Song of Surrender

Friday, 25 October 2013

Protected by Semmangudi

By Rithvik Raja

Listening to pristine music while travelling or sipping on a nice hot cup of tea is something I’ve always been fond of. The beaches of Chennai, the scenic roads on the ECR and the lovely routes through the Ghats while on a train, were my favorite listening haunts. But my recent experience of driving through the terrains of Leh and Ladakh whilst listening to Semmangudi, Brindamma and Ramnad Krishnan, was something very different. The ice glazed mountains and the coral blue lakes provided an apt backdrop for the music I was listening to. The battery on my iPod was dead for the first few days and I was left alone with my thoughts while admiring the beauty of the mighty Himalayas. When I had the opportunity to charge it, I wondered if music would continue to keep me in this mind space and add to the pleasant time away from the crude reality back home which involved noisy traffic and an unnecessarily busy life. What followed were 7 days of amazing beauty, both visual and aural. I realized even more, how fortunate I actually was to be part of such wonderful art and culture.

There was even a time when Semmangudi Mama’s Todi came to my rescue. Leh is a city that shuts very early except for a very few shops and restaurants. It was about 10.30 at night when I had packed a bunch of cheese potato steamed momos for dinner to take back to the Home Stay. The market was about 2 km from where I stayed and walking was the only form of transport. As I started my lone journey through the forest road to head back home on a very cloudy night, the lights on the small path suddenly went completely dark. I had a meagerly lit torch and a bag of hot food, while travelling through a street that had many hungry dogs. When a journey through a dark, remote and deserted road with a bunch of unrecognizable sounds coming from all directions is all that’s left to look forward to, the kind of fear that engulfs you is unimaginable. I decided to switch off the torch, plug in my earphones, and listen to Amba Nannu Brovave by Semmangudi, Lalgudi and Karaikudi Mani and just walk. What followed was 20 minutes of absolute bliss. I had forgotten all about the dogs and the sounds and the scary scenarios that my mind had started making up. The music took over and led me home safely. I had a hearty dinner, thanked my lucky stars and slept. I might’ve still been safe without the music and reached home in one piece but the kind of mental ease that music provides in the most dire of situations is astounding.

True and honest music never ceases to amaze me. I did continue the rest of the journey with the music of these three legends, that made the mountains and waterfalls seem even more beautiful. But now, I sit in a coffee shop at Leh while waiting for my bus in a couple of hours to take me back home, which leaves me wondering if I’ll ever be able to experience music in such a wonderful atmosphere ever again. Is it ever going to be the same listening to music while driving through the narrow crowded roads of Mylapore or the innumerable glass IT buildings?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1894-1949)

Who’s Who in Classical Music

By BM Sundaram

(Translated from Mangala Isai Mannargal and edited by V Ramnarayan)

History maker tavil vidwan Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai accompanied every nagaswara vidwan of his time. He is said to have added lustre to the nagaswaram with his percussion excellence. Unmatched in his time in tavil, he once received high praise from Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, who said, speaking of him was equal to telling the history of the tavil.

Tirukollampudur Soundaravalli Ammal who married into Needamangalam village produced four sons and three daughters. Three of her sons Govinda Pillai, Singara Pillai and Pazhanivel Pillai became tavil vidwans. The other brother Krishna Pillai was a diamond merchant.

Of the daughters, Deivayanai Ammal gave birth to Meenakshisundaram in 1894. An only child, he lost his mother 27 days after he was born. His mother’s younger sister Kamalattammal brought him up. Maternal uncle Singaram Pillai started teaching him tavil when he was five.

Meenakshisundaram had sharp vision, and grasped instantly, and remembered everything he was taught. He could replay whatever he learnt. Once his early promise became obvious, his other uncle Govinda Tavilkarar took over teaching him. By nine years of age, Meenakshisundaram progressed enough to join a local melam troupe belonging to Singara Nagaswarakarar. Within a year he progressed enough to become a member of the Mannargudi Narayanaswami Pillai nagaswaram troupe.

