Regarded as one of India’s most popular classical musicians, undoubtedly Dr. Jayanti Kumaresh is the very embodiment and incarnation of Goddess Saraswati in today’s modern times. She comes from a lineage of musicians who were disciples of Saint Thyagaraj himself and have been practicing Carnatic music for six generations.
Jayanti’s journey with the Veena started at the age of 3 under her mother Lalgudi Rajalakshmi and later moved to her aunt Veena exponent Padmavathy Ananthagopalan under the Gurukulam system for over 22 years until she was deemed to be ready for stage. Her trajectory since then is a true testament of her exemplary discipline, perseverance, and undivided passion towards her instrument. For over three decades now, Jayanti has constantly pushed the creative limits not only for herself but also her collaborating artists.
Over the years, she has collaborated with most classical artists from across the country who are just as synonymous with their instruments as Jayanti is. She holds a doctorate in “Styles and Playing Techniques of the Saraswati Veena” and conducts various workshops and lecture demonstrations across the world. Jayanti is the modern face of the Saraswati Veena, India’s national instrument amongst the very few other contemporary artists who still pursue the instrument with the same passion and rigor.
The immersive musical experience she creates every time she dissolves into her instrument as she braces the stage, the wealth of experiences she carries from her learning years, clarity of thought, excellent presentation skills, her envious sarees, her charming smile, and an infectious passion for Carnatic music is what makes Jayanti who she is.
Everyone’s in a hurry to get on stage! How to reinstate the importance of investing sufficient time in learning to a fame and accolade hungry generation?
To become a doctor, you have to do 12 years of schooling, 5 years of MBBS and then 2 years of MD. To become an engineer, you have to again do 12 years of schooling, 5 years of engineering. Music is an equally, if not, more challenging profession. You do 12 years of schooling – practice and learning, a few years of graduation to accumulate the knowledge. When you invest so much time, there is more depth and knowledge and you can sustain for a longer time. Performance is incidental. I know, with all the shows that people watch on TV, children want to perform and parents want to put their children up on the stage – performing becomes an urgency. But this is just temporary happiness.
For permanent happiness, you need a deep knowledge into the system. Once you are really ready and your guru thinks you are ready, then when you perform, the beauty is very different and your sustainability is at a different level. If you don’t, art becomes a casualty. It is like asking a first year MBBS student to perform a surgery! Similarly, until you complete your lessons and you are ready, take your time to appreciate and enjoy the art, the journey is more important than the destination.
Being amidst a generation of audience who are impatient, restless, and lack the appetite for such music, what are the limitations you face in conveying the grandeur and beauty your instrument?
Luckily, I have been blessed with wonderful audience always. It has been people who have acquired an inherent taste for this beautiful instrument, Veena, who love its microtones, its tonal quality. If it’s a totally uninitiated audience, they are open to listening to this instrument and appreciating it. There are times when we go to schools and colleges, where young minds are not used to listening to classical music. At these times, we will have to tailor the presentation in a way that is interesting to them from the beginning and it does not expect a great amount of prior knowledge to appreciate. Music is generally appreciated by everybody – who doesn’t tap their feet, sing in the bathroom or click their fingers to a beat? So, when we present to a totally uninitiated audience then we present the music in such a way that is appealing to them. I think our music and our instruments are so rich both in their content and quality, that just by presenting it in an attractive manner we are able to win over the audience.
Your biggest take away from your international experiences
When I tell somebody here in India, “Oh I’m performing in Paris, I’m performing in Norway”, they immediately ask if there are so many Indians in Paris and Norway who will attend the concert. Then I tell them, “No, these are the local people there who come”. Then they ask if local people understand Indian Music. Well, they know to appreciate music, they don’t have to know the technical aspects of music. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. They just open out their hearts to the music from India, they like the sounds, the gamakas, the philosophy, the energy on stage, and the presentation of Indian music, so they appreciate it. My biggest takeaway is that you don’t have to get to the bottom of things and understand everything to appreciate it. Just accept it and enjoy it for what it is and in a way that you can perceive it. The way an Indian may appreciate the ragam Lalitha may be very different from the way a Westerner appreciates the same. Both are beautiful. So, you don’t have to have a template of how to appreciate Carnatic music.
How do you find the right balance between creative expression and commercial showmanship? Or is there a balance that one must find between these two?
An artist, learns from every concert, learns every day about himself, about the art form and about the audience. You become one with what you are communicating and then you become one with the people who are listening to it. So, you cannot demarcate and say, “Ok now let me do a bit of commercialism” and then “ok now let me do a bit of creative expression”. That’s not the way music works. The entire presentation becomes a part of your being, through your years of performance and you knowing how to be creative while making it appealing, being yourself, and also being a part of the audience. The essence of the whole thing is to be a communicator wherein you don’t lose your originality, at the same time you are one of them, but telling them from a different point of view. I think if you are in a stage where you have a make a balance and say, “now let me be creative or commercial”, you are different and the art is different. It then becomes a commodity.
