Up and Close with Artists – Lakshmi Anand

Swapna Narayanan

Music is a balm to the soul. And as we sail through these tough times, we all are leaning towards anchors like music – listening as well as learning, cooking, fitness, gardening etc. that are highly therapeutic and are offering some solace to our minds.

I have personally found comfort in listening to music and have now expanded the genres in my playing list.

Around mid April, I came across this podcast by Sudha Raghunathan on a blog under a section called as Quarantunes. Intrigued by both the name as well as the format of the podcast, I delved in deep and realised that this is part of a personal blog of Lakshmi Anand.

Music is brought to life by the musician. And Lakshmi Anand had managed to show me a side of the musician that often gets hidden under their music. Their thoughts, views, perspectives, fears, battles and so much more.

On some more reading up, I realised that Lakshmi Anand is a columnist with The Hindu and is a seasoned blogger and writes about food, music, people, perceptions etc. aptly called as Music, Moods and Meals.

An eclectic mix that appeals!

I caught up with Lakshmi recently. Here are a few snippets from our conversation.

Swapna: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us Lakshmi! I have read some of your blog pieces, and I must say, they are extremely engaging. And of course the podcasts of some eminent and established artists like Jayanthi Kumaresh, Pandit Arijit Mahalanabis, Kala Ramnath, RK Shriramkumar, Giridhar Udupa etc. were part of your Quarantunes series. Tell us more about this series.

Lakshmi: My pleasure, Swapna, and thank you for the kind words and the opportunity to share my thoughts with Eyra. Quarantunes took roots right as the first lockdown came about and featured one musician each day in a 32-episode podcast series. Musicians had taken to social media en masse to announce their upcoming concerts getting cancelled, including entire summer tours abroad (which constitute a significant chunk of the annual earnings for many artistes).

Screenshot 2020-07-26 at 8.56.52 PMThe pandemic, obviously, affects everyone, but artistes more so than those in typical salaried positions. When basic health and safety is itself a concern, art in general, and concerts, are the last thing on people’s minds. For musicians though, it is a loss of bread and butter, since concerts still cannot meaningfully switch over to a digital or ‘work from home’ format – at least not in an equivalently monetised manner.

I wondered what might be on their minds at this unprecedented and highly uncertain time for musicians – what were their concerns and how did they make use of this sudden availability of time? I knew it would be of interest to the entire community of Indian classical musicians and aficionados – and it was.

The format itself, that of the artiste sharing her or his thoughts independently, came about from a combination of wanting to try something different along with being practical. It is important to remember here that Quarantunes was conceptualised in the early days of the first lockdown – when this imposed ‘stay-at-home’ order was something everyone was just barely coming to grips with. Screenshot 2020-07-26 at 7.47.29 PMI wanted an egalitarian platform for all the musicians regardless of tech savviness. Zoom was not a common household word as it is now and there was also some reluctance at embracing ‘new-fangled’ technologies because of the implicit belief that this was a short-term problem. One thing that everyone had though, and knew to use, was their cell phone and its record button.

Having interviewed several artistes face-to-face on other occasions, I had always wondered what a subject might say if left to oneself – if I had not asked a particular question or interjected at a particular point etc. This was the perfect opportunity to check that out too.

Swapna: What appealed is also the fact that you chose an optimal mix of artists across the spectrum of both Carnatic and Hindustani – vocalists, instrumentalists, percussionists etc. showcasing the various nuances of music to the world. How did that come by?

Lakshmi: Thank you. That was conscious and intentional. Both Hindustani and Carnatic are distinct Indian classical music forms, each with its own unique qualities. Both are affected in the current situation.

Screenshot 2020-07-26 at 8.38.48 PMI wanted to reflect the field representatively – a mix of male and female, instrumentalists and vocalists, soloists and accompanists, academics, different age groups and so on. Each demographic has different thoughts, concerns and challenges.

While a concert is frequently referred to as ‘X’s concert’, it is, in fact, a team that presents the program. The artiste(s) sitting at the centre decide(s) what to present and how to showcase it in a way that reflects their art in their individual way. As exciting as that might sound, it is a heavy responsibility. Failure of a concert is almost always attributed to this/these musician(s), practically exclusively, while success is ascribed more to a team effort!

Accompanying instrumentalists play for several artistes whose styles can be as different as chalk from cheese. These accompanists must support each individual appropriately reflecting that person’s bANi or gharAna, not to mention that particular musician’s distinguishing embellishments. With the significant extemporaneous aspects of Indian classical music, this requires tremendous skill, lightning quick reaction and spontaneity. The point is that every artiste brings significant skill sets to the table which require varied types of training and preparation. I wanted listeners to hear all these different perspectives.

