Sudha Ragunathan is one of the premier vocalists in the Carnatic musical tradition from the South of India. Carnatic music is one of the oldest systems of music in the world. It is highly devotional, with a strong focus on vocal music, and the majority of compositions written to be sung. With over 200 albums and numerous performances worldwide, over the course of three decades Ragunathan’s remarkable voice, and in particular her unparalleled control over the octaves is something quite special. She has performed at the UN, and won numerous awards, both at home and abroad. On the phone she is warm and friendly, thanking me at the end of the interview for my ‘thoughtful questions,’ when there’s no doubt she’s been asked similar questions many times before. To some extent though you get sense that she relishes the opportunity to give back, particularly to a new audience unfamiliar with her musical traditions.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m interested in Carnatic music, is it a choice you made at a young age to sing it that style or is it because you were born in Southern India? How did you start singing in that style?
Sudha Ragunathan: If I had to answer your question truthfully it’s a combination of both alternatives that you have given me. The fact that I’m South Indian makes me familiar with this genre of music. Also my mother was a very good musician and she used to conduct music classes at home. So I was exposed to music as a child of 3 years. My mother tells me that I used to play with my toys and hum along with them. So it was a naturally environment where music was predominantly there.
But officially I started to learn with my mother when I was 9 years old, and I think the climb has been gradual since then. But the most important phase or point where I made my decision where I would become a musician in Carnatic music was when I was 18 years old and I was given a scholarship by the federal government of India to have advanced training under a very eminent mentor and I chose to learn from a great legend. She’s no more now, but at that point in time in 1978 she was one of the leading artists and her name was M.L Vasantha Kumari. I learned from her for three years. The system here is that you stay with your guru for two years to master the art form. She said that I had the raw material that was required to come out and become a professional and said I could stay beyond the scholarship period, so I stayed with her, travelled with her, sung with her on stage and got tutored into being made a top professional. The journey since then has been very smooth and I’m very happy with the choice I made.
Cyclic Defrost: It would have been a difficult choice when you were 18? I imagine financially it would have been a big decision to make. And there would have been perhaps pressures from family that you should fulfil certain roles. Is that what it was like for you?
Sudha Ragunathan: Yes it was difficult for me to make that one choice. At that point in time I was studying at college and I had the dream of becoming a gynaecologist and I chose my subjects leaning towards biology, zoology and botany, physics, chemistry, and I scored well, well enough to be admitted into a medical program, at that point in time was when my professor spoke to me in college and said if you chose to become a doctor then music will take a back seat, and since you have been indulged with a good voice and such a great connect with your audiences I think you should rethink all this and choose to do something else. I thought that was wise enough, so I did, I continued to do my masters in Economics, thinking that I would sit for my civil services exam, but even that got messed up because my mother was very very keen on me taking up music and once I got the scholarship there was a little turnaround in my mind about the thinking about whether this profession would be the right one for me.
Of course my guru, my mentor was such a wonderful person that she inspired and motivated me to completely get immersed in this ocean of music, so after that there was no looking back. I think the almighty was kind; my audiences are very kind and reciprocate so I’ve never felt that I’m in the wrong profession. Maybe there was a little meandering in the early part of my life, but when I started to perform on the dais I thought this was the place that I belonged.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m curious about the concept of having a guru. Can you tell me how that worked for you and what the relationship was like?
Sudha Ragunathan: My guru, MLV, it has been very enriching. It was not like having a regular class where you have fixed hours of learning and you sit before them and you introduce what was taught in the earlier sessions and then she moves on to the next activity or composition. It wasn’t like that at all. You had to do much of the research or learning yourself – listening to her old tapes and looking at her notations in her notebooks. It was very challenging because hers was a very difficult style and trying to grapple with it after my own learning with my mother was truly a challenge. But I’ve always loved challenges and I took it seriously and I was able to make a lasting impression on my mentor and she was like a mother to me.
I always say it was not just music that she transferred to me; it was a way of life, and a way of living, of interacting with the audiences. There was so much to learn from her that I would just keep looking at her. When I was in her presence nobody else could catch my attention. I was always with her, watching her, learning everything that she did – how she conducted herself. I was like a blotting paper; just absorbing everything that she said and I put it all in my mind. And through this entire musical journey of three decades I have put every little bit of the messages I received from her to use.
