It ought to be impossible for a girl from Matunga to conquer the Madras music scene. But Aruna Sairam, who was given the highest honour by the city’s most impenetrable fortress, The Madras Music Academy’s Sangeeta Kalanidhi title for 2018, has little left to prove. From abhangs to viruttams, singing for dance to collaborations with musicians from across the world, and even a theatrical production in France, she has presented various aspects of music on stages in several countries. 

Aruna Sairam’s first guru was her mother, Rajalakshmi Sethuraman. At the age of 10, she became a disciple of the legendary T. Brinda. She has never quite stopped learning, turning to S. Ramachandran for guidance on niraval and A. S. Mani for the nuances of swara singing. Among her mentors are the veena vidwan K. S. Narayanaswamy, who taught her about ragams and gamakams, nadaswaram vidwan S. R. D. Vaidyanathan who taught her compositions such as the Mallari, and voice teachers including Eugene Rabine and David Jones. 

In addition to being vice chairperson of the Ministry of Culture’s Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, she is a visiting lecturer at various international universities. Her Nadayogam Trust focuses on the musical education of underprivileged students by providing them with instruments.

Between a series of video shoots and rehearsals for her December music season concerts, Aruna Sairam sat down to talk about the many hats she wears. In person, she exudes warmth and carries her accolades lightly. She switches often between languages, and speaks with her characteristically self-deprecatory humour.


I’m going to start by taking you back to this time last year, when you were—to quote your opening speech at the Music Academy’s annual conference—losing weight worrying about what you would say on the dais when you received the Sangeeta Kalanidhi award. It was at the same venue that you once watched Balasaraswati Amma demonstrate abhinayas while receiving the same award, and you called it one of the defining moments in your life. Was being on the same dais in the same situation something you had ever dreamt of?

No. I wanted it. I know, secretly, I probably wanted to be there in the same situation, but I never thought it would happen, because it seemed like an unachievable dream, no?

You know, when you’re a kid and you’re watching somebody like Balasaraswati, you admire her and you love it and all that, but you never think you will reach that point. So that was quite something.

It was both ways, in the sense you don’t consciously think you will do it; but subconsciously I think you get so inspired by these moments that you actually work towards it, without knowing that you’re working towards it.


Do you remember your personal reaction when you were informed about it?

Frankly, there was this sudden feeling of closure, a sudden feeling of relief, a sudden feeling that after all this time, after the huff and puff of running in a particular direction—though I enjoyed the run—I sort of felt like ‘Aaaahhhhh, it’s over’, and I wanted to rest.

I got that feeling, not so much for me, but I was thinking of my parents all the time. Because they sowed the seeds for this; they used to bring me when I was a kid to the Academy; they made me see all these people and admire them; at the same time, they never flogged me and they never told me, “You have to become this”. They never told me that. They just let me appreciate these things. And never did they egg me on; they just let it happen.

So I thought of all that maturity that they showed—of not pushing me, yet exposing me to these things—what all they must have gone through during those years when they were bringing me up, what ideas they must have had, and thinking of those things I was very moved.


You have been vice chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi for five years. Most artistes at the peak of their careers don’t want to have to plan and curate and assess the arts simultaneously. How has it worked for you, to juggle these things?

Luckily, I think I was groomed for it by life itself. (Laughs)

Because if you take my typical day, especially after I married and became a householder and had children, responsibilities came with it. We were all living in a typical Bombay flat, which is not really too big in size. We were three generations living in that flat, and so I was constantly juggling between children and school and office and dabba and family and everybody coming in and going out. In the middle of that, I learnt to somehow keep myself riveted to music.

So, for me, music was never like sitting down, practising, quietening myself. I never got the chance to do any of that in the developmental years. I always had to be juggling, and while one track would be going on inside of me about the music, externally another track would be going on about life. And so I learnt to multitask, I learnt not to demand privacy and silence and solitude in order to do anything. So I think that helps me in this experience. (Laughs)

You have been vice chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi for five years. Most artistes at the peak of their careers don’t want to have to plan and curate and assess the arts simultaneously. How has it worked for you, to juggle these things?

Luckily, I think I was groomed for it by life itself. (Laughs)

Because if you take my typical day, especially after I married and became a householder and had children, responsibilities came with it. We were all living in a typical Bombay flat, which is not really too big in size. We were three generations living in that flat, and so I was constantly juggling between children and school and office and dabba and family and everybody coming in and going out. In the middle of that, I learnt to somehow keep myself riveted to music.

