Solo’s music is a soulful experience. It’s an experiment, a mesmerizing one at that, which carries you to a whole new world of musical experience. Different genres like western, rap, Carnatic, rock and Hindustani are mixed to perfection.
The ragas and swaras cling on to us. Washing us with layers of joy and ecstasy is the power of 'Sita Kalyanam'. You listen to its undulating notes and come back for more. Sita Kalyanam, sung to evergreen Tamil lyrics in all its purity, is a divine recital by Renuka Arun, who has made a powerful entry into Malayalam music industry. An exponent of Carnatic music, she says the song came seeking her, for such is her devotion to music. A multi-talented personality, she also carries the gifts of technology, music, and letters gracefully with her.
The music teacher opens up to Onmanorama in a cozy chat.
“I never thought Sita Kalyanam would come looking for me. It was not even on the periphery of my thoughts. Equally astonishing have been the messages that kept raining on me after the song was released. Several people told me they put the song on repeat mode to go back to it again and again. I was flooded with goodwill messages on Facebook from those who knew me and did not. Today, wherever I go, be it to my office or otherwise, all I hear is this line: ‘We’ve listened to it. It’s heart-warming.’
“Almost all singers and music directors have been congratulating me. I’d also done a number in Telugu. So lots of messages kept pouring in from there too. Sita Kalyanam begins with Western notes … ‘Take me there, I know this journey ends’… and mellifluously flows into ‘Ragaragasiya Mathurai Madiyinil, ’ rich in pure Carnatic notes. Carnatic music lovers appreciated it, but those not well-rooted in the genre too came out in praise of the song. I’m so happy about that. Even before the visuals hit the screens, people sort of related to it and formed mental frames of how they could connect with the song. The reel-situation too is powerful. It’s bound to stay long in viewer experience.
“It’s such a heart-warming feeling to be appreciated. The response was such. When everybody talks about my voice and congratulates me, I feel truly blessed. My confidence just shoots up when I hear people say: ‘What a haunting voice’!
“I was born and raised in Perumbavoor and did my studies in Mar Athanasius College, Kothamangalam. My parents are with me. I have an elder brother who lives in Dubai with his family. My husband Arun and I are IT professionals. Anandita, our daughter is in class three.
“I’ve been in IT for the last 14 years. I’m always asked how I keep juggling all these… music, work, family and my daughter’s studies. I’m able to do all these because such is the support I get from my family. But then I manage my time to the optimum. For the last six years, I’ve been working for EY where the work culture is fine and colleagues are very supportive.
“You can guess how busy things can get to in IT. There are times when we are stretched to our limits and the pressure mounts when we have deadlines to meet. But then, that too became a part of our lives and music was like a balm, which soothed me down. It was like an elixir. I love my job, I love it as much as my music. I begin work by 11.30 am and wind up by 8.30 in the night. I reach home quite late. There are times when my work throws up a lot of challenges, which I truly enjoy. Maybe this could be why I manage to be happy and successful in carrying along my music, my family, and my work. And as I told you earlier, my family is my biggest support system and that’s a great blessing. I know full well that they’ll back me to the hilt if I were to give up my IT job and commit myself to music fulltime. They have given me the freedom to choose what I love. That’s what keeps me going. I recently opened a music school, Aathma, in Kakkanad.
“I don’t believe in art being competitive or being competitive in art. But then, it’s a totally different scene out there in sports where you need to be fiercely competitive. But art is different and I’m certainly against competition in art. I have a lot of students, all richly talented and I love them all. It gives me immense joy to be with them.
“Music and I are no two entities. Music is my life, my soul. The peace, calm and joy music gives will come to naught if I were to pit it against a competition of any sort. The moment the element of competition creeps into music, it will cease to be a joyous experience.
“But things are changing and it’s a different scene out there for those who make a career out of music. They need to market themselves. That’s understandable and I’m in no way against it. But I have the choice to say no to competition and I can very well do without it. It’s not competitions that made me what I am, it’s my music!
“I love Carnatic music. If you train well and get grounded in Carnatic music, it will carry you a long way. But this needs passion, faith and a lot of dedication. But then you are lucky if you get to sing hit numbers and get to be a popular figure.
“My music lives in me. My music is an expression of all my emotions. Music is all around me… not just what I sing, but what I hear all around me is also music.
“I believe that each song is guided by a force, a fate which decides its success factor. We may render beautiful songs, but many a time, songs that are sung for movies seldom see the light of day as they may not go well with the given situation. It’s happened to me. I’ve been through it. So I don’t feel any tension building up when I’m called to sing.
“We have playback singers aplenty now and there are more coming in. This is quite a welcome move. Actually, it was A.R. Rahman Sir who brought in the trend of introducing new and fresh voices to do playback. It’s been around eight to 10 years since it caught on in Malayalam. That’s quite a big change as far as the Malayalam industry is concerned. Such a change opened up a lot of opportunities for singers here. Singers, including me, got a chance to sing playback just because of this big shift. Rather than considering this as a big challenge to the industry, I see only the positive side of the change.
“Apart from all these factors, the power and the pull of the Internet has been a great force. Nobody can choke your talents. Thanks to the Internet, real talents need not wait for anybody’s time and convenience. If you have talent, you can showcase it via the net.
