Singing Life of Pi: Bombay Jayashri's high Cs on the high seas

The voice behind Ang Lee’s blockbuster brings Indian classical music to the Sydney Opera House.

Four years after Indian songwriter extraordinaire A.R. Rahman claimed the Academy Award for Best Original Song in Slumdog Millionaire, it seemed his fellow Chennai musician Bombay Jayashri was in with a chance at the Oscars for her mesmerising contribution to Life of Pi.

In the end Jayashri, a virtuoso singer and composer of Carnatic music, lost out to Adele’s Skyfall theme song. Nonetheless, her lushly orchestrated Pi’s Lullaby has captivated millions who saw the film – like Slumdog Millionaire, an adaptation of a bestselling novel. In the end, the Indian epic about a boy shipwrecked with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (the wonders of CGI!) won four of its eleven Oscar nominations. 

Now, determined to share her love of India’s Carnatic style with the world, she is set to perform a one-off concert at the Sydney Opera House, accompanied by violin and percussion instruments mridangam and ghatam. Then she's off to sing with a 100-piece Finnish Orchestra in Helsinki and, later this year, at Carnegie Hall. The softly-spoken Jayashri insists that traditional Indian classical music is as rigorous and virtuosic as Europe’s. “The training system is deep, layered. The freedom for a performer within a prescribed framework is enormous. It is deeply satisfying that an art that is at least a 1000 years old is so relevant and enjoyed even today.

“I am trained in Carnatic and Hindustani music. But Carnatic music is the mainstay, closest to my heart,” she enthuses, citing her guru, violin virtuoso Lalgudi Jayaraman, as the most important influence in her adult life. “He taught me everything he knew, urged me to experiment, opened my mind to world music – from George Harrison to Yehudi Menuhin. Rigorous and affectionate, he gave me the confidence to take up this lofty art.”

A fourth-generation musician, Jayashri may not be as prolific as the Bollywood songstresses of old such as Asha Bhosle, but she relished her time with Life of Pi director Ang Lee and score composer Michael Danna in the studio. “They decided to include the lullaby in the movie as a bit of an afterthought,” she recalls. “They wanted to bring Pi’s mother to him when he is at the toughest point in his journey. Ang Lee and Michael held my hand through the writing and singing process. Those were the most exciting days of my life in a long time! Danna was with me in the studios, Ang Lee was on the TV screen from LA, and we made a go of it!”

As well as her film work and punishing concert schedule, Jayashri has discovered that the dulcet tones of Carnatic ragas have a profound effect on autistic children, for whom she now performs regularly. “Music calms the children; lets them be. Also, it soothes their parents and educators. And the children remember music well! I once had a little boy telling me I sang something ‘wrong’ because he had heard me sing a phrase differently on a CD. He walked up to me when the concert was going on, said I was singing it ‘wrongly’, and went back to his seat!” 

Carnatic song, however, is as celebratory as it is calming. Legendary Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle’s appearance at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago was a joyous multicultural affair, the auditorium transformed into a glittering sea of saris – no tiger in sight. 

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Singing Life of Pi: Bombay Jayashri's high Cs on the high seas
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