Exploring New Worlds

sikkil gurucharan


Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan shares his experience of working with Pianist Anil Srinivasan

You can count him among the new generation of Carnatic musicians. 
Talented and hard working, daring to explore..

Sikkil Gurucharan is a vocalist from the family of flautists. His grandparents, the Sikkil sisters (Neela and Kunjumani), mother Mythili Chandrasekaran and aunt Mala Chandrasekhar, followed a tradition. 
Gurucharan chose a different path.

Introduced to vocal music at the instance of his grandparents, he had his initial training from mother Mythili; later, he came under guru Vaigal Gnanaskandan and continues to train under him. Gurucharan did his masters in financial management but consciously chose music as his career and says he enjoys it thoroughly.

With well known pianist Anil Srinivasan, he has cut a new album of traditional music – ‘Madhirakshi’, without percussion. 
He spoke to Revathi R. of KutcheriBuzz about the album, and his recent experiences as a vocalist.

sikkil gurucharan

Tell us about your new album. 
It is a new kind of listening experience we tried to present to the audience of Carnatic music around the world. The idea is entirely conceived by pianist Anil Srinivasan. He is a trained Western classical pianist and has worked with many legends in Western music. While composing music for ‘The Jungle Play’ which was staged at the golden jubilee school celebrations of Vidya Mandir School (Mylapore, Chennai), we both met. Both of us are alumni of the school. The Nasikabhooshani raga alapana and Anil’s blending of piano for the Charukesi ragam and tanam brought us together again. Vocal music with piano as the only accompaniment sounds wonderful. We promised to be in touch from then on. That was the beginning of a new idea perhaps.

How is ‘Madirakshi’ different from other albums? 
The entire album is in a very slow tempo, just to reflect the mood of the songs rendered and there is no accompaniment except the piano. Just for one song we have used the edakkai by Anirudh (dancer Sudharani Raghupathy’s son). Anirudh and Anil used to be batchmates in school. In fact I drew inspiration from these ‘seniors’ in the school. I distinctly remember the school annual day at Mylapore Fine Arts Club when the group played the raga Kalyani as part of the entertainment. I had just then entered high school. Sitting in the cheering group, I resolved that I should do something like that when I grew up. 

So the school team got together to come out with this new idea . . . 
Anil was in touch through e-mails. Having worked with international musicians, John Gwasky, Pete Lockett, Keith Peters and young and innovative musicians ‘Mandolin’ Shrinivas, Rajesh and Umashankar, Anil has an international approach to music. He is a graduate in music from Royal College of London. When he came to India last July, we planned to record a padam – payyada by Kshetragnya. I just sang, the way Anil wanted it to be. We never had a clue about how it would sound. The underlying theme of longing and yearning for something reflected well in the slow pace and with just a tambura and piano in the background.

How did this single piece grow into an album? 
We, then recorded Papanasam Sivan’s ‘Pirava varam’ in the raga Latangi. With these two songs we went to Charsur Digital Workstation. They listened to it and immediately scratched a rough cut. We actually wanted to have the percussion later, but after listening to the two songs, we felt that the intense pain and longing in the lyrics were expressed better with voice and piano and we felt that any percussive support might bring down the emotional content of the lyrics.

On what basis did you choose the other songs for this album? 
The next song that came to our mind was ‘Asai mukham’ in the raga Jonpuri, composed by Subramania Bharathi. This song is usually rendered as a fast piece after tani avarthanam in the concerts. But the poet has composed the song with deep agony and pain. Bharathi had lost his mother at a very age. The only photograph he had of her got burnt at some point. He poured all the pain into this song. Of course, he says ‘Kannan mukham marandu ponal’ in the song, as he saw everything in the form of Lord Krishna. But ideally, there should not be any reason to be happy about ‘forgetting the dear one’s face’. So we decided to slow down the rendering style. The lament poured from the heart of the poet came out as if the poet himself sings the song!

Are all the songs in the album in Tamil? 
Most of them are. Out of the six items four are in Tamil. The padam ‘payyada’ is in Telugu and the lullaby ‘Omanathingal’ is in Malayalam. The selection of the songs is by Anil exclusively. The lullaby by Iraiyimman Thampi was composed for his student Swati Tirunal, imagining him as a doll and the poet sings to make him sleep. This song does not convey any longing, but there is a duality – the relationship between the guru and the shishya. The title of the album itself is Madhirakshi – Triumph in a dual state.

Why did you name it ‘Madhirakshi’? 
The word literally mean ‘Eyes soaked in wine (madhu)’. The songs represent a sense of longing, a state of intoxication in the presence of desire. The word ‘madhirakshi’ is a part of the padam ‘payyada’. There is an element of duality in all the songs. ‘Asai mukham’ is between the poet and his mother, the lullaby ‘omanathingal’ is between the poet and his student, ‘payyada’ is between a man and a woman in love, ‘pirava varam’ is between man and God. In all these songs, there is an amount of pain and agaony, except in one song ‘yavum yavum’ from Kurunthogai, which celebrates love. It is set in the raga Brindava Saranga, which is the favorite raga for both of us. Anil came across this song while travelling in the underground train in London.

