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Music > Face-To-Face
M S Sheela - Deep Devotion and Quiet Humility
06 November, 2019

M S Sheela has a scintillating voice, a voice that could be termed as luminous and is at once charged with feeling. She at the same time dares to take the adventurous path. The Music Academy is bestowing the Sangita Kala Acharya Award on her this year. This award was instituted in 1993 and as you know is given to those who have contributed by bringing several disciples to the concert platform.

She exchanged her ideas on music with us. And here is what she had to say:

What was the initial reaction on receiving the news that you had received the Sangita Kala Acharya award? Can you tell us what you felt at that time?

I was so excited when I was personally called and told about this by the Secretary of The Music Academy, Sri Sriram, because I never expected this to happen. At the same time I was surprised too. I am globally recognized as a singer, a person who used to sing all songs, since the age of say 5. My contribution, my service to music through the mode of singing was much more than through the mode of teaching and for this reason the announcement came as a kind that actually astonished me.

You will have to tell us about your gurus, mother Mrs. Rathna and then about Padma Bhushan Dr. R K Srikantan. The learning experiences with both……

It is very true that my mother Smt. M N Rathna, who was an A grade artiste of AIR was my first guru. Without being very serious I used to sing all the songs that my mother used to sing and in fact wanted to accompany her. My mother never used to entertain this saying that I ought to sing these 4 or 5 times. I used to wonder. Then one day she made up her mind. Home-tuition (I was already learning from her) would not serve any purpose anymore and we met Sri RK (meaning R K Srikantan) who lived close by and he readily accepted me as his student.  These two “mahans” are therefore my mentors, I should say. RK sir’s school is recognized for its open-voiced singing and he was a perfectionist in whatever he did, and one of the strictest persons too. He followed a rich tradition that he had imbibed and also till his very last was found to always have a resonant and energetic voice. The very name “sri” “kanta” signifies this. His hallmarks were the sahithya suddha, swara suddha (clarity) and he was a person who took a lot of care about his voice. I can go on endlessly about him. He used to say deep devotion and quiet humility were the pre-requirements for anyone to become a student of his. He hails from the Thyagaraja Parampara and led a disciplined life throughout. And the credit of taking me to him should go to my mom. I must have learnt for nearly 50 years from him. People used to look at this peculiarly. What can you learn for 50 years? The learning process should be there throughout. He taught me discipline, devotion and dedication and singing before your guru I think is the greatest privilege one can get in ones’ life. He used to patiently listen. The open-voiced methodology of singing is quite a difficult proposition, to tell you the truth. He always insisted on a one-on-one method of learning though it involved more number of classes in a day. We used to discuss many things, but these used to be only about music. I used to prepare the scripts as desired by him and he was one who adhered to his script 100%. No deviations at all. In the year 1996 when he received quite a few awards, when a felicitation function was held Sri Semmangudi had come to bless him. As I said I can go on and on……….

You hold the Top Rank in Carnatic music and light music in AIR and in DD also. Aren’t they two different worlds, light music and carnatic? How are you able to adjust to both systems?

The pitch of my voice stood at 6.5 and that was a great advantage, a plus point when it came to playback singing and being in synch with male voices. When my Guru used to give many programs on slokas in AIR, I used to observe him about the splitting of words and that has helped me a lot while singing songs belong to this genre’, I mean its application here. In light music heavy classical sangathis are not necessary and you should also avoid the usage of heavy gamakas. Otherwise there is place for laya, sruthi and everything else. And in light music everything is conveyed through the lyrics, and this applies to classical music also. And importantly my mother also excelled in the singing of light music and this may have helped me a lot. To me it is only a matter of close observation and once 3 or 4 programs were through then it becomes extremely easy.  What is important here is that the wish of the music director has to be followed in full.

Your lecdems are very popular, we understand. How did you get into this mould? How do you go about with say a lecdem ragadarshana? What has been the feedback?

Lecdem as you must have known is a tough exercise. Hours have to be put in for them to be successful. For example if we take up ragas like Thodi, Kharaharapriya, Khambodi they have a number of compositions. It is possible to work it out and make a presentation. But not so in the case of say a Durbar or an Abhogi. Darbar would have the repeated occurrence of “gaga risa ni nii dhapa” and this has to be stressed and audience interest has to be sustained for a good two hours. When it comes to Ragadarshana one composition which has all the sancharas in the madhya sthayi and then may be a different one for mandhara sthayi and another for the thara sthayai have to be chosen. One has to have a suitable neraval, swara kalpana and all of this mind you, where the raga swaroopa is well-explained, captured.

How is this different from the teaching assignments you have undertaken abroad? The response and the kind of audience…..

Teaching experience is the same everywhere. I have found that  lecdems abroad mainly has most Indians and when it comes to foreigners, they want convincing answers to all questions they ask us about swaras, gamakas etc. Most of them had the habit of attending my concerts after the lecdem and they were able to get to know how it is happening in a concert. They get to easily compare.

In an interview you had talked about “raga samyojane” and tuning “dasa sahitya.” Can you tell us more about these?

In the dasa sahithya you have traditional tunes for say about 30 and even these have come through bhajana paddhathi. Others have to be tuned by us and that is ragasamyojane. You can sing the dasa sahithya like any other but you should be careful about the metre and then decide on the raga and the tala. Nowadays Dasa sahithya comes with a lot of BGM too. The stress has to be on the sahithya part to a great extent. It is our duty to convey the meaning that has been given to us by the dasas.

