An Interview with Sangeetha Kala Nipuna

T. N. Seshagopalan

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A disciple of Ramanathapuram C. S. Sankarasivam, Kalaimamani T. N. Seshagopalan began his musical career at the age of seven. He has travelled extensively, presenting vocal and veena concerts and has been the recipient of many titles and awards, recent ones being the Laya Kala Nipuna in May 2003 by the Percussion Arts Centre, Bangalore and the honour from Lalitha Kala Vedika on August 24th. Seshagopalan will be the recipient of this year's Sangeetha Kala Nipuna title given by the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, where he has been singing for more than 30 years. In an exclusive interview with V. Padmasini, TNS talks, among other things, about his life, music and acting.

Your reaction to being chosen Sangeetha Kala Nipuna by the Mylapore Fine Arts Club?

I was not ecstatic. No great thrills. If it is given to people who have achieved a lot, then you can feel proud. All those who are in the limelight are getting it. But I am happy for the recognition. MFAC is a time honoured sabha and lots of rasikas gather there. That I am being honoured by such a sabha is my guru's blessing.

You are proficient as a vainika too. Why did you choose to be more of a vocalist than a vainika?

I can play the veena only if they ask me to! I worked on both but vocal music became more popular. 

Any particular reasons?

The Veena is not featured as much as violin solos in the concerts. If someone plays Jalatarangam or keyboard he is featured. Mridangam and Drums feature as entertainment but not veena! They call it a Divine instrument, time-honoured and pradarshini but in an entire series one veena kutcheri itself is too much for many people. They will give you a thousand reasons. However the real reason is that there is no artiste who can play with a tempo that retains the attention of the audience for 3 hours. Music depends on the presentation and pandithyam. If artistes of this calibre come, it maybe possible. It is tough to play this vadya well and make the audience sit through. In my veena kutcheris, people say that the same tempo of a vocal concert is present. My problem is that my image as a vocalist has been established. It has been stamped to the extent that there is no series without my vocal kutcheri. How will they give the same artist a chance to play and sing? Whenever they ask me "will you play the veena?", I say I will play as well as sing. 

The sabhas feel that a veena concert will not draw crowds? 

It is difficult for crowds to come, no doubt. They think, "Usually this person sings and gets a crowd so why feature the veena?" I have played one round in all the sabhas. Top mridangists like Murugabhoopathy, Vellore Ramabhadran, Murthy and Dorai have played for me. My situation maybe better than that of professional Veena players. Due to my popular image as a vocalist, my veena skills are squashed!

People say that one can sing along when playing the veena and some artists are also doing it. What is your opinion?

It might have been done in olden times to make the sahitya known. Even while playing the violin they used to sing a few lines. Ganesh-Kumaresh follow that style. They keep the violin down and sing! Previously the purpose was to help people identify a song. In a keerthanam, a special line or lines may be sung or if it is rare. So it is a healthy tendency to sing along with the veena, almost intertwined. If the veena playing is like the vocal style or vice versa it is good. This time at the Krishna Gana Sabha, I kept the Veena down in the charanam part of the song 'Ranganayakam' and sang four lines. I myself do not know when I will do it.

Do you adopt the same style on the veena?

The same gayaki style, what I sing with difficulty, intricate, complex, tough or brain-teasing by those who do not like it (laughs)! Even as far as laya goes, the mridangists have the same work here as in a vocal concert. They cannot take it easy because it is a Veena concert. I have played that style everywhere and many artistrs have agreed it is successful.

Your voice tends to be on the soft side...

Voice maybe soft but there is depth... It is a male voice, a bass voice which can sing in three octaves. I am one of the artistes who can touch the mandra sthayi shadjam easily.

How do you explain your ability to draw crowds?

In olden times personality was important. In modern times it is quite true that a person who was once drawing a crowd of 500 people draws 2000 people after singing in two movies! I have acted in movies, R. S. Manohar's TV serial Narakasuran which was telecast for 25 weeks, done playback for the film Atma and also a Malayalam film along with K. J. Yesudas. But even if I have sung for movies, nobody has given a chit in a kutcheri saying "please sing what you have sung for cinema"! My kutcheri crowd is only those who come to listen to this style, this music, this food, and not for sightseeing. Serious listeners ,the same 200 to 300 people - singers, teachers, percussionists, rasikas and inquisitive people who want to know if I sing any new song or pallavi. 

