Bombay Jayashri

"The only person who can let me down
is myself."

By Kaveta A Chhibber

Kaveta’s note: I have to admit that few voices move me as deeply as Bombay Jayashri’s.

Her voice always takes me on a melodic pilgrimage, but what really touched me was Bombay Jayashri’s candor and humility. I am fascinated by her repertoire and some of the many interesting projects she has done.

I also saw a clip where an interviewer said to her that after her Oscar nominated lullaby from The Life of Pi she must have been inundated with offers! And there she was, with a total lack of pretense, answering that - on the contrary - she was not getting a whole lot. This was refreshingly candid in a world where most celebrities hype up their resumes.

Bombay Jayashri said at the India Inclusion Summit that "music fine tunes us as human beings - our mind, our soul, our heart. It brings us more in connect with our inner selves so that we can be in harmony with the outside." She seems to have reached that balance today - a far cry from a young girl battling low self-esteem, and even hiding the fact that she is one of those few people who are well trained in both Hindustani and Carnatic music.

I think if you are true to them, the seven notes are true to you, and when you take flight, your devotion to music also teaches you just enough about its unfathomable depth to keep your feet firmly on the ground.

In this exclusive interview (done a little before her trip to perform in what is going to be A MUST WATCH Jugalbandi concert, hosted by the nonprofit organization SAMAA on 31st May in New York with the equally amazing Shubha Mudgal) Bombay Jayashri talks about her journey, what keeps her grounded as accolades come her way and the path her gurus created for her to walk.

What are your earliest memories of music?

My earliest memory is the voice of my father. He would get up at 4 am in the morning and sing Omkar in the very small flat (apartment) that we grew up in, in Bombay. It was almost like a chawl (a very small studio apartment in a multi-story building built in the early 1900s in Bombay).

One corner was reserved for puja (an altar for prayer) as he would get up in the morning, tune his tanpura (a string instrument used to support the voice or another main instrument by providing a constant harmonious drone) and sing Om for an hour in different shrutis (shruti is a Sanskrit term considered the smallest interval or pitch to be detected by the human ear). He was a humble accountant going to office at 7 am in the morning, taking the Bombay trains and would return at 4 pm.

So I would wake up to the strain of Om in this really resonating voice. I would go back to sleep and Appa (father) and Amma (mother) would teach anyone who would or could come home to learn. So I would go back to sleep listening to a raga or the singing of some student with the tanpura.

A little later we lost him when I was seven and my mother took over the mantle. What Amma gave me was the gift of music. I don’t remember Amma making idli or dosa (types of food) as others would remember their mothers to be doing but I remember her searching in the little Phillips radio someone had kindly given us, for the Vividh Bharati channel which would start the Sangeet Sarita in the morning, right after Fauji Bhaiyon ki Geetmala at 3.30 when we would hear Lata Mangeshkar ji sing Naina Barse or Mohammed Rafi sahib or Kishore Kumar da or Manna Dey singing Poocho na Kaise. All of this was part of what we grew up on and what I sang all day. My mother, my two brothers and I - we just sang the whole day.

I didn’t know anything outside the confines of that little home in Bombay and everybody who came home would say "Please sing," and we sang. If I went to anybody’s house for a typical South Indian festival or a function, I sang. Not that I knew what it was to continue singing and practice.

After a while I sang because my mother said you also get up in the morning and sing. So I would get up at 4 am and do my riyaaz (practice) until 6.30 am and then go to school, come back and find my mother teaching a music class. Music is the only thing she knew and when Appa passed away, she taught everyone in the neighborhood. Everyone came home because she would teach for the love of it and hope someone would also pay her. But I didn’t imagine or dream, or know anything beyond that.

Your mother was very far-sighted for introducing you to so many different genres of music instead of just focusing on Carnatic music.

That was because Naina Barse affected her the same way Rag Todi, or a Carnatic Kirtan did. Everything musical touched and moved her. She wanted her sons and her daughter to practice Naina Barse, or a composition in Hindustani music as much as we did our Carnatic compositions. Everything that touched her was taught to us.

