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Rendezvous with a Wizard

Oct 2, 2022

The 23rd of July 2022 was nothing short of a carnival at PSG College of Technology. The entire campus was abuzz with the celebrations of homecoming - it was the much anticipated alumni meet for various departments! On this day, alumni of this great institution get together for an entire day filled with music, games, talks and a whole lot of fun!

Amidst this busy nostalgia, The Bridge was fortunate enough to connect with one such alumnus of the M.Sc. Software Engineering programme (now Software Systems). Donning two hats with aplomb, he is Senior Vice President at Goldman Sachs and a renowned exponent and educator of Carnatic Music.

Meet vidwan Saketharaman, a wizard in the universe of Carnatic music.

You have trained under many stalwarts, including Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman sir who was predominantly a violinist. How do you think learning from an instrumentalist, and more particularly a violinist, helped you as a vocalist in Carnatic music?

Saketh: I think that’s a very good question. If you ask me, a violinist has the best place to actually imbibe different styles and still have an individual style of their own. As a vocalist, the violinist and "mridang-ist" are only following our style. The view that we have is kind of limited to what we see. Whereas, the violinist is exposed to all the different styles! Lalgudi sir was exposed to all the stalwarts: G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers; you name it, he has played for them. And so, he has absorbed the best of everybody and then formed an independent style of his own called the Lalgudi bani, which is what he taught me. It is as if somebody has already done the work for you - they have filtered the best out of everything and only give you that. In that sense, I am very fortunate to have learnt under him because he gives you everything in a nutshell. Also, Carnatic music has always been influenced by many instruments like the nadaswaram, veena and the violin, which is a more recent addition in the last 100 years or so. Each instrument has its own beauty and the voice also has the ability to imitate any instrument. When he taught us, he consciously didn't teach the sangathis that were produced on the violin. His style was more called the gayaki style or the vocal style. He wouldn’t teach something very instrumental in nature; he wouldn’t actually advise us to reproduce the sounds of the violin. I think that the ability to see what is good and what is aesthetic is very important and I think I was very fortunate in that aspect.

But then, as a vocalist, when you listen to other artists, do you also listen to the artists from the yesteryears from other banis? How do you imbibe their styles?

Saketh: I suppose that in my view, there are five stages for every musician. First, you unconsciously reproduce whatever you hear; that is the earliest stage, as a child. In the second stage, you reproduce what you hear from your guru. The third stage is when you hear from all the other people and you try to reproduce the best out of each one, or your favorites. The fourth is when you assimilate all of this and form an independent view. The fifth one is where you teach and pass it on; that’s when it becomes your own style or bani. That is how I look at it. It is important to listen to every stalwart but still have an independent view of everything and yes; there could be some reminiscence of some stalwart. But the entire concert shouldn’t be mimicking somebody. You can imbibe the essence but not imitate a musician; that’s my view.

You are now learning Hindustani music from T.V. Gopalakrishnan sir. Do you think Hindustani music also influences your Carnatic style or are they two separate entities for you?

Saketh: As genres, they certainly are two different styles. But there are certain practices that you can absorb from each of them; for example, the importance given to voice culture in Hindustani is something that I think is very beneficial, should Carnatic musicians choose to follow. Similarly, Hindustani musicians will also benefit if they follow certain practices of Carnatic music like rhythm practices and how we are more bhakti-oriented. And so, the thing that I learn more from TVG sir is in terms of voice - how to use the vocals more effectively and project it, and the taans we produce. So it’s not necessarily just abhangs or bhajans, it's even how you structure your alapana, how you give more aakaram. I also learn from Nagai Muralidharan sir in terms of learning more classical pieces like padams and javalis and some lost classics so that you get an insight into so many different aspects. The same raga has so many different aspects - you would have heard a thodi or a kambhoji for so many years but it will give you a very new perspective when you learn from such stalwarts and such masterpieces of legendary composers.

And I think because of this, you have also chosen Hindustani ragas for some of your Ragam Tanam Pallavis for your concerts.

Saketh: I think a concert should always be like a wedding feast - it should have something for everyone. Starting from the sweet, main courses, desserts, soups to everything, we must have a bit of everything. It shouldn’t be too heavy - when you have already delivered a few heavy items, the second half should ideally balance out the heaviness of the initial part. Also, Hindustani ragas have not been explored that much in Carnatic music, and the contemporary audience also love it. So why not dabble into it? And not only Hindustani ragas, vivadi ragas as well - not Carnatic but then, not dabbled into that much. Yes, there has been a Thanjavur Kalyanaraman but they have been exceptions to the norm.

You said the concert format should have something to offer for everyone who listens. But how much do you think people have challenged this existing format, and do you think things like this that have been followed for so many years ought to be challenged further and the boundaries of music be tested?

