A line up not seen before…
THERE is a considerable swell of anticipation and excitement about a concert that will hit London on Thursday (March 15) – because it will see one of India’s foremost classical vocalists lend her stunning voice to two quite different traditions.
It is no exaggeration to call Aruna Sairam a legend. The singer who hails from the Carnatic classical music tradition of South India will be in concert with Soumik Datta, a British based sarod virtuoso and other instrumentalists, who are more familiar with Jazz.
Called ‘Back to the Blues’, the concert will explore the Hindustani musical tradition that Datta represents, while Cormac Byrne on percussion and Al MacSween on piano and London-based percussionist Pirshanna Thevarajah on kanjira and mridangam, will also bring their talent and virtuosity to this unique musical ensemble.
“We were all brought together by the Bagri Foundation (the UK-based arts and culture charity). It is the first time I will ever have played with Soumik,” Sairam told www.asianculturevulture.com, speaking from her home in Chennai, South India.
“I am sure we will come up with something that has character, in spite of us having so many differences.
“This is a very exciting journey for us and I am sure people who are coming are going to enjoy it.
“Carnatic music is a very lively sort of music, it is not an ascetic introverted form – it may have that quality in certain sections – but the basic movement of the music is very much outward.
“What I want to get across to an audience (in the West) is that they are part of the performance – the audience becomes part of it.
“Carnatic music is a celebration of the here and now of life, and at this moment,” explained Sairam.
It is common in India for audiences to express their delight and wonder vocally, (with shouts of ‘wah wah’) but many traditional Indian musicians playing in the West for the first time don’t understand why audiences are so passive and think they are not being appreciated.
As a first, the concert promises to be adventurous and quite probably, unique.
“I got to know Soumik’s music through the internet and then when I was in London a few months ago and we had a session exploring what we wanted to do.
“Since then, there have been a lot of changes and we are looking at different options – it is a work in progress but we have been working hard on it,” she said excitedly.
Datta is well-known in musical circles, having collaborated with the likes of Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan, among others. He also presented a Channel 4 TV series exploring North Indian musical traditions in ‘Tuning 2 to you’.
Sairam has played all over the world, in New York, Paris and at the Royal Festival Hall, and the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms in 2011, creating history by becoming the first Carnatic musician to play in the festival. The musical tradition she grew out of is almost as old as time itself and is the primary classical tradition in Southern India.
She is well-known for her collaborations and has sung with Bollywood recording star Shankar Mahadevan (part of the hugely popular trio, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy) and traditional, folk and medieval European and North African vocalists. Among her Indian collaborations is Ustad (a term of veneration) Zakir Hussain, widely considered to be one of the greatest exponents of tabla.
Unlike a few purists, she feels that collaborating and performing outside India are positive and worthwhile.
“It was years ago (1988), that I first started going to Europe and started performing entirely for western audiences and I was quite startled by the complete unawareness particularly of South Indian music and since then I have been trying to do my bit in trying to take it to corners where it has not been heard before, and to collaborate with other artists and to make it more accessible to outsiders and I think this concert will be yet another step.”
Gracious, articulate and friendly, there can be no better ambassador for Carnatic music. While she is immersed in the classical tradition of South Indian music, she grew up in Bombay (as she likes to call it, now Mumbai) and recalled the myriad influences that have shaped her.
“While I was learning (Carnatic music), I was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay and I would do western classical music in school, would listen to Hindi film songs and Hindustani classical music; first of all, I enjoy music and it just so happens I am a performer.”
She has been thinking about slowing down and not performing so much, especially travelling so much and is keen to impart her knowledge to the next generation.
“I’ve been thinking about it, not quite there yet,” she chuckled. “I would love to slow down and at some point I want to share my knowledge (more) with younger people. I do want to become more prudent in the way that I travel.”
She already teaches and said a new crop of young Carnatic musicians are making their way, supported by older and more established ones.
There is a big festival in Chennai with concerts organised by many grassroot musical societies and on the bill are the new and the unknown, with the more established.
“We work almost for free,” Sairam explained of those who were well-established. “And our shows are full and the revenue is pumped back to foster new talent. There are concerts from morning to night and these give chances to young people. It’s a good system.”
She said some born and brought up in the west have settled now in and around Chennai to further their musical education and life.
“They speak English like Americans but when they sing, they sing like thoroughbred Tamilians. They are making this their livelihood and their life journey,” she enthused.
She told acv she would also like to see more contact with musicians from the Hindustani tradition, in India itself.
“It’s improving but we need to understand each other even better and that will only come when we do really collaborative work – not just sitting for two hours a doing a common raag (a traditional composition) and a concert and just pulling it off, no, I don’t believe in that. I think we really need to interact, it would be good for both.”
Pictures: Courtesy of Bagri Foundation, ©Aruna Sairam (top pictures) and Soumik Datta
‘Back to the Blues’ Aruna Sairam and Soumik Datta, Thursday, March 15, 7.30pm, St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA
Tel: 44 (0) 207222 1061
More about Soumik Datta on acv