Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh speaks to Sumati Mehrishi on the Saraswati Veena, the Margazhi season, harmonies, playing with Vidwan R Kumaresh, her lineage and the significance of the Saraswati Veena being ‘not too loud’
Sound and voice and sound reach Goddess Saraswati in melodious spirals. Hearing Her name, often, between the frets and strings, She lingers, longer, perhaps, a little longer, around Saraswati Veena maestro Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh. Her gentleness and genius envelope the presence and imagination in Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh -- the school of thought, where the fragrance, of wood, jasmine and musical worship wrap the practice and study of the veena and Carnatic music. A duet in her name, she makes harmonies, in love, gently, constructing the meaning of togetherness, on her Veena, smiling, nodding, appreciating, even rolling her eyes, to the words and sentences from Vidwan R Kumaresh's violin and their wordless conversations on the dais. A great legacy and heritage in her hands, Dr. Kumaresh is sculpting meticulously, the voice, shaping her Veena's path with her evolving art and craft -- in solos, duets and ensembles.
She tells Sumati Mehrishi in an e-interaction that her goal is to present the Saraswati Veena to newer audiences and venues world over. The impact, of her soulful singing on her performance, is blossoming. Would she like to incorporate singing more and more into her performance to give instrumentation new aesthetic dimensions? She is thinking about it, walking between raga pillars, slowly, pausing, at Shanmukhapriya, Maand, in a breathing temple of ‘nadopasakas’.
How have veena kutcheris shaped up during this Margazhi music season?
It has been a very refreshing experience in more ways than one. I expected a dull Chennai in the aftermath of the cyclone, but people really warmed up to music and turned out in large numbers. For me, it was a season of the veena being featured in many combinations. It was very challenging and inspiring in several ways.
Ragas and compositions you have explored this Margazhi season; ragas you like going back to:
Simhavahini (Nenarunchara), Purvikalyani (Ninnuvinaga), Rasali (Aparadhamulanorva), Reetigowla (Nannuvidachi) and others. Ragas I like going back to, again and again, include Nattaikurinji, Shanmukhapriya, Purvikalyani, Kapi, Shankarabaranam, Panthuvarali, Vasantha, Khamas and the like.
Harmonies, they say, is a ‘western concept’. Not quite. There is the Saraswati Veena. And there are harmonies. Do you agree?
I absolutely agree. The very fact that we have the tanpura playing in the background, and we playing melody on top, is by itself, harmony. Artistes have tried playing chords on the veena, like they do on a guitar. The fretted quality of the instrument makes all this possible.
What aspects in Saraswati Veena's eternal sound and versatility have left you with a lumpy throat, impressed and surprised?
As a child, I often wondered why my musical instrument is so large and yet sounds so soft. While playing with my cousins, who played other instruments, like the violin and flute, I often wondered why my instrument is not loud enough. I almost thought it was the Veena's limitation. It took me over 40 years to understand that the intrinsic twang of a Veena makes it so characteristically different from any other musical instrument; its divine quality, its ability to connect to the inner voice, which is also not too loud. We are made up of a mind and a conscience. The mind is young and is rattling away loudly. The conscience is the experienced inner voice that has travelled with us through different births. It took me this long to understand that the Veena represents that inner voice, and that was a wow moment for me.
What have you learned about Ustad Zakir Hussain, and yourself, in the duets?
Ustad Zakir Hussainji is a kind and an extremely divine personality. Playing with him is not like a collaboration or a jugalbandi. He must have been a musician of the highest order in several births preceding this one. The soundscape presents itself to him, like a Brahmanda – a big universe -- with an aerial view of the sun and the planets, and he does his orbits in his space -- in his style. It is a blessing to share the stage with him, and learn the art of performing, communicating, and decorating ether with musical notes and rhythmic punctuation.
Artistes in Carnatic and Hindustani traditions have established and rediscovered the musical instruments through practice and performance. Lifetimes and generations have been offered to sound, sadhana, kriti and bandish. How has the solo performance evolved for you?
When you learn a composition from a Guru, you repeat it verbatim, with the only goal of getting a “shabhash” from your Guru. After playing the same composition several times, over a period of time, you start recreating the same composition with your own expression and interpretation. Hopefully, by then, your sagacity and penetration into the raga swaroopa has increased. The joy of making those changes and playing the kriti, your own way, keeps you going for a period of time. At a certain stage, you pause and think: "Is this what the composer really wanted to convey?" And then, you go to the source of the kriti and try to be the composer’s voice. Then, your interpretation changes. This goes on for a period of time, and then comes a stage when you wonder -- is this what I want to convey? That is where, in your solo recitals, there is something intrinsic that you present, which is a culmination of your training, exposure, experiment and experience. The journey of a musician is long and continuous. Change fuels creativity.
Duets are gold mines of a musical instrument's versatility. They unfold journeys in melody, structure, sound, rhythm, ragas, emotions, confluence and percussive element. What have your conversations in music with Vidwan R. Kumaresh and other maestros revealed?
Strings Attached, my collaboration with Kumareshji, has made me stretch boundaries. Kumareshji is an artiste who always thinks out of the box. This collaboration is like a breath of fresh air for me, because we are creating new compositions, experimenting with new formats, presenting new climaxes, surprising with new pauses and punctuating with new percussive elements. This is a collaboration I really look forward to.
The synergy thrives on stage and off stage for a musician couple. Off the stage, you are a daughter, or a wife, or a mother, a friend, or a sister to the person. But on stage, you are in communion, through your instrument, with the swara devathas. Man-made relationships comes after your commitment to musical supreme. Having said that, there is equal fun on and off stage. Only the flavour is different.
