Come January 1, the gallery of Carnatic music legends that adorns the porch of the Music Academy building in Chennai will have its annual addition. This time, it will be a portrait of singer S Sowmya.

The gallery is a roll of honour of musicians who have been bestowed with the ‘Academy Awards of Carnatic music’ — the Sangita Kalanidhi. So haloed are these musicians that people sometimes remove their footwear as they gaze reverentially at the Robert De Niros and Gene Hackmans of Carnatic music.

Sowmya herself has stood in this porch, gazing at the images of the extraordinary performers, often “awestruck”. Now, the 50-year-old vocalist finds herself in the same league.

The joy of being counted among the superstars of Carnatic music shines in her eyes, as Sowmya welcomes BL ink — with the signature smile that her fans are so familiar with — into her home in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai. The first thing that catches the eye is the tanpura in the room, the indispensable instrument that provides the reference pitch to the musician. The second thing is, well, the person that Sowmya is. After refreshments are offered, she gets straight to the business, comfortably seating herself in a chair, her phone on the arm rest, and a look that says, “Well?”

Anyone who has been to her concerts can relate to that brisk, businesslike manner. On stage, her commanding presence is almost tactile, her singing is to-the-point, completely unaided by theatrics.

Well, she appears to be so at home too.

The obvious question to the singer is: When did she first think she would get a berth in that gallery of glory?

“Never aspired for it,” she replies.

Oh, c’mon!

“I never thought that far,” insists the singer. She may not have aspired for the recognition, but her well-wishers never forgot to tell her — “Hope it is you next time”.

“But I was fatalistic about it,” Sowmya says. “I always thought, ‘if it is destined to happen, it will happen’.” And she recites a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita, whose import is: “Yours is only to do your duty, not to expect rewards”.

That, it appears, is quintessential Sowmya. Her brand of music rises from the depths of faith.

Music — her calling

Destiny appears to have played its part in chiselling Sowmya into a doyenne of Carnatic music. Else she wouldn’t have given up pursuing her doctorate in organic chemistry — at IIT Madras, where she did her MSc in chemistry — to focus on music full time. “The lab was taking up a lot of my time; how long could I keep away from singing?” she asks.

One does see the hand of fate: Sowmya’s guide, Dr KK Balasubramanian, was an ardent Carnatic music buff. When she struggled to balance music and chemistry, Balasubramanian encouraged her to focus on music, pointing out that, after all, not everybody could sing and that she could always return to chemistry later.

Balasubramanian recalls the episode vividly. “Initially, she was upset,” he tells BL ink . She, and her father, believed she could do both her PhD in chemistry and pursue music at the same time. Sowmya’s father, Srinivasan, a chemical engineer, insisted that his daughter was capable of it. (He, in fact, wanted her to take a crack at the IAS too.)

But Balasubramanian was firm. “You can’t do both,” he said, “without compromising somewhere”. He appreciated music, but wouldn’t cut corners to fast-track Sowmya’s research. “That’s not how you get a PhD with me,” he said.

But he is all praise for Sowmya. “If she had pursued her doctorate, she would have become a brilliant scientist,” he says. Sowmya and the professor jointly produced a paper on using microwave technology to speed up organic reactions, and it was published in a scientific journal.

Sowmya did eventually get her PhD — just not in chemistry, but music instead. Oddly enough, her thesis was not in her field of melodies but on percussion. She, in fact, dipped into her expertise in chemistry to finish her thesis in music. She researched the ways to make a mridangam (drum) that wouldn’t loosen and slip in pitch upon repeated playing or variations in temperature. Her work ruffled a few feathers and drew the ire of traditional mridgangam makers who worried they might lose their livelihood if the instruments began to be made the way Sowmya suggested. One of them even yelled at her, she recalls.

Would she go back to the lab? “Oh, no,” Sowmya smiles. She misses the lab, for sure — and she has an open invitation from Balasubramanian to return to research with him — but going back is impractical. Science has taught her to be analytical and that’s enough.

