Seetha Rajan has been a combination of musician, scholar, composer and guru. She remains uncompromising in her career as a performer as well as a teacher, adhering to strict discipline and maintaining the traditions..
For the past 15 years, Seetha Rajan has been involved with 'Project Saraswati' with a vision to create a top-class band of young musicians, by teaching them not only music but also the values for life. Recently, she was awarded the title 'Acharya Choodamani' by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, and soon, will be awarded 'Sangita Kala Acharya' title by The Music Academy, Chennai during this year's annual music sadas. Seetha spoke about her experiences in learning, her days of living in remote places in the country and her present mission to pass on the tradition to the younger generation. Listening to her was Revathi R. of KutcheriBuzz.
How and when did you get into music?
I started learning music as a young child of 6 years from Kittamani Iyer in Mambalam (Chennai) He was a very dedicated teacher. My mother was particular that I attended the classes regularly and practiced everyday. She made sure that I practiced everyday before I left for school.
After ten years, my parents moved to Hyderabad. Before finding a teacher there, I used to listen to Sangeetha Sikshana programmes on the All India Radio and used to learn from them. I learnt Hindustani music from Pandit Bhim Shankar Rao there. My learning process took a turn when I came under Semmangudi Srinivasier under the National Talent Scholarship of Govt. of India.
Tell us about your days with Semmangudi . . .
That was in the year 1967. When I applied to train under him, I received the official invitation from him within two days. The scholarship test was on January 2 and I had landed in the city ten days in advance to brush up the kritis I had learnt. The Music Academy's annual music competitions were held at that time and I bagged 13 prizes. That made the selection process (for the scholarship ) easy for me and I came under Semmangudi mama. Radha Namboodri, who advised me to apply to Semmangudi was also selected to train under him. She just retired as Station Director, AIR, Bombay.
The duo S. Prema, and S. Jaya, Suguna Purushothaman, Visalakshi were all training with him then. Semmangudi was also in a relaxed mood in those years, not taking up many concerts. Also, he was 61 at that time and his music was mature.
What was his pattern of teaching?
He was an intelligent guru who could find out the specific talents in others and shape them accordingly. He encouraged me to read a lot on music, as I was always curious to know more. He also wanted me to teach. He was more a guide than a teacher. He recognised my talent in writing notation and I used to sit beside him and notate whenever he composed tunes to songs.
When he was away on concerts, he used to send us to Musiri Subramania Iyer to learn. He was conscious of his responsibility in teaching under the scholarship. Semmangudi sent me to Mukta to learn padams. Such was his openness towards various schools.
Also, in the house where I was staying as paying guest, the girl upstairs learnt from D. K. Jayaraman. He used to come home to teach her those days. After I came back from Semmangudi's house, it was a time to listen to DKJ's class at home.
Though you began your career in your early 20s you came to be known popularly much later. What was the reason?
After my marriage, I was away from Madras for 15years with my husband who has now retired from the Army. I was away at remote places like Kashmir, Ladhak . . .where I could listen to Carnatic music only on the National Programme of music on the radio. But I was always practicing music and whenever I was in Hyderabad or Madras, I sang at the AIR programmes. My travel across the country, in fact, gave me exposure to different kinds of music. When I was in Dehradun, I heard from a Hindustani music guru who talked about 'opening the voice' I was intrigued by that statement and went on to practice full throated music.
Have you regretted that you could not make it big on the performance stage?
I was lying very low as far as performances are concerned. But I had performed at many places including The Music Academy. I was known in the field even in my twenties. In the 80s I had worked in Bangalore University's music department. Also, as I always liked to search for new things, I would have got bored with repeated performances. Probably I would not have started this gurukulam and this project if I had concentrated more on performances.
Tell us about Project Saraswati...
In the 90's my husband took voluntary retirement form the services. Though he does not claim to know much in music, he has been an open minded person and found the talent in me. We had decided to settle in Bangalore then, but we came to Madras at the instance of Semmangudi and my husband encouraged my taking up the post of research assistant with The Music Academy. I was assisting scholar S. R. Janakiraman in his research on Tulaja's works. I enjoyed my work with this brilliant musicologist. Later, when The Music academy closed down the research department, my husband and I decided to start this 'modified' gurukulam. This project envisions building up the overall values in my students. It s just not another music school.
How is it different?
