Divine Notes

Anumeha Verma
Published: July 2018

Sooryagayathri and Rahul Vellal, the two child prodigies, strike a chord with mellifluous renditions of devotional songs

What could be more important next on their schedule other than the evening playtime? As the two children sit around a table with family and friends, sharing anecdotes and exchanging stories, it is easy to assume that they have nothing more important on their minds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The duo is all set to perform at the 6th Anniversary of the Sri Datta Sai Spiritual Centre located at the JGI Global Campus. It is only one of many such evenings that they have rendered magical with their performances. Aged 12 and 10, Sooryagayathri and Rahul Vellal are singers enriching Carnatic music. It might be a tad difficult to ascertain when they are being gently chided by their mothers to finish everything on their plates during lunch, nevertheless it becomes apparent as soon as they hit the musical notes.

These two disciples of Carnatic music have been singing since early childhood. As they are growing up, so is their love and dedication towards music. Hearing them sing is akin to being in the warm embrace of the morning sun or sitting on the banks of the river at dusk, feeling one with the Maker.

Their talent has found an outlet in digital media, especially social sites, Facebook and YouTube. These social media channels have helped the mellifluous tones of their devotional music to reach millions and millions of people all over the world. Sri Kuldeep M. Pai, a trained musician and an ace vocalist himself has released a number of videos featuring performances by the two children.

The Natural Vocalist

Sooryagayathri or Soorya, as her loved ones call her enchants everyone with her sweet self. It is easy to mistake her for a shy little creature, till you actually start conversing with her. She is full of stories about her friends, her favourite actors and singers. While it is a joy to hear her regaling everyone around with hilarious imitations of people, it is still more heartening to hear a 12 year old talk about music with such reverence. Soorya grew up on a staple diet of Carnatic Music and nature’s abundance in Purameri village in Kerala. Her father, P.V. Anil Kumar is a well-known mridangam artist. The imprint of his musical career can be easily deciphered on young Soorya who talks about music like an erudite scholar. She was barely three when she was humming, attuning herself to the talas and ragas that most adults feel challenged by. “She used to hum a lot. Whenever we taught her little rhymes, she used to sing it on her own. It gave us an indication that she had an inclination towards music,” shared her mother, P.K. Divya, a poetess herself.

The young child grew up singing along with her father as he played the mridangam till she turned five and began her formal training. At present, she is learning Carnatic music under the tutelage of Smt. Anandi and Shri Nishanth. While she was very much in the public eye with her performances, the recording breakthrough came for her through an association with Sri Kuldeem M. Pai, a close acquaintance of her father. The vocalist was all set to record Hanuman Chalisa for one of the well-known service providers in the telecom sector in India and was looking out for a voice to fit the genre. While looking through the options, he happened to watch a short video that Soorya’s father had shared with him on WatsApp. “He contacted us after that and we went to Chennai to record the Chalisa,” informs her father. Post the initial recording, Sri Pai decided to make a video series of devotional songs called Vande Guru Paramparam and release it on YouTube free of any charges. The first video of Surya was released on Facebook when she was just nine years old. Within a few days, it had more than four lakh views, bringing the young artist acclaim from far and wide. Today it has more than 17 lakh views. Focused on raga and lyrics, without being crowded by too many instruments, Soorya’s rendition of Hanuman Chalisa can touch anyone who has ever been stirred by music, and perhaps also many with whom notes and melody have refused to strike a chord.

Since the release of her first video, Soorya has sung several devotional songs and appeared in numerous live concerts. The transition she has undergone is magical. Says, Sri Prasanth, a percussionist who plays Tabla with Soorya, “She is a marvellous girl who is growing day by day. She listens to music and practices every day. More importantly, she does not hesitate to approach her gurus when she is in doubt. We have been with her for the last three years and can vouch for how much she has improved”.

Music plays within Soorya like a melody at all times. Her accompanists share how she keeps singing even when she is playing. “It is as if she never stops thinking about music,” says Sri Sailesh, the talam performer. Being a child prodigy is certainly not easy but Soorya juggles different demands on her time well. She studies hard and takes notes and special classes when she misses school. Interestingly, she has several other interests. “I like drawing, especially pencil drawing. I also enjoy playing with my friends.” Her routine is set. “She practices 2-3 hours daily, sometimes even four,” explains her mother. While M.S. Subbalaxmi is one of her favourite singers and she wants to follow in her footsteps, Soorya does not hesitate to say that she would love to give the world her own perspective on Carnatic Music. “I wish to create my own style someday,” quips the 12 year old.