That sounds interesting! Tell us about this song. . . 
In the trains in London, you will find pin-up poems put up by people. While travelling Anil came across a translation of a poem with the byline ‘From Kurunthogai – Sangam Tamil Literature’. This poem is by poet Sembula peyaneerar. The poet got this name from this song wherein he states that the man and woman become one like the red earth and the pouring rain. The cover of the album depicts red earth and pouring rain. But, the last song in this album depicts total surrender and renunciation. A pasuram by Kulasekara Azhwar rendered as a virutham.

sikkil gurucharan

You concluded the album with a viritham? 
We had planned to present the song ‘Srinivasa Tiruvenkatamudaiyan’ in the raga Hamsanandi after the virutham. I sang the virutham and we both were engrossed in performing. The meaning of the pasuram goes this way – Azhwar wishes to be born as a fish in the temple tank of Tirupati or at least as a step leading to the temple, so that he is close to God always and have his darshan. Kulasekhara Azhwar was a king and later turned to be a devotee of Perumal. Through this song he renounces everything step by step. After I sang the virutham for seven minutes and was about to move to the kriti, Suresh (of Charsur) who was recording the song, switched off the recording and said this is a perfect end for the album. With the song, we would be going back to all earthly things! He felt that the audience should be left there! After this recording, I learnt that virutham used to be sung as a separate item in concerts. Following it with a kriti in the same raga came in much later!

Have you received any feedback on this album from rasikas? 
Though the songs are rendered in a new style, the album has the classical base. It is not fusion. Generally, for rasikas of Carnatic music, it it is not in the traditional style, it is called fusion! But we worked consciously and made sure that it is not a fusion. Anil is very sensitive to the word ‘fusion’. 
We have received positive and encouraging feedback. Western musicians like Jan Vogler, the famed cello player appreciated the music. When I sang ‘Asai mukham’ in the traditional way, in a concert during the December season, a rasika came to me to say that the rendering in the album gave much more soothing effect than the fast pace in the concert. That was a compliment!

The initiative for this album was by Anil Srinivasan, you said. But did you also want to do something different like this one? 
Absolutely no. I was very happy performing the traditional way of starting a concert with a varnam and continuing with manodharmam, a fast number and a few tukkadas. Though I know the meaning of the songs I sing, it is only after I did this album, that I pay more attention to the moods of the composer while presenting the songs in concerts.

Do you sing the kritis in the style you rendered in this album during your regular concerts? 
The style is exclusive for the album. On the concert platform I should do justice to what I present in two hours time. I should respect the audience‘s likes, allot time for the accompanying artistes to display their talents and accommodate a variety of songs. I have a different role to play there. But I look forward to a live show of this album soon in Chennai.

We also saw you recording a song for a dance during the ‘December season’. How did it happen? 
It happened while recording for ‘Madirakshi’. Dancer Anita Ratnam, a good friend of Anil was preparing for her new production ‘Neelam’. For a particular piece she wanted only a voice and tambura as background music. She asked me to record ‘Rangapura Vihara’ in Brindavana Saranga for this production of hers. 
That was an intelligently choreographed item. I have sung raga alapana, tanam and song for about 15 minutes. Within the tanam session of about five minutes, Anita Ratnam depicted entire Ramayana. Seeing her perform on the stage for this was a nice experience. Singing for a dance programme is completely different. I don’t think I am capable of doing it. But this particular song fetched me compliments.

Any other new experiments in the near future? 
I have done a thematic album ‘Neelambari’ for Rajalakshmi Audio. Being a sedate raga, I realised the importance of singing them in the vilamba kala (slow pace). All the ten songs are in Neelambari raga and some are very rarely sung ones. Like ‘amba neelambari’.

For such albums, do you select the kritis you have learnt well or you learn new ones to present the theme? 
It happens both ways. For Rajalakshmi Audio, Dr. Satish ( the promoter of this music company) made the selection of 10 songs and asked me to sing. ‘Doctor’ is quite knowledgeable and at ease in grouping the compositions to suit the themes. I had to just go through the list, refresh them from memory or learn them and present them. My job is just that with him. 
Another album titled ‘Shadanane’ for the same company will be released soon. I have sung a different padam ‘adarkulle yen indha padhattam’. After ‘Madirakshi’, I have developed an interest for padams!

Do you enjoy these new experiences? 
I enjoy the traditional concerts very much. These different albums happen now and then and supplement my learning process and enhance the quality of my regular performances.