Celebrating duality – Conversations with Ranjani & Gayatri

Celebrating duality - Conversations with Ranjani & Gayatri

When they arrive on stage, the magic happens just with the way they hold a shadjam note…

Their singing together is not just unison but a conversational beauty.

The contrasts they have are mesmerizingly amalgamated like an artistically weaved kancheevaram silk saree.

They are none other than the power-packed Carnatic vocal duo Ranjani- Gayatri!

The Score Magazine has had the privilege to interact with these two fantastic Carnatic vocalists on the eve of Bolava Vittal concert in Hyderabad,Ravindra Bharati as part of their annual tour.

Carnatic vocal duo is not a new idea at all in the world of classical music. Stalwarts like Bombay Sisters, Priya Sisters, and Hyderabad Brothers have gained much popularity in performing as pairs and enthralling the audience for decades altogether. But what makes Ranjani-Gayatri different? How did the manage to set such gold standard for younger generations on how to render a raagalapana or an abhang? Their journey was quite a big leap when looked in depth because ,  transforming from an instrumental player to a vocalist is not an easy job at all. The nuances needed for an instrument playing is quite different from being a performing vocalist.  But Ranjani-Gayatri made the transformation swift with relentless perseverance and saadhana and of course- unfaltering love for classical music.   Their musical talent is not just confined to vocal performances but they have also expanded their base as Carnatic music educators, ambassadors and also violin duo!  Ranjani-Gayatri have the credit of bringing a glamorous and stylish status to Carnatic music performers but all this did not happen overnight.  Here is an exclusive chit chat with Ranjani-Gayatri who are also popularly known as Ra-Ga for short!

Hello Ranjani and Gayatri,it is a pleasure to meet you.

Hello, the pleasure is ours. It is amazing to perform once again in Hyderabad on the eve of Bolava Vittal.

What  is your exclusive connect towards Bolava Vittal which is predominantly a Marathi tradition?

Gayatri: Though we are Tamil natives, we were born and brought up in Mumbai where Bolava Vittal is a huge happening. We remember witnessing the Vittal processions and the music accompanying the same during our childhood as well. The music is so mesmerizing and has an arresting feel to it which proves time and again that music is all about surrendering to the divine. We started singing abhangs almost 20 years and it has become a part of our regime.

Ranjani: Yes, the magical appeal of abhangs is extremely pleasing and draws the devotees magnetically towards the deity. There is no better path than music for it.

 How different it is to be a vocal Carnatic performer compared to being an instrumentalist? You started out as violinists and then ventured into singing. How was the journey of transformation?

Gayatri: (Laughs) This question has been asked so many times and yet forms and important part of our musical journey.  However, it has been almost 20 years since we shifted gears from being violinists to singers.  The challenge in being a vocal performer is unique in itself compared to being an instrumentalist. An instrumentalist, say a violin player has more responsibility of presenting the bhaava aspect along with the melodious excellence in the same rendition. The approach in learning violin is quite different in that regard. But with being a vocalist, the entire approach gets a quantum leap.  Moreover, learning an instrument gives a great advantage for singing as well because it brings the gaayaki ang.

Ranjani: Training a voice after being completely established as violin duo was quite a tough task. The transformation fortunately went on smooth because of our gurus Shri P.S.Narayanaswami who taught us vocals.

Was there any particular reason for you to switch from violinists to vocalists?

Ranjani: It was sheer destiny I must say. Because by that time itself me and Gayatri were performing violin artists in many important festivals. Lot of violinists were admiring Gayatri’s way of playing violin too.

Gayatri:  We started learning vocal music even during our violin learning stage to understand the additional layers of keerthanams. When we went to our guru P.S.Narayanan, he heard us sing and was quite impressed with our vocals. He then insisted that we should become vocalists because we had the potential in us. He actually pushed us on stage and make us perform!

What do you think is the one single practice which is quite important for a carnatic singer to excel?

Ranjani:  Singing akaara saadhana (practice of notes with rendering the “Aa” syllable instead of the swara names) is the best way to get voice in control.  Carnatic music in particular is quite a stringent discipline and there is a beautiful pattern of doing things.  Even if a plain shadjam is rendered in the beginning. It should strike the chord in audience’s hearts.  That can be attained only through regular akaara saadhana.

Gayatri: Yes. Akaara Saadhana helped us tremendously to move swiftly from one note to another and make it a seamless task.  Akaara saadhana also opens up some beautiful doors for carnatic music excellence.

When you sing together, it is always like an artistic conversation. What is the approach you put there to attain it?

Ranjani: Thank you. That’s indeed a great compliment.  Before getting into the technical aspects of it, I would want to say that we understand each other’s strengths quite well and contrast them.  Maybe that is the reason why the conversational aspect comes into picture.

