Song of Surrender

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Saraswati Bai
By Sriram V
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Saraswati Bai began her travels within India once again on returning from her tour of Ceylon in 1913. In an interview given later in life she was to recall with considerable pride that she had not "spared a single village and neither had any village spared her". Travel to far off places meant being on the move for several days and journeys by several modes of transport including the bullock cart. Bai, who had been of a sickly constitution as a child, found that she had to put up with the rigours of such travels and also of the strain of standing for six to seven hours each night and perform non stop. 

In 1916, Bai and her troupe performed at the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, Bombay in the presence of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and she was awarded the title of 'Gayanapatu' (skilled in singing) by him on the 13th of February. While in Bombay she also performed in aid of the War effort (the First World War or the Great War as it was then known, was in progress). The proceeds from the performance earned for Bai praise from Lady Willingdon, wife of the Governor of Bombay Presidency. On the 13th March, Bai, still in Bombay, gave a performance in aid of the East Indies Station Naval Fund and Rs. 422-8-0 was donated as half the gate collection. Between 1916 and 1920, Bai continued travelling across the country and in 1920 arrived in Poona. There on the 15th April, she performed at the Kirloskar Theatre and among the audience was 'Lokmanya' Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the great patriot. In his own words: "I was present at one of the Harikirtans performed by Mrs. Saraswati Bai, a Madras lady, at the Kirloskar Theatre and had the pleasure of presenting her a 'gold medal' on behalf of the Poona public, for her proficiency in performing a Kirtan as well as for her learning in Tamil and Sanskrit. She addresses the audience in Tamil, but as the songs and texts used are in Sanskrit, one not knowing the Tamil language can easily understand her address and follow her right through. Her voice is melodious and singing very good." It was on this occasion that the second of Bai's two most well known titles, namely 'Kirtanapatu' (skilled in kalakshepam) was conferred on her by Tilak. Hereafter Bai was always referred to as 'Gayanapatu Kirtanapatu C. Saraswati Bai'. The terms became as much associated with her as Sangeeta Ratnakara was with Ariyakudi, Gayaka Sikhamani with Muthiah Bhaga-vatar and Gayana Gandharva with Chembai.

To read full story, buy Sruti 262


Sikkil Sisters
Torchbearers of tradition
By Charukesi Viswanathan
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

With flute genius T.R. Mahalingam and his remarkable sishya Sangita Kalanidhi N. Ramani for close relatives (see family tree) on their mother’s side, the sangeeta gnanam of the renowned Sikkil Sisters, flautists, has been no surprise.

Probably the only successful flute duo of their time, certainly the first female pair of instrumentalists in Carnatic music, Sikkil Kunjumani and Neela have continued the vocal style of flute playing that Mali (Sruti 24) launched so memorably during their lifetime, changing the history of the pullankuzhal irreversibly. Before Mali, the Carnatic flute as a concert instrument owed much to the pioneering efforts of Sarabha Sastri (1872-1904) and the maintenance of that tradition by his sishya parampara of the likes of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and H. Ramachandra Sastri (see Sruti 67).

“Azhiyur Narayanaswami Iyer was my guru,” reminisced Sikkil Kunjumani, the older of the Sisters. “He was my uncle, residing in Puliyur, near Azhiyur. I was seven or eight then and we had an idol of Krishna playing the flute at home. I used to imitate that with a stick in place of the flute and humming tunes. My father Azhiyur Natesa Iyer noticed that and felt that I had a natural flair for music. He decided to take me to my guru for initiation. It was a bold step as girls those days were never into artistic pursuits. My Periappa Narayanaswami Iyer was also very supportive of the idea. He gave me a short flute. In just two years, he prepared me for a concert. Our servant Tangavelu escorted me everyday to my guru’s house. I had to walk to cover the distance. It would take an hour or so to reach my master’s place. The class would start by eight in the morning. Periappa was impressed by the nada of the flute and played it as his main instrument, though he taught many students vocal, violin and veena. He gave many solo concerts accompanied by our father on the mridanga.”

Narayanaswami Iyer played the flute so well that it enraptured the listener. “He had a huge passion for the instrument. The sound should always permeate the air without a break, he said. All else should be forgotten, he insisted. ‘It is in your hands to succeed’.”

The age-difference is almost eleven years between Kunjumani and Neela, the younger of the two sisters.

