Song of Surrender

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Concert as a Unity

By Ramaswamy R. Iyer

Discussions of the ‘kutcheri paddhati’ usually follow one of two routes. One is a debate on tradition versus innovation, some insisting on adherence to tradition, others proclaiming the importance of innovation, and yet others accepting the need for innovation but trying to keep it within limits. The other route is the socio-cultural one, explaining the move from Tanjavur to Madras, from the rural to the urban context, from patronage by zamindars and princes to dependence on urban middle class audiences organised in sabhas, and the changes that this brought about in the duration, organisation and content of concerts. There is, however, an aesthetic aspect that is not often discussed.

The form and content of a concert are determined not merely by history or socio-cultural preferences or economics but also (to varying degrees) by the musician’s own musical sense. A concert can be regarded as a sequence of pieces arranged in a particular order, or it can be regarded as a unity, an integral whole, providing a total musical experience.

To some extent, all concerts involve some degree of organisation with judgments on a suitable mix and sequencing of the constituent elements. However, a well-ordered concert may remain just that, and may not transcend that level and achieve greatness. That may happen very occasionally, through a combination of factors. When that happens, the concert becomes one integral whole, and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

What is the difference that I have in mind? It is the following: in the case of many concerts, we later on remember particular peaks of excellence: we say “what a Kalyani that was!”, or “a memorable Evari mata”, or “wonderful niraval in the sankarabharanam kriti”; but occasionally we remember the totality of a concert as a rare, unforgettable musical experience (with some peaks of course but with excellence throughout). This does not always happen even in the case of the great musicians: many of their concerts may be good or very good or even excellent, but only some reach the level of ‘total musical experience’.

Two clarifications may be in order. (i) I am not saying merely that even in the case of the great musicians the quality varies and that some concerts are better than the others. That is a statement of the obvious. I am saying that only some concerts become a memorable totality in which there is a perfection, an inevitability, about the choices, the ordering, and the performance, so that everything fits together and nothing can be changed or improved. (ii) There is an element of chance in this: the voice being at its best, the musician being in an inspired state, etc, but there is also an act of exceptionally felicitous and imaginative structuring.

The point that I am struggling to make is that apart from the musical forms that all of us recognise, such as varnam, kriti, etc, the total concert itself (on exceptional occasions) constitutes a musical form. I offer this point in a tentative, exploratory spirit, for corroboration or rejection by others.

A decade into the millennium

By V Ramnarayan

Many of the young musicians responsible for putting together and presenting the millennium concert on 31 December 1999-1 January 2000 are the senior vidwans and vidushis of today. Either stars or stars-in-the-making then, many of them have achieved considerable success in their careers since then, travelling abroad frequently and blazed new trails at home as well, some of them acquiring distinct brand identities in the process. Among the next generation of musicians are some of their disciples, though none of the disciples has as yet made as big an impact as the gurus had done at the same stage in their careers. To explain, what happened when the Sanjay Subrahmanyans, Vijay Sivas, Unnikrishnans, Bombay Jayashris and Nithyasree Mahadevans began to share stage space with the Seshagopalans and Sankaranarayanans of an earlier era, does not seem to be happening now. The process of growth to the senior level seems to be taking longer, young musicians appear to be maturing more slowly, especially among vocalists. This observation may be disproved by empirical studies, but it is more likely that it is actually true.

Concert opportunities for the young seem to be linked to success in competitions and reality shows. The winner of the year’s Carnatic Idol award is more often than not the flavour of the season. The explosion of information and of technology choices available for the dissemination of knowledge and the music of a wide range of musicians from past masters to new kids on the block mean that the current crop is better informed and technically equipped than ever before. As Semmangudi Srinivasier was fond of saying, today’s musicians are much more cerebral than those of his generation, which believed in the sanctity of the guru’s word, sometimes going to the extent of imbibing incorrect or inappropriate practices from the teacher. But greater and greater emphasis on technical brilliance and theoretical mastery seem to blunt the creative impulses and deflect the focus away from the need to achieve emotional depth, from genuine rasanubhava.

While higher education and greater exposure to the latest developments in our networked world can make our artists articulate and savvy, even more aware of the history of their art, the stronger moorings in tradition of earlier generations is no longer possible, a problem that all of us in different walks of life encounter everyday in an era of rapid homogenization.

Bad vocal practices have become endemic to Carnatic music, with the grand tradition of full-blooded akaram conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, this is dangerous ground for a music critic to tread, as by doing so, he is likely to incur the wrath of vocalists who do not share his view. Some of them do not agree that such a problem exists, while others believe that current styles of vocalisation are acceptable. Comparisons with Hindustani vocalists may be anathema to many representatives of mainstream performance, but this is a point we must debate in the interests of a sustainable future for Carnatic vocal music.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Essence of raga music

By V Ramnarayan

(Continued from blogpost dated 28 June 2012)

Presenting three entirely different styles of singing within the same gharana on three consecutive days, the Gharana festival this year was a brilliant coup by Prakriti Foundation.

After Vinayak Torvi’s strong, deep voice filled the Kalakshetra auditorium on Wednesday, the audience would have been forgiven for expecting a bit of a dilution in the auditory experience yesterday.

Vocalist Kaivalya Kumar Gurav obviously had other ideas. His thorough enjoyment of his music, his unconscious abhinaya to suit the mood of the song, and his superb body language resembling a seated dancer, added a tremendous additional dimension to his own brand of the Kirana gharana. His sweet voice, sometimes reminiscent of Abdul Karim Khan’s, could not have been more different from Torvi’s deep bass, but it moved easily back and forth from meditative to lilting to piercingly plaintive.

A touch of folk especially in the excitingly high notes only served to enhance the classicism at the core of his musicianship in evidence yesterday.

Though I have left the details—even raga names—to the Sruti critic covering the festival, I cannot help mentioning here that the raga Gavati, with which Gurav opened the concert, is not often heard in Chennai, though the charismatic GN Balasubramanian brought it south more than a half century ago. (Last year, Uday Bhawalkar sang it at the Music Academy).

Kaivalya Kumar also purveyed a delicate jhoola which literally swayed the audience.

The music on offer was clearly idiosyncratic, but what delightful idiosyncrasies. Every phrase he uttered was a pure distillate of the raga, every curve, every rapid ascent firmly anchored in the sruti with the individual notes crystal clear, however complicated the chain of swaras.
When in contrast the singer held a single note in a single long breath, he did so in a mesmeric manifestation of his mastery of omkara.

Even the unusual combination of vowels he blended together to serve up incredibly fast taans was always in good taste and always musical.