So, for me, music was never like sitting down, practising, quietening myself. I never got the chance to do any of that in the developmental years. I always had to be juggling, and while one track would be going on inside of me about the music, externally another track would be going on about life. And so I learnt to multitask, I learnt not to demand privacy and silence and solitude in order to do anything. So I think that helps me in this experience. (Laughs)

You’ve often spoken about your mother’s devotion to Lord Krishna, and the songs she used to sing. It struck me as strange that someone who had grown up near Trichy should sing so many Hindi bhajans, starting with “Jaago Bansi Wale” in the morning. Did she even know Hindi when she moved to Bombay?

No, but as a young wife when she went to Bombay, she would have been obliged to learn Hindi because when you get out on the street, you have to know Hindi; and she was also probably exposed to many different subcultures of our country, because in Bombay if you walk the roads, there’s one Marathi abhang happening somewhere, there’s one Hindi bhajan happening somewhere, people are all multilingual and cosmopolitan.

I’m sure that is how she ended up singing “Jaago Bani Wale”, which is a Meera bhajan, every morning in the house.

You yourself spoke of how there was no border in your mind between Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi, Tamil, and Hindi. Strangely, it seems languages were somehow more fluid at a time of less globalisation.

Of course, they would keep a watch over me, but there was nothing obscene about that music. It was the golden era of film music. They would let me listen. And then I would listen to Radio Ceylon, all the songs, the Tamil hits, they didn’t mind it. I would listen to Elvis Presley, they didn’t mind it. The Beatles, they didn’t mind it.

So you see they gave me a lot of space, and I think that was very open-minded. Many of the people of that generation had that open-mindedness, because they were also very sure about their roots. They had the confidence that ‘Our roots are strong, so you will not be blown away by anything.’

I felt that it is an unattainable peak. There was some block inside my mind; I don’t mean to say it was like that. Everything is the way you perceive it. So I perceived it that way.  

As a child, you learnt languages not only organically, but formally, down to Tamil classes on Sunday mornings. I’m interested in what being fluent in so many languages does for your music. As you learnt these languages, did songs start affecting you differently?

Definitely. Because when you learn from somebody how to pronounce it, how to say that particular consonant or vowel, when you understand the meaning—word by word, then the synoptic meaning—then you really start living the song. It’s not a song anymore. It becomes a part of your emotion.

Then the way it comes out is very different. Because it becomes your story. Till then it is somebody else’s story, and you are just doing a clinically good job of it. But when it becomes your story, then there’s no question of it being ‘perfect’. But it’s just beautiful. It just says something.


You had travelled internationally and made a name for yourself before you moved to Madras. You were only doing a few concerts a year here. Back when you were a Bombay girl, what was Madras to you?

I felt that it is an unattainable peak. There was some block inside my mind; I don’t mean to say it was like that. Everything is the way you perceive it. So I perceived it that way.

Because I came from Bombay, I really could not cue in to the words, the gestures, and the body language of what people were communicating here. I felt it was very different from what I understood, and how I communicate. So that was the first mental block.

Then I felt that people were too preoccupied with the correctness of everything in the music. ‘Correct-aa irukkanum’ (It should be correct), ‘adhu appadi irukkanum’ (This should be that way), ‘andha theermanam andha edathukku vandhu vizhanum’ (That theermanam should reach that place). That’s great. But if that becomes an obsessive thing, you know, then there is no room for any other deviation, or any other experimentation or taking risks. Automatically, it precludes that. In my mind, I magnified it. So I said, “Oh, I cannot sing like that”. Because people are so particular about these things.

The third thing is that I have a low, bass voice, whereas all the singers are basically high-pitched women’s voices. So I was like, “Oh, so how will my voice fit the bill?” Except for D. K. Pattammal, who had a bass voice. There seemed to be no room for a woman’s voice that is an alto voice, like mine.

The fourth thing was, I’m very expressive, that is overly expressive in my gestures and the way I sing. That did not have, I felt, takers here. They found me too over-the-top.

So there were many reasons why I felt, “Oh, I can’t fit in there.” I felt that way. But finally I did. (Laughs) But those were the things that seemed like mountainous obstacles to me.


You’ve spoken very humorously about the reception you got when you first moved here. You said people would be waiting for GNB [G. N. Balasubramanian] and M. S. [Subbulakshmi] Amma to sing particular songs, but at your kutcheris, they’d be waiting for them to end!

