As I sit down to write this little introduction to a young but extraordinarily talented artist, my mind comes up with one superlative after another — without them, it seems like I would not be doing justice to her virtuosity! In the way she approaches her music, there is deep veneration, unwavering focus and sincerity. Her training with senior gurus and her own quest for perfection make a formidable combination, one that reflects in all her concerts — cerebral yet emotive, well structured and neatly presented. Meet vocalist and violinist Amritha Murali, disciple of the Kedarnathans, Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy and Smt. T. Rukmini.
How old were you when you started learning vocal music from your grandmother Smt. Sankari Nagarajan? What do you remember about her classes?
I was about eight and a half when I started music lessons with my grandmother. She was a graded artist of AIR but gave up performing when her children were growing up. Living in the same house made classes very informal and I never really sat down for concentrated sessions. I enjoyed playing some sport or the other with my brother and cousins back then. I never understood the seriousness of what was being taught to me, but I still learnt all the basics, a few varnams and kritis from her.
When and how did you then start learning from Shri K.R. Kedarnathan and Smt. Meera Kedarnathan? How was it learning from them?
I was extremely introverted as a child and would feel very uncomfortable talking or interacting with people whom I wasn’t acquainted. My parents and my grandmother noticed an innate flair for music in me, decided that I needed formal tutelage and convinced me that it would do me a lot of good. Kedarnathan mama and Meera mami had moved to Chennai then from Kerala and one of my friends was learning from them, so my training with them commenced soon.
I started learning from sarali varisais and progressed quickly. Both mama and mami were hard taskmasters and would accept nothing less than perfection. They inculcated a sense of discipline and aesthetics in whatever I sang and also shaped my taste in music. I learnt a number of kritis and was also exposed to different facets of manodharma. My passion grew quickly and from then on there was no looking back. Music would always be top priority and no peer pressure or study pressure was a hurdle. I learnt from mama and mami for almost eight years. Classes didn’t conform to any timing and would range from 30 minutes to 3 or 4 hours. Mami took care of not only the musical growth of her students, but would also feed us frequently, loved talking to us and made us feel at home.
My guru has set to tune a number of compositions and also composed a few. I have had the privilege of notating many of these compositions while he set them to tune. I have also had the blessed fortune of singing in front of doyens like Shri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi and Smt. D.K. Pattammal. My guru frequented their houses and would take his disciples along and make us sing to seek the blessings of these great masters. These are memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. My gurus also stressed on learning art for the sake of the art and not just for concert singing. All the values they imparted have today helped me focus and given a sense of direction to my music.
Shri Kedaranathan, despite being a brilliant musician, probably never got the fame he deserved…
True. Mama, despite being the brilliant, sensitive, intelligent musician he was, probably never got the accolades he should have. As a person, he was a disciplinarian and had his own set of rules and values, which most people could not comprehend. He would never approach anyone for a favour. He would never market himself. He had a very close circle of friends with whom he shared his music and life. Many a time, when he sang alapanas and swaras, it would move you and bring Semmangudi mama to your mind. It is very sad that he was probably amongst the many wonderful and scholarly vidwans who went unnoticed. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to learn from him.
You started learning the violin from Shri Vittal Ramamurthy at around the same time. Tell me about those classes. Any particular reason for choosing the violin?
My mother learnt music in her younger days. Her voice was affected due to an attack of mumps and since then always felt that if she had learnt an instrument, she could have stayed in touch with music. My cousin was learning the violin from Shri Pakkala Ramdas, so that got me interested in the instrument. That prompted my mother to approach Shri Vittal Ramamurthy, who had just moved to Chennai, to tutor me. He would come home to teach me. His warmth and method of teaching made me work hard and also progress quickly. My vocal background also helped me grasp the nuances and the gamakas faster. I learnt from him for a little more than two years before he became a very busy performing artist.
I started attending all the concerts Vittal sir played in and since then I have always loved listening to live concerts. I still listen to many concerts whenever I get a chance.
Did you ever have a clash of musical ideas or ever learn a kriti in two different styles in your vocal and violin classes?
Though the styles were different, I don’t think I have had a clash of musical ideas because thankfully for me, I was always taught to play the violin like I sang. I never approached it like instrumental music. Sahitya has always been important. I have learnt a few kritis in the two different styles. I try rendering them the way I learnt them depending on whether I am singing or playing — though I have to admit, I do get confused sometimes with the sangatis!
I assume that what you learnt in your vocal classes you would practise on the violin and vice versa? In what other ways has one helped the other?
