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MS’s great-granddaughters: Strings of the same chord

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Note for note: When Aishwarya (left) sang certain kritis in a lower octave and Soundarya in a higher one, in the exact styles of their great- grandmother and grandmother, it gave the audience goosebumps

When Aishwarya (left) sang certain kritis in a lower octave and Soundarya in a higher one in the exact styles of their great- grandmother and grandmother, there were goosebumps in the audience. (Right) MS Subbulakshmi and her daughter Radha Viswanathan the hindu archives   -  The Hindu Archives

MS Subbulakshmi’s mighty legacy sits lightly on her great-granddaughters Aishwarya and Soundarya, as they go about immaculately recreating her repertoire

The mood was set early in the evening. The strains of ‘Sri Venkateswara Suprabatham’ in MS Subbulakshmi’s mellifluous voice echoed through the Kamani auditorium as her great-granddaughters S Aishwarya and S Soundarya lit the ceremonial lamp.

It was a rare treat for classical music connoisseurs in the Capital earlier this month when jewellery brand Art Karat flew down the great-granddaughters of the legendary singer for its 30th anniversary celebrations. And what better way to celebrate than honour another jewel — that too a Bharat Ratna, as Kamal Modi, chairman, Art Karat, put it.

The tribute — as it turned out — was not just to MS, but also her daughter Radha Viswanathan, who passed away last month. Radha, who had accompanied MS during her concerts for 60 years, trained Aishwarya and Soundarya till about 10 days before her death. When the sisters took the stage, with Aishwarya singing certain kritis in a lower octave and Soundarya in a higher one, in the exact styles of their great- grandmother and grandmother, it gave the audience goosebumps. Four generations down, MS and Radha’s distinctive voice experimentation of high and low octave singing, that had become the rage, was still striking a chord with listeners.

The burden of expectations on Aishwarya, barely 23, and her 12-year-old sister was high. But there was full composure and assurance in their voice as they showcased a range of MS’s legendary repertoire, beginning with ‘Shreeman Narayana’, moving on to the familiar ‘Dolayam Chala’ and then the famous Meera bhajans. But it was in the Swati Tirunal composition ‘Sarasaksha Paripalaya’ in raga Pantuvarali that their vocal skills, especially that of Aishwarya, came to the fore, as they did justice to both the kriti and the raga.

There was not just one legacy, but multiple ones on stage. Violinist Dr Narmada, granddaughter of Parur Sundaram Iyer and daughter of MS Gopalakrishnan, was accompanying the duo — and her little solo interlude was divine to listen to. Legend has it that Iyer was the one who introduced violin to Hindustani music in 1909 while he was in Mumbai.

Back in Chennai, he combined the features of classical and Hindustani on violin and gave the world a style called the Parur bani, which Narmada practises.

The two strains melded well during the course of the evening as Aishwarya, who is also learning Hindustani, sang several popular bhajans. Of course, there was ‘Vaishnava Jana to’ — a favourite of MS. But at the request of Modi, it being a Tuesday, the girls also sang the ‘Hanuman Chalisa.’

Backstage, Aishwarya says she feels it her duty to carry forward her great-grandmother’s legacy — after all, it was MS who initiated her into music at the age of four. “She passed away when I was 10, But she used to make me practise a lot — she came over to our house every week and taught me songs along with my grandmother,” she says.

According to her father, V Shrinivasan, who fondly listens in, Aishwarya has inherited MS’s computer-like memory and has a repertoire of 1,000 songs that she knows by heart. “The repertoire was taught to me by my grandmother,” says Aishwarya, pointing out that MS knew over 3,000 songs in 15 languages. Apart from her grandmother, Aishwarya has also been learning from Jambu Kannan.

When Aishwarya (left) sang certain kritis in a lower octave and Soundarya in a higher one in the exact styles of their great- grandmother and grandmother, there were goosebumps in the audience. (Right) MS Subbulakshmi and her daughter Radha Viswanathan the hindu archives   -  The Hindu Archives

 

 

But wouldn’t Aishwarya like to have her own unique selection, rather than be in the shadow of her great-grandmother?

“I have to sing her songs. It is my duty,” says Aishwarya simply. But, yes, she will develop her own style, as well. “I also learn Hindustani. I usually include a tarana or devaranama. That would be my special style,” she says.

Is there any one composer she feels connected to while singing? “I like all of them. But if I think of anybody as the best, it is Syama Sastri. I like his swara jatis,” she says.

Any favourites among the current crop? “I love Ranjani-Gayatri and Ramakrishnan Murthy and try to catch up on their performances during the music season,” she says.

Aishwarya does not like to perform at more than four or five concerts a month, as “never should it become saturated.” However, she tours a lot abroad, especially the US, where the NRIs, she says, are an appreciative audience.

As she astutely puts it, “They are far away from India and so value the art. They put in a lot more effort to organise concerts. There is a huge boom in Carnatic music in the US.”

The interaction, though brief, is enough to reveal Aishwarya’s commitment to music. Her day, says Shrinivasan, is practically spent practising. In fact, she got married a few days prior to the concert, but kept her date with Delhi by shifting the dates of her honeymoon. She says, rather coyly, that her husband, an eye surgeon from Chidambaram, is moving to Bengaluru for her sake.

A supportive husband, a disciplined regime, and a legacy that sits lightly on her shoulders — Aishwarya is certainly hitting all the right notes.

Published on February 23, 2018
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