That’s absolutely true. (Laughs)


But you also took a very systematised approach to cultivating an audience, and brainstormed with some friends about how you must present your work in a way that would appeal to this new audience.

That was after that. When I realised that whatever I had learnt wasn’t really working here. Up to a certain point, I was learning, learning, learning, learning. Gathering, gathering, gathering moss. Not knowing how to juxtapose everything and how to put it together. I was just gathering, which is good. I was learning a lot.

After that, when I came here, I noticed that my kind of approach to music is not really drawing the rasikas in large numbers. There were a handful, who said, ‘Aama, romba gnaanamaa paadaraa...’ (She sings with a lot of scholarliness)—and it took me some time to understand that was not really a compliment, but rather derogatory; because ‘gnaanamaana paattu’ means it is only fit for chamber music. (Laughs)

So when I realised, I was again at crossroads. Should I continue here, or should I stick to Bombay and to the odd appearances that I make in Europe or elsewhere and be satisfied with that? I was not doing too badly. But somehow I felt in my heart that this is the Mecca of [Carnatic] music, and if they don’t accept me, then my journey is not complete. So I said whatever it takes, I will give it a shot.

So that’s when I started to collect around me—I wouldn’t say ‘collect’, God sent me people whom I could trust. The first thing is trust, the first thing is you should implicitly vibe with them and whatever they say, you should be sure that it’s with the best intentions at heart, and you should be able to trust them a hundred percent. I had a couple of colleagues like that.

And so, day after day, we used to sit from nine to five—every day, like a full working day—and look at each song. I would render it, I would juxtapose it with other pieces. We would draw up programmes for a concert, and see what works and what doesn’t. We’d say, ‘Swaram paadina it sounds good here’, ‘There it will be overkill, it is stretching it too much’, ‘It works when this ragam follows that one’, ‘This song doesn’t work after that one’.  You know, we started just going over everything again and again, and putting ourselves in the position of the audience, as well as the singer, as well as the pundits. We said, ‘How would these people receive it?’, ‘How am I feeling about it?’ Because, ultimately, I have to feel happy doing something.

Through trial and error, we somehow tried to align these four-five factors. And the more we started doing that, the more we found it was striking a chord with the audiences. Because there was something in it for every section of the audience, and a lot of thought had gone into what they were getting. The pundits couldn’t dismiss me because there was enough scholastic material there. The rasikas couldn’t dismiss me because there was something for them too. Everything started coming together.


We often talk about the disadvantages someone who does not grow up in Madras has, in terms of establishing oneself. But were there any advantages? You have mentioned that the reason so many greats came to stay at your parents’ place in Bombay was that many would need a place where they could get the comforts of home in a different city. But there must have been other advantages too?

Sure, many. Then, when I wanted to make it in Madras, I would have thought of it differently. Where I am today, I feel what Bombay has given me is an open mind, which I value so much now. Because I don’t try to judge anything by its cover. I try to listen to every kind of music with curiosity. I try to learn something if I feel I can learn it. And I try to collaborate with ever so many artists from different cultures. I feel all those abilities are the gift of Bombay to me.


When foreign journalists write about you, they contextualise you for their audiences by comparing you to jazz, soul, and sometimes even opera singers. What kind of western music were you exposed to growing up in Bombay—the city itself had a very vibrant jazz scene—and was there any singer whom you hoped to sound like one day?

You know, in my school, I became a part of the western music choir. I could have chosen Indian music, but I didn’t and I chose to sing with the Western choir. So that gave me the first window to western songs, French and opera, and I understood the way it sounds.

And because my western music teacher was a very inspiring person, she would tell us if, say, Zubin Mehta came, if the orchestra came to the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), she’d say whoever can catch this concert should go, it will be beautiful.

So my parents would take me to NCPA. Suppose I said I want to listen to this concert, they would somehow take me there. Of course, it helped that my father was in the music circles and otherwise also we would go to NCPA for the Indian music. They would take me to the western music concerts also now. That’s one thing.

Then, as I said, I could always listen to the radio. For example, if Maria Callas would sing, my father would play it on the radio and he would tell me, ‘Listen to this. Listen to this voice. See how it traverses, not the pitches, not the frequencies, but the way it moves from one emotion to the other.’ So he drew my attention to her emotional, very moving kind of singing, not to the fact that she could traverse three octaves. That did not attract him so much as the feeling. And I used to feel oh my God, if somebody can sing like that, that must be fantastic.


