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Vedavalli with Lalgudi Jayaraman (photo from Vedavalli's home page)

















Feature

'Tradition is like family'

R Vedavalli believes tradition preserves the best in the past, which is why you shouldn't alter the raga of a Thyagaraja kriti. For her, winning the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title is no big triumph, but it proves that true merit won't go unsung

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The year was 1953 and the place Bangalore. The well-known vocalists Radha-Jayalakshmi had suddenly cancelled their appearance at a concert arranged by the Malleshwaram Sangeetha Sabha. The organisers were in a quandary till they suddenly thought of a friend's daughter who was learning music.

The 16-year-old took to the stage and gave an outstanding performance. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who was present, told her, "Don't ever call yourself amateur. From today you are a professional".

That young girl was none other R Vedavalli, who has been awarded this year's prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi title by the Music Academy in Chennai.

When told that she was being interviewed for The Music Magazine, a Bangalore-based website, Vedavalli revealed her fondness for that city and recalled how she used to be known as Bangalore Vedavalli in her early years. That was when she came over to Madras. In Bangalore, she used to be called Madras Vedavalli!

As her father, an army officer, was posted there, she used to make frequent visits to Bangalore. Their neighbour was the famous Madurai Srirangam Iyengar. Hearing the girl sing one day he came over to their house and offered to tutor her. It was the training under him and under Mudicondan Venkatrama Iyer that gave her such a firm grounding in classical music.

It was in Bangalore that she first auditioned for All India Radio under Veena Doreswamy Iyengar. She won AIR's first prize in 1954. Later in life, she and her violinist T Rukmani toured every nook and corner of Karnataka.

Apart from being proficient in her mother tongue Tamil and in Kannada, Vedavalli learnt Telugu and Sanskrit. In fact, her penchant for scholarship has often led to her being described as a musician and musicologist.

Vedavalli says one should never enter theory before getting a sound grounding in the practical side of music. She got a BA in music only after becoming a performing artiste, that too because her mother wanted her to have a degree, and the rules for her to teach at the College of Music in Madras necessitated it. She pursued theory later, only with a mind on how to apply it while singing. This is the method she imparts to her students.

"Once you have a good grounding in the practical aspect, theory will be very interesting. But theory alone can never teach you the 10 possible variations in the chathusruthi rishabam in 10 different ragas, for example. In music, raga swaroopam is the soul", she says.

In fact, she tells students who come to her that learning music, and not singing in a concert, should be their objective.

Her own life has been modelled on this precept. She never sang for money, fame, or name. She sings for music and the "shanti" it gives her.

Known as one who never compromises, Vedavalli says she has always insisted on being herself, even though many people told her to change to suit popular demands.

Is the Sangita Kalanidhi award a recognition for the traditionalism she upholds? She replies with emotion that it is not the award that is a victory. "Withstanding the pressure, adhering and fostering the survival of traditional music is itself a victory. Recognition is proof that merit still has a chance".

How does she define tradition? She thinks for a while before answering. She finally uses the simile of a family to describe tradition. Just as a family follows the practices and precepts set down by generations of ancestors, in music, it is what is established by the forefathers that is tradition. A song set in a particular raga by Saint Thyagaraja should not be sung in a different raga today. There is no room for innovation in such things. Just like one can't introduce new verses into the Vedas, the compositions of the trinity cannot be altered.

Where there is room for manodharma is in areas like raga elaboration, an aspect she stresses in her frequent lecture demonstrations. Also, compositions like the divyaprabhandams of the Azhwars can be set to music. In fact, Vedavall's renditions of Azhwar pasurams are famous, just as her dexterous handling of difficult Dikshitar kritis and melodious Thayagara kirtanas is. She likes to fill a concert with compositions from all the famous composers.

She has cut several cassettes and HMV is bringing out cassettes from her concerts of many years ago. But, she maintains, "Life is life. Machine is machine". She acknowledges the tremendous support from her husband in all her endeavours.

She will be presiding over the Music Academy's annual conference from December 15 to January 1. Her concert is on December 24 at 5 p.m.

Advice to youngsters? "Go for proper guidance and training. The guru-sishya method is the only way to learn music. Nuances can be learnt only then."

Ambujam Anantharaman


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