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 Amrutha Venkatesh Pic credit: CR Ravi, Ragapriya, Madurai
Amrutha Venkatesh Pic credit: CR Ravi, Ragapriya, Madurai
Arts Speak

Promise of chaste music - Amrutha Venkatesh

Divya Menon

It was a January 2017 concert at Ananya when Amrutha Venkatesh’s Kalyani Raga Alapana held the audience spellbound. Later when the performance was uploaded on Youtube many more lovers of chaste music were gripped for a lifetime! Like how an entranced painter paints imagination on canvas, with brilliant narration of the Kalyani raga in her singularly rich voice, she painted imagination in the hearts of the listeners and it was not the first time that she had created such an impact. She says, “I like to sing what I enjoy and I enjoy what I sing”! Perhaps this is why there is something truly appeasing about Amrutha’s concerts with every piece being rendered from a space of love for the composition and in response to the music lover within her. As abstract as it may sound, one just cannot miss the element of warmth that seems interwoven with the elements of perfection, clarity and other technicalities resulting in an immensely gratifying experience.

Studying the trajectory of Amrutha Venkatesh, one notes that serendipity has a very small role to play in the making of the prodigious musician we have today and every milestone seems the result of careful planning and focus on the part of Amrutha and a number of people, each of whom nurtured a common interest called classical music. A musically enamored toddler who would categorically want her stroller to be parked while passing by music teacher Sharada Shivaram’s house to listen to her music classes audible from outside, her mother Radha Venkatesh, who, guided perhaps by a mother’s intuition or instincts gave up playing the Veena to focus on her daughter’s career, her musically talented grandfather Professor K.S. Ramaswamy who painstakingly indexed the music tapes in their home and ensured that young Amrutha was exposed to good music from childhood, the genetic legacy of Shantha Patti, her grandmother who passed senior exam in Veena 60 years ago, music lessons under different teachers, her first performance at the age of 6 when all that mattered was to ‘dress up and sit on stage and have people clap for her’ and finally a chance meeting in 2007 with Prince Rama Varma of the Travancore Royal Family.

With Parassala  Ponnammal, Guru Rama Varma and mother Radha Venkatesh
With Parassala  Ponnammal, Guru Rama Varma and mother Radha Venkatesh

This meeting culminated in Amrutha becoming the second woman to perform at the famed Navarathri Mandapam Festival at Trivandrum in 2008 at the age of 20 followed by her maiden performance in the January of 2009 at the world class Swathi Sangeethotsavam hosted by Rama Varma.  What ensued was tutelage under him as his only ‘full-time’ music student. Like chapters of a book that follow one another or pieces of a puzzle deemed to fit in strategically, different people, events and milestones came together to complete the enigma called Amrutha Venkatesh, who as a child performing on stage only remembers belting out ‘bravely’ what she considered her best effort then! Her earliest inspiration for singing concerts was Sudha Raghunathan, drawn to the attractiveness of her music and the playfulness of her ‘jhumkis’ that would sway as she sang but speaking about her Gurus she says, “After basic music lessons from Sharada Shivaram, I began to learn from Malathi Singalachar who taught me many devotional songs. For about 14 years hence I learnt from M.T. Selvanarayana who was an AIR staff artist with a repertoire of many rare compositions. He simplified the creative aspects of music.

Around the same time, I learnt from  Charumathi Ramachandran who taught me many compositions of G.N. Balasubramaniam as well as many popular songs that would appeal to the listeners in concerts. From 2009 I have been a student of Prince Rama Varma of Travancore. It is an absolute joy to be able to observe and learn from sir’s presentation of concerts, his interaction with his co-artists and the audience, the ease with which he shares this wonderful art form with both the connoisseur and the lay listener. His teaching sessions are a big lesson in how to make music more approachable, irrespective of the level of the student. He makes everything sound deceptively simple. He internalizes the meaning and mood of every composition. He has shown me how to perfect the art of listening in depth for example the music of M.D.Ramanathan or Madurai Mani Iyer. He has also introduced me to a whole lot of other musical forms to expand my musical horizon and keeps stressing on the importance of observing and getting inspired by excellence in any field not necessarily just music.  One of the most important things is that he introduced me to Professor Parassala B. Ponnammal and requested her to teach me and from 2016 I have had the privilege of learning many gems from her”.

A rather emphatic Guru Rama Varma spoke at length about the various condiments that have gone into the making of the brilliant musician that Amrutha is. “I have been teaching since 1995 both in India and abroad and I have come to the realization that if finding a good Guru is a challenge in the modern world, it is even more trying to find a good student. Thus the coming together of a good guru and good disciple is akin to a once in a life-time event. I have been very fortunate to have found great Gurus myself but I have been equally lucky to have found Amrutha who is my only full time student who is able to accept, assimilate and reproduce the wealth of music I have inherited from my Gurus. She can read and write in Hindi, Telugu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and English which is a very rare thing in the music world today. As a champion of the importance of lyrics, I have found this ability of hers to be awe-inspiring. Her repertoire of compositions is significant, with each composition meticulously and methodically recorded in her books making it rather easy to pick out a particular piece. What is even more amazing is that she never refers to her books while performing and knows each of these compositions by-heart.

