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Saptaswar Light, Delights

Chitra Parayath

Saptaswar, the premier light music group from the New England area performed at the Keefe Tech in Framingham on December 7, 2002. The proceeds from the evening went to Udavum Karangal a charitable organization based in Chennai, India.

From the beginning until the end, Saptaswar kept the audience spellbound with their rhythms and melodies.

They sang from their hearts, they sang for a cause. Even though some of the artists featured that evening have played the professional music circuit in India, here they were part of this amazing amateur music group, Saptaswar.

To this reviewer, their evolution is impressive, having seen them perform their first concert in Sept. 2001, the improvement in clarity and sound quality will surely elevate this fledgling group to one of the premier singing troupes of New England.

Doctors, engineers, scientists, bankers, their day jobs are as varied as their singing styles, yet when they get together in concert, they unify into one pleasing sound. When two years ago, Mohan Somasundaram brought a talented group of musicians together and formed the group, he must have had an idea of how invaluable this institution would become to the cultural enironment in the area.

Saptaswar’s performance on stage is individually remarkably strong. Their work as a group shows the high level of integration and tight close coupling found in bands that have been in the circuit a lot longer.

For about an hour and a half the band treated us to a selection of rousing material, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi film songs.

Saptaswar has always been well known for renditions of covers of works by other bands and this gig was no exception to the rule. Achuth Menon, Venkat Dayanandan, Indu Sathish, Sudha Rao, Kavitha Narayan and Karthika Srinivas sang popular Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi film songs, each one drawing tremendous applause from the audience. In fact, when I met the troupe after the show each one commented that they couldn’t have asked for a more appreciative audience. Strangely enough there were no special requests from the mature crowd who seemed to enjoy the choice of songs selected by the group. Venkat did get the crowd to clap along with some boisterous tunes, managing to enthuse the sober lot into catcalls and whistles.

A brilliant rendition of the Rammayya Vostavayya (from the film Sri 420) by Vithal Bhaktha and Sudha Rao with backing vocals by Kavitha Narayan and Krithika Srinivas went down well with an ecstatic audience who joined en masse with the chorus.

V. Suryanarayan on the violin was faultless and Kumar and Karthik Marudur’s Mridangam was of the highest quality throughout.  Sumanth Shankar and Pragya Bhushan gave a very creditable performance on the drums.  Man of the match award however has to go to the key board man Kumar. Portraying an immense and obvious feeling of enjoyment while performing on stage, he managed to jump, strut, and smile throughout the performance in such a way that it would have been difficult not to have a good time. More performers should take note of this! Pankaj Kanth is a highly adept player, letting loose some superb rock guitar while Sumath Shankar and Pragya Bhushan provided powerful drumming throughout. Keyboardists Christy and Kumar Padmanabhan were excellent and the vocalists were the focal points of the evening. Their rendition of Jethro Tull's version of Bouree with some great improvisation on the violin by Surya and Pankaj on the guitar was undoubtedly a great point in the evening, another being Pragya’s full throated cover of the song ‘Kya Maloom’ originally by the Indian group Indian Ocean.

Mahesh Lachyankar on the Tabla , Shanthi Subbarayan on the Veena and Ishwar Patel on the dholak completed the ensemble.

I cornered the talented group right after the show for a short chat. The very obliging team, fighting pangs of hunger, agreed to answer a few questions before heading out to the great dinner waiting in the foyer.

Q. Saptaswar is evolving as a group that performs for social causes, for the good of the community. As an artist what is your commitment to such endeavors and do you think other artists, painters, actors etc, should put their craft to good use?

All the team members were unanimous in their commitment to perform for social causes and for the betterment of society.

Pankaj: “I do think that any artist owes it to society to contribute in whatever way he/she can.

Pragya:“I am very happy and proud to be a part of such a group and I definitely believe that any kind of talent is a gift and it should be put to good use.