Mahavidwan Nagapatnam Venugopala Pillai who was looking for a tavil vidwan for his group, agreed to a proposal by his brother-in-law Soundararajapillai, and Adicham Jagannatha Pillai, both his students, to leave Meenakshisundaram Pillai in his charge. The boy walked to Kottur from Mannargudi, a distance of 12 km wearing his tavil round his neck. He was all of twelve.

The moment he heard the lad, Venugopala Pillai saw a future star in him and took him straightaway under his wing. The guru taught him numberless jatis, many nuances of laya related kanakku everyday, because he wanted to make him an incomparable tavil genius. Meenakshisundaram Pillai revered Venugopala Pillai all his life, so much that till his last day, he bowed in respect whenever Nagapatnam was so much as mentioned. He would take off his footwear while entering his guru’s street.

According to his son, Dr BM Sundaram, Meenakshisundaram Pillai started his lessons by drumming on the pillars of the courtyard while Venugopala Pillai taught jatis reclining in his easychair. Of course, he received a bagful of scoldings whenever he made a mistake. Scolding if mistakes.

Sundaram relates an incident involving his father being sent home after he failed to reproduce exactly a difficult jati that he heard an expert play, even after three attempts. The guru warned him not to return unless he played it correctly at home. He came back after a time, and Venugopala Pillai asked him to go into the kitchen and have his lunch. When his wife asked the boy if he had succeeded in playing the jati, Venugopala Pillai said that the lad was such a proud young man that he would not have come back if he had not mastered the jati.

Meenakshisundaram also accompanied nagaswaram maestro Mannargudi Chinnapakkiri whenever Venugopala Pillai had no concert engagements. While growing up he had the opportunity to listen to and learn from greats like Srivanchiyam Govindapillai, Vazhivur Muttuveer Pillai, Ambakarattur Malaiperumal Pillai, and Ammapettai Pakkiri Pillai. He became a busy artist.

When Venugopala Pillai came to know his days were numbered, he handed him over to Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai. He told him, “I have prepared him to manage any melam. You please take care of him.”

Meenakshisundaram Pillai joined Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai after his guru’s death. After a couple of years, he started accompanying Nagur Subbiah Pillai, Uraiyur Gopalaswami, Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai and Tiruvalanchuzhi Manickam Pillai. He later joined the Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers as an important member of their troupe. For some 30 years he was their permanent tavil. His tavil playing blended so beautifully with their music that rasikas called his tavil the third nagaswaram. Later, when the brothers split, he said he would never accompany them again, and started freelancing. He received accolades as a tanittavil kalaignar from then on. He was the first artist to earn the status of a tani tavil or special tavil.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai married Nagammal, daughter of Mysore tavilman Pasupatikoil Veerabhadra Tavilkarar on 10 February 1913, as well as his second daughter Rajammal.

His innumerable awards and honours include those of Tala Praveena. Abhinava Nandeesar, Tavil Arasu, and Padahavadyapraveen., (blr). He was awarded gold todas in the Mysore Palace. Suduru Chettiar, grandfather of Emperumanar Chettiar, gave him many valuable gifts.

His many disciples include Pandanallur Ratnam Pillai, Koorainadu Govinda Pillai, Tirunageswaram Ratnaswami Pillai, Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai, Emani Raghaviah, Tiruvizhandur Venugopala Pillai , Ghatam Alangudi Ramachandran, Karandai Shanmugam Pillai, and Kandiyur Muthiah Pillai.

A tireless musician, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, never stopped once he started the music at the temple deity’s purappadu. His timing was exemplary, and his handling of the syllable nam unparalleled. He was invariably the leader in any group of tavil vidwans performing together. He died on 13 February 1949.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Ammachatram Kannuswami Pillai (1876-1927)

Who's Who in Classical Music

By BM Sundaram

(Translated and edited by V Ramnarayan from Mangala Isai Mannargal and other writings by the author)

His is one of the greatest names in tavil. Bosn to Sundaram, one of two dancer sisters, in 1876, at Ammapettai, two miles from Kumbakonam, little Kannusami was the darling of both his mother and his childless aunt Gnanam. Showing a precocious talent for percussion even as a two-year-old, he started drumming on the betel box of a neighbouring nattuvanar, who soon taught him jatis and sollukattus. Graduating to belting it out on boxes and pillars, he so impressed the nattuvanar friend that he recommended investing in a tavil for the boy. By 12, Kannuswami was quite an adept at the tavil. As he also had a good voice, his guru taught him vocal music as well.

