Carnatic music is finding young listeners

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Carnatic classical music, which was losing out to contemporary music in the southern states, is making a comeback, with a spurt in the number of young listeners over the last few years, says leading Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam.

“Things have changed. Now, even two-year-olds listen to Carnatic music recitals with rapt attention, along with five-year and 18-year-olds, who earlier found the genre heavy-duty,” the vocalist said in the capital.

Chennai-based Sairam — who was awarded the Padma Shri this year — was in the capital to perform at the Vishnu Digambar Jayanti Sangeet Samaroh 2009 at the Kamani auditorium Sunday.

The vocalist is known for introducing “Abhangs” — short Marathi devotional songs — in classical Carnatic recitals and setting rare Tamil literary texts to music.

Sairam attributes the revival of the popularity of Carnatic music among the youth to two factors — “the open air classical concerts in cities like Bangalore and Chennai and the change in repertoire by eminent vocalists to make the music more contemporary and relevant.

“Bangalore has the Habba, an open air park festival of music and arts. This year it was held in February. In Chennai, Kanimozhi, daughter of (Tamil Nadu Chief Minister) M. Karunanidhi, organises the Chennai Sangamam, a festival of classical music and performing arts. I performed live in a park this year,” she said.

Sairam improvises on her repertoire to reach out to the youth.

“Usually, I lace my selection with a bit of variety and lighter ragas. For instance, at the end of my recital, I sing a small (very brief) but a delightful Tamil folk song — a conversation between mother Yashoda and baby Krishna. It is sung as a dialogue and people sit through the two-hour concert just to listen to the number, ‘Maad Meikum Kanne’, which has become a kind of anthem at my concerts. The audience flocks to the stage to sing along with me,” she said.

“In the meantime, I manage to inject them with serious ragas like Amritavarshini and Abhogi that they otherwise wouldn’t have sat through,” Sairam said with a laugh.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Sairam initially trained under her mother, Carnatic vocalist Rajalakshmi Sethuraman; and then guru T. Brinda for 14 years from the age of 10 to 24.

She performed on stage for the first time as a 12-year-old and went abroad at 30 to Germany for three months “to teach in a university and perform”.

“I realised in Germany that Europeans had no idea about the existence of Carnatic vocal music. I was stunned and resolved to change things. I confronted the director and asked him why westerners did not know anything about Carnatic music, when we knew their music,” she said.

Since then, there has been no looking back for Sairam. “I have been all over Europe and the US,” she said.

Sairam can sing in many Indian languages. “In the coming Delhi International Arts Festival in October, I plan to sing devotional songs in every major Indian language — southern languages, Oriya, Gujarati, Marathi, Braj bhasa and Bengali — to take listeners on a sacred musical journey through the country,” she said.

At her performance on Sunday, Sairam impressed the audience with a selection of raga Abhogi, an ancient composition; Amritavarshini, which is known to bring rain to parched lands and a ragam tanam pallavi (a complex exploration of melody) in raga Shanmukhapriya.

But to reach out to the youth in the crowd, she broke it with a peppy rendition of Kadana Kutuham — a raga of happiness inspired by the British choir bands that played in Chennai churches before Independence.

“I believe in exchange of music — but not fusion,” said Sairam.

She is collaborating with the French master of Gregorian chants Dominique Vellard and Moroccan musician Nooruddin Tahiri on a musical dialogue.

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