Monday, 25 May 2015

Follow the spirit, not the letter

‘Chitravina’ N. Ravikiran

This is in response to P.K. Doraiswamy’s comment (Sruti 367, April 2015) on my lecdem on Raga Development. I reluctantly have to point out that in his article, he has missed the wood for the trees. He has made seemingly sensible but obvious points but most of them are quite off-context, since his entire narrative is based on the letter rather than the spirit of the two dicta I had advocated at the beginning of my presentation. 

All the true students of the art and system, including the Sangita Kalanidhis he has mentioned, have endeavoured to follow these dicta in spirit, and most of those that I was fortunate to interact with have generously shared their vast knowledge and perspectives with me since my childhood and communicated the importance of these two aspects, namely: 

 (a) Every phrase must aim to be true to the rendered raga
 (b) No phrase must be untrue to the raga 

I may phrase it in a variety of ways on different occasions but most students, artists and listeners have thankfully got the spirit of these till date! Without this basic tenet, Carnatic music – the most sophisticated, organised and consummate melodic system I have seen in the world – would be reduced to a state of anarchy where anything goes – often justified by
(a) Over reliance and/or false interpretations of books
(b) Incorrect understanding or out of context application of what great artists may have said
(c) Insecurity whether ‘this’ will ‘really work’ in concerts
(d) A plea for allowance of ‘poetic licence’ to make artistic lie, sense!
(e) A brazen “why should I worry about such things, I can create music that garners me listenership” attitude.

Tyagaraja has documented his frustration about musicians in some of the above categories in his Chenchukambhoji composition, Vara raga layagnulu taamanuchu vadarerayya. 

This is not to say that grammar should rule over expression. In a panel discussion on "How to bridge theory and practice" at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC (in Sept 2013), I had advocated that a performer should focus 85-90% on expression, but be aware of at least 10-15% of grammar. Likewise, a musicologist must aim for at least 50% expression in order to be able to make convincing points.

Going by the spirit of the dictum in my above lecture, it would have been quite obvious that:

1. I never advocated a ‘clean-up’ of a raga like Ghanta whose personality is a heady concoction of shades of Bhairavi, Dhanyasi, Punnagavarali. The idea is to not get lost in Bhairavi, Dhanyasi or Punnagavarali while rendering Ghanta but endeavour to bring its holistic personality to the fore at all times. 

2. However, suggesting Punnagavarali while rendering Todi or suggesting Mohanakalyani in Mohanam, Darbar in Nayaki, Anandabhairavi or Sreeranjani in Reetigaula (which happens quite frequently in concerts) cannot be accepted.

3. Likewise, accidentally slipping well into Yadukulakambhoji or Sahana while rendering Dwijavanti and calling it ‘chhayalaga’ is easily avoidable by quality artists. 

A handful of legendary performers have shown time and again that awareness of and adherence to grammar only add to aesthetics and do not detract from it. Suggesting Saveri while attempting Malahari or rendering Saurashtra like Chakravakam + Sooryakantam is neither poetic nor aesthetic. These are what I call CMCM (Common Mistakes in Carnatic Music).

How to avoid them? It requires an awareness of (i) nuances of each raga and (ii) subtle distinctions between very close ragas. While a large group of performers develop a sense of the former over time, it takes even more clarity of thought and intensity of desire to develop a keen sense of the latter.

Everything boils down to investment of time, energy and emotion in the right direction. Constant introspection, mental and physical practice will help us to avoid minute mistakes in borderline phrases and take music to phenomenal levels of excellence. 

This is not idealistic talk! I used to be amazed that someone like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer would spend 95% of the time I spent with him discussing and illustrating the subtle distinctions between ragas even past his 90s. He also advocated that we need not do ‘research on stage’ where expression alone mattered. I have been likewise inspired from close quarters by this constant quest of legends like D.K. Pattammal, T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Tanjavur Sankara Iyer, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Voleti Venkateswarlu, Nedunuri Krishnamurthi and numerous others. 

Today the field is full of performers and students with tremendous talent and passion. I merely wish to share the wonderful insights I was fortunate to receive from legends including my gurus Chitravina Narasimhan and Sangita Kalanidhi T. Brinda. It is vital for aspirants to avoid unintentional mistakes because of lack of awareness, negligence, and insufficient practice. It is equally important to not be swayed by seemingly alluring notions that grammar does not belong to the concert platform. 