He first ascended the stage as a tavil accompanist to Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai playing the nagaswaram. Kannuswami was just 14 and Natesa Pillai 16. It was a wedding cutcheri in 1890. His innovations soon made tavilkarars not only sit up and take notice but also think about their own music.

Natesa Pillai made Kannuswami his permanent accompanist, and as he was the adheena vidwan at Tiruvavaduthurai, he was accompanied by Kannuswami for eight years. Quitting the partnership in a huff, when some relatives of Natesa Pillai made disparaging remarks about his nagaswaram knowledge, he learnt to play the instrument and mastered it in quick time. He moved to Tiruvizhandur, when he married Chellammal, whose father Mahadeva Nattuvanar, who lived there.

Kannuswami Pillai spent four years accompanying Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai, but went back to Natesa Pillai after that. Their association was famous for a wedding concert for the family of Coimbatore Tayammal. He also accompanied such master tavil vidwans as Peralam Muthu Pillai and Pandanallur Guruswami Pillai.

He once accompanied flautist Sarabha Sastrigal and violinist Tirukkodikaval Krishnayyar on the tavil, when the mridanga vidwan could not make it to the concert at Vishnupuram Agraharam. He also learnt to play the dholak from Nannu Mian and accompanied star vocalist Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer on the dholak as well as the mridangam.

Pillai became so good at nagaswaram playing that he taught Tiruvavaduturai Rajaratnam PilIai and Vazhivoor Veeraswami Pillai as his disciples, while Tiruvazhaputtur Pasupati Pillai and Tirumullaivoyil Muthuveeru Pillai were among his tavil disciples. He played the tavil in TNR’s first nagaswaram concert at the Tirukoilur Tapovanam, and the mridangam in a vocal concert by TNR at the same venue the next day. Kannuswami Pillai gave many jalatarangam performances as well.

A good singer with a wide repertoire, Kannuswami Pillai taught Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer music. As a linguist proficient in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, he was an accomplished vaggeyakara, with many kritis and tillanas to his name. His tavil accompaniment to Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai can be heard on gramophone records.

Kannuswami Pillai passed away in 1923.

Friday, 11 October 2013

A popular and accessible expert

Music and dance historian BM Sundaram

By V Ramnarayan
11 October 2013

A documentary DVD on the nagaswaram traditions at Siva temples produced by musicologist and veteran Sruti associate BM Sundaram was released at Chidambaram today. The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram has been battling to preserve its music tradition against all odds.


Nadamum Nathanum is five hours long and documents the nagaswaram-tavil music performed during the temple’s 11-day festival in great detail.

Achalpuram S. Chinnathambia Pillai, a nagaswaram player and one of the exponents of the Chidambaram tradition, has played the nagaswaram. The 88-year-old nagaswaram player is a student of Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai and played with him for many years.

Belonging to a family of traditional musicians, Dr Sundaram is a one-stop source of knowledge on the musical and dance history of Tamil Nadu, especially nagaswaram music and natyam. His father Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1894-1949) was a renowned tavil vidwan, whom many considered the greatest of his time.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai did not want his son to pursue the tavil, as he saw no future in it for him. Sundaram, however, studied the theory and practice with passion. His gurus included Melattur Narayanaswami Iyer, Vaiyacheri Janakirama Iyer and Thanjavur K Rama Iyer. 