Saketh: I don't think it is a question of challenging. I believe in following; my guru Lalgudi Jayaraman sir used to say that his forefathers had built the basement and he has built the first floor. My job is to build the second floor and not be content living in the basement. At the same time, I cannot demolish the entire building and reconstruct it just for the sake of it. Just like how this (F) block always used to exist - the assembly hall used to be on the first floor; now it is on the second floor. It isn't that they have completely rebuilt it. They have still retained the aesthetics, isn't that right? ‘Tradition’ is a word that is deeply misconstrued - today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s tradition. One has to keep innovating constantly and at some point, it will become tradition. When more people encourage it, it becomes tradition. And it cannot be forced; it has to be embraced voluntarily by people. I don’t think that we need to challenge something for the sake of it, but at the same time, we can make some changes within the boundaries. There is infinite freedom within limited boundaries; it might sound like an oxymoron but it is true. This is a lovely format that our forefathers like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar have set for a concert. There is so much that you can do within that format. You can still explore so much and innovate; I don’t think the need is there to challenge the format when you can do so much within it.

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Coming to your pallavis now. There’s the pallavi darbar that happens every year and I remember coming across one of your videos on YouTube. It’s the pallavi which is palindromic in tala, sahityam as well as in raga. That really interested me and it took me a while to understand the positioning. How do you come up with such innovative ideas - is it something that you constantly think of?

Saketh: I think as a musician you’re constantly thinking and innovating. There’s this dialogue delivered by Rajinikanth, where he says (I forget the film) - "I sleep english, I walk english, I talk english." Although it sounds like a joke, in music you have to breathe music, you have to sleep music! Dreams are a continuation of your life; they're not two things that are mutually exclusive. And so, you are constantly thinking as a musician. It isn't as if you innovate for a cause. You have to constantly think about it; it is an endless process. It is quite possible to be inspired out of nowhere and compose in next to no time. Sometimes, you might sit for days together and nothing would occur to you. Naturally, I'd say that it is not a very organic process. That said, there are certain programmes like Pallavi Darbar where there has to be something unique because of it’s exclusivity for pallavis. So that is where you think - because I have sung for 10+ years in the pallavi and I have to still deliver something new. Even then, it isn't that the first thing that occurs kicks off well. There will be 3-4 ideas which I will discard and maybe a fifth idea that I will zero in on.

Absolutely. Usually when youngsters start out in carnatic music, they don’t have a support system to back them. Their initial concerts have a low turnout and because of that, they are disheartened. What do you have to say for those youngsters?

Saketh: All of us have gone through that phase. All the "superstars" of today, they have gone through that phase where they have sung for an audience of 10-20 people. We didn't become what we are today overnight. I think the whole concept of digitalization challenges people to become superstars overnight. But then, when you go to the physical medium, there are hardly any people and that’s a very tough pill to swallow, even though people may be celebrities online.

Some people even argue why musicians are worried about in-house audience when there are digital platforms.

Saketh: We must all understand that this artform is a live artform. We thrive only on that fact. No matter how digital we go, I’ve seen in these 2 years during COVID that it is never the same as it was with a live audience. Only when I started seeing the audience, did I come back into my zone. The audience feeds me with energy and the music is co-created by both musicians and the audience. It is extremely important for the audience to be there. A digital audience of 10000-20000 people might watch you but we need at least 300-400 people in live concerts for music to even be created. This is not pre-composed music; it’s largely based on manodharma which is all about spontaneity. Spontaneity is only realized when I see the audience; when I look at my violinist and they play an idea and I get inspired from them; I'm able to compose something on the fly!

That is wonderful. Finally, the curious question everyone has - M.Sc. Software Systems to Carnatic Music! Did you always want to form a career around Carnatic music?

Saketh: Carnatic music has always been my passion since the age of 6 or 4; especially strong from the age of 9, when I started learning under Lalgudi sir. Whatever time it is and whichever part of the world I am in, Carnatic music is a constant. In fact, I was offered admission into PSGTech because our Head of Department (now Director), Dr.Natarajan sir didn’t ask me any questions related to mathematics or engineering - he asked me to sing a song! I had sung Enna Thavam Seithanai Yashoda by Papanasam Sivan and he instantly said that I had been admitted! So Carnatic music means so much to me in life - the engineering or jobs that I landed were all because of it! I think if you are passionate about something, you will be able to do it no matter what. Carnatic music is what has been my lifelong companion and I thoroughly every moment when I am pursuing it. Whatever I am doing, even if I’ve just come on vacation, I just can’t stay away from music. It has become an intrinsic part of me and what I enjoy doing; I absolutely love that!

The Bridge would like to thank Vidwan Mr.Saketharaman for giving us an opportunity to talk to him. Additionally, The Bridge would also like to thank Mr. Arjun Ashok (M.Sc, Software Systems, 2018-23) for his input in making this interaction fruitful.


Tharunkumar Dhanasekaran

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