Curating a journey

Sowmya owes it to her father for inculcating in her an interest in chemistry as well as nurturing her musical skill. Srinivasan gave his daughter her first lessons in music and then put her under the tutelage of S Ramanathan, the Carnatic great and Sangita Kalanidhi of 1985, whose music has always been appreciated as much for its educative value as its melody.

Sowmya belongs to a family that is deeply steeped in Carnatic music. She, though, is the only performing artiste at home. Her younger sister, Bharati, has learned music but does not perform. Her son is a student of — no prizes for guessing — chemical engineering and is training in Carnatic music as well. He sometimes accompanies his mother to lecture-demonstration programmes.

Looking back, it appeared rather obvious that with Srinivasan and Ramanathan guiding her, Sowmya would have inevitably become a musician of merit. A singing opportunity arose early — in 1983 — when the then teenager was concert-hopping with her guru. In a concert series at Nerur, the designated vocalist couldn’t turn up. It fell upon the 14-year-old Sowmya to fill the slot. The concert was a big success. From then on, looking back was out of the question.

Sowmya is a product of the 1980s, part of a wave of musicians who emerged upon the Carnatic stage, along with notable others such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan (Sangita Kalanidhi, 2015), Neyveli Santhanagopalan, P Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashri and Vijaya Siva. Sowmya’s mastery over the art was quite evident even at that young age. Mridangist SY Venkataraman, who has accompanied her in concerts, once recalled how she acknowledged with a smile when he manoeuvred a particularly tricky rhythmic cycle.

How has the singer evolved over the years? After more than 35 years as a Carnatic singer, Sowmya has matured as a vocalist as well as a performer. “I used to be a bit upset if the applause was not adequate,” she admits. But not anymore. In a way, her approach to music is the obverse of how the field has developed in recent times. Concert music has also changed a lot since her initial days. Today, the focus is more on how a performance is received by the audience than on the artiste’s virtuosity. The trend of playing to the gallery is slowly sweeping Carnatic music circles too.

A traditionalist at heart, Sowmya frowns on such practices. “She is a musician’s musician,” says Ramaswami Seshasayee, a member of the Music Academy committee that selects Sangita Kalanidhi winners. Sowmya’s music, Seshasayee says, is without any filigree, more deep, technical and cerebral than calculated for mass appeal. “She’s very learned, very smart,” Seshasayee tells BL ink .

While Seshasayee believes that Sowmya’s sense of aesthetics is derived from her guru Ramanathan, another connoisseur, R Thyagarajan, founder and mentor of the Shriram group of companies, differs somewhat. Thyagarajan believes that Sowmya has stepped out of her guru’s shadows and come into her own. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be creative. “Being too inspired by someone hampers creativity,” Thyagarajan points out, citing the example of another Sangita Kalanidhi, Trichur V Ramachandran, as someone who is more or less a better-than-original copy of his guru, the eminent late GN Balasubramanian. Sowmya, he observes, is not so.

Thyagarajan’s view seems to resonate well with other Carnatic aficionados. Her creativity stood her in good stead when she went through a bad patch five years ago — health-related problems told on her voice. “It was very upsetting,” recalls Sowmya. Some people talked about her “lost voice”, but fans still flocked to her concerts. Carnatic music demands on-stage innovation and creativity; a mellifluous voice is merely an icing on the cake. SL Narasimhan, a connoisseur who has tracked Sowmya’s music since her early days, observes that she “passed that phase [of ill-health] smoothly”.

The learned musician

Sowmya’s “learnedness” indeed shows up not just in music, but elsewhere too. For instance, during a concert in 2015, she broke into a mini-lecture on the nuances of the three major schools of thought of Vedic philosophy — Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita. She dwelt on how each of these schools view the relationship between god ( paramatma ) and the soul ( jeevatma ) and, for good measure, bunged in a quote from Kathopanishad, one of the major Upanishads (Vedic texts). Not stopping there either, she dived deeper into technicalities. She was soon explaining the concepts of ‘saguna Brahma’ (god of multiple attributes) and ‘nirguna Brahma’ (god bereft of any attributes), and how the core of the compositions of the saint-composer Thyagaraja were in reality an embrace of the ‘nirguna Brahma’, even though it appears to be the opposite on the surface. All this, to introduce the audience to a Sanskrit composition of Muthuswami Dikshitar — Srinathaadi guruguho jayathi in raga Mayamalavagowla — which she was going to render. This deep understanding of the import of a composition is what distinguishes Sowmya’s music from that of her peers, notes Narasimhan.


