Padma Bhushan awardee Sudha Ragunathan, who is likely to perform at Parijaat — an overnight concert organised by SPIC MACAY on March 13-14, is one of those artists who understands the pulse of rasikas and leaves them pleasantly satisfied at the end of the concert.
The Carnatic vocalist says that each of her gurus had a distinct style and learning from them has shaped her into an artist she is today. She tells us about her training and how the audiences have evolved over the time. Excerpts...
You trained under your mother, then from B V Lakshmanan and Dr M L Vasantha Kumari. How should a student respond to his/her guru?
When I trained under my mother, it was not like a regular class, but a part of my daily routine. B V Lakshmanan was a family friend and with him, it was like taking liberties with an uncle. Then came MLV Amma and with her came the actual grooming and chiselling into the professional Sudha Ragunathan that I am today. The teaching was totally different; in fact, there was no teaching at all. It was just keen listening and absorbing.
Much of it was from her old records that I would listen and notate. The rest was while watching her singing live. There were only two songs that Amma actually sat down and taught me. Even today if I go down memory lane and relive how I had absorbed and learnt so many kritis, I am unable to fathom how that ever really had happened. Her style of teaching was a real challenge. She kept you on tenterhooks, made you hang on to her and learn every drop of music that came from her. That was how she learnt from her guru G N Balasubramaniam. In a way, it equipped me with a kind of grasping capability and alertness which gave me the confidence that I could learn anything, anytime with focus and determination.
We treated our gurus with absolute respect and fidelity to our whole being. Theirs would be the final word — for instance with MLV Amma, it was not only reverence, worship or awe, but a finality to her instructions.
You performed with Dr M L Vasantha Kumari on the stage. How did that help you as a performer?
It helped a great deal because being on stage with MLV Amma exposed me to different facets — the different crowds, venues, her accompanists and the organisers. I was able to watch how she interacted with her audience, how she planned her concerts, how she changed her plans suddenly. Even if she had planned something, with a click of a finger, she would change the entire repertoire of the concert, based on how the audience responded.
It was a kind of a holistic training that I had, not just about the music but also about how to lead a life as a musician and as a person.
Can you share your thoughts on how the Indian audiences of classical music have evolved post-Independence?
Initially, the royalty used to support the arts. Then came the era of cassettes and CDs for two or more decades. I am an artist, who belongs to the era where the cassettes and audio/video CDs were peaking and I earned a lot of audience through this exposure.
Even those who did not listen to me live, had a CD of mine and would listen to me every day.
When they see me during concerts, they behave as though they have known me for a while. Elders treat me like a daughter — they bless me and say, ‘my day begins and ends with your music.’ This gives me so much fulfilment that I am able to offer something to humanity and bring peace, happiness and joy through my music.
Today, there’s a lot of experimentation happening in classical music. For instance, we have Coke Studio series that blend classical music with folk / instrumental music. How do you look at these changes?
Experimentation happens all around, all the time. As long as it is meaningful, wise and educative and adds a different dimension to your own music, then it’s worth doing. The collaborations that I have always got into are very organised, well-rehearsed and give me space to express my genre of music with complete freedom.
With the rise of competition in every sphere, what is that one thing young artists should keep in mind to make a mark and career in classical music?
Lots of patience, practice, respect for your gurus and mutual respect to the different paramparas. When you perform, give your best to each and every concert without differentiating between venues and organisations. There might be someone really knowledgeable, sitting in the last row, who has come with a lot of expectation and is assessing your music but has been let down because of your casual attitude. You must perform with a conscience.