He later took up residence at Vijayawada where he came under the tutelage of Sangita Kalanidhi M Balamuralikrishna. The vidwan saw an enquiring mind in Sundaram and encouraged him to become a researcher in music and dance. Sundaram, a biographer of Balamuralikrishna, took his guru’s advice seriously and became a prolific writer on the traditional arts, including Palavazhi, an exhaustive study of ragas, and Tala Sangraham, dealing with 1,400 talas. 

His work Mangala Isai Mannargal, is a pathbreaking and comprehensive work recording the lives and careers of nagaswara and tavil vidwans, starting with Keevalur Subbaraya Pillai (1787-1846) and concluding with Yazhppanam Dakshinamurthi Pillai (1933-1975).

A linguist familiar with Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Gujarati and Urdu, Sundaram was a music producer and composer at All India Radio, serving at Puducherry, where he is spending his retired life..

His Marabu Tanda Manikkangal about devadasi dancers, and Marabu Vazhi Perarasargal on nattuvanars earned him awards from the Tamil Nadu government. Among the biographies he compiled are those of his father Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, and Kanchipuram Naina Pillai.

His writings in English include The Advent of Lavani in Tanjavur, The Origin and Evolution of the Nagaswaram, and The Origin of Jalatarangam.

Sundaram’s doctoral thesis at Norton College, Massachusetts, was entitled Origin and Evolution of Nadaswaram and Tavil His awards include Tamil Nadu’s Kalaimamani and Madhya Pradesh’s Tansen Music Festival’s Kalabharati

Dr. Sundaram has been a visiting professor of music at such institutions abroad as Wesleyan University, Conneticut, and Norton College, Massachusetts. A member of the Chidambaram Natyanjali Committee, Dr Sundaram is an expert many scholars and performers in music and dance seek out as perhaps the last living link between the past and the present. He has been a long time, and ever willing contributor to Sruti magazine, and a valuable ally in our efforts to document the history of classical music and dance.  

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Semponnarkoil Brothers

Who’s Who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

Semponnarkoil Govindaswami Pillai (1897-1955)

The elder of the two Semponnarkoil Brothers, Govindaswami Pillai was born at that tiny village near Mayuram that was synonymous with rakti in nagaswaram. His grandfather, renowned as Pallavi Vaidyanatha Pillai and his father Ramaswami Pillai were celebrated nagaswara vidwans, known for their expertise in laya. Govindaswami’s mother was Kuttiammal.

Govindaswami’s early lessons were in vocal music, which he learnt from Sambamurthi Iyer. He had become proficient in varnams when he enrolled with Vandkarateru Ramiah Pillai for nagaswaram classes. The teacher’s sons Subramania Pillai and Mamundi Pillai grew up to be accomplished pipers as well.

Govindaswami, who made his concert debut at age 16, was soon joined by his brother Dakshinamurthi, seven years his junior. Soon they gained a reputation for excellence in rakti, regarded as their family heirloom. Viswanatha Pillai and Krishnamurthi Pillai were the youngest brothers., The elder of their two sisters, Dhanabhagyam, married tavil vidwan Pandanainallur Ratnam, while the other sister Sethu married Subramania Pillai, the elder of the Tiruveezhimizhalai brothers.

A typical concert of the brothers would feature Govindaswami’s exquisite alapana, invariably followed by Dakshinamurthi’s additional exploration of the raga, after which he would launch a pallavi or rakti, the signal for joyous rhythmic play by the duo.

It was not unusual for the brothers to separate every now and then, and take other partners, with Govindaswami being joined by Vandikarateru Shanmugasundaram Pillai, and Dakshinamurthi accompanied by Reddiyur Subramania Pillai. Many tavil greats including Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai and Kumbakonam Thangavel Pillai teamed up with the Semponnarkoil Brothers.

In 1937, the brothers cut their first Columbia disc, accompanied on the tavil by Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai. They were following in the footsteps of their father Ramaswami Pillai, who was perhaps the first nagaswara vidwan to be featured in gramophone records.

The Semponnarkoil flag was kept flying by such progenitors of the two brothers as SRG Sambandam, SRG Rajanna, SRD Muthukumaraswami and SRD Vaidyanathan.

Govindaswami Pillai passed away on 7 July 1955. He was 58.