From vilambit to drut, there was never a false note, nor a dull moment in a sometimes earthy, sometimes majestic, sometimes playful, sometimes soulful journey.

It was obvious that singing is child’s play to Kaivalya Kumar, with complete mastery over the rules of the game refusing to obliterate the fun element.

It was priceless rasanubhava, in whose exploration the tabla (Shridhar Mandare) played an alert, sensitive part.

(Concluded)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Another treat at Gharana Festival

By V Ramnarayan

 (Continued from blogpost dated 27 June 2012)

Exactly a day after I raised questions about the place of the harmonium in Hindustani music, listeners at the Prakriti Foundation’s Gharana Festival at Kalakshetra were treated to some top class harmonium accompaniment at Vinayak Torvi’s vocal concert in the series.

The artist in question was Vyasmurti Katti, regarded as India’s best—a view Torvi heartily endorsed half way through the concert. In his hands the instrument came to life in an altogether enchanting manner, drawing comparisons from old-timers with past masters like Apa Jalgaonkar.

Katti is a trained vocalist, according to Torvi, and it really showed in the sensitivity of his faithful responses to Torvi’s masterly vocal phrases.

Still, Vyasmurti Katti’s exceptional musicianship cannot detract from the case against the suitability of the harmonium for Indian classical music.

As I wait with bated breath for Kaivalya Kumar’s concert today in the series, I shall be perfectly happy for my view to be challenged by yet another excellent harmonium performance.

Vinayak Torvi’s performance was outstanding, with many listeners wishing the programme had been longer. The veteran was in excellent voice despite some trouble with the throat discernible early on. I shall not dwell on the details of the concert here as another correspondent is covering the festival for Sruti, but it went way beyond performance to communicate intensely, emotionally with the audience. After giving us a sweeping tour of the specialities of the Kirana gharana of which he is a leading light, he decided to offer us some samples of other gharanas as well, including the Gwalior gharana of his first guru.

Whether it was alapchari or taankari or tarana rendering, he was at all times not only deeply immersed in the spiritual dimensions of the music but also miraculously remained master of the situation. The interplay of rasas, hasya not excluded, that he managed to weave into the music at speeds from slow to fast, always in control, always in moderation, made the evening a magical one for a Chennai audience that has not heard Hindustani music of such a high order in quite a while.

While speaking to the audience, Torvi recalled the warmth of earlier times, when the likes of Abdul Karim Khan interacted with Carnatic musicians, when the free exchanges included those of ragas that migrated from one to the other stream of “Bharatiya sangeet.” He missed the affection between the musicians of those times. “Today we may be staying on different floors of the same hotel but never meet, never attend each other’s concerts.” Listening to these words were a few more young Carnatic musicians in the audience than the previous day.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Jayateerth Mevundi’s concert an object lesson

By V Ramnarayan

Jayateerth Mevundi’s vocal concert on 26 June as part of the Gharana series organised by Prakriti Foundation at Kalakshetra was an excellent display of the young musician’s sonorous voice and near-total control over it. So reminiscent of his guru’s guru Bhimsen Joshi, Mevundi possesses a natural gift in his voice, but years of dedication and hard work were obvious in the effortless manner he traversed nearly three octaves without ever sacrificing musicality, without ever diluting the essence of the raga or deviating from it. He may sound imitative sometimes, but no one can fault his smooth, fluent vocalisation that strives to reach for the ultimate in his gharana.

Two thoughts struck some of us during the concert. Even granting that Hindustani music is fundamentally different from Carnatic in the way the voice is used, it was disappointing that more of the young Carnatic vocalists of the city did not attend the programme, which could have inspired them to aim for sruti perfection and powerful yet mellifluous projection of the voice in their own careers.

Was the concert not publicized well? Or are our young vocalists not interested in music of other genres? (That Hindustani musicians can hardly be expected to return the compliment is quite another matter. We are concerned with what our youngsters can gain from attending such concerts and exchanging some notes perhaps).

The handful of Carnatic vocalists present agreed that Mevundi’s voice could be described as a briga saariram (as is the vogue in Carnatic music), a well-oiled one that did not strike a false note at any stage, and remained perfectly wedded to the sruti throughout the concert.

From mandra sthayi to tara sthayi, it followed a well structured ascent and vice versa, was beautifully modulated throughout and never lacked in tasteful creativity.

Mevundi’s rare forays into swara singing were marked by delicate touches to highlight the raga swarupa, and his volleys of fast taans were again always well-controlled. Not a harsh note anywhere. The whole performance, which probably fell only marginally short of being labelled a great concert, was nonetheless a triumph of melody and voice control. An object lesson for any willing young student of music.

The second thought had to do with the entirely unsatisfactory practice prevalent in Hindustani music of harmonium accompaniment. The instrument simply cannot reproduce the gamakas of Indian classical music, yet has survived through centuries.

With no disrespect to the great exponents of the instrument through history, the lack of a parallel to the violin accompaniment of Carnatic music is a big minus point in Hindustani music. And the least a harmonium expert can do in a good concert is to refrain from trying to replicate every phrase of the vocalist. It is such a dampener of vocal brilliance.

In this particular concert, neither the tabla nor the harmonium was in the same league as the vocalist. Full marks to Jayateerth Mevundi for his triumph regardless.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Heralding the 21st century

By Gowri and V Ramnarayan

1 January 2000. The Music Academy hall at Chennai reverberated with the collective rendering of Maitrim bhajata by 500 children. They were following the first line of the Kanchi Sankaracharya’s prayer for universal brotherhood in the recorded voice of MS Subbulakshmi.

YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) had pulled off a remarkable feat—in conceiving a celebration of Carnatic music on an impressive scale and working together as a tireless team to ring in the new millennium at the stroke of midnight at the Music Academy, Chennai.

Part of their plan had been to get MS Subbulakshmi to be present at the Academy while the children’s chorus was in progress. What a proud moment it would have been for the kids! Unfortunately, MS had stopped taking part in public events and concerts after her husband T Sadasivam had passed away a few years earlier. (The normally mild-mannered violinist RK Shriram Kumar remembers to this day the rare occasion when he picked up the phone during a rehearsal and bellowed at KR Athmanathan, her foster son: “I know she won’t come here for the millennium concert, and I don’t care how you do it, but you’d better get MS Amma here today to encourage the children,” so moved had he been by their commitment. “Their expressions when they saw her at the rehearsal were priceless.”)

Most of the young musicians of the YACM team were already frontline performers on the concert circuit. If there were doubts in the minds of their audiences about their commitment to a cause or their respect for tradition and their musical forefathers, they were dispelled by this splendid act of selfless cooperation.

