Legendary classical singers Vidushi Ranjani and Vidushi Gayatri are on a month-long tour of the US. For the third edition of the Beats and Strings column, India Currents’ Anuj Chakrapani caught up with the sister-duo.

Masters Of Their Art

IC: Over the years, you have mastered the art of putting together the perfect performance—one that combines creativity, bhakti, and classical compositions.

Ranjani: We believe that when you love something, and you do it with passion, it just comes through. The whole experience of singing with each other in tandem helps us enjoy our music. We both get the best seats in the audience sitting next to each other, listening and experiencing the beauty of the other’s singing. 

Gayatri: Now, when you talk of a performance, an artist tries to condense years of sadhana (deep learning) into those 2-3 hours. So, how effectively one draws from that and lets the best of it reflect during that performance is the key.

Our father was a huge source of inspiration. He taught us that Carnatic music is so complex, and so huge, that it is very easy to get caught up in its beauty, or be self-indulgent, when presenting it. So, one of the key factors of a recital that holds the attention of the audience, involves walking that thin line between being creative, and not losing the connect with the audience. As artists, we must put music on a pedestal, because it is far greater than what we are as artists.

Carnatic artists Ranjani and Gayatri.
Carnatic musicians Ranjani and Gayatri.

From Violinists To Vocalists

IC: In the mid ’90s, you were popular but not yet crowd pullers. Then, an event occurred that proved a turning point in your careers.

Ranjani: In early Jan 1999, a very senior artist who was to perform in Chennai, had to call off her concert because of health reasons. We were asked to sing in her place. We had always thought that of ourselves as violinists first. We were not very comfortable in our shoes as vocalists. Until such time, we were not crowd pullers either.

But on that day, we were overwhelmed by the crowd that showed up. It was a hall without air conditioning, but there was a sea of people. The courtyard, the floor, and the dais were packed with people. We had never seen such crowds. 

Gayatri: What that meant for us is that we stopped being apologetic about ourselves. We still cannot forget the faces of people in the crowd that were shedding tears, sitting, listening to us. But that concert really changed everything; more than being in the news, we felt a shift within us. We realized what we could do, and there was no looking back after that. It was probably Lord Balaji’s will that this is what we were meant for, though it took us quite a few years to come to terms with that. 

Don’t Indulge In The Name of Creativity

IC: What is one advice from your father and your guru that you still apply, even today?

Ranjani: Our father has been our toughest critic. Our gurus (Shri PS Narayanswamy sir, and Shri T S Krishnaswamy sir) were less strict in comparison. So, it was always our Appa who kept us very grounded.

Their one piece of advice that we still follow is “attention to proportion,” and never to overindulge in the name of creativity or freedom of expression. In the context of performances, it is about how to combine alapana with compositions and manodharma and so on, and to ensure everything is in the right proportion.

Gayatri: I remember twenty-two years ago, when we were singing in a concert hall in Chennai, we sang a very extended alapana in a certain raga (Nattukkurinji) for around a half an hour.

Our guru, Shri PSN, heard us, and said, “You have such a facile voice, that it just obeys everything that your mind says. But if you just spill everything that you have in one concert, what will you keep for your next concert? Always leave your fans asking for more.”

YouTube video
Subramanya Bhujangam: The artist duo’s tribute to their mother.

Moving Beyond Classical Music

IC: You have recently forayed into devotional albums like Lalitha Sahasranamam, Pandurangaksham.

Ranjani: All the devotional work of ours started off as a tribute to my mother-in-law, who had always wanted us to do a recording of Lalita Sahasranamam. Our focus was on classical music and not on the devotional area. As a result, we procrastinated. Finally, one day, we went to the studio and finished the entire chant in a couple of hours. That inspired us to do more devotional songs. Subramanya Bhujangam was one such song that we recorded in our mother’s memory. 

IC: You recently did the Raaja by RaGa concert in celebration of the film composer Illaiyaraja’s 80th birthday.

Gayatri: During my college days, I was the lone violinist in my college orchestra, where they played Raja sir’s songs. That’s when I realized the layers, the rich orchestration, the background music and the interludes in his compositions. Raja sir had a team of 50-60 musicians playing a song, and my biggest challenge was to condense and present the best aspects of the songs with just one violin.

Doing “Raaja by RaGa” was a challenge because we had to stay true to his composition but bring out the beauty of the classical elements of the song, the ragas and such.

Ranjani: The concert was sold out, and people in the audience were mostly Raja sir’s fans. They had never attended a classical concert before. Here we were, sitting with a tanpura, ghatam and mridangam as accompaniments in a kutcheri-like setting. There were no drums, or keyboard, or any of the regular orchestra instruments. But the people loved it, appreciating the deep classical elements and cheering for all the classical bits. That was a revelation, and we really enjoyed that.

IC: Of late, you have been filming your songs as travelogues, visiting different parts of the country.

Gayatri: The purpose of these vocal travelogues was to connect the setting of the place with the core of our music and to celebrate it, because this land of Bharat is the source of everything—the art, the music, the lyrics, the words, the bhakti. All of that is all rooted to this punyabhoomi (sacred land).

Music can never be separated from the context of spirituality, from the context of the land itself. And when you present it in a concert hall, it becomes sanitized; it becomes a performance.

YouTube video
Spontaneous start to Ranjani-Gayatri’s travelogue.

Gayatri: The travelogue happened in a very spontaneous, unplanned moment. It started with a boat ride. When we were riding on the sacred Ganga, we broke into a song, and it was captured by one of the accompanying artists. We shared it with our fans and the response was phenomenal. What started with these small, small snippets of songs has expanded into full-length travelogues on Eppo Music. 

IC: Finally, one piece of advice you can offer to budding artists?

RaGa: Be natural, be evocative, be expressive, but always end the performance when the audience wants more. 

YouTube video
The video interview on which this article is based. The article has been edited for space.

The sisters will be performing at Carrington Hall in Sequoia High School in Redwood City on Sunday, September 18. The event is sold out.

Anuj Chakrapani loves music and cinema among all art forms. He believes their beauty lies in their interpretation, and that the parts is more than the sum. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a...