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Unstoppable Sudha: An Interview With Sudha Ragunathan

Author’s Note: Once again Carnatic vocalist Sudha Ragunathan is not being allowed to celebrate a happy occasion. This time the wedding of her daughter with an African American is the subject of social media trolling. The attacks are of a piece with the criticism that followed the announcement of her being awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award by the Music Academy at a relatively young age and her regular appearances (32 on the trot) at the Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru. In this interview, Sudha Ragunathan speaks about how she has dealt with negativity at every step in her career in the way that her guru M L Vasanthakumari did before her.

Sudha Ragunathan’s is a story about sustained success, and as often happens when it is accompanied by early and broad-based recognition, glamour and mass appeal, it is also about a constant, unwarranted carping, against a musical career of considerable scale and depth, built on very solid foundations.

Those foundations go back to her rigorous training accompanying her revered guru M. L. Vasanthakumari, one of Carnatic music’s most glorious figures, the youngest of a trinity with D.K. Pattammal and M.S. Subbulakshmi.

(Figure: 1 – Sikkil-Sisters,DK Pattamal, ML Vasanthakumari, MS Subbulakshmi, Jayalakshmi Santhanam and Sudha Ragunathan)

Many a morning Sudha would be at MLV’s house for a practice session. She was privy to the daily turmoil in her guru’s life. To MLV were not often available the luxury of hours of focused practice, or immersive peace in music.

She saw MLV going through a series of health challenges, family issues and a large part of the wealth she had earned dwindling away. “During the day in her house, she always had to pay something, settle something, so many challenges that came by phone or by the doorbell,” Sudha says. “An artiste should be able to perform without worrying about sheer survival. But the times for her were so difficult that such was her situation.”

There would be an important concert in the evening and MLV would set everything aside and start getting ready at 5. An hour later she would take to the dais, and her audience would have no inkling of the stresses of her day. MLV’s inventiveness in combining fast paced brigas and the pausal kaarvais that she learnt from her guru GN Balasubramaniam, and her own deep passion for the bhakthi-laden dasara padagulu in Kannada and the beautiful Tamil verses of Andal’s Thiruppavai enraptured audiences just as much as her contemporary MS Subbulakshmi was doing in her own way.

Having accompanied her on the stage for over a decade, Sudha says every concert saw MLV “rising like a phoenix, like a colossus. Watching all that put in a lot of grit into me. She would say ‘nothing is bigger than us, no challenge so big that you cannot overcome it.’ The one thing that I learnt from MLV was that whatever the situation, I cannot allow it to put me down.”

Sudha’s biggest challenge arose on the death of MLV in 1990 at 62, when she was carrying her second child. In the midst of preparation for the impending Chennai December music season, there was no time to mourn the loss of not only a mentor but an individual whom she loved and held in the highest esteem. Sudha put her heart into the Margazhi season, and when her daughter was born she was named Malavika echoing the initials of her guru.

Through the 1990s, Sudha adroitly managed the transition of carrying on that learning and legacy, presenting it to new audiences. “It was very difficult and I would worry about how I was going to handle it. It was not like she had left me early. The ten years of watching her, giving her vocal support, travelling with her, observing how she interacted with people, organisers — everything came together at once. I used all that I had learnt from her to manage that shift.”

Sudha inherited the gift of MLV’s cerebral artistry as well as the fact that in many ways, MLV herself represented a transition from the older guard. But success had to be earned. Even MLV, who paid the highest attention to concert detail, did not escape the harsh and often hurtful criticism that often rules music appreciation. “She was a very strong woman. But in the last few years, when she sang with a very severe kidney problem she was a little bothered by the criticism,” says Sudha.

Breaking new ground

Sudha has been singing for over several decades now and is the recipient of the Indian Government civilian award Padma Bhushan and the Music Academy’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi Award. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Academy had felicitated musicians in their 70s and 80s. When she received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 2013, people said it was given too early. N Murali, president of the Music Academy, in his citation letter, pointed out that in selecting her for the award, the Academy had ‘broken new ground in making the transition to the next generation of musicians.’

