Song of Surrender

Friday, 21 April 2017

Stillness in movement

SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance 2017

By Sruti Rao


It hits you with a sudden jolt that the SIFAS Festival has started as soon as you enter the campus. The usually bare and yellowing walls are decorated with an abundance of marigolds, strings of flowers and blue silk streamers. Just as a proud family extends a red carpet welcome to its guests, adorned in their best saris and kurtas, with bright smiles but anxious brows, the SIFAS Principal Vidhya Nair and her loyal entourage of staff and festival committee members take turns to receive the first attendees at the steps before scurrying down the halls towards the humble auditorium.

At the inauguration, the crowd collects, for what proves to be a momentary stillness compared to the 16 days that follow. Committee members, students, loyal festival followers and even a couple of new faces fill the temporary seating construction.

Dr ST Kasinathan welcomed the crowd to the 14th Annual SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance. The evening began with a customary musical welcome from the SIFAS gurus, as Carnatic and Hindutstani vocal gurus Bhuvaneshwari and Shibani Roy took the stage with other gurus Srikanth (mridangam), Mihir Kundu (tabla), along with Praveen Kumar on the violin and Nabendu Bhattacharya on the harmonium.

The gurus introduced themselves with an alapana and slokam in Kalyani raga, even as the evening winds merge with the melodies and the rhythmic accompaniment of the percussion. Somewhat of a musical experiment followed. To my dismay it didn’t particularly work in the artists’ favour. Songs in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles were interspersed with each other—Sarasa mahamani followed by ‘um bin more, but felt forced and didn’t quite meld in synergy. 

Shortly after the musical performance, the audience was in for a mesmerizing Bharatanatyam performance by Jyotsna Jagannathan. While the organisers and committee members socialized during a 15-minute break to congratulate the gurus, dance students (including myself) scurried to the front of the auditorium to ensure they could study the dancer’s perfection in clear view. I hadn’t heard much about Jyotsna beforehand, and was simply looking forward to a decent dance performance in the cosy comfort of the SIFAS auditorium. What I saw was, however, magnificent.


Jagannathan sprang confidently on to the stage with a Gambhiranata mallari, filled with statuesque movements that couldn’t but remind us of the style of Malavika Sarukkai, the dancer’s guru. The resemblance was admirable and refreshing. In the varnam Innam en manam in Charukesi, Jagannathan brought a whimsical confidence in to the characterisation of the nayaki. 

There were admittedly moments of the seeming light-heartedness in the nayaki’s conversation with Krishna didn’t allow me to connect to the emotions of the character poignantly as in other presentations of this varnam, but that didn’t stop my wide-eyed appreciation of the way Jagannathan carried herself through the piece. She tirelessly glided through long and complex jatis, and ascended to the lyrical expressions with the same poise. This careful balance of controlling the body, while letting go to immerse yourself in the piece, gave us glimpses of how much more there is to master in a dancer’s presentation. Another admirable quality was the quick switches in characters throughout the repertoire. From the confident lover in the varnam, Jagannathan morphed into the gentle mother of Lord Rama, in her subsequent presentation of Tulsi Das's Tumak chalat. While some of us were glued to the beauty of her control and professionalism, younger members of the crowd were enamoured with the precision of her taihat taihi which they had just learnt in their previous dance class.

Confidence came in the form of Singapore talents as well, with local artists grasping the opportunity and platform to develop their own performance skills. SIFAS alumni Sai Vigneshwar, Sushma Soma and Nishanth Thiagarajan, did the institution proud, with their bold rendering of heavy compositions in their vocal concerts.

Young dancers of the Singapore arts fraternity also held their own on the SIFAS stage, with Bharatanatyam and Kathak repertoires that brought traditional margams to light. Popular senior dance students like Preethi Devarajan, Varsha Vishwanath and Gauraangi Chopra gave endearing performances, their diligent practice showing in their nritta and stamina, while their abhinaya may still have scope to bring forth deeper connotations of the characters they were portraying.

A performance marked by maturity and precision amid the series of daily performances at the campus was that of SIFAS guru Geethanadhan. Kalakshetra came to Singapore on that breezy Monday evening, as Geethanadhan represented his alma mater’s aestheticism through his clear and energetic movements throughout the margam, beautifully accompanied by the traditional rendering of the live orchestra of SIFAS gurus. The neatness of his every movement—from the swastika of his feet to the tripataka of his hands—was a dance student’s delight to watch and process.

