He is blessed with a precocious talent for music and revels in all the attention it gets him, yet has a firm head on his shoulders. Not one to rest on his laurels, he works hard and with passion, and is constantly trying to improve and innovate. With oodles of enthusiasm, a smiling countenance and the looks of a hero, this young man never fails to impress — on the stage and off it. Meet flautist J.A. Jayanth, grandson and disciple of the late flute maestro Shri T.S. Sankaran.
You started learning to play the flute from your grandfather Shri T.S. Sankaran when you were 5. At the age of 7, you gave your first concert at Shastri Hall, Luz with Shri M.A. Sundareswaran on the violin and Shri Trichur Narendran on the mridangam. You played a trikala RTP in Bhairavi, no mean feat. So you must have practised very hard in those two years, between the ages of 5 and 7…
Yes, I started formal training with my grandfather at the age of 5. By then I had already picked up a few varnams like Ninnukori (Mohanam) and Evvari Bodhana (Abhogi). I remember practising the Mohanam varnam in a loop to get it as perfect as possible so I could play it for thatha and surprise him once he came back from his US tour. I’ve always felt very connected with the flute. It was my first obsession. As a kid, I would always have my flute with me, even when I stepped out with my parents. I would practise for hours together. The set of kritis I presented in that first concert were ones I had listened to several times. The Bhairavi RTP was in Adi talam. I had no idea then about how important the concert was; Shri T.K. Govinda Rao was in the audience!
What was the pitch of the flute you used then? Did you ever find the blowing and fingering difficult as a child?
I used an E pitched flute. My grandfather used an E pitched flute then, so I picked one in the same sruti. I don’t remember having an issue with blowing or fingering at all, though my blowing has refined over the years.
You started learning vocal music at the age of 4 from your grandmother Smt. V.S. Sundari. Once you started learning the flute, did you continue learning vocal music? Do you sing at all these days?
I continued to learn vocal music for a few years from my grandmother, who was a disciple of Shri T.R. Balu, direct disciple of GNB. Later, perhaps in 2004, I switched to learning only from thatha since there was a clash in padaantharams. I often got confused which sangathi, learnt from whom, to incorporate in the version I was playing! And yes, I do sing, but in my room — just to get the sangathis right on the flute.
I believe your grandfather was initially hesitant to teach you. Why? What then convinced him?
The decisions we take for ourselves, our children and grandchildren are driven by our own experiences. Thatha lived in times that were quite different from ours. He felt I would be better off concentrating on my academics and becoming an engineer or a doctor. A couple of incidents happened that probably convinced him: First, I listened to thatha’s concert recordings and learnt Ninnukori, Ninnuvina Namadendu and Intha Sowkyamani by myself, supervised by my grandmother. I played them for thatha several times. He was elated when he listened to Intha Sowkyamani, may be because Kapi is more difficult to play on the flute and get the technicalities right than Mohanam. Second, I would come back from school and play tape recordings of Mali’s concerts and watch a recording of a particular concert at Krishna Gana Sabha every single day.
There was also the fact that I was very close to thatha, and would ensure that he taught me!
You have been labelled a prodigy often. As a child did you find all the attention difficult to handle? How did/do you stay grounded?
I have been quite grounded probably because of the people at home. Thatha would never say much about my playing after my concerts; he would just say “nanna irundhadhu” (“It was good.”). Grandmom would often point out mistakes and dad had his own way of putting me in my place! Staying grounded is very important for progressing in any field, and I’m glad I was trained to remain grounded. It wasn’t difficult to handle the attention, I probably liked it!
My focus is to make the best of the abilities that I believe have been handed to me from my previous birth.
Tell me about your music classes with your grandfather and the role he played in your career.
My granddad was one of the greatest flautists in the Carnatic scene. I feel proud to be his grandson and of my lineage.
In class, thatha would narrate stories from the past — stories of his guru Flute Mali, who he adored; of their relationship, which was more than just a guru–shishya bond; of how a sangathi would be sung by different artists; of his own concert experiences; and of his experiences with Shri T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, whose music influenced him. Thatha’s father flute vidwan Shri T.N. Sambasiva Iyer and Shri T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai were the asthana vidwans of Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam. Anecdotes formed a major portion of our classes! In fact, I would observe him teaching other students, and would always feel that he taught them with a little extra care!
Thatha also taught me how to learn krithis and how to understand the various aspects of ragas. I learnt the finer aspects of blowing and some amazing nadaswaram pidis that he developed on the flute. His music was pristine, with flashes of Mali, Rajarathinam Pillai, GNB, Semmangudi and Alathur. His playing clearly distinguished thuthukaarams from akaarams.
He would always notate a kriti first, then go through the lyrics and finally try to get it right on the flute. Observing his focus, discipline and dedication even past the age of 70, I felt I should work harder to do better. He was everything to me. He was the epitome of simplicity and humility; he was a selfless human being. I always looked up to him and continue to do so.
You did your BE in Electronics and Instrumentation Engineering in the hope that it would help innovate with the flute, is that right? Did it help?
To be honest, I did my engineering because thatha wanted me to have a professional degree. I chose Electronics and Instrumentation (E&I) because I thought it would help me set up a studio, and hence stay connected to music. Perhaps I should have found out that the ‘instrumentation’ in E&I meant instruments used in power plants and not in music! Having said that, it doesn’t really matter which stream one chooses in his/her engineering, because one ends up getting a different job altogether.
