Musical engagement

senior singer

Musical engagement

Innumerable awards, citations and mementoes enliven the living room. No encrustations, no frills, no fanciful settings. Just an effulgence that envelops all who come within its ambit. As R Vedavalli walks into the room, a perceptible aura of loftiness engendered by a lifetime of unstinted, unwavering devotion to the practice of Carnatic music is apparent.

Humility and simplicity, rather than showmanship, appear to be the leitmotifs of the personality of Vedavalli, one of the most respected senior singers of Carnatic music. Not just another musician, but an artiste and an aesthete who has delved deep into the ocean of music, forded her way across uncharted straits, and who continues to share the fruits of her labour with others.

Significant influences

Speaking with Vedavalli, three distinct phases of her musical odyssey present themselves. The first was her tutelage under Madurai Srirangam Iyengar, one of the Madurai Brothers, who upon identifying the innately gifted young Vedavalli, offered to teach her music, and laid the foundation for her lifelong engagement with the art. The second, and indeed the highpoint of her career, was that which saw her coming under the tutelage of Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer. A master of both theory and practice, Mudicondan, as he was respectfully addressed, was a genius whose name still evokes awe and admiration, revered as much for his expertise in the area of pallavis, the crest of an artiste’s creative and technical acumen, as for his adherence to the rules and grammar of Carnatic music.

Elaborating on her more than two decades of association with Mudicondan, Vedavalli says, “It was truly the golden period of my life. My guru taught me the nature of true Carnatic music, with all its intricacies and its pristine purity. When I look back, his teaching methodology was so perfect that it equipped me with all the necessary paraphernalia to be a successful performer. Take the varnam for instance. I was not only made to sing it in different speeds, but also with odd take-off points, which, as I realised later, was of immense help in negotiating pallavis keeping in mind the positions of the syllables in the tala cycle. The many different ways of expressing a chosen passage from a song, embedding it with mathematical permutations while not sacrificing melody and retaining the framework of the raga and tala (known as niraval) was so beautifully explained to me. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I was indeed blessed to have come under his tutorship.”

An extensive repertoire, clear diction, chaste rendering of the compositions with orderly arrangement of the lyrical patterns (sangatis), a fecund imagination in the creative areas of raga exposition, niraval and swara passages, an admirable grip over the rhythmical aspects, and an artistic restraint in not overdoing anything are all amply found in Vedavalli’s singing. Already endowed with a research-oriented mind, Vedavalli was spurred on in this direction while assisting her mentor in his writing. Today, she is a much respected scholar, known for her extensive research, writings and lecture demonstrations on a vast range of topics. Vedavalli is a rare combination of a performer, a theoretician and a teacher.

The third phase of Vedavalli’s career could be viewed as consisting of two sub phases. The first being her stint under T Mukta of the famed Brinda-Mukta duo whilst learning the padams and javalis through a Sangeet Natak Academy scholarship. This fast fading genre of compositions requires tremendous voice control while expounding them at very slow tempos to bring out the underlying emotions. Hauntingly beautiful when sung with feeling, they still survive in the collections of artistes like Vedavalli as well as dance gurus and scholars. The other significant phase has been Vedavalli’s association with Dr V Raghavan, the colossus of Sanskrit studies in India. Dr Raghavan was a polymath whose contributions to art and literature benumb students and researchers even now.

Participating in the activities of the Samskrita Ranga and moving closely with Dr Raghavan gave Vedavalli an erudite insight into the spiritual and literary aspects of music.
Emeritus Fellow of the Central Government Department of Art and Culture sounds rather high and forbidding. Even though she may be a Senior Fellow and a Presidential awardee adorned with a Sangeetha Kalanidhi title, septuagenarian Vedavalli remains an epitome of high thinking and simple living. As she solicitously bids farewell, the words of Muthuswamy Dikshitar in praise of Lord Rajagopalaswamy of Mannargudi, Visishtadwaita laya, spring to mind. For this daughter of Mannargudi too, it is adwaita, and without duality. It is only pure, undistilled Carnatic music.

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