 Amrutha with students at Swathi Sangeethotsavam Pic credit: Gopalakrishnan  
Amrutha with students at Swathi Sangeethotsavam Pic credit: Gopalakrishnan  

She is an ace Veena player who instinctively knows exactly how much oscillations must be given at each note, for each raga and so on. Moreover, she is clear headed and thoroughly focused unlike many other mercurially brilliant students of music who are easily lured by the shimmer of limelight and other possibilities”. Excerpts from an interview with the phenomenal Amrutha Venkatesh follows:

You were the 2nd lady to perform at the famed Navaratri Mandapam Festival. Can you talk about how it happened and the experience?

I had listened to recordings of many great Vidwans at the Navarathri Festival at the Mandapam and marveled at the very thought of the divine ambience. I hadn't a clue then that later I would get to step into this pristine Mandapam and perform there! The concerts have been relayed on radio every year for many decades now. Infact we had a small corner at home. The radio would pick up the signal of the Kerala Radio station only in that one corner .It was called the Navarathri corner. Come time of the broadcast, everyone at home would head there to listen to the concerts!

Rama Varma Sir happened to come to my afternoon concert in December 2007 at Kartik Fine Arts, Chennai. He listened to the concert, conveyed his appreciation and the same evening I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from him inviting me to perform at the Navarathri Mandapam in 2008. The experience of singing there was both overwhelming and exciting. It has been so ever since! The ambience is best experienced than just described. I really enjoy listening to concerts there too. The staff at the Bhajanapura guest house are so welcoming and caring every single time. It is an absolute honour to perform there.

You have been a familiar face at the Swathi Sangeethotsavam for a few years now. Please share that experience.

The Swathi Sangeethotsavam is a very unique experience. It is held in the lush green courtyard of the Kuthiramalika Palace where Maharaja Swathi Thirunal spent the later years of his life composing. The co-artistes on stage are impeccable, the sound system perfect, the audience receptive and diverse. Sir curates both these Festivals with utmost care making sure that all the artistes and the audience have a memorable experience. These are my favourite venues to perform at. These concerts also help me keep expanding my repertoire of the Maharaja's compositions.

Do you have students and how do you evaluate yourself as a Guru, as in what elements do you try to bring into your teaching methodology?

Yes, I do teach and time will tell how successful or not I am as a teacher. As for teaching methodology, I try and implement what I have learnt from all my Gurus and I try to be as patient as possible in class.

Manodharma/Kalpanaswarams - for those uninitiated into carnatic music, can you explain how it happens?

Manodharma as the name indicates is the creative aspect of Music. The set compositions and the manodharma are the two parts that make Carnatic Music so unique. When we are kids we learn the alphabet, then words, then how to pronounce the words and then how to form sentences, then how to write a small paragraph and then how to write an essay.

Similarly in music, we learn the seven notes (Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni) first, then we learn a lot of set patterns of the notes, then tiny compositions and gradually move to longer compositions, then we venture into creating music ourselves. Music in general and the creative music in particular needs a lot of listening apart from regular practice. Swaram singing is something I've loved since the time I was a child. That continues till date. Infinite possibilities in the Manodharmam excite me.

Innovations - how challenging is it to innovate impromptu?

I am not a fan of Innovation for the sake of it.  But innovation within the grammar of a Raga and while staying true to the lyric is something I like doing. Innovation Impromptu is a lot of fun. On stage it turns into a healthy give and take between all the artistes as the audience eagerly awaits the next phrase.

Can you talk about your voice culture.

Sri T.V.Gopalakrishnan Sir has taught me a lot about voice culture and posture. I follow his advise till date. Akaram practice, slow and fast is essential to develop the voice. A relaxed posture is necessary too.

Have you ever been drawn to other musical streams or styles?

I love listening to Hindustani Music, especially Vocal and instruments like the Sarangi with the Phakawaj. Rama Varma Sir has introduced me to a lot of other forms of Music like Western classical, Iranian, old Hindi film music and much more. He has also introduced me to the work of geniuses like Bobby McFerrin.

How has music influenced your life and what do you hope for tomorrow?

Music helps keep me balanced. The infinite possibilities leave me in awe every time I listen or sing. It is very easy to get lost in the wonderful world of Music. Music teaches me to respect every note, every syllable, every phrase and be true to the music I sing. Music like any other sphere is endless, the pursuit to excellence in Music is never ending. I hope to continue to improve my Music day by day and more importantly I want my learning to never end.