Legendary Carnatic Singer Bombay Jayashri on Music and Almost Everything

Bombay Jayashri and Sunayana Kachroo
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By Sunayana Kachroo

Her Oscar nomination (Lullaby of Life of Pi),  her impressive repertoire, her work for autism through her music,  her love for Urdu ghazals and perfecting its nuances, her impeccable choice of Kanjivaram sarees, her appetite for excellence and her stamina to sing for hours to the keenly listening audience in wall to wall packed auditoriums may be some of the reasons why you could be one of the ardent admirers of the legendary Carnatic singer Bombay Jayashri but the reason you will find her endearing as a person is her ability to connect with you as a human being.  Though she takes immense pride in her art but she is not scared to reveal her vulnerable side and she definitely doesn’t hide behind her accolades.

“We have met before, haven’t we?” she asked. I reminded her that I our paths had crossed at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2014 where I was one of the featured poets as well. At the time I had asked her how she balances being a mother and an accomplished artist “Treat your art as your child. Don’t feel guilty if you divide time” was the advice that she had given me. We sat down for a casual tete-a-tete in a beautiful suburb of Boston to talk about her journey as she was getting ready for her performance at the Learnquest annual classical musical festival.

We started the conversation in English, relished Urdu and Mehdi Saab’s “Abke ham bichde to shayad”, switched to Marathi, reminiscing of her Chembur days and we circled back to English.

Your repertoire is so impressive, so vast. Your accomplishments are beyond listing, yet at every stage of our life/career we get inspired by different things? What inspires you today?

-Today the music itself inspires me, the more l learn, sing and perform, the more I realize that there is so much more to learn and to unlearn. Even if it is a ragaa like  Sankarabharanam which I have been singing for 40 years yet when I hear a rendition by a master I realize “Itna aur kuch hai” ( there is so much more to learn) and I immediately become a student and try to sing the phrases that I haven’t heard before.  I think my foundation now has become stronger, deeper and at the same time the yearning to know more has stayed too. Now I feel that It is the music itself is calling out and charting my path on to what I should do and what I should learn. I follow its calling.

Bombay Jayashri

Are you saying that when you hear some musical pieces of the masters, you learn something new when you hear them again?

-See, sometimes I may have heard a musical phrase, even sung it innumerable times but then one fine day another layer is revealed to you ”Aur kuch jo uske neeche chupa hua hai woh nikal aata hai ya mere zehen main woh ab register hota hai” . I guess that unraveling of the layers is by design. As an artist you may not be able to grasp it in one time. Sometimes you may not be ready for it, it comes to you when you are ready.  My “samajh” (understanding) is improving thankfully and my interest hasn’t gone down, so here I am still on my path.

It may sound like a silly question but when I see artists who have been learning and performing for decades, I often wonder if they get bored of their own work? Do they come to a point where they feel “oh god Yaman again!”. Does that happen to you? If it does then what do you do?

-There are two aspects to this. One is the aspect of being a student of music- learning the theory, having the ability to sing the musical phrases a certain way and having the patience to internalize it. The second aspect is the art of performance. They are two different things, they are not the same. Sometimes I get bored with the latter but I have never been bored of the learning aspect. The art of knowing more about the art is an art in itself. However, there have been times I have felt that I am not able to do anything more with a composition musically than what I did one year back, that leads to some self-doubt and anxiety. At times like that I take refuge in the music itself which gives me the strength and resilience to bounce back. I think that learning keeps the performing interesting and performing is what keeps the learning relevant.

How does riyaz fit into your very busy schedule as a performer and with your family engagements?

-Whenever I am touring, I am always craving for riyaz. As much as I like to perform, I also like to have these days where I do not have to worry about a performance.  When I am travelling I spend a lot of time listening to the music as it is hard to do riyaz and then I have to rest my voice as well. I often wish that I could go back to my student days where after working on a raaga for months, my guru would say “Some improvement is there” and that used to be the only thing to look up to. Now the goal is to be able to connect with the different audiences.   Riyaz ka matlab thoda badal jaata hai as you become a performer, the context of riyaz changes.  Sometimes “listening” is also riyaz.

