Music to everyone's ears

singer supreme

His concerts are like no other. In a milieu of out-of-reach classical music concerts, his classical music is participatory.

He invites and cajoles you to sing along, clap your hands, tap your feet and actively experience the divinity of music. Incidentally, he is also a rare maestro in another sense — being a master of both Carnatic and Hindustani genres. He can make challenging shifts across genres — give Carnatic concerts one day, Hindustani the next, and bhajans and abhangs the following day. And he can as comfortably jam with jazz musicians like Sylvain Gagnon as compose music for dance choreographies like Spanda, for Leela Samson. Well, O S Arun’s music is intriguing, warm and sublime.

The fact that he is the son of the great Carnatic maestro, Vidwan O V Subramaniam, did help. At home, Carnatic ragas were always in the air. It also helped that he was born and raised in Delhi, where he got to soak in Hindustani. “But it has to do more with one’s mind frame, about how an artiste cultivates his mind and balances styles,” he puts in.

Diversification happened right at the beginning for Arun. As a young man, he would learn classical music at university during the day, record jingles in the evening, visit world music concerts and conferences during weekends. And, of course, at home, he learnt Carnatic from his father, though this came more from hearing, rather than actual learning. Arun would often join his father’s regular students, whenever some song caught his fancy. “Music was kind of inevitable for us. We learnt varnams and keerthanams while other kids learnt film numbers,” Arun mentions. His brothers O S Thiagarajan, O S Sunder and sister Padma Natesan turned out to be accomplished musicians too.

Later, Arun went on to get a Sangeet Shiromani Diploma and followed it up with a Masters degree in Carnatic music and the Alankar Purna from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. “Initially, I was just enjoying music. It was when I studied music theory at college that I understood its technicalities, and my fascination only grew. As my father would say, ‘There is nothing like music’,” Arun shares.

Now, wherever he sings — whichever country, state and language the people may speak — listeners instantly connect to his music. “I feel delighted when I get requests for a Chinnanjiru kiliye or Nandalala in Zambia or Canada, from people who don’t even speak our language. Or when they clap along, even though they don’t understand the words,” he confesses. Incidentally, rhythm or thalam is very important to Arun’s music, and he likes to include foot tapping, lilting songs in his concerts. “Music as a profession has its own challenges. Even a classical musician has to be enterprising, communicative. If you only explore aalapana, it will leave most of the audience cold. Carnatic music is complex and is now taking a back seat with the younger generation. That is why I started introducing simplified Carnatic music, in capsule form — bhajans, thillaanas — to make it more accessible to the lay audience,” he says.

The acceptance took a while. There were critics who accused him of diluting classical music. But now the battle is won, and even purists appreciate his stand. Arun went on to receive numerous awards and perform at esteemed music festivals across the world... like the Sanskriti Festival, London; the World Adelaide Festival, Australia; the International Delima Festival, Mauritius; at the 45th Independence Day celebrations of Afghanistan, at Kabul; for the United Nations on the occasion of Human Rights Day, to name a few. He says, “Carnatic gives me the room to explore music and take it to all people. It is an expressive art, just like you can’t smile the same way at two different times with two different people, music has to be creative and flexible. It has to be given the liberty to explore , without losing its aesthetics and purity.”

The other big idea that grips Arun is his Carnatic Choir initiative, with large numbers of vocal and instrumental musicians performing live, on the lines of western orchestras. He first staged his Carnatic Choir in 1990, in Delhi, and most recently in Malaysia earlier this month. “Today, giving forum to one talented youngster is hard enough. A choir or orchestra would give platform to many talented people, and take it to the masses too. My ultimate dream is to hold a Carnatic symphony in Chennai,” he shares. Arun loves to listen to Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, S Janaki, P B Srinivas, Alathur Brothers, Madurai Mani Iyer, and GNB — the old masters. 

As an artiste and a human being, Arun continues to evolve. Now, concerts and reviews do not matter as much as taking music to those who have been denied access to it. This is what inspires him to visit orphanages, old age homes and centres for special children, and sing for them with his entire entourage, as often as he can. It doesn’t matter that there is no stage or no audio support at these homes. He is happy when a 100-year-old paati at a destitute home at Mylapore, Chennai, comes up to him, pinches his cheeks, asks him to sing karpagavalli, and sings along too. Or, when he sees the face of a five-year-old autistic child light up on hearing his bhajans.“A lifetime is not enough to analyse a single raga, but there comes a time in every artiste’s life when he must give back to society.

 The turning point came when I visited a home for the blind in Thanjavur. The children were eating from broken plates and had no idea what was served to them. It was heartbreaking,” he narrates. His wife Hema and he bought them 100 plates. He also cobbled up some finance to repair the roof of that home. “But the task is huge. I want to build a network of philanthropists to take this forward,” he says, hope writ large on his face. Towards this, he has set up ‘Ratna Sangamam’ (meeting point of gems). Well, Arun is a singer who sings and lives from the heart.

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