Sign-up for Newsletter

Music > Face-To-Face
TEN Q's to Mrs. Seetha Narayanan
29 September, 2019

The Sangitha Kala Acharya award has been bestowed on Mrs. Seetha Narayanan this year by the Music Academy, Chennai. This award instituted in 1993 is given to those who have contributed by bringing several disciples to the concert platform. She is presently an A-top grade artiste of AIR, Chennai.

Shunting between a home at Perungalathur and her own residence at Ayanavaram, where she conducts classes, Seetha Mami, as she is affectionately known, found some time for Sabhash to kindly answer a few questions in an e-mail/telephonic interview.

Here is it!


Mrs.Seetha Narayanan, we are very glad to know that the award Sangitha Kala Acharya has been given to you. How did you receive the news? Your on-the-spot reaction, if you can recollect the same now?

As Mr. V Sriram talked to me to communicate this and as the news descended on me, I understood everything that was said, but it took a few seconds to register. I thought to myself was it real?  Luckily there were many calls that came after this by way of confirmation, as this news was already on FB. I had never made a single move to acquire this (not that the others do) and I couldn’t believe myself as Sriram said he was directly calling from the meeting that had made this decision.

To begin with you have to tell us about Sarvasri Ramanathan, Chingelpet Ranganathan, P K Rajagopala Iyer and Ramamurthy Rao and how these eminent men moulded your music/musical career?

First and foremost I will have talk about Sri Kasi Viswanathan who taught me the rudiments, the sa pa sa, as they call it. He was a vidwan who had done complete gurukula vasam with Semmangudi and was the one who could handle students like me, at our level. And mind you, this happened in Jamshedpur! Then we proceeded to Bombay (Mumbai) and we were at Chruchgate and during those days I could not manage to go all the way to Matunga to study carnatic music. But I continued my singing and remained steadfast in my practice.

Off to Madras and I was introduced to Nagerkoil Harihara Iyer. This guru made some fine-tuning to my music and made me get to B-grade in AIR. Then he had to go to Singapore on some assignment.   I was left wondering about my music yet again. I used to perform at temples and someone who had listened to me came forward with a suggestion that I should visit Sri P K Rajagopala Iyer, as my music needed a theoretical backing. I was clearly told that he was not a performing artiste. அவர் ஒரு குடத்தில் இருக்கும் விளக்கு. He can’t therefore try to use his influence and catapult you to fame. Yes. I have to confess here that none of my gurus for that matter unduly projected me. The point is without getting into the syllabus mode he imparted to me, reinforced my knowledge with a solid backing about music with all its theoretical aspects. This I gained by mere listening. His classes became invaluable material. 

Then through some contact I came to know Sri Ramanathan whose name was gaining currency as a musicians’ musician. He had come back from the USA. Whether he can be approached at all? I went there with courage and sang evarura ninnuvina in Mohanam and he asked me to join classes the next day. Apart from formal classes for the kirtanas he used to keep singing always, and I mean it, and this was real manodharma (the creative element) for me/us. Again he belonged to the Tiger school and there was no notation method and I used to notate these songs all by myself. He found my interest was at a high level and volunteered to teach me veena too as he felt knowing to play an instrument would help vocalists.

After his passing away, I came into contact with Sri Ramamurthy Rao. He was a creative genius who had the ability of setting to original tunes some lilting bhajans. The art of slokam and virutham singing, I owe it to him. Moreover he used to stress that the song that followed  should be relevant to the sloka/virutham sung before.  Almost like one leading to the other. And the fund of Hindustani ragas and the tuning of Soundarya Lahari in about 50 ragas, some ragas whose names had not been heard. One could talk about these endlessly.  I qualified with AIR under Bhajans category too. Even when I was under Ramanathan sir, I was upgraded to B-high and then to A.