I find it mildly baffling yet gratifying that despite my well-known propensity to take questions from listeners in my lectures, the author desisted from seeking clarification that day, thereby giving me this opportunity to share important perspectives with your readers! 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Ravikiran’s rules of raga development

By P.K. Doraiswamy

During a recent lecdem titled Development of Raga, held under the auspices of the Music Forum, Chitravina Ravikiran prefaced it with the following ‘rules’:
  • Every phrase should have the chhaya of the raga
  • There should be no phrase with the chhaya of another raga

Giving examples of how some individual swaras and phrases common to different ragas should be sung slightly differently to reflect the chhaya of each raga, Ravikiran said these subtle nuances represented the distinct glory of Carnatic music. For example, when starting Sankara-bharanam and Kalyani with antara gandhara, he showed how the ga should be intoned differently. How ga ma dha in Kanada should be sung with an emphasis on ga.

Subtle, beautiful and scholarly as these rules sound in short examples, are they practically feasible in an actual elaborate presentation? Are they a sine qua non for a correct delineation of the raga swaroopa or a reasonably knowledgeable listener’s enjoyment of a raga?

There is an established concept of chhayalaga ragas which have slight traces of other ragas built into their swaroopa structure, namely, Ghanta with traces of Punnagavarali, Dwijavanti wih traces of Yadukulakambhoji and Sahana. Should you make a conscious effort, while singing these ragas, to ‘bowdlerise’ them and clean up traces of other ragas? Will this not change the established swaroopa of these ragas? During a lecdem on Bhairavi and Manji, T.N. Krishnan said that every phrase in Manji was admissible in Bhairavi but not vice versa. In other words, Manji, as a subset of Bhairavi, has to avoid certain sancharas of Bhairavi, whereas Bhairavi, as the mother set, was under no such constraint in regard to its subset Manji.

Shatsruti rishabha is the only note which distinguishes the Vagadeeswari scale from the Harikambhoji scale. If one were to go on singing sancharas containing only ga, ma, pa, dha and ni omitting ri, it may be difficult sometimes to guess whether Vagadeeswari is being sung or Harikambhoji. Lalgudi in one of his lecdems, gave the example of Latangi and Kalyani and pointed out how, if in Latangi one sang phrases without the suddha dhaivata for long, it would sound like Kalyani which was a more dominant raga. He, therefore, suggested that in such cases one should touch the differentiating note frequently, if only in passing, to keep the identity of Latangi alive. Frequently, but not necessarily always. Lalgudi pointed out that when a typically bhava-reflective phrase of a raga is sung, the ambient effect of the raga bhava persists for a minute or two. During this interval, one could sing other creative phrases in the scale which may not be so raga-reflective or which are common to other ragas without diluting or compromising the overall identity of the main raga; even a sa would sound as if it belonged to the raga! (In fact, this is what enables a musician to sing even rakti ragas elaborately in spite of certain stock phrases occurring repeatedly in such ragas). But the typical phrases of the raga have to be sung before this transient, golden interval is over so that the identity of the raga is kept alive. Thus, in order to preserve the overall chhaya of a raga, every phrase does not have to be a long, rakti phrase; short ‘neutral’ phrases are also permissible.

While ragas like Kambhoji or Todi may have signature phrases which ‘fix’ them, slightly esoteric ragas like Pavani and Kosalam do not have such phrases. These can be identified only when you listen to the whole octave and also possess some swara gnanam. Shorter phrases in such ragas may be common to other ragas and, therefore, canno0t ‘fix’ them.

Some musicians like to play hide-and-seek with the audience with regard to the identity of the raga by not singing rakti prayogas for some time. Once during a concert by a Sangita Kalanidhi, during an alapana I asked another Sangita Kalanidhi sitting next to me whether the raga being sung was Bhavapriya. He said, “Let us wait and see”. If the hide-and-seek is resorted to by an established and accomplished musician and forms only a small portion of the alapana which otherwise is of high quality, it would seem like a bonus quiz which many knowledgeable listeners enjoy.

