Song of Surrender

Monday, 17 April 2017

Two outstanding young artists

SIFAS Festival 2017

By Vasudha Srinivasan

Photo by Manu Ignatius
As part of the annual SIFAS Music Festival 2017, Singapore was proud to host amongst other shows, two US born artists now belonging to the frontline of mainstream Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam—vocalist Ramakrishnan Murthy and danseuse Mythili Prakash. 

Accompanied by Charumathi Raghuraman (violin), Manoj Siva (mridangam) and BS Purushotham (khanjira), Ramakrishnan Murthy was masterly in his delivery. Entitled Parampara, his concert featured a line-up of songs rich in our musical heritage. He aptly embraces a style reminiscent of stalwarts of yesteryear, or as one of my companions put it, “very DK Pattammal”. His unhurried pace would have almost been plodding, if not for his song choices. Avoiding the conventional structure of peppering “tukkadas” to break up a singular pace, or relying on a tillana, RK Murthy instead played with songs of varying length. Spending just enough time to explore a raga, he was careful not to dwell too long in any song but his main, Tyagaraja's glorious Upacharamulanu. Such an approach was successful in keeping the tempo of the concert brisk. He wielded his musical knowledge with flair, dancing into the heart of the raga and delivering as much as needed to be. His restraint for a singer so young was beautiful; unlike many of parallel talent, he resisted the temptation to stuff his songs with ideas. Instead, by allowing the music to breathe, he gave us the room to appreciate the play of notes and the essence of the ragas. His accompanying artistes were well matched, responding to his music with equal sensitivity and discernment.

Yet, when I walked out, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, but unable to figure out why. It was only later, when I watched Mythili’s Bharatanatyam performance that I was able to grasp why.

“Jwala”, means intense flame in Sanskrit. Mythili engaged her audience with the same intensity she performed with. She stoked the embers of our interest as she explored the different manifestations of fire and its place within our lives. 

Her performance began with a tribute to Surya, the sun god, the source of our fire within and out. Donning his bright shades she summoned him in his various aspects as she cycled through other songs during her 90 minute performance. With her musical accomplices, vocalists Aditya Prakash and Sushma Somasekharan and Jayashree Ramanathan (nattuvangam), violinist Easwar Ramakrishnan and percussionist, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram, she beckoned and bewitched you into a visual feast. 

Mythili is an accomplished dancer, and her fluid movements swept through the expanse until they need to stop and then they stopped precisely, her hands and feet hovering, almost as though they were slotted into a space moulded for them. Complementing this visual mastery was the strategic use of light (with the help of Krishnan Venkatesh on lighting) to highlight the intent of her performance. In the piece Shivashakti, sung by Sushma Somasekharan, she explored the essence of feminine energy. Artfully framed by twin beams of horizontal light shining across the stage, her every leap and every bound were accompanied by leaping silhouettes on the side walls, creating a rich shadow play that added to the song's narrative. 

This symbiosis of light and movement literally took the limelight in her main piece as she stood on stage shrouded in darkness, save her hands and forearms, which were bathed in a single unbroken beam of red light. In this glow, she began evoking, with dancing fingers, a gentle flare of a flickering lamp. Dextrously, she progressed with swirling limbs and fingers, to paint a visual of flickering tongues of flame as they leapt higher and higher into the air, until they stopped, suddenly extinguished, shrouding everything in darkness once again. Within these moments, Mythili infuses a primal mysticism not commonly associated with Bharatanatyam, bringing a boldness to the dance form. With the low baritone of Aditya Prakash, the steady tattoo of the mrindangam and the hum of the violin, she ended in a similar vein, leaving us with her glowing and surging hands as the one indelible memory of this performance. 

Photo by Manu Ignatius
Aside from the technical aspects, she displayed a depth of emotion and maturity that I had not experienced in her previous work. True enough, she shared that some of these pieces were inspired by personal joys and tragedies. While not every piece seemed to fit as seamlessly as it could have, the boldness in which Mythili cast a traditional art form into a theatrical production mitigated the occasional incoherence.

It was only then that I realised the source of my dissatisfaction with Ram Murthy’s concert, easily explained by how he tackled the final song of his repertoire. He chose to close his performance with a tribute to KV Narayanaswamy by rendering Vargalamo from Nandanar Charitram. KVN's rendition is breathtaking in its expression. From the very first syllable, KVN draws each note from the ragam, like pulling water from a deep well. Gently tipping each note over its musical edge as it drifts into the next note, he infuses the humility and hesitance of someone who knows not where his place in society is. With each pause, Gopalakrishna Bharati’s heart reverberates in this song. Such depth of empathy from KVN could only be due to his observation of such circumstances in his lifetime. True enough, the history of the song highlights why KVN’s version resonates even today. While Ramakrishnan Murthy's version stylistically embraces KVN, dipping into notes and gliding into pauses, reproducing the same yearning deeply and sincerely is a challenge. And that hollowness was precisely what was niggling at me when I walked out. 

By any means, this isn’t a criticism of either performer. From these two concerts, I could point out that Ramakrishnan Murthy could do well to learn from Mythili’s boldness and emotional depth. And Mythili could also benefit by finetuning her boldness to deliver a punchier and coherent structure. But to focus on those would be doing both artistes a disservice as every artiste learns from each of her concerts. 

Carnatic music, or Bharatanatyam, like any other art form, is not static. It is a product of its times and circumstances. These two factors characterise the heart that shape the classical music (and dance) of south India, which is a reflection on the rich tapestry of human emotion. It may be obvious, but this aspect feels forgotten. Carnatic music increasingly seems to be benchmarked by the number of sabha concerts that a musician accumulates during the December season. Carnatic music has a story to tell outside of its intellectual complexity and devotional thread. To stunt its emotional richness in favour of technical prowess is not to be preferred. So, it is really for young artistes like Ramakrishnan Murthy and Mythili, who are consummate professionals, to push the boundaries meaningfully.

(Thanks to Mr Srinivasan Narayanan of Hyderabad for educating me on the history of Nandanr Charitram and for helping me with my reference to it).

The author is the editor of littleindiadirectory.com and a freelance writer. 

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