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Interview American Hindi

Indian classical music is becoming lighter to please the masses: Sarangi player Aruna Narayan

Aruna Narayan, member of the musical team of acclaimed films such as Life Of Pi (2012), speaks about the challenges of her music, collaborations, and her own standing as a pioneer.

Photos: Shutterbugs Images

Shriram Iyengar

In an age when women are finally asserting their rights and equality in different professional domains, Aruna Narayan remains a quiet achiever. As the rare female exponent of the difficult art of playing the sarangi, she has persevered and achieved a great deal in as quiet and humble a way as possible.

Speak to her about it and she says, "My intention was never to be an oddity. Never to be something different. I always played the sarangi because I loved the instrument, and I loved the music." 

(Anti-clockwise from left: Pandit Ram Narayan, Aruna Narayan, Brij Narayan and Brij's son Harsh Narayan

It is not a surprise. As the daughter of Pandit Ram Narayan, she learnt at the feet of the master, India's foremost exponent of the instrument.

But it did not come easily. As the first woman in her family, and the lone female artiste in India, to take up the instrument, she faced a formidable challenge. Having begun her training at the age of 18, she went on to impress with her subtlety, precision and grace on the sarangi.

In addition to a packed international concert schedule, Aruna Narayan has worked on film projects like Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Life Of Pi (2012) and played Vivaldi's Four Seasons on the sarangi. But call it fusion and she will be annoyed. 

"I don't take part in fusion ensembles or music that intends to bring exotic instruments together just to be different," she says. "I always collaborate with good musicians or symphonies which really have the end product as the main purpose."

In an extensive interview with Cinestaan.com, Aruna Narayan spoke about the joy, discipline and challenges of the sarangi, and why she continues to love it. Excerpts:

As one of the foremost female exponents of this difficult instrument, what were your major challenges?

Well, I don't think I really faced a challenge in the sense that when I took up the instrument I decided I was going to play the sarangi, I did not think that I would be groundbreaking, or I would be the first woman to play the sarangi. My intention was never to be something different. It was always that I played the sarangi because I loved the instrument, and I loved the music.

I felt completely confident that I was learning from the absolute best master of this instrument. I was confident that whatever I would learn would be beyond reproach. So, in that sense, I never faced the kind of challenge where you wonder how you can learn such a difficult instrument.

When I first expressed my desire to play this instrument to my father, I said, 'I don't know whether I would be able to play because it is a difficult instrument.' He simply said, 'Why not?' That was enough for me. If he thinks I can do it... I went full steam ahead.

I believe you picked up the instrument rather late, unlike many classical singers who choose their discipline very early in life.

I was 18 when I started playing. I was learning a bit of singing before that. I just said one day to my father, 'I don't think I am enjoying singing as much. I wish I could just play the sarangi.' He said, 'Why not? If that's the reason you want, then there's no reason why you can't.'

While the sarangi is a difficult instrument, it also has an individual voice. You have collaborated with several international orchestras. How do you manage to keep that individual sound alive? Is it difficult in orchestras?

I live in Canada now, and from childhood I have felt that my father has always been an open-minded musician. In the sense that he has been inspired by people who are not musicians from India but from every kind of music. He has been appreciated and has had friends among really well-known Western classical musicians of the string instrument family.

I feel that music is really a universal language. Being trained as a classical Indian musician, I always chose collaborations that would keep the integrity of this instrument as a classical instrument. I don't take part in fusion ensembles or music that intends to bring exotic instruments together just to be different. I always collaborate with good musicians or symphonies, which really have the end product as the main purpose. So, if the music itself is saying something, collaborating on that level is a worthwhile project.

Any particular projects that left an impact on you?

One of the projects I really enjoyed was playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, one of the foremost baroque orchestras in the world. We played an adaptation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and I found that a very, very gratifying project to do musically. 

You have also played for films. Starting with Mira Nair for Monsoon Wedding (2001), and in that brilliant soundtrack for Life Of Pi (2012). Can you tell us how it came about?

Well, the composer for both projects and several other Hollywood films, Michael Dyanna, is a good friend of mine. He is not only well trained in Western classical music, but is also very knowledgeable about Indian music and Indian instruments. So, it has always been a pleasure to work with him. All the projects I have done with him were wonderful.