I remember several instances, where, much to my embarrassment, she would hear some great musician singing somewhere in some Ganapati festival and the next morning she would find out where he lived and we would be at his door at 7 am in the morning. She would ask "Will you teach my daughter?"

I remember quietly crying and saying "Amma, please don’t do this. I am so embarrassed. We can’t even afford to pay his fees." And she would say, "No it doesn’t matter. If he hears you sing, he will teach you and one day you will prove that you are a good student."

So this was her life. She would take me to any musician who came from Madras to sing in a Carnatic Classical concert. The day of the concert, she would land at whichever hotel or house he was staying in and she would make me sing in front of him and ask him, "How do you think she can learn more, how should she improve, how can her voice be used better?" She was a dreamer. She dreamed for me when I could not. But I used to fret and I used to cry and say she was an embarrassment... but now I know that every moment then was a golden moment.

You’ve also talked about having low self-esteem?

All I knew, as a child, was that the only thing I could do for anybody to even love me was to sing. So after a point I started looking forward, for someone to ask me to sing and then say "Oh you sing very well."

Coming from a very humble, typical South Indian household where you are perpetually told by your elders, that you have to marry by 21, have your first kid by 23 and the second one by 26, my mother who had been a single parent would get all these admonitions several times: "Oh Jayashri is already 24 and all she does is riyaaz for hours. Who is going to marry her? You have not brought her up to fit the bill of being a good wife, or a good daughter in law." Then to hear them say to my mother: "Oh well you will have to compromise and should accept someone who may not be good looking or very accomplished so he would put up with her since all Jayashri is going to do is her hours of riyaaz." So I used to hear that, it would sadden me and I would quietly go back to my tanpura and seek solace in between the two strings saying to myself "But this is all I want to do. This is the only thing I can do with all my heart." So there is no question of my being able to change and then again as soon as I would sing for just 5 minutes I would forget everything. Music has been the most beautiful gift for me in all the trying moments of my life.

Even when I moved from Bombay to Madras it was very difficult to find a place to stay. People would ask, "Are you married? Oh you are single! What do you do? Oh you sing? Just sing? Aur kuch kaam nahi karti ho? ( Do you not do anything else?)" Today it is very trendy to be a musician but in those days people did not understand. I remember traveling in trains and people asking me during conversations "So what do you do?" And I’d say I sing and they will say "Oh okay but what do you do? Are you a student? Do you work in a bank?" And again I would say I sing... and nobody understood that. So I learned to lie. I would say "I am a teacher" and there would be no more questions!

You went to college and had your band and sang jingles? That’s an interesting beginning.

Yes jingles in those days were a big thing and through them I continued learning to master the art of singing into the mike, singing in different languages at the same time. So I would first record in Hindi and then in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu and sometimes even try Bengali. So, the drill was that you first started with jingles, then went into singing for documentaries for Doordarshan and film division of India. That was a stepping stone then to singing for cassettes that came out during festivals like Navratri or Diwali, as everything was festival oriented. From there you did tracks for the main singer who would come and replace you.

But your journey was literally stopped in its tracks so to say!

Shri Lalgudi G Jayaraman
Yes before I graduated from documentaries to track, I found my Guruji (Lalgudi G Jayaraman ji).

I was this very dumb student who didn’t even know my Guruji’s name. I had a friend who played the violin and we used to practice for several hours together. One evening she said there is a concert happening, and it’s a violin concert. Let’s go. So we walked into this maidan(large open air field) in Chembur, a suburb of Bombay where concerts used to happen. We didn’t have tickets but told the watchman we were students of music so to let us in. I sat on the floor with my friend literally two feet away from the elevated stage where my Guruji played. Behind us there were rows and rows of chairs. I don’t know how to describe what I felt throughout the concert. All I can say is that I wanted to get into a small bag and just be with this person for the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I understood the greatness of his music or if it was a pre destined moment whose time had come. I just knew I had to go wherever he went. Normally I would shy away whenever my mother tried to introduce me to a musician but in this case I suddenly spotted her sitting somewhere behind and pulled her in the front begging her to go and speak to him and tell him about me, She said-“ We can’t do that-he is too great an artist” But then we did go and stand near him and he recognized my mother and asked” Are you Sita?’ In South India at every wedding we have a music concert and it had so happened that my guru ji had played the concert at my mother’s wedding and he knew her father who also was a musician in the village and there was some sort of a friendship.

