The Boundless Element of Music: A Conversation with Chandana Bala

The boundless element of music: In conversation with Chandana Bala

Carnatic singer Chandana Bala Kalyan sheds light on her musical journey that began at a very early age, her understanding of spirituality through, and her interaction with musical genres.

Music, by its very nature, is boundless. It flows effortlessly across eras, blurring geographical boundaries. In its journey across seas and continents, music embraces diverse cultures and traditions. Genres and styles come together, spurring inspiration and creativity, turning man into an artiste. For these reasons and more, music is a collaborative force that provides a fresh departure for an artiste every time their penchant for music takes them to unchartered territories.

Once an artiste has deep-dived into the ocean of music, their imagination keeps searching for something new. On a quest to engage with such musical stories, Soulveda met with Carnatic singer Chandana Bala Kalyan whose rendition of a jazz composition in the Carnatic style has inspired many a music aficionado. In conversation with Editor-in-Chief Shalini K Sharma, the soulful artiste talks about her musical journey that began at a very young age, her understanding of spirituality through her music, and her interaction with musical genres.

Where and how did your musical journey begin?

I belong to a musical family. My father is a violinist and my mother sings too. Music was part of my growing up years. I started learning music at a very young age of four. My father tells me I could sing compositions he taught to his older students. At the age of eight, he started teaching me, and I started performing when I was 11. There has been no looking back ever since. Carnatic music has been a part of my identity and life. I don’t see myself doing anything other than singing. It is my core strength.

Your father is a violinist and your mother sings in Telugu. How did they influence your journey in the world of music?

My father is a Karnataka violinist who also taught me how to use the violin. He inculcated the discipline in me to practise with the manual tanpura. When I was 10, he would wake me and my older sister up at 4 am to practice the basics of Carnatic music. My mother is not a professional singer, but she always sings while doing her chores. This discipline and influence encouraged me to learn music professionally.

You have remained loyal to Carnatic for long. How did other genres enter a rather strict musical realm?

When I was in school, I sang patriotic songs and light music, but never really took it up professionally. I also had offers to sing for Kannada movies, but I chose to take up Carnatic music because my father wanted me to have a strong foundation. For him, everything else was a distraction. I am grateful he made me learn Carnatic. Then there was the influence of ghazal singing when I used to listen to Hariharan especially his album Hazir. But I never really tried to learn ghazal professionally. When I moved to Bombay, I got the opportunity to work with a few bands who wanted me to sing in a different manner. I started singing Alaap in a different way and added folk elements to my singing. That’s how I started exploring other Indian genres of singing.

Your interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s Take five and Unsquare Dance is riveting. How did you think of marrying two completely diverse genres of music such as jazz and Carnatic? 

I was fortunate to sing in Sanjay Divecha’s band. After working with him, I started listening to blues and jazz. Sanjay taught me the basics of jazz. That’s how my journey in jazz began. Then I met Sankarshan ‘Shanks’ Kini who was also learning from Sanjay. He was learning jazz through sargam and he taught me the technique of learning jazz compositions using sargam, modulations, and variations. Jazz requires an accurate pronunciation of lyrics, and since I have a South Indian accent in my English I never tried singing jazz professionally. But instrumental jazz inspired me, and I wanted to learn how to use its elements in my singing to blend the two.

“Any kind of art can bring out the creative side from within. And the creative side of your personality is who you truly are.”

An artiste’s creative expression is part of their identity. Would you say your music reflects who you are?

I think all human beings have many layers. To be honest, when I started my journey, I didn’t really venture into spaces other than classical. I was a conformist, in a sense. When I used to learn composition, I used to feel I have a rebel within because at times, I used to sing songs that were outside the genre of Carnatic. This was before I started experimenting with various genres. I was trying to force myself to conform to the norm. When I started learning jazz, I realised this was also something I enjoyed. When I explored Sufi composition, I loved it. It was like I had discovered something new inside me, and I wanted to incorporate it into my musical strengths.

Musically, you also delve into bhakti and Sufi genres. Would you say you are spiritual or have these expressions emerged out of years of exposure, knowledge and practice?

My guruji gave me a task when I was 29. He asked me to translate 600 odd Kannada shlokas into English. These shlokas had a lot of spiritual elements, references to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. It was at this time when a desire to understand the realm of spirituality was ignited. Then I started reading and singing Kabir’s couplets. I started looking for compositions in Madhu Bhakti similar to Sufi compositions. Then I started incorporating Annamacharya’s and Meera Bai’s compositions into my concerts of spiritual poetry. This is when my work on Marma (a confluence of bhakti poetry) began.

I don’t know if I am spiritual, but I do believe there is no living soul that can’t be moved with music. Every soul has some reaction to music. That’s why I feel blessed to have received the gift of music. Music has healed me several times, allowing me to deal with personal crises and every challenge that has stood in my way.

Any form of art, music especially, brings out the best in people. It can influence positive change. How do you use your art to do this?

I do agree that any kind of art can bring out the creative side from within. And the creative side of your personality is who you truly are. Music sets you free, it allows a person to move beyond their inhibitions.

Tell us about your collaboration with an initiative like Fakiri. What brings about this artistic relationship?

Fakiri happened in my life due to a dear friend of mine. I collaborated with Fakiri in its Season 1 in 2016. It was a break for me as it helped me put my material out there and see whether it was working for me and my audience. I didn’t know then, the dynamics of managing the stage. Prior to this, I had been doing Carnatic baithak kind of concerts. So, this was a new experience for me.

I think Fakiri is an incredible platform, especially in times when film and pop music have taken over. The festival gives importance to literature, folk genres, light classical and semi-classical genres. Such initiatives help musicians who are striving to do meaningful work. I hope this sets a trend, encouraging more concerts like this. I feel honoured to have shared this platform with artistes like Mame Khan, Harshdeep Kaur and Kabir Cafe.

  • Mumbai-based Chandana Bala Kalyan is a Carnatic classical vocalist who also sings for classical dance and cinema. An independent artiste, Chandana’s interpretation of the cover of Take Five has had millions of views on social media. She is most known for her interesting experiments with genres such as Indian folk, Sufi, devotional music, jazz and the blues. She is also at the helm of creating an Indian multi-genre concept called MARMA - A Confluence of Bhakti Poetry.

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