Music beyond language…
LISTENING to celebrated Veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh talk, you get hardly any idea of the sheer sacrifice and dedication she has invested in becoming one of the great exponents of Indian classical music.
She is calmness, poise and elegance personified.
In conversation with Dharambhir Singh MBE, at the Darbar Festival, a four-day celebration of Indian classical music at the South Bank Centre in London, which ended on Sunday, September 23, she spoke about her struggles as an artist and as a woman making it in a very male-dominated field.
This year Darbar has focused on women in the Indian classical music tradition.
Despite hailing from seven generations of musicians, her position as a woman presented issues.
“Woman in India were not expected to perform publically – I learnt a lot from my maternal aunt, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, but she did not perform very much,” Kumaresh revealed in the Saturday talk, entitled, ‘The Betrayal of the Saraswati Veena’.
Kumaresh was fascinated by the Saraswati veena (pictured), a centuries old instrument and first made from a human skull with a string attached.
Thankfully, she said, things have moved on, but from the age of three she had set her heart out on becoming a musician.
A full size Veena was too large for her at that age, and she would scamper from one end to the other to play it and seeing this, her family adapted one for her tender years and size.
“I had to do three hours of practice before going to school and then I would come back and then practice after doing homework,” said Jayanthi who also has a degree in English literature.
It paid off – today she is regarded as one of the leading – if not the most – celebrated (woman) Saraswati Veena player of her age.
In concert the previous night on Friday, September 20, she had held her audience spellbound.
There was a particular beauty as she played against the backdrop of the lilting, compromised sun, and the South Bank skyline – with a music that offered solace, comfort and contemplation.
She was admitted to a Gurukul, (a type of school where you learn under a master) but was surrounded by violin players all learning under her maternal uncle, Lalgudi Sri Jayaraman.
“They were all violinists and me – and I am married to a violinist now – so I say I am non-violinist,” she joked.
Later, she came under the guidance of Dr S Balachander, a self-taught Veena player who was a master of more than one art.
“He was a genius – a chess player, actor, director and film producer. He was not like anyone else. He had a very unique way of playing. He would ask me to pull a book out with a composition and then he would say, ‘let’s learn it together’.”
He also told her very memorably: “The Veena is God’s instrument, but you have to practice it like a demon.”
Prompted by Singh who called her ‘an innovator’, Kumaresh spoke about setting up the Indian National Orchestra, a group that brings different traditions to play together under one banner for the first time in that country.
Under the auspices of the Milapfest Trust, which promotes Indian classical music in the UK, she has been instructing students and encouraging them.
“They have to be able to motivate themselves,” she said. “I only come about once a year.”
For her, playing any musical instrument is simply an extension of one personality’s and it should reflect the mood and character of its practitioner.
On the previous day, she had demonstrated through the sounds of the Veena, how different a single note composed as an invocation to God could change in the hands of different personality types.
She also said that in Chennai, where she grew up, classical music now meant vocals.
For her, the beauty of instrumental play is that it does not express any particular language or communicate beliefs, it very much is what you want to make of it.
“Playing the Veena is an exploration of the self and is an expression of my innermost thoughts,” she said.
Heard simply, they can make you believe in another world.