Kochi: When the student saw her renowned Carnatic guru watching a video of pop icon Michael Jackson at his home, Bombay Jayashri was taken aback. The young acolyte had just moved into Chennai from the bustling western metropolis after choosing to take up south Indian classical music as a career under veteran violinist Lalgudi G Jayaraman.
“I thought the master was spending time leisurely with his family, and I shouldn’t be disturbing him. I chose to retreat, only to be beckoned by him,” middle-aged Jayashri recalled today, rewinding her artistic profile at an international cultural event here. “My guru waved his hands at me, his eyes still fixed on the mini-screen. He gestured at me to sit and view the visuals. Silently…as if it’s a live show and a noise from us would disturb the singer.”
Then, just as the number got over, Lalgudi commented with admiration about MJ: “The man has become the music!”
That came revelatory for Jayashri, prompting her to think that it was meaningless to segment music into forms such as classical, popular, folk, traditional, ethnic and “what not”. To this note, singer Renuka Arun, anchoring the interactive session at the Krithi International Knowledge Festival, said she had a similar story centered around Lalgudi (1930-2013).
“It was in 2004 and I had to meet the master at his house one afternoon. There, Lalgudi was playing MTV,” reminisces Renuka, who is a classical musician also into film music. The sight and subsequent conversation led her to not only overcome stereotyped impressions about Carnatic masters, but broaden her own vistas as a vocalist.
At this Jayashri, who also sings occasionally for movies, noted that Padma Bhushan Lalgudi, considered to be among the finest exponents of the Carnatic system, taught her to maintain life as a clean slate. “He was open to all forms of music, least instructing us what to listen and what not to,” she said at the 90-minute session titled ‘Listening to Life’ on Friday at the February 8-17 festival being organised primarily by the Kerala government.
The function also saw Jayashri releasing an experimental music album by Renuka, 37, an engineer at an MNC in Kochi. The work, titled ‘Maravairi’ and directed by Thiruvananthapuram-based Jithin Lal, belongs to “what I may call ‘progressive Carnatic rock’ as a genre”, added Renuka, a native of Perumbavur in Ernakulam district.
Jayashri, who was born in Calcutta from where her parents migrated to Bombay where she had her school and college education, went into brief contemplation before responding to Renuka’s question on advanced training in Carnatic. “To me, there is nothing like ‘advanced studies’ in music. You keep learning it all the time,” she said, nevertheless revealing that Lalgudi helped her “relearn” everything after having had her lessons in Carnatic under various gurus including her mother Seetha Subramanian and veteran T R Balamani besides in Hindustani classical under maestro Ajay Pohankar. “Maybe I knew ragas, talas, compositions even before, but Lalgudi sir made me feel everything new. I started afresh and the stint lasted a good 20 years. His violin, as experts too acknowledge, sounded closest to the human voice.”
In her teens, Jayashri used to sing for radio jingles. “Yes, I do believe such an exercise helps you in multiple ways. You not just learn control and modulate voice, but get acquainted with ways to make best use of the microphone,” she noted, trailing off to days when she would write in Hindi or Tamil the lines of short songs — whichever be the language for advertising products as a form of sound branding.
Much later, Jayashri today has her share of music disciples. The essence of being a teacher, to her, is to be happy with the students. “It’s the beautiful moments you spend training them that matters most. Some of the pupils may go fully into film music, some may sing only Carnatic, yet another section may prefer to remain teachers than performers,” noted the vocalist known for her collaborations with Hindustani musicians Shubha Mudgal and Ronu Majumdar besides African and European artistes.
To a question, Jayashri said increased pace of life in modern times has had its effect on a classical idiom like Carnatic, but the exponent wouldn’t call it deterioration in quality. “See, my guru (Lalgudi) used to quote his father saying that he used to practice, sitting by open paddy fields in his native village (in the fertile Cauvery belt). I learned Carnatic indoors. I see new-generation (urban) students practising it while waiting for a bus or taking public transportation,” she said. “Earlier (in the last century), Carnatic concerts used to span five to six hours. They began getting shortened; today it’s mostly two hours, sometimes just one hour. It’s all a matter of tuning into changing times.”
Responding to another query seeking a description about ‘sampradaya’, Jayashri said tradition in Carnatic is something that keeps changing. “Yes, I do evaluate my concerts every time I give one,” she said, adding that self-assessment often leads her to give poor marks. Contextually, Jayashri spoke of a late-1980s incident where a boy came to her after a performance and said “You got it all wrong” three times. The respondent, it turned out, was suffering from autism, a learning inability about which Jayashri heard for the first time in her life. “Later, when I listened to my record of that kacheri, I realised that I did go wrong at quite a few places.”
Of late, over the past five years, Jayashri has been teaching children music at a heritage village in Tamil Nadu. Manjakkad, near Kumbakonam, today has 280 boys and girls singing Carnatic under her continuing tutelage.
At the Krithi session, Jayashri faced questions also from the audience, who wanted to know more about her trysts with the 2012 American survival drama film ‘Life of Pi’ as the singer of a Tamil lullaby that earned a nomination for at the 85th Academy Awards for Best Original Song. It also led to a query about the making of her famed ‘Vatsalyam’ collection of traditional Indian lullabies, following the musician’s experiences of grooming her son born in 1998.