Now let’s talk about Brindamma. You have told the story of how she first came home. She had this reputation of never going anywhere, and it was your brother whose knowledge of music at an encounter in Thiruvaiyaaru had drawn her to the house.

Yes, so Thiruvaiyaaru happens. Brindamma and all these musicians used to attend the festival. My brother—he must have been all of 14 then—was crazy about going to Thiruvaiyaaru, because all of us were so into music. That trip, my parents were not there, and neither was I. So my parents packed him off with some musicians.

And my brother was made to sit in the front, on the floor. And he was sitting there all the time, listening to musician after musician. They take turns of 20 minutes each, right? And for each person, my brother—at that age—was passing a comment. ‘Ivaa paadaradhule shruti serala’ (They are singing off-key), ‘Ivaa nanna paadaraa’ (This person sings well), ‘Aan, ivaa taalam correct-aa podara’ (This person is keeping the right taalam), ‘Aan, idhu nalla ragam’ (This is a nice ragam). So he was commenting away, and Brindamma was sitting there and watching him.

Then she slowly asked Thyaguji—Thyaguji is Papa Venkataramiah’s son—‘Idhu yaaru veettu payyan?’ (Whose son is this boy?) Thyaguji said there was a person called Sethurama Iyer in Bombay. She asked, ‘Enna ippadi paattu keykkaraan?’ (How is he so interested in music?) And he told her this was a very musical family, they’re all interested in music, and she apparently said, ‘Mmmm. Appadiyaa? (Is that so?) Sethurama Iyer-aa? Mmmm.’ So that was how she registered my parents’ name in her mind, and when my father wrote to her, subsequently, she promptly connected the dots and she said she would come home.


Can you recall the first moment she stepped into the house, this person whom you had all been hoping to host for years?

I remember. So she came, she walked in. She was sitting in a chair, just like this. She didn’t know what to say, my parents didn’t know what to say. I was standing by the door and peeping and fidgeting and completely scared of her. So it was a very surreal experience.

But slowly, because she spent two months or more every year—usually March to June—she and I, though she was in her late sixties and I was around 10, we became like friends at one level and teacher-student at another level.

She would do everything for me, right from combing my hair. But it would be different during class time. She would become very reserved. After the class, she would open up. So she had a very clear demarcation of her role, of how she should be.

She would talk a lot about her childhood and the way she grew up and her stint at her guru [Kanchipuram] Naina Pillai’s place. Until she came of age, she stayed in her guru’s house and learnt music. She would tell me all about this. So she was very chatty with me at one level.


And how about her interaction with your brother?

It was different. Because he was not learning, no? So she would be a different person with him, very friendly. She would have a twinkle in her eye when she spoke to him. She could let her hair down with him, because the teacher-student thing would not come in between, but with me, she was always on guard. (Laughs)


But how was the decision taken, because all of you were so musically inclined, to make you her disciple rather than your brother or rather than both?

Yeah, well, I don’t think my brother really sat down and sang much. But he was the first one to pass comment on any music, which he does till today. But he never sat down and sang. That is the reason, perhaps.


You’ve spoken about a beautiful 4:00 pm ritual you and Brindamma had, where she would plait your hair and sing these ragams that she had never sung in concert. It’s almost as if the music was being woven into you.

Absolutely. Those were unbelievable experiences.


Do you have any ritual of this sort with your own music?

Yes. I remember for my granddaughter, we used to read Amar Chitra Katha whenever I used to be with her. You know there’s a famous issue about Krishna? It’s a comic book, right, and it starts with the Devaki-Vasudeva story.

So each one of those frames, I used to sing a song for my granddaughter. When Kalinga Narthanam would come, I used to sing the thillaana. When he’s going to the forest, I’ll sing “Maadu meikkum kanne...” So I remember the whole experience of going musically though that comic book.


Brindamma would never let you bring pen and paper to your sessions with her. She would say ‘kaadhu tharakka mudiyaliya?’ (Can’t you open your ears?) But as someone who is a very keen archivist, and living at a time when most students of music even record their gurus singing, do you also feel this remorse that so much precious material has not been documented?

Definitely. Because I feel that if Brindamma had been video recorded, as to how she taught, how she implanted that information in the student’s mind in such a manner that it would be indelibly etched...all those things, I do feel sad [about losing]. I can talk about it, for hours together. But to actually see it would have been a great experience.


