Friday, 11 April 2014

From Malaysia – to widen their horizons

By Nandini Ramani

On a pleasant afternoon in November, I was happy to witness some 40 and odd students from Malaysia, dancing a crisp Mallari, in the foyer of the Narada Gana Sabha. They had been trained by Bharatanatyam dancer-teacher Roja Kannan in Chennai for nearly a week. Initiated by Nalini Ratharishnan, Founder-Director of Ratharishnan Bharatanjali, even nine-year olds had come all the way with their teachers to be part of this intensive training programme, which comprised teenagers and some dancers in their twenties and thirties.

As I distributed the certificates to the participants of this training camp, I was touched by the earnest pursuit of these budding dancers, who spent their time and resources to make this trip to learn more about Bharatanatyam. Nalini had organised this project with the objective of providing the youngsters some exposure to other schools of Bharatanatyam in Chennai which is undeniably an important centre of Bharatanatyam. It was a worthwhile attempt as Nalini had chosen to rope in a teacher and senior exponent like Roja Kannan, who is one of the best students of the veteran Guru Adyar K. Lakshman.

It was heart-warming to see the sincere efforts of Nalini Ratharishnan who also joined her students in this camp. The students were happy to have enriched their repertoire and more so that they got an opportunity to perform the items learnt in the city before their departure. The group also learnt a little bit of the dance texts and visited some local schools. It was heartening to see the students attempting to rise to Roja Kannan’s expectations as she had put in a lot of hard work to achieve such a result.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Vasantrao Deshpande Award for Deepak Raja

By Samudri

The Vasantrao Deshpande Smruti Puraskar was conferred on Deepak Raja during the Vasantotsava music festival organised on 19 January 2014 in Pune. The award is given by the Vasantrao Deshpande Pratishthan every year for outstanding contribution to scholarship in the performing arts. It was instituted in memory of Dr. Vasantrao Deshpande, popular and erudite vocalist on the concert platform and regional theatre.

Deepak Raja received the award from the legend Vikku Vinayakram. The ghatam maestro gave a mind blowing performance before a 4000-strong crowd, which was also very appreciative of the awardee’s acceptance speech.

Deepak S. Raja, a columnist for Sruti, is among the finest contemporary writers on Hindustani music. He is the author of several books on Hindustani music and frequently contributes papers to seminars and prestigious journals on music. This scholar is also a musician who plays the sitar and the surbahar. Well versed in the traditional concepts of Indian musicology, Deepak Raja brings to his writing a fresh perspective using the conceptual tools and analytical methods cultivated by his careers in media research, business journalism and financial accountancy.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Remembering PBS

By V Ramnarayan

Visitors to Chennai’s iconic Woodlands drive-in restaurant near the Gemini flyover during the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium came to expect the presence there of another icon of the city—PB Srinivas, the man with a mellifluous voice who had entertained film music listeners for decades earlier. Srinivas was already a senior citizen but with his creative instincts intact and his productivity as a composer of semi-classical and devotional songs amazingly high. Grandly attired in traditional south Indian clothes topped by a resplendent zari-bordered turban, he sat through the day at one of the tables of the restaurant surrounded by files and his pocket filled with pens of different hues. Over the years, some of the restaurant’s regular clients picked up the courage to go up to him and engage him in conversation, discovering in the process that his voice was still as strong and resonant as when he sang his immortal melodies in films.

When the drive-in restaurant was taken over by the state government in 2008, not only were residents of Chennai deprived of a popular meeting place where students, salesmen, entrepreneurs and executives wove their dreams and planned their projects, they were also denied the pleasure of running into a much-loved celebrity of the city. Srinivas shifted his informal office to other Woodlands cafeterias in the city, but it was never the same again.

Srinivas, popularly known as PBS, was arguably the most versatile, cerebral and well-read musician in the film world for the six decades he was part of it. He was a fluent linguist, for one thing, with mastery over the enunciation of lyrics in Tamil. Telugu, Malayalam. Kannada and Hindi, among other languages. For those not familiar with Indian films, they often have songs in them (six to ten songs in a movie was par for the course for several decades until recently), with the actor lip-syncing with the recorded voices of ‘playback’ singers. Tamil cinema was dominated by a handful of stars when PBS entered the scene, and singers like TM Soundararajan lent their voices to the leading stars of the day, like Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran. PBS’s voice was not a good match for those of these stars, but fortunately for him, it suited the voices of some other actors like Gemini Ganesan and Muthuraman, for whom PBS sang some of the most memorable melodies in southern cinema.

