Pull of her strings

Pull of her strings

Whether it is upholding the most traditional of values playing the most traditional of instruments, or collaborating with passion and panache with other musicians from different genres, Veena exponent Jayanthi Kumaresh has shown with grace and poise how true classicism and true liberalism are not antithetical at all

There is a row of Veenas lining the
wall in the prayer room. There is a floor to ceiling image of the late Mahaperiyava
of Kanchi Kamakoti peetam. The lamp is lit and an aromatic fragrance pervades
the room. The very air seems to be waiting for Jayanthi Kumaresh to sound the
notes of one of the most sacred instruments in the world, the Saraswathi Veena.

There are nine Veenas in all in this
attic room in her home in Bangalore. The smallest one was played by her as a
three-year old. One of them was damaged while travelling, but sounds louder as repaired
Veenas are won’t to do. Her guru
and ‘periamma’ Padmavathy Ananthagopalan has promised
another 24 Veenas to add to her collection.

Veenas are handmade from the wood of
15-year old different trees grown in temple premises. In Mysore, this might be
rosewood, in Thanjavur, jackfruit. In these temples, scattered all over South
India, prayers are offered five times a day and the resonance of the bell gets
into the wood and becomes a part of the Veena,” says Jayanthi

While performing at the 19th Century Théâtre de la Ville (The City Theatre) at Palace du Chatelett, which hosted German composer Wagner’s first Paris performance of Rienzi in 1869, Jayanthi brings to the evening a centuries old flavour of Indian culture and tradition. “Even abroad, we carry with us the smells of the jasmine, the smells of lit agarbathi and hours of the guru-shishya relationship, the spirit of Ambal, and all those things which make people feel good, even though they may not understand all this. Ga is not simply a note. It is not just a frequency in the ether. It is a Svara Devatha. Ga has an asthram, vasthram, shastram, a consort. Ga has a shlokam. The concept of the Svara Devathas is an integral part of this system and the system is built on these principles. So if you rip it off that and say that Ga is only a frequency and expect that to have the same effect, I am not sure if that is possible.”

“The entire Carnatic system is
governed by these kinds of influences, where the music is created in sync with
local practices and culture. Even the Gamaka, which is so characteristic of
Indian classical music originates from our lifestyle, our ethos, our ecosystem.
Devoid of this ecosystem and the ethos around which this system is created, I
don’t know if this music will have the same charm,” says Jayanthi.

guru Padmavathi Ananthagopalan made sure Jayanthi soaked in everything that
would enhance her appreciation and delivery of her art. She made her learn
Sanskrit so that she could understand the literature and the sahitya. She made
her learn Bharatanatyam so that when the time came to compose for dance ballets
she would have the tools to do so. She made her learn French in case she got
opportunities to perform abroad. She also told her that just as Jayanthi had
got an A-top degree from AIR for the Veena, she should also do a PhD in music
as that would give additional credence to everything Jayanthi said and played.

four decades of playing the Veena, Jayanthi set out to explore the different
Veena banis for her PhD research. The greatest virtue of researching music
history is perhaps developing the ability to see the music from somebody else’s
point of view. While playing is rewarding in itself, says Jayanthi, it is
important to learn about one’s own performing skills through the work of the
great Veena players of the past, the repertoire, the history, the theory, the
culture, the audiences and the instrument makers.

The various Veena styles opened up new possibilities
for her own playing style, which is rooted in the Thanjavur bani. There are so
many different techniques in each of the styles, says Jayanthi, “and the
greatest revelation for me is how the Veena itself is different in each of
these styles. Jackfruit is used in Thanjavur and Kerala. There is a lot of
pulling (or plucking) in the Thanjavur style which puts pressure on the bridge.
That in turn presses the top board which has to be thick and strong in order to
take this pressure. The Mysore Veena has a thin top board with the neck made of rosewood.
Pulling along the strings can cause the weight of the strings to stress the
bridge which can cause it to sink in. The structure thus doesn’t allow a lot of
pulling of the strings.”