A Devotee of Music

Energetic and playful, Rahul Vellal has a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He loves playing cricket and has befriended six dogs in his neighbourhood. It is hard to imagine him as a disciplined Carnatic music vocalist. Perhaps it is this first impression which makes witnessing the transformation he undergoes when immersed in music, an ethereal experience. All it takes is 30 seconds into his rendition of Pibare Rama Rasam to realise the immense talent he possesses and the magic he brings to the table.
Rahul’s musical voyage began very early in his childhood. His father, Ravishankar sheds light on it. “We used to play all types of music at home. Even as a two year old child, he used to respond to it and he could immediately catch the tune. It made us realise that he had a talent for music.” His parents initiated him into Carnatic music at the age of four and he started learning it with all his heart.

Once he gave his first public performance at the age of six, there was no turning back. Those who had come to hear him sing were left spell-bound by his performance.

Though Rahul’s parents have not learnt music, they have an ear for it and felt that they should give him the opportunity to explore his talents. His efforts and conversation on ragas underscores how far he has come in the realms of music and how serious he is about it. “I love raag charukeshi and take great inspiration from Sri M.Balamuralikrishan,” he informs.Creating a niche, he has already performed at several concerts. His first concert outside India was in Dubai. And, he is all set to sing at the Aikya 2018, to be held in Chennai, where he is singing alongside Sri Sid Sriram. Rahul and his parents are looking forward to the event with great enthusiasm.

Even though the young vocalist was performing on stage for some time, Social media provided him with a platform to reach the audience without any third party mediation. He is a part of the video series Vande Guru Paramparaam by Sri Kuldeep M. Pai. His songs have so far enjoyed phenomenal popularity for a young child. His Pibare Ram Rasam has more than 11 lakh views on YouTube while Shivashtakam has more than 19 lakh views. His focus, the purity of his voice and beautiful rendition of the song makes it difficult not to hit the replay button several times over. As his accompanists say, “Music is inside him and the training he is receiving is just a means of structuring it.”

Apart from being trained as a vocalist in Carnatic music, Rahul is also learning the mridangam and piano. He practices for two hours in the morning and then in the evening after finishing his schoolwork and to top it all, he is a straight A student. “He is a disciplined child. I hardly ever have to go behind him. He does his part and makes sure that he stays on top of everything,” tells his mother. She feels that music has made him better at his studies and he has developed a skill for grasping concepts easily. “He listens very attentively to everything being said in the class. Very little revision and guidance is required from us at home,” she adds. To find such sense of purpose and depth of understanding for music in one so young is a rare pleasure. Even though Rahul’s parents are making sure that he gets the best of education and follows his passion for music as well, Rahul’s mind seems to be made up. “I want to sign and be a Carnatic music vocalist,” says the young devotee with conviction.

Carrying the Torch

As the evening approached on campus and the pure tones of Brahmam okate… para brahmam okate thandana na ahi thandana na puri thandanaana bhala thandanaana filled the hall at Sri Datta Sai Spiritual Centre at the JGI’s Global Campus, it became apparent why the child prodigies are being celebrated all over India. The song expressing oneness of the spirit and oneness of all beings was further elevated, embellished by the purity and joy with which it was sung by Sooryagayathri and Rahul. The evening of music began with the Ganesha Panchratnam by Sooryagayathri. Over a period of two hours, both of them transformed the mood at the spiritual centre with several vandanas from Hanuman Chalisa to Sri Ram Chandra Kripalu Bhajman. The link between music and the Divine is deeply entrenched in the Indian culture and the performance of these two prodigies reinforced it. Carnatic Music, born in the southern states of India has been nurtured by the legends such as M.S. Subbalaxmi, S. Janaki and M. Balamuralikrishnan in the modern era. Despite several transitions, it remains one of the oldest forms of classical music. Based on shruti, swara, raga and tala, its origins can be traced back to Sama and Yajur Vedas.

Sooryagayathri and Rahul have indeed taken to this proud heritage with panache. In a time where many consider classical music as esoteric, for two young children to take up the mantle is something that gives hope that Carnatic music which once found such immense favour in the courts of Kings, will continue to please its lovers in the coming days for a long-long time.

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.