In a collaborative project, when there is an amalgamation of different creative minds, many exciting doors open, and multiple thought processes are laid out on the table, making it a unique learning experience, and more challenging. It is very important to get all perspectives while creating something beautiful.
Be it the melody of flute, the clarity of vocals, or piano chords, or soulful notes from the violin -- they all converse with the voice of the Veena and the Veena adapts itself to the general texture of the concert. It tries to walk alongside with these instruments agreeing, teasing, laughing, and at the end, conveying something meaningful that results in a long standing friendship between the two tones.
How do ragas you associate with Goddess Saraswati descend on your Veena?
I feel the ragas with prat madhyama, like Saraswathi, Kalyani, Kamavardhini, and Lathangi, are somehow more feminine. A raga is a creation of a particular mood or an imagery. While the performer has a different imagery, in the most cases, the listener will have a totally different imagery. I think, the performer's state of mind is very important for him/her to make divinity descend on each note.
You come from a family of great musicians. Tell us about your growing years and how the sound of violin shaped your thinking and imagination under the gurus -- your maternal aunt Smt. Padmavathy Ananthagopalan and your mother Smt. Lalgudi Rajalakshmi.
I think I heard a lot of music even when I was in my mother’s womb. We were introduced to music even before we were introduced to words. Though not consciously, the environment at home was such that somebody or the other was constantly teaching, learning, practising or performing. These melodies reverberate in me, like my voices within, and made me very comfortable with the system of Carnatic music while I started learning it. It was like a computer with hardware already installed. You only had to install a few apps to get it going.
It is indeed a blessing to be enveloped in an atmosphere of music this way. My maternal aunt and my guru, Smt. Padmavathy Ananthagopalan is the only veena player from a family replete with violinists. It was my mother Smt. Lalgudi Rajalakshmi who initiated me into veena at the age of three. My aunt has always been my inspiration and idol. I was too young to make a conscious decision to choose an instrument. It would be more appropriate to say that the Saraswati Veena chose me.
I was quite young when I learnt from my mother. I remember giving her a hard time, but the tables were completely turned when I went to my guru Smt. Padmavathy Ananthagopalan. She was a very difficult taskmaster and would make me wake up at 4 am, and had a heavy timetable planned for me throughout the day.
There was a time when I used to be known for guessing the ragams as a kid and quite a few people had noticed it. When my mom used to ask me to do it in front of a few people, I would invariably embarrass her and ask for food instead of guessing the ragams. This used to be quite an exasperating experience for her. While my guru was dedicated and focused, my aunt (the same person) would be happy to hop on to my scooter, to go to a concert, and enjoy and spend time with me. I have some wonderful memories.
Tell us about your uncle Vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman's practice.
He was a musician’s musician -- a perfectionist and a nadopasaka. I have rarely seen him talk about anything other than music. He was very sensitive to nature and would synergise his music a lot -- to the whiff of the breeze, the chirp of the birds and the swish of the waves. He was a true artiste, in every sense of the term. He was the one who showed me the aesthetics of music and how pure music can strike a chord with the listener.
Some years ago, Vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman shared a beautiful story over the phone. During the Freedom Struggle, he ran to the railway tracks, to hear Rajaji and Gandhiji deliver speeches from a train. Tell us about your share of stories from the elders.
The elders still continue to tell stories of the golden days, their childhood, the magic of life in their villages. They have told me about the times they were taught, their practice, their lives without distractions, the value for money at that time, the experience of traveling miles to listen to a concert, the experience of learning without a class and just by listening. There are so many other stories.
Tell us about Valadi, a place of emotional significance for you. What has the train travel between Trichy and Thanjavur, during the shooting of your new album, Timeless Tunes, revealed?
Recently, when we shot the video for Timeless Tunes, I got an opportunity to go back to my roots – to enjoy and absorb the environment, of Cauvery, of the wonderful temples and my ancestral village – Valadi. My father hails from a village nearby. It is like a tree, whose roots are within the soil -- buried there! The tree grows tall and high, yielding fruits and flowers of different colors. The fruits and flowers never get to visit the roots, but they are from it. I had a unique opportunity to visit my roots. It rings of the past pregnant with memories.
What are you reading?
The Art of Possibility – one of my recent favourites -- smaller segments that I can pick up and read during my travels. The inspiration begins with the title itself.
Is a dimension in your interaction with Hindustani music still unexplored?
Yes, a typical jugalbandi repertoire is very different from what a Hindustani musician plays in his typical solos. At some point in time, I would like to learn the typical Hindustani ragas and play their compositions while I collaborate with the artistes.
Saraswati Veena is heritage. Tell us about the process of connecting rasikas with its evolution -- from the wood to workshop to its worship in your hands.
Recently, I connected rasikas with the Veena and its journey in “Vadhya Anubhava”, a workshop, in a 120-minute lecture demonstration covering the origin, evolution, history, etymology, the present, past and future. My six years of research on this instrument helped me understand that the history of Veena is the same as the history of Carnatic Music. If you know one, you know the other.
Steps you take to keep your back and body in flow with the Veena’s demands:
I believe in yoga and try to do my stretches and pranayama whenever I find time. The Veena is a demanding instrument and I also try to focus on my diet to ensure that I have the right energy to emote with the Veena.
Habits you don’t want rasikas to know about (and now they would):
Though I believe in keeping my environment clean (as it helps bring calm and creativity), I tend to overdo it a bit, in ensuring this, much to the dismay of people around me.