Classical Carnatic singing

Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam will light up the Jerusalem International Oud Festival.

ARUNA SAIRAM: I come from a long line of singers. (photo credit: PC-STUDIO 52)
ARUNA SAIRAM: I come from a long line of singers.
(photo credit: PC-STUDIO 52)
The Jerusalem International Oud Festival, despite its definitively Arabic music-leaning moniker, has seen artists from a broad slew of disciplines grace its stages over the past 19 years. The Indian music community has provided a number of such stellar turns. Famed bansuri (Indian flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia is one front grid name that easily springs to mind. This year’s oud-based program, which takes place November 8-17 under the auspices of Confederation House, with its CEO Effi Benaya once again filling the role of artistic director, features seasoned international acclaimed Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam.
Sairam, who will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on November 13 (9 p.m.), is today considered one of the world’s leading exponents of classical Carnatic singing, which has its roots in the south of India.
But she not only does her best to entertain her listeners by performing at the top of her game, she also helps to enlighten non-Indian culture consumers about the mysteries of her craft.
“As I perform so much outside India, I have sort of developed an acumen to communicate briefly to my audience, to somehow draw them into, what I am doing,” she explains. It seems to work quite well for all concerned. “When that happens, when they are drawn to the music, then they go with the flow and benefit, and things are much easier from that moment.”
That would seem to be a prerequisite for a generation or two of Western music fans more used to the energies of such acts as The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Madonna, Kanye West or Twenty One Pilots, generally spread over three-to-four minutes. But when it comes to classical material from India, you need to tap into a more generous attention span and breathe a little more deeply. A concert I attended in London quite a few years back now with iconic Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and tabla (percussion) master Zakir Hussain lasted somewhere around the four-hour mark.
Then again, Sairam doesn’t want us to overly challenge us, and is keenly aware of the dangers of losing the paying customer en route. “I try to make my concerts as accessible as possible. I try to follow the principle of saying to myself: Stop when people ask why, and not why not.”
A wise tenet to have, and it is an approach that has led her along an increasingly successful career path, which started several decades ago.
SAIRAM HAS the significant benefit of having appropriate genetic baggage. “I come from a long line of singers. I started learning singing with my mother when I was three, and when I was 10 I came under the influence of a great lady singer and teacher.”
Even at such an early age Sairam was in no hurry to learn all the tricks. “I had a long apprenticeship before I could perform on my own. Indians in general have a lot of patience,” she adds with a laugh.
Intriguingly, Sairam’s extensive professional purview includes serving as vice chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, aka the
National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, the national academy for performing arts established by the government of India in New Delhi.
The singer says it is not unusual for Indian musicians to have more than a passing knowledge of more than one form of artistic expression. “I learned to sing and dance all classical Indian forms, as well as learning to play the violin, Indian style. At some stage I decided to concentrate on singing, but I have a very deep connection with dance. I have been influenced by great dancers and also by music for dance.”
The aforesaid academy embraces all of that and more. “It covers music, dance, and theater and puppetry and folk and tribal art forms. For us they are all interconnected. We are trying to provide more and more understanding between these different subdivisions of art, so that one artist understand the other better, and is able to have a more holistic view of their art form.”
Sairam has been practicing what she has been preaching for quite a while. Her bio to date includes synergies with artists from seemingly disparate sectors of artistic pursuit, such as French singer Dominique Vellard, who specializes in medieval music, including Gregorian chants. Moroccan Sufi vocalist Noureddine Tahiri has also benefited from Sairam’s silky vocal skills and eclectic take on music, and last year she took part in a highly successful project together with high-flying American jazz artists, pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, both of whom come from Indian families, along with Hussain.
Above all, Sairam’s overriding intent across the thousands of concerts she has given and dozens of recordings she has made to date has been to move her listeners. As such she is considered particularly adept in the art of bhava – “bhava” means “emotion” in Sanskrit – expression. “When we say there is bhava in somebody’s music, it means that there is a lot of feeling in that person’s communication of the art.” Prepare to be moved.
Elsewhere in this year’s Jerusalem International Oud Festival you can find tributes to some of the legends of Arabic music, such as Iraqi singer Salima Mourad, featuring internationally renowned Israeli violinist-oud player Yair Dalal, and a tribute to Egyptian megastars composer-singer-oud player Farid al-Atrash and diva Umm Kulthum; a quality Greek performance with composer conductor Stavros Xarhakos and compatriot singers Yannis Kotsiras and Iro Saia; a high-energy slot with Spanish singer Montse Cortes; and a colorful confluence between kamanja – spike violin – player Mark Eliyahu and Azeri vocalist Bayimkhanim Valiyeva.
Once again, Benaya appears to have lined up a feast of sounds with something for everybody.
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and, (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and