Bombay Jayashri receiving an award from Lalgudi Jayraman in 1990.
So he asked my mother, "Do you live in Bombay? I haven’t seen you before this time." And she said "I never came up to see you," and all the while I was nudging my mother’s stomach and tugging at her sari trying to tell her to bring him home. Then finally he said, "I’m here tomorrow so I would like to visit you." I did not sleep the whole night. The next morning at 9 o clock he came home and I sang Raga Kalyani with the Tanpura. He said, "Put the tanpura down. You are straining and all your energy is going into the Tanpura. Just put it down and sing." So I sang and he said to my mother "Sita, send her to Madras. I will teach her." But even after that my mother said, "No, they are great people and very gracious because he knew my father. But he cannot teach you because he is too great and he has to travel and we can’t afford it. Anyways, he was just being nice."

So she wouldn’t let me go and would say "No you are fine in Bombay, just continue singing here and continue doing what you are doing.” But then one day I landed in Madras for a music competition which I won and my guru ji was the chief guest. As he handed me the medal and a little memento, he said-“I asked you to come in January, it is now August. What happened? Why didn’t you come?” I asked hurriedly-“Guru ji can I come tomorrow at 8 am? He said “ Come. Do you know where my home is?” And I said I will find out.

The next day I was at his house. There was a class happening. He taught me, time flew and he said-“Stay for a week and learn a little bit. The week became a month and the month became a year and it is now 27 years. I never went back.

There was this very interesting story of Lalgudi G Jayaraman ji watching Michael Jackson and you walking in on him.

It took me a long time to even talk to the media about it because I didn’t know what to make of that!

It was a hot summer day and about 2 in the afternoon. Sometimes Guruji would finish the classes at 9.30 am and ask us to come back in the afternoon after practicing a bit. He lived in a lovely old house where the gates and doors were always open for everyone. I walked in... the curtains were drawn as it was a hot day and suddenly I saw a flash of red and blue on the TV and Guruji watching Michael Jackson. I retraced my steps and thought maybe I should not enter... for a minute shock waves ran through me although whatever little I had heard of Michael Jackson, I was a fan. But here I was wondering to myself "Did I enter at the wrong moment?" He knew I was there but he wouldn’t move his eyes from the television screen. With his left hand he signaled for me to come in and said "Sit quietly next to me and watch. Just watch." He let me watch the entire video of some very lovely songs by Michael Jackson and then another program started but he quickly switched off the TV before anything else could seep into his head. He wanted to remain in that moment. Then he said to me "Do you know what? He (Michael Jackson) becomes the music, he becomes the dance. That is the final destination for every musician."

But for the longest time I couldn’t wrap my head around what had just happened. I didn’t know if I could tell even a close friend that my Guruji watched Michael Jackson and shared his admiration for him with me!

But that is how Guruji looked at music and the musician. Once he sang two lines from a ghazal Abke bichade and told me, "You know I was inspired by this beautiful song and I made a tillana in this ragam and this is sung by a very, very great musician from Pakistan - Mehdi Hassan. Have you heard of him?"

When I said I had, Guruji was delighted and asked "Oh what do you know?" And in some classes he would make me sing those ghazals by Mehdi Hassan sahib, or Lata Mangeshkar songs. He would sing Rafi sahib and shed a tear and say music is so big and we have only one life time. He never judged music. There was no inferior or superior genre of music for him.

