Tete-a-tete – Vainika Dr. Suma Sudhindra – The experimenting exponent

Dr. Suma Sudhindra is the foremost exponent of the veena in her generation of musicians. Her perfect sense of shruti together with her amazing speed and mastery over the instrument has endeared her to all audiences. A very rare blend of classical conservatism with a belief in evolving to the present, her range of work has extended from the scholarly to performances of immaculate skill and creative contours. A vivacious blend of artistic instincts, adroit techniques and admirable commitment is evident in all aspects of her work. An activist on the cultural front, she is fiercely propagating the cause of music in the roles of performer, administrator, scholar and teacher. Keen on making a global presence, Suma’s works of experimentation have been applauded all over the world and this vibrant exponent of the Emani-Chitti Babu style is making the sounds of the veena a phenomenon of universal appeal. Her recent contribution to the music world is her own new innovation, the ‘Tarangini Veena’ which has made a tremendous impact in music circles.

Her music has taken her beyond the country’s borders to the USA, Singapore, Malaysia and England.

Scholars and music lovers throughout the country have shown their appreciation of her music by honoring her with various titles. She has been conferred the title of Ganakala Shree by the renowned Karnataka Gana Kala Parishat. The Madras Academy has honored her with the coveted award of The Best Vainika. She received the “Rajyotsava Award” from the Karnataka Government in 2001.

Her versatility extends to her leading the well-known Karnataka Jazz Fusion group, Megha. In spite of her busy schedule as a performing artist, Dr. Suma Sudhindra trains at Tarangini, her institute of veena studies, young hopefuls, aiming to reach great musical heights like their guru. Through her institution, she actively arranges workshops and festivals to promote the awareness of classical music.

On the academic front, Suma keenly participates in seminars across the country reaching out to the community. She was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on string instruments and has taught P. G. Classes at the Department of Dance, Drama and Music in Bangalore University and taught students at universities abroad.

She has released many cassettes and CDs for various companies like Sangeetha, Magnasound, BMG Crescendo, Lahari and HMV.

She is the Secretary of the prestigious Chowdaiah Memorial Hall.

An artist who is not conservative, who looks at music from different perspectives, a dynamic personality, always well-dressed, Suma Sudhindra chats with Anuradha in her usual candid manner.

How did you take up the veena?

Every South Indian family would grow up with music those days and that’s how I went to learn music; never learnt it with the idea of becoming a professional musician. My mother loved music, all my cousins were learning music too, but they all gave up at some point of time and I continued. I initially learnt vocal for three years and was 8 when I started learning to play the veena. I would go to competitions and win prizes but never realised I was good at it. Till I did my master’s (in history) I never thought I would be a performer. I was looking for a job; then I took the vidwath exam and got the second rank. So people around said, ‘Why not take music seriously?” Those days bank jobs were also available or I could have even opted to try for a career in the IAS. I was learning veena from Veena Raja Rao in Bangalore.

Finally I decided to take up music seriously and decided to go to Chitti Babu in Chennai. I traveled up and down to learn from him. I was one of the first to do that, and created history as a girl going to learn at that distance. He was happy too. I used to stay with my sister-in-law. As I went to him, I learnt and performed. Three years up and down; for ten years I really worked hard, with marriage, children and classes. My mother was a great support. She used to manage my house. It was a tough life. Music was not considered to be a great profession then. I did it all after marriage; my husband was quite supportive but it’s all because of my mother that I am where I am today. My husband is a dentist; our professions are widely different. Probably that’s why the relationship has stood the test of time.

What do you think of the veena as a solo concert instrument?

The veena has never had the problem of establishing itself as a solo instrument; it has its own place, fortunately, in Karnataka, where the veena tradition is very strong, unlike in Chennai where I don’t find sabha people going to a veena concert. It may be because they give importance to vocal music. Even abroad they love the veena, its tonal quality; they also like the fact that it is handcrafted.

Tell us about Chitti Babu’s style of music …

My guru Chitti Babu and Balachander were the most popular veena artists. Before becoming his student, I happened to go to one of Chitti Babu’s concerts; I was impressed by the way he handled the instrument, the sensitivity and the clarity of the tone which is the specialty of his school, the sweetness – I don’t think that any other school has that. A plucking instrument usually has the quality of notes being cut, but he overcame that in his style. That’s his specialty.

How did you get the idea for the Tarangini veena?

I did my Ph.D. in 1990. Since then I had been thinking about the veena – travelling with a veena which is a huge instrument is kind of troublesome. But just travelling easily was not my concern. In a concert with other instruments, like in a jugalbandi or fusion concert, the veena is always at a disadvantage because of its bulk and also its tonal quality. The veena has a very beautiful tonal quality if you amplify it, but without amplification it does not work at all. Why can’t we amplify it when we are in a group concert? After all, one should make use of technology for improving things.