Achuth:“In our busy schedules in this country, we hardly find the time for any community or charitable work. When this idea of Saptaswar was introduced to me, I was more than convinced that this is the best possible way for me to contribute something to the society. I have committed myself to all the shows of Saptaswar. I plan to find the time for it as long as I am in town, and healthy. I believe all the people who have some kind of talent should attempt to do similar things as this is the best way to utilize your time and talent for the community.”

Sudha : Definitely. As I worked with an orphanage in Madras and was also associated with a number of voluntary organizations, I realize how important it is for me to be able to contribute something in some way or the other. In Madras, I worked for an art gallery for 4 years and I knew many famous artists who unhesitatingly donated a work of art to be auctioned or to be given as a prize for a charitable organization. I was also actively involved every year in fund raising programmes for an organization TANKER Foundation that helps poor kidney patients with subsidized dialysis and treatment. My group in Madras, Friends’ Orchestra performed free of charge every year for several good causes and it made me feel I was doing my bit as a concerned human being.

 Q. Do you sing/perform with any other musical group?

Sudha Rao: I have been singing with other groups in different states and have performed in NJ, NY, Florida, Maryland and St.Louis and Connecticut over the last 6 months. Surbahaar in NJ, Raagaa in Florida to name a few.

Christy Mathew has a musical group called ‘Athmaya’ which released a CD( Zindagi) last year.

Pankaj : Even though I do not perform for other groups on a regular basis, I have helped out my friend's NJ-based band Rasika, on occasion.

Achuth Menon : I have sung for the Kerala Association of New England as well as The Tamil Sangham.

Sudha : I have been singing with other groups in different states and have performed in NJ, NY, Florida, Maryland and St.Louis and Connecticut over the last 6 months. Surbahaar in NJ, Raagaa in Florida to name a few.

Q. Do you plan to diversify into other realms /genres…like Jazz or Western Rock?

Venkat Dayanandan insists that his interests are mostly in the Indian film music genre while Pragya says : Absolutely ; I would like to explore a blend of indian folk , classical and rock .”

Pankaj “Yes. Our rendition of Jethro Tull's version of Bouree at the Udavam Karangal show was definitely a step in that direction. Bouree is a Western Classical piece composed by J.S. Bach, which was modified by the rock band Jethro Tull who performed the tune on flute (performed by us on violin) and added their own passages. The last two movements (or passages) of this piece were composed by us, with an attempt to blend the carnatic (violin and mridangam) and rock (bass and drums) styles using an Indian Classical raag!! I am happy to say that it drew an enthusiastic response from the audience, which goes a long way to confirming that audiences are ready to be served any new fare, as long as it is interesting and melodious.”

Achuth: No. I do not think I will be comfortable doing that.

Sudha : Though I love listening to jazz and western rock, I have no plans at the moment to diversify.

Q. By singing mostly Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi (and Telugu?) songs are you not missing out an entire demographic that does exist in the area? (Bengali, Mahasashtrian etc)

Pragya: My language is hindi and as such I am limited to this language. I hope some day we can utilize some of the great melodies of other regional languages as well.

Pankaj: That is correct, but the language of the vocalists limits us (even though a great job was done by them at the GURI show, doing Telugu versions of some Tamil songs) and our not being aware of many popular tunes/songs in these languages. I would definitely be interested in attempting them, though.

Achuth : I have never had the opportunity to sing in any other languages other than the ones you have mentioned above. Given a chance, I would love to give it a try, just like I have tried singing in Tamil and Hindi, even though Malayalam is my mother tongue.

Sudha: I have also sung Bengali (to full Bengali audiences) and Marwari songs (at Rajasthani functions and weddings) on many an occasion in India and would love to do so if and when there is an opportunity here. 

Q. Have you had formal training in music?

Pragya: I have trained in Kathak.