The millennium concert began at 9-45 p.m. and ended well after midnight. Compere Sudha Ragunathan announced that the show would take the audience through the last hundred years of a classical system that was over two thousand years old. She proceeded to introduce the likes of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, S. Sowmya, Ravi Kiran, Veenai Jayanthi, Vijay Siva, Bombay Jayashri, Neyveli Santhanagopalan and others. Each of these stars of the day paid rich tributes to the giants of the past.

It was a moving moment in the history of Carnatic music. The visible respect for the past and devotion to their art of the speakers were well supported by visuals and audio. Anand Siva, a cousin of Vijay Siva and former president of YACM, put the whole multimedia presentation together.

Some of the greatest veterans of Carnatic music who were still among us then gave some samples of their magic. 92-year old Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer received a thunderous ovation when he rendered Tyagaraja's `Nada tanumanisam'. A most unexpected combination in D. K. Pattammal and K. V. Narayanaswami, then sang  two kritis together. An even more unusual pair was of T. N. Seshagopalan and N. Ramani, accompanied by M. Chandrasekharan and Guruvayur Dorai. The team rendered a piece specially composed to welcome the new millennium,  Suswagata.

Karaikudi Mani and Vellore Ramabhadran entertained listeners with a pallavi line that was a play on their names. Violinists M. S. Gopalakrishnan and V. V. Subramaniam came together with veteran T. K. Murthy just before midnight.

In a tribute to the vadya vrinda orchestral music of All India Radio, a whole range of musicians playing instruments from violin to jalatarangam thronged the dais to perform a a composition by Lalgudi Jayaraman, with the maestro himself conducting the orchestra. 

The contributions of other institutions like Annamalai University, the first academic institution to offer a course in Carnatic music, and the Music Academy, were also duly acknowledged.

It was also an occasion to remember the roles played in promoting Carnatic music by Prof. Sambamoorthy, Swadesamitran, The Hindu,  Kalki Krishnamurthy, and Sruti magazine.

There was humour as well in the form of a skit by S. V. Shekher, Revathi Sankaran and ghatam S. Karthik. Followed a magnificent ``Mamava Pattabhirama'' in Manirangu by the musicians numbering over 70 who had joined hands to organise the show.

The curtains on the grand show came down with a mallari by a procession of twin nagaswarams and tavils.

The huge show was not without its faults, but it was all forgiven in the general spirit of celebrating Carnatic music that the wonderful team of young musicians had created in an unprecedented manner. Their homage was a sincere reminder of the guru-sishya bonds that “charge it with life, power, organic continuity and dynamism.”

The new millennium did indeed start on a note of optimism based on the combination of love of tradition and ability to innovate that the young organisers so fearlessly exhibited that night.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

S Balachander

Veena S Balachander was a multifaceted genius. The facts speak for themselves: a stage performance with the khanjira at age six; a full-fledged concert on the sitar before he turned twelve; a staff artiste of All India Radio by the time he was fifteen, with the ability to play the tabla, mridangam, harmonium, bulbul tarang, dilruba, and shehnai; mastery of the veena, which he started playing on the concert platform by age 20; a successful venture into the world of cinema as actor, director, producer, music director and so on.

Balachander was a successful professional in all these fields, and an original, colourful character, to boot. Born to V Sundaram Iyer and Parvathi at their Mylapore home in 1928 (though the family originally hailed from Srivanchiyam in Tanjavur district), he was exposed to music even as a child, with elder brother S Rajam a talented vocalist and painter in the Ajanta style.

Home was also a mini-sabha of sorts, with the top musicians of the day performing there at concerts regularly held there. Ariyakudi, Muthiah Bhagavatar and Madurai Mani Iyer were among the frequent performers there, while Papanasam Sivan became an honorary member of the family.

With such favourable genes and environment, no wonder all the children displayed an aptitude for the arts. On top of all that, Rajam, Balachander and their sisters acted in Seetha Kalyanam, a film their father Sundaram Iyer made in collaboration with V Shantaram.

Amazingly, Balachander taught himself to play the veena as he did all the other instruments. With the veena, it was love at first touch and it became a life-long obsession.

Balachander’s music took him all round the world. He also recorded prolifically, with a 12-LP set of records of the 72 melakarta ragas occupying pride of place among his commercial recordings. His concerts were often unpredictable adventures, but never boring.

Along with his die-hard fans, Balachander was among the greatest admirers of his own music. Yet, for all his bluster and idiosyncrasies, he was a much loved teacher, hero-worshipped by his disciples.

A man of high IQ and unusual courage, Balachander courted controversy repeatedly in his career, crossing swords with stalwarts like Semmangudi Srinivasier and M Balamuralikrishna.
With Semmangudi, his quarrel was over the authenticity of the compositions attributed to Maharaja Swati Tirunal of Travancore and with Balamuralikrishna the vocalist’s claims of authorship of new ragas.

The eccentric genius delighted in calling a spade a bloody shovel and flooded the Press with constant showers of letters and personalised artworks proclaiming his own greatness and the causes he advocated.

In the process, he antagonised many individuals and institutions including the Music Academy, Madras, which not only did not honour him, but even blacklisted him as a performer.

Balachander’s accomplishments in the film field were no less praiseworthy. He was an astute director with rare technical acumen, expert wielder of the camera, more than capable music composer, dancer, comedian and fearless producer of experimental cinema.

His Anda Naal in the 1950s was an epochal film with no songs and a suspense plot rarely seen in Tamil cinema until then. And one fine morning, he simply walked away from cinema.

Veenai S Balachander was a Carnatic musician like none other—brilliant, erratic, dynamic. He was as different from his brother S Rajam—an artist of greata stature—as could be. He was unique.

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Palani Subramania Pillai (1908-1962)

He was the only mridanga vidwan in the history of Carnatic music to have evoked comparisons with Palghat Mani Iyer, with his sensitive, nuanced percussion artistry. The leading exponent of the Pudukottai school of mridangam playing, Palani Subramania Pillai enjoyed a huge fan following in his all-too-brief life span, with not only his mastery of his art, but also his endearing personality and high principles.

“Illustrious son of an illustrious father (Palani Muthiah Pillai), he was a man of few words, of genial temperament,” said an admiring rasika, who also described his mridangam playing as “soft, almost like a caress,” among other things.

The left-handed Palani could play the khanjira with equal felicity and indeed performed on the hand-held instrument in tandem with Mani Iyer on the mridangam in many concerts made sparkling by the “brilliant conversations” between them.

