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Aruna Sairam’S Life Journey – A Masterclass for new talents

Aruna Sairam’s rise to excellence and stardom in performance arts did not happen by just following a set of lessons but through a process of development that not only had to be envisioned and pursued but constantly reviewed & iterated.

The life journey and career path of any celebrated professional in any field becomes a source of study and inspiration for present and future learners, aspirants. Whether it is in industry, politics, science, or the arts. Aruna Sairam’s life journey and career path constitute very valuable guidance for younger artists and students.

Aruna Sairam – a fascinating and inspiring life and career that is a study in the art and science of personal development. A meteoric and stunningly rapid rise to the zenith of fame, adulation and celebration after decades of struggle, and possible moments of despair and rationalisation. A voice that is so unique and different in most ways from what one has been accustomed to hearing that it was initially seen as a liability, but eventually proved to become a distinct asset. A style that is at once erudite and unashamedly dramatic – appealing to the connoisseur as well as the uninitiated.

I had heard of Aruna Sairam in the 80’s as an upcoming Carnatic musician of worth – trained under someone as formidable and highly respected Smt. T. Brinda. When my project on Voice Research got its funding from Ford Foundation, I immediately started searching for like-minded musicians with a passion for this subject. And there was Aruna Sairam’s name in the hugely popular Sruti magazine. I even remember it was spelt Aruna Sayeeram. Her name was already familiar to me and I lost no time inviting her to ITC-SRA along with Dr. S.A.K. Durga, one of the Indian pioneers in Voice Research. That started a long association which continued into Saregama and now we come full circle and find ourselves colleagues at Artium Academy, where Aruna Sairam as the Faculty Head of Carnatic Music  has leveraged her decades of experience and learnings in designing the Carnatic Classical Music course and handpicking and certifying music teachers.

I have to say that after all these decades of knowing her, it is in the last few months of interactions with her at Artium that I have got to know of her journey, musical understanding and vision in greater depth.

Start early and learn from the best, seek learning from both formal and informal sources

It is a gift for an artistic talent to be born to another artist. The advantages are incalculable –  of getting a head start in grooming, and more than that, getting the guidance and benefit of knowledge, skills and insights gained over many lifetimes of many artists, from the word go, all at home!  Aruna Sairam is lucky to be born to Smt. Rajalakshmi Sethuraman, a Vidushi trained under such titans as Alathur Venkatesha Iyer, Thinniyam Venkatrama Iyer and Thanjavur Sankara Iyer. If the mother was a source of pristine knowledge, the father, an utterly lovable human being with a discerning ear for music, was inspiration and support par excellence.  The couple threw their combined weight behind the grooming of the young Aruna. Their Mumbai residence became home to some of the finest musicians from South – travelling for concerts, or just living with the family for months on end, teaching music aspirants of Mumbai. I must say I envy this atmosphere in which Arunaji grew up. In my personal case, born to parents who were passionate music lovers but not musicians, my life became a series of hits and misses in the pursuit of learning and development – initially more fatal misses than hits because one simply did not understand the pedagogical terrain.

The way Rajalakshmi Sethuraman designed her daughter’s musical education under a variety of gurus should work as a guide for parents of talented children. Her strategy reminds me of the way Smt. Mogubai Kurdikar took her young disciple and daughter Kishoritai to a slew of gurus – including Anjanibai Malpekar and Ustad Ajmat Hussein Khan. That is how the guru shishya Parampara actually worked. In fact, the ganda-bandh ceremony places an obligation on all the musicians of a gharana to offer taleem to a new ganda-bandh student, if called upon. This was how the artistic perspective grew holistically. Our forefathers knew the vital difference between learning and development!

The young Aruna was placed under the core guidance of Smt. Brinda who would often spend months together at their Mumbai residence. T. Brinda was one of the most formidable personages to adorn the portals of Carnatic music – from more perspectives than one. She came from the great tradition of Veena Dhanammal – to whose concerts the greatest of musicians would flock. Of whom none less than Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was a fan. This is the lineage to which the finest of dancers – T. Balasaraswati belonged. It is a lineage of proud Devadasis who practiced and honed their art as worship to the Lord – nothing less. They set the highest standards for themselves and lived in a space of total surrender to artistic values and their relentless pursuit. It was not easy to please T. Brinda. She was feared by the best and was a mentor to even M.S. Subbulakshmi and her guru Semmangudi Srinvasa Iyer in some aspects!  It speaks volumes for Aruna Sairam’s musical grounding that she is today one of Brinda Amma’s prime disciples. 

Many other luminaries floated in and out the Mumbai home of the Sethuramans, enriching young Aruna’s musicianship. Very significant among them was Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar, a direct descendant of Oothukkadu Venkata Subbier. This musician was the source of the Oothukkadu songs such as Madumekkum Kanne and Vishamakkara Kannan, and the famed Kalinga Narthana Thillana – which have come to figure among her most celebrated concert pieces. As per her mother’s plan, and later on her own, Aruna Sairam further learned a variety of aspects of musicianship and concert craft from Thiruvarur Ramamurthy Bhagavathar (a great Vidwan and prolific composer who lived in Mumbai for many years), S. Ramachandran (disciple of Chittoor Subramania Pillai who also studied under Brindamma), A.S. Mani (a direct disciple of none less than the ubiquitously venerated Tiger Varadacharier),  K.S. Narayanaswamy (the Veena maestro who, along with M.S.Subblakshmi, was the first artist to be recorded on long playing disc by HMV in the early 60’s. From him Aruna learned the nuances of the Carnatic Gamaka and their movement and amplitude based on the practice of the Veena) T.R. Subramanian (the Pallavi maestro and Aruna’s guide during her Master’s in Music at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya) and many others. Her multi-pronged efforts at learning took her to other maestros as well – such as Voleti Venkateshwarulu. M. Balamuralikrishna and Madurai G.S. Mani.