Gayatri: Exactly. For example, my voice is more into the higher notes and my sister (Ranjani) has excellent bass voice which can touch the lowest notes as well. We embrace our differences and bring out a common factor between us both to make that musical conversation possible.  Moreover, it is also about understanding each other’s personalities, individual likes and dislikes which makes up a performing artist duo.

What is the biggest striking factor of Carnatic singing duo according to you?

Gayatri: One must leverage the aspect of duality when two people are performing together as an entity. There is absolutely no point in singing together in the same notes. The manodharma, raagas and swaras should become doubly brilliant because of the power of two.

Ranjani: The balance should come out naturally and it reflects in our music and it must evolve much.

Are there any raagas/raags which you yearned to perform but still on pipeline?

Gayatri: Well, whenever a raaga captivates us, we go and perform it straightaway! There is no waiting or over-analyzing with us when it comes to performing.  I’d say raagas are as good as the people who handle them. We cannot judge one raga as superior to another.

Ranjani: We have never got into that waiting stage where a raaga is still in pipleline because once a raaga catches our attention, we make it a point to work on it and perform in the upcoming concert of ours! In that sense we get much more spontaneous in choosing our raagalapanas as well.  And we do not segregate into popular versus rare ragas as well. For us,  every raaga is beautiful and unique by itself! We don’t prefer to shy away from performing a raaga.

What are your personal favorite ragas which you would never get bored of performing or listening?

Gayatri: Our favorites change every week (laughs). A true artist always evolves not just as a performer but also as a listener.  That is why we love to listen and explore the vast repository of raagas because who knows which can become our favorite next? However, I am currently captivated by raaga Kamboji and never get bored of performing it like forever. I also love Subhapanthuvarali for its spiritual quality.

Ranjani:Carnatic music is such a beautiful system where we have ample number of raagas and scales to perform. That is the reason why we love performing a rare aesthetic raga like Chakravakam or the crowd’s favourite Kalyani with the same ease and dedication.

There has been a great admiration about your diction when you render kritis of musical trinity which are predominantly in Telugu language which is not your native. What is the effort you put in there to get such paramount bhaava and intensity?

Gayatri: The great Tamil poet Bharatiyar himself praised Telugu language as “Sundara Telugu” (beautiful language) . The subtlety and poetic feel of Telugu is so evident in the compositions of musical trinity. We hold utmost respect for the language and at the same time, we do not dwell much into the literary depths of it. We make a point to understand the kriti, the situation and what the composer is trying to convey through the language and our analysis ends there. I personally prefer to focus on a balance of musical , literary and aesthetic aspects of a composition.

Ranjani: The trap of being too literarily scholar type is something we keep away from.  A composition needs to have an artful balance of raaga richness, the jeeva swara rendition and of course highlighting the lyrical beauty of it. All these aspects needs to be balanced in a rightful manner and bring out a majestic output.  It is the responsibility of the carnatic vocalist to balance these tight rope elements of the composition and bring out a soulful performance.

What are those defining qualities which bring you a unique approach towards classical music?

Gayatri: We were born in Mumbai where we had the chance to equally admire Carnatic as well as Hindustani music. It is the utmost respect for classical music which drives us to perform consistently. We firmly believe that emotional aspect of music is paramount.

Ranjani: We understand the aesthetics of classical music in Hindustani and in Carnatic,it is more structured and the musical complexity which is so unique.

Which raagas are your preference- Sampoorna Raagas or  Janya Raagas?

Gayatri: Nothing of that sort because every raaga is dear and close to me. It is like a mother who never shows favouritism towards her children, all raagas are beautiful.

What is the advice you would love to give for aspiring musicians who want to become singers?

Gayatri: The advice can be in professional and personal front. Professionally, we often ignore the sound aspect of Carnatic music and get carried away by the technical complexities.  That is one thing which we keep talking about. Unless the music is pleasant, melodious and appealing, the crowd outside the elite will not  be able to appreciate it.

Ranjani: The voice should be as clear as a glass which can be like a see-through. I couldn’t stress much about akaara saadhana once again to attain it. On professional front, keeping an open mind to learn is one thing which is important too.

What do you think are the challenges for a singer who would want to come full-time into music?

Ranjani: While times are optimistic with more youngsters coming into full time as musicians, it is indeed challenging for coming into art field. One needs to develop tremendous toughness to withstand themselves in this field because there is no guarantee about the sureshot success here. There is no assurance about getting concerts. One should be a bit crazy to become a performing artist!

Gayatri: By crazy, she means that one needs to have a mad passion towards the art so much that everything else becomes unimportant. Such level of madness only can bring out great inner strength to get going in this profession.

Who are your influences in music?

Ranjani: We have grown up listening to Shanmukha Srinivas Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, M.S.Subbulakshmi and their influence is incomparable. Their style of rendition always gives us an exemplary path to follow.

Gayatri: I remember listening to Semmangudi , K.V.Narayana Swami’s live performances and admire them greatly. I particularly admire N.Rajam’s violin and being a violinist initially, I still love the way she emotes through the instrument.