The Magic of Bombay Jayashri

Bombay Jayashri tells Yogesh Pawar how she took to Carnatic music at her guruji’s house, why she doesn’t gesticulate while performing and about the deep roots she has in the city

Bombay Jayashri Ramnath’s music is both mellifluous and meditative. With an eclectic repertoire of jingles, Bollywood numbers and Hindustani classical music to her credit, she has now surrendered to her true love—Carnatic music. The Oscar-nominated vocalist performed in Mumbai at the Dakshinayan concert organised by Banyan Tree on Friday.

How special is performing in Bombay for Bombay Jayashri?
(Laughs) It is very, very special. After all the city has given me so much that shaped me as an artiste.

How did the name of the city come to be part of your name?
When I travelled to the South to perform, a critic called Subbudu had done a beautiful review speaking glowingly of my singing. Since there were already a few Jayashris around then, he decided to call me Bombay Jayashri. Later it came to be the moniker people know me by. Given how special Bombay is for me, I doubt I’d have it otherwise.

You were exposed to both Carnatic, Hindustani and light music and even learnt Bharatanatyam from guru Kalyanasundaram. How has that eclecticism helped in your journey?

I’m very fortunate to have recieved such eclectic training and exposure. My Carnatic music teacher parents were great fans of all kinds of music. I trained in Hindustani under Mahavir Jaipurvale for about six years.Very early on, I was encouraged to follow different styles. That helped hone my musicality as an artiste. As I now pursue Carnatic music, all this comes together in a special amalgam. For example, even as I sing, I can see the sahitya as a dancer. As a person and artiste what more can one ask for?

You’ve been the voice of jingles in many languages for many top brands. Any that have stayed with you?

It was not only about music, technique and the joy of the art, but about being able to sell something in 20 seconds. And I learnt so much about projection and voice modulation from greats like Kersi Lord, Louiz Banks, Leslie Lewis and others who I sang for. I ended up learning many languages too. I can remember practically every jingle I sang, even now. Many still recollect the Bournvita and Rexona ones. I remember having sung the Ponds Dream Flower jingle in eight languages.

Singer-songwriter Shankar Mahadevan was a fellow-disciple…

Yes we trained under Balamani around the same time and have always shared a great rapport. I remember how we’d have to count every penny in those days. When I walked from Balamani maami’s class near Matunga station to the 8 Ltd bus stop to head home, one of us spent a princely 25 paise to buy sev puri which we’d share. I’ve never been able to find that taste of sev puri again. It still lingers.

Can you recount your training under violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman?

By the mid 80s, I’d begun singing lots of jingles. I was also part of a group which sang filmy numbers at Ganpati pandals, Navratri gatherings and Dandiya nights singing in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati.I would’ve probably continued but a concert by my guru Lalgudi Jayaraman changed my life. I was listening to him live for the first time. His violin drew me to it instinctively. I knew deep within that I should pursue his musical path. I just had to be a part of his world, even if it meant being a tiny speck, a tiny dot. I’m lucky he agreed to teach me.

And you shifted to Chennai…

I just stopped singing jingles to leave for the Lalgudi household in Chennai in 1989. That home was spritual in every sense—whether it was Guruji, who was music personified, Guruji’s mother praying, or the vibes of so many great visiting maestros. I realised how little I knew and applied myself completely to learning under him.

Was he strict?

Yes he was strict about getting the best out of me. He changed my approach to music as a mere performing art to a way of life itself. He gave me insights into aesthetic classicism that I didn’t know existed. Having said that, he was not at all close-minded about his art and was a huge Mehdi Hassan and Michael Jackson fan. I remember watching videos of Jackson with him. “See how he becomes one with his music. When your personality becomes one with the note, music is born. And in that oneness you create a world for your listeners too,” he had told me.

You’ve sung for theme-based albums, concerts and have even given playback for films. What do you find most fulfilling?