Do you prepare in advance for your kutcheris?

What comes when I sit there that is all! My mind is always alert preparing something. I don't sit and prepare thinking, I must sing this in this kutcheri, this in that kutcheri... it gets prepared in the mind as soon as I sit there.

Does a voice get affected due to playback singing?

There is a chance. It is important to see what type of music they sing. When a popular playback singer sings it is to be seen what sruti he/she sings and for which actor. It might be over in a single take, sometimes it may need twenty takes. So the voice may get strained. When they sing from 8 am to 3 pm, till it gets okayed there is frustration and mental tiredness. It is only applied music for some other purpose - either to highlight the scene with a song or to highlight the song with a scene. So according to the scene, one has to laugh, scream or sing. If the mind is affected, the body which is under the command of the mind is also affected. If 75% of one's singing is done for cinema and 25% on the classical side, then the effect is visible. In playback singing, the objective is to make the audience spellbound. Thus, they scream in unwanted places and soften their voice in unnecessary places. That technique seeps in here. Those who like it will clap their hands! When it becomes a business, quality sometimes takes a backseat.

You acted in the film Thodi because you like acting?

They asked me to sing for the film originally. Later they offered the role. At that period it was music, music and only music. I used to get up at 5.30, bathe, do sandhyavandanam, visit the temple and then my guru's house. I did not even have the idea of going to the movies. No recreations, only music, spiritual discourses, temple, books and literature. That was the prevailing situation. Always bhajans, namasankeerthanams, Kamban vizha, sloka competitions, etc. If you turned to one side, there was Anantharama Dikshitar's house and on the other Variyar's... There used to be political conferences and I have attended the speeches of Anna and EVR to see how they talk. If we used to hear the news it was to know about the cricket scores. We would buy Sportstar and Illustrated Weekly to know how Barrington played and how wickets were kept. Radio was switched on only for commentary. I never thought about watching a movie or nurtured a desire to act. Pesum Padam was the only one for us to watch and rarely, pictures like Tiruvilayadal and Navarathri and mega pictures like Nadodimannan, Vanchikotai Vaaliban. We could not see a picture just because it was released. Sunday evenings, film dialogues would be relayed on radio. There was no time even for that. The radio was turned on only for news and kutcheri. The cinema had the name of the raga. So I thought that this would boost my career. I had acted in school plays but that was not sufficient. I asked them with what idea were they featuring me? They said, "You have the facial expressions, and we will take the work from you. When you are speaking there is voice modulation and bhava expressions thus bringing a natural effect". I asked my guru about it. He said very beautifully, "everyone has acted, but do not do it for prestige". My wife also had no objections. I requested them to take even the love scenes symbolically but later on I was forced to act some intimate scenes. I wrote in the magazines at that time that I did not do them well as I felt very embarrassed. I knew it would not do well. It neither brought dignity nor was it a box-office hit. It was just a compromise between time and things.

You did not get any more offers...?

I did, but all were obscene themes, comedy and not connected with music. I did not want that money and fame. Even last year a film Thyagayya, a story on a minister came up. The theme was nice and I agreed but it did not materialize. If I act, it has to be different. It must carry a message to the world. A heavy character role, which will imprint in the mind. They should approach me with the feeling that only I can do it, then I will accept it.

How about the TV serial R. S. Manohar's 'Narakasuran'... did you know him?

No. That year he was awarded the title of  Tamil Isai Vendar by Tamil Isai Sangam. He came for my kutcheri and sat through it. Everyone said, "he never sits through fully for a carnatic music concert but it is surprising that he sat through yours". He must have studied me. In drama, noise and acting are important and tight close-ups cannot be seen. Only impressions. That is why in olden days everyone donned the role of women and got away with it! (laughs). Manohar told me, "If I telecast Narakasuran on TV you have to play the role of Mahavishnu". I told him about the failure of Thodi. "They did not use you properly. Your face could have been made more beautiful. This is Perumal role where you will smile and bless. Respect for you will increase". The man who donned that role in the drama came and helped. Only problem was that they used blue make up for my body and it took 1-1/2 hours to put it on and 1-1/2 hours to remove it!

Did you sing, and how did you combine it with your kutcheri schedules?

I did not sing. Even when the terms were spoken I made it clear that if there was a kutcheri on a particular date, I would give it preference. My call sheet was to be fixed only with my consent.

Continued... Part II

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