The offering of workshops and interactive sessions was a wonderful addition to the festival this year. One session was by the bright-eyed rising star of the Carnatic music scene, Ramakrishnan Murthy. On the eve of his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the humble musician brought to a mixed audience of young and experienced vocal students and music teachers, a workshop on using compositions to render raga alapana. The atmosphere of the enclosed rehearsal room allowed for a casual and interspersed Q&A with the artist, while he presented examples of how sangatis of age-old kritis can be referenced when rendering alapana. For instance, the anupallavi line Neela sareera from Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Balagopala in Bhairavi can be pulled upon as – in the artist’s own words – a “magnum opus” for setting the tone of Bhairavi, as he skilfully translated the sangatis of the pallavi into phrases in an alapana. While the structured insights of Ramakrishan Murthy were indeed thought-provoking, the commentary and varied questions that came from the audience were just as interesting to hear, bringing to light what we as students of music can learn not only from professional performers, but from each other as well.

The key big-ticket performance that I was anticipating the most was Mythili Prakash’s Jwala, presented at the Esplanade Theatre on the penultimate day of the festival. Mythili and her musician brother Aditya Prakash are no strangers to the Singapore stages, already enjoying quite a loyal fan-following here, and they did full justice to their expectations through their presentation of Jwala – the rising flame. The production allowed the audience to see a side of Mythili’s that it hadn’t before. The flame signifying memories of a loved one, and its role in the emergence of new life and love, was portrayed with a genuineness in the way it brought out personal parallels of the dancer’s own life experiences. The courage with which Mythili allowed herself to be vulnerable to this truth on stage was admirable and soul-stirring. Familiarity came through nonetheless in the dynamic fast-paced choreography of Mythili’s dance. Time and time again, the inspirational dancer has shown an intelligence in her varied interpretations of movement, knowing when to enthrall with brahmaris and hovering speeds, and also when to stand still and enrapture the audience with her mature and relatable expressions. Though certain components of the production felt superfluous, such as the attribution to Sivasakti in the middle, the performance in its entirety still kept the audience engaged and in complete awe of the dancer’s grand energy.

The musical ensemble in this show especially brought an elevated dynamic to the dance more than any other presentation in this year’s festival. From Easwar Ramakrishnan with his  superior rendering on the violin, Jayashree Ramanathan with her clear and precise nattuvangam, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram with rhythmic synchronization on the mridangam, and Krishnan Venkatesh with some  incredible lighting, to Aditya Prakash and Sushma Soma’s melodic and mature navigation of the music with each member, gave the entire production a beauty that allowed us to internalize the visual elements of the dance in ways we could not have without them. Aditya Prakash’s rendering of the Sufi poem Ji chaahe to sheesha banja at the end was especially poignant and graceful.

One Esplanade performance that disappointed however, was Rajendra Gangani’s Kathak presentation Rachna. The craft and ability of the dancer cannot be questioned, as he showed great skill and a natural laya or rhythm in his form, the format of the presentation failed to captivate. Following a brief introduction with the Siva panchakshara stotram, Gangani followed a near lec-dem format throughout the remainder of the evening, with explanations of bols and chals followed by their presentation. This felt simplistic, and inadequate for the Esplanade stage, while a more solid conceptual presentation might have engaged the audience in a better manner. While this show in essence didn’t move me, I could stand corrected, for the hundreds of remaining audience members were applauding vociferously to each of his pauses and tattakaras.

The SIFAS Festival is at its core a celebration of art, its present and its future. It gives aspiring artists a platform to grow while presenting a plethora of established performers to represent how much more there is to explore and appreciate. This year’s festival certainly grounded us art-lovers in appreciating the vastness and diversity of the classical Indian arts. The depth of the compositions, the intensity of traditional choreographies and the engaged rapture of the generations of audiences that sat through a continuous array of performances persuaded even ambitious professionals constantly looking for the next move of success, to stand still, and appreciate the beauty and the generosity of the classical arts, for their roles in our lives and in the society we live in.

