SHE has delivered stunning albums, sung superb songs, composed amazing music, and done great cross-cultural collaborations, but Bombay Jayashri has always been at her very best on stage.
One of the world’s greatest live performers, she has been entertaining global audiences for decades and setting an undeniably high standard for others to follow. This has resulted in many landmarks for the south Indian classical Carnatic music singer and musician, ever since she performed her first live show in the early 1980s. These achievements include multiple awards, iconic stage moments and passing on her immense knowledge to students.
In March, she returns to England for the first time in more than a decade for special shows presented by leading UK arts organisation Milap at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (18) and the Tung Auditorium in Liverpool (24). She will be accompanied by acclaimed artists HN Bhaskar (violin), Sai Giridhar (mridangam) and Giridhar Udupa (ghatam) during the concerts.
Eastern Eye caught up with an icon of Indian classical music to talk about her glittering career, live performances, UK shows and what she would love to master.
How do you reflect on your amazing music journey?
I reflect on it with a deep gratitude to my parents, my teachers, my amazing co-musicians, my gurus, and everyone who has helped to make it so beautiful and fulfilling.
Did you ever imagine being so globally successful?
I didn’t imagine anything like this, because our gurus always told us to learn and focus on the art, and that’s what I continue to do. So, it’s a love for the art that has kept us going.
You have many amazing achievements, but which means the most to you?
The universe has been really kind to grant me so many wonderful opportunities to interact with audiences everywhere –both with Carnatic and film music. I really don’t know if I can count even a few, because everything that has been offered to me has been a great gift.
Which compositions are closest to your heart?
I enjoy learning Thyagaraja’s compositions – they are really close to my heart – and those of my guru, Shri Lalgudi. I love the depth and structure of the compositions, and every time I attempt to sing them, I find something new in each one and discover a layer which I may not have seen before.
Which artists have you enjoyed collaborating with?
I’ve enjoyed collaborating with a wide range of artists, whether it’s vocalists, instrumentalists, or many wonderful dancers, who have helped me grow as a musician and person. What’s wonderful is the opportunity to look at art through their perspective and I think because of that, I have expanded as an individual and musician. I feel really grateful for that.
You have done so much, but still have the same passion. What would you say keeps you so motivated?
The passion comes from humbling oneself to the art and knowing it’s a continuous journey. The art itself is so wonderful that one can’t but continue to feel like that. I hope that with the prayers of everyone around me, I continue to be motivated.
How much has performing live shaped you as a musician?
Performing live is an experience one can talk about for a long time. It’s the energy that comes with being on stage with wonderful co-artists and the energy of the live audience, who vibrate with the energy of the spaces we’re in. There are these old beautiful spaces that have, over time, grown with the artists, and it sometimes feels like if you just scratch the walls of these auditoriums, music will pour out.
Which performances have been the most memorable for you?
There have been many. I remember my performance with Milap when we came in 2008-09. It’s something I will cherish for a very very long time.
How much are you looking forward to performing in the UK again?
I’m really looking forward to coming back to the UK for the Milap shows. I’ve always enjoyed performing for Milap, and think the team – Archana [Shastri], Alok [Nayak], Prav [Pravinder Singh], and everyone makes it feel like a homecoming for me. I am really looking forward to coming back to the UK again. It’s going to be a memorable experience. I’m looking forward to meeting audiences after a long time, after the pandemic, when everyone is looking forward to the live experience.
So you must be happy to be back on stage after all this time?
The pandemic put a stop to live concerts and rightly so, because the whole world was suffering. Concerts have begun this year and it’s great to be back on stage and meet and interact with audiences again.
According to you, what is the secret of a great live performance?
One has to empty one’s mind and soul out and just surrender to that moment and humble oneself to the art, and then the art itself seems to take over – that is the secret, I think. It’s also important to enjoy it with earnestness and sincerity. And then the creativity happens.
Do high expectations ever put pressure on you?
Not so much pressure – but one always wants to keep doing better and better, and I always look forward to performing at my best.
Does your approach as a singer change between languages?
Yes, each language is a window into that specific culture. So, understanding the ethos of that language is as important as the diction, meaning, pronunciation and what the composer is trying to say. Also, what period the composer lived in and what cultural and social context he’s trying to bring through his compositions. All this helps you to understand the differences between the languages and then, of course, to sing them well.
Do you think traditional Indian classical music needs to combine with contemporary influences to survive?
I think it’s very important to stay relevant and it’s important to absorb what is offered in terms of modernity, newness, technology and what can contemporise the traditional arts. While one doesn’t need to change the tradition, one needs to stay relevant and updated about contemporary trends and influences.
If you could master something new in music, what would it be?
Well, I don’t know about being able to master something, but I seem to be drawn to a lot of what I see. When I see a dance performance, I am so immersed in it that I am in awe. When I see a great mridangam artist play, I am in awe of them. So I don’t know about wanting to master anything, but the art of appreciation is something I would like to continue to learn, whether it’s another form of art or another artist within Carnatic music such as violin, mridangam or even vocalisation. Being able to appreciate and continue to learn is, I think, what defines a good student. And my guru would always say it’s best to always remain a student – I hope I have his blessings to be able to do that continuously.
You are greatly admired and a hero to so many, but who do you admire most?
Well, I’m grateful for that. I have several heroes across music, the arts, and sports. My teachers and gurus are my heroes. I also learn from my students. I think a hero is a concept as much as it is a person. Everyday life teaches me one thing or another. It’s up to me to be open to that and be willing to continue to learn.
Finally, why should we come to your upcoming UK performances?
What I want to say is that I’m really looking forward to the shows in London and Liverpool, and to be able to share what I’ve assimilated over the years. I’m looking forward to it immensely and can’t wait to see the lovely audiences in the UK again after all these years. The shows will be very special.
Bombay Jayashri will be in concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX on March 18 and the Tung Auditorium, 60 Oxford Street, Liverpool L7 3NY on March 24. See www.milapfest.com for more.