Gamakas are the soul of a raga. They can be seen in their full glory only in slow or in madhyama kala when one dwells on the notes. But today’s music is characterised, if not dominated, by a preference for acceleration and arithmetic which crowd out the gamakas. The subtle nuances pointed out by Ravikiran may have been possible in M.D. Ramanathan’s music but in today’s concert tsunami, they are likely to be simply swept away. Moreover, they are noticeable more in vocal music than in instrumental.

Once, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Prof. P. Sambamoorthy were sharing the stage. During his presidential speech, Sambamoorthy pointed out how musicians were not always following the prescribed lakshanas of ragas and appealed to senior musicians to set an example in this regard. In response to this Maharajapuram, in his speech, said, “Professor is a great scholar and has put forth very learned suggestions. However, if I were to follow his advice, no one would invite me to give a concert. I would be invited only to preside over meetings.”

(The author is a retired civil servant and connoisseur of music)

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Unsolicited submissions for publication

Dear readers and potential contributors,

Please note that correspondence will not be entertained on unsolicited material by way of interviews, articles, photographs and other inputs. We shall only notify those whose submissions have been accepted by our editors.

Please cooperate with us in this matter, as Sruti continues to be a lean outfit and such correspondence will  exert undue strain on us, distracting us from our core responsibility .

Thank you for your understanding.

Best wishes.

V Ramnarayan

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Excellent exposition of Tiruppugazh

By Nandini  Ramani

Enlightening moments of  devotional poetry and music prevailed upon every member in the audience at a unique exposition, Chhanda Tamizh Tandha Kanda-k-Kadavul by Tiruppugazh exponent Valayapettai R. Krishnan accompanied by his wife and senior Carnatic vocalist T.V. Sundaravalli and daughter Bhavya Harisankar. The programme was part of the Panchamurti festival devised by the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram, under the  guidance of its  Chairman Deva and Member-Secretary Chitra Visweswaran, to a packed auditorium with intent listeners.

“Iraivaa! Edu taa, Adu taa” – “God! Whatever You have decided to give, give that”, sang the saint-poet and composer Arunagirinatha, at the shrine in Nagapattinam, expressing his utter surrender and absolute devotion to his favourite deity Lord Muruga. This was narrated by Tiruppugazh exponent Valaypettai R. Krishnan in the course of his lecture-demonstration. It was one of the many moving narrations by the versatile speaker as he highlighted the content of the Tiruppugazh hymns coated with deep devotion, spirituality, philosophy and the pursuit of salvation by the singing minstrel, Arunagirinatha.

At the outset, the speaker described the literary and poetical genius of the composer, giving importance to the aspect of chhandam – the metrical arrangement adopted by Arunagirinatha to suit his songs addressed to the deity at several holy shrines. Prevalence of the vast expanse of the different tala structures (anga talas), which do not come under the 108 tala system, their rhythmical pattern (using syllables like tana, thaana), the concluding adornment like a pendant in a necklace (tongal - hanging), Chhanda-k-kuzhippu (the winding up of a cluster of chhandams) of every segment, the use of unique phrases and references to epics in the content – were all discussed with exquisite vocal rendition of suitable examples. Other composers like Vannaccharabham Dandapani Swamigal (19th century) and Pamban Swamigal (20thcentury) who followed this mode of composing were highlighted.

Chosing appropriate Tiruppugazh pieces to explain the different aspects of the poetical set up, like  the short (kuril), long (nedil), stress (vallinam), soft (mellinam), idaiyinam (middle type) usage of tonal arrangements like the Vedic recitation (at Tiruchirappalli) were all discussed in yet another inspiring episode, accompanied by the soul-filling vocal rendition by the trio including the speaker, making the exposition a very soulful, moving homage to the 650 years old Tiruppugazh compositions and their immortal composer. The speaker mentioned an extensive list prepared by Vannachcharbham Dandapani Swamigal on the different ‘healing qualities ‘ ascribed to each Tiruppugazh

In a lighter vein, Krishnan made pointed reference to the different clusters of word-setup in Tiruppugazh hymns, which are like tongue-twisters, and would surely help  to improve the pronunciation of news readers in Tamil TV channels! He added on a warning note that wrong pronunciation and wrong pauses or misuse of the chhandams may cause unholy and unhealthy results. In this context, Krishnan cited a funny episode of how a humble devotee suffering from acute stomach ache, began rendering the Tiruppugazh hymns with mistakes and how Lord Muruga came down and healed his ailment to stop him from continuing his faulty approach towards the compositions of His dear devotee, Arunagiri! This incident has been recorded by Dandapani Swamigal in his work titled Pulavar Puranam which extols several mystic devotees of Lord Muruga. The speaker concluded  that if such a devotee could receive the Lord’s grace at once, you can imagine the extent of the bountiful blessings that one with clear diction and deep devotion could get by chanting the Tiruppugazh as well as the shadakshari – Saravanabhava.