Eero Hämeenniemi, Bombay Jayashri
Your collaboration with Eero Hämeenniemi (the Finnish composer) has resulted in some very interesting projects. He must have been an Indian in a previous life. How did you two meet?

Yes he definitely was an Indian in probably several lives! He is 63 years young and when he was six his mother who is close to 90 now, handed him a book called Hanuman in this small little suburb in Finland and said go and see the land where Hanuman is from. Eero has been visiting India for over 30 years now. he is here every year from November to December. He was drawn to Tamil and today he can speak, read and write Tamil better than any Tamilian - both classic Tamil and the spoken language of today. He goes to many concerts and will often see two concerts a day when he visits. I used to see him come quietly to all mine but leave without meeting me. I was so fortunate to get his call in 2008 and he said "I would like to compose something based on western music but I would like you to have a conversation with the western orchestra, a dialogue in Carnatic music which I would compose. Would you be willing?" And I was more than willing.

It was however a very scary experience for me. I was worried if I would fumble or fall flat on my nose but he has been a great teacher as he knows both systems of music. Every time Eero has created a piece, we have started rehearsing 2 years before the final presentation. For example we have something planned for end of 2015 but he has already sent me the notes and I have started working on it. He will be here in a couple of months and we will meet every day and practice and he will introduce me to the whole scape of the sound that he has set and the bars for me to improvise. It does take me a very very long time but there is always enough practice before and then I go 2 weeks ahead of time to work with the Orchestra every day so that they too get used to my segment. It always turns out beautifully and is always a wonderful experience. I’m so fortunate to be in four of his works now since 2008.

 Bombay Jayashri: Oscar-nominated track from
"The Life of Pi"

Michael Danna, said of you "If I had an Indian mother singing a lullaby, that’s exactly the voice I would want." How was the experience of singing the lullaby in The Life of Pi?

Ang Lee and Michael Danna said they were searching for this voice that could be the connect for the characters in the movie, and also the connect between the audience and the movie. Michael Danna called me and said that they had Googled and found this Surdas Bhajan of mine - a lullaby which I had sung 17 years ago when my son was born. It was in a CD called Vatsalyam - the tender love of a mother. The track was on iTunes. He asked me if I had read the book The Life of Pi. I said I had heard of it but had not read it. He asked me to buy a copy and read it and that he would call me after that. He then told me "Ang Lee and I are working on a movie based on the book and we would like you to sing a lullaby which we would like you to write as well."

We recorded it in Bombay. Ang Lee was working with us on Skype from New York, and Michael was with me in the studio in Bombay. Ang Lee knew exactly what texture of sound he wanted the music to sound like. It is an 8 line song but I sang it again and again... for days. And at the end of the recording Ang Lee would say "I know the child is feeling sleepy but you must remember, a child sleeps not because he is sleepy... he sleeps because he feels safe. And that is not coming out in your voice. You are not able to make me feel safe."

So I would go back to my hotel room and think what do I do, how can I bring it out? Ang helped me and did that for me by telling me simple stories of a mother’s hug. I think universally every mother sings for her child and it is not as if the mother needs to notice the state of the child. All the child knows is the beautiful voice of its mother. So he would tell me so many things and would say I want to hear all of this in the song. It was a difficult exercise but also the most beautiful.

You’ve worked with Ilayaraja and AR Rahman.

Each of them is an institution and have completely different temperaments in the way they work. Ilayaraja sir, would sit with a harmonium and teach me note by note. I was not permitted to take a scan of the lyricist’s copy. I had to write the lyrics down myself with the notations written very neatly with markings and show it to him and he would then make me understand the situation, the lyrics and the way the Tamil has to be sung etc.

 Tamil Movie Song - Vietnam Colony
Kai Veenaiyai Yendhum Kalaivaaniye
Iruvar - Narumugaiye song

Rahman ji would say, this is the scale, now where do I see Jayashri in this song? So he would always make you feel that you can contribute and so it is beautiful and enriching to work with both of them.

Listening to Life - The Journey of a Raga
Listening to Life
seemed a very interesting project. Tell me more about that.

