Spending a few moments with Bombay Jayashri is not only enlightening but also delightful
“Nightingale of the South” Bombay Jayashri with her molten voice is India’s unofficial ambassador of Carnatic vocal music, reaching out to fans of her film songs, Sanskrit shloka recitations and devotional pieces in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi. She also dons many hats, chief of which are composer and environmentalist (she has recently been appointed ambassador for “Earth Day”. She is articulate and straight forward, speaking with a deeply moving simplicity. Excerpts from an interview:
Could you have been anything other than a musician?
It never even occurred to me — I was surrounded by music from the time I got consciousness. I would wake up to the sound of music, when I went to sleep, I could hear the music class my mother conducted. I lived in this beautiful bubble of music, and hardly thought of anything other than music. Yes I went to school, college, but I was very sure my calling was music. Music is healing; it heals us as we engage in it, continues to heal and transform us. It heals and soothes; it’s like medicine. Also it helps those who listen.
You are a musician who has traversed musical boundaries; experimented with different genres. Has this been achieved after years of being in this line?
Fortunately for me, right from the beginning, there were no lines dividing the music into genres. I would wake up to hear “Sangeet Sarita” on the Radio, then be taught something completely different, then go back to hearing “Fauji Bhai”, at 3 pm on the radio and picking up from there. I never knew of any differences of music genres; the same notes shaped the film song by Mohammed Rafi, the Tygaraja kriti, or the folk song I heard and learnt. I feel I was privileged to grow up being taught to love respect and relate to the notes, not the genre in which they were presented. Nowadays I feel the lines between genres is blurring anyway, with experiments like Coke Studio and jugalbandi concerts. That’s how it should be; music is music, the lines dividing the types have been made by us. It’s like seeing the earth from the moon — you just see green and blue not the borders between countries.
Concerts must bring their own stress?
I am not stressed before a concert, perhaps I may be a little anxious about the sound system, or other factors; I want the musicians with me to be happy, but no, singing does not stress me.
You gained international fame though your music in films. How important are films for you today?
For me, my main line has always been, and remains, classical music. Singing for films certainly catapulted me into the limelight; the Oscar nomination in 2013 for my song in Life of Pi really changed things; but I have never sung more than one or two songs a year, which is fine, and how I want it. What I have done in the film world has been meaningful; but to be honest I have never seen the films I’ve sung for! It just seems so long to spend 4-5 hours getting the tickets, spending that much time in a theatre…I rarely take the time to see a film; on a long flight if I am rested, I may catch the odd film, that’s it. I did see the Life of Pi the day it released, though!
Tell us about the music you have composed.
The first musical I ever composed music for was in 2014, Meghadootam by Kalidasa. Dr Rewati, an expert on Kalidas’s works trained all of us, including singers, dancers, for about three months before the show so we understood what the ancient Sanskrit lyrics meant.
After that, I composed the music for “Meera”, a dance musical, for which I collaborated with Chitra Vishveshwaran in 2016. The music, I would say, is neither Carnatic nor Hindustani; it’s different. It was a fabulous experience working with Chitra akka; there are about 20 numbers based on Meera Bai’s poems sung by different students representing Meera in her different stages of life; I have sung as the elder Meera, and Chitra akka herself danced as the elder Meera.
The story of Tygaraja was a dance drama that I organised the music for, that premiered in December 2016. I remember that was the day it rained so very heavily in Chennai; no one could reach the theatre! It’s had 150 successful shows now; the music is of course all Tygaraja’s compositions, sung by several senior male musicians, and one song by me. The director was TV Varadarajan.
Composing has been a big challenge, a big learning experience for me. I had to cut back on my concerts, concentrate on a completely different thing. Recording the music was difficult; as we had to make sure it was perfect.
So how do you unwind, or relax?
I find spring cleaning very relaxing; when I have time free I try to get rid of clutter!! I also like to tune and restring my tambooras myself – I have around 30 tambooras! I feel they are my friends; I have names for each one; I don’t like to refer to them as the dark brown, light brown, red cedar wood, the one my mother gave me. My tamboora is my closest friend, she talks to me, she sets the tone whether its “riyaaz”, or on the stage. She talks before I do! She brings the music out, she pulls me into the space of music; she reminds me to stay grounded musically, in the aesthetics, in the correct pitch. I am connected with her; I can have a dialogue with her. So spending time with my tambooras really relaxes me.
Is there anything that your fans don’t know about you?
I simply love Bengali sweets; sondesh, rossogullas, payas, kamalabhog – the entire range Bengal can churn out! Any time of the day, any time of the year!
Jayashri, do you have any secret dream that you wish could come true?
Every child in every part of the world should get the opportunity to hear classical music while they are growing up. I know of people who have never heard a classical music concert ever; it’s so strange to feel that something that is so intrinsic in so many of our lives, something we have soaked in, imbibed, has never even been heard by others! I don’t know how such a huge dream like this can be realised, but I would love somehow for it to come true. Every child growing up should have the opportunity to hear the great music we have.