That 'classic' touch...
Sing a few swaras on just one avarthanam, then two, and keep going. Even at 84, Carnatic musician Seethalakshmi Venkatesan continues to teach a few students at her home in Bangalore.
She has an impeccable sense of timing that separates exceptional performers from the merely good. Age hasn’t dimmed either her voice or enthusiasm. She began her formal musical training first with the violin at age five and soon after with vocal music. Though she gave her first public concert at age 10, it was her marriage to Venkatesan that marked the biggest change in her musical career.
At first it seemed that her nascent music career would end with her marriage. Her orthodox in-laws were not in favour of her singing in public. However, her husband proved to be her strongest booster, ensuring she continued to learn while they were in Bangalore and start performing in public soon after he was transferred out of Bangalore.
While in Tanjore, Venkatesan persuaded the maestro, Tanjore Sankara Iyer, to stay with them and take on Seethalakshmi as his student. “I learned to cultivate my ragam singing technique from him,” she admits. “He’d be sitting on an easy chair — no recording was allowed or even writing down of notations — we had to repeat the lesson 20 times till we got it down.” Yet another transfer to Chennai brought her into the ambit of Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer — an iconic Carnatic singer of the 20th century. Today, Seethalakshmi is known as one of the foremost proponents of the Semmangudi bani (style). The rapid fire swara patterns, the perfect diction of songs, and elaborate pallavis were just some of the lessons imbibed from the maestro.
It was a time of great musicians, mostly male, and much classical music in Chennai. Yet, it was also a time when a variety of women singers had come to the fore — M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattamal, M L Vasanthakumari. “Though there was not much encouragement for women singers, we attracted larger crowds than even established male singers,” she recollects with glee, when we ask her about the difficulties she faced as a woman performer.
Seethalakshmi’s career as a Carnatic musician began to grow rapidly after Venkatesan’s move to Bangalore. In her quest to innovate, she formed a troupe with six other women singers. “We were the first and only group to perform a classical concert with seven singers.” For ten years the group performed from New Delhi to Kanyakumari and practically every place in between. In fact, it was one of these concerts that brought Seethalakshmi in contact with the legendary M S Subbulakshmi.
“When MS heard me sing Hamsanadham, she was big-hearted enough to praise me by saying, ‘Even I can’t sing this raga as well’.” Her voice crackles with pride and maybe a touch of nostalgia. Thus began the lifelong friendship between Seethalakshmi and MS.
“While MS taught the seven of us the navavarnams, she asked me to teach her several devarnamas and insisted on perfecting her pronunciation!”
This mutual exchange of musical knowledge didn’t stop with just MS. The Venkatesans’ hospitality ensured that every classical musician visiting Bangalore made a beeline to their home. “They’d usually stay upstairs in our house. This gave me a chance to learn from many senior musicians such as GKB, DKJ, Sivaraman. Ustad Ramarao Naik heard me sing and came forward to teach me bhajans, tumris and kyaals. I learned the importance of voice culture from him.” Her love for Hindustani bhajans led to a lecture-demonstration at the Madras Music Academy on Swati Tirunal’s Hindustani compositions.
The awards that Seethalakshmi received in Karnataka include the Rajyotsava, which came because of her active rendering of vachanas and devarnamas.
Unable to resist, we finally ask her the secret behind her success. “I had all the right breaks, learnt from great teachers, and had a supportive husband who spared no efforts in promoting my career. What more could I have asked for?” She makes it sound as simple as that.