Sudha Raghuraman is a Carnatic vocalist, composer of several well-known dance dramas and has performed at prominent music festivals both in India and abroad. Here, in conversation with Ananya Grover, she shares her life experiences, tells us about her music and professional journey, and discusses how classical art can be popularised.
How did your journey begin?
Born and brought up in a family of illustrious musicians, music, it seems, flowed in Sudha Raghuraman’s very veins. “The atmosphere at home was so inspiring–reverberating with music– the desire to sing or play an instrument came naturally to me.” A Carnatic vocalist and a recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Dance Music, her name is an accomplished one in the classical music industry.
“I started learning at a very young age, very very young age.” Her grandfather, acclaimed Carnatic musician Shri O.V.Subramanyam, shifted from Thanjavur to Delhi, and taught Carnatic music here for more than 40 years. “His contribution to Carnatic music was immense.”
Surrounded by seasoned artistes and a resonant musical ambience, her childhood and home was certainly the fertile ground for her passion for music to blossom. However, due to the sheer number of vocalists in her family, her grandfather wanted her to learn the violin instead.
“I learnt the violin for 8 years. I was a CCRT scholarship holder in violin.”
Yet, it was always singing that was her heart’s true calling.
“In 5th grade, I took part in a singing competition in school on my own,” she shares. “My teachers asked me to take part since they knew I came from a family of vocalists, so I did. I didn’t tell anyone at home. And I ended up winning the first prize.”
It was only when she was 14 that her grandfather agreed to teach her, and she finally began to sing. Yet, she was such a fast learner that by the age of around 17 or 18, she was already performing concerts!
How is Carnatic music different from Hindustani classical music?
“Carnatic Music is very different from Hindustani classical because the talas and ragas, although similar, but are treated very differently. The compositions are different and Carnatic music lays emphasis on lyrics.”
The differing perspectives of looking at and using tala and raga are what give both styles of Indian classical music distinct sounds, according to her.
“While Hindustani music uses languages like Hindi and Mythili, Carnatic music may also use Hindi but usually uses languages like Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.”
Did you always know that music would be her career?
“No, I didn’t.”
“I was actually very good at academics. In school, I topped my class in chemistry and was good with math. I was pursuing Maths Honours at Delhi University in fact, at Hansraj College. Maths came naturally to me; I also gave tuitions for the subject. But I couldn’t manage both academics and music much longer because I was already performing at concerts.”
When the choice boiled down to music or maths, she chose the former.
“My parents wanted me to continue my education further, get at least a masters degree. Qualifications were very important. Then I met my husband (G. Raghuraman, a fellow musician– a flautist) and I got married to him at the age of 21. I was really young when I got married.”
She convinced her parents to be satisfied with a Bachelor’s– but she did have to complete that degree.
“I completed my education after marriage. Can you believe I completed my graduation after getting married?” she exclaims.
And after that?
After that, she devoted herself to completely to Carnatic vocals. “ I struggled for many years, 15 years,” she recounts. “It was a hard time. I practiced and developed my own style of singing.” It was imperative as, she says, there was often criticism and comparison between her family members.
“People would say, ‘Oh, he does this and she does it like that.” Creating her personal brand of vocals helped to express her creative flair and establish her identity as distinct from other vocalists from the same family.
“Since then, I’ve been learning, teaching, performing, recording, travelling, composing…” as well as being a mother and a wife. How did she manage to do it all?
“Women often think that after marriage, they have no time left for themselves. But I decided and made sure since the beginning that I would devote two hours to my own practice every morning, before my son came back from school. I think, as a woman, especially it is very important to manage your time well.”
Why does the younger generation prefer Western music and disregard Indian classical styles?
“Because they’re not informed,” she piped up. “Youngsters are not exposed to, informed about classical music or other art forms so they are unable to develop an appreciation for it. Currently, I’m at the International Shiva Festival at Sivasagar for a performance and you will find artists here from countries like America who are Indian classical dancers or artists.”
In her opinion, artistic teaching begins at home with the mother.
A lot of the work she’s involved in helps to spread awareness and interest for the classical arts amongst young people. “I’m involved with the organization Spic Macay, which conducts concerts, workshops, talks in schools and colleges, to raise awareness about classical forms and inspire the youth to take them up.
I’m also associated with Ashoka University as a co-curriculur Professor. I give lecture-demonstrations at educational institutions. In this way, students can interact with artists, understand art forms, and an audience is created. We must teach, pass on our knowledge and encourage the younger generation to learn– even in rural areas. We need to reach out to them, engage with them, involve them.”
What would be your advice to young musicians?
According to Sudha Raghuraman, perseverance, hard work, diligence and time management are crucial. “Creative forms are very vital. Parents must encourage children to take up and to pursue them— art, music, dance, and so on. Most of all, teaching kids values and culture is essential. My own home is very simple and down-to-earth. I believe that we must pass on our sanskar and sanskriti.”