Born to P.B.V.L. Phanindraswami, an inspector of cooperatives, and Seshagiriamma, in coastal Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, Srinivas grew up in a sprawling house belonging to his grandparents. He was in his early teens when he fell in love with Hindi film songs composed by such wizards as Naushad.

In the early 1950s, PBS and film music composers GK Venkatesh and M.S. Viswanathan—who brought out Srinivas’s best in Tamil cinema—made a trio of musicians who swore by Naushad. Encouraged by maternal uncle Kidambi Krishnamacharya, a theatre actor and director, Srinivas dreamt of becoming a playback singer like the famous Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar of Hindi cinema.

His disciplinarian father discouraged him, even tried to forbid him, and insisted he obtain a degree even after he tripped twice in his school finals. Thanks to tutorials in Madras, PBS finally earned a BCom degree, but his father now wanted him to study for a law degree. Moving to Madras to join the Government Law College, PBS spent more time on music practice than law classes, even winning inter-collegiate singing competitions in the process. He enlisted the services of an astrologer to convince his father that his future lay in film music rather than a conventional job!

Veena virtuoso Emani Sankara Sastri, one of the music directors of Gemini Studios in charge of Hindi films, and a family friend, recognised merit in Srinivas’s lovely voice, and started employing Srinivas as his assistant. Emani proved a loving benefactor who tended to the younger friend like a father, showering him with warmth and affection. Sastri mentored him in growing into a sensitive purveyor of raga-based songs. (“A few decades hence, Emani was to witness the mature Srinivas compose and sing a ragamalika tribute to Tyagaraja. Srinivas even stumbled upon a new raga, which he named Navaneeta Sumasudha,” says film music expert Vamanan in his obituary).

Adinarayana Rao, G Ramanathan and MB Srinivasan, great composers of film songs with a classical touch to them, were some of the music directors to spot the talent in PBS and give him early breaks in Tamil and other southern cinema.

Through the 1960s and seventies, PBS enjoyed success as the most delicate and sensitive voice in Tamil cinema, with his duets with woman singers of the calibre of P Susila winning him a sizable number of admirers, but without the fanatical following of the likes of TM Soundararajan. He was at his evocative best while rendering sad or philosophical songs. He became part of a popular trio that included the music directorsViswanathan-Ramamurthy and lyricist Kannadasan, and delivered some of the most tuneful and emotive songs of the era.

Competition soon caught up with PBS, with some brilliant new voices in KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubramaniam and music directors like Ilaiyaraja transformed the film industry altogether with a predominance of SPB and Yesudas songs. Fading away from the playback-singing world, PBS reinvented himself as a composer of semi-classical and devotional music, exploiting his proficiency in languages, poetry and compositional ability. Though no longer a star singer in the films, he continued in the music field almost till his death in April 2013.

A man of many interests, PBS was a regular at many classical music concerts in the city, Hindustani music in particular, and invariably made it a point at the end of a performance to applaud the artists with some choice phrases of praise, including verses he composed on the spot. This writer was among those who marvelled at his devotion to music that made him nonchalantly climb a steep spiral staircase to attend a Hindustani vocal recital at a suburban venue one evening just a couple of months before his death.

Among some of the quirky sidelights of PBS’s life was a song he composed when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, PBS sent a recording of the song to Armstrong and Richard Nixon, then president of the US. He treasured their replies to him.

According to his devoted wife Janaki,  ‘He lived a carefree man; he has departed just as he lived’. The singer had had close brushes with death earlier, once butted by a cow with fierce horns on a busy Chennai street. When the end came, however, he had just sat at the dining table and passed away peacefully.

First published in Matrix, the house journal of The Sanmar Group

Guruguhamarta tribute to RK Srikantan

By V Ramnarayan

When I was young, I had the great good fortune of growing up in a large complex of three bungalows that straddled two major streets in the Alwarpet-Teynampet area, Murrays Gate Road, and Eldams Road. There were no compound walls separating the three houses, and the result was a vast, tree-shaded play area for all of us kids, a dozen or so cousins occupying those houses. Two granduncles, both sportsmen in their youth, were our match referees and adjudicators. The older of them, Venkata Mama, was by then semi-retired, and a sage presence in the midst of some of our frenetic games ranging from cricket and I Spy to carrom and Monopoly. We took all our disputes to him, all our interpretations of the laws governing our games. His word was always final, delivered firmly but with affection and kindness.