Finally, a culmination of the musical learning and other worldly experiences make me what I am.  Jo bhi sangeet nikal raha hai, it is an extension of my personality which is being honed by the art itself and the experiences that art offers me as a student, as a performer and as a rasika. It is a continuous process and so am I.

Bombay Jayashri and Sunayana Kachroo

What role does spirituality have in your life?

-I know the term or the connotation of spirituality only through the process and the journey of learning music.   For example, If I am singing something like Mohanam which I have been singing for 40 years, there is a point which could come when I am able to forget that I am singing it or even that Raag Mohanam is being sung. I cannot describe that state, probably it is the state of nothingness or richness or just pure bliss. That state to me is the epitome or definition of spirituality that I can connect through notes with an entity which is “Mohanam” in this case. I remember years ago that I was singing Krishna nee begane, a lady came up to me and asked me If I was a huge bhakt of Krishna. I told her “Yes but I am also a bhakt of Yaman Kalyan “. She was taken aback and said “No, you must be a bhakt of Krishna , otherwise you cannot sing Krishna nee begane like that”.  So, I said “Well that is from your point of view, for me it is just that I am in awe of Yaman and I revere it while I am singing, it is my offering to Yaman”. That to me is the definition of Spirituality.

When I am asking about Spirituality I am not referring to religion, I am asking if you believe in something bigger than you.

  • Yes, I do believe in something that can be experienced but not explained. I feel it often while singing and I often hold on to my notes to experience that. I savor that while navigating through the nuances-alankaars that I have been taught. This experience leads me to an aesthetically beautiful world.

To dance with pleasure in this whole experience is a high, Pure bliss!

Let me say it this way. Sometimes when I am singing in a concert and I sing phrases that I have not thought of, Woh bas nikal aatein hain and it surprises me as well, I often wonder what is the unifying factor that keeps the dynamics of all the musicians interesting and aligned during a concert.  Sometimes it is just an exchange and then sometimes it is divine.

Do you ever forget the lyrics or a musical phrase while singing?

  • Yes, sometimes I do forget the Sahitya of a song. It is a strange state when I am singing but I am also forgetting. Often I just look around at the accompanying artist and he doesn’t know why I am staring at him and then as suddenly it come back too. It always has! I have finally understood that I may not understand everything that I am singing in its totality. I will make mistakes and I will keep learning too.  So, every performance for me is like a classroom, I am  prepared, I am also making mistakes, I am recalibrating, I am improving.

We listen to your music to relax, what do you do?

I listen to music too. I do read a bit, I like to read but then immediately after reading I have to relax with music. Sometimes on tours like this, I like to iron my clothes but then at the end of the last salwar or saree that I am ironing I am wondering Ki abhi kya sunu?

When I listen to certain masters of music, which includes my guru Kishori Amonkar ji, Lata ji, Asha ji I feel extremely peaceful. Some days ago, I was staying at a household in Dallas, an elderly gentleman, suddenly played “Aap ki nazron ne samjha” on his phone and he was immersed in that song. He didn’t understand Hindi yet listening to that rendition was like going to a place of tranquility. We didn’t know each other, we couldn’t understand each other’s language but we heard that song together.

I read somewhere that you are an admirer of Mehdi Hasan saab, how did you get into ghazals and Is there a favorite ghazal?

As Mahatma Gandhi said “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”. In our house different genres of music would be played and listened to, ranging from Mehdi Hasan, Michael Jackson, MS Sublakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Talat Mehmood , Mohd Rafi, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Abba and Bonney M as well.  We would listen and practice this music with equal reverence.

Someone gave me a cassette of Mehdi saab and the first composition that I heard was “Abke bichade “.

(We paused the conversation for a moment when I requested her to sing a few lines for me and fortunately she obliged.)

It is not the magic of his notes, his voice or his tayaari it is something more visual and deep and mind you we didn’t know any Urdu that time. However, this inspired me to go and learn Urdu from a teacher.  I had to understand the lyrics.  I learnt Urdu to understand the depth of the lyrics of ghazals and also to grasp Madan Mohan songs that are so beautiful lyrically.  For example, one needs to know what “Nazar” means what “Nagma” means. It brings another level of sensitivity and beauty that will immerse you once you understand the lyrics.

I always feel that a mother who works is a juggler…but a mother who is an artist is a struggler and a juggler too? How to you find balance?