He belonged to a distinguished line of percussionists, going back a couple of generations to Manpoondia Pillai, whose disciple Dakshinamurthy Pillai is still revered as a great exemplar for both mridanga and khanjira vidwans, in fact the ultimate benchmark for the latter.

For all that Muthiah Pillai was a renowned vidwan and teacher, he neglected his own son for quite a while, until Dakshinamurthy Pillai visited him one day and chided him for that after listening to young ‘Subbudu’ at practice.

This chance encounter set in motion a strict, almost cruel regimen for the boy, which started at 4 am and ended after ten at night. The youngster converted the punishing schedule into a quest for excellence that stayed with him all his life. His debut in 1923 as an accompanist to Mannargudi Rajagopala Iyer impressed one and all, even the grande dame of Carnatic music, Jayammal, and her daughter Dhanammal.

Dakshinamurthy Pillai was to become Palani’s mentor and father figure, with the relationship between guru and sishya marked by mutual warmth and affection. He was enormously proud of ‘Subbudu’s’ mastery, “his special affinity for the instrument”.

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar played an important role in the growth of Palani’s career. At a time when the Tanjavur school of Palghat Mani Iyer was reigning supreme, he gave the young left-hander many opportunities to accompany him in concerts. He was said to be responsible for Palani’s transformation from a brilliant showman to a more sensitive, melody-oriented drummer of exquisite accompanying skills.

Palani went on to be paired with the giants of the day in the same, gentle, supportive style, reserving his expertise in ‘vyavaharam’ to the concerts of the likes of the kanakku-oriented Alathur Brothers. Even in such combinations, Palani never forgot his role as an accompanist, never projected himself.

Many instrumentalists—Dwaram Venkataswami Nayudu, Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai, T Chowdiah, MA Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar and S Balachander, to name a few—sought him out as their accompanist for this very reason.

A great believer in young talent, Palani nurtured many sishyas with loving care. While many of them, like MN Kandaswami, Poovalur Venkataraman and Sangita Kalanidhi Trichy Sankaran went on to achieve distinction in their field, many others including stalwarts of the Tanjavur school admitted to being influenced by his art.

Palani Subramania Pillai missed out on being decorated with the Sangita Kalanidhi. He was “the great artist who won no honours,” but he was universally respected.

“There was class in everything about him,” violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman once said. “He brought dignity to the concert stage.”

Friday, 22 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music

The nagaswaram

The nagaswaram has been described as the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument, “a wind instrument similar to the shehnai but larger, with a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.”

To south Indians, no ceremony or festival is off to an auspicious start without a nagaswaram preamble. Historically, the nagaswaram accompanied by the tavil for percussion has always preceded the temple idol taken out in procession. It is therefore naturally an open-air instrument, which explains the need for its loudness.

The great practitioners of the art of nagaswaram playing have belonged to families steeped in it, several of them in different parts of Tamil Nadu, most famously in the rice belt of Tanjavur on the banks of the Kaveri, the legacy being handed down from generation to generation through the centuries.

Some of the greatest artists in Carnatic music have been nagaswara vidwans, most notably Tiruvavaduturai Rajaratnam who had arguably the most seminal influence on nagaswaram music.

Responsible for major changes in the status of nayanam practitioners as well as concert decorum, he earned his tribe the right to wear upper garments and perform seated unlike earlier times when they had to do so standing and bare-chested.

Unfortunately, he was also responsible for the introduction of microphones, which tend to amplify the sound beyond tolerable limits. He insisted on the tambura replacing the ottu, the smallish nagaswaram look-alike that acted in the past as a drone to maintain the pitch. Today the electronic sruti box has taken its place.

Most of the finest exponents of south Indian classical music, especially the major vocalists of the 20th century, and even some of today’s stars were inspired by Rajaratnam’s music. One of the most charismatic singers of yesteryear, GN Balasubramanian, was much influenced by the nagaswara bani, especially the lightning fast brigas—a kind of modulation—of Rajaratnam that lesser mortals considered impossible of achievement by the human voice.

Semmangudi Srinivasier, the epitome of orthodox brahminhood, had great reverence for nagaswaram music. He was fond of telling the story of how he often crossed the Kaveri to listen to the incomparable music of a stalwart nagaswara vidwan, though past his best and under the influence of alcohol most of the time. Semmangudi’s eyes invariably misted over as he remembered those formative days of his music.

There have been several magnificent exponents of the art—Karukurichi Arunachalam, Shaikh Chinna Moula, the Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, the Semponnarkoil Brothers, and Namagirpettai Krishnan to name but a few. It is along with tavil playing perhaps the only branch of Carnatic music dominated by non-brahmin musicians, one that also features Muslim practitioners.

The nagaswaram and the tavil are endangered species. Many of the best traditions of the art are rapidly changing and lack of glamour is driving many young inheritors of the legacy to seek other professions. Temples in the state have been invaded by light music, with hardly any classical music concerts being hosted there, and the grand mallari to herald the lord’s procession getting diluted over time.

The compulsion to enter the concert hall from the temple grounds of the past to earn a livelihood as musicians has forced artists to adapt several aspects of their music to suit the changed environment. Audiences no longer flock to nagaswaram concerts.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music

The violin
 
One of the major legacies of the British Empire in India has been the gift of western music, starting mainly with church music and military and police bands. It was through this route that Indian musicians started playing western instruments, first as members of western music orchestras or bands, and later as innovators who borrowed some of these instruments such as the violin and the clarionet for use in Indian music.

Baluswami Dikshitar (1786 – 1859), musician, scholar, composer and a brother of the great vaggeyakara Muthuswami Dikshitar, introduced the western violin to Carnatic music, learning it from a European.
 
Baluswami Dikshitar, who could also play the veena, sitar and mridangam, adapted the violin to the Carnatic style, playing it seated on the floor, cross-legged and cradling it between his ankle and chin. That it could produce the nuances of gamakas, the continuity across microtones that distinguishes Carnatic music from other forms, encouraged Dikshitar, and generations of musicians after him to invest a western instrument in concept and construction a distinctly Indian character.
 
The Carnatic violin, like other Carnatic stringed instruments, applies modal tuning that changes with the pitch (sruti) that is constant for a concert. The strings are tuned to the panchamam and the shadjam and their lower-octave counterparts.

By the end of the 19th century, the violin had become the prime instrument accompanying vocal music in a concert. It continues to be so. With the arrival of the next generation of violin virtuosos in the early 20th century – Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer and T. Chowdiah, to name a few –the violin, or fiddle as most musicians here used to call it, also began to make its presence felt as a solo instrument.
 