Semponnarkoil Dakshinamurthi Pillai (1904-1976)

Dakshinamurthi, the second son of Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai and Kuttiammal, was born on 9th September 1904. He followed the same musical route as his elder brother Govindaswami Pillai, learning vocal music from Kasipandaratteru Sambamoorthi Iyer and the nagaswaram from Vandikkaratteru Ramiah. The brothers were a star duo of their time and the adheena vidwans of the mathams of Dharmapuram, Tiruvavaduthurai and Tiruppanandal. Whenever the brothers performed with other nagaswara partners, Dakshnamoorthi was invariably accompanied on the tavil by Tirumullaivayil Muttuveer Pillai or Tiruppanandal Subbiah Pillai.

After Govindaswami’s demise, The younger brother inducted his sons to take turns to accompany him on the stage with the nagaswaram. Dakshinamurthi Pillai was celebrated for his equally delightful rendering of raga and kriti, though he was most renowned for rakti and pallavi. His complex and challenging swara prastara in complicated talas or difficult to comprehend eduppu, had a thrilling impact on discerning listeners.

His sons Muttukumaraswami and Vaidyanathan carried on the tradition after Dakshinamurthi passed away on 12 December 1976. Vaidyanathan, known to be an avadhani who could play pallavis to two different talas maintained by hand and foot, is someone whose mentoring such outstanding musicians as Sanjay Subrahmanyan have sought. 

(Based on Mangala Isai Mannargal by BM Sundaram)

A cross-genre ensemble

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Rajna Swaminathan

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

Rajna Swaminathan, a USA-based musician, grew up learning the mridangam, piano, and Bharatanatyam. Eventually, she found the mridangam to be her calling and made that her focus. A disciple of sangita Kalanidhi Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Rajna has won several awards including the Best Mridangist Award at The Music Academy Madras. Keen on bringing the mridangam to new audiences, Rajna has involved herself in several projects in the USA and in India. She speaks about her musical pursuit to Sushma Somasekharan.

Where did it all start?

My father, P.K. Swaminathan, plays the mridangam. He was my first teacher. I was five when I showed some initial interest and started learning some basics from him. I was very frustrated since my hands were so small and I was playing on a full-size mridangam. My parents simultaneously enrolled me in piano lessons, which helped to strengthen my fingers.

My father had had some initial mridangam training in India, but his dream was to study with the great Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. When I was eight years old, my parents sponsored Sivaraman sir to come stay in our house in Maryland and teach for a couple of months. After that, he made several trips to our house during which I would have daily intensive lessons with him. During my school holidays, I would visit him in India for more lessons. It was an unusual situation for me to have so much of his direct attention as a guru - as he would joke, it was more of a ‘sishyakulavaasam’ than a traditional ‘gurukulavaasam.’ I was truly lucky to have learned from him in such an intensive way.

After my arangetram, however, the formal lessons with my guru ended and he encouraged me instead to learn and observe on my own - both from his performances and from my own experiences with different artists. This was a difficult but necessary turning point - it was about discovering the subtleties of music that could not be taught but had to be understood through experience and developing a mature artistic voice.

How has your educational background helped your understanding of music?

I studied cultural anthropology, focusing on researching the roles of culture and identity in music and other performing arts, particularly in cross-cultural situations. Pursuing cultural studies academically has definitely influenced the way I think about the music I make and how it contributes to different communities. I have tentative plans to continue my academic career after a couple of years, but it will still revolve around music research and composition.

Do you recall your first performance? What are your early memories of performing?

Although I don’t remember my very first performance, I do remember that my first few attempts at performing involved accompanying musicians in local and regional Tyagaraja aradhanas and other Carnatic music festivals in the US as well as accompanying a few dance productions. I began performing for music and dance when I was about 11 or 12 years old.

When I was 13 I had the great opportunity of touring 26 cities in the US with my guru and a special ensemble - including the jalatarangam, violin, ghatam, and Kerala percussion instruments chenda and thimble. The tour involved concerts at several universities and other primarily Western venues. In every performance, I would accompany one song - Samajavaragamana - with my guru playing the khanjira. It was my first experience performing at prestigious American venues such as the Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) and Asia Society (New York).

