Dr. Gayatri Sankaran receiving the Padma Shri from Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India, on Republic Day, 2006.


Dr. 'Padma Shri' Gayatri Sankaran, is a distinguished 'A' Grade Carnatic Music vocalist of the All India Radio (AIR) and the first visually-challenged musician to receive the prestigious Padma Shri, from the President of India. Her life and musical career is a heart-wrenching and equally inspiring saga of determination, discipline and dedication to her cause. Here, we outline her musical tutelage, career, awards, accomplishments and her personal life.

Gayatri has had a unique and a multi-dimensional musical career. Firstly, she is an artist who has performed in over 500 concerts all over India and abroad.

Gayatri has been formally employed by the All India Radio since 1988 where she joined as an instrumentalist. Here she does administrative work, gives concerts and also special musical features such as Saivism in India, explaining the Divyadesam through music, etc.

A few of her notable concerts have been:
  • Rashtrapathi Bhavan Concert in front of former President APJ Abdul Kalam in 2007.
  • 100th Nadaniranjanam program in 2009, the festival in Tirupati in front of Perumal Sannidhi.
  • Program in front of Perumal Sannidhi at the Chembai Festival, Guruvayur in 2010.
  • Cleveland Music Festival.
  • Concert on Manodharma Sangeetam at the London Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
In addition she has had overseas performances in London, Canada, USA and in several other countries.

Her role as a teacher and friend to over 70 students of Carnatic music in India and abroad is another dimension in her career. She conducts classes at home and long-distance classes over internet and phone. As a teacher, she is known for the patient and compassionate manner in which she helps her students find their passion.

Gayatri's musical tutelage includes the remarkable combination of learning both the rendition and theory of music. She is a renowned vocalist, accomplished violinist and a PhD in Music from the Madras University.

Her musical learning can be divided into three distinct phases:
She began her tutelage at the age of 3 under her mother, Smt. Subbulakshmi Gurunathan, who was herself a vocalist of the AIR. She fondly recalls how her mother would sing repeatedly to her and Gayatri developed an acute sense of "Kezhvi Gnanam" that has served her throughout her life. After the passing away of her mother when she was only six years old, Gayatri continued learning until the age of 12 at her hometown in Samalkot (in Andhra Pradesh) under the famous vocalist Allamaraju Someswara Rao. Her grandmother would take notes in the bi-weekly classes. Gayatri gave her first concert at the age of 11 to mark her arrival into the Carnatic Music arena.

The second phase of her musical learning was between ages 13 and 19 and happened at Kalakshetra in Chennai. She made a conscious move to Chennai and was instantly admitted into Kalakshetra after Rukmani Devi Arundale heard her sing and recognized the immense talent in this young artist. During her six years at Kalakshetra, she learnt vocal music under Pudukkodu Krishnamurthy and Vairamangalam S Lakshminarayanan (both "A" grade artists of AIR Chennai). She learnt violin under Pakkala Ramdas, (an accomplished "A" grade artist of AIR Chennai and a disciple of Shri Lalagudi G Jayaraman). During this time, Gayatri completed her Diploma and Post Graduate Diploma in Music and also learnt Braille.

The third phase was a turning point when she was accepted by the legend Padma Bhushan Shri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman as a student in 1998. She remembers that day of 25th January 1998 with great nostalgia. She says that here is where her musical understanding and performance truly blossomed for she learnt swara gnanam, manodharma sangeetham, the depths of our limitless musical tradition and also the nuances of being a performing artist. Understandably, Gayatri's music today carries the rich flavour of the unique Lalguid baani. She recalls the intensity of those four years of sadhana when she would practice 4-5 hours a day and also attend 3-4 classes a week. From 2008 onwards she enriched her repertoire under the vidwan, Padma Bhushan Dr. K.J. Yesudas.

During this time, she also completed her PhD in Music in 2011, at Madras University, under the supervision of Dr. M. Pramila, who guided her thesis on the 'Stylistic Analysis of Kalidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar'.

At Music Academy, Chennai, she gave a unique music performance for the dance programme of the Clarke School for Deaf and Dumb School. The performing children could not hear her music but followed her lip movemment and she could not see them, but had to follow them by the sound of their footsteps. But the coordination was so good that everyone applauded, including the then Governor of TamilNadu.