What were those classes like? What would you feel, because you couldn’t write down a thing?

Yeah. So, it meant that we had to be on alert mode always. But that alert mode wouldn’t cause tension. See, today we are living in an age when we are on alert mode all the time. There’s a mobile, there’s a this, a that. We are in that kind of mode. But there’s a tension attached to it, right? Whereas with Brindamma, in her presence, I would always feel my body and my mind and my everything open up. I could feel that.

I felt a heightened kind of [realisation] with her. Because everything she said, it will come and go. It won’t come again. So you had to expand yourself like that (gestures) to be able to receive it. So it was a thrilling experience. Amazing.


You once described it beautifully, while speaking about your experience working on your voice with Eugene Rabine. When you first met him to discuss this, he asked what you wanted from him, and you said you felt like a caged bird, and you wanted to learn to fly.

Exactly. That’s an unforgettable day in my life.


You waited several hours at a train station for him to pick you up, and it turned out he had broken his leg and came anyway with his wife. And when you finally reached his place, and were hoping for a cup of tea, he went straight to the studio to start you off.

(Laughs) Yes.


What was it like, to learn to fly?

At that time, I didn’t understand what he was doing. Again, I was in this completely extraterrestrial mode of meeting him. His personality is like that. You see, all these great gurus, they have that same personality. It is very similar to Brindamma. It is almost like he is levitating. All these great people have that aura. You know you have to be attentive and grasp.

After many years, when things settled down, I realised that what he has actually worked on for me, what he is teaching even today to many people, is that body-mind connection; it’s making the whole thing homogenous. Because up until then, it was: you live, you are somebody; and then you sing; and then you go back to being somebody; and then again you sing. For me it was like that. I’m one; and I’m another. And I have to...(mimes clearing her throat)...I have to sing. That entire dichotomy disappeared, and I feel, ‘I’m a person, I can sing, yeah I’m singing, I’m not singing, I’m the same person.’ You understand what that means. That’s a very subtle connection. And you can’t even explain how it happened. But that is what the real guru does, they make you get it.


Aruna Sairam. Photo: Special arrangement 

You had also mentioned how A. S. Mani told you that swara kalpana should be like waves, ‘alai-alaiyaa varanum’ were his words. And he allowed you to get into a space where you could do it. What is that space? What do you think of, how do you prepare for it?

Hmm. I’m afraid I’m beginning to sound esoteric when I say this, because somebody who doesn’t get it will think I’m just trying to mystify the whole thing. But for me, actually, music is aural, but it’s also visual. And so, every time I sing kalpana swaram, I go back to that image which he gave me—the ocean waves. I go there. And every time, all I have to do is imagine those waves coming, and automatically I’m able to deliver. It’s an almost unconscious thing.

The same way, when I sing that Kalinga Narthana thillaana, I actually see that five-headed snake and Krishna. And it’s interesting and it’s also very strange, one of those strange experiences in life that I can share: the room where I used to sleep in my parents’ house had this little altar, and a Radha-Krishna, and all these small-small pictures, maybe [measuring] one foot by one-and-a-half. There was a Kalinga Narthana picture there, and every night, I would see it as I slept, because we would sleep on the floor.

Initially, I got scared, because as soon as I saw that snake, I used to get it in my dreams. Later on, I started becoming friendly with that snake. Then I started talking to it, as in, as I grew up. So I had a relationship with that anju-thalai paambu (five-headed snake) even when I was a very young kid.

And later in life, it was that Kalinga Narthana thillaana that took my audience and me by storm. So what does this mean? You have to accept that somewhere you’re being guided, you just have to submit to it and understand that it’s taking you somewhere. It’s very interesting.

So I visualise, every time I sing that thillaana, I go back to that picture which I saw as a kid, and I imagine Krishna dancing there. So once you do that, the music just flows.


One of the hallmarks of your music is how you have such a range both vocally and in terms of speed, from adhivilambita layam to durita layam. In your opinion, how much of this is inherent, inborn, and do you think it would be lost without technical training?

It won’t be lost. But it shines more with honing. It shines more. So I’m probably basically that kind of slow singer, who can do slow with some gravitas, but the fact that I got exposed to Brindamma, it only helped to polish that slowness because she was known for that slow tempo.

Music leads to dance. Dance leads to music. They both are connected with poetry, therefore language, therefore literature—by which I mean prose—then the visual arts, sculpture, painting, architecture. Everything.

