Ranjani and Gayatri, commonly called ‘Ra Ga’ by their admirers, are well known violinists, vocalists, composers and of course, sisters. The children of N. Balasubramanian and Meenakshi Alakkad in a Palakkad Iyer family, music came as naturally to them as breathing. After sharing a lifetime together they have never, as artists, had any creative differences, says Gayatri. What makes them different is their personality as individuals, and that shines through their music. The contrast accentuates the beauty of their music even more. Excerpts from a conversation with the two accomplished singers.
Music is in our blood
Ranjani: I started my musical journey as a singer. Our mother, Meenakshi, a renowned Carnatic vocalist, was my first mentor. Had we been born in a different family, with different upbringing, where music wasn’t a priority, I am sure we would not have achieved this level of success and clarity. In the realm of Carnatic music, it is extremely essential to have an early musical exposure — listening to the morning practice, getting a sense of rhythm. It all comes together to give you a musical bent of mind. It seeps through the flesh, blood and veins.
Gayatri: For us, music is a journey of an entire janma (lifetime) and beyond. I believe there is a reason why we were born into a Palakkad Iyer family, deeply rooted in classical music. Opportunities came to us easily, true, but even without it, I am sure we would have made our way to where we are today, albeit the road would have been longer and full of hardships.
Debut as violinists
Ranjani: We started our violin training at an early age under Prof. T.S. Krishnaswami at the Shanmukhananda Sangeeta Vidyalaya, Mumbai. By the time we left the institution we were already established as a duo of violinists. Especially Gayatri, who was at her peak as a violinist in the mid 1990s, accompanying the top Carnatic artists of our time. She was carving a niche for herself with the audience and setting trends amongst her peers as well, which was quite unreal at our age, when I look back now.
Gayatri: Our first debut in Chennai’s sabha was as a violinist duo in 1988. Our father, N. Balasubramanian, was well connected with the great musicians of that time. Therefore, many eminent Carnatic artists graced us with their audience. Just before we went on stage, I remember there was a powerful rendition by V. K. Jayaram, which left us shaken. But we were not unduly nervous. We decided to just revel in the moment, give our best and not think too much about it. When we finished the performance, the cheers told us that it had worked.
From strings to vocal
Gayatri: It was quite a twist in our musical career indeed, to switch from violin to vocal music. Especially, since we enjoyed quite a formidable reputation as a violinist duo in the contemporary scene of Carnatic music. One can say we took a huge gamble when we suddenly stopped violin playing, and took to vocals instead. As practitioners of the art, we believed in our potential in vocal music. We had the clarity of how we would go about the change. Of course, our vocal mentor was a huge support in our endeavours.
Ranjani: It took some thinking; rethinking and some more thinking on our part to finally decide on the switch. For someone like Gayatri, who was almost the number one as a violinist, it was not an easy decision to disturb that equilibrium. As for me, I started off as a singer, therefore the transition wasn’t very difficult. In fact, to every Carnatic musician, the instrument and the vocals are inseparable. In order to express a certain swara in an instrumental medium, it is vital to understand the meaning through the lyrics. One just has to tweak it a bit when performing in another medium even in terms of presentation. For me, that was the main challenge.
Ranjani: We have been blessed to have received training from great margdarshis like Prof. T.S. Krishnaswami and Padma Bhushan P. S. Narayanaswamy for our vocal training. From our Guru Krishnaswami we learned not just the delicacies of the violin, but the importance of discipline and punctuality. If the class was at 6 am, he would be ready with the carpet and the violins beside them by 5.50 am. He is no more with us.
Our vocal singing guru, P.S. Narayanaswamy, whom we met after coming to Chennai to expand our musical vista, taught us to appreciate the different shades of music. We learned that there is no wrong or right in music, and every note has its place. Even today, when we are confused about something, we gladly run to him for his kind guidance. It is a lovely relationship between guru and shishya.
Gayatri: When we stood in front of Guru P.S Narayanaswamy for the first time, he was surprised that we had never tried to become vocalists earlier. At that time, we were busy with our concerts and performances as violinists. We were already fairly established as violinists, therefore, when we did not show any interest in making a stage presentation as vocalists, our guru tried to nudge us a bit. He even tactfully asked us not to come again, saying, ‘you can come back when you have more time for singing.’ We were very ashamed at our lack of seriousness, and promised to perform at a concert. Looking back, thanks to his little push, we have managed to achieve so much more as musicians.
Beyond fanfare and applause
Gayatri: Performing during the Margazhi season is like reaching deeper inside our souls each time and experiencing the divinity of music. After every performance, we reach a level where we feel we have exhausted our creativity and we worry about what we will deliver next.
Ranjani: We have always tried to give something different, and experiment with our music, even as composers, while sticking to our foundations. Last year, we tried to put together a Carnatic presentation where we discussed conflict, and how one can resolve those conflicts based on the Bhagavad Gita. Moreover, we have also tried our hand at Bolava Vitthala where Tamizh shlokas gradually lead into the composition, and in Maharasthra, we have collaborated with players of different percussion instruments, like the tabla, pakhavaj, etc, which are different from the generic Carnatic accompaniments, like the mridangam and ghatam.
(Ranjani and Gayatri will perform as vocalists today at 6.15 pm in Ka Chinmaya Heritage Centre)...