(Figure: 2 – Sudha Ragunathan receiving Padma Bhushan award)

Says, Sudha: “That changed the formula in everyone’s mind. People thought only if you are that old you deserve it. ‘That is when your music is mature.’ It’s like a life time achievement. I got a lot of flak for that. The same thing happened with the Padma Bhushan. People said ‘she went lobbying’, ‘she knows people.’ But I don’t really know anyone in Delhi.”

What some critics missed or perhaps resented, is the significance of her achievement – not just in consummate skill and musical excellence, but in an appeal that transcended generations, even bringing to Carnatic music new groups of listeners. Sudha Ragunathan was the introduction to Carnatic music for many a youngster in the early nineties, showing them its melodic power and rhythmic energy in a fresh and appealing way.

It is a negativity that has persisted through the decades. Having skipped the 2015 December season due to medical reasons, Sudha sprang back in 2016 and people were keenly watching how she would fare. “Last year when I came back to sing, everyone was not only wearing glasses, they were wearing microscopic glasses. Probably thinking, ‘Where can we put her down, where can we tell her that she was right in not singing last year.’ I could feel that antagonism.

“When a critic is very harsh, or when a critic chooses to use very hurtful words, I think it does bother the artistes. I have seen MLV amma being a little upset with these things because she felt that no concert can be absolutely perfect. Sometimes you have to just trample all this criticism like an elephant and go ahead. If you get affected by each and everything how can you move forward?”

People close to Sudha know her to be an extremely giving, sensitive, emotional person, even fragile at times. MLV would tell her to practice and improve herself through her music. “There’s not a single day that she has said to me that I sang well. She has not listened to a concert of mine. I’ve grown up the very hard way. But people see only the Sudha of today. They don’t see all the muck that has happened before. I have arrived at a point where I realise that you can’t always appear to be a good person. Now I will do what I want to do.”

Male partisanship is ever present. “I don’t know why people compare. People will talk about a male singer and say that his Todi or Bhairavi was outstanding and about how he went into the depths of the raga. The lady would have done equally well but they will say, Enna irandhalum melotama irandhidhu. (In the end it was superficial or peripheral.)”

Then there is that perpetual saw — ‘she is too glamorous’. “My question is, why shouldn’t the lady be glamorous? When you use the word macho to describe something that is very masculine about a man why shouldn’t women be glamorous or graceful?”

Sudha Ragunathan changed the way women artistes dressed for concerts and the image they projected both on and off stage. Gone was the self-effacing lady artiste, to be replaced with the poised one in bedecked lustre. “I know I was a trail blazer for this kind of dressing. That was also something that I took from my guru. I had seen her dress so impeccably. I would have thought that if someone had a disturbing day they would not be in a frame of mind to even get ready for a concert. Just drape a saree and go and sing and finish that event. But she would take the same pain that she would have taken on a joyful day. She would be absolutely perfect and behave as if nothing had gone wrong that day. I think all of this stayed as vivid images in my mind. I also realised that okay, there was a following for this. There was a childishness in me that said let me capitalise on it. After all I am not doing something that is over indulgent or ostentatious.”

The transformation was spurred by the demands of a modern day life in classical music. “There’s so much stress, so much to do, so much work, not a moment of respite. This profession definitely requires a lot of self-sprucing, voice maintenance, figure maintenance. When you put on weight it affects the voice. How much you sleep, whether you keep your mind calm, what your regime is, all of that comes into our music. Music is not just the delivery through the vocal cords. What you eat shows in your vocal chords. How your day has been at home, shows. Have you travelled much and then just jumped onto the stage? Everything will show in the way the voice is delivered, in the gravity of the voice, the tonal quality. I do give considerable importance to the way I maintain myself.”

Sudha Ragunathan has been a part of the Aradhana celebrations of Saint Thyagaraja at Thiruvaiyaru for the last 30 years without missing a single year. She says she goes there for Thyagaraja. “I feel that we owe so much to him and have to pay our homage. People may ask ‘why can’t you go any other time of the year’. The fact is that at this time of the year, the energy level is so high and it is important every artiste feels the responsibility to be part of the Aradhana.”

“People just sit where they are and talk and say that it is not perfect, or that people come to dress up, show off, that people are not learning the Pancharatna krithis but want to sit in the front. People will say a hundred things from where they are. I don’t know what they have against the Aradhana. Whatever you may have against the committee or the organiser, or how it is organised, the final equation is that you are going there for Thyagaraja. Hundreds of people come up with requests to sit within that enclosure and it is difficult for them to say no to anybody.