In your opening speech to the annual Music Academy conference, you had mentioned the idea of a storyline in RTP (ragam-thanam-pallavi). I find it lovely that you used the word ‘storyline’ rather than ‘lyrics’ or ‘sahityam’. Could you talk a little about what you mean by storyline?

Yeah, so—as you would have seen by now—I live by stories. For everything, I have to tell a story. For everything, I want a story. That’s again probably because a lot of storytellers would come home, na? Like Ki Va Ja (Ki. Va. Jagannathan, Tamil writer and folklorist), great storytellers. So I got introduced to that way of thinking.

When I started composing my own pallavis, after learning from TRS (professor T R Subramanyam) how to compose a pallavi—I went through all that training, he really taught me a lot of technical things—I said, when it came to composing my own pallavis, what is going to be my primary thought? When you start with a new composition, you start with one primary idea, right? Then you develop that idea. That’s how any creation happens.

I had to think about it. So is it going to be having very cleverly built-in rhythmic patterns? That’s one way of composing pallavis. Is it going to be using some very clever poetry, which I’m going to convert into a pallavi? Or is it going to be a medley or mixture of several ragas, where the refrain itself should have two or three ragas and it should stun people and they would wonder at the dexterity of it?

So I went through all these ideas, and for me what mattered most was: What story am I telling with this pallavi? I arrived at that, and I said every pallavi that I create, the storyline is going to be my primary thought. I will have all of these other things in it, as much as possible, but not at the cost of compromising that storyline. That is how all my compositions of pallavis happened, which is why the Ashtalakshmi pallavi or the Arupadai Veedu or the Trinity pallavi, I wanted each to tell a story.


You have often been asked about singing abhangs, and you’ve spoken about how you would hear abhangs in every kind of setting, from labourers singing as they worked to Bhimsen Joshi singing in concert. But what I’d like to know is, when did you decide to incorporate the abhang into your Carnatic concerts?

Yeah, there was a time when I did not sing abhangs. To me, it seemed like it’s a Bombay thing, I will do it there; but here, “Aiyo, people will not like it.” I was going through that.

Then...see, firstly, I had no audience to speak of. So the field was open. I could try anything, nobody was listening to me. (Laughs) So I said okay, so I’m here, I’m doing concerts, I’ll try out new things. If I enjoy something, chances are my audience will enjoy it, just because I’m enjoying it. That was how I boldly decided to do an abhang. My first abhang was Theertha Vittala, which I sang in Narada Gana Sabha, with a lot of fear and trepidation.  I was almost expecting to get stoned, but luckily it turned out otherwise.


The lavani is such a popular form in Bombay. But it is always looked at askance by the classical arts. Were you ever drawn to that sort of music?

I listen to lavani, I think it is great music, I enjoy it, but for myself to actually sing lavani, I could not ever get drawn to it. That’s because I have a very strong bhakti base also, no? My mother was a very bhakti-oriented person, so an overdose of sringaram never made me feel too comfortable to sing.


You have done several collaborations with dancers. I think the first thing any serious Carnatic singer is told is “Don’t sing for dance”. Yet, you have collaborated so much, and you once credited Balasaraswati Amma and Ustad Amir Khan, who would sort of break into impromptu song and dance when they visited you. And you’ve said when you sing, you feel you’re dancing. What do you see when you’re on stage? Because, sitting in the audience, one senses you’re in another plane.

See, what I feel is, with all these arts, one leads to the other. Music leads to dance. Dance leads to music. They both are connected with poetry, therefore language, therefore literature—by which I mean prose—then the visual arts, sculpture, painting, architecture. Everything.

I’ll give you a small example how architecture, I feel, is connected with music. In the north Indian music, there’s a predominance of sliding, gliding gamakas (demonstrates)...they have to slide and glide, that’s the predominant gamaka. Not that they don’t have the khatkas. Like...(demonstrates)...adikkaradhu (to hit a note hard), they do have all that, but the sthayi bhava (permanent mood) is of the meend. Look at north Indian architecture, which led to the formation of the khayal...



Yes. It is shaped like that. And look at south Indian architecture, it is gopuram-gopuram-gopuram, level after level after level, these little-little-little-little sculptures placed one on top of the other, with that structure and progression; and look at our music—it’s the same thing. So how can you say that all this is not laterally connected? It is very connected. We have to see the connection.