T.V. Sundaravalli is an inheritor of the rich musical corpus of Tiruppugazh and the traditional bhajana pathantara of the ashtapadis from her versatile father, musician-scholar T.S. Vasudevan – a profound practitioner of these musical treasures that he inherited from his father, an authority in the sampradaya bhajana paddhati). Sundaravalli’s bhava-laden singing heightened the excellence of the presentation; it was heartening to hear her talented daughter Bhavya sing all the compositions with  impeccable pronunciation of the chaste Tamizh lyrics, without looking into the book even once – a rare feat in this tech-savvy music scenario.

E. Gayatri, Vice Chancellor, Tamilnadu University of  Performing Arts, presided over the event and honoured Valayapettai R. Krishnan and the group, which was accompanied by  talented violinist R.S. Sudha and the vibrant mridangist Sai Sankar.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Homage to Rajappa Iyer

By Nandini Ramani

The entire hall was brimming with glowing tributes to a veteran teacher-performer from the field of percussive arts. The function was filled with deep regard and a sense of sincere reverence to Kumbakonam Rajappa Iyer on his eighth anniversary observed by his son and prime disciple, K.R. Ganesh, senior exponent of mridangam at his centre, Layodaya. This centre has been honouring veterans in the field of Carnatic music annually on this remembrance day. This year, K.S. Kalidas, veteran exponent and a prime student of the legendary Palani Subramania Pillai, and Sendangudi Jayaraman, a prime disciple of stalwart D.K. Jayaraman were honoured with mementos. The awardees dedicated their cash awards back to Layodaya. Both the recipients fondly remembered Rajappa Iyer; also, they shared their own personal musical and emotional experiences over the decades in the field while working with their illustrious masters.

Chief guests, renowned musicians, Bombay Sisters Saroja and Lalitha, offered their felicitations to the awardees as well as to Layodaya for their dedication to their 'Guru parampara'. It was heartening to see so many leading students of Rajappa Iyer participating in the event to offer their homage. The doyen, a renowned performer of mridangam and ghatam, had accompanied stalwarts during his prime career. A respected and renowned teacher par excellence, he had trained almost a thousand students in his lifetime, many of whom have reached the top as percussionists and ghatam players.

Earlier, the function began on an auspicious note with Vedic recitation. After K.R. Ganesh welcomed the audience, a short, vibrant percussive solo in Khanda Chapu tala by one of the leading disciples, Kumbakonam Ramakrishnan accompanied by Madippakkam Murali, gave a bright start to the proceedings. A brief multimedia presentation with tributes by several eminent musicians and clippings of classroom sessions of Rajappa Iyer with some of his senior students was screened.

The highlight of the event was certainly an outstanding display of tremendous skill by two young talents, Subrahmanyam from the US, currently an IITian here and Akshay Anand (from Bengaluru), both of them trained to perfection by K.S. Kalidas, in the “Pazhani" style of mridangam playing. K.S. Kalidas, at first explained the invaluable concept of playing the “Chatusram” (sarvalaghu) in concerts which is no easy task and which has its own intricate, nuanced approach. He further spoke of his training under Palani Subramania Pillai. Kalidas, a mechanical engineer by education and by profession a very senior official (retired) of the Indian Railways, has taken it as a mission to propagate the “Pazhani" school, to the future generation, in order to preserve its excellence for posterity. The two students made their teacher proud with their immense skill, involvement and stunning performances, each one carrying himself with ample confidence and verve. Eminent members of the audience like the Bombay Sisters and all leading students of Rajappa Iyer encouraged them in great appreciation. It was indeed, a fitting tribute to the great teacher Rajappa Iyer. V. Sundararaghavan, senior disciple and board member of Layodaya proposed a vote of thanks.