Akshay Padmanabhan

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By P.N. Ramani

Carnatic vocalist Akshay Padmanabhan is a student of renowned musician P.S. Narayanaswamy, who resides in Chennai. Hailing from a musical family, he started learning music at the age of five. An AIR (A grade) artist, he completed his graduation in M.Com. 

Are you a full time musician? If so, when did you take the plunge, and how difficult was the decision?

At present I am a professional musician. Besides performing at Chennai and elsewhere in India, I travel abroad every year to give concerts.

I believe I took the decision to be a full time musician around two years ago. It was quite difficult initially, but as my guru used to say, patience is a virtue and I convert any free time into practice. That keeps me going and also I attend many concerts regularly and many musicians and sabhas know me quite well.

Who was your inspiration? Any musicians in the family?

As an evolving musician, I was always going to find new inspirations. I am primarily inspired by my guru P.S. Narayanaswamy and his guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. In my family, my grandmother can sing and play the veena, and my father was a mridangam player during his youth and also later learnt vocal music from Neyveli Santhanagopalan. My mother is a walking encyclopaedia of music; she was everything for me initially.

What appeals most to you in Carnatic music?

To me Carnatic music is akin to the innovations we create in our lives. What makes it so is the judicious usage of the limitless creativity and imagination it offers while satisfying the most basic expectation of a listener listening at that time; to redesign the music to our personality. The feeling of connecting and communicating with a rasika sitting and listening to my performance – this aspect appealed to me first and grows on me everyday.

Have you taken any voice training? Are seniors critical of such attempts to improve your voice?

In addition to my fixed morning routine, I also practise during most parts of the day and in between my mundane physical activities. Through the day, I keep singing and working on problems.

Voice training is as important as practising and learning music. I personally never took training from professionals, but my gurus and colleagues give me advice and tips to work on. They critique me as much as they appreciate me when I perform well.

A word about your gurus. Their teaching methods?

My current guru and all the gurus I learned from helped shape the various facets of my music. They were responsible for my innovations in music at various stages of my evolving career. Sri PSN is very simple and easily approachable to learn from, and this makes learning a very relaxed activity. My guru has definitely taught differently at different times and I am at awe whenever I leave class and go home and assimilate whatever I learnt. I am really fortunate to be his sishya.

Do you feel confident about your future in music? 

All the music organisations in Chennai, and important institutions in India and abroad know me well and are kind enough to provide me opportunities during the season and off-season. In fact during the last music season a couple of important sabhas promoted me to senior slots and also awarded me. Also the AIR has awarded me the A grade last year. I do feel confident with regard to my music as I am working on it every day. I believe problems exist for any full time musician but how he recovers from it and learns and uses it as a stepping stone is the right way of going about it.

Do you listen to other genres of music? Any other talents?

I listen to any genre of music that appeals to me and I take as much from it and apply it to my performance as well. I play the guitar, keyboard and flute. I am now learning the mridangam from vidwan Sree Sundar Kumar. Working on several things is quite difficult, but it sometimes helps in giving a full picture in terms of thinking about music.

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Random notes

By V Ramnarayan

Should song elevate?

Research cited in his books by the recently deceased neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) has suggested that certain parts of the brain are better developed in children with especial musical ability. Sacks also provided evidence based on experiments to show that children continuously exposed from the age of four to music and musical training, will in time have similarly developed brain parts and musical ability. 

Another interesting discovery neuroscience has made about the relationship between the human brain and musical ability is that different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of music. For example, absolute pitch and musicality could be two different things; in fact, you can have perfect sruti and not be very musically gifted and vice versa. Natural rhythmic perfection is again said to be controlled by a different zone. 

According to a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher was only 14 when he said, “God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.’’

In his book Musicophilia, Sacks quotes from a Somerset Maugham story, The Alien Corn, in which George, a young man being groomed for a gentleman’s life, is passionately interested in becoming a pianist. The family is against the idea, but allows the young man to go to Germany to learn to play the piano but with an assurance from him that he will return to England in two years, to be evaluated by a professional pianist. George works hard and plunges into music in Germany, and duly returns on the appointed day to be examined by an expert, Lea Makart. George plays a Chopin composition, quite competently, but the expert is unimpressed that his future lies in a professional career in music. She tells him that she would have beseeched him to give up everything for music, had she been convinced of his talent. She however comforts him by saying, “Art is the only thing that matters. .. I can see that you have worked very hard. Don’t think it’s been wasted.’’