I always wanted to tell my audience that I was inspired by different genres of music. I learnt from so many teachers and each one had an impact on me bringing a set of influences and ideas. While you may say I am singing Carnatic classical, there is still a rich fragrance of Naina barse, by Lata ji, Jhanak jhanak by Ali Akbar Khan sahib, the music of Madan Mohan or the temple prayer I heard every morning in a temple in Kerala which was our holiday home. It’s the deep seeping in of that music that emerges in so many compositions that I sing. So that is what I wanted to share with the audience. I had a fantastic set of 15 musicians, and 5 of my students sang with me. So we would go from raga to raga sometimes singing two different compositions in the same raga. For example we could show, how bhakti (devotion) was presented in Hindustani and Carnatic music in their different colors. I have performed it in different parts of India, Singapore and other parts of the world and plan to bring it to the USA next summer.

You have been working with autistic children through music. How did that come about?

A few year ago I found out that my truest friend was a child with autism. It was during a concert in Dubai and I was really not familiar with autism back then. After the concert I was surrounded by people praising me when this young child came up to me and repeatedly kept saying "You sang everything wrong." But he wouldn’t look at me. I found out later he was autistic.

The next day I had the opportunity to meet the child and the mother again. She came and apologized to me and said, "I am sorry but my son only knows to speak the truth." So I was even more offended but she said "Well there is a CD of yours where you sing the words differently." When I went back and listened to my live recordings of the concert I realized I HAD made mistakes in the words and nobody but the child pointed it out to me. I knew that day that he was my truest friend. Only he had taken the trouble to listen to my CD over and over again and he realized the moment I made a mistake and what he then showed me, was the purest love for the music and the musician. So I told myself that I had to take music to where it truly belonged. It belonged to these special children much more than all of us.

With these children everything is about reaching milestones and getting graded - whether its cognitive skill building, speech therapy or motor skills. So I told my students that we will not be doing that. In music we want them to come into our space and not grade them. If they don’t sing - fine. If they just listen or just want to be in that room that is fine too. So we just sing and after a few weeks some of them will come to you and give you a hug, hum a little, or sit in your lap and that is so wonderful. So that is how we have been working with children with special needs.

I read this beautiful article many years ago where the word for autism in Marathi was swayam mangalam. It means the child is happy in his own space and I realized how beautiful that space is and they are enjoying that. It is we who cannot understand that enjoyment. It’s very much like if you take two notes, we are always trying to work the relationship between the space that exists between those two notes. That’s what music does, but we seemingly normal people are able to do something in our mind and bring it to our faces in terms of a different expression, but with these children in the beautiful world of swayam mangalam what is inside is coming out the same way and that is the only difference. That is why they feel close to music –they are always in that space which is honest and true. So I have tried to experiment with lots of ragas and compositions and the children have responded very well to them.

What does it mean to be a woman musician in today’s world and how do you create balance in your personal and professional life?

I think I was so fortunate to be in Madras at the right moment when Madras was beginning to become this beautiful melting pot with classical music, film music, everything coming of age. There was opportunity for classical music in films and for film musicians to enter the classical field. For example Mandolin Srinivas used to play for films before he moved to classical music. We were allowed to blossom, and the teachers did not expect overnight miraculous changes in our music. We took 12-15 years to come to some kind of level and that time is not being allowed by either the teachers or the students or even the audience. The audience hears you once and expects you to perform like a veteran the very next time they see you. Everyone is in a hurry. Our generation was very fortunate.

My gurus never looked at the clock. They would start at 8 and go on till noon without a sip of water or tea or food. There was no mention of "Oh I have another appointment or I have to meet so and so." All the time in the world was created only to perfect that note, to transfer that sense of perfection and yearning to the student. Sadly, we don’t have that today. Now we are the victims of our times, and technology has become a bane in a way because I know students who will record a lesson and push learning away by so many hours. We had to get everything in that moment from the master. I don’t think that can ever come back or even be recreated.