So, this should be a lesson for talented youngsters – the pursuit of knowledge, skill, understanding and insights has to take one to a wide variety of sources of learning and Masters. It is a relentless search – driven by a thirst to be better and better and get to that elusive summit of excellence and recognition.

In Aruna Sairam’s own words, ”Ustad Amir Khan, T. Balasaraswati, T.R.Mahalingam, Ramnad Krishnan, N. Ramani, M S Subbulakshmi Amma have all been influences with whom I had close interaction in my formative years and they are certainly huge inspirations, especially MS Amma.”

Know your strengths and weaknesses clearly and be relentless in your pursuit of excellence

But through all these heady learning experiences, there was one aspect that was a constant stumbling block from early teens – her voice. It was not the typical sweet, high pitched, mellifluous tone that many young girls are endowed with. While there was body and volume, Aruna aspired for the malleability, flexibility, dynamics and tonal beauty that she found in the most celebrated of voices. It was not just Aruna, but her extremely wise father too, who saw the need for a breakthrough in vocal radiance for her. Sh. Sethuraman had the holistic sense to see that ultimately the impact and appeal of the voice was essential to aspire for stardom. That set young Aruna on a search for answers – how can I get those vocal qualities that M.S. Subbulakshmi, G.N. Balasubramanian, M. Balamuralikrishna and the big names of the light and film music world can boast of? Not to mention internationally renowned voices too. Aruna Sairam had been exposed to Western music too as a child – having studied in a Parsi school!

She first searched tirelessly amongst Indian musicians and found some but not all answers. The search finally led her to the doorstep of Prof. Eugene Rabine in faraway Germany. And that gave her the opening to the Western scientific system of voice training and enhancement – in which Prof. Rabine was a master. Years of work in accordance with his methods brought out the tonal qualities and attributes that she craved for and Aruna Sairam knew that she was finally ready for superstardom. Arunaji personally introduced me to Prof. Rabine and I had the privilege of spending a week at his residence in 1991. His understanding of muscular complexity, interdependence and coordination was truly incredible. (In addition to Prof. Eugene Rabine, she worked briefly with Voice Master Prof. David Jones in New York for a couple of summers.)

Success is built on your strengths and individuality alone

Aruna Sairam’s leap into dizzying heights of superstardom is a study in the art and science of concert craft. She has understood that impact has to be designed. And more importantly, she has remarkably built on her strengths and strengths alone – jealously guarding her identity through all the crazy plethora of Indian and international fusion collaborations she has done. Her unique strengths are – power and depth of the voice, deep emotional connect with every swara that she sings, exacting kalapramana in laya, intelligent use of accompanying artists and instruments, dynamics of volume and above all, the artistic use of silences and spaces to intersperse the blasts of energy, in which she coordinates with the team. She is the only classical artist who actually rehearses with her team before a concert – such is the level of premeditation and planning that goes into the teamwork.

Much before her rise in the Sabha system of Chennai and its ancillary sabhas across the world, Aruna Sairam had already become a favourite of Western Classical and neo classical artists in fusion concerts. What started off as an experiment on one of her visits abroad became a regular feature. Her Indian and Indo Western collaborations with Global Icons include names like Dominique Vellard, Michael Rieman, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, U. Srinivas and Christian Bollman.

I have heard Aruna Sairam several times in large concerts, chamber music concerts, recordings and over the net. But one of the most striking experiences I had of her sensitive musicianship was at the Artium Masterclass on June 12th this year. Her rendition of examples was so nuanced – especially unforgettable was the line – Uma Humsagamana Tamasama – the opening line of the first charanam of Syama Shastri’s Himachala Tanaya in Anandabhairavi. It was musically and vocally utterly sensitive and evocative – one of those rare moments that one never forgets. I remember such rare moments from the concerts of Kishoritai Amonkar, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. It is that fleeting moment born of deep internalisation of art crystallizing into an ethereal experience. Artists themselves wait for that magic to happen. It just happens when it has to.

Success is a gift, savour every moment and be grateful

Today, having tasted the cream of fame, adulation, acknowledgement and validation across generic, stylistic, linguistic, ethnic and national barriers, Aruna Sairam comes across as ever grateful for every little opportunity that destiny places before her. When called to accept the Vice Chairmanship of Sangeet Natak Akademi, she did so with complete involvement, travelling across the country, engaging with artists and groups from a variety of artistic genres in a network of schemes and events that are designed to preserve and propagate our Indian artistic heritage at all levels – from classical to folk, from music and dance to traditional theatre.

Key learnings from Aruna Sairam’s Life Journey

Aruna Sairam’s life and journey are truly inspiring for any young artist. And for the parent of any young talent. The primary lesson is that the rise to excellence and stardom in art does not happen by following a set of lessons and hoping for the best. The process of development has to be envisioned and pursued by the learner (and the mentor – in Aruna’s case her mother), and constantly reviewed and iterated. Learning from one guru alone can rarely get a person anywhere. One of course has to learn under one central guide (and one would be lucky to get the right one), but one has to supplement that learning from a variety of formal and informal sources. Then, one has to recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses clearly. While working on one’s weaker aspects, one must realize that one’s success will always come from one’s strengths and individuality. So, recognizing them and having the courage to depend on them in the public arena requires tremendous courage of conviction. And finally, know that success is a gift. Savour every moment of it, be grateful for it, but never take it for granted. Everything we get is a gift.

That is the message to be drawn from the life and times of Padma Shri, Sangita Kalanidhi, Smt. Aruna Sairam.

Ananth Vaidyanathan