The fictional expert Lea Makart’s view that working hard at art is never wasted, even if you do not have it in you to become a professional artist, is so true. A very dear friend of mine struggled for decades to master Carnatic music enough to become a concert vocalist. Unfortunately, for all his dedication, and despite training under a great teacher, he lacked the talent for that no matter how deep his devotion and how hard he worked. I used to wonder why his guru, whom my friend adored, never told him the truth, but he must have truly believed that the sishya would be a better human being for having tried so sincerely. My friend finally realised that he had only been daydreaming about becoming a bhagavatar, but is a happy person nevertheless, still worshipping his late guru and his wonderful music. Music has shaped his career in an allied field and given him a pair of ears that can tell good music from bad and give him countless hours of joy, listening.

Followers of Hindustani music will know about the oft-repeated plea among its practitioners for the creation of a battalion of kansens or people with good ears, a play on the name of Tansen, the musical gem of Akbar’s court. It is true that in both the north and the south, it is the devoted army of rasikas who have kept our music alive through their unswerving support of music and musicians. Even the much maligned species of sabha secretaries consists of diehard rasikas who have turned impresarios in their thirst for more and more music.

One of Sruti’s veteran contributors, R. Ramaswamy Iyer, passed away quite suddenly on 9 September at New Delhi. A highly respected bureaucrat regarded as an authority on river water management, he was an intellectual with a deep social conscience. Like many others of his background (Tamil brahmin, IAS), he had a genuine interest in Carnatic music, and through the decades, developed into a clear thinker and eminently readable writer on the art. Fortunately, he did not let his steady acquisition of musical expertise make him a dry cynic of a critic, but continued to enjoy listening to musicians young and old.

Ramaswamy Iyer was not afraid of dismantling obsolete ideas of tradition in our music, and his admiration for great artists was moderated by his expectations of constantly high standards, especially in terms of sruti suddham and good aesthetics. Conversely, his critiques were tempered by empathy for the musician, who despite a lifetime of labour, can occasionally fail to live up to high expectations. As a result, his writing was marked by a gentle touch even when critical of an artist or institution. He liked and encouraged youngsters but was wary of new-fangled ideas.

Ramaswamy Iyer and his wife Suhasini invariably allocated a day for a visit to Sruti whenever they came to Chennai to enjoy the music season. Both of them made enjoyable conversation with Sruti staff expressing their opinions on the concerts they attended, besides enquiring about our friends and relatives. A beautiful couple, who brought calm and good cheer with them every time.

He was much my senior, wise, knowledgeable, and mellow, and I should not have the temerity to say so, but the fact is that we did differ on a few matters musical. He was not averse to writing to me to point out the error of my ways, so to speak, taking care, however, to stress that these letters were not for publication. There were some exceptions, like the last letter from him we published in Sruti. He had not overly liked the tone and content of my editorial on the state of Carnatic music, and I did have a personal correspondence with him on the subject in which he conceded that my views were not entirely unacceptable. 

News of his death was unexpected and distressing. When his son called to inform us, it was from Ramaswamy Iyer’s phone, and I assumed something in the latest Sruti had upset him! As it happened, the issue, with his letter to Sruti Box and his article on caste in Carnatic music, had arrived too late at his doorstep for that.

Today, though the Ramaswamy Iyers of Carnatic music are still with us, an increasing number of rasikas are knowledgeable about the intricacies of music; they can tell the raga of a song either by relating it to songs they know, or more scientifically through their knowledge of the arohana and avarohana as well as the standard prayogas of the raga. They are armed with the learning they imbibe from lecture-demonstrations, online lessons and mobile musicopedias. What some of these expert listeners however seem to lack is the ability to discriminate between good and bad music, between a proper voice and crooning, and vocal mannerisms over-dependent on the microphone. They are often guilty of lack of interest in visranti, mesmerised as they are by pyrotechnics and the more complex permutational swara expertise they look for in vidwans and vidushis. In contrast, my friend, the unsuccessful vocalist of an earlier paragraph, has been a successful rasika. He has impeccable taste in music. He knows that ‘’song elevates our being’’.

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