“Independent music is growing by leaps and bounds. This change is something one could not even visualize several years ago. But now everything is moving up fast. The slightest change in style is welcomed and if it’s appealing, it opens up a new genre and stays.”
Renuka Arun is quite a seasoned writer too. “But,” she continues, “I’ve never felt the pull of words. Nor did I ever want to be a writer. It just happened. I got a chance to write a few articles. But then the medium for which I wrote liked my articles and offered me a column.
“I read a lot. That’s precisely why I’m able to write. It’s with a deep passion that I write about music. And whatever you do with intense passion gives you immense joy as well. Besides, if you’re writing about music, all that you lap up about music will energize you to give your best and this, in turn, will give a great push to your confidence. Therefore, I need to find more time to read a lot and take up research into music-related matters.
“If you ask me what I’d love to sing the most, I’ll tell you about keerthanas, which are aplenty. These I can sing without a hitch… Swati Thirunal bhajans, Chaliye Kunjanamo, Enna Thavam, Kurai Ondrum Illai and a whole lot of them. I render film numbers from a safe distance. I tend to forget the lyrics. This makes it difficult for me to sing the songs effectively. My all-time favorites which I keep singing are those evergreen hits…Paatupadi Urakkaam…and M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. Subbulakshmi’s song must be at least 50 years old. A few of my other favorites are…Innenikku Pottu Kuthan and Indu Pushpam Choodi Nilkum Raathri.
“’Loved your voice. Super, dear,’ said music director Prashanth Pillai’s message and I just did not know how to respond to it. But doesn’t it make you happy to hear someone saying your voice is great? A lot of music directors congratulated me after Sita Kalyanam.
“I’d like to share with you something that made me happy and pleasant while the song was being recorded. Music director Sooraj S. Kurup would always tell me: ‘You remind me of Bombay Jayshree.’ I was intrigued and quite pleased because I adored the singer and her style. Peaceful, shrouded in mystery and powerful… that’s how I can describe Bombay Jayshree. Her tones and her voice resonate with tranquility. When she was nominated for an Oscar, I used to fervently pray for her. So deep was my devotion to her. Hence, when the music director paid me that compliment, I couldn’t have asked for more.
“Bombay Jayshree is one singer who renders Carnatic notes with such beauty and perfection. When she stepped into film music, her expertise in Carnatic music helped her to meld easily into playback mode. Usually, Carnatic music exponents seldom step into film music. If at all they come, they find it difficult to gel with cinematic notes. But Bombay Jayshree is devoted to both Carnatic and film music.
“My passion for music and my goal is set towards her. I hope and wish that someday, a concert of mine will touch the level of Bombay Jayshree’s style. That’s my ultimate goal.
“Sita Kalyanam’s recording will always stay etched in my mind. I have a special love for the music director as much as I have for that song. I met Sooraj when I’d gone for another recording in Ernakulam. He said he knew me. He also said he knew it was I who had sung that special Telugu number. He was quite chatty and very warm-hearted. I took to Sooraj as I would to my brother. I usually take time to warm up and get close. But with Sooraj, it was different. When we left the studio there was absolutely no mention of any song. But then a week later, he gave me the shock of my life when he called me to render the song.
“I fell in love with the track itself. Sooraj had done it. I was quite familiar with Sooraj’s style. I realized that he was a good singer too. When he asked me what I felt about the song, I told him I could see a hit in the making. All his songs have that special feel about them.
“Anyway, he made me feel very comfortable before the recording began. ‘Take your time,’ he said. But it took us three hours to complete the recording.
He sang for me and showed me how each line with the same words had to be nuanced. This helped me a lot. A few changes were made during the recording. I put in my very best. The best part of it was that Sooraj gave me the freedom to improvise and add to the raga.
“Sooraj keeps in touch and calls me frequently. So in every way, it’s a song to remember. He keeps updating me about the song, the response to it and all other details. The director of the movie got to listen to the song only much later. But then Sooraj told me that director Bejoy Nambiar was very happy with Sita Kalyanam. He also remarked that my voice was good. It goes without saying that for Sooraj, music is a passion. But there’s also this indefinable innocence and purity in his relationship with music. He’s not after numbers and is least interested in scoring music for movies after movies. The depth of his knowledge in music is astounding. That’s why I pray that he touches the peak of his passion.
“I was talking to the artist who had done the lyrics. I knew that Dulquer was the hero, but never did I imagine that the movie would be on such a massive scale. That’s what makes me swell with pride… that I was also a part of it!
“I’ve always harbored this great dream of going to Salzburg, where Mozart was born, to be part of the great music festival there with my Carnatic music.
“Here’s my wishlist: To sing in Tanjavur’s great Brihadeeswarar temple and to drink in the beauty of Manasarovar and sing my heart out to the Himalayas. I’ve always longed to go to Manasarovar because I’m in such awe of its beauty about which I read in a travelogue. Mt Kailas and the Himalayas are my dream destinations. I’m not religious but am spiritual. And it’s music which keeps me so.”
Renuka does not believe in a swell in numbers. She’d rather do a few songs that will be remembered forever. This could also be the reason why in the dog-eat-dog world of film music and fierce competition, Sita Kalyanam went to her, seeking her out. Talking to Renuka was as soothing as listening to Sita Kalyanam.
An endearing singer with an endearing smile, Renuka’s articles too are as lucid and as fluid as her music.