There is something refreshing and invigorating about young voices, particularly those that are agile, fit, well-trained and in great form, ready to take risks and leap and jump and dive into a composition, confident in the knowledge that they will sail through with nary a miss or false note. Twenty-five-year-old Varijashree Venugopal’s voice as she sings the sargam/solfège syllables or performs what she describes as “Carnatic scat singing” over Joe Farrell’s flute solo in the legendary Chick Corea composition Spain, is virtuosic and made a riveting introduction to the young musician whom I had not had the opportunity to hear earlier. In India, the convention has been for instruments to emulate the voice. Venugopal does the opposite. She sings what Farrell has played on the flute with ease, expression and, above all, an easy intimacy with both the music and her own voice.
There are plenty of classical musicians in India who are gifted with gorgeous voices and virtuosic temperaments, and are able to display acrobatics and pyrotechnics across octaves. So she is by no means alone. But where she stands apart is in her embracing of genres and styles and orientations that are not Indian or tethered to the raga system. In most cross-cultural collaborations, Indian classical musicians seldom step out of their comfort zone, preferring to play the music they always do, but permitting some interventions from collaborators. The Indian musician is trained to elaborate and improvise within the infinite space that a raga offers. Stepping out of the parameters of a raga constitutes a challenge, though not an insurmountable one for the adventurous. Venugopal embraces the challenge willingly when she chooses to sing along to Farrell’s solo.
Did her being a flautist and a singer trained in the Carnatic system help? It’s possible that the discipline and rigorous training she underwent equip her to undertake such a challenge but, ultimately, it was her own desire to learn from another system of music that inspired her. The little insertions of modulation and usage that are typically Indian were equally delightful and admirable.
Prodigiously talented, Venugopal could identify around 40 ragas of the Carnatic system when she was barely a year and a half old. Her formal training in vocal music started at age 4, under the guidance of Vidushi H. Geetha. Later, she received the guidance of several respected gurus, including Vidushi Vasantha Srinivasan, Vidwan D.S. Srivatsa and Vidwan Salem P. Sundaresan. In addition, her father Vidwan H. S. Venugopal also trained her as a flautist, adding to her many accomplishments. An avid interest and desire to learn about music from different parts of the world is reflected on her Facebook page where she recently reposted a video of herself singing along to a track titled Teclas Pretas, performed by Israeli saxophone and clarinet player Anat Cohen and her quartet Choro Aventuroso.
The many musical influences Venugopal has imbibed and adapted reflect in her own composing too. A recent single composed, produced and performed by Venugopal, titled Devamanohari (adapted from the Carnatic raga Devamanohari), with Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Praveen D. Rao (harmonium and melodica), Pramath Kiran (percussion) and Arun Kumar (drums), is a good illustration of her eclecticism, which remains firmly anchored to her roots in Carnatic classical music.
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