Vidwan RK Srikantan always reminded me of Venkata Mama, not in his physical appearance, but in his largely involuntary role of elder statesman among Carnatic musicians. If he had been a Chennaivasi, we would have heard his voice—not his singing voice but his views and perspectives on the great art he represents--more often than we actually did.

We all know he held strong views on tradition in Carnatic music—on voice training and sruti and laya suddham; we know his repect for the great vaggeyakaras and vidwans of the past. Sruti magazine, and I as a rasika, have been great fans of his music for the grandeur he brought to it—for his vast repertoire, his sense of balance in manodharma and most of all for his wonderful voice, his fidelity to sruti.

The many stalwarts present here today have a much better understanding of Carnatic music, far greater exposure to it, but I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread, and state that there has rarely been a greater male voice in Carnatic music than Sangita Kalanidhi RK Srikantan’s.

But Srikantan, like MS Subbulakshmi, was more than a great voice.

Someone- his son Ramakanth I think—once said Srikantan was a late bloomer. That one attribute of his straightaway endeared him to me, because I too belong to such a tribe, though my friends believe that I am a never-bloomer. BVK Sastry writing in Sruti November 1995, actually described his early singing as robust and impulsive. “Virtuosity seemed to overshadow artistic sensibility in expression.”  He pointed out this and other shortcomings which he said were “counterbalanced by his resonant, ringing voice, which invested his singing with a dynamic quality and which seemed to overwhelm the audience.”

Those of us who never heard the young Srikantan will find it hard to believe that his music did go through such a phase. In the same article, however, Sastry acknowledged the transformation in Srikantan’s music, beginning with the first noticeable changes in his mid-thirties, after he had internalized the music of great masters like Maharajapuram, Musiri, Semmangudi and GNB.

Sastry claims that Srikantan imitated GNB’s brigas for a while, adding his own touches, and gradually evolved his own style.  He noticed deep introspection, greater control and thoughtful planning in his concerts. He marvelled at Srikantan’s infinite capacity to surprise and delight audiences by singing different compositions in the same raga by different composers, in different concerts, even as the listeners expected the repeat of some song he had dealt with expansively in an earlier concert. This became a striking aspect of Srikantan’s music through the decades thanks to his enormous repertoire across genres and vaggeyakaras. Yet keen listeners could often guess the kriti correctly during his alapana because of his uncanny anchoring of it in the kriti without ever singing identical phrases.

The Sruti article came in 1995 to commemorate Srikantan’s 75th birthday, and Sastry concluded by saying, “his voice has not lost either its resonance or its ring. Thus the ragas sound full-blooded. They are handled now with greater involvement and feeling. The swaraprastara too has undergone a change. There is more spontaneity than deliberate designing, though he occasionally yields to the temptation of mathematical permutations.”

Srikantan only got better and better in all these respects, so that in his nineties, he was in full possession of his faculties physical, intellectual and musical. About the mathematical permutations, there was never any need to complain, as his arithmetic had its own beauty; never lost its umbilical connection to the ragas he was painting.

Returning to the theme of Srikantan as the archetypal guru and de facto oracle, Sruti was fortunate to hear some of his views and thoughts on matters relating to the teaching of music.  I ‘ll try to list some of these here.

An aspiring vocalist must sing naturally and without effort in a rich and flexible voice. He must be bold and creative as a performer. He must be free from bad habits. He should not be hasty and overenthusiastic to appear on the cutcheri platform.

The teacher should ask the student to listen to the sruti or the key note for a while and then sing sa-pa-sa.

The guru may hum two different notes and ask the student to identify the note that is higher in pitch.

He may sing some notes in one sruti and ask the pupil to repeat the same notes in a different sruti.

He may test the student similarly with a tambura not quite in tune, asking him which of the two strings is higher in pitch. He must train the better students to tune the tambura and other string instruments.

Similarly, he gives several examples of training in laya, stressing the value of the age-old practice of singing at least three speeds as a learner.  He cites varnam singing in three speeds as good training. One of the exercises he conducted with students included the guru singing simple melodies and asking the student to guess the talas.

I found Srikantan’s methods of voice training most attractive. In an interview to Sruti, he said a mellifluous, clear and pleasant voice was a gift of God. It is a delicate organ, easily injured by wrong use.