Then, once I happened to listen to Chingelpet Ranganathan sir on the radio. I knew him on account of my visits to AIR. He took me as a student for the mere asking. I felt that I was a bit shaky with respect to Pallavi singing and he was an expert, a samrat, in that area. He was ready to record some pallavis and hand-over them to me and this would make me “well-versed” in pallavis by mere repetitive singing. But that was not my aim. I told him so. And then came the marathon sessions. The Mohana varnam, Ninnukori  with all kinds of combinations, went on for 6 months, all kalams elaborately, off-beat practice sessions (I mean thalli edutthal) , the beat would be one but the gait (pokku) would follow another rhythm pattern, and yes it was laya in all its dimensions. He taught me the art of singing a systematic neraval. I have learnt the maximum period only from him, nearly 20 years. Sir had also indicated that he has taught me enough and that would be sufficient. I need not go in search of anything else. Those were golden words and I value them with utmost reverence.

Incidentally I was happy to realize that many streams were running inside me. I was able to understand the specialty attached to each one of these. Beginning with Semmangudi style that came from Kasi Viswanathan and then to Rajagopala Iyer and Ramanathan who were from the Tiger school, then over to Harihara Iyer who belonged to Ariyakudi and then finally to Ranganathan who was from the Alathur bhani! 

You are 77 by age but not by your voice, both the spoken and the singing are at an exalted level. What is then the secret?

I do not take any special effort for that. No diet restrictions either. On this issue I can recall the years, 1964-67 when I had almost lost my voice. I could not utter a single word. It became miming all the way. Then I had to go to a place Kankanady in Karnataka and took treatment at Fr. Mueller’s Hospital. I got completely cured and then resolved not to sing at various sruthis. I brought my sruthi down to 4.5. I standardized this and even when teaching students I adhere to this pitch. I have also noticed one thing. If you indulge in a lot of talk your voice would get affected. So, I avoid this. Sticking to the same sruthi and the regular classes which itself exercises the voice adequately possibly keeps me voice-fit. And to crown it all it is God who has given me this voice. I am not against cinema music. But this kind of singing requires singing at various sruthis, which demands a kind of “shouting” which is detrimental to your voice.

You are a known neraval specialist. How did this happen?

All my gurus had taught me this art. I would often listen to KVN’s neravals and Ramnad Krishnan whose neravals I liked very much. But I got the full hang of it only through Ranganathan sir. He made me follow a step by step approach and fill the gaps that would occur between syllables with key phrases of every raga. He put this in to me. He would caution that the existing placement should not be disturbed and eduppus should be left unaltered too. I came to know the significance of singing the irandam kaalam (இரண்டாம் காலம்) only from him.

Your husband Late Sri J N iyer was a pillar of strength to you. Some words about him…

Immediately after marriage he did not know much of music, but was ready to listen and learn. Slowly he gained in cutcheri experience and I used to narrate what I had felt about the various songs and all this served as valuable feedback and music education for him. Only on his suggestion we had started a sabha “Divyadhwani” in our area, Ayanavaram and it had its best days during his period. He was an electrical engineer. I never knew anything from his trade but he had learnt a lot about music from me. He knew Janani Ninnu Vina was composed by Subbaraya Sastri! He was able to identify ragas and was able to liken ragas to similar krithis/songs. My children and my husband did all the sacrifices in their life to further my music. They were most accommodative to me always.

Who was your great inspiration regarding Bhajans?

The film Mira hit the screens in 1946-47 and became a rage soon. I was greatly impressed by the voice of Smt. MS and her bhakthi bhavam. That drew me towards Bhajans and it appeared a lot easier than full-fledged carnatic music. Of course, Ramamurthy Rao was an eye-opener who created many possibilities. I learnt more of bhajans from Sri Apteji who was a classical teacher and Ms. Meera Savoor. Even during school days I had somehow mastered the art of tuning, without any knowledge of grammar, and had tuned some Surdas bhajans during those days. Later we attempted some Thumri type of bhajans and Thevaram type too and all these created in me so much of interest.

And your diction, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and of course Malayalam sound like each with no compromises. How do you account for that?

