Going solo on the sax: MS Lavanya’s journey

Malini Nair | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

High notes: Lavanya, who has made Mumbai her home, straddles different musical worlds   -  KR DEEPAK

Carnatic music circles are full of tales of prodigies, but MS Lavanya’s is not one of them. Her story is that of poverty, struggle, humiliation — and, finally, success

On sweltering Chennai afternoons in 1997, a malnourished 15-year-old would sit on the open terrace of a women’s hostel on Royapettah Road with a saxophone clamped between her lips, practising the scales for an hour, till her mouth went numb, then grew sore and sometimes bled.

A cotton sari draped over her head protected her from the blinding sun. But high afternoon — from 2 pm — was the only time the hostel allowed MS Lavanya to practise her saxophone, when other girls took a break from their studies. But no matter how hard she tried, the notes stubbornly sounded discordant, nothing like the fluid music her guru and idol Kadri Gopalnath could coax from the saxophone. “I would run out of breath right after ‘sa’,” she recalls.

Carnatic music circles are full of miracle stories of prodigies, but Lavanya’s is not one of them. It is a story of poverty, disease, struggle and humiliation. And, yes, finally, of success.

Today Lavanya, who has made Mumbai her home, straddles different musical worlds — she is exchanging fusion notes with Purbayan Chatterjee’s sitar, Ronu Majumdar’s flute and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s mohan veena; playing for her all-girls pop band Queens, doing movie tracks for leading composers including AR Rahman, and sometimes, but not as often as she would like to, playing pure Carnatic music. On June 21, World Music Day, she played alongside vocal superstar Kaushiki Chakraborty in Kolkata.

As Lavanya, 37, strides into a café in suburban Bandra, even star-weary Mumbaikars turn to look at her. She is comfortably conscious of her charm. “I used to be really ugly, thin and sickly; we had tuberculosis (TB) running in the family because of deprivation. Now I am...,” she says with an easy laugh, pointing to herself.

In theory, Lavanya came from an influential home. Her grandfather, mridangam player MR Rajappa, was a court musician in Mysore, and her father, percussionist MR Sainath, a respected radio artiste. But the family had more prestige than prosperity and struggled to survive. So, giving up has never been an option for Lavanya; she simply couldn’t afford it.

At 15, she had declared to her father her plan to become a saxophonist. She had seen and heard Gopalnath at a concert and was riveted by the grandeur of his music. “I had never heard anything like it, never seen anyone with his stage presence,” she recalls. Since her father had accompanied the maestro, Lavanya had an easy path to discipleship with him.

What followed was anything but easy — the saxophone was anyway a newcomer in the Carnatic field. Gopalnath had introduced it in the mid-1960s, adapting the instrument for the needs of Indian classical music. Gamakas, or quick note clusters, were not easy to pull off on the sax and it took a lot of breath, finger and lip control to get them right.

And Lavanya was the first woman to take to it. In class, jibes and contempt came with the turf. “They would all make fun. Dum laga ke haisha (huff and puff) — that was a common line when I stumbled,” she says.

It took her nearly two years of intense practising — going over one line of a varnam for a week — to finally settle into learning. To support herself she worked as a cleaner in a garment store, earning ₹500 a month. But it was clearly not enough to feed her over the long hours of work and practice. Lavanya caught TB of the bone, which laid her up for two years. Along with that came another blow — a tumour in the jaw that necessitated the removal of four teeth and a part of her gum. For a sax player, there couldn’t be anything worse.

“I couldn’t play the saxophone for three years as I recovered. It was depressing but I heard a lot of great music in this time,” she says.

Lavanya returned to music at 20 and it took her nearly a year to relearn. Her debut was in Mysore at the inauguration of a hall at the Ganapathy Sachchidananda Ashram. She then performed at the hugely prestigious concert at the Narada Gana Sabha during Chennai’s famed winter music season. “My father and Kadri sir sat and watched me in a hall packed with audiences,” she says.

She was performing at concerts, but the family’s finances were still tight. So, Lavanya would perform at weddings and pujas where she was paid ₹500 and given provisions such as rice, dal and jaggery which, she points out, were “a small help for my family”.

Her popularity slowly started growing in Chennai, and between 2007 and 2011, she recalls performing at many sabhas during the peak music season. And then the invites dried up.

“I got a lot of flak as a woman, as a non-Brahmin, for trying to establish myself in that scene,” she recalls. Two years later, she moved to Mumbai, taking her music in a different direction, though she continued to perform at classical venues in Kerala and Karnataka.

“Pop, jazz, blues, fusion — they only enhance my classical skills. I find it liberating. I particularly love playing a jugalbandi with Hindustani musicians,” she says. Her sister, MS Subbalaxmi, and she played as a saxophone duo for a while and then drifted apart.

A dedicated classical artist, her father played a critical role in her rise as a musician. Her mother, who was sick and bedridden with TB for years, never stopped her from pursuing music either. “I can’t let them down, ever,” she says.

Now a confident, single, working woman zipping across the country with her saxophone case, Lavanya is unlikely to ever do that.


Malini Nair   -  BUSINESS LINE


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi;


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Published on July 12, 2019
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