He gives hope to those not blessed with melodious voices, by assuring them that they can train theirs into musical voices. Here he highlights the benefits of yoga and pranayama, as well as higher and lower octave swara exercises.

Resonant humming is another method of training he recommends. Most important, all the voice training exercises should be practised in four tempos.

An important disclaimer Srikantan puts forth is the distinction he makes between loud singing by forcing the voice and a clear, ringing voice that is the product of good training.

Here, I will quote him verbatim: “A rich, full tone is to be aimed at rather than mere loud singing. Proper management of the voice is the very soul of good singing, or for that matter speaking, also.

Last but not least, he says, “The possession of a good ear is an essential requisite.”

Happily for a listener like me, Srikantan emphasizes lakshya gnana, even more than lakshana gnana, as well as good taste and aptitude for music. “Too much of theory orientation destroys the aesthetic side of the performer, he says.”

Srikantan was an opponent of distance learning.  He was against crash courses. According to him, an enduring student-teacher relationship is the key to true learning.

In his speeches and lec-dems, Srikantan expressed his views fearlessly, but with a gentle touch, despite his stentorian speaking voice. At an interaction organized by Sampradaya, he criticized TM Krishna for singing a varnam as the main piece of a concert. Krishna who was the organizer of the event smilingly quipped, “Let’s discuss this in private later?” I would have been delighted to be a fly on the wall when that discussion took place. Just like my own Venkata Mama, I’m sure Srikantan would have been gentle and affectionate but firm in his pronouncement in the matter.

The most fitting tribute to this extraordinary musician would be for musicians to follow his sterling guidelines and emulate his values, without of course, sacrificing originality. Let’s not forget that he was a self-made musician away from Carnatic music’s headquarters, and he was an innovator as well, for all his respect for tradition.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The KVN bani

By V Ramnarayan
In one of his last concerts, KVN moved listeners to tears with the depth of feeling of his rendering of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s, Varugalamo Ayya, Nandan’s desperate plea before the lord.
It was hardly surprising, for he was known for the emotional impact his music had on listeners, but he was himself always in control of the sruti-and laya-perfect music he purveyed.
Sangita Kalanidhi KV Narayanaswamy’s music continues to have a huge impact on many of the present generation of singers, the youngest of whom probably never heard him live.

I asked some of them why they liked KVN’s singing so much. None came up with an answer that really answered my question. It is as if the young musicians, both men and women, have turned to the quietude and bhava of his singing almost intuitively in their quest for beauty in their art. One of them said she admired KVN’s vocal technique, which he had devised to suit his voice; it put no strain on his voice or physique.
She described his style as a blend of melody and vishayam, with in-built rhythm and without undue emphasis on kanakku.
All the young musicians I spoke to agreed that his niraval singing went beyond stitching words and melody together to seamlessly integrate the rhythmic dimension as well.
Was his voice ever a powerful rather than a mellifluous one? Few recordings prove the existence of such a reality. His career is generally believed to have been divided by a heart condition into two distinct phases. Some of the early recordings hint at a more full-bodied, slightly more akaram-oriented style of singing than the later KVN voice.
But the KVN way has been a continuum uninterrupted by stylistic changes. It is already becoming evident that a number of young vocalists, of his and other sishya paramparas, are proving to be exemplars of his melody-rich school of music. I’m sure we shall soon be regularly speaking of the KVN bani.

His was effortless music of a kind we rarely come across. It has been said that he became “immersed in his music, thoroughly forgetting himself and thereby providing a divine experience for the listener.”
This effortlessness could be very misleading. I generally avoid cricketing metaphors, but I cannot resist the temptation today. Sir Garfield Sobers, arguably the greatest cricketer of all time, did look effortless while batting, bowling or fielding in a Test match. He indeed rarely practised in the nets in his mature years. Hidden, however, were years of strenuous practice, or rather sheer enjoyment of playing the game endlessly on the beaches and grounds of his native Barbados.
Likewise, KVN was known not to labour too much over pre-concert sadhakam in his mature years but to go on stage and sing spontaneously. The effortlessness was therefore more than mere appearance. What were not visible were the years of effort behind it.
His sishyas and associates knew that though he was blessed with natural fidelity to sruti, he was never satisfied during practice until he was certain he had got the notes absolutely right. In fact, sruti perfection was an article of faith with KVN, and lack of it in a sishya was the only thing that ever made him angry. The best tribute an aspiring vocalist can pay to KVN’s memory would be tireless practice to guarantee sruti suddham, not imitation of his style of singing.