Swapna: Each of those podcasts were amazing. Tell us something more about yourself and your musical journey. Are you a practicing musician?

Lakshmi: I am purely a rasika – an enthusiast. All the girls in my traditional family learned Carnatic music – and close relatives were/are good musicians. I learnt Carnatic vocal as a child, but casually, with no pressure or intent to perform. My lessons were highly intermittent, and only for a few years in all, since we lived in Africa for several years.

IMG_20200503_142732__01However, my childhood teachers, my paternal aunt, Smt. Maragatham Ramaswamy (currently in Chantilly VA, USA) and Sri. O.S. Thiagarajan, gave me a solid grounding and exposed me to the immense creative canvas that the art was.

My brother would play Semmangudi, GNB, MDR, MLV, MS, Madurai Mani Iyer, Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman and other stalwarts constantly on the tape recorder as he studied (we were both home schooled for significant chunks of our life) – it was the only music we heard, and we have done impromptu karaoke with those tapes before we even knew what karaoke was!

A few years ago, my mother took up Delhi University’s Sangita Shiromani course, successfully graduating at the age of 74 – bringing to fruition her childhood interests – so, yes, these and many other interesting connects to music.

I moved to the USA after marriage where I finished an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the Pennsylvania State University. I then worked in Pennsylvania for 12 years in Finance, after which I returned to India following my father-in-law’s sudden demise. As my two children got older, I began writing articles on classical music and musicians as a freelancer. I write a regular column now for The Hindu and do periodic features too.

Swapna: Melodies during Maladies is another lovely section in your blog. Again a good insight into the perspectives of musicians like Palghat Ramprasad, S Mahathi, Vishakha Hari etc. on your question of resuming concerts amidst COVID. How did you narrow down to this poignant question, and why this interactive format?

Lakshmi: There was much ad-hoc conversation going on at the time amongst listeners, S Mahathiorganisers and musicians about this very issue and some chatted with me as well. The impetus behind Melodies during Maladies was to formalise this discussion, representing all the stake holders and exposing different views to the same topic. This was a shorter series, on a specific subject, at a later point in the lockdown – I thought going interactive would help clarify how each stakeholder came to the conclusion that he/she did on the particular issue.

Swapna: Your blog overall is very fascinating. Combining music, moods and meals is like that perfect formula of life. Tell me what got you started on that and what is your vision.

Lakshmi: Thank you. It reflects my interests – plain and simple. Though the writing started years ago, the website itself – Music, Moods & Meals is just a year old. It was an attempt to collect all my writing in one place – something readers had frequently suggested I do. My goal is to be honest and impartial in what I write and to offer some learning points for the reader – to keep an open mind while keeping the reader’s interests at heart.

The pieces in the Music section of the website, as mentioned, are an extension of my articles published in The Hindu, The Times of India and other publications. With the additional capabilities of the online platform, I add in, where possible, multi-media elements, in the hope of giving readers more of a deep dive into the subject.

The Moods section began initially with my sharing thoughts on Facebook as and when I had them – based on my personal experiences with people, procedure, anything at all. I had expected little response but it seemed to echo with a lot of people from different walks of life, each offering points and counterpoints.

Meals – these are recipes that I write in detail – perhaps excruciating detail. From my own personal experience and from telephonic hand-holding for friends and family, I know that there are many points of confusion in cooking – I try to address them all as much as possible in my recipes.

I really enjoy food – I will unashamedly say I live to eat. My mother made everything from pickles to vadaams to desserts to international cuisine totally from scratch, besides baking bread and eggless cakes from first principles in the 1960s. She also figured out how to incorporate local ingredients like potato flour etc. when there were no resources, online or otherwise, to consult. My South Indian cooking repertoire is faithfully hers for the most part, augmented by my mother-in-law’s special touches.

Whenever we travel, my family tries to eat the local food – though sometimes challenging (in China and Eastern Europe, for example), even with our uncompromisingly vegetarian parameters, we have always managed to find representative cuisine to sample. Upon returning home, I would try to recreate these using locally available ingredients. Random events can start me off too. For example, in the movie Enemy of the State, the protagonist, actor Will Smith, is more bereft at the loss of his blender that in the other far more valuable things taken from his house. That movie got me trying several formulae for fruit smoothies – and it all began with Will Smith! 😊



*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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