By Seth Premo
The genre of South Indian classical vocalism is not the easiest thing for the west to approach, but, as the cross-pollination of multi-cultural influences in the arts accelerates due to the internet, maybe it’s getting a little easier -- surely Bombay Jayashri’s Oscar nomination for her work on the theme song for the movie “Life of Pi” might indicate that. To western ears, the Carnatic tradition of singing holds many peculiarities, such as seemingly long, uneven, or odd-numbered beats as a basis, solo segments for the vocalist utilizing words that indicate the notes of a scale (“Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni, Sa” – the Indian equivalent of “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do”), very loose slurs & slides (known as “meend”) that seem unapproachable on much western instrumentation, and the rapid-firing of repetitious passages that are outside of the given beat cycle. Proof of the differences between western and eastern audiences is also apparent by how many Indian classical musicians change their performance nature, depending on whether they are playing for a western or eastern audience: Indian audiences can appreciate a lengthy and explorative alap (the initial, beat-less movement of a soloist’s slow introduction to the tonal structure [called a raag] -- which can range anywhere from 2 – 25 or more minutes). These sections are often omitted or shortened for performances in non-Indian countries, largely because the meditative nature of the alap seems not quite as “entertaining” to many western short attention spans.
In addition to the structural elements above, a Carnatic vocalist’s art might also seem at first unpalatable due to the very nature of the style’s sound. An examination of the works of highly-acclaimed Carnatic singers such as Girija Devi, Nithyasree Mahadevan, or the earlier works of Suddha Ragunathan shows that, at least in some circles, what appears favorable is a rather strong, tense, and almost buzzing nature of the voice that seems to come from pushing the tone to the top and front of the throat. In this way, Carnatic singers can be a bit of an acquired taste. But, once that hurdle is overcome, one begins to appreciate the ringing tones of the vocalist as that of any other instrument. The nature of Aruna Sairam’s voice appears largely in this style. Noting that there is a difference between the western and eastern ears, this album, Divine Inspiration, seems to be geared toward both: a couple of “heavier” and longer tracks in the middle of the album, with some wonderful shorter tunes to start and to end.
The opening track, “Om sakti Om,” is a bit of an “Indian standard,” with a nature hard to not love. There's also something about the nature of the hard clacking sound that comes from the ghatam (clay pot drum). Although it isn't as much of a "standard instrument" in Indian recordings as tabla or mridangam, when it is there, it does add quite a pleasing character.
Track two, "Govinda Leena Mol," is one of Mirabaj's bhajans. Mirabaj, considered a saint in the 15th century perhaps even before her death, fought rigid Indian traditionalism by celebrating a life of devotion toward Krishna until the end of her days -- despite pressures and ill-will from the family of her arranged marriage to devote herself to her husband. Here, Mirabaj reflects on how she "bought" god by paying the price of devotional love to Krishna.
It is moments in tunes such as this where Aruna's colors really shine. By sustaining certain moments of the tune, and playing with them melodically while the rhythms dance under her, she is really showing some musical wisdom:
Leena bhaja ke dol, Mayire Maine
Govinda Leena mol
Mira ke prabhu Giridhar nagar
Mira ke prabhu Giridhar nagar, Giridhar nagar
Purva janam ka bol, Mayire Maine
Govinda Leena mol, Mayire Maine
Gopala Leena mol…
"I paid the price with my drumming,
I bought Govinda
Mira knows that this bond,
Mira knows that this bond, this bond
Is drawn from lives past
I bought Govinda
I bought Gopala"
Another highlight of the album comes in the form of "Saravanabhava," which has an energy hard to keep down, and, on the other side of the spectrum is the slower and more contemplative energy of "Rangapura Vihara."
Finally, the album closes with a Tillana: a lively and highly-variable piece meant to show of the skillsets of vocalist, and, when they're involved, the Bharatanatyam dancer. One aspect of the vocal element of a Tillana is the use of onomatopoetic representations of the drum sounds, which usually gets into very satisfying super-fast bits.
In the course of the last year, I've seen myself go from having a desire to hear only one or two tracks off the album, to loving and knowing well each individual track, except one or two. It might be a hard place to find room in one's palette for Carnatic vocal music, but if you make room, you'll really love that place.