The minute that ceases to happen and it becomes an art form where you become one with it, I think it is your expression and your communication that will win the hearts. If I’m wondering how I should package it for you, it is still not the real thing. If you are yourself completely, and your self has evolved over the years of experience, over what you take away from the audience about how they feel and what you want to express. These are the four things – what you are, what your experience is, what you think they feel, and what you think they have shown you in all these years. All these make you perform in a way that they can understand and resonate with.
You and Kumaresh come from such different schools of thought, tell us about your confluence and the journey so far. How are your dynamics on and off stage?
I have been hearing Kumaresh ji and Ganesh ji from when I was five years old and I have attended several of their concerts. Their music was not new to me. Our collaboration happened incidentally when Tirupathi Temple Board asked us to perform at the Alamelumangapuram Brahmotsavam. When we wanted to find a common path to present our music, we thought we should create something new that both of us can play. So, we created several raga based compositions and combinations that we play together called “Strings Attached”. Over time, we have created quite a bank of our own compositions. Of course, we do play masterpieces and existing compositions but the majority will be compositions that we have composed and created for “Strings Attached”. Kumaresh ji is an amazing team player and to play with him is sheer joy. He brings out the best in the person who collaborates with him. I really enjoy playing “Strings Attached” – so we are quite strings attached, on and off stage!
Your efforts in making Carnatic music more appealing and inviting to the youngsters? Your opinions about being relevant to current times?
I recently came up with a web series called “Cup O’ Carnatic” that was done to reinvent teaching methods. It was a season of 13 episodes, with each episode no more than 3 minutes, where different topics that a student of music or a common rasika would want to know, like How do I buy a new Veena, how do I practice, how do I introduce music to kids, how do I increase my playing speed, etc. This web series was an astounding success garnering more than 1.5 million cumulative views worldwide on Facebook. Apart from this, I do a lot of lecture demonstrations and lecture concerts through SPIC MACAY, where we reach out to school and college students and present Indian music thereby creating new rasikas. I also periodically conduct lecture demonstrations in institutions like IIT, IIM, IISc and present both Saraswathi Veena and our Indian classical music and explain to them how this system of music is one of the most scientifically advanced, grammatically correct and technically accurate. To make it appealing, we bring in quite a lot of cool elements about our music about how we don’t have notations in front of us and we improvise on the spot, and how the synergy between the percussion and melody occurs on stage and how every time we interpret a ragam its new and not memorized. There are several aspects that make it really interesting for youngsters like sawal-jawabs (back and forth between melody and percussion), korvais or the percussion element, moods and ragas – several such ideas to make it really interesting for them.
Please share some nostalgic stories of your growing years in the Lalgudi household
I was living in Bangalore with my parents and my sister. Lalgudi mama used to visit Bangalore very often for concerts for Rama Navami. What is most nostalgic is his rendition of pieces like “Mokshamu galada”, “Naadaloludai”, “Mohana Rama”, “Teliyaleru Rama”, “Sabapathyku”. the list goes on. There are many instances about how he used to do musical choreography, the way he taught certain kritis. When he left for the concert, the atmosphere at home – how he would get ready, how he would keep pacing up and down in the hall thinking about what he would play, how his feet and hand would always be practicing a particular rhythm and how one channel in his mind would always be music, how he would surprise everyone with something new every concert. Seeing mama leave for a concert, going with him to the concert and listening to him was a great experience in itself.
A typical weekend for me is
While everybody is resting, weekend is a time when I usually spring into action. When everybody is chilling in their homes, I will be travelling to some place to perform. The travel leaves us weakened but the music keeps us energized.
If not for music, I would be
If not music, I would have been a writer. I used to write and lot of poems, articles and short stories. I chose to take up a Masters in English Literature for the love of the language. I definitely would have taken up writing if my calling hadn’t been the Veena.
Top 5 songs on my device
- – Duduku gala – by Shri. Lalgudi Jayaraman mama and Palghat Raghu ji
- – Kishori Amonkar ji’s Gurjari Thodi Raag
- – Kalavathi Kamalasana yuvathi – by Shri. S.Balachander
- – Flights of Fantasy – by Ganesh-Kumaresh ji
- – Sur niragas ho – Shri. Shankar Mahadevan – Katyar Kaljat Ghusali
- – Chick Corea
- – Shravanam – by Bombay Jayashree ji
- – Kanmaniye kaadhal enbadhu karpanayo – Ilayaraja ji
- – Hazir – Album by Hariharan ji
One late musician I wish to have collaborated with
Mandolin U.Shrinivas ji
My current muse
This cover story was featured in our December 2017 issue: http://bit.ly/2A2VdDV