There's a lovely concept in Indian music culture that doesn’t have an English equivalent: the rasika. This is something like a connoisseur—a listener with understanding of the music and its context—but it's an emotional identity more than a cerebral one. An audience of rasikas is one that is primed to commune with the artist. When the energy is right, the shared experience of artist and rasika contains something of the ecstatic.
Bombay Jayashri is one of India's top artists—probably today's most celebrated female vocalist in the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition—but she describes herself as a rasika, a listener first. Though grounded in strenuous training that her guru, the late violinist and vocalist Lalgudi Jayaraman, imparted through long apprenticeship, she also inherited Jayaraman's enthusiasm for music across styles and traditions. "He urged me to become a complete rasika," Jayashri once told the Deccan Chronicle. "He showed me how enjoying an art form with no holds barred is very important."
Carnatic music is complex, or has that reputation. Part is the structure: Like Hindustani (North Indian) music, it is built around ragas (melodic patterns) and talas (rhythmic cycles), but it identifies more variants of the scale's seven notes, generating many more ragas, which can be developed in different song forms (see also: 10 Things to Know about Raga). But part is also the mythos around the music: Chennai, its center, is a conservative city; most recitals follow a conventional sequence; reviews in The Hindu, the highbrow newspaper, brim with technical jargon.
In this hidebound setting, Jayashri is different. Her virtuosity has earned the favor of the prickly Chennai critics—who measure her against the gold standard in female vocals, the late M. S. Subbulakshmi—yet her work stretches beyond their realm. She has recorded many albums of light classical and devotional music, as well as film songs for the busy Chennai movie industry. She has worked for years with Finnish composer Eero Hämeenniemi, playing with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and in towns near the Arctic Circle. Within India, she crosses the Carnatic/Hindustani demarcation line, performing jugalbandis (concerts pairing two featured artists) with flutist Ronu Majumdar, an old friend, or vocalists such as Subha Mudgal or Rashid Khan.
Besides her status in the Carnatic classical world, Jayashri is a prominent public figure. But by describing herself as a "rasika" first, she levels status barriers and puts herself side by side with her listeners, together pursuing transcendence through music.
When director Ang Lee wanted the right music to open his 2012 film Life of Pi—about a boy drifting across the ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger—he sought out Jayashri. She had already made multiple recordings of traditional lullabies in different Indian languages; her song for the film, "Pi’s Lullaby," with Tamil lyrics that she composed, earned a 2013 Oscar nomination. The honor made big news in India, where the press spun it as recognition for Carnatic music, though it was really testimonial to Jayashri’s border-crossing originality.
Though raised in a South Indian family, Jayashri was born in Kolkata (Calcutta) and grew up in Mumbai (Bombay). Her parents were amateur musicians; the home was filled with Carnatic music, plus classic Hindi film songs on the radio. Jayashri studied music from childhood, learning both Carnatic and Hindustani styles, and sang the film songs of Lata Mangeshkar at school. She earned a business degree before committing to advanced Carnatic training, moving to Chennai in the late 1980s to study with Jayaraman. There she became known as Bombay Jayashri, following the tradition of prefacing an artist's name with their place of origin. Jayaraman was a doyen of tradition, but rather than fence Jayashri in, he encouraged her eclecticism. (She has described how he once, to her surprise, ushered her in to watch Michael Jackson videos together.)
Besides her status in the Carnatic classical world, Jayashri is a prominent public figure. But by describing herself as a rasika first, she levels status barriers and puts herself side by side with her listeners, together pursuing transcendence through music. "Anything that touches me seeps into me and becomes a part of me, and becomes my path," she once said in a newspaper interview. "How can one miss out on the beauty of different forms of music as a rasika, which is what I am and will remain—always wanting more!"
Siddhartha Mitter is a culture journalist in New York. He contributes regularly to the Village Voice, Boston Globe, and other outlets.