‘Artistes need to incorporate meaning into their performance’

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Singer-scholar Smitha Balu believes to reach a wider audience, lyrics and expressions of Indian art need to be explained during a show

When I listen to Smitha Balu play, I begin to wonder if her name is an acronym – S for sociable, M for modest, I for intelligent, T for tidy, H for humorous, and A for amicable – because they truly represent the person she is both as a musician and a human being.

Smitha says it was her mother who is her source of inspiration to learn music. As a five year old she began learning classical music from a dedicated teacher, Ashok Kumar. When she was 10 years old she made her debut, and still remembers her first song — ‘Sara Saksha parippalaya…’, in ragam (Panduvarali).

Moving from Haripad in Kerala, where she was born, to Trivandrum in the same State, she was able to widen her music horizon. She completed University degrees (BA and MA) in Carnatic classical music, and after five years received a doctorate in music, her thesis being on the “Ritualistic music of Kerala’s Devi temples”. “The Devi cult of worship is part of the religious fabric of Kerala culture,” says Smitha. “The western belt of Kerala has Devi temples in almost every village, thanks to Hindu saint Aadi Shankaracharya. It still exists where varied versions of worships are held following age-old traditions.”

Smitha has also done extensive studies on the musical greatness and creative skills of Swati Tirunal Maharajah, often described as “the king among artistes and an artiste extraordinaire among kings”.

Smitha believes incorporating brief explanations of the lyrical meanings of songs and dance expressions will enrich the classical arts in Australia. “There is a lack of knowledge of the lyrical parts in songs because they are written in unknown languages. One needs to incorporate meaning into the performance,” she believes. “Carnatic music has survived turbulent times in the past and cosmetic changes like this will lead it to further heights, making it an everlasting entity,” she explains. I believe there is meaning in what she says.

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