Jayanthi’s playing has all the
ghambhiram and the Gayaki (melodic) style of the Thanjavur Bani, which she
learnt from Padmavathy as well Veena legend S Balachander. The Mysore style known
for the split fingering technique, speed, and the higher shruti can be seen in
the playing of her contemporaries in Karnataka including senior vainikas D
Balakrishna and R K Prakash. The Andhra style has a sweet or ‘Muddu’ tone as
they say in Telugu, whose most celebrated exponent was Chitti Babu. The Trivandrum
style is very similar to the Thanjavur style. “I wanted to know if at some
later date, I could incorporate some things from each of these styles into my
music. That means I have to open my mind and not shut the Gharana door on it,”
says Jayanthi.

Who will build an auditorium in the shape of a Veena?

Whenever Jayanthi goes to Chowdaiah
hall she wonders: ‘This is in the shape of a violin, who will build an
auditorium in the shape of a Veena? As a child, Jayanthi grew up listening more
to the sounds of the Violin than the Veena, with everyone from her mother, to
sister to aunts and her maternal uncle Lalgudi Jayaraman playing the Violin.  Then her music education was taken over by her
mother’s elder sister Padmavathy, the only relative to play the Veena. “For a
person like me for whom the musical genes were there, the hardware was already
installed, only the software had to be installed. If you ask me whether the
lineage, the family, the growing up and memories had an effect on me, I would
say there was no time to think about it. That influence became me. There was no
me. I became that ambience or ecosystem.” 

Jayanthi has shot one of her music
videos - Senthamizh nadenum - in Valadi on
the Trichy-Thanjavur belt, as her ancestors originally hail from Valadi, before they moved to
Lalgudi, 6 km away. Jayanthi’s ancestor had learnt directly from
Thayagaraja and had once invited him to Lalgudi for a visit. During his visit
to Lalgudi, Thyagaraja composed the Lalgudi Pancharathna Krithis.   The video begins with Jayanthi at the temple praharam
and later playing the Veena at the Valadi railway station, bringing alive vivid
images of the agriculturally rich and culturally vibrant belt.

There are many things which come
together in the making of a musician. According to Jayanthi, they are “that
which come with you with all your births, what you have assimilated in previous
karmas, vasanas. Next is the ecosystem in which you grow. Then it is the work that
you do. Then the person who guides you. If all that is there you don’t even have
to be born in a music family. It’s a series of things that have to click.”

Jayanthi picked up her first Veena at
the age of three. She believes that right from the beginning, “someone from up
there was pulling the strings.” Her inspiration was her aunt and guru Padmavathy
who used to live in Singapore and who took over Jayanthi’s training after
relocating to Chennai.

Jayanthi sees benefits for every
child in learning an instrument. Children who play instruments are constantly multi-tasking.
“It’s a psychosomatic motor activity. The left hand is doing the creativity. The
right hand is doing the motor activity, either bowing or plucking. You are
sitting with your back straight in Padmasana. You are remembering the tala, the
raga arohanam, avarohanam, the composition, the gamaka, which sangathi comes
after which, the Pallavi, Annupalavi, how to finish the talam and go to Anupallavi,
then play the svaram. You are doing 6-7 things at the same time. This increases
the concentration span of that child in other areas too,” says Jayanthi.

Jayanthi’s first concert was given at
Mylapore Fine Arts at the age of 15.  It
was the 3 pm to 5 pm slot, but she had practiced so much that she finished
performing in one and half hours at high speed.

Jayanthi stayed with Padmavathy for 22
years.  In those years, her guru not only
trained her in Veena playing but also encouraged Jayanthi to seek guidance from
other musicians including T R Subramaniam for Pallavi, Thanjavur Shankara Iyer to
learn Tamil compositions, and Padams and Javallis from T Brinda. She also had
the great opportunity to learn from S Balachander whom Padmavathy considered as
her manasika guru.  