The quite amazing violin techniques in vogue today—in particular that of playing it to closely resemble the human voice (the gayaki style of violin playing) as opposed to the earlier manner of playing relatively discrete notes—were largely developed by the great artists of the 20th century, at least three of whom are still with us: T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. They are musicians of contrasting styles and temperaments, but all of them are of the highest calibre and pedigree.

T.N. Krishnan, a child prodigy, learnt his art from his father Tripunitura Narayana Iyer, a martinet of a teacher. Krishnan’s talent was burnished by long association with the great vocal masters of the era. He is known for his ability to present the most complex nuances of Carnatic music with disarming simplicity, and his strong bowing technique that produces ringing clarity and purity of sound.
 
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, musician, teacher and composer par excellence, is another violin great of impeccable pedigree. The son of Lalgudi Gopala Iyer, a masterful figure of his time, for whom music was a mission, he built on his father’s meticulous, regimented training, through the perfection of his own quite extraordinary creative instincts. The perfect accompanist of his era, Lalgudi in time developed an altogether more flowing, lilting style.
 
M.S. Gopalakrishnan, legatee of yet another violin tradition handed down from father to son, is proficient in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. He too learnt his art from a strict guru who was also his father. Parur Sundaram Iyer was an extraordinary pathbreaker who introduced the violin to Hindustani music. MSG is known to play long passages on the same string, essaying intricate passages of beauty with accuracy.
 
Senior violinists like M. Chandrasekharan and V.V. Subrahmanyan have built upon these techniques to evolve their own styles.

The Carnatic violin continues to evolve, with its electric counterpart and a double-headed version making appearances at classical concerts. Contact microphones are changing the way the violin sounds.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music

The kutcheri

At the core of Carnatic music is a vast repertoire of songs, mostly in praise of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, vocally rendered, though supported on the concert platform by the western violin—now completely assimilated as an Indian instrument—and percussion.

The major components of a Carnatic music concert or kutcheri are songs known as kritis or kirtanas, but also featured are other types of compositions known as varnams, swarajatis, tillanas, viruttams and so on.

Solo instrumental concerts too consist of the rendering of these songs without the lyrics being sung. The violin, veena and chitraveena are the commonest string instruments, while the flute and the nagaswaram—the south Indian pipe—are the usual wind instruments. The violin is now more or less accepted as an Indian instrument, but other western instruments in vogue in Carnatic music include the clarionet, saxophone, guitar and mandolin.

The typical concert ensemble comprises a vocalist or instrumentalist in a leading role, usually supported by a violin and rhythmic or percussion accompaniment in the form of the mridangam, alone or in tandem with the ghatam and/ or khanjira.

Originating as temple music and nurtured by royal patronage, today Carnatic music is performed on the secular stage. The typical Carnatic music concert is of approximately two and a half hours’ duration.

A vocal concert—the most common performance—has a singer, male or female, or sometimes a duo of singers, accompanied by a violinist seated to his or her left and one or more percussionists to his or her right.

The most common percussion instrument is a cylindrical drum called the mridangam placed horizontally in front of the drummer.

The ghatam--a mud pot—and a kanjira—a circular hand held tambourine-like instrument—complete the ensemble.

There can be more or fewer instruments on stage, but the mridangam is mandatory, so that the standard minimum team is voice-violin-mridangam.

While the western violin has been successfully adapted by Carnatic music, other instruments in vogue, like the nagaswaram, a long wooden pipe, the veena, a fretted string instrument, and the bamboo flute, are Indian.

They are played as lead, not accompanying, instruments, though instrumental music has been steadily slipping in popularity.

Western instruments like the guitar, mandolin, clarionet and saxophone are also featured in concerts, though not with the same level of acceptance as the violin.

All the musicians sit cross-legged on a mat on the floor of the stage.

A concert comprises both composed and improvised music, with every musician on stage getting to showcase his or her creativity at appropriate times.

A typical present-day concert begins with a varnam, a short composition with both lyrics and matching solfa notes sung at varying speeds.

Follow a few compositions known as kritis or kirtanas, mostly songs of devotional or spiritual content in the ancient pan-Indian language Sanskrit or one of the south Indian languages, predominantly Telugu.

Every one of these songs is likely to contain improvisational elements, including wordless elaboration of the raga, variations on a single line of lyric or repeated combinations of the solfa syllables.

All these creative components are rendered in greater measure in the main composition of the concert, which may last approximately an hour, and offers an opportunity to the percussionists to display their creativity unaccompanied by voice or violin.

The main song is often followed by what purists regard as the piece-de-resistance of Carnatic music—the ragam-tanam-pallavi—, which is entirely made up of improvised music.

Lighter pieces follow the main item of the performance or the ragam-tanam-pallavi and the concert ends with a mangalam, a standard auspicious signing off.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic Music

Introduction

Carnatic music or karnataka sangitam is the classical music of south India—the area covering the four states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.

Traditional followers of Indian music believe that it is of divine origin. In this, people who listen to north Indian or Hindustani and south Indian or Carnatic classical music, are united. In particular, the Vedas, more specifically the Sama Veda, are said to be the wellspring of what has evolved through the millennia into Indian classical music.

In Tamil Nadu, ancient Tamil compositions such as the Tevaram or Tiruvachakam have been sung for centuries by a community of temple musicians known as Oduvars. The music they render is based on melodies called panns, which predate raga music.

Carnatic music is essentially raga music—raga and tala music, to be more precise—with a vast number of songs based on an austere structure of melodic and rhythmic fundamentals. In short, every Carnatic music composition is rendered in a particular raga and a definite tala or rhythm cycle.

A raga is a unique arrangement of the seven swaras or solfa notes—sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni, with the microtones in between. In practice, 12 such srutis are identified—with two ri-s (rishabha), two ga-s (gandhara), two ma-s (madhyama), two dha-s (dhaivata), and two ni-s (nishada).

In the melakarta scheme of ragas, 72 parent ragas are identified, and divided into two sets of ragas, based on the two types of madhyama—suddha and prati—with 36 suddha madhyama and 36 prati madhyama ragas.

All 72 parent ragas are complete ragas, with each raga containing all seven notes in both ascent and descent. In other words, each melakarta raga will have the scale sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-Sa in the ascent and Sa-ni-dha-pa-ma-ga-ri-sa.

The two subsets are further divided into 6 chakras each, consisting of 6 ragas each. Each of the suddha madhyama and prati madhyama ragas is differentiated by the positions of the other swaras, with only the shadja and panchama constant.

While the parent ragas are known as mela or janaka ragas, their offspring are known as janya or offspring ragas. A large number of permutation-combinations is possible, with such variations as 5 swaras in the ascent and 6/ 7 in the descent or vice versa, 5 and 5, or 6 and 6, so on and so forth. Thousands of ragas are the result.