For Neela, the journey was more strenuous. “I learnt with difficulty, I must confess,” Neela said. “You know, a girl child normally begins to speak when she is less than a year. I started to speak only when I was four or so. There was an idol of Krishna in our house which I adored. When I wanted someone to fetch it for me, so I could play with it, no one understood my prattle. I then sang “uttani begene baa o.” Even if the words were not clear, my audience recognised the song Krishna nee beganey as I got the tune right. I already loved the flute.” Neela recalls, “I was seven years old when my sister Kunjumani initiated me into the flute. I took a good year and a half just to learn the sarali varisai. Since my fingers were very small, I had a problem holding the flute. I had no grip. The guru would prod me, ‘Play, you can easily do it’. Luckily for me, I could effortlessly remember my everyday lessons without having to write them down all the time.”

To read full story, buy Sruti 314


Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar (1932-2013)
By Meena Banerjee
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

The small but distinguished dhrupad clan of India lost its legendary ‘Chhote Ustad’ (younger guru) when Zia Fariduddin Dagar left for his heavenly abode, on 8 May 2013, to be with his elder brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (1929-1990). Both belonged to the famous Dagar family that traces its lineage to Swami Haridas, the guru of Tansen. The members of this illustrious family were scattered in different pockets of India – sheltered by music-loving maharajas of states like Indore, Jaipur, Udaipur and Bengal.

Maharana Bhupal Singh was the ruler of Udaipur when Ziauddin Khan Dagar became his court musician. He groomed his sons as proficient musicians – Mohiuddin as a rudra veena player and the younger Fariduddin as a vocalist. In the wake of modernity, however, the Privy Purses were withdrawn to pave way for a sovereign democratic nation. The social upheaval, with new value systems, found the traditional arts as a very soft target. Under the circumstances, the family had no choice but to shift base to greener pastures. They moved to Mumbai for better opportunities to make a living.

The family remained dedicated and immersed in the ageless art of dhrupad and fearlessly went ahead to introduce its next generation to carry the mantle. Ironically, by the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of its deep spiritual appeal, dhrupad found a firm footing in the West. Concerts and teaching assignments started pouring in from countries like France, Austria, Germany, even from the U.S.A. The brothers almost decided to again shift base – this time to Europe. Realising the gravity of the situation, a few sensitive bureaucrats put their thinking caps on. In 1981 Ashok Vajpeyi, former secretary in the Department of Culture, State government of Madhya Pradesh, made a bold move and launched the Dhrupad Kendra under the Ustad Alauddin Khan Music Academy, Bhopal, with brothers Mohiuddin and Fariduddin as gurus.

The first batch had five students hailing from families which had little or no musical background. This did not bother the brothers at all. They were ready to accept the challenge and were willing to accept learners from outside their close-knit clan which looked at music as its sacred religion.

A typical day began early at around 4 am. The students, following in the footsteps of their Bade Ustad (Mohiuddin) and Chhote Ustad (Fariduddin) would rise early and sing. Ashok Vajpeyi often referred to this ethereal, empirical experience he had during his morning walks. The whole area surrounding the Dhrupad Kendra reverberated with the deep, resonant voices!

Bade Ustad was more of a philosopher and thinker, while Chhote Ustad assumed the role of a taskmaster. Bade Ustad helped the vocalists to gain deep insights into tantrakari (instrumentalism), while Chhote Ustad taught the gayaki ang (vocalism) to instrumentalists like Bahauddin Dagar (rudra-veena), and Pushparaj Koshthi (surbahar). Strictly adhering to their music, they exposed the students to other art forms as well – including literature, dance and visual arts. All this broadened the students’ horizon. Inspired by the ustads, a culture-starved region became the role-model – a haven for the traditional arts of India.

The rest is history. The very first batch produced world renowned dhrupad exponents like Ramakant Gundecha, Umakant Gundecha and Uday Bhawalkar. Rudra veena exponent Bahauddin Dagar – son of Mohiuddin and nephew of Fariduddin – is a sparkling example of the family’s strong resolve to introduce its next generation to carry on the mantle. The list of the disciples includes names like vocalists Ritwik Sanyal (Varanasi), and Nirmalya Dey (Delhi). Dhrupad will forever remain indebted to the brothers for this great contribution.


To read full story, buy Sruti 347

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