Priya Purushothaman

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In conversation with Priya Purushothaman

It’s our pleasure at Sideways Acoustic to kick off our Young Hindustani Musicians series with an evening concert by Priya Purushothaman on the 11th of August at The Yoga House. Priya Purushothaman is part of the new vanguard of international young Hindustani vocalists. Based in Bangalore, she is training under Smt Aditi Kaikini Upadhya, daughter and disciple of late stalwart Pandit Dinkar Kaikini. Before studying Hindustani Raagsangeet, Priya trained extensively in both Carnatic vocal music and western classical violin. She’s performed rather extensively both in India and abroad. Apart from being an extremely talented musician she is also passionate about music education and writing. She does workshops and seminars at various educational institutions. She’s written a beautiful book about her Guru Pt. Dinakar Kaikini which came out in January 2011. Here’s a little conversation with this multi-faceted performer- a sneak peek into what makes her tick.

N: It’s a pleasure having you kick off the Hindustani performance space that Sideways Acoustic is premiering this month. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to music?

Priya: I first started learning music when I was five – my mother enrolled me for Western classical violin lessons at a school near our house. She loved music and both my parents noticed that as a baby, music would keep me very engaged, so decided to nurture this interest. When I was about seven, I began learning Carnatic music from my aunt, and both styles of music became very important parts of my life for the next fifteen years. Music has been a very consistent and central part of my life for as long as I can remember, although I never imagined I would pursue it as more than a serious hobby.

N: Given the diverse audience that Sideways has begun attracting to their events, could you tell us a little bit about Hindustani Raagsangeet and the particular style that you have trained in?

Priya: In a very brief nutshell, Hindustani Raagsangeet (the North Indian classical branch) is a primarily improvised style of music that is developed within the main pillars of raag (melody) and taal (rhythm cycle). These are very broad and loose definitions, because the concepts of raag and taal are very complex and highly nuanced. A raag, unlike its western counterpart, is not just a particular scale of notes – it’s also a specific arrangement of these notes, sung in a certain phraseology, with a certain pacing, that all come together to create a spirit that makes it an individual character by itself. Taal is the rhythmic system of Indian music, and is a cycle of beats that is repeated continuously, over which the artist lays and artfully places the melody. I have trained mainly in khayal as well as some of the other forms such as thumri, dadra, and kajri. I am trained in the style of the Agra gharana.

N: You’ve had extensive training in Carnatic vocal. What made you switch to Hindustani? What drew you to this particular parampara of khyal gayaki?

Priya: I initially learned Hindustani music out of curiosity – I had been listening to it and enjoying it, but did not fully understand what was happening. Once I got into the training process seriously, I made a full switch because I found the style gave me more creative freedom and space. The experience was more meditative and introspective, for me personally, and I fell in love with it. To be honest, I think it was both fate and some serendipity that brought me to my parampara and gayaki. I was ignorant of the subtleties of gayaki when I started learning, but was very fortunate to have started right from the beginning with a guru who showed me the beauty of her parampara and inspired me to drop all other plans and follow music full-time. I met my guru, Smt Aditi Upadhya, through my uncle who lived in Bangalore at the time. I have learned everything about Hindustani music from her and her parents, the late Pandit Dinkar Kaikini and his wife and vocalist Smt Shashikala Kaikini. As I grew to understand what the word gayaki even meant, musically speaking, I grew to appreciate the parampara and feel very fortunate that I just fell into its lap.

N: Apart from Hindustani music, what other styles of music are you drawn to/dabble in and why?

Priya: As I mentioned, I trained in Western classical violin for many years and still love that style, though I don’t play anymore. I love listening to Jazz and am trying to educate myself more about it, because there are so many parallels with Hindustani music on a surface level. I honestly appreciate good artistry in any style of music – even if it’s a reality TV show singing competition which unearths an amazing singer, or a legendary Ustad at an all-night festival.

N: You do a lot of teaching and workshops about Hindustani music apart from teaching your own students. Why do you feel it is so important to get younger people involved in and made aware of classical music?

Priya: For me teaching is two-fold. At one level, having been the recipient of so much from my Guru, I feel that continuing to pass it on is also my way of doing justice to what she has done for me, and what all the preceding Gurus have done for their shishyas- “paying it forward”, as they say. Hindustani music is an oral tradition – you can’t learn it from a book, or from a Youtube tutorial, or Wikipedia. You have to sit face to face with a Guru, for many, many hours, until eventually it starts to sink in. This process requires a lot of patience on the part of both guru and sishya, but it is also incredibly beautiful when the seed starts to flower. Both people get a tremendous sense of fulfilment from that. The other aspect is the fact that the sustainability of this art, especially when it’s competing with so many other styles of music in the mainstream, depends a lot on educating people about it. Classical music has an aura of being inaccessible, esoteric, heavy. I feel that these perceptions are all a result of people not having enough exposure and understanding – it has to be demystified. When it was more part of the larger culture, people would listen to it much more; learn it either at school or in private lessons. It was looked at as a fun thing to do, though now it definitely isn’t at the top of the “cool” list for young kids and is not taught in many schools. Earlier, it would be on the radio, which people listened to all the time. This exposure would give a basic understanding of the style and increase its reach. If the education aspect of music is neglected, then who will be the audiences for concerts? Who will organize good quality concerts? Who will challenge artists to present good content, and not something that seems to satisfy passing trends? As my Guru, Pandit Dinkar Kaikini, would say, “We have to create Kaanseins, not just Taansens!”