A tala is a rhythmic cycle with a specific number of beats. Carnatic music uses a comprehensive system of talas called the Suladi sapta tala system. It has seven families of talas, each of which has five members, one each of five types or varieties (jati or chapu), thus allowing 35 possible talas. In practice, a small number of talas are regularly used.

Sophisticated, arithmetically intricate rules govern the elaboration of tala patterns. Once the tempo of a song is decided, the musician can accelerate. The vilambita is the slow pace, while madhyama is double that pace and the durita four times the vilambita kala. The singer maintains the tala or tempo by slapping his hand on his thigh, while instrumentalists may resort to tapping their feet.

This is Carnatic music in a nutshell, though it is an oversimplification of a complex, sophisticated system.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Oli Chamber Concert 9

By Vivadi
 
Ramakrishnan Murthy
 
Ramakrishnan Murthy’s chamber concert for Oli took up the theme Vistaaram (Expanse) at Ras Vihar. The ambience – the spacious hall tastefully and elegantly adorned with lamps brimming with flowers – seemed most fitting. The audience’s curiosity to see, and hear, how such an abstract theme would be handled by a youngster was palpable. They were not disappointed. Ramakrishnan’s selection of kritis, treatment and commitment were all reflective of his prowess.

True to the theme, Ramakrishnan presented only four pieces over the course of two hours. He began with a short slokam (Akhandamandalakaram), followed by a Surati chauka-kala pada varnam in Rupaka talam, Sami entani delupudura by Subbarama Dikshitar. The sedate rendition brought out all the contours of the raga. This varnam was replete with archaic prayogas in Surati and brilliant swarakshara patterns for which the entire Dikshitar family is renowned. You’d have thought this kind of composition was okay for yesteryear post-prandial tinnai listening, with vetrilai pakku potti to pep things up. No. The metro listeners gave their rapt attention to every nuance and detail, as Ramakrishnan made each line and phrase dovetail into the next one, maintaining continuity of raga and bhava.
 
VVS Murari on the violin was the perfect foil, supporting the voice, and instrumental in that continuity. B. Sivaraman had trouble with the sruti alignment of his mridangam, which took its time to recover even after the airconditioning was adjusted to a lower temperature. However, he eventually overcame the problem.

That brevity can also suggest expanse was proved by the sketch of Kedaram that followed. Muttuswami Dikshitar’s intensely visual description of Lord Nataraja (Anandanatana prakasam) in his ethereal state performing the cosmic dance was then sung with complete commitment. Every line and every sangati were established firmly. The interesting nadai variation at the end of the sollukattu made us sit up and take note.

Instead of the usual ‘sangitavadyavinoda’ line, niraval was aptly taken up at bhukti mukti prada daharaaakaasam, the sky a metaphor for the unending vastness that is the mind of the devotee. The raga Kedaram itself is rather limited in scope; yet Ramakrishnan brought out simple variations in the niraval, keeping the sahitya bhava intact. Both niraval and kalpanaswaram felt just right in terms of length. There was no artificial build-up of pace concluding in a crescendo. Everything fell in place with poruttam, a comprehensive whole.

It had to be Bhairavi next. A one-minute teaser by vocalist and violinist whetted the listeners’ appetite for a sumptuous rakti treat that was to come next. The detailed alapana was a grand build up of the majestic raga with some rare, unexpected pidis. VVS Murari’s imagination flowed and blended with the whole. An all-too-brief tanam caused a flutter in the hall with knowing smiles suggesting a premonition of a pallavi. After all, Ramakrishnan was a disciple of the pallavi maestro, Chengalpattu Ranganathan.

But Ramakrishnan chose to stump us all with Tyagaraja’s Chetulara. This song, usually side-lined for instrumental performance in Pancharatnam congregations, made a refreshing comeback on the concert platform. Ramakrishnan’s pathantara suddham and sincere rendition of the kriti were admirable. Niraval and kalpanaswaras at Aani mutyaala konda vesi were well-structured, measured and textured, with raga bhava and sahitya bhava again working in tandem. The swarakshara prayogas employed at the phrase Parimala gandhamu without fuss or seeming contrived.
 
Sivaraman’s tani avartanam was apt, with a just a few avartanas showing nadai variation, quickly concluding with the mohra and a simple korvai. There was peace and a sense of fulfilment at the end, no dramatics or sentimentality.

The mood was only heightened when Ramakrishnan took up MD Ramanathan’s Sagara sayana vibho in Bageshri. The wave-like nature of the raga and kriti echoed, extended and carried forward the same idea of undulating expanse.

Bharatiyar’s kavadichindu Kaalamaam vanathil, originally sung by MS Subbulakshmi to the tune of Kadayanallur S Venkataraman, was the final item. If at all one must nitpick it would be about the relatively diffident rendition of this song. Then again, that is hardly a grouse given how completely riveting the rest of the concert was.

Special mention of the Oli audience must be made here, especially in a concert with an experimental, abstract theme such as this one. Their willingness to listen (really listen) to the blossoming of ideas from the artists and their abstinence from breathless clapping even before a piece ended, were commendable. This audience allowed the artist to take his time as he meticulously overlaid ending phrases to finally converge, and the mridangist to complete the arudi. Each piece culminated in genuine applause, in the fullness of silence, without spoiling the mood.

The Concert:

Slokam (Akhanda mandalakaram)
Sami ni entani – Surati – Rupaka – Subbarama Dikshitar
Ananda natana – Kedaram – Misra Chapu – Muttuswami Dikshitar
Chetulara sringaramu – Bhairavi – Adi – Tyagaraja
Sagara sayana vibho – Bagesri – Adi – M D Ramanathan
Kalamam vanathil – Ragamalika – Tisra Adi – Subramania Bharatiyar
 
The Artistes:

Ramakrishnan Murthy is an emerging star in the current crop of young musicians. A disciple of Padma Kutty in the USA, Ram went on to train under Delhi P Sunderrajan. He has also had the opportunity to learn from several other veterans including Chengalpattu Ranganathan. Ram’s music is known for its maturity in content and execution and is high on laya and bhava aesthetics.
 
VVS Murari comes from a great musical lineage. He trained under his father VV Subrahmanyam and continues to perform duets with him. Murari who has imbibed a fine style of accompaniment is a pillar of support to the vocalist but also shines as a complete musician on his own.
 
B Sivaraman hails from a family of musicians. His father, Sethalapathy Balasubramanian was a foremost disciple of Papanasam Sivan. Sivaraman has trained under greats such as Kumbhakonam Rajappa Iyer and T K Murthy. He is known for his sprightly and energy-packed accompaniment.

