Bombay Jayashri

Bombay Jayashri res
Photo: Mark Metcalfe.

Concert Hall, April 28, 2013

One has survived countless concerts adjacent to talkers, coughers and vile mobile-phone users, but this was something new. Amid a program of almost divine Indian classical music the four-year-old next to me was being verbally coached by his mother from a beginner’s maths book! And this when the music contained such infinite subtlety.

Bombay Jayashri is a singer from the south Indian Carnatic tradition who recently splashed into Western consciousnesses with Pi’s Lullaby in the film Life Of Pi. But her real art is much more sophisticated. Framed, goddess-like, by the necks of the tamburas (drone instruments) to either side, she proved an exceptional improviser and technician, especially when unleashing all her fluency and invention on the extended ragas.

As is typical of the form these centrepieces began with Jayashri improvising without rhythmic accompaniment; just with HN Bhaskar’s ravishing violin echoing and sometimes completing her improvised phrases. When voice and violin converged on a note it was like a sudden blaze of light.

The essence of her art is sliding between microtones on specific upward and downward scales, which requires pitch control far beyond any western form of singing. Sometimes her voice had a disembodied, celestial quality, and sometimes it was loaded with yearning. It could be diaphanous as she executed passages of filigree detail, or more forceful, and spiral up towards the Concert Hall’s ceiling. The defining attribute was the unique mix of anguish and tranquillity.

Jayashri’s improvisations gave way to violin features made of short, stabbing phrases, usually of desperate sadness. When she rejoined VV Ramama Murthy’s mridangam (double-headed hand-drum) and Giridhar Udupa’s ghatam (clay put) introduced the tala (rhythm), the ghatam’s light, spidery sounds alternating with the mridangam’s more meaty punctuations.

The climax contained a frenetic exchange between the percussionists, before some livelier pieces concluded an extraordinary 140 minutes. If Jayashri’s vocal stamina amazed, this was an abbreviated affair compared with what she would present in India.