When she’s performing, she captivates not only with her musical prowess but also with her extraordinary stage presence. When she’s fielding questions, she does it with poise and a maturity that belies her age. Choosing words with care, she puts her points across clearly and succinctly. As I interact with this remarkable young lady, I realise it’s hard not to be impressed by her self-assuredness. Meet vocalist Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, daughter and disciple of vidwan Shri Neyveli Santhanagopalan.
What are your earliest music-related memories?
My earliest musical memory goes back to when I was three years old. My father was away on a two-month long US trip. I remember listening to his audio cassette “Thyagaraja Hrudayam” by Inreco multiple times a day and crying because it made me realize how much I missed him.
You could sing varnams and kritis when you were only four years old, even winning the second prize (no first prize was awarded in that contest) in a contest in which you sang Saveri Sarasuda varnam. How big was your repertoire at that age?
I have been listening to Carnatic music since day one. My house always was and is ringing with music by way of classes, practice sessions, workshops, chamber concerts, etc. So I remember having most of the geethams, swarajathis, varnams, and many kritis in bits and pieces by heart by the age of four. On a lighter note, I used to be a substitute teacher (albeit self-proclaimed) for the students when my mom or dad, the actual gurus, stepped away for a sip of water!
There’s an article that claims you had no formal training in music until the age of 17. Is that true?
Well, not entirely. I learnt for a couple of years from Ms Srividhya Ramnath (then Ms Srividya Venkatachalam), my father and guru’s senior disciple. But I had discontinued learning music for almost ten years before I started again.
Can you describe your early years and training with your father?
I started training with my father at the age of 17. As I mentioned earlier, I had already accumulated a lot of kelvi gnanam by then. So it was easy for me to learn a lot of things really fast, which was necessary at that time because the transition from student to student-cum-performer was really quick in my case.
I believe there was a particular concert you performed when you were in class 10, that helped transform music from a hobby into a profession for you. Tell me more about that concert.
My first concert was when I was in 11th grade. I hadn’t the slightest intention of pursuing Carnatic music as a profession back then.
A friend of my family requested me to sing for her dad’s 60th birthday because she loved my voice. Very reluctantly and very nervously, I performed a one-and-a-half-hour concert, throughout which my father was seated in the front row (which was the reason for the nervousness). After the concert, my father told me that he didn’t think there was so much potential in me, especially since I hadn’t practised in a decade! He urged me to take music up more seriously and practise harder.
When and where was your first sabha concert?
In December 2006 for Bharat Kalachar
Once you decided you wanted to become a professional musician, how hard (in terms of hours per day and rigor) did you practise?
As I mentioned earlier, the time between training and performing was very less for me. I started learning from my dad in 2007. I started performing a few small-scale concerts around the same time. In December 2008, I was offered 15 concerts from the major sabhas in Chennai. So I had to pull all-nighters to catch up with my career that was progressing at a crazy pace!
Your parents both play the veena. Have you learnt it too?
I’m a self-taught veena player.
Other than the things you’ve learnt as your father’s disciple, what have you learnt by virtue of your own experience as a performer?
I have learnt that I should practise like there is no tomorrow at home but sing like I have all the time in the world on stage.
What, in your opinion, are your biggest pluses?
My biggest plus is my fear of stagnation. It helps me stay motivated to constantly innovate and evolve.
You are a picture of grace and elegance on stage. Do you believe that good stage presence is vital for a good concert?
In my opinion, stage presence is a combination of a musician’s natural charisma, his/her dressing style, endearing mannerisms, etc. So any picture that I try to put up consciously might come off as unnatural. I do try to eliminate some habits like closing my eyes while singing, as suggested by my guru. I believe that this will help me connect better to the audience.
Your mother plays the tambura often in your concerts. Tell me about her role in your career.
My father and mother have both extended enormous support to me but in very different ways. My father and I have not interacted in a father–daughter way, ever. It has always been in a guru–shishya way.
My mother, on the other hand, is the epitome of love and benevolence. The emotional and career-related support that she has given me is truly immeasurable.
I have to mention here that my brother, who is an up-and-coming mridangam player, is a pillar of support for me as well.
When did you start teaching?
I started teaching when I was 20 via Skype.
Tell me about your exposure to other genres? Do you still teach your Spanish student? Do you discuss jazz (I believe that’s what she specializes in) with her?
I’m a big fan of Hindustani classical, old Hindi and Tamil film songs, Western classical, rock, jazz and the occasional country pop as well. My student from Spain and I still interact regularly. I admire her enthusiasm to convert Carnatic tillanas to Jazz pieces, haha!
Tell me three things that the average rasika does not know about you.
- The last time I entered a kitchen with any intention of cooking was in 2004, but I enjoy watching cookery shows. Actually, I bake, if that even counts as cooking!
- I can do decent portrait sketches.
- I have a low-key cleanliness/organization-related OCD.
A hundred years from now, what would you like the Carnatic music world to remember you for?
My vision is for Carnatic music to be more egalitarian. Unfortunately, Carnatic music is thought of as somewhat cryptic and hard-to-appreciate. Through a gradual and palatable process of demystification, I hope to take it to a wider audience, especially the younger generation. Hopefully, I will be remembered for this.