Deep learning: Sowmya broke into a small lecture on philosophy during one of her concerts


Indeed, Sowmya’s focus on the “content” in her music rather than its “market value” came to the fore during an interaction with the audience not so long ago. Faced with a googly on her suggestions to enlarge the constituency of Carnatic music listeners, Sowmya played with a straight bat: “Why should you enlarge the constituency of Carnatic listeners?”

But isn’t increasing the “customer base” important for the art to flourish? After pausing a bit to mull over the question, her reply reflected her fanatical focus on content and indifference to the market: “It is up to the listeners to find funds to develop the art.” Her implicit message is loud and clear: Finding funds to develop the art is not the job of the artiste.

Sowmya’s “eye-on-the-ball” focus on content to the exclusion of all else was again evident when asked about her memorable concert experiences. Again, the pause, the reflection. It is the music that matters, and it matters the same all the time, she replies. Again, her message is implicit: Can you ask a saint which day’s meditation gave him the most satisfaction?

Tough stance

The conversation with the artiste reveals facets of her character, but it also bares the conflicts within. Has she faced gender discrimination in the conservative circles of Carnatic music? “Well, yes,” she says, “Some ‘puritanical’ male accompanists baulk at playing alongside women artistes.” The unstated reason is the belief that menstruating women will besmirch the divinity of musical instruments. Sowmya recalls an instance where an accompanist who had always refused to play for her was all too willing to do so in a concert in Singapore. She, however, told the organisers to choose between her and him — she would not sing if he were to accompany her.

“But if you are asking me about #MeToo kind of gender issues...,” she trails off. Sowmya says she has never been scared of sexual predators. “I’d give it back to them, good and solid,” she stresses, adding that she has unhesitatingly delivered a couple of tight slaps to men who had misbehaved with her. “I used to carry a knife in my handbag.” Her mother often warned her not to get into tiffs with auto rickshaw drivers.

Sowmya, however, has little sympathy for women who put up with a predatory guru or a patron, and then join a #MeToo campaign. “Why put up with nonsense, and then, after many years, come up with a revelation?” she asks. Sowmya is a formidable presence and, clearly, there is no messing with her. In a recent reality music competition on television, Sowmya, who was one of the judges, didn’t think twice about roundly ticking off an overbearing participant.

Yet, she is also vulnerable and is not afraid to show that side of her. The singer’s eyes well up and she struggles to hold back tears every time she talks about her guru Ramanathan, who passed away over 30 years ago. A cascade of anecdotes about his dedication to teaching gushes out, but one instance in particular remains etched in mind. Sowmya recounts how her guru continued with the classes though there were visitors waiting for him in the next room. “We came to know later that they were the family of a suitor for his daughter,” she recalls.

Sowmya is a traditionalist at heart; a small dash of vibhuti (holy ash) is dabbed on her forehead, above the red vermilion dot. She abides by her daily puja. The immanent contradictions between science and tradition do not bother her. In her spare time, she reads — both English and Tamil — fiction and non-fiction. She is interested in history and rues that while the history of the Mughals and the British is taught in detail in schools, that of the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the kingdoms of South India, is dismissed in a couple of paragraphs and a picture of Mamallapuram, a temple town built by the Pallava dynasty.

When Sowmya’s picture finds its place in the Music Academy in January, the fraternity will be honouring a very intellectual musician. Few can doubt that she deserves it, although it is not always the case that someone deserving is given the honour. One of them famously got there by threatening to hang himself. Few among the connoisseur community will doubt that Sowmya is one of Carnatic music’s all-time greats. Sangita Kalanidhi merely seconds that fact.