Grant’s Desi Achiever
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Aruna Narayan Kalle is one of very few female instrumentalists – and the only female sarangi player – on the Indian classical music performance circuit.
But being the only player was never the point, she says. “My father has another female student and I hope we have many more in future. There are some innate discriminations in society, specially in India, about male/female roles. It’s not pronounced in the west, but even here, women are not equally represented and they don’t get the same grade as male musicians. People think men bring power and speed to a performance and so women were tolerated in vocal music, not in instrumental. The positive thing is that it’s changing. Speaking for myself, I feel I need to give my music a female perspective. When I used to tell my father that I couldn’t play as fast as he does, he would tell me I don’t have to. ‘Bring to it the feelings you have for it,’ he’d say. Having given me the tools, he wants me to make my music my own, he encouraged me to bring the female dimension to the music.”
Her father, of course, is the renowned sarangi maestro Pandit Ram Narayan who established the sarangi as a solo instrument. Her uncle is the famous tabla player Pandit Chaturlal. Amazingly for their generation, he and her grandparents encouraged her father’s passion even though they knew it had no future at the time. People would ask where he would play and they would respond by saying one day he would be heard on All India Radio.
And he was.
“That’s because the sarangi, an ancient North Indian bowed instrument, is considered one of the most difficult to master,” says Aruna who herself came to it at the rather late age of 18. “Also, historically, it was associated with dancing girls and therefore not considered socially respectable.
“During my childhood, my father was focused on bringing it to the fore, and there was no question of inducting me into the field. But I grew up with the notes of the sarangi and when, after a few singing lessons I found it was not my thing and said I wished I could play the sarangi, he said, ‘Why not?’ After that, that’s all I ever did!”
Aruna’s music has been featured in several international and Hollywood films, garnering critical acclaim. An impressive concert schedule sees her performing regularly in Europe, Asia, the US and Canada.
She was a featured soloist in a unique presentation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. A documentary about this project, with an exclusive profile of Aruna has been aired by the CBC and Bravo channels.
She has also performed the works of new composers as a featured soloist in a very popular series presented by the Arts Council, UK.
Aruna was also featured in a World Music concerto with the San Francisco Bay Symphony, again as a soloist, representing Indian classical music and she and her father recently performed together at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the BBC Proms, a performance specially close to her heart.
She also treasures her experience playing in Four Seasons. “I played solo parts originally written for the violin. It would have been enough for me to play it the way it was composed, but Michael Danna allowed me so much freedom to adapt. In fusion music, several instruments from different continents and cultures are put together as part of a soundscape. Fusion music is a way of reaching a wider audience, where those who may not be serious music connoisseurs get to experience a sprinkling of other music. But often this doesn’t do justice to either genre. It doesn’t add value to either. In trying to find a meeting place, the musicians are not in their element. When you understand each other’s vision, and then interpret it, it is beautiful. Otherwise, it’s just a jumble of exotic sounds. I believe music should have a beginning, middle and end, it should lead somewhere. I wanted to bring two classical streams together. It was so well received and culminated in a series of concerts in Canada, the US, China and the Far East.”
Aruna is frank about her views on musicians who are in a rush to perform, who don’t hone their craft.
Instrumentalists today all have the expertise to create fantastic music, she says. They are technically fabulous. What is missing is the content.
“They are so focused on the impact – plastic sitar, fibre glass sitar – that they have lost the essence of classical music. Musicians spend years on riyaz, perfecting their music. Performers don’t give themselves the time to develop and mature as musicians. Some see the burgeoning numbers of performers as progress, but if you don’t know yourself, how can you create something of lasting value? Lasting power comes from living the music.”
In addition to teaching a select group of students, Aruna is also involved in the Canadian school system, introducing young people to Indian music and the sarangi. She wishes more was being done to incorporate world music into the education system. “In a special needs class, the students sat quietly through a short performance and then asked for more. Their teachers later told me they hadn’t seen them that absorbed, that still. During other performances, I play a certain raga and ask what it reminds them of. After Bhairav, a morning raga, students have said it feels like they are waking up; after Megh or Malhar, they say it sounds like thunder, like it’s going to rain. There are some universal things and music is one of them. I have seen the response first-hand, but I suppose like many things, it is also a function of school finances.”
Aruna came to Canada in 1988 from Delhi with her husband Ashok who was working for American Express and sent to Canada on a two-year posting.
They were to move to Hong Kong after that, but liked Canada so much, they decided to make it their home.
As he came with a job, they didn’t face the lack of Canadian experience issues other newcomers face.
He then changed jobs and started his own internet company, the first privately-owned internet company at the time.
“We were lucky, he got in at the right time,” says his proud wife.
She had not really wanted to leave India as she had just started playing, but says she made the best of it.
“I wasn’t into music because of the fame and money but because I love it and I’d practise for hours. I found my own voice. I made the most of whatever opportunities came my way to play. I did a little bit of teaching. Winter was hard to adjust to, but I was busy, I was happy.”
Their sons Akshay and Anuroop are both into music.
“Not Indian music,” she says with a laugh. “Akshay is a composer and plays the piano. Anuroop is a professional drummer and jams with my nephew Harsh Narayan, one of the best sarangi players of his generation.”
She tells newcomers and those wishing to pursue a career in the arts to concentrate on bettering themselves.
“I’m not the best person to ask for advice, I’m the proverbial private musician, happy in my cocoon, but I would say that if you are serious about your art, just keep doing that. You have to promote yourself, yes, but if you don’t work on yourself as an artiste, there’s not much you can offer. You should aim to present an insight others haven’t. Present your unique perspective. Music is a lifetime endeavour. Some people stop learning midway because they attain a degree of success and then perform below potential. A large portion of an artiste’s time is spent in introspection. If your work is compelling, it will shine.”
Asked to describe the place music has in her life, Aruna says, “It is the most of who I am. There are very few things I enjoy as much as music. Indian classical music has its origins in spirituality. The notes were put together for shlokas, the whole pursuit was to be spiritual through music. And I find it’s my way of communicating with that consciousness. When I practise for three or four hours in my room, it’s like doing sadhana. That time is so special to me, it is directed inside me.”
As the torch-bearer of her father’s musical legacy, she is aware of her responsibility to carry it forward.
“He gave the sarangi a respectability it never had, he gave it gravitas. He raised it from being an instrument whose doleful notes on the radio announced the passing away of a minister, he gave it a presence on the international stage. I hope to continue that.”
Aruna Narayan Kalle’s recordings are available on the Nimbus (UK) and Zig-Zag (France) labels. She performs in India every year, appearing in the National Program of Music on Doordarshan (TV) and several other networks.