Padmashri, Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Sangeet Natak Akademi and Kalaimamani are among the many honours that adorn her shelf. In fact, it is hard to keep a count of the number of awards she has received in her illustrious career. And yet, veteran vocalist Aruna Sairam considers herself a music connoisseur first. A lot of it has to do with the decision to turn a performing artiste only in her mid-thirties, a phase by which most musicians/vocalists more or less would have built a solid foundation to their careers. However, life panned out slightly differently for Aruna.
“Since I was born to parents who absolutely loved the arts, I had learnt to love music more than anything else. Till the late 20s and the early 30s, I never even saw myself as a practitioner, despite learning from an illustrious teacher like Brinda amma and my mother. I was happy using my music knowledge for my pleasure and probably singing for a handful of people at home or at a function. That perception changed in the 30s when I realised I had it in me to be a performer,” the musician shares.
To date, she remains thankful to her parents for not pushing her to be the dreaded child prodigy, though she had every chance to be one. Happy to have been fulfilling her familial responsibilities till the 30s, she says the time certainly helped her develop a fair amount of maturity and perception about life. “It helped my children grow in a peaceful, protected environment without any major disturbance. Having a performing artiste who is buzzing in and out of the house and the city is a pain for every family member. It’s very difficult to live with that unless everybody in the family is part of the machinery. There’s every chance that families might get dysfunctional.” The idyllic family life, raising children, singing at her will, made her appreciate all those little comforts.
The bigger challenge though lay ahead — not falling into the trap of considering herself more important than her music. “When you’re young, you’re brash and think that you’re endowed with greater intelligence. Being in this phase is very human and I have been no exception to it. It dawned upon me that whatever I had learnt from Brinda amma and my mother weren’t enough — they gave me the knowledge, yes, but communicating that and presenting it to an audience is entirely different.”
As surprising as it sounds, she had no takers for her concerts and was singing to empty halls in the initial phases. She was constantly receiving feedback that her style was very mature and intelligent. “I thought that was a compliment, but it wasn’t. It literally meant that I was an eclectic performer who couldn’t draw crowds. Pain and struggle are the best teachers — they made me realise that I had to have a larger understanding of the form. What matters is to reach out to the audience — what you are communicating. Every performer has to go through that cycle. That phase awakened me and since then, I have been approaching every concert with all the humility that I can muster. I can now confirm that I am level-headed,” the 67-year-old smiles with assurance.
Sharing the lessons
Aruna Sairam feels she’s currently at a stage where she wishes to share all the lessons that she had learnt while struggling to find her feet and soul as a performer. “After my guru and mother passed on, the phase where I didn’t have a mentor was very difficult. I was inspired by people who had spoken, written and shared about their journey as a performing artiste, which ultimately helped develop my craft. I now consider myself a performer who can share these insights, which someone of this generation could benefit out of.”
Among many of her initiatives to help the younger generation appreciate the value of our classical roots, her YouTube channel has been instrumental in reaching out to rasikas and performing artistes alike. The musician has a child-like excitement whenever she’s asked to sit in front of the camera to record a video clip. “I am all excited because of the people I am reaching out to, virtually. I feel enthused to speak something that’s of value to me and others as well. I am enjoying the process — the production, the camera and the entire setup,” she exclaims.
She’s also been enrolled as a mentor for a national level talent competition, Young Artiste 2020, that unearths musical talent among school children across the country. Aruna Sairam is one among many leading names like Amjad Ali Khan, Terence Lewis, Shovana Narayan and Shalmali Kholgade to nudge the budding musicians towards a fulfilling career in the arts, through the programme. “I see this as an initiative that lets young people acknowledge that they have something in them. It’s like a positive reinforcement of their talent. It is challenging being a mentor, understanding where the young musician is coming from, their emotional state and what they seek,” the musician marches on, rediscovering her zest for life from time to time in a wide spectrum of activities.