To answer your second question — no, it didn’t help at all. But my college life was a wholesome experience, in that it threw at me challenges that one should be prepared to face and tackle on a daily basis.
So was it after your BE that you decided you were going to play the flute full time?
Not at all. It was always the flute for me, and people in my college were completely aware of it. I was performing 6-7 concerts a month when I started college. I remember how some lecturers would jokingly say, “I know all this doesn’t matter to you, Jayanth” after explaining a concept in class! There was a degree of doubt in my family during my final semester on whether I should find a job, but I was sure about what I wanted to do.
You select the bamboo for your flutes and custom-make them. What are the characteristics of a good flute, and how do you choose the bamboo?
To differentiate a good bamboo from ordinary ones is an art. As a kid I would easily differentiate thatha’s professional flute from the ones that he got me, for they weren’t of the same bamboo quality and of course the tone would differ. My family members say I cried one night asking for thatha’s flute from the TV when one of his concerts was being broadcast. I have that flute now. It has a lovely colour from the outside and is over 35 years old.
I don’t mean this in comparative terms, but the flute is a very complicated instrument. I always feel flautists have the job of mastering an imperfect instrument, in that no flute is perfectly tuned. The flute that I play and am comfortable with might not be the best for another flautist and vice versa. The shape of the flautist’s lips, his blowing capacity, formation of his fingers, length of his fingers, placement of the flute, etc. are all factors in determining which flute works best for a flautist. The flute maker’s job is probably the toughest and thankless too — they work so hard!
A good flute should be tuned so well that the flautist only needs to make minor adjustments with the pitching. The bamboo shouldn’t have any cracks, of course. The size of the bore, the thickness of the bamboo and the kind of bamboo are all characteristics that every flautist needs to choose for himself according to his playing style and preferences.
Yes, I select the bamboo and get my flutes custom made. Tone and weight in one’s playing are very important. I choose my bamboo according to what would suit my blowing technique and how I want my flute to sound.
I have heard that you have a particular flute that took 1.5 years to make. What’s special about that flute, and why did it take that long to make?
I think it is the double bass flute you are referring to — it is quite long and measures over a metre. I was inspired by Pt Ronu Majumdar who first introduced it in the north and named it ‘shank bansuri’. I was blown away by the sound. My double bass flute is one of the longest flutes ever made and played — it can traverse one octave (lower Sa – upper Sa) and a half octave lower without the usage of any extra fittings in the form of a lever. The flute maker wasn’t sure if he would get a bamboo that long and if he could tune it, since he had never heard such an idea before. I have started playing it in concerts and hopefully will establish it. It has a very bassy sound and adds a really nice flavour to a 2-hour concert. It has a meditative feel and I love it!
Your double bass flute sounds fantastic, but isn’t it difficult to play because of its length?
It is extremely difficult to play. I have been practising it for a year now and have also played it in a few concerts. I was glad I could play it in my first jugalbandhi concert with Pt Ronu Majumdar, sitting right next to him. He was happy and blessed me on the stage after I played it. I have had to change my fingering technique a bit to play it. I will be playing it in my concerts often. I hope people like it!
Watch a short video clip from the jugalbandhi concert at Bharat Kalachar (January 2016) with Pt Ronu Majumdar:
I see some Sanjay Subrahmanyan-esque ideas in your playing. Has that happened after you started learning from him, or have you always been inspired by his music?
Sanjay sir’s — I prefer and like calling him “sir” — music has always inspired me. Learning from him has helped me develop new techniques on the flute and widen my horizons. Every class has been special, like it used to be with thatha. Observing his music from close quarters has helped me imbibe some of his ideas.
Since when have you been under his tutelage? Has learning from a vocalist helped you with the gayaki style of playing?
It’s been two years now. He sings and I repeat on the flute; repeating phrases and kritis on the flute has helped me understand the difference in the dynamics of a voice and the flute and bridge it further. I have learnt to close the lips for certain words, for example in ‘Chinna nadena cheyi patti theevi’, the lips should close while playing ‘patti theevi’. The gayaki style of flute playing has existed since Mali’s days and learning from thatha also helped me understand the gamaka-laden style better.
I have heard that Shri Karaikudi Krishnamurthy gifted you a ring after listening to you play Kambhoji in a concert. Tell me more about that incident.
It was a memorable incident. The concert was for Brahma Gana Sabha at Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium, on the 8th of December 2011. It was a flute duet with thatha, we had Shri Nagai Muralidharan on the violin, Umayalpuram Sivaraman mama on the mridangam and Shri Sreesunder Kumar on the kanjira. I had planned a pallavi in Vagadeeshwari but ended up playing Evari maata in Kambhoji. After my Kambhoji alapana, there was a huge round of applause — I remember that vividly. Shri Karaikudi Krishnamurthy walked up to the stage just before we started the kriti. He spoke for 5-7 minutes, appreciated me and gifted me the ring he was wearing in front of the audience. I still have the ring. There were a number of senior musicians in the audience, and it will remain an unforgettable experience for me. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture capturing that moment but have it video recorded — I will upload it on my YouTube channel soon!
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would that be?
I am hardworking and I don’t take my talent — my gift — for granted!
What would you like to achieve in the field of Carnatic music?
Right now I would just like to give my 200% in every single concert. I have set a high standard for myself. It’s a long journey and I wish to last for the next 30-40 years and hopefully call myself successful after that!