So once you see the connection, when you sing, you start looking at how a dancer would sing the song. Then you start looking at a Krishna idol, then from there your mind travels to Udupi and from there you go to Mannarkudi Rajagopalaswamy and how the sculptor has shaped the idol right down to a nerve on the this connection can keep going on and on and on when you’re singing. Nobody can stop you. And the more connected you feel, the more that music will sound ethereal. Because you’re not conscious of it. When you’re not conscious of something, it is really beautiful. The moment you’re conscious ‘I am singing’, it’s finished.

That’s why I feel that story of Snow White—you know, these myths actually tell you a lot—you remember, there’s a mirror, and the question, ‘Who is the fairest of them all?’ And there’s this moment she sees the mirror, and she realises she is not a young girl anymore, she’s an old lady. The subliminal meaning is, she becomes conscious of herself.

So if you are conscious, the music can be great. If you’re unconscious, it can rise to any height. Like it did when M. S. [Subbulakshmi] Amma sang. Nobody remembers, after she sang, ‘Oh, andha Kambodhi-le, andha pidi onnu nanna piduchaa’, ‘Andha Saveri le...’, nobody said that after an M. S. Amma concert. They only said, ‘Aiyo, appadiye saami kitte kondu poyitta’ (She took us straight to God). That is all. No one speaks of any other details. Why did they experience that? Because she lived that moment like that. It was a saveri that she sang, it was a kambodhi that she sang, it was a Rangapuravihara that she sang, that was her medium, but did the audience remember that? No, they only remembered the feeling.


You once quoted a soulful bit of feedback that you heard, in France, I think: that when you sing melakarta ragams (ragams with all seven swaras), it is as if your ancestors are speaking through you, as opposed to a pentatonic scale. From the way you said it, I got the feeling you had interrogated that statement a lot. So could you tell me what that triggered in you?

Yeah, you know, you meet people who end up being your inspiration points. If you look at your life, each one of those points where you got inspired and moved ahead was because somebody triggered something in you. Each one of those persons is actually a guru for you. That is how this person was.

He’s a man called Jean-Paul Auboux, who learnt to play the flute in the T. R. Mahalingam style in India but a Frenchman to the T, okay? Except for the Carnatic part of it. When it came to music, he was amazingly focused. And also, he used to chew vethalai (betel leaves). He would have an ice bag in which he would carry his paan, which he’d buy from the Gare du Nord in Paris. (Laughs)

I was performing at the Theatre de la Ville, and I didn’t know Jean-Paul well then. In my manda buddhi (obtuseness), I thought no one here would understand a Todi, and maybe I should sing Mohanam or something like that; they can relate more easily to the pentatonic scale. Somehow, as the concert approached, I had this wave of thought, and I felt I should sing a Todi ragam-thaanam-pallavi because for me, that is how I’ve been trained—a Todi, and that too in Brindamma’s style, is something very special. I thought anyway, they may not understand either the Mohanam or the Todi, so let me sing Todi. And on a whim, I sang Todi in that concert. It turned out to be a good concert.

Then I came out, and that was when Jean-Paul really spoke to me, that day, after the kutcheri. He asked me, ‘Aruna, why did you choose Todi?’ I said, ‘Somehow I felt I should sing Todi.’ He said, ‘I’m glad you did.’ I said, ‘Why did you say that?’ Then he said, ‘See, Todi, it reflects your character. The South Indian gamaka, the microtone, the different-different shrutis, all of that is very characteristically shown in a Todi. If you had chosen a Hindolam or a Mohanam, it may have been good; but it may not have gone into that depth that a Todi could have gone. So you remember that when you bore the depth of your music, it’s not you anymore, it is your ancestors. Because they have pickled it, they have developed it, they have developed those gamakas, that way of singing, and they have given it to you.’ So I understood what a responsibility it is.


In France, you also did this beautiful collaboration with Dominique Vellard and Noureddine Tahiri. The Gregorian music style of Vellard predates the tempered scale of Western music, so it seems to flow with Carnatic. But you’ve worked with instruments that don’t lend themselves quite so easily to Carnatic—you’ve sung for flamenco accompanied by the guitar, you’ve sung with the piano. The way you see it, how do these instruments and these kinds of music talk to each other?

I largely live by instinct. Not so much by intellect. So when some proposal comes to me, or if I meet someone—like, with Dominique Vellard, after spending some time with him and his wife, I felt there’s a vibration here—somehow that tells me, yeah, it may be good to continue in this direction. So I purely go by what I feel, and nine out of ten times, it works out all right.