Performances abroad….Any memorable experience?

Yes. Over there people keep waiting for our concerts and only thing that weighs extra on us is that we are put to a lot of strain. It is all strenuous travel, untimely food, untimely sleep and many of that kind. And in spite of all this we have to give our best, which we have given of course. They take note of the compositions you had sung and carefully follow your concerts. If you had sung the same composition in the same raga (or a different raga) they would be quick to point that out. I used to travel abroad giving concerts up to 2014 but after that because of certain health problems faced by my husband I have not been able to travel.  Why for that matter even in Bangalore these days you may have to leave a good two hours in advance to reach any place!  

You have visited many foreign countries. How would you compare their music with ours?

Though I have given many lecdems at various Universities abroad I have not had a chance to go deep and analyze their music.  But one thing I can tell you is this. If a person has mastered our classical carnatic music we can handle any other music. The only problem would relate to the lyrics or may be the style. Otherwise it would be as easy as that for us.

Your husband Sri B K Ramasamy has been a pillar of strength. About him…….

It is only on account of his support the entire families both from my side and his side have been able to come up to this level. Now he has retired after holding the post of a Professor. He was Joint Director, M P Birla Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Your projects with your guru Sri Srikantan? What was the aim? How did they come through?

Srikantan sir permitted me to sing along with him in many of the programmes, especially of AIR, Mysore Composers, several National Programmes and many such. Always the events would run through 8 to 10 rehearsals. The idea was that he didn’t want to practice anything at the studio. Start to finish should happen in a single take, say two to two and a half hours. The perfectionist he was, he wanted everything to be fixed beforehand.

You have also bagged many awards. May be you can pick out some of them as those that made you immensely proud at that moment? Your unique experience while receiving any of these awards…

All awards create an excitement in us and as we receive these awards in front of connoisseurs, the audience who have recognized us   this creates a great feeling. At the same time our responsibilities also increase and the expectations from them (audience) would also be on the higher side. Would she give something new on receiving this award, they would be forced to think? In all my concerts I try to present something special apart from the routine songs and that has been my practice.

You have given many sloka cassettes. What prompted you to make these?

Those days companies like HMV, Sangeetha used to approach artistes and request them to record cassettes. The trend has changed today. Given such opportunities, at that time, I had given cassettes of Lalitha Sahasranama which is popular even today. In fact I can say I have woken up all the Gods by singing Suprabatha on all of them. Whenever my Guru used to sing, I always used to observe the kind of sangathi he had used for say a dheerkakshara or how he split the words when such splitting became necessary, how he had filled up small gaps that occurred. This has helped me in a great way.  I remember how our Guru on the spot gave a sloka from Krishnakarnamritha for exactly four and a half minutes as the requirement was there to do so. I used to say that he has a clock running inside him that kept time. Though I was not a student of Sanskrit I have over the years understood the phrases and done well in rendering the sloka cassettes.

Your students….How many are there? How many of them are performing and have reached a certain level?

I started teaching from the 1990’s. Some of them who were studying Engineering or Medicine also came to me for classes. I can think of Anjali Sriram who is a performer. I still continue grooming students. You have Abeksha and Surabhi for instance and Usha and Lata are students from the US. Ajay a student of mine belongs to the UK and Sruthi Anand hails from Singapore.

About ” Hamsadhwani Creations” and its activities? 

This a cultural organization that is 17 years old. The functions that we conduct start on a Friday evening and ends by Sunday. Two or three eminent men or women of music are honoured with the Hamsadhwani Puraskara and the awardees themselves give performances. The second day morning session begins with a lecdem followed by concerts, one by a junior and another by a senior artiste. On the third day we recite LalithaSahasranama with the conducting of a mass pooja followed by group singing of devi krithis. This is not ticketed. The final item would be a special programme and we have conducted these on themes like Girija Kalyana, Varmas paintings, Saptaswaras, Vaadhya Vaibhava, Vaaggeyakara Vaibhava and of late made our venture into Kshetra Anubhava. Plenty of CD’s have been released and it is going on by God’s grace.

Your instructions and suggestions to learners in both the fields, carnatic and light…..

There are 3 words I wish to tell anyone. Listening, and before that learning and hard work throughout your life. If you make a sincere attempt in life you will be able to reach a certain stage in this art to that extent. You will not be able to achieve 100% but only a portion, a percentage! Music has kept us like this, putting us in a state of fear, so to say (பயமுறுத்தி வைச்சிருக்கு). And another word of caution is that, do not imitate anybody. To tell you another secret I should say a musician should never be satisfied at all. We should always be our best critics. After a performance we should come home to analyze, where we went wrong and how did it go wrong. We may have planned one thing and something else would have taken place instead. How did this happen? We should also understand the psychology of the audience. Their dull faces should make us re-plan. “Oh - I know everything ” Can this ever happen in music? Never! Take for instance Kannada compositions, dasar padas and the like. Tamil compositions, Telugu compositions like Annamacharya and other varieties. Can a person get to know all of these and sing all of these in one life! Not possible! Understand that learning from the Guru is a continuous process and you are given the rare gift if you are able to sing in front of him.

s sivakumar

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