Several workshops and lecture demonstrations, in India and abroad, are also part of her extensive musical work.
  • Workshop on the History & Development of Ancient Tamil Music from Sangam Period to 12th century, at the Chembur Fine Arts.
  • At the Fine Arts, Mumbai, a two-day workshop on " Ancient Tamil Music, Musicology and Carnatic Music".
  • Workshop on "Manodharma Sangeetham" at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London.
  • Lecture on "Ancient Tamil Music" at Tamil Isai Kala Mandram, Canada.
  • Development of Music and Musicology from 13th century to date
  • Development of Tamil Music in Canada.
  • Music Notation in Braille - An attempt to help the visually-challenged learn music
Last but not the least, Gayatri is a sensitive social contributor. She is the first person to have created Carnatic Music notations in Braille. She undertook this project under the guidance of the Ministry of Social Justice and her work will serve as a permanent reference for the visually-challenged who wish to learn music. She also trains and counsels visually-challenged students in schools.

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Gayatri Sankaran. Photo: N. Sridharan

She is a prodigy. A national newspaper in Andhra Pradesh wrote in 1977: "Eleven-year-old Gayatri gave a scintillating music concert exhibiting knowledge much above her age." She moved to Chennai and from 1982 to 1986, collected prizes in multi-categories of competitions held by the Music Academy and Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha.
She is gifted. Gayatri Sankaran sings in three and a half octaves, her voice reaching the high notes effortlessly. The notes are clear, resonant and have a haunting quality. She has a deep, inborn, intuitive understanding of her art. "Musical acumen and melody" is how Subbudu described her singing.
She is qualified. She did her diploma and post-graduate diploma courses in Kalakshetra; got her MA in music from Mother Teresa Women's University. She is an A-Grade (vocals) and a high B-Grade (violin) artiste at AIR, Chennai. She has been empanelled on the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for Carnatic vocal. She will soon submit her Madras University-supervised doctoral thesis.

She is blessed. Her mother Subbulakshmi gave her the first music lessons and when the family moved to Kakinada she found an excellent tutor in Sri A. Someswara Rao. For seven years she was coached by the legendary Rukmini Devi. She met Padma Bhushan Lalgudi G. Jayaraman through her violin master and demonstrated a sample of her talent. Within a week, the summons came. For several years now, she has been taking "invaluable" lessons from the maestro.
She is grateful. To her husband Sankaran who quit his salesman's job to manage her schedules, organise travel and run the household. "I don't know anything about the house," she confesses shyly. "His co-operation is crucial to my work." To Guru Lalgudi "who has taught me more than lyrics and laya and who guides me in living and working efficiently." To all those who have been supporting her effort and enthusiasm to put her gift to good use.

She is an achiever. "Surmani", "Isai Chudar", "Special Pallavi Singer" and "Best Teacher" are honours she has received from organisations in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. Last month, the Hindu Cultural Manram, Toronto, chose "Gana Kuyil" as its title for her. She has done extensive research in ancient Tamil music and musicology and did a lec-dem on it at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, in London. She sang for a dance by the hearing-impaired students of the Clarke's School.
She is ambitious. She says firmly, "I want to be known all over the world. I want to cut more albums.
I want to travel, learn about people and places. I want to improve my knowledge of music. I can help disabled students with music lessons and information."

She is smart. In a good sense. Whether it is a kutcheri or a talk, she does intensive homework. She gets her students to read out the relevant books (Gayatri has been blind since birth); records the main points for revision; downloads information from the Internet using ReadPlease software.
She memorises the info she needs. She wakes up early and practises till it is time to leave for work. She gives music lessons during weekends. She took a student along on her recent tour for a running commentary of places they visited.
She listens to news channels to "know what's happening".
She noticed two things during her tour. "Audiences abroad are curious. They asked knowledgeable questions after my lec-dem on the musical forms in Tholkappiam. Secondly, life is a lot easier for challenged people there. Everything is accessible. The London tube has special turnstiles and a guard guides you to the train. The train repeatedly tells you to "mind the gap" between the step and the platform. Tourist spots offer concessions. The funny part is entrance is free for the caregiver! I was allowed to touch the wax models at Madam Tussaud's. I took a ride in London Eye to get a view of the city. I visited the gardens to feel the flowers. I can imagine the colours."
How do you judge audience reaction? "From the response to the first couple of songs. I discuss my audience with the organisers beforehand. I go prepared to change my list of songs. I switch the tempo, ragas and songs. The idea is to provide an enjoyable experience. I prefer to sing familiar songs though I do introduce new ones." Then she smiles. "So far I have not forgotten my lines." She nods to give cues to her accompanists. "They are very talented. They understand."

As Gayatri sings her favourite song "Kurai Onrum Illai, Govinda" from the depth of her being, you can only nod. How true!

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