INTREVIEW FOR NAVRAS WEBSITE: September 2004
It is customary in our field to use honourifics such as Pandit(a) before the names of musicians. For the sake of brevity I am omitting them, but let it be understood that I have nothing but the deepest respect for all the musicians named.
Navras Records: What inspired you to become a musician?
Veena Sahasrabuddhe: I don’t think I had a choice J I belong to a musical family. My father and elder brother were both singers, so in effect I stayed in my gurus' house till I got married.
NR: What training have you undertaken and what sacrifices have you made?
VS: My father was a disciple of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who systematized music education. In Vishnu Digambar's method of teaching the disciples learned not only singing, but a number of associated skills such as writing and reading musical notation, care of musical instruments, composition, group singing etc. My father and my elder brother used to teach singing to a number of students at home. While teaching they used to play the tabla. So I also learnt how to play the tabla while I sing.
My father had founded a school of music to which he took me every day. I had access to all the classes going on there. I was very interested in dance and that was the first thing I learned at my father's music school. I think dance teaches one many things useful for singers, for example expressiveness and a sense of drama besides of course rhythm. He also started an art circle where he regularly invited eminent artists from around the country. Most of them would also stay at our house. As a result I got to observe at a close distance a number of musicians - both singers and instrumentalists.
As for sacrifices, I cannot eat fried or very spicy foods, must wrap myself up if I have to go out in cold weather and so on. Some of my friends say these are sacrifices. But honestly, music means so much to me that little things like that don’t matter. I have a happy family life – supportive husband, loving children, a most wonderful grandson … I don’t think I have made any big sacrifices.
NR: Other than being a musician what other occupation would you have pursued?
VS: Well, I do have an MA in Sanskrit and at one time thought I could teach in a college. Could I live without singing? For how long? Who knows!
NR: What motivates you to perform for audiences around the world?
VS: Music is a wonderful art where the artist and the listeners simultaneously share the enjoyment of the music being created. In my opinion the word "entertainment" does not begin to describe the effect of music on the listener. I expect my listeners to bring some learning to my concert and also to take back some. Music makes one open out and examine the innermost corners of ones personality. Music is the clearest mirror in which I can see myself reflected.
On many occasions listeners have come and told me that listening to my music was a deeply moving, almost religious, experience.
NR: As a lover of music yourself, what do you listen to and which artists inspire you the most?
VS: I listen to all kinds of music as long as it is peaceful. Among western composers I like Mozart the most. But most often I listen to Hindustani classical music. There is a Ravi Shankar – Ali Akbar jugalbandi in Palas Kafi which is my all-time favourite. Kishori Amonkar and Kumar Gandharva are the two vocalists who have the most influence on me. Among my contemporary singers if I have to pick one I would say Ulhas Kashalkar
NR: You have obviously travelled extensively around the world, which is your favourite destination and which is your favourite concert venue?
VS: Audiences in different cities are rewarding in different ways. To sing in Pune is always a challenge because they listen so carefully. People would tell me “you did this thing different when you sang the same raga last time” and that last time could be ten years ago! I like the European audiences for the way they take in the music without making the slightest sound. These days a practice of clapping in the middle of a raga has become common among Indian listeners. I don’t like that. Even utterances like “wah-wah” should be restricted to small, intimate baithaks. It makes no sense to shout “wah” if you are twenty-thirty feet away from the artist.
NR: Having travelled you must have experienced other cuisines, which is you favourite?
VS: Right within
NR: Outside of music and performing, what are your other interests?
VS: You have probably guessed from my answer to the previous question that I like to cook – I really do. I like to read. I watch cricket on TV when I can.
NR: Life as a musician is nomadic by nature, how does your family feel about this lifestyle? How do you balance life as a musician and family life?
VS: To a large extent God sorted things out for me. I only became famous after my children were old enough to let me go. And I don’t accept more concerts than I enjoy doing. I have an understanding family, and I don’t push their limits.
NR: How are you able to sit on a stage for hours in one position and cross-legged?!
VS: Practice, I guess. Whenever I am home I teach for 4-5 hours every day, sitting like that. So a concert is not a particularly strenuous session.
NR: What is your favourite raga(s) and before performing how do you decide what to perform?
VS: I like expansive ragas one can sing in a leisurely fashion – vistaar se – Bheempalas, Pooriya-Dhanashri, Yaman, Bageshri, Ahir-Bhairav, Todi …
I keep a record of what I sing in each concert. So if I am going back to the same venue I’ll take care to not repeat what I sang. Given the time of the concert I have many bandishes in 4-6 ragas I can choose from. I make the final choice based on what I know about the audience, the occasion and so on. Sometimes other artists have performed before me. Then I must choose something contrasting, something that will follow well. That consideration applies to the choice of my successive pieces too. I try to design the concert as a whole.
NR: What is your criteria for choosing a particular accompanist?
VS: I have favourites who are good musicians, dependable and fun to perform with. Naturally, such accompanists are busy artists themselves. So I must have several alternatives. I myself reach the venue well in time so that I can tune all instruments in peace. So I try to avoid accompanists who habitually crash through the door one minute before the curtain is supposed to open.
NR: Do you think the Gharana system and Guru Shishya Parampara tradition is as strong today as it was in the past? Is it a tradition that can still work when both students and teachers travel and have great distances between them? Is there any differentiation in teaching between your children who learn from you and your other students?
VS: Both my children realized how strict I am as a teacher and kept their distance. They both have a good ear, but did not learn beyond a point. Had they become shishyas, I would treat them just like my other shishyas.
My best, most persevering students have each stayed with me for several years during the intense phase of their study. At a certain point they become sufficiently progressed to benefit from periodic sessions, learn from recordings or even from books. I myself have learned a lot from recordings and books. Of course, one has to reach a certain level before one can do that successfully.
Gharanas as we know them in the history of khayal have lost much of their rigidity, which I think is a change for the better. But discipline is very important.
am currently teaching students who live as far as
NR: What are your thoughts on piracy in the music industry? Do you think the CD as a format has done justice to your music?
VS: Once I approve a recording for release I am finished with that project. I like to move on to other projects. Piracy is for record companies to worry about.
Tape recordings sometimes have so much speed variation that the sur is disturbed. CD is like a mirror. It is definitely the best way to listen to music today. I am sure even better formats will come in future.
But to extend the scope of your question the experience of recording in a studio has taught me a lot. Ones power of listening becomes more acute.
NR: What do you think the role of music in general is in today’s society?
VS: A Sanskrit subhashita says a human devoid of (interest in) sahitya, sangeet and kala (literature, music and art) is simply a beast without horns or a tail. The humanizing influence of the arts is perhaps more urgently needed today than in any earlier era.
NR: How do you think Indian Classical Music is perceived today and where do you see it tomorrow?
VS: I am not good at prophecy, so I’ll skip the “tomorrow” part, but there is a regrettable tendency to view it as entertainment, a service rather than social intercourse. Hindustani music can bring rewards in direct proportion to what you, as a listener, take to it. If you do nothing beyond buying CDs and concert tickets then dazzling spectacles is what you deserve and that is what you will get. But the more you try to understand it, learn about it, explore its different dimensions, the more you will discover its soul.
NR: If you had to isolate one event in your life as being the most memorable what would it be and why?
VS: That is a tough one: there
are so many events
I am thinking of. All the occasions when
I got to sing before a master musician were memorable occasions for me. Mogubai Kurdikar heard me in
NR: Would you recommend a career as a musician to youngsters today? If yes, what pit falls should they be on the look out for?