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Sangeetha Samvaadham: Episode 1 -- A Carnatic Conversation with Shreya Devnath

Welcome to Sangeetha Samvaadham, a series of compact written interviews with Carnatic musicians by Ramaa Ramesh. Samvaadham is the Sanskrit word for a conversation, and each of these conversations is an attempt to understand a little more about each artiste, their journey and how they perceive themselves and their art form. To this end, the set of questions remains largely consistent while the answers vary significantly by artist - some deeply introspective, some refreshingly practical - each a reflection of how that artiste perceives themselves and the world around them.

Photo: Vidhya Vijay

Shreya Devnath is a violinist. Her recent production Rise, as part of the ensemble A Carnatic Quartet, has received critical acclaim. Shreya is a disciple of the late Lalgudi G Jayaraman, renowned violinist, composer and part of the violin-trinity of 20th century Carnatic music.

Q. Which freely-available piece or concert would you recommend as a 'Shreya 101' introduction to a new listener?

This is a set of excerpts from 'An Experiment with Sound and Music', a duet concert with Praveen Sparsh, performed in 2018 for Naada Inbam. This piece is Irakkam Varaamal Ponadhenna Kaaranam, in the raga Behag, played in the solitude of the night last month.

Q. What do you think makes you a successful musician?

I don’t know about ‘successful musician’, or even what the definition of that would be, but I’m a musician simply because there’s nothing else I’d rather be. And as long as that is the case, the drive and grit that takes will automatically ensue. If ever the passion were to lessen or dissipate, and the vision falters or weakens, being a musician will then become extremely difficult.

Q. Have you had a concert moment - either as a performer or a listener - that opened up a new window of possibility for you, or led to a fundamental shift in the way you play?

I have these moments all the time. It’s not necessarily in one specific concert, but can happen across genre, venue, and context. I could be driving and listening to something on the radio, or travelling and listening to a concert of some other genre, or listening to something I might have heard many times, but suddenly something different about it presents itself to me, and there could be that moment; that moment where something unlocks for me, gives me a new perspective, or makes me take a fresh look at the way I think. That then shows up in my music.

There is so much to be inspired by, and so many artistes, across genre, who in turn shape you as an artiste. One side of that is watching and learning from their body of work itself. Of late, even more than a ‘concert moment’, it has been when I read about some artistes, or listen to them speak - something said almost in passing will take centre stage in my mind, unlocking something significant in my journey. An insight into an artiste’s mind and their creative spirit can be a wonderfully magical thing.

Q. Imagine you could be born in any period of history and grow up as a peer alongside any musician of your choice, with unfettered access to them. Which musician would you choose and why?

My Guru, Sri Lalgudi G Jayaraman. I had very few years with him, before age and illness took over his physique. If I could go back and spend many more years learning under him, being with him, I would, in a heartbeat.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your guru.

Lalgudi sir was, and remains, one of my biggest musical influences. But apart from the phenomenal music he was so generous to share with me during my journey with him, he imparted so many other things; things that I cherish even more now, on how to be as a person, as an artiste and as a teacher.

To me, he set the Gold standard as a teacher. At every point being his student, I would only think: 'If ever I teach, this is the kind of teacher I should strive to be'. He would take it upon himself to ensure that the student understood the lesson, so much so that if I didn’t understand something well, it would upset him to no end, and he would obsess over ‘how better to teach me’. He was always on time, and ready for the class, as though he was the student.

More than anything, he was always so much steeped in the art form and so much in awe of the art form, no matter that he had already spent a lifetime exploring its breadth and depth. Every single time he heard a phrase or even a note sung or played well, he was in awe and in love, all over again. That passion for music, and that unconditional love for the art form is what communicated to me, above everything else.

Photo: Vidhya Vijay

Q. What's something that you consider an unexplored frontier for you musically, or something on your list?

To explore - freely, widely and deeply, within and without, no holds barred - and through that, discover and rediscover both the art form I so cherish, and myself as a person and an artiste. This is perhaps neither an unexplored frontier nor a goal to be achieved, but this is something I’m always looking forward to as an artiste.

Q. What is one moment you've been moved by, in your musical journey so far?

I’m innately reserved and quiet, not one to interact very freely. So I am moved every time that music makes a connect for me. I may be far inside my own world, playing or singing, and yet a connection would have been made implicitly. Music does that, being its own language, its own bond. It’s the warmest feeling.

Q. What one style of music other than Carnatic finds place on your playlist?

Several, I listen to just about anything that catches my attention. I look for specific aspects that I can relate with and learn from, no matter what I’m listening to - sort of like a musical treasure hunt. I absolutely believe, listening must be wide and deep. Hear the music everywhere, and then we will start hearing music that only we can hear. My playlist is always a very random, varied thing - never a consolidated playlist. Of late, I’ve been listening to a recording of Sri Musiri’s Begada, TNK sir’s Bilahari ragam (the one that precedes his super popular Na Jeevadhara rendition) and Kanda Vara Sollunga from Karnan.

Q. Who is on speed-dial when you want to practice, or do you prefer to go solo?

I’m more of a loner in that sense. I spend endless hours of bliss, playing and singing in solitude.

Q. What one thing would you add, or change, in the Carnatic music scene?

As we know, the art itself is different from the professional field of the art form. When we look at the field of Carnatic music in the professional sense, it is subject to competition, hierarchy, expectations and checklists like every other profession. What is nice to see now, is the spirit of exploration, the questioning of hierarchy; tradition being seen as something to imbibe and be inspired by and something that will guide us in our explorations rather than set practices that restrict or dictate, and the wonderful space to connect with fellow music lovers, on these explorations and thoughts. The widening of the psychological and musical space of the artiste is, I think, a good thing.


Ramaa Ramesh is a music teacher, storyteller and lifelong fan of Carnatic music. More from her here.

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