The theme:

Vistaaram (Expanse)…the theme is so abstract that perhaps only music can truly convey its sense? Together we will try to put down more thoughts to help us realize this expression of space and time.
 
Kabir once said, ‘Everyone knows that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.’ We may be but specks in this vast cosmos but nevertheless share a symbiotic relationship with it. The glimpse of an unclouded sky… untiring waves of the ocean… unfurling fronds of an unfettered Bhairavi… never fail to take one’s breath away.
 
The ever-fading horizon seen from across the vast ocean always evokes adbhuta rasa (awe) not merely owing to size but also because of the promise of inexhaustibility, limitlessness and freedom.
 
Saints and poets have addressed the mysticism and spirituality of space in several ways, be it, bhavasaagaram (ocean of existence), daharaakasam (all pervading ether), viraat-purusha (the primeval force), viswarupa (all encompassing form), ananta-sayana (unending trance).

Ezhandattu appaalan…avan en kannulaan “He who is beyond the seven universes is within my eyes.”
 
Great mystic poets have internalised the metaphoric significance of the cosmos and employed it beautifully in their works. Appar encapsulates the expanse that is his Siva-bhakti into a few words. Not an entirely dissimilar concept is a cauka varnam, where the grand gait of this Surati composition is contained within the deceptively brief rupaka talam.
 
Bhukti mukti prada daharaakasam…
 
What could be more vast and fertile than the human mind? Is it not equally, if not more, pervasive than the ether that envelopes all creation?
 
Listen to Chetulara sringaramu. Doesn’t the slow, intense musical imagery best explain the advaitic experience of oneness with nada, the ultimate sound principle?

Kalamaam vanathil

We end with a Bharatiyar poem where the sound of sabda (word) and nada unites with artha (meaning), not to describe but to immerse you in a mystic vision.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Who's who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

TN Rajarathnam Pillai (1898-1956)

His Todi is still incomparable. His astonishing breath control and the sheer beauty of his nuanced raga explorations have rarely been equalled by voice or instrument.  He probably has more fans among musicians than any other musician.

Few will disagree that Tiruvavaduthurai N Rajarathnam was the “emperor of nagaswaram”, the title he most enjoyed amidst the many that came his way during his short, epoch-making life. He redefined not only the way the wind instrument was played but its very status, and by corollary that of its player, in the world of Carnatic music. Even today, more than 50 years of his death, he is almost universally acknowledged as a genius who inspired generations of instrumentalists and vocalists. He lived a grand life, totally aware of his phenomenal talent, and the mesmerizing influence of his music on commoner and connoisseur alike.

He was born Balasubramaniam to nagaswara vidwan Kuppuswami Pillai and Govindammal on 27 August 1898 in the village of Tirumarugal, in Tanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. When his father died, the boy and his sister came under the care of his maternal uncle Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai, an accomplished nagaswara vidwan. He soon moved to Tiruvavadithurai as a temple nayana vidwan, and in 1902, legally adopted the boy whom he renamed Rajarathnam.

Rajarathnam was a wild spirit tamed only by music, for which he showed great aptitude very early. Both he and elder sister Dayalu learnt vocal music from paternal uncle Kadiresan Pillai, but the arrangement did not last very long. Natesa Pillai died of a heart attack at the age of 29, leaving his sister and children to be cared for by a new guardian, Ponnu Pillai, his brother-in-law.

Perhaps urged by the head of the Tiruvavaduthurai math, Ponnu Pillai enrolled Rajarathnam as a pupil of violin maestro Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer, uncle of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Krishna Iyer was a strict and conscientious teacher and Rajarathnam’s music learning flourished under his benign care. Later, Rajaswaram took nagaswaram lessons for a couple of years from the tavil expert Ammachatram Kannuswami Pillai. Though he was keen on a career as a vocalist, Rajarathnam impressed everyone with his nagaswaram playing in concerts and soon gave his first performance at the temple, playing a long alapana in Bhoopalam and the kriti Sangita gyanamu in Dhanyasi. Rajarathnam’s nayanam then became a fixture at all the temple pujas, paving the way for his appointment as adheena vidwan.. He was barely 16.

Performing for the first time at Madras in 1919, Rajarathnam  made rapid strides as a concert artist in the city. Before long he became the highest paid artiste in Carnatic music. The list of tavil vidwans who accompanied him was long and impressive, but Rajarathnam was at his best while playing elaborate raga alapana. Eschewing complex laya displays, he became a role model for the leading vocalists of the day. GNB, for instance, was a great admirer who tried to achieve his nagaswara brigas in his voice, with considerable success.
Rajarathnam made changes of great import to the nagaswaram, replacing the timiri with the bari nayanam for instance, which he improved substantially as well. He introduced the tambura as a drone in nagaswaram concerts and was the first vidwan to play the instrument sitting down, besides being the first one to wear a shirt. He demanded and received respect for the instrument and the musician, refusing to compromise on this issue.

Rajarathnam amassed wealth  and lived in grand style, in a mansion at Tiruvavaduthurai, drove fancy cars, and wore expensive clothes, jewellery  and perfumes. According to T Sankaran, “Like all geniuses of his calibre, Rajarathnam was temperamental to the core,” often breaching contractual obligations.

Unfortunately, his fondness for the bottle eventually turned into alcoholism and he died penniless at Madras, with close friend NS Krishnan, the actor, bearing the cost of his funeral expenses, when he died of a heart attack on 12 December 1956. Thousands of admirers thronged the funeral procession, giving him an emperor’s funeral.

Who's who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967)
He was an exemplar of the Gwalior gharana, but created a rare niche for himself in Hindustani music by incorporating abhinaya through hand and facial gestures in his vocal performances. To him the meaning of the lyrics was extremely important and he believed in giving the songs full expression on stage, quite unlike any of his predecessors or peers. His powerful and mellifluous voice, which could traverse three octaves, was renowned for gamak taan and kaku prayoga. He was perhaps the first romanticist in khayal singing.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, who was to rule the Hindustani music stage for decades in the 20th century, was born to Gaurishankar and Jhaverba at Jahaaj in the Khambhat district of Gujarat. His was an inspiring rags to riches story.
His grandfather had fought in the 1857 war of independence and both he and Gaurishankar were soldiers in the Peshwa army. By the time Omkarnath was born, his father had come under the influence of a mystic and was spending all his time in meditation and prayer. The family had practically no earnings, having been cheated by Gaurishankar’s brothers of his share of the property.