Gowri Ramnarayan once said, “Some musicians appeal to the mind, to the intellect. Other musicians appeal to the heart. But only a very few in the history of music appeal to the soul. They charge the spirit within.” She was obviously referring to the rare musician that KVN was.

Could such soulful music rooted in all the vital aspects of music come together in a single musician by serendipity? Perhaps, they can, in one so naturally musical as KVN. But his teachers and mentors other than his Gurunathar Ariyakudi–whom he worshipped—included his father Kollenkode Viswanatha Bhagavatar and Papa Venkataramiah, both violinists, and mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer. (A rare photograph of KVN playing the tavil indicates the extent of his laya proficiency). His love of the Dhanammal school of music and his experience of learning songs from the family were also a significant influence on his music.
All these varied influences must be the background behind his mastery of raga and tala as well as his superb team ethos that invariably energized his accompanists to give of their best in his concerts.
It was my good fortune that I had several interactions with KVN and his family and a whole brood of sishyas—towards the end of the 20th century, right up to a few months before he passed away.
Assigned the task of editing and publishing his biography in Tamil by journalist Neelam of Swadesamitran fame, and an English translation by Justice VR Krishna Iyer, as well as several tributes by his admirers, I ended up also interviewing his family and his disciples including Prashanth Hemmige, Balaji Shankar, Pattabhiram Pandit, Karthik and Sudhir—to add weight to the slim volume.
Through many informal sessions at his home, I got to see at close quarters evidence of his endearing qualities of heart, his natural musicality (including his tendency to even speak in his singing sruti), his lovely habit of whistling some raga or kriti, and his affectionate hospitality. His students, a constant presence at the Narayanaswamy residence at Mandaveli, termed it “sishyakulavasam”. It was KVN and Padma who looked after them with love and concern, not the other way around.
KVN’s son Viswanathan confirms that KVN forgot the world in his pursuit of music. “He did not even know which branch of engineering I was studying,” he told me. He praised the Sruti commemorative volume on KVN soon after his death as the best tribute he read, Pattabhi Raman’s interview with Padma Narayanaswamy in particular.
He drew my attention to a reference in it to a conversation between KVN and Jon Higgins. Higgins wanted to know why audiences sat entranced when KVN was rendering Tyagaraja yoga vaibhavam, but tried to slip away when Higgins sang it. KVN explained to Higgins how to go about investing the song with appeal, but startled him by saying he learnt the song from a Higgins record.

Viswanathan also spoke of KVN’s mastery of concert music. He never asked anyone what he or she thought of his music. Once on stage, he was absolutely confident. He lifted the audience to a different plane when he sang songs like Varugalamo, Krishna nee begane, Enneramum, Aliveni, Mayamma and other favourites like Kana vendamo or Tiruvadi saranam, songs of total surrender. The listener was invariably moist-eyed, but KVN was in full control. According to KVN, a famous mridanga vidwan said he never had to worry about an exodus during tani, because everyone stayed to listen to KVN’s soul-stirring post-main pieces.

Another devoted sishya has been a close friend of mine. The self-effacing, now US-based Tulsi Ram (he was then known as Toufiq Tuzeme) was a French-Algerian disciple completely devoted to KVN, who in turn showered his affection on him. Tulsi fondly recalls how KVN once introduced him to the sage of Kanchi, proudly declaring that the young man was a vegetarian who shunned leather.
He also recalled how KVN enjoyed watching films like Maya Bazaar and Nandanar Charitram at Kapali or Eros cinemas, or during his Berkeley California days watching a kung fu tv serial up to the point sometimes of almost being late for the weekly concerts at the Center for World Music, fortunately only a few yards from the flat. He also remembers with gratitude how KVN and Padma looked after him spending their own money when he was seriously ill and again when he met with an accident. Tulsi never made it as a concert musician, but he could laugh at himself. When I once asked him about his progress in music, he said: “I must be improving. People ask me to stop singing these days. Earlier they would ask me to stop making noise.”

After the book I edited was printed, I made an anxious phone call to KVN inquiring about it, as he had not called to comment on the just published book. Reassuring me, he said, “Bookkai aaraakkum undaakkiyathu? Ramanarayanan allavo