These days there are 20 concerts in Madras daily and there are reality shows but classical music remains the weakest and smallest ladder to climb. Even with the reality shows once the winners are declared the next season comes around and you never hear about the previous winners. The time they spent in front of the camera, they should have spent in front of a guru perfecting that art.

I think that being a wife and a mother is never easy, for a woman musician. It was my Guruji who told me I should meet my husband Ramnath at a point when I was totally focused on my music and not interested in anything else. But I married him because of my Guruji’s insistence although we also liked each other, and I was very appreciative that here was this man who was so willing to support me.

Even then, I think it was very difficult for my husband Ramnath to understand me for a long time. I don’t think it is easy because several days before the concert I go into a zone and nothing can shake me out of it. And once I have gone out, sometimes even I forget that there is someone out there waiting for me to come home. And when I am on stage I completely forget that I am a wife, a mother or a daughter. So to cope with all this and still believe in oneself is not easy for a spouse.

Having said that, I must also admit that if I didn’t have that comfort and affection when I come back home I know that I can never go back to the next concert feeling completely confident and happy.

You seem to not be caught up in the rat race. How do you do it? This not chasing fame in spite of the recognition The Life of Pi has brought you?

I would give all the credit to my teachers. My teacher who taught me the fundamentals Smt Balamani is now 80. She taught us in the confines of a small kitchen in a chawl that she lived in, in Bombay. All she wanted was to teach us. She didn’t want to be in the limelight or perform on stage. She didn’t even come to see us compete and win those competitions. All she wanted to do was to teach us and make us practice hard. Even a few days ago when I went to visit her, she didn’t care about my success. All she had on her mind was this composition that she had heard and that I must sing it. When she sang it in her pure voice unpolluted by what lay outside, the notes made me cry. All of us sitting there cried.

Even my Guruji, though he was at the pinnacle of his fame... a small child, a beautiful arrangement of flowers would move him more deeply than any material thing in this world. One summer he took me to a small street and took two mats with him. He then stopped in front of a fruit seller and showed me the different varieties of mangoes as we sat on the mats. He then asked the seller all kinds of questions about the variety, the names of the mangoes, why was one bunch priced more than the other, where did they get their names from, what did the seller know about their origins? Then he came home and cut all the mangoes in slices and made each one of us have a slice, then sip water to remove the taste of the previous mango and then taste the next slice. He lived in the moment. Two streets down from where he sat with the mango seller, he used to perform and people came in droves to watch him, even hanging from trees and ceilings but for him it didn’t matter. The moment he was in was all that was.

When you live with someone like that for so many years that essence impacts every aspect of your life.

Today when you look back what moments stand out in your mind?

The fact that all my gurus loved me and that I was able to touch their heart.

There was a point of time when I was learning from my guru and I suddenly realized that what I was singing until that time was so selfish. The more I learnt from my guru the more I realized how little I knew and it was breaking my heart. I was feeling guilty for singing for 22-23 years of my life like an ignoramus, only assimilating but not going deeply in and that was when I was scared to experiment, I was scared of the notes, scared that I won’t be able to do anything with the same notes that I thought didn’t scare me before. My brother and my mother are my biggest critics and there would be days I’d think I’d done well and my brother would call me and say, "Today you were really bad!" I’ve heard that more often than I have heard any compliments from them but while at times it would make me sad I would also realize how much they love me and want me to be better than the best.

I think it takes a while before you really come to know your voice, the temperament of each composition, what suits you, and what you must sing, and how. But I also know that the only person who can let me down is myself.

My Guruji in spite of being so great always made me feel so special. He would say "You are here because only you can do what you do."

When I became well known, my Guruji, his eyes brimming with love and humor, would say, "Oh so a lot of people are coming to your concert? Really? A Lot eh? Well remember it is not because you are singing so well. It is because your time is good. Now what you must do before the crowd starts disappearing, is that you’d better start singing well!" His love for the art was far greater than the artist and he paved a very humble path for us to emulate.

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