We take students who are serious about taking this as career. We insist on traditional dress codes. It is not that one cannot learn music wearing modern dresses. But traditional pavadai, being a flowing dress gives the comfort for sitting with folded legs for hours. Also, it is a small thing you do for learning an art like music. It tests the endurance. After their school hours, children refresh at their homes and come here. There is no time to waste and all the energy is for academics and arts. We train to bring them up to become richly cultured and very knowledgeable musicians.
What is the response of parents and the students?
Most parents, who do not like these 'conditions' don't come. But the children who have once joined us agreeing to all the discipline, enjoy them later. As the students spend most of the time here, they even bring their school homework and do it with the help of senior students. They learn a lot by just being here.
Apart from music what else do they learn?
After acquiring a certain level of knowledge in music I encourage my students to learn instrumental music from good teachers. One of my students is learning veena from Trivandrum Venkataraman and another learns violin from V. V. Ravi. Many kids learn languages like Sanskrit. Students attend yoga classes. There are special sessions with musician who are expert in their respective areas. We had sessions by Mallikarjuna Sharma and J. Venkataraman from Trichy on laya aspects. Our students manage everything for our educational tours.
What are those tours?
We take the children on tours to heritage places. We normally combine them with performances. And the students see what they learn. For example, the places about which Dikshitar has composed kritis are explained well in the songs. The students get to see them on tours. Also, the tours give them the required knowledge and a feel of the compositions. That's what makes them stand out in their performances in tough contests and performances.
Do your students perform regularly on stage?
I encourage them to take up concert opportunities if they are offered on merit. Many of my students are AIR graded artists. Five of the eleven awardees of 'Sangita Sri' by Rasika Ranjani Sabha of Trichy are my students. The title is not awarded for the years when no one qualifies for it!
I do not want my students to spend more time marketing themselves at a time, when they have to learn. You can learn a lot when you are young. You may quickly get to sing in a few concerts. But what next? Your search should continue. All my students are brought up with different type of learning and their music is of a very good standard.
Is your teaching method different?
I do not start the learning exercises in the raga Mayamalavagowla as in the traditional system. I teach the basic exercises in pentatonic scale ragas like, Mohanam, Gambhira nattai. I do this because they have bright and plain notes and the beginner can sing in a full voice. I don't think that the gandhara of Mayamalavagowla can be explained to a beginner well. The revised curriculam was my subject under the senior fellowship from Govt. of India and I found students find this method useful. We have brought out the audio CDs of this new pattern lessons titled Bodhana, through Charsur.
Are the basic lessons also taught by you in your school?
Yes. I do not employ teachers to teach basic lessons. It is after all my effort to pass on the torch of my music to the next generation. Sometimes, my senior students who are already graded artistes handle the beginners' classes. Now our gurukulam, Balabrundam, has branches in three places in the city, handled by my senior students, who are postgraduates and research scholars in music. I find a little less time, as I am now teaching in Kalakshetra. I take up the students for advanced training from there.
How do you find teaching in an institution?
I have been given freedom to teach in my method and am not bound by their syllabus, in Kalakshetra, as I have a long association with them composing music even for dance dramas.
How did you find this experience of composing for dances?
My association with Periya Sarada teacher has been long and at her instance I composed music for the Sanskrit ballet 'Ahimsashraya Ashoka' for dancer Krishnaveni Lakshmanan. At those times, my senior students particpate in the discussions and write notations. They come up with suggestions and they see me actually composing music for the lyrics, which is again a on the job training for them.
Where do you want to take your gurukulam?
Ambitions are big. At the height of it - may be another Kalakshetra. That may sound a little too much. But I am happy that the tradition is already passed on and I am sure that it will be carried on by my students.
I read with interest the interview with Mrs.Seetha Rajan. I recall the Lecdem conducted by her along with Mr Vaithyanathan Krishnan of coimbatore as part of Guruguhanjali series a few years back in Shasri hall/NGS. I would very much appreciate if recordings of such useful Lecdems are available/uploaded.
Will you please suggest where I can approach to get the same.Incidentally ,I am the Dist.Chairperson-Devt of Carnatic Music-Lions clubs International-Dist-324-A 5 for the past two years. The group rendering of kritis in one raga by her disciples clad in pavadai uniform on a new year day in the Ragasudha Hall is still vivid in my memory.