Eastern Soul

Discovering Bombay Jayashri

In this month’s podcast (download it here) we featured Bombay Jayashri. As I researched her background I came across an in-depth interview, originally printed in the New Sunday Express. I’ve picked out some interesting sections below, or you can read the whole thing online here.

AS I NEAR THE ONE-HOUR CAP of my interview with Bombay Jayashri at a cozy little coffee shop by the Besant Nagar beach, I’m getting a bit fidgety. She’s told me a lot of fine things, a lot of solid things about her background, her career, her passions, her training – but I still haven’t gotten near that certain something that makes this superstar singer different from the next superstar singer. After all, everyone talks about the contribution of their guru, the endless hours they put in for practice, the way they structure their concerts, the day they got their first big break. And then, as if divining my dilemma, Jayashri begins talking about a chamber concert she presented in Melbourne recently. “After I sang Krishna nee begane, a lady came up and commented that my favourite deity would have to be Krishna. She said I must have been thinking of Him when I sang; there could be no other explanation for the way the song touched her heart and made her visualise Krishna. But I said no. I wasn’t thinking of Krishna. I was thinking about Yaman Kalyani, about the way the raga is styled in the composition, about the way I was presenting it. The song may be about the composer’s love for Krishna, but we are not so emotional about Krishna. My feeling, my love is for the raga, not for Krishna.
There. That’s an entry point to what Bombay Jayashri is about, because with that one instance, she has essentially offered a look at Carnatic music from an excitingly new perspective. Because down the ages, we’ve had it drummed into our heads that the essence of Hindustani music is shringara, love, while Carnatic compositions are capsules of bhakti, or devotion. And here’s Jayashri, implying otherwise. Or is she, really? “This is bhakti, but to the music – not to Krishna,  she says. “We’re not in an era where we’re into that kind of bhakti. Because if it’s just bhakti, and if it’s just about Krishna or Rama, why would I – someone who doesn’t come from a very religious or ritualistic background – revel in it? I don’t think I love God more than I love music. Why would a European sitting there, who doesn’t know the difference between Krishna and Rama, listen to this music for two hours? Why are instrumental concerts so popular? Do we know if the performer is playing a kriti in Kannada or Telugu, or if that kriti is talking about this lord or that deity? Our music is not about religion.‿ She repeats, “It’s about bhakti to the music. If I do my music well, I feel one with whatever we call divinity or spirituality – much more than if I sit and read the Lalita Sahasranamam for twenty minutes.
JAYASHRI was born in Calcutta, but that prefix to her name came because she grew up in Bombay. That’s where she began learning music, from first her parents – both Carnatic music teachers – and then TR Balamani, who, she says, “is a very reputed teacher, though not a known performer as such.‿ But alongside, there were the film songs of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi, the ghazals of Mehdi Hassan, and there was Hindustani music. “I learnt the ghazal, the bhajan, everything that Bombay had to offer,‿ says Jayashri, who then decides to get into a bit of rapture about those modes of music. “I love Hindustani music. I love the aesthetics, the way they develop the voice. I wanted to learn the system at least to acquaint myself with their raga nomenclature, their elaborate raga singing, their phraseology, their training. And that has helped my music – my tuning, my pitch perfection, my breath control.‿ She quickly adds, “I do believe that Carnatic music is much more superior to any other music. Our tradition is a combination of the lyrical value, the spiritual value, the number of compositions in a number of languages (not just Hindi) – and we concentrate more on the laya aspect; there’s more complexity in our talas, for instance.