Yes, the combined repertoire of songs has definitely helped. Also, I have always sung the kritis before I played them on the violin. Vocal training has immensely helped in violin accompaniment in concerts and vice versa. Having learnt both vocal and violin has definitely broadened my horizons for manodharma and has also given me the confidence to handle different kinds of ragas and kritis.
I believe you also learnt Bharatanatyam for a while…
I have always loved the art form! I learnt Bharatnatyam for a few years during my school days from Smt. Usha Srinivasan and Smt. Rajalakshmi Kalanidhi. I had to give it up as music was taking up most of my time. I have been part of dance performances in school and college during cultural events. In the recent past, I have had the opportunity to play the violin for a few of Smt. Chitra Visweswaran’s dance recitals. I have also sung for Panchali Shabadam, a dance ballet choreographed by Smt. Jayanthi Subramaniam, with music composed by Shri Rajkumar Bharathi.
How many hours per day did you practise in those initial years?
That’s a tough question! My practice was spread out through the day and I never scheduled fixed hours to rehearse. But my mind was focused 24/7 on music and I used to learn, practise and listen to a lot of music whenever I got a chance. Studies or exams were a priority but never affected my learning or practice. My passion for music has only been growing since childhood.
Your family, especially your mother, has been very supportive…
I think for any artist to progress or be successful, there needs to be a supportive family. At home, apart from my mother and grandmother, no one really shared music with me. My mother has been a pillar of support for me all my life and if not for the numerous sacrifices she has made in life for her family and children, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Starting from exposing me to music, driving me to classes and concerts, feeding me at the slightest chance, she has put in her heart and soul into my life and growth.
She also noticed a flair for rhythm in my brother and got him trained in the mridangam for some years before he got absorbed in academics. My father and brother have also shown their support by never interfering and always being there when I needed them.
Have you had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to get to your current level in not one but two sub-disciplines — vocal and violin?
With so much peer pressure and distractions in today’s world, it is hard to focus on one specific interest or passion. Thankfully, God has been kind to me by blessing me with gurus that keep me going. While growing up, yes, I may have missed out on movies, playing with neighbours, nights out with friends, hanging out with them, ice creams — and probably still do. I also didn’t go to work even though academics always interested me. I don’t think of all of it as a sacrifice because I am happy doing what I am today. I also have to thank all my wonderful friends who have stood by me and have never misunderstood my priorities and made time for me when I have been free.
When did your vocal and violin arangetrams happen?
I sang my first vocal concert under the auspices of Nada Inbam, Ragasudha Hall on the 15th of December 1997. Shri S.V. Krishnan, Convenor, Nada Inbam heard me sing the kriti Dhyaname Varamaina in Dhanyasi at the yearly Tyagaraja Aradhana celebrations organised by my guru Shri Kedarnathan and was very keen that I render a concert in December during the music season that year. I performed with much trepidation, but I am thankful for the wonderful beginning I had.
My first violin concert/accompaniment was under the auspices of VDS Arts Academy in the year 1997 when I accompanied Shri Kunnakudi M. Balamuralikrishna. The same year I also played a violin duet concert with S. Ramakrishnan, another student of Smt. Rukmini — we were both on a violin scholarship.
When did you start learning from Smt. Rama Ravi, Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy and Smt. T. Rukmini? Tell me about your learning experience with these gurus.
I started learning from Rama Ravi mami in 2002. The subtleties, nuances, poise and beauty in every note, gamaka and phrase that she rendered always had me in awe. I had also heard many recordings of Smt. T. Brinda and Shri Ramnad Krishnan and was mesmerised by the bani. I have had the privilege of learning some rare kritis and a few javalis and padams from her.
I started learning from Rukmini mami around the age of 14. I hadn’t been in touch with the violin for a few years after I stopped learning from Vittal sir. Mami asked me to play a kriti and felt that the break shouldn’t last longer. She has taught me a variety of kritis, her approach to manodharma and so many other finer aspects of music and those related to the instrument. Her musical versatility, humility and child-like nature have never ceased to amaze me. Even till date, she practises without fail every single day and feels miserable if she misses out on practice even for a day!
I started learning from Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy seven years ago, after my guru Kedarnathan mama passed away. PSN mama has been such a source of inspiration and I have learnt many kritis from him. His wonderful tunes of tiruvarutpas have been such a delight to hear and learn. The different ways in which he teaches his students depending on their capabilities and talent is something to admire.
You won the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship to learn advanced RTPs. Who did you learn from?
Four of us (Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna, Sumithra Vasudev, Sikkil C. Gurucharan and I) were chosen to learn advanced ragam, tanam and pallavis from vidwan Shri B. Krishnamoorthy for five years under the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship.
