Sangeetha Samvaadham: Episode 4 -- A Carnatic Conversation with Kalyanapuram Aravind Soundararajan
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: Vishnu Vardhan
Kalyanapuram S Aravind is a award-winning Carnatic vocalist and an All India Radio A-graded artiste. Formerly a software engineer, Aravind chose to pursue music full-time instead as a calling. He is a disciple of the acclaimed singer, musician and composer Sangeetha Kalanidhi Madurai TN Seshagopalan.
Q.Which freely-available piece or concert would you recommend as a 'Aravind 101' introduction to a new listener?
Aravind: As a fitting introduction to a lay listener, I'd recommend my rendition of Sri Soundararajam Ashraye, a composition of Sri Mudduswami Dhikshithar from a concert I sang in Kerala in the year 2018.
Q.What do you think makes you a successful musician?
Aravind: The main trait as a musician that I have always aspired for, and feel contributes to the success of a musician, is bhaava spoorthi or the essence of musical composition. Even a non-lyrical piece has a bhaavam associated with it. To go one step beyond, even the way a mridanga vidwan plays for a krithi has a bhaavam. Hence bhaava spoorthi should not be restricted to just the meaning of the saahitya. It's an all-pervading aspect of our music.
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 sing?
Aravind: I have listened to many concerts but in particular when I listened to Sri Balaji Shankar's music for the first time it opened to me a new arena to work hard on: to achieve effortlessness in singing. All complexities in music should be presented in an effortless fashion. That is the goal for any musician.
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?
Aravind: I am already blessed with unfettered access to the music of my guru, the living legend Padma Bhushan Sangeetha Kalanidhi Madurai Sri TN Seshagopalan sir.
But apart from that, I wish I was born in the period of the great maha vidwan Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman Sir and had an unfettered access to him and his music. The way he redefined the bhaava in even arithmetic and layam in music is so mind boggling, even today as I listen to him. 🙏🙏 I wish I'd had the chance to explore his thoughts on this.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the experience of learning from your guru?
Aravind: The biggest fortune that I have been bestowed with in this birth is the opportunity to be under the tutelage of my guru Madurai Sri TN Seshagopalan sir. His methods of teaching are so beautiful that they kindle the intuitive musical ability that a student has inside him or her.
Sir emphasises that any form of musical exploration has to be raaga-based since our sangeetham is raaga-sangeetham. The raaga has to shine through each and every aspect of the music that we present is his main emphasis. While exploring a raaga, he always insists that the exploration should be a microscopically perfect one. This sort of perfection in expressing the ragam only occurs when the musician has internalised the ragam through the immortal compositions of elders and bases his exploration completely on the pramaaNa from the compositions.
Sir insists on intense saadhana for about minimum 5 to 6 hrs a day and always says that there is no shortcut for excellence other than saadhana. He often says even a prodigy or a genius needs to invest time in saadhana to bring out the brilliance in the music that he or she presents.
Q. As a teacher yourself to a number of bright young students, what are some important aspects that you focus on?
Aravind: In the process of teaching, I learn as well. This is precisely what I have mind while teaching. I always teach to my students those methodologies which I have learnt over the years of training by the virtue of experience. Methods that I usually suggest to the students to practise are mainly related to shruthi and laya shuddham. Once the kids are capable of singing with the shruthi and laya in tact, then I feel the devataa of music will start freely expressing herself through the kids.
The main exercises that my students do in class are voice exercises to increase the strength of the voice and make it more and more capable of expressing the unfathomable nuances of our music. These voice exercises tune the kids' ability to sing with both shruthi and laya accuracy. Once this is done, the second part of the class always has to do with the learning of compositions. I always emphasise learning more and more compositions which in turn strengthens my students' sense of aesthetic of any given raga.
Photo: Vishnu Vardhan
Q. What's something that you consider an unexplored frontier for you musically, or something on your to-do / to-achieve list as a musician?
Aravind: As I had mentioned, I always believe in bhaava in whatever we present, my big goal is to create musical arithmetics with more bhaava-oriented math which is at the same time mind-blowing to listen to.
Q. What one style of music other than Carnatic finds place on your playlist? What about it do you enjoy the most?
Aravind: Hindustani sangeetham is a genre that I admire the most apart from Carnatic music. The insane perfection that Hindustani musicians deliver in a concert is the main aspect I drown in!
Q. Who is on speed-dial when you want to practice, or do you prefer to go solo?
Aravind: Violinist vidwan Sri R Raghul.
Q. It looks like you share a good equation with vidwan Raghul.
Aravind: Yes, vidwan Raghul has been a very, very good friend for quite some time. We share a lot of common musical thoughts and we have a sense of musical understanding of each other's ideas. Maha vidwan Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr M Chandrasekaran mama has been a part of innumerable concerts of my guru Madurai TN Seshagopalan sir. Both Raghul and I have been floored by the kind of anticipation that each of our gurus had for the other. When we practise together, they have always been an inspiration for us to create an electric atmosphere, getting inspired by each other's music to create something impromptu and beautiful together.
Q. Can you recount for us a moment when you've felt moved during the course of your musical journey so far?
Aravind: I was once on a temple trip to Thiruvallur. It was an amavasya day which is very special for Sri Veeraraghava swami of Thiruvallur. While I was standing in the queue, the chief priest suddenly caught hold of my hands and took me into the sanctum sanctorum. I was very surprised by his actions since I had no idea who he was. He just wanted me to sing in front of the moola vigraham and once I finished singing, he said there wasn't a single day that went by without his listening to a couple of paasurams that I had rendered in one of my concerts which is available on YouTube. This incident made me feel so moved.
Q. What one thing would you add to / or change, in the Carnatic music scene?
Aravind: The current generation of musicians is one where we explore new new facets of music to provide to the audience a different experience in the concerts. But in my humble opinion, I would like to always retain the pazhamai (antiquity) in the concert experience and yet provide pudhumai (innovation) in that pazhamai if this is a concept that one can think of. This way, I feel the tradition is carried forward and yet new dimensions are also presented to the audience.
Q. A final question: please will you sing something for us?
Ramaa Ramesh is a music teacher, storyteller and lifelong fan of Carnatic music. More from her here.