N: There are people who say that Hindustani music or any form of classical music for that matter is inaccessible to the lay person because it requires a certain knowledge of the grammar of that particular style? Do you feel that this is so and why?

Priya: Overall, I don’t believe that any style of music requires a high level of knowledge for an audience to relate to it. My dada Guru, Pandit Dinkar Kaikini, told me of many instances where he performed very detailed, complex Hindustani renditions for audiences in Europe who did not know anything about the style and were so moved into giving long standing ovations at the end of his concerts. If an artist has a strong and tangible emotionality in their music, I think it will come through no matter what. I listen to music that I don’t understand completely and can just love how it makes me feel! That’s what it’s really about. That being said, I do feel Hindustani music does demand a lot from its listeners. You can’t tap your feet along to it until at least 30 minutes into a concert, and you may or may not be able to whistle the melody you just heard. It has to be experienced, and that requires a certain stillness, open-mindedness, and introspectiveness on the part of the listener. I don’t think it will ever be as popular as Bollywood, nor do I think that it should be. We should be ok with the fact that it is a niche art form – but let that niche thrive to its fullest. I also don’t think we need to dilute it to reach more people. We just need to continue to promote quality music so that people are exposed to it as much as possible. The more people are exposed, the more times they will understand the experience of this music and get familiarized. The first few times a listener may feel lost, but after that they may sense the structure and start connecting with it. Does knowledge help the level and extent of enjoyment? Yes, it definitely enhances it. When you know what the artist is attempting to create, I think you also start enjoying the improvisation process as much as the outcome. You become part of it more closely as a listener. This is why I feel teaching, workshops, and lecture demonstrations are all important because it bridges the gap of understanding that may exist for some interested but unsure listeners.

N: How important is it to try and make it accessible to the lay audience? And how do you do that while still maintaining a certain standard in your own performance?

Priya: It is the artist’s responsibility to gauge the exposure of the audience and take an instant decision on how to make them at ease with what they are going to hear. I think this kind of accessibility happens through education, not by compromising the musical content of a concert. There are small but meaningful things an artist can do to demystify what they are singing – explain the meaning of the words of the composition, tell the audience a little bit about the raag and taal… However, I firmly believe that artists should not “dumb down” what they sing because they think it will be more accessible. I don’t think it’s necessary, because it highly underestimates the capacity of an audience to relate to music.

N: Many of us who’ve trained or are still training in Indian classical music also experiment with other styles of music. Sometimes seriously and sometimes just for the fun of it. Do you feel that this dilutes the quality and understanding of classical music especially while performing?

Priya: I think this depends on a few things. When I started seriously training in Hindustani music, I stopped singing Carnatic music completely. My Guru asked me to do this and I definitely agreed that this was required, because there are so many conflicting stylistic features between the styles-things like the use of the voice, the treatment of the notes, the phonetic shapes, just to name a few. It would require a musician of a very high caliber to have control over these areas and be able to switch back and forth at will. It took me a long time to change those elements (I am still doing this), and gain control of the approach in Hindustani. This can be a slow and tedious process. So if you do both at the same time, I think it may hinder the effectiveness of that process. One of the musical styles may get slightly comprised if you are not hyper aware of every musical utterance you make. That being said, I think it’s really good to educate oneself about different styles. My base in Carnatic music is the only reason I was able to start Hindustani music at such a late age, and it constantly informs what I am doing. Same with Western classical. As students of music, we have to constantly think about what we’re doing and often having another musical frame of reference can make you understand your primary musical style so much better or with a different perspective. For a serious performer though, eventually I feel one style should be chosen as a focus to give it the full attention and depth it requires.

N: We really look forward to hearing you on the 11th of August. Just to wrap things up could you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be singing at this concert? It would definitely help us appreciate your performance with just a little bit more depth!

Priya: I will be starting with two compositions in the evening Raag Shuddh Kalyan. The first is a vilambit (slow tempo) piece, set to a cycle of 12 beats called Ek Taal. It is a composition filled with sringar where the heroine thirsts for her lover to come visit her again. “Eri mai piya, aao more mandirva kar hun man aas. Palak dagar buhaarungi sajani, jo ghar aave, piya paas.” The second composition is a drut, or fast tempo piece, set to a 16 beat cycle called Teen Taal. “Naina tarsaaye daras bin dekhe, mora jiyara ati akulaaye. Paaoon dinrang kaise aaj, sundar salone kunvar kanhaayee.” This composition continues with the mood set by the first bandish. Here the singer pleads with the dark-skinned, beautiful Krishna to appear before him, to appease this thirst his eyes have for a glimpse of his Beloved.

The second raag I will present is Shahana, which belongs to the Kanada family of majestic and masculine raags. The first composition is in Jhap taal, a cycle of ten beats. It is a bhakti-predominant composition, where the composer is asking God to forgive him for all of his faults and to redeem him nonetheless. It will be followed by a drut composition that is also full of sringaar, composed by Pandit Bindadin Maharaj (Pandit Birju Maharaj’s uncle). I’ll leave the last piece to be announced that day!

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