I was also recently awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi for the year 2013-14 for Carnatic vocal music.
When did you start getting noticed as a vocalist and as an accompanist?
I always sang vocal concerts and played accompaniment in parallel. I never switched from one to the other contrary to what most people think today. Opportunities as a violinist were more probably because I could play multiple times in a series, but could sing only once!
Why don’t we see you perform as many solo violin concerts as accompanist concerts and solo vocal concerts?
I have performed a few solo violin concerts in sabhas and some at weddings. I have been blessed to play many a concert with my guru Smt. T. Rukmini. When it came to solo performances, vocal music took precedence which is why I have not performed many violin solo concerts.
Ever caught yourself becoming too absorbed in the violinist’s playing in your vocal concert or in the vocalist’s singing when you accompany, or wondering if you would have played/sung differently if you were them?
Yes! Happened way too many times! Thankfully, I didn’t lose focus on what I was doing on stage. The experience is something beautiful, something I cannot express in words. On many occasions, when the violin artist plays along note by note, it has been exceedingly overwhelming. Likewise, there have multiple times when the person singing has moved me beyond imagination, that anything I play after that would just not sound as meaningful.
I have also observed and learnt subtle points in singing while accompanying many senior artists and about accompaniment when I have had the privilege of having senior artistes play for me. The fingering and bowing techniques of my co-artists has also kept me in rapt attention many a time!
Your grandmother was an AIR graded vocalist, but there have been no professional musicians in your family, only connoisseurs. What made you decide to become a professional musician?
I am the first generation professional musician in my house. Every child in the house — my brother and cousins — was exposed to Carnatic music (vocal, violin or mridangam). I was the only one who was passionate about it and really worked hard. My parents and my family wouldn’t have imagined that I would be a professional singer. They never forced me to perform.
I strongly believe that one cannot decide to take up music as a profession, music has to take the person over — which is when it will be long standing and I think that’s what happened in my case.
Additionally, I have had the support of many senior musicians, and have been inspired by their association (thanks to YACM). This includes Shri R.K. Shriramkumar from whom I have had the opportunity to learn many rare kritis of the trinity and other composers over the years.
Did you consider an alternative career at all, given you were bright on the academics side as well?
After graduating in Commerce from Ethiraj College, I completed a Masters degree in Finance management from Loyola. I got selected for a course in Electronic Media Informatics at Anna University, but could not complete it due to my concert commitments. When it was time for me to make a choice about taking up a job, music had consumed way too much of my time and life for me to consider doing anything else. I did contemplate taking up a part-time job on many occasions because I wanted to have the experience of working as well. But that was not to be, and music it was!
How often and how much do you practise these days? What are your practice sessions like?
Practice has to be part of any art form and is life-long. Whenever there is time away from concerts and travel, I practise. Practice these days is more qualitative than quantitative. I practise a lot during the night as I enjoy the quiet ambience.
You’ve sung in Smt. Gowri Ramnarayan’s productions — quite different from the traditional concerts we’re used to hearing you perform. What other kinds of non-traditional performances have you given?
I have sung and played the violin for many of Smt. Gowri Ramnarayan’s theatre performances and have enjoyed the experience. I have also been part of light music, Western music and folk music performances in college!
I have performed in the following, but wouldn’t call any of them non-traditional:
- An upanyasa kutcheri with Shri Dushyant Sridhar
- As mentioned before, I have played violin for a few of Smt. Chitra Visweswaran’s dance recitals and sung for the dance ballet Panchali Shabadam directed by Smt. Jayanthi Subramaniam.
- Many thematic presentations and lecture-demonstrations directed and presented by Shri R.K. Shriramkumar
- Combination concert with multiple artists
How do you ensure you keep improving from one concert to the next?
From childhood, my gurus, my mother and friends have always believed in constructive criticism and have never held back their views or opinions. By nature, I tend to have very high expectations of myself and hence am very critical of my own performances. That has helped me grow as an artist. Every concert is a lesson in itself and a learning experience.
Do you have any musical targets for the future?
In such a fast moving and fast changing world, the expectations of rasikas and their likes and dislikes keep varying. It is hard to satisfy everybody. As artists we need to have a perception of our art form outside of the concerts. I would like to lay emphasis on all the values and aesthetics that my gurus have passed on, maintain a sense of discipline in my music, internalise all that I present, introspect and innovate within the traditional. I want to keep learning, present rare compositions of the great masters, share all the treasures that have been handed over to us and make them available to the next generation and above all, sing for the sake and love of the art form.