I took off nearly 2 months of school to be part of the tour. The experience was memorable, and really pushed me to contemplate taking up music as a profession. I knew after that tour that this was what I wanted to do: perform for and educate Western audiences in order to increase global and contemporary awareness of the mridangam and of Carnatic music.

Do you play for dance too? How different is the experience from that of a conventional Carnatic kutcheri?

I play fairly often for Bharatanatyam performances, and opportunities to do so are abundant in the US. I generally restrict myself to professional performances rather than cater to the growing arangetram phenomenon that has become a popular fad here. Over the past 4 years, I have been working with Ragamala Dance, a professional Bharatanatyam company based in Minneapolis. Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the co-artistic directors, senior disciples of Alarmel Valli, have created a contemporary space for Bharatanatyam, and collaborated with several visual and performing artists over the past two decades to create work that communicates the art form to Western audiences without diluting the movement vocabulary.

Working with Ragamala and dancers like Mythili Prakash, has been a significant part of my artistic growth. Although the traditional style of playing for dance is very different from accompanying a Carnatic kutcheri, I have tried to integrate the two styles by using phrases in my guru’s bani to accompany the dance in a ‘musical’ way. Playing for dance requires an ear for rhythmic complementarity, an ability to harmonize and internalize parallel cross-rhythms. This is different from a kutcheri, where the tendency is toward unison and linear development of improvisation—with the mridangam and violin mirroring and anticipating the vocalist’s phrases. Furthermore, it induces a sort of synesthetic sense; that which is purely sonic in a kutcheri becomes much more visual, physical, and dynamic in a dance setting.

Playing for dance has made me think of music in terms of visual shapes and energy dynamics, a quality that has enriched my overall style even in other contexts like kutcheris and jazz performances. Anthropologically speaking, music and dance evolved together, and it is difficult to ignore their intersections and interdependence. This connection between sound and locomotion has become more evident and important in my creative process.

Have people been supportive of you pursuing the mridangam, which, you would agree, is a male dominated industry?

Yes. I’m lucky to have grown up in a generation that is more open-minded and egalitarian than was customary a few decades ago. This is not to say that I have encountered no resistance. Sometimes resistance or discrimination is subtle - through the specific set of opportunities that become available to a woman, or even through the nature of musical interactions. On the whole, however, my experience has been a positive one. Even in the jazz scene, which is fairly male dominated as well, I have been lucky to have important people support my career and artistic growth.

Did you ever feel that you were not taken seriously because you were a female percussionist?

I don’t think this has ever really been a major issue for me. I might have faced mild skepticism, but most people (in the many situations I’ve performed in) have adopted a meritocratic attitude and judged me by my actual playing. I do, however, get the occasional comment that I “play well for a girl,” as though there is a separate standard for women’s music. Others have asked if I sing as well, as though that should be my natural inclination. Ideally, I wish my gender would neither boost nor limit audiences’ perception and expectations of me. Ultimately however, it often does both, and hence balances out.

Do you feel disadvantaged because you’re not based in Chennai? Has living abroad given your music and percussion a different perspective?

Although Chennai is the mecca of Carnatic music, it is not the only place where one can perform, gain experience, and grow. Yes, there are certain artistic trajectories that are only possible if you settle down in Chennai, devoting yourself to touring with musicians in India, and perform in the December season.

Yet, as I have learned over the past few years through my involvement with different kinds of musical projects, artistic possibilities do exist independent of Chennai, are perhaps exclusive to musical scenes in the US and the West in general. We live in a rapidly globalizing world, and opportunities are now available almost regardless of our location. This is why it is possible to become proficient in Carnatic music without living in India.

However, the sheer need to look for opportunities outside of the standard kutcheri circle (which, in the US, is not financially viable as a sole source of income for a professional musician) makes your perspective on music radically different. This is slowly happening in India as well, I’m sure, but the coexistence in the US of Indian music with musical forms from other cultures engenders a very different point of view on the meaning and practice of Carnatic music.