I don’t think of them as removed from each other. I just relate to the musical note. And there is so much to learn. If I sing a song for Ilaiyaraaja Sir, it is like a year of college education. That is often more important than the opportunity itself. For me, music is music. It is one beautiful continnum. Having said that, I’ve now devoted myself primarily to Carnatic music. I can sense what some call a spiritual/divine calling to carry on my journey on this path.

You perform without moving your arms or head like most singers. Is this a conscious decision?

Hemant Kumar’s nephew, Gautam Mukherjee lived in the same colony as us in Chembur. My mother took me to him to learn. My first meeting with him left a mark. He was 22 and I was only 14. He asked me to sing and then asked, “Have you ever seen yourself in the mirror? You shake your head, twitch your nose and make faces like a monkey. Why such complicated gestures though you aren’t singing anything complicated?” I broke down and I told my mother I didn’t want to go back but Amma would have none of it. Now I feel so grateful to him for teaching me stage presence and the visual aesthetics of a performance.

You’ve composed for actor Revathi’s films Verukku Neer and Kerala Cafe and and also for the dance-drama, Silappadhikaaram, commissioned by the Cleveland Cultural Alliance. Are more films in the offing?

I enjoy composing as it allows me to explore another dimension of my music. I’ve particularly enjoyed collaborating with dance legends like Alarmel Valli and Leela Samson because of my own training in Bharatanatyam. I’ve also enjoyed composing for the operatic ballet Meghdootam. But nothing as felt as special as putting together a commemorative tribute to my guru with Guruvandanam, a concert – which we have had two shows of – where seven musicians present his compositions in a very different format.

Your song for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was nominated for the Oscars five years ago. Does it rankle that you didn’t win?

I don’t see it like that at all. To be nominated and be in the reckoning at that stage is itself no less an achievement. And I was able to be part of a film by Sir Ang Lee. Isn’t that special by itself?

You have in the past collaborated with the Finnish musician-composer Eero Hämeenniemi. Any other such projects coming up?

In 2008, it was an honour to sing ancient poems from Sangam literature – with Avanti, a Philharmonic Orchestra from Finland and set to music by Eero Hämeenniemi, the composer, musician and writer who is also a docent and professor at the University of the Arts, Helsinki. Four years later, we collaborated again when I sang the works of Mirza Ghalib he set to music at the Vantaa festival, Finland. Next summer we’re coming up with another collaboration. It is combination of several texts across the world, including Persian.

Your jugalbandis with Indian artistes too have come in for a lot of praise.

I think it is to the credit of both artistes, nothing that I do alone. We have to both enjoy and respect each other’s music and adapt seamlessly to meld with the other’s genre, without sacrificing individual identity. I’ve been lucky to collaborate with many like flautist Ronu Majumdar (who I know since we both trained under Mahavir Jaipurvale) and vocalist Shubha Mudgal (with whom I sang at a concert this week at Bangalore) who share the same sentiment. So it shows in the jugalbandi too.

You’ve been variously compared for your unusual musical career to Veena S Balachandar, while others call you the rightful legatee to Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi. What do you make of this?

It is scary to think of this. I’m nowhere as accomplished as these legends who were divinity incarnate in the pursuit of their art. I can only fold my hands in humility and grace and wonder at the gumption of people who make these comparisons at all.

We know you’re a great fan of Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Any current singers whose work you like in Bollywood?

Every once in a while, in the car en route, I get to hear snatches of some great singing. I really like singers like Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan, Rekha Bhardwaj, Sonu Nigam and Arijit Singh.

Do you feel artistes have a responsibility to speak up on social issues?

Don’t we all? Artistes because of their reach and capacity to amplify, more so. We must be a lot more vocal on issues. True there are trolls and opposition, but if your conviction tells you to speak up, so be it. There should however be no pressure on how, when or the issues you choose to vocalise. Also one needs to be aware of how much and no more. The messenger shouldn’t become the message.

DNA – March 19, 2017