Pankaj : No. I and my batchmates formed a rock band in college (IT-BHU) in 1993 (Sumanth Shankar was the band's drummer), and I picked up the bass (since I did learnt guitar for an year or so in the early 80's, with not much success). Learned from my college seniors and on my own over the next 4 years in college, and continued learning and playing after coming to the US in 1997. I performed for the first time in US with Kumar (Padmanabhan) and Sumanth in a show in the New England area in 1999.

Sudha: I studied South Indian classical music from the age of 7 till I was about 21. But I didn’t take it seriously enough to pursue a career in Carnatic music. But it gave me the grounding and confidence to sing light and semi classical music which I feel I am more comfortable singing.

Q.What music do you enjoy listening to? Your favorite genre…artist, director?

Pragya: Fusion - anything that hits me instantly except "progressive rock" - which as the word suggests took some time to hit me but now I am a big fan ! 3 cheers for Pink Floyd!

Pankaj: I  like fusion, rock, progressive rock and progressive jazz. Favorite bands - Pink Floyd, Rush, Yes.

Achuth : I pretty much listen to Hindi, Malayalam, and Tamil film songs. I am a big fan of A.R. Rahman, Vidya Sagar, Ousepachan, Illayaraja, Yesudas, Udit Narayan, and Kishore Kumar.

Sudha: What music do you enjoy listening to? Your favorite genre…artist, director?  I listen to all genres of music from different parts of the world. My favourites are the old Hindi and Tamil film music that I never tire of and also old English songs that I heard in my childhood and teens. I listen to different types of music at home as my husband and children have varying tastes and I generally am able to enjoy most of the music they listen to except the very loud punk rock or techno music (which I don’t mind if I have to dance to!!)

Q. What inspires you as an artist?

Pragya: The fact that my performance is affecting the audience and I that should deliver my best to make that a positive experience for all.

Pankaj :The thought of being able to (or at least trying to) create music, and the fact that it entertains others and soothes me!

Achuth: I enjoy singing, and dream of singing Yesudas, Udit, and Kishore songs to perfection. Even though it is a long shot dream, I strive for that.

Sudha: Since I am a stage performer, what really inspires me most is the positive vibes I get from the audience - what they call ‘instant gratification’ – When somebody applauds or walks up to me after a show and pats me on the back or appreciates my effort and comments on the pleasure that I have brought forth – that is all the inspiration and impetus that I need to keep performing and to do better and better.  At the same time, I also welcome constructive criticism as it helps me correct my mistakes and improve.  Of course, in the beginning, I used to feel utterly demoralized when somebody criticized my singing or passed nasty comments about my performance! Now I suppose I have grown up and look on such comments as helpful rather than destructive!

Q. Do you plan to release an album with original (or cover) music? Are you interested in composing/directing?

Pragya : Hopefully soon

Pankanj : I am interested in composing. We definitely plan to do some recordings in the near future.

Achuth No. Not at this time.

Sudha: Has been a desire. But largely due to my own diffidence and also the lack of drive – I have never pursued this with enthusiasm. I love doing stage shows and feel that maybe this is my niche!

Q. If you were given a chance to chuck you regular job and pursue music full time, would you take it?

Pragya: Not at this point.

Pankaj:This is a difficult question, and the connotation, as I take it, is whether I will be able to enjoy music as a job, instead of a hobby like it is right now. The answer is - I would not RISK my regular job to pursue music full time right now.

Achuth: Anyday! There is nothing like earning your bread by doing the most passionate thing in your life.

Sudha: Would love to if I am given the chance.

Q. And finally, can other Indian organizations doing charity work in the area contact you for performances?

Pankaj -- Yes they can, but since I live in New York and my regular job does not allow me to devote much time to music, I am not sure if I will actually be available. Being a part of Saptaswar allows me to work in an organized framework, which is necessary considering the part time availability of all performers.

Achuth :Of course!.

Sudha: Most certainly.

In the next installment of this story we will have the full text of the interviews with the rest of the Saptaswar group. Lokvani wishes this talented group of musicians many years of music making!

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