What are your aspirations with regard to the mridangam?

As a result of not being particularly immersed in the Chennai Carnatic music scene, I have sought out several different musical nests for myself in the US. My goal has always been to bring the mridangam and Carnatic music to new audiences, and the best way to do that is to be open-minded, honest, and community-oriented with one’s music. I really believe in the ability of music to bring people together and build bridges. I feel that the directions my career has taken in the past couple of years has allowed me to do this in my own way, and I hope that I can continue to do so. I aspire to be involved in more cross-cultural projects as a composer and improviser, and to teach musicians from other genres about the Indian musical perspective while learning from them simultaneously.

Above all, I hope that I can integrate all of these diverse experiences to develop artistically and grow as a human being. The artists I have most admired have all found a way to do this in their own circumstances, and have all given back to the community as well. The exact manner in which my career will unfold may be unknown, but I am fairly confident of these underlying principles, which echo the philosophies of my guru, my parents, and my other mentors and collaborators.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Chitra Poornima

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

Chitra Poornima (27) is a disciple of Bombay Jayashri. Born and brought up in Singapore, she is one of the young and talented artists who have made their shift to Chennai to make a foray into the Carnatic music industry. A singer who is blessed with a beautiful voice and natural bhavam, she speaks to Sushma Somasekharan for Sruti.

How were you initiated into Carnatic music?

My first teacher was Smt. Rajalakshmi Sekar at Temple of Fine Arts in Singapore. She taught me the basics with utmost care. TFA is an institution founded by Swami Shantanand Saraswati, whose motto was Art just for the love of it. I grew up in that lovely and positive environment, with this very thought; of doing art with no other intention but because I loved doing it. TFA emphasized values, respect for gurus and seniors, aesthetics and much more.

What prompted your move to Chennai?

I was initially travelling between Singapore and Chennai when I was still studying. I used to spend my summers (May to July) and Decembers with Jayashri Akka. Upon completing my graduation in Singapore, I moved to Chennai. I didn’t have any ambition or clarity at that point about what I wanted to become. What I definitely knew was that I wanted to be in music. I wanted to learn more and I was determined to dedicate more time to it.

Have you travelled with your guru?

Oh, it is one of the best experiences! Like someone picking the best flowers from a tree in the morning to offer to God, Jayashri Akka plucks the most amazing insights, musical experiences, sights, smells, sounds, and observations from the world around her and shares them with us, her students. Besides getting musically enriched, but we also learn so many other important values on these journeys. We learn how to love life and see excitement and possibility in anything and everything.

What does Carnatic music mean to you?

Carnatic music is a peaceful, warm and loving friend. When I’m listening to my guru and the great Masters, I feel they are saying something to me. I feel lifted and am in high spirits.

There are other times when Carnatic music is a tough enemy; it challenges me. As a student, I have my struggles especially when I am trying to perfect a sangati or understand the progression of a particular raga. However, the moment I cross that line and manage to learn that sangati, even if it is after hours of practice, I feel humbled. I feel the music considers me worthy enough. I go through many phases and feelings, but what I do know is that it is my constant.

Are you involved in projects other than kutcheris?

My guru constantly engages us in her projects and productions so that we learn through them. Recently we staged a children’s Carnatic choir. It was amazing being able to put together an acapella of sorts with Carnatic music.

Currently, I’m working on a thematic concert called Samarupa with an all-women ensemble. It is to be staged as part of the Kala Utsavam series at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore.

Collaborations vs singing solo. Which do you prefer?

I like both. While I enjoy singing solo as it enables me to explore music and myself, I find collaborations very interesting. This is because when two or more people come together, they bounce ideas off each other. The combination of different approaches to the art, strengths and personalities can result in a completely new outcome—unexpected and different. That possibility always excites me.

Do you feel any affinity towards a particular composer?

