visits to Madras. She was well received in private functions, public performances abroad and elsewhere in India. However, according to her, “An artiste’s true worth is when the discerning Madras audience accepts a singer.” That she has given it her all and made it good is ample testimony to her grit.

Particularly, when you hear her say, “Once, I was singing with a Mani mama—my child on my laps and the sambar boiling in the kitchen. Swara after Swara after Swara, when Mani mama interrupted me and gave me sound advice—‘Do not go for a wide range that you cannot handle. Develop lateral thinking around a limited range’—those were golden words I cannot forget.” Or when she confesses about feeling rather lost in Madras, wondering what to do with her hard-earned knowledge, when a group of friends came up and gave her a piece of their mind—yes, a bit of advice about where she should improve to make it big, like changing her repertoire and other small adjustments. This was when she felt like, in her own frank words, the proverbial ‘Dhobi ka kutha, na ghar ka, na ghat ka’!

Another moving anecdote—it moved many in the audience too—was when a rather distraught woman walked in to the Green Room at a sabha. (Aruna says, “I was happy at least someone came into the Green Room—anyway there were not many in front of the stage,” rather candidly). The lady requested Aruna to sing a song that she had heard at one of her previous performances, and added that the consequences of not taking home the pay today—she would have got it five days later—would be rather serious, but she was determined to stay put to listen to the song. Aruna proved that she was human, after all, as it was obvious for all to see that she was wiping a tear off the corner of her eyes.

She had a very forthright answer when I asked her how much of an influence Hindustani music had on her. “In Madras, I have the reputation of singing Carnatic through Hindustani.” That was following her wonderful rendition of an Abhang!

She interspersed her wonderful speech with some songs, like gems standing out in a crown, only that most of us were not satisfied. We would rather have had it the other way round. At the end of the day, rather the evening, if a two-paise worth fine arts rasika like me felt wanting more, there can be no greater tribute to Aruna and her voice—whether speaking or singing.


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