When Gaurishankar died, with his four children still young, Jhaverba  shifted to neighboring Bharuch in central Gujarat, where she worked as a domestic servant. Little Omkarnath helped her by working as cook’s assistant, mill worker, and occasional singer-actor in local theatre.
His lucky break came in his teen years. Seth Shahpurji Doongaji, a philanthropist noticed his talent and passion for music, and sponsored him for training under Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay.
Omkarnath learnt vocal music and the pakhavaj, and studied musicology. at the Gandharva Vidyalaya. He had to serve Paluskar under the guru-sishya tradition, and he did so with exemplary devotion. Omkarnath was barely 20 when his guru made him principal of the Lahore branch of the Vidyalaya. He proved an able teacher and administrator without neglecting personal growth as a musician.
Omkarnath was soon a name to reckon with in the world of khayal music, and by 1930, his fame had spread far and wide. After three years at Lahore, he returned to Bharuch to start a music school, which he shifted to Bombay in 1934, and Surat in 1942.
Omkarnath experimented with the healing powers of ragas, sharing his theories with the eminent scientist JC Bose who discovered plants have life. He proved that swaras could create bhava and rasa, through his individualistic interpretation of such ragas as Jhinjhoti, Khamas, and Tilang (sringara), Hindol,Sankara,Adana and Hamsadwhani (veera) and  Neelambari, Bageshri, Todi and Pilu (his favourite karuna rasa). With his strong religious foundation, he studied the saint poets Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir and even modern Hindi and Gujarati poets.
Mastering several languages, Omkarnath became a great orator and theoretician. His deep interest in literature and pedagogy, his strong sense of self-respect, his love of challenges and his oratorical skills made him a regal presence among 20th century musicians, with his flowing mane helping to bolster his image. He completely overcame the early tragedies of his family life, including his wife’s death in childbirth, with the sheer power of his will and faith.
Invited by Madan Mohan Malaviya to his Benares Hindu University (BHU), he joined in 1950 as the first dean of its music faculty. There, he produced outstanding musicians and scholars like musicologist Premlata Sharma and violinist N Rajam.

Travelling widely in Europe and the UK, Omkarnath created a serious interest in Hindustani music there long before Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan took it to the west.

Omkarnath Thakur has left behind him an impressive collection of recordings of  khayals, bhajans, and patriotic songs. His two Meera bhajans – Jogi mat ja, and Pag ghunghroo band Meera naachi re – have become his signature songs as has Vande Mataram.

While at BHU, Omkarnath suffered a heart attack, recovered from it, and continued to perform. In 1965, he had a paralytic stroke, and passed away in 1967.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The solo Bharatanatyam dancer

By S Janaki

US-based Ramya Ramnarayan has sent us the link to a review of her Bharatanatyam performance at Ailey Citigroup Theater which was recently published in The New York Times. Titled “Slowly, Subtly, Invoking the Divine”, the write-up by Alastair Macaulay set me thinking. His review is refreshing and provides interesting insights into a Westerner’s perspective of solo Indian classical dance.

Accustomed as he is to watching ballerinas presenting solos which seldom last longer than two minutes, he finds the varnam “amazingly long and entirely enthralling”. He has rightly pointed out that the full solo performance is a particular feature of traditional Indian dance. Watching even young classical debutants hold the stage for almost two hours, we do take such things for granted! He has mentioned how solo Bharatanatyam makes an impression as it becomes multifaceted through connections between the human and divine, alterations between abhinaya and nritta, and the subtle relationship between dance and music.

More interesting are the comments: “Bharatanatyam is keenly three-dimensional”…. “It’s as if the body were hungry to face as many ways as possible at one time.” The writer tells you why it seems so. Click on the link below, read and add your comment on this interesting review.

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer (1887-1975)

Mudicondan is the name of one of numerous villages in Tamil Nadunotably its cultural granary Tanjavur districtto be made famous by Carnatic musicians or composers. Not only the recipient of the highest honour in the field, the title of Sangita Kalanidhi, Venkatarama Iyer of that hamlet was also known as the quintessential musician’s musician, someone who illuminated the morning sessions of the Music Academy’s annual conference with his scholarly lecture demonstrations. Yet his mastery of his art extended beyond its lakshana aspects to embrace its lakshya aspects as well.

Born to musically gifted parents—his father Chakrapani Iyer excelled in raga elaboration and tevaram singing—on 15 October 1887, Venkatarama Iyer started listening to Carnatic music and singing early in life, achieving considerable prowess in raga alapana before he turned ten. Among the many stalwarts from whom he imbibed his art were Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar, listening to them both at home and at weddings. His schooling at nearby Seerkazhi and distant Madras interrupted by his father’s death, Venkataraman decided he would plunge into a career in music rather than pursue an academic life.

Venkataraman’s music lessons began with Vedaranyam Swaminatha Iyer and continued with Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Ammachatram Kannuswamy Pillai, from whom he learnt the laya intricacies he would one day integrate successfully in his concert repertoire. Debuting as a vocalist at Cuddalore at the age of 17, he lived on at Mudicondan except for an annual visit to Madras during the December season. His first concert at Madras took place at the Mylapore Sangeetha Sabha in 1919. It was not before 1948 that he actually shifted to Madras, where he became principal of the Teachers’ College in 1956. For this honour, he had the persistence of Dr V Raghavan, Secretary, Music Academy, and his own sage counsel at the academic sessions of the annual conference to thank. He had indeed made a huge impression on the delegates year after year, with one particular demonstration of the Simhanandana tala standing out for the Himalayan scope of his effort.

His manodharma in concert was sometimes likened to a limitless ocean, with the accent on bhava and raga swarupa and not innovation or pleasing effect. Tradition was paramount to him and he was a staunch believer in rendering kritis in the original raga and as the composer composed them. Examples were his insistence on the raga Abheri being sung with suddha dhaivatam, and the kriti Nadatanumanisam in Chittaranjani of the Jhankaradhwani janyam and not of the Kharaharapriya scale as later modified.

He was justly famous for his skills in tanam rendering and pallavi singing. He did not overstress kanakku, though he was a master of laya. As can be seen from the music of his disciples, R Vedavalli in particular, he chose words for pallavi or niraval based on how meaningful or melodious they were. They were often few in number and he sang them with much karvai. He believed that pallavi should be “pleasing, emotional in content, spiritual in satisfaction and intellectual in appeal.”

A lover of Hindustani music, Mudicondan admired the singing of Abdul Karim Khan and Faiyaz Khan. A keen researcher, he was a collector of rare books on music. In addition to his lectures at the Music Academy, he gave talks regularly for All India Radio.