I can never decide between Dikshitar or Tyagaraja. Dikshitar’s compositions are like the mountains; so grand, so challenging and larger than life. When you plough through them, you get a feeling of having gone on a long and tough but soul stirring, uplifting journey. On the other hand, Tyagaraja walks down from his mountain to you, and sings right to your heart. He makes me feel like I could relate to every emotion, every dialogue he has with his Rama.

Friday, 4 October 2013

TRS is no more

By V Ramnarayan                                                                                         
Chennai, 4th October 2013

Sruti magazine's first subscriber, musician, musicologist, guru, composer and steadfast champion of youth, TR Subramanyam, widely acknowledged as a musician's musician and a master of laya, passed away this afternoon. He was in his eighties, and though he suffered a stroke many years ago, seemed to be in reasonable health until yesterday, when he attended a concert featuring young vocalist Brinda Manickavasagam.

A disciple of Musiri Subramania Iyer at the Government College of Music, Madras, he was an unabashed admirer of GN Balsubramaniam.

A great promoter of young talent, both through his Music Education Trust, and as a benign presence at many concerts featuring young artists, TRS (in his Tata Nano) was a familiar sight at concert venues all over Chennai. He was also a lively, sometimes iconoclastic participant in several lecture-demonstrations including the academic sessions at The Music Academy during the December season. 

Sruti magazine was perhaps unduly harsh on the vidwan while publicising a controversial research thesis by one of his disciples several years ago, and it has been our endeavour in the recent past to undo some of the damage done by that expose. We in fact commissioned his profile for publication more than a year ago, in the hope that TRS would live to read it. After initial hesitation, he too happily agreed to cooperate with us. Unfortunately, the profile will now appear posthumously. 

Most musicians, critics, his legion of sishyas and mature music lovers believe that TR Subramanyam was a rare scholar, musician and teacher, a view that will be reflected in our tribute to him. A truly great loss to Carnatic music.

A paean to Mahishasuramardini

By S. Sankaranarayanan

‘Mahishasuramardini’, an audio montage, is a landmark musical feature broadcast on the Kolkata station of All India Radio on Mahalaya morning exactly at 4 am, every year. Mahalaya falls on the new moon day before the commencement of the Dusserah celebrations.

Pankaj Mullick composed the enchanting music for this unique musical feature. It was scripted by Bani Kumar and the narration was by poet Birendra Krishna Bhadra (1905-1991). It comprises recitation of sacred verses and rendition of Bengali devotional and classical songs. In the past, noted musicians like Hemant Kumar and Arti Mukherjee rendered the songs.

‘Mahishasuramardini’ begins with the sound of the sacred conch followed by an invocation rendered in chorus. In this melodious setting, Birendra Bhadra recites verses from ‘Devi Mahatmya’ also known as Chandipaath in Bengal -- telling the story of the descent of Mother Durga to the earth. As the programme proceeds, Pankaj Mullick joins Bhadra and both of them together recite the hymns. Various singers then render devotional songs.

‘Mahishasuramardini’ was first broadcast in 1931. The maiden broadcast was not on Mahaalaya morning though, as it is now, but on Maha Shashti – the sixth day of Dusserah. As pre-recording had not come into vogue, it had to be broadcast live. As a result, the artists had to assemble in the studio in the wee hours of the morning at 2 am -- two hours before the commencement of the programme at 4 am. All the participants would be ready for the recording after a bath and offering pooja.

Listening to ‘Mahishasuramardini’ on the morning of Mahalaya has become an integral part of Durga Pooja festivities in Bengal and elsewhere. It continues to enthrall listeners even today.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Kala Ratna for Bharatanatyam veterans

Veteran Bharatanatyam exponents Vyjayantimala Bali and The Dhananjayans were conferred the Kala Ratna Samman for 2013, by the Akhil Bharatiya Sri Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan, on 15 September 2013 on the inaugural day of the festival organised at Brindavan (Mathura) in Uttar Pradesh. The dancers presented half-an-hour programmes to a packed audience. Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan presented Radha Madhavam — ashtapadis from the Geeta Govindam.