One thing that she said was challenges will come along, by the day, by the hour, but she said never ever think that you are defeated or cannot face that challenge. She said that you can rise above the challenge, overcome it and then move on. I think that it has done me a lot of good, because truthfully being a woman and being exposed to this art world is truly challenge and I’ve had a lot of criticism at various points of time for various reasons and some of them unnecessary and some of them gender questions, and I have been able to slide over all of that with just those words looming large and ringing in my ears.
I couldn’t have done better in having chosen a guru like her, she was the best. I’m sure all students do say their teachers are the best. But in this case she was someone who was loved. Even today, 25 years after her passing people still connect to her as a human being. She was so warm and caring to everyone, and I think she transferred some of those qualities to me and I have really benefitted from that.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s fascinating hearing about her difficult style initially, yet it seems to have made you stronger and somehow improved your relationship. I’m wondering are you a guru too? Are there young artists that you mentor?
Sudha Ragunathan: Yes I do, but not so much. In my mentor’s cases she had her disciples singing along with her on stage in her concerts. In my case I sing alone. The time consumption in performing, travelling and recording makes the time for teaching a little less. I have a few chosen students who are very advanced in their singing, I have about 5 students, four of them are performers. One lives in New Jersey, one lives in Bangalore, two of them live in Chennai, one in Germany who is more a teacher than a performer. I do a bit of teaching on skype as well, but I’m happy teaching them with my physical presence because they need to look at me, look at my body language, look at the expressive ways that we bring out the music. But very soon I will start an academy of music where I will start to propagate music in a more disciplined way where I would give more of myself to teaching – or rather divide my time between teaching and performing.
Cyclic Defrost: Is it expected that this is what you will do? That because you were mentored by someone in the past there is an expectation that you will give back to someone else in the future?
Sudha Ragunathan: Definitely. Each one of us, we call it a Parampara, which is a school of music, a particular style of performing. Our school of music has to go down the ages. I think I have a responsibility to transfer this music to the younger performers to the incoming group so that they take it forward. It’s like an Olympic flame that you light and you hand it over the back to someone. The music keeps running.
Cyclic Defrost: When you talk about the flame being handed down from individual to individual from generation to generation throughout the years how much freedom do you have to alter the tradition? How much freedom do you have to put your stamp on it and take it into a new direction?
Sudha Ragunathan: Yes. I think we have the freedom. We have the creative aspect changing from person to person. What were the very special qualities of my mentor may not be mine. The positive aspects of my music might be a little different from her. Basically the voice, the texture of the voice, everything changes from person to person. And the production of music gets a little altered. My mentor always told me ‘don’t reproduce from A to Z everything that I do, try bringing your own innovations, try bringing your little creative touches to the music.
Carnatic music is by itself greatly recognised for its creative elements. We have the raga, or the melody, and we have the tala or the rhythm. The combination of both of these when you change a few things here or there the entire composition acquires a very different colour. I try to be as creative as possible. I think the personalization happens over the years. It’s the experience of singing and performing and listening to a lot of music around the world. Also interacting with a lot of musicians in various collaborations. All of this starts to seep into your music. And then it starts to look a little different from where you started out. If I listen to my own music, a recording that was done 25 years ago, and I listen to the same composition now I feel there is quite some difference in the production of the voice, in the delivery, in the way that I have approached the creative aspect of the composition itself. You change a few things here and there, but much of it remains as it has always been.
Cyclic Defrost: What about improvisation? How much freedom to improvise do you have within some of the structures?
Sudha Ragunathan: The ragas as I said have a structure of their own. Every raga, we have thousands of ragas. The structure or definition of each raga remains the same. Yet within this I can do what I want. I can create different colours, different emotions, I can treat the raga differently, approach the composition in my own style, there are little things that I can do, but I must keep in mind that I should not trespass the tapestry of the definition of the raga.
Sudha Ragunathan is performing in Australia at Womadelaide 2017. You can find out more here.