I used to interact with a lot of guitarists; when I met them after a gap of some months, they would have new instruments, with new features, new facilities. But I would be stuck with the same instrument with absolutely no facility. Carnatic music is highly evolved, but we are so much in a well that we don’t want to look out of it. That’s what made me think, “Let’s experiment.”

When I went in 2000 to Hanover, I had to play with a flautist; I had taken an instrument which was dismantled, but in transit it was broken. The next couple of days I was running around to put my veena together, in a new town in a new country, with a language I did not know. The incident made me begin work on the Tarangini veena. After working on a new design from 2000 to 2002, I gave up for I thought it wouldn’t work as there were some technical problems I could not solve.

In the USA, in a guitar store, I found a mike that could be tried on a Saraswathi veena. It sounded just right. In the next three months I designed the new veena.

What is special about the Tarangini veena?

It is very light; it sounds absolutely divine as I have not compromised on the tonal quality. One can attain a good speed because the dandi is smaller.

You have used guitar keys for tuning; did anyone assist you technically?

Many performing artists have used guitar keys on the Saraswathi veena. A lot of people have done experiments on the veena even in the USA. Mr. Cyril Louis, a guitar-maker (from Bangalore) helped me in putting it together. He had no idea about Carnatic music. To make a concert-worthy veena, I had to try out different things; inputs from various people helped make it possible.

Is this veena available to everyone?

Right now, I am not looking at large-scale production though I have got the patent. I can get it made if anyone wants it. We have made about 10-12 veenas.

I have taken this veena to the USA and it is a huge hit there.

What is the cost?

The Tarangini veena costs about Rs. 25,000/-. More than students, performing artists will find it useful.

Do you teach on the Tarangini veena or the Saraswati veena?

I teach on the Saraswathi veena but I also switch without any hassle. Most of my students who are performing have the Tarangini veena.

What are your views on teaching?

I prefer teaching one-on-one. I like to teach, I am alert when I teach and when you teach good students, you are on your toes.

What are the qualities of a good guru or teacher?

To teach the arts, you should be an inspiring teacher. Even today I look up to my gurus; they make a lasting impression on you. I feel I have put some of my students on the right path. It makes me feel good when some of my students look up to me.

What is your role as Secretary of the Chowdiah Memorial Hall?

Organising and chalking out of programmes. This year is special because it is the silver jubilee year, and I would like it celebrated in a grand manner.

What is AIM Events which you have started recently?

AIM Events is an event managing company started by danseuse Veena Murthy Vijay and me. We feel that as performing artists we can bring a unique perspective to the organising and staging of cultural events.

What are your other interests?

I am fitness-conscious, my profession demands that. I go to the gym, I do jewellery designing, and I have a farm to look after.

You are noted for dressing well?

I love dressing well, that’s the way I am, have always been and will be.

Are your daughters trained in music?

No, they are not trained in music. I don’t come from a family of musicians. That’s why maybe I did not force music on them. I don’t believe that just because I am a musician, my children also have to learn music.

What is your message to the younger generation of artists?

Be focused! One should have the drive and passion for art to do well in the field.

What are your plans for the future, now that you have achieved so much?

I live for the day; there is no way I can predict what I’ll do in the next 15 days. There are a lot of things I want to try with the veena – different kinds of presentation, combining it with different instruments.

Tarangini Arts Foundation

Tarangini Arts Foundation, Bangalore, which was started in 1974 primarily as a training centre for teaching veena, has now, over a period of thirty years, grown into a premier institution for the promotion of training and research in classical music. The foundation was registered as a trust in 1994 and its affairs are being managed by a committee of trustees. Dr. Suma Sudhindra is the Managing Trustee.

The foundation has so far trained about a hundred students in the veena, who have shaped very well and performed creditably in their musical professions. It has, at present, about fifty trainees. Even after their training, the artists continue to receive necessary guidance and support from the foundation for a fuller development of their capabilities during their early professional career.

Tarangini Arts Foundation has consistently been a centre of assistance to carry out serious studies like music and dance. A number of foreign students have come to study subjects like music in therapy, study of stringed instruments and comparative study of Western and Indian music.

Tarangini Arts Foundation has steadily functioned in conformance with its objectives and each year has been filled with activities like workshops, seminars, concerts and festivals featuring eminent artists.

The foundation has released two cassettes and CDs of Panchaveenas. The first one was released in 1996 and has received good appreciation. The second one, a collection of nine Tillanas on five veenas, is exclusive for its unusual orchestration. It is the culmination of detailed planning, sustained dedication and rehearsals by Dr. Suma Sudhindra and the students of the foundation.

Contact: 42, Sirur Park Road, 4th Cross, Malleswaram, Bangalore – 560003
Ph: 23361906, 23344557 Email: sumasudhindra@hotmail.com