“I dress up only for Thyagaraja. I sit like how I sit for any other concert with the same level of seriousness. Because it’s visual, I think everyone wants to be looking their best and probably I am an example for them about how people ‘dress up’ for an Aradhana. One has to forget all that and sing, no matter what the output is, along with hundreds of people. You start with the kala pramana and end with kala pramana. But the net outcome is that one is there to sing for Thyagaraja.

“Several times I have felt it comes so close to the season like on January 7th or 8th. The season has just got over and I’m breaking apart but when I wake up it is different and I feel I can go. It’s not easy to go there and sit at 6 ‘o’ clock in the sand. They forget the effort I take, sometimes going there twice. This year I went for the inaugural function. I could have easily sung and come home. The commitment to be there on Bahula Panchami is there.”

Excellence and maturity

Of course Sudha cannot be defined only in terms of what the critics have had to say, for she brings considerable thought to her music.

Sudha is keenly aware of the changes that are happening, the questions being asked — after all she was a close witness to the last major transition in Carnatic music. “Individual perceptions matter and people are doing different things, but I hope the next generation will not get confused with all this when they sit and think ‘do I go the way Sudha is taking me, or the way TMK (T M Krishna) is taking me or the way Sanjay (Subrahmanyan) is taking me’,” she says.

“There is a common thread running in all our music even though all of us sing differently and all of us focus on different things. Your music can remain for eternity but your presence in terms of giving a concert on stage will wane after a period of time. You want to do the right things and want to leave behind a normalcy, not get the next generation worried about the right formula for success.”

Like MLV, Sudha’s innovations and experiments in music have come from within the traditional space. “I feel there is so much to innovate within the traditional framework, so why mar or disturb that. Whatever creativity or manodharma I want to bring in here I do it within that framework. I do it in the swaras, or the kind of ragas, or in the krithis and themes that I choose for my concerts. There is so much of material and no dearth of scope for innovation.”

“The audience is expecting more and more. Every year, every concert they want something different. When they hear the same song they want to hear it in a different svaroopam. They can be very caustic, very critical, very demanding. You have to keep rising above all that. Not only satisfy them but satisfy yourself too. This year and last year, I have strived to improve myself in these aspects, even when I sing the same krithi it’s with more emotion, with more svanubhavam.”

She is not comfortable innovating if it means “shaking the foundation of the format my guru gave me, which she took from her guru GNB, or what he took from Ariyakudi. It is not written anywhere that you have to begin in a particular way or that you have to do certain things in a concert. It is just that it has been happening that way.”

Sudha belongs to the shishya parampara of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who gave Carnatic music its current concert format. “The reason was perhaps that the climax builds up. It’s a slow warm up. Everyone gets into the mood of the concert. It’s a rare day when the moment you sit you have a connect with the audience — most times it is slow progress with a concert. Slowly the voice opens up, warms up. The format covers a complete spectrum of what we have learnt, what we know and what we can do. Almost always I adhere to this pattern.”

Where will her music go from here? “The struggle never stops. Now the challenge is bettering my wares, doing what I do better, leaving behind something. My clock has started ticking so I have to know what I want to leave behind. MS amma left certain things, MLV left certain things, I am still doing things that they have done. I don’t know if I have carved anything which I can claim as being my own. Maybe it will just come because the awareness is very strong in me.

It is perhaps Sudha’s ability to sing to varied audiences and her openness to new experiences that made her the automatic choice to sing at the United Nations on October 2, 2016 to mark the birth centenary of MS Subbulakshmi who had sung at the same venue 50 years ago, and to commemorate Non-Violence Day.

The gathering comprised mainly of bureaucrats. A make-shift concert room was readied and the sound check completed the day before. “Despite all that I was a little nervous because there was going to be a mixture of an audience. There were people who really knew music. There were people who had heard chaste music. There were a few who had listened to MS 50 years ago! There were diplomats who probably knew nothing about music or perhaps particularly about Carnatic music. The challenge was to reach out to them somehow.”

This article first appeared in Saamagaana The First Melody

(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2019)

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