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The Southern Drape of the Musical Sargam -
An exclusive rendezvous with Sangita Kalanidhi Padma Shri Sudha Raghunathan - Written & Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan

Of breaking dawn, the aroma of filter coffee, strings of jasmine, southern silk sarees, the chants of devotional music - the heart and the soul of India brightens when her musicians perform. As the sabhas and the concert halls, the music academy and the music halls of the nation get filled with listeners enthralled by the sheer magnificence of the classical stream of Indian music, one individual stands out exceptionally. Her graceful voice, her magnificent vocal texture combined with the divinity and stunning dedication towards the art, her sparkling smile makes her struggles look so easy. Welcome to the mystical voice of Sangita Kalanidhi Padma Shri Sudha Ragunathan as she weaves her charm in an exclusive interview with Anu Gopalakrishnan for
Great Lakes Aradhana Committee presents a musical concert of Sudha Ragunathan on Saturday May 3rd at Lawrence Tech University, Michigan. Click here for details.

Excerpts from the interview:

A post graduate degree in Economics to the scaling heights of Indian music – was classical singing your first choice?
It was my mom’s first choice. I was keen to write the Indian Administrative Services exams but mom was keen on making me a professional musician. When I received the central government scholarship, I had the opportunity of coming under the wings of the doyen and guru of classical music, Padma Vibushan Sangita Kalanidhi M. L. Vasantha Kumari (MLV). My guru saw that I had all the makings of a professional musician like the necessary skills to perform - alertness to absorb a guru’s music and so on. Hard work, persistence by watching her perform and dedicate herself completely to the art changed my thinking. I decided that I would give it a shot and I guess I have never looked back since then.

As an experienced and a distinguished singer, you have witnessed the change in the Indian classical genre over a period of time. Could you highlight a few of those changing trends?
Firstly, the duration of the concerts is what has changed. Concerts used to be long, for three hours. They are much shorter. The creativity of the musician comes forth when you have to cram the entire format into one hour without sacrificing any part of the structure. Another important change that I have witnessed is that no two voices are made the same way. Disciples used to imbibe their guru in such a way that both the guru and the disciple both sound alike. But over a period of time, I see that change. Every voice is god given and is made so differently- the shakthi and energy levels are different. I think musicians today are using their own creative powers by being liberal in their vocal intonations. They enhance their structure with all the necessary embellishments. One last change I see is the audience and the environment we sing in. People always expect something different. Audience makes us change the format and it becomes interesting when you have a knowledgeable group of listeners. In essence, just like cooking, music needs to have all the ingredients. One of the greatest qualities I learned from my guru is to treat audiences differently based on the location. A temple audience is different and so is a Sabha. Also, since I have started to travel internationally- Europe and other places, narration and description of the songs become all the more important. People who have heard your name, seen your CD walk into the auditorium and the challenge is to connect with a wide spectrum of listeners from classical/carnatic connoisseurs to novices.

Who do you attribute your success to?
Being a disciple of MLV is not easy. I attribute my success to my guru and mentor MLV and my mom. Being trained under a colossal expert like MLV, one has to be good. MS. Subbulakshmi, MLV and DK Pattammal were all geniuses in their time. Thirty years back, they left such an impression with youngsters. My climb to success or whatever it is called is like walking a staircase. You have to pass from a junior to senior category and get groomed completely at every step. Unless your guru/mentor thinks you to be fit, you do not transition to the next stage. Of course, apart from my Guru and my mom, the grace of the almighty, sacrifices made by my family is very crucial. The initial stages of my career, I had to be with my little children, concert tours in different locations and training with MLV. It wasn’t easy. Now, we do have the flexibility. But in those days, opportunities rarely come. When it comes, we just have to grab it. Above all, the acceptance of audience becomes very significant in this path of success. What you give, who you are doesn’t cut it. You might be very good and you can go unnoticed.

Can you shed some light about the core lessons you have learned from your guru/mentor MLV and how it has helped shape your career and personal growth?
From a personal standpoint, guru MLV has nurtured a lot of confidence in me. She often says that no challenge is bigger than you can handle. Solution rests in your mind. It is not only in music, but we as individuals constantly make critical decisions. Never escape it. One day, you will see that you have overcome it. There’s nothing that you can’t face. You just have to keep running forward. Somewhere you will find a solution. If not, go to sleep because the next day morning will provide a lot more clarity in determining a solution for all the problems you face. One very significant lesson that I was taught is to never ignore your audience and be indifferent to them. Till date, after the concert, it takes one hour to get out as audience would like to interact and provide feedback which becomes very valuable and fulfilling for an artist. After being with MLV, my creative expressions have found some order. Several music critics say that male musicians are majestic in tone, professional and very dominating in their vocals while the women musicians are often mentioned as graceful, divine and elegant. MLV was different. Here was a doyen who was complete. She had a majestic voice yet graceful and elegant in presentation. Her structure was divine and ruled by simplicity and a charm. She blends it all so differently. So, being her student, the elements just flow naturally.

As a younger singer in a traditional genre that leaps back in times, what kind of challenges have you faced working with older musicians accompanying you?
It’s not a myth when someone says women go through a tough struggle to meander past the older musicians or for that matter the male gender. When I was young, my music was considered charming and melodious. When a male singer sings the same music, people would naturally compare the two genders in terms of the voice, its structure, the raga formation, the swara etc. I was lucky as I was always accepted by the older singers. I would attribute it to hard work and dedication. When I received the Sangita Kalanidhi, the most powerful of all awards for classical music, there was chatter in the musical community. But, nevertheless, people accepted it. The younger-senior conversations will always happen. But the gharana you come from, the dedication, hard work, the focus and the attention you give to your art in a consistent manner weighs much more than anything else that happens in coffee rooms, lounges or living rooms.

You are visiting Michigan after your stupendous performance in 2006 through GLAC, are you excited?
Michigan has provided me with one of the most knowledgeable audience. I know that the Michigan residents are passionate about music and dance. They are well informed. They know music and the intricacies of what we sing. I am looking forward to a great concert as I am very excited. Like I said, audience is everything. They determine if the artist is complete or not. I am sure the Michigan audience will provide me complete energy. Close your eyes, there’s so much to feel and experience in music.

Armed with a refreshing repertoire, Sudha Ragunathan has a deep mystic charm in her voice that leaves you in a stunning world of echoing music long after the concert wraps up. Such is her work, her consistent dedication and the beauty of discipline she carries. ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,’ believes Padmashri Sudha Ragunathan, one of the foremost disciples of Padmabhushan, Sangeetha Kalanidhi M. L. Vasantha Kumari .

The well-known music critic SUBBUDU once wrote: “If I were stranded on a lonely island, and if I were allowed to keep only three things, I would choose these in order of preference: An audio-visual cassette of singer Padmashri Sudha Ragunathan; betel leaves to chew while I listen to the music, and poet Kannadasan’s works to read. There is none equal to Sudha’s creative expression in Carnatic Music today. It is packed with both melody and power. I listen to only Sudha twice at the December music season in Chennai. The first time to review her music and the second time to just enjoy it. ”

Interviewed and written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan

Special thanks to Sankar Krishnan and Sriram Ganapathy of Great Lakes Aradhana Committee. For all GLAC events, please visit

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