You can travel the world over four days at WOMADelaide. This is what I felt when I was there in 2010, wandering from Turkey to Japan, Ethiopia to Venezuela, Taiwan to Hungary to Azerbaijan. Music is one of the best ways to learn about a country and SUDHA RAGUNATHAN, currently India’s most celebrated Carnatic music singer, who is performing at this year’s WOMAD, agrees. ‘The fabric of our way of life is reflected in the music,’ she told me from her home in Chennai. ‘We sing about the country, about the patriotic feeling you need to have for your country, the glory of the country, the beauty of the country. We sing about the leaders, about Gandhiji. But it is mostly the call for the divine.’
Carnatic music encapsulates the classical music of Southern India. Unlike the classical music of Northern India (think Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan – sitars, sarods and tabla), it focuses on vocal music; absolutely mind-boggling vocal music with bursts of unbelievably vigorous vibrato and immensely sustained notes that make you shake your head in wonder. How does she do that!? Sudha Ragunathan is one of the greats. She’s a top ranking artist on All India Radio and Doordharshan, a leading Indian TV network, and has received hundreds of awards, including the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award presented by the Indian Government. Her country adores her.
Carnatic music dates back to the 16th Century and, naturally with such an ancient tradition, there are rules. ‘In classical music there is a grammar in it – there’s a certain boundary or territory you have to adhere to each time you sing something,’ explained Sudha. ‘Like when you go to a temple you remove your slippers outside and you dress in a certain way, and then you go to the sanctum sanctorum and you pray to the divine, you do it in a certain way, and so too in Carnatic music. There is a certain way that you approach the composition, the melody line or the structure of the composition. You cannot change it completely; you cannot dilute or make it easy for anyone to listen.’
To Western ears with no knowledge of Carnatic music the experience could indeed be challenging. Sudha believes, ‘That is a conundrum that can be answered only by the audience. You have to take a step forward to say, “Yes! I’m going into this auditorium to listen to Carnatic music!” And it probably just goes above your head because it can awe you, it can bog you down, it can make you feel “Ai! I don’t understand a single note. Am I doing the right thing by sitting here?”’ I assured her WOMAD audiences would most definitely feel they were ‘doing the right thing’. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said warmly. ‘The boundaries are shrinking and audiences worldwide are opening up to take in any form of music.’
Sudha Ragunathan will perform at WOMADelaide on Saturday March 9 at 9pm on the Moreton Bay stage. WOMADelaide runs Fri-Mon March 8-11 in Botanic Park in Adelaide. Ticket prices vary – visit womadelaide.com.au for more info.