When she begins with the first few notes of a ghazal, thumri or bhakti sangeet (romantic, dance-oriented or devotional composition), the sound patterns seem to form a recognisable silhouette. And they seem to evoke distinct responses among the audience because the music of Shruti Sadolikar means different things to different people. For the young and enthusiastic listener, for instance, it is her depth and husky intonation that is appealing. For the discerning connoisseur, on the other hand, it is a recall of the past, of ustads of yesteryears, as Sadolikar's renditions carry with them a venerable baggage.
The special attentiveness she attracts is due to her harmony with her gharana roots. Born and brought up in a home that nurtured the Jaipur Gharana, Sadolikar was groomed during her early years by her late father, Pandit Wamanrao Sadolikar. A disciple of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the pioneer of the Jaipur Gharana, Pandit Sadolikar also learned under the tutelage of Khan's son, Ustad Bhurji Khan Sahib.
Sadolikar, however, decided to carve out a niche for herself. In her journey on the path of music, the place of conventional education was not given short shrift. Alongside her preparation for the Sangeet Visharad examinations in music, Sadolikar also pursued an undergraduate course at Bombay University (Mumbai). And after that, she acquired a Master's degree in Music from the SNDT University in Mumbai.
With scholarly rigour on the one hand and her training as a performer on the other, Sadolikar found that with the strength of these attributes, she could carry on being a research scholar in music and could also be up before the arc lights performing before an august company of discerning listeners.
Recording companies in the 1990s were quick to spot her budding and special talent and signed her on for unusual classical compositions. For one of them, Sadolikar rendered 20 ragas (melodies) in 20 different taals (sequence of beats), and 18 thumris (dance-oriented compositions) in 18 different taals. The recording company, Magna Sound, aptly christened a Shruti number - their bestseller of the year - the 'Gayaki Raag Aur Taal.'
In between this action-packed musical routine of singing and recording, Sadolikar found time to pursue research as a Kesarbai Kerkar Scholar at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. And gradually, enthusiastic music learners in Mumbai began to arrive at her home in Dadar, wanting to be her pupils.
Today, Sadolikar is living a completely different life - since 2003, she has metamorphosed from a learner of the classical art form into a full-fledged guru of her gharana tradition. She is now in Kolkata, at ITC's Sangeet Research Academy (SRA), where the method of grooming singers follows the age-old practice of learning music - the guru-shishya parampara (the mentor-pupil tradition).
While earlier musicians at SRA have been performers past-their-prime in the music circuit, Sadolikar (in her 40s) is the youngest of its current crop of gurus, and one who still has many years of the concert schedule chalked out before her. For now, however, Sadolikar lives on the premises of SRA and is currently infusing the intricacies of her musical style to two promising young disciples.
Besides receiving instruction each morning, the disciples can also walk in for impromptu sessions with their guru any time during the day whenever they feel the need, or when they are faced with a difficult passage. In fact, this very informal and yet intense devotion and involvement with music is what made Sadolikar decide to relocate to Kolkata and join SRA. "Living in close proximity with my learners helps me make an artist out of a mere student of music. In Mumbai, my disciples - though devoted to their calling - treated the musical side of their lives as a 9 to 5 affair."
For Sadolikar, SRA has provided her with a "whole mental discipline towards music". "After all, music is not just about learning ragas and singing. It is also about watching the guru, witnessing how other students learn, allowing oneself to listen to other pupils singing. Like a third party presence in the crowd, it is about learning the art objectively, by listening, hearing and witnessing the guru at first hand."
At SRA, Sadolikar has also discovered other unique aspects of the guru-shishya tradition. For instance, it has made her realise the importance of silence as an instructional tool, as opposed to mere talkativeness. It has also given her a new insight into the responsibilities of the guru in this system. "For the guru it is important to know how to teach. It is basically a sharing process that is ongoing between guru and shishya."
In the guru-shishya tradition, there are no examinations to assess a student's improvement. The guru must fine-tune the relationship so implicitly that the pupil begins to treat learning as a shared process so perfectly carried out that performing before the arc lights becomes but a fractional part of the entire musical instruction process. "Just like the pupil, the guru too has to develop a habit of learning. This process must be so subtle that when the singer closes her/his eyes and begins a recital, a sort of sadhana, or serenity born of prayer, comes to one's mind."
Sadolikar seems to have perfected a novel methodology in training her pupils into becoming performers in their own right. The guru has to help identify the spark in the disciple, she says. Helping her along in this identification exercise is her own development process. "I am not only a singer but also a thinker and a well-read person," says Sadolikar. She impresses upon her students the need to know about the life of Lord Krishna, Sanskrit texts, and to develop a curiosity to get to the depth of the subject matter. "I have found that students with a sound knowledge of literature widen their outlook and benefit their music."
She says her venture into Hindi film music indicates "an element of flexibility" in her thought process. "On stage I might be a singer only, but elsewhere, I am a human being touching all walks of life," avers Sadolikar.