With Vijay Iyer, it was the same thing. He’s a celebrated jazz pianist, he’s much younger to me. But somehow, as persons, he and I found a bond there, which I feel is not an accident. When, with a musician, you have a bond, there’s something beyond that. So I explore that and it turns out to be good.


Other than music, you have also collaborated in theatre, with Dominique Pomougnac on Le Bebe Bleu, which traces Krishna’s life from birth to the Kalinga Narthanam, and that thillana has become a sort of fan favourite. Could you tell me about the conceptualisation of the show—how did you decide which songs, what lyrics would go into it? Because he had to coordinate the acting, the scenes he would show, his own narration in French, to your music.

Yeah. So we sat and talked about the different stages of Krishna’s life. We would discuss the story and during rehearsal, he would say, ‘Can you sing a song for this occasion?’ and I would try two or three songs for that. If we felt this sounds good, we would fix that as a particular episode, then go to the next episode. Wherever the music and the narration could fit, we combined it and we made a story out of it.


I love how, in a video clip of your collaboration with Jayanthi Kumaresh, the way you sing the Kalinga Narthana Thillaana is so different from when you sing solo. And your hands move as if you’re playing a veena. When you collaborate with a musician, what do you feel you receive and what do you seek to give?

The pleasure of having a nice conversation. See, how do we feel when...suppose you feel down, and you say, ‘Let me go and just let my hair down and have a nice conversation with my friend.’ And you have a cup of coffee, and you chill out, don’t you feel good? And you don’t know why you feel good. But you needed that at that point in time, to go back to your life, to whatever you’re doing. It’s like that with a musical conversation, no? You feel so good that you have exchanged this, looked into the eyes of the other musician, made music together. It gives you a high.


I find it amusing that one of your earliest collaborations for dance was with Chandralekha, who was such a rebel. And you yourself were seen as someone who was going against the grain at that time.

(Laughs) Exactly. But there was a truth in Chandralekha’s approach to art, and I could see that. She was very straightforward and fearless in expressing herself. So that would have attracted me.

And I really learnt a lot.  In that one experience, I grew up so much, I learnt a lot from how she saw this connection between body movement and music. I really began to understand that.


I’d like to talk about Sammohanam, your collaboration with Malavika Sarukkai. There is a beautiful moment where you raise your arms into the air as if you are sending waves of music up and at the same time she makes a movement as if she is internalising it. This piece was something you both worked on together. What prompted the exploration?

Yeah, Malavika is such a great and amazing artiste! She had this wonderful image, the connection between music and dance, how the dance can be musical and music can be dance-like. I was deeply inspired by that. That was what we felt and we wanted to explore.


I think around that time, Malavika Sarukkai had just lost her mother.

Yes, while we were in the process of preparing for that first concert. It was so tragic.


You’ve spoken about your own grief, when you went through the same loss. At the time you were a young mother, establishing yourself as a musician, and didn’t really have the space to grieve. There are times when, I feel, grief can block art, but in another way, art can also channel grief. Do you see a connection between grief and art, and how they converse?

Yeah. For me I think, there are stages of grief. So the first reaction is shock. Then numbness, and you wallow in that numbness and then there’s a bit of self-pity. So you go through all these stages. But I think if you are lucky to be in the right place mentally, out of all that turbulence and loss, you say, ‘Oh my God, I have to express myself, I have to bring it out.’ You somehow figure that out, and then there’s no stopping you. One goes through grief so many times in life, but when you express yourself, it always brings it out of you in some way or the other.


With so much behind you, so many awards and honours, what would you say is your dream now?

Largely now, I think I want to keep sharing whatever I have learnt in music. I want to share to whatever extent possible, those little insights, I want people to know what it has been like to grow up as a musician and to live as a musician, hoping that like I was inspired by musicians whom I saw, maybe somebody will be inspired to become a musician too, or at least to become a listener.


I’m going to finish with a vague question: as someone who sings abhangs in Carnatic concerts, as someone whose enjoyment of the music is so obvious, what is ‘purity’ to you?

Hmm. For me, it’s be. It’s very simple. If I can be who I am, what I am, without any fetters, inhibitions, without fear, if I’m just able to be the way I am and be like that in front of my audience, be somebody through whom the music can pass, that would be...I wouldn’t call it ‘purity’, because that’s too big a word, but that’s probably what I’m striving towards—to just be as I am.