Of the special relationship she
shared with each of her mentors, Jayanthi says, “A teacher only teaches a
subject. The Guru teaches the Guna and Roopa and is also one who removes
darkness. They teach you not just the art, but the spirit of the art, the soul
within. He teaches not just that subject but guides your life. Once you
establish a connection with the guru, that connect is on forever,” says

When Jayanthi started performing solo
professionally, she was exposed to what others were playing and she started
exploring a bit of that. “At that point your music changes a bit. Then you
collaborate with other musicians and a few jugalbandhi features will come into
your music. Then comes western collaboration and that sticks to your music and
you grow. Then you go abroad and go to Philharmonic and again it changes. Some
of the changes are conscious. When you see someone playing the sitar at great
speed, you think you have to do that. Sometimes it comes into my music without my
knowledge. For instance I listen to Kumaresh ji (her husband) and some things
come into my music and some of my music goes into his, unconsciously.”

Even after several decades of
playing, Jayanthi says it’s difficult to say with certainty what one’s style is.
“If you nail it down and say this is my style, I feel you are stagnating. When
you are young you want to prove things. You play Kanakangi as a main ragam or
you decide to play a five Kala Pallavi. But, slowly, your priorities keep changing.
And at some point you play for inner peace.”

National Orchestra

Giftedness researcher Ellen Winner says to make a major contribution in the arts, and even the sciences, “you need a rebellious spirit and the type of mind that can see new things. Most prodigies, however, are acclaimed not for their innovation but for doing something that's already been done.” Only prodigies who can reinvent themselves as innovators, she says, are likely to leave a lasting mark during adulthood. Introducing Jayanthi in a recent concert, the speaker said the ‘self-effacing’ Jayanthi’s most outstanding trait was “her audacity to be different.”

It was a major national celebration
in New Delhi without the national instrument, which spurred Jayanthi to start
the Indian National Orchestra in 2014. “We had a major event in Delhi and I saw
that there was representation from every genre except our Shastriya Sangeetham.
Maybe because they could not have a kutcheri
in that forum. What were we doing having a national celebration without the
national instrument of India, the Veena? That was when I felt we should have a
national orchestra. The orchestra is not about the Carnatic dharma ecosystem,
but about national fervour. It’s about ‘We Indians want to present something
united’,” says Jayanthi.

The Indian National Orchestra brings
together like minded musicians, and the compositions are not existing krithis,
but new ones composed on national themes including one on Ganga, Ganesha,
Kashmiri to Kanyakumari, the Himalayas. “Every part of India was covered. We
used Sindhubhairavi Ragam which is used in every genre of Indian music - Carnatic,
Hindustani, Sufi, folk - and created pieces. The team is united in presenting
the purest shastriya sangeetham, doing it together, doing it for India,” says

In the past, Veena maestros have
composed orchestral pieces to popularise the Veena. Emami Shankara Sastri
composed the orchestral piece Adarsha Sikhararohanam to honour Tensing Norway
and Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest in 1953. It was a composition in
seven movements and played with six Veenas and suggests as one observer put it,
“a Pilgrim’s progress to reach the pinnacle of an ideal.” Chitti Babu composed
Temple Bells for an ensemble of 50 Veenas, a composition in five movements.

What Emami Shastri and Chitti Babu
presented were exclusive for Veena. It was to bring out the beauty of the Veena,
to popularise the instrument and to popularise it in an attractive package. The
Indian National Orchestra is different from these compositions.

The music is composed by the INO
musicians and is not exclusively to the Veena. “In the INO we felt that since
Carnatic and Hindustani music is all about improvisation we cannot make all the
instrumentalists play one kind of tune together. So there’s a lot of scope for
improvisation in the orchestra. In every piece every instrument improvises. In
every piece there is raga alapana, swara prasthara and scope for improvisation.
There are places where we all play together and here is harmony,” says

Her parting
note will strike a chord when we consider how rife our culture is with conflict
of various kinds and regular controversies. “After having spent so many years
in music, whatever I want to express I express through my music. I can be a
soft power and influence society and show how the fine arts can be used to
change the world. I don’t have to talk or act like a politician,” she says.