-What is balance after all Sunayana! Sometimes if I sit and reflect, I feel everything is balanced but then someone says something and it rattles you. Then you meet people who tell you that they are proud of you, that elates you. If your child turns out good, people compliment you on your management and parenting as well.  Can I really take credit for that? I don’t know because I am not trying to “balance” anything. At different points in your life when you are doing one thing, there is something else out of balance.

We are very fortunate to be following something that is our calling and let me assure you one thing – “Finally everything will fall in place”.  I did have these moments of anxiety as well. My son would be sick at home with high fever and I would be on tour far away with another 10 days to go home. It was hard and unnerving at times but my strength comes from my music which is the “naked truth”. Everything else, every challenge at that time is peripheral.  I didn’t ask for this life, it was given to me and the least I can do is to do it with honesty and integrity. I cannot do everything with the same dedication, it is just not possible.

How did you get associated with the cause of Autism?

-I was in Dubai for a concert and this child came to me after the concert and told me that I had sung some phrases wrong. The mother tried to salvage the situation and told me that he is autistic and he doesn’t know how to lie. This made me feel even worse.  You know we get rusted as artists when we start to believe all the praises and adulation. One honest comment can wreck you and that is what happened to me.  Probably I still had some goodness left in me so I wanted to know the reason for his comment. I asked the mother and she educated me about this condition and I realized that he made that comment because he really cared for my music.  Thus, began my work in this area and with the help of my students I began singing Carnatic Music for several Schools for special needs children in India.  If they are non-verbal I have often found that music helps them to relax and if they are verbal they may sing the phrase that you taught them with far more accuracy than you did.  When that happens it makes me wonder who is the teacher? Who is the student? Who is normal? And what really is normal anyway.

You have had your training in Hindustani as well as Carnatic music. Since their approach or treatment to a raag or a composition is different, what kind of pleasure does Hindustani music give and What pleasure does Carnatic give?

-Hindustani and Carnatic forms of music are in some ways very contrasting forms even though they both have same swara, raaga and taal system. In Carnatic music we start to learn a raaga through compositions.  My understanding of the phraseology of the raaga happens through various compositions.  Slowly through practice I begin to understand the challan, gati and the temperament of a raaga.

I was already a Carnatic music student when I started learning Hindustani music, yet for the first three months my guru made me sing only Sa.  My class would begin at 6:45 am, and after an hour I would look up to him “ Guruji aaj Re hoga ki nahi”. He would tell me to come the next day and next day he would ask me to sing just Sa again.  After a while I got impatient and asked him to teach me a raaga. He looked at me and said “Jab Sa  theek se lagaogi tab ham Ra ke baare mein sonchegein”.  After almost 8 months he finally gave me some phrase to sing. Therefore, the approach is very different.

Having the good fortune of learning both my singing has been influenced by both the schools of music.

How can we make Carnatic music more accessible to the younger generation?

I do agree that at this point, a lot of demystifying of classical music needs to take place but at what cost? Can we do it without diluting? If we overdo it, then we may disturb its structure and lose the essence of it.  It would be great if we can introduce music as a compulsory subject in schools. At least until middle school, we need to make music available to the kids and that is not happening right now.  Not every child that learns music becomes a musician but then because they are exposed to it at an impressionable age, they develop an ear for it.  We have to give it to our children like we teach them maps, colors, history, we have to make music accessible to the children in school.  Everyone should know What is Raag and What is Taal. Though through my own foundation I keep engaging with children and also with Youth but I feel it is not enough.  I am contributing and I will continue to do so.

It was time for me to wrap up as she had a big concert coming up at the Learnquest’s annual music conference.  As I drove back  home through the inner roads of New England, I listened to music to relax as well, just as Bombay Jayashree had recommended. I listened to “Abke ham bichde to shaayd kabhi khwabon mein mile “ and followed with her Oscar nominated beautiful lullaby “ Kanne… Kanmaniye” and as Academy winner director Ang Lee had mentioned, a lullaby should make s child feel safe……..I was safe…I was home.

(Special thanks to LearnQuest Academy of Music, Shashank Nene,  Pradeep Shukla, Durga Krishnan and Rohini Ganjoo. The interview was originally conducted for LearnQuest.)


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