When you compose for, or accept a project on a film, does the subject matter of the film make a difference in your decision?

Yes, of course. For films that you do background scores on, you have to really see the scene and get a feel of what the film director wants. You need to understand what kind of message he is wanting to put across, and what the composer is, what he is looking for. As you know, film music aids the story. It has to go along with the story and convey the feeling of the direction in which the story is going. You have to keep that in mind when playing. 

Playing at concerts and orchestral events is never easy. Is there something particular you focus on when playing at such events?

Well, there are several things that you focus on. You have to immerse yourself in the presence of what you are trying to achieve there. It is an experience that is not very easy to describe, but when you get there and prepare for a concert, it is total immersion into a different world. 

For students picking up the sarangi today, the challenge is to first deal with the instrument. Later, there is the challenge to move to the next level. What is your advice to them?

I think my father has been able to really research this instrument and make it so approachable that any student who has the basic requirements — knowledge of intonation, basic structure of sargam and classical Indian music — will be able to follow this technique that he has provided us with. It is like a foolproof, logical, scientific way of learning. If students are interested in learning the sarangi, this is the only standard for sarangi playing that exists. So, if you follow that, there is no doubt that you will conquer it.

You mentioned that you try to avoid fusion projects, but that is all the vogue in cinema today. Do you find that people are losing a vital understanding of classical music?

Absolutely. As I said, fusion, the word itself means you are fusing different types of subjects together. The end result is really up in the air, it doesn't take you anywhere. It doesn't have melodic integrity, or any emotional integrity. It is very easy listening music or dance music.

Considering the training that we have, I feel that for me it is really important to say something in the music. To have the music mean something. For that reason, unless it is a very meaningful, musical project, and most fusion projects are not the same, they are a collection of different sounds and instruments, but they don't really highlight the musical content, they just get togehter. There are different parts, but they rarely take you somewhere. That's what is missing in fusion music. 

Often, music is a reflection of the culture of its time. Classical music seems to have been lost in this rage of social media. Does something need to change in the field for it to emerge as a leading light of culture again?

There has to be awareness. First of all, in India, we need to recognize that these are two very different fields [film music and classical music]. If we say we are a classical musician, you should be obliged to play classical music first and foremost. Secondly, if you do indulge in light collaborations, that should be based on what our culture is. If you base it on Western culture, you are losing a lot of our own culture in it. 

Unfortunately, it is what has happened with film music. So, you know, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, we still had a very strong element of Indian music in Bollywood [commercial Hindi cinema]. But now, the stronger element is Western music and Western instrumentation. I think it comes from a lack of confidence in what we have. Or lack of respect for our own strengths. I think that unless people realize that we have, in our music, many things to be proud of and worth preserving, we won't get out of this mode, aping the West, over and over again.

Even from Western culture, we are not really adapting anything worthwhile. For example, Western classical music is a very, very strong tradition. Very well thought out. Very enduring tradition of music. This is still alive and well in the West because it is so separated from popular music. Although it is not as popular as pop or rock music, there is a strong respect and place for classical music.

That line is blurred in India. Every classical musician here is regarded on the basis of how popular he or she is. In order to be popular, they have to play to the gallery. They have to adapt, compromise in their presentations. This means Indian classical music is becoming lighter and lighter to please the masses. That line is blurred a lot right now. 

Did you ever face this problem when working on films like Monsoon Wedding or Life Of Pi? Films are, after all, a medium of mass popularity. How did your classical training work in those times?

Definitely you need to adapt. If you are playing for a film, you are not playing classical music, obviously. But the music is within the character of what is required within the film. It was light music, but it was Indian-based. It was very appropriately used for this instrument, where the sarangi was required. So, for sure, you have to adapt. That is a good adaptation. 

I won't be playing a pop song with Western music, as it would be inappropriate for the sarangi. 

How does the sarangi evolve as an instrument in the future? What do you envision for it?

I belong to the generation where I think I am very optimistic about the instrument. I definitely want to believe, and I do see, because of my father's efforts, that the sarangi is much more popular. A lot of people are playing the sarangi, which is fantastic. I hope people will try and train in some form of standardized schooling as we have received, some solid technical and musical training. I think the future is definitely very bright.