Regarding Hindi I had lived with Hindi-speaking people and had to learn Hindi at school also. So the nitty-gritty of that language came to me just like that. We had Hindi poetry in school and I had to know upa bashas too, like the braj basha. When it comes to Telugu, Sri Rajagopala Iyer wanted Telugu pronunciation to be perfect while singing Thyagaraja krithis and in fact learnt this language also. Kannada came through Sri Ramamurthy Rao, a Kannadiga who  used to talk of Purandara Dasa, Kanaka Dasa. I acted as a blotting paper and absorbed all this. My mother had good knowledge of Sanskrit. All this has gone into making me a multi-lingual personality. In the present “home” in which I live I have a neighbor who is a Kannada scholar and I gain a lot from him. For Malayalam even our Tamil had a lot of Malayalam in it when we converse at home and this applies to my husband’s place also. In fact all the lyrics in these languages I used to write it in Devanagari script and that has helped in saying the words with correct emphasis at correct points. At the end it has been “deiva anugraham and guru krupa (தெய்வ அனுக்ரஹம்  and  குரு க்ருபா) ”. Things have all come to me at the right time and place even without my asking for it. Here I have to talk of my indebtedness to Sri TSP (T S Parthasarathi) for the many things he had taught me. I have the desire to learn even today and would never call myself a know-all.

That you have seen many countries going on tours and otherwise and must have had a chance to listen to their music. Can you or should we compare that music with yours?

When I was in China I had a chance to listen to instrumental music and I felt that all that was in Mohanam mainly. I have not gone into any kind of systematic study or research in making a comparative evaluation. But whatever I heard as Arabic music, in Egypt, sounded more like our Kiravani. I have not had a chance to move with  musicians from other countries to say anything more about this.

You enjoy teaching, don’t you?  A few words about that experience…..

I enjoy teaching very much for various reasons. It makes me do a lot of homework as youngsters ask a lot of questions these days. It improves my level because I have to present all this in an interesting manner. Sri Rajagopala Iyer instilled a lot of systematic knowledge to me which I could make use of now. I had a couple of students who “talked” sarali varisai whereas I “sang” it to them. I had told about this to Ramanathan sir and he wanted me to act with faith in the self to get over this. As a part of teaching I tell them a lot of stories too. All of my students give me enjoyable company. My students - Krishna, Srividya, Savitha, Ranjani all come to me for all kind of preparations, like essays, composing tunes. I have done this job with a lot of glee.

A few words to youngsters………….

My request to parents and children is that they should not  be in a hurry. Music is a wholesome art, so give it more time. Steps are important in learning and you would go to the next step only after making sure that you have learnt everything in the previous step. This is very true of carnatic music. This approach helps build your manodharma in a great way. Manodharma as you know has no limit. Teaching and learning should not be limited to competitions alone and I mean the realty shows that are aired day in, day out. It is not getting to know all the sangathis of say, a chakkani raja maargamu, learning it by rote and singing it. That would come easily. What is needed is internalization, that is the real learning and the bhavam and bhakthi that is associated with the krithi have to be captured . Ramanathan sir taught me the importance of linking of phrases in lyrics, in sentences to give it a full meaning. I pass it on to my students. One person had come with compositions of some odd lyricist and wanted these to be sung. My student, Sriram after waiting for him to leave, said that they would prefer to sing the songs of Mummoorthigal and that would be sufficient. What maturity at that age!

as told to Sivakumar 

About Sabhash - Everything about classical music, dance, drama and a platform for inclusive entertainment is the one-stop destination for the latest news and information on the performing arts of India - classical music and dance, theatre, bhajans, discourses, folk performances, and other lesser known art forms. Institutions that revolve around the performing arts have exploded in numbers, and thanks to the Internet which has made information easily accessible, the number of rasikas has grown too. Corporate patronage has played a big part in increasing the world-wide reach of the Indian arts. Sabhash wishes to be a platform for inclusive growth giving an equal opportunity and recognition to not only the main performer but also the artistes who accompany them on stage, and the people who work backstage and play the role of unsung heroes.