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The Saketharaman interview

The Saketharaman interview: ‘Bhava is very important in music’

My ultimate goal is spiritual

Published on

Tue, March 4, 2019

Published in

The Indian Express

Saketharaman is among the top three of the younger generation of Carnatic musicians, and a prime-time performer during the Margazhi festival. An A-lister, the leading Sabhas in Chennai want to include him in their December schedule. Known for his virtuosity and classicism, he is also an innovator who finds immense possibilities within the grammar and framework of Carnatic music.

As a performer, Saketharaman shows the future of Carnatic music. Even while steeped deep in the traditions of classical music, including elements such as bhakti and devotion, his music is promisingly forward-looking. He is fearless with his manodharma and experimentation, and he is very expressive, energetic and robust on the concert stage.

Trained by violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, one of the most celebrated names in Carnatic music, Saketharaman is extremely articulate about the art and science of music. As part of’s Margazhi Special, Saketharaman spoke to G Pramod Kumar in Chennai about Carnatic music and what it means to him.

Trained by violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, one of the most celebrated names in Carnatic music, Saketharaman is extremely articulate about the art and science of music. As part of’s Margazhi Special, Saketharaman spoke to G Pramod Kumar in Chennai about Carnatic music and what it means to him.

I am trying out a few things: One, a lot of new ragas that have not been popularised much. For instance, in the last couple of concerts I have sung Vivadhi ragas such as Jyothi Swaroopini and in my concert yesterday, I sang Rishabhapriya.

Second, a lot of new compositions, that were classics 50 years back, but were somewhat lost. Nee Madhi Challaga in Anandabhairavi and Na Jeevadhara in Bilahari – which was a classic that Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman played 50 years back, but hasn’t been popular in vocal music for a long time – are examples. The third thing is definitely the Ragam Thanam Pallavi.

You have composed a lot of Pallavis yourself, haven’t you?

Yes, more than 100, in both Melakarta and Janya ragas. Usually I compose the Pallavis for my own concerts and I take others’ very rarely. I feel that’s the manodharma segment in a concert and it should be completely original. I have done some special ones for this season.

Are these Pallavis in single ragas or in Ragamalika?

The Pallavi is usually set in one raga, but sometimes it’s also set in multiple ragas. In the last season, at the Parthasarathy Sabha, I sang one – both in Nalinakanti and Bindumalini – with the combination of the words “Kripa Sagari”. SA GA RI is the swarakshara (both swaras and the word) and I sang a lot of combinations of those swaras in ragas such as Anandabhairavi and Varali. Usually, the Ragamalika sections come in the swaras or in the Thanams.

People also sing Pallavis in multiple ragas, don’t they?

Yes, I too have done it. Quite a few in Ranjani, Ashtagowlai (eight Gowlais) etc. in a single Pallavi.

You have done a “Saptha Raga Saptha Thala Pallavi” (eight ragas and eight thalas in a single Pallavi). How challenging are such innovations?

It will be difficult to choose ragas for such Pallavis, because they ought to blend with one another.

The challenge is that they have to seamlessly transition from one raga to another, and the text has to be appropriate. Sometimes, it will be based on the common swaras (e.g Nalinakanthi and Bindumalini); sometimes it will be based on ragas with similar names or nomenclature (e.g. different Gowlais). Usually I find the commonality in them, and then using one or two common notes, I transition from one raga to another.

There are times when people think you are in raga one, whereas you have already transitioned to raga two – that’s a seamless transition. So, the same line of text goes through multiple ragas. I have done a five-raga Pallavi in which all the names of women goddesses appear.

How demanding is the Margazhi because of the number of concerts?

Across the year, I generally perform in about six to seven concerts a month. In December, it goes up to about 12, with a few in November too. About 30-plus organisations ask me to perform, but you know I can’t. So I keep a rotation policy. From next year, I want to do it a little more -maybe once in two or three years in certain sabhas, while some sabhas will be regular. The truth is that you cannot do justice to more than 8-9 concerts in a month. The cold weather in December is extra challenging for the singer. But, the good thing about Margazhi is that you don’t need to travel.

Are there things that you have been working on, but haven’t presented yet?

I have been trying a few classics, but sometimes they get postponed. For instance, I have been trying the composition Na Jeevadhara for some time now, and finally it came out yesterday. They are classics and take a longer time to practise because there are so many sangathis. Sometimes, if you also don’t have the right accompaniments, it doesn’t come out well. Narayanagowlai is another raga that I have been trying to sing, but is getting postponed.

What’s so special about Narayanagowlai?

It’s a lost raga. After Kedaragowlai came into prominence, that raga (Narayanagowlai) was lost. For it to be revived, you need to have the right kind of ambience, accompaniments and audience. I have sung it as a Ragamalika swara, but not yet as a full composition with alapana. ‘Sri Ramam Ravikulabdhi Somam’ and ‘Kadhale vaadu gaadhei’ by Dikshitar and Tyagaraja respectively are the ones I have been wanting to sing.

When you sing a rare big composition such as Na Rajeevadhara, do you practise with the accompanists?

I sent a recording of mine, and that of Shri Lalgudi, to them. It’s important that they also practise because when there are so many sangathis, even if one sangathi is lost, you lose the link.

How do you plan for a concert? What to include, and what to omit?

Most of the time, I try to include a Ragam Thanam Pallavi (RTP) because that’s something original in terms of manodharma, and I have composed the Pallavis myself. I would want my creative part to come out. Then, I will have a classic, mostly something that has been forgotten, which will bring the nostalgic element. I also include some old songs (e.g. Thanthai Thai that was sung by NC Vasanthakokilam about 60 years ago) and also some in local languages.

For instance, if I go to Kerala, I try to sing in Malayalam; or if I go to Karnataka, I sing in Kannada etc. In Margazhi, I sing a lot of Tamil songs. In addition, Thiruppavai, Thiruvamppavai, a lot of devotional songs etc. This is usually how it goes. Every concert has to be an experience in itself that people can take back home.

You get tremendous support from the audience. How does it work in enhancing the concert experience? And how is a concert day different from other days?

It’s mutually enhancing. They transmit to you, and you transmit to them. You don’t feel it in every song. There are certain songs in which you strike a chord with the audience, and then it takes off from there. On the concert day, I tend to practise a little less, but think a lot more. I also usually shut myself from all other distractions.

Although I don’t sing so much that day, I do it in the head – every sangathi, how much more creative I can get, how much more feel I can impart to a composition, what could have been the feel of the composer when he wrote it and how could I import it to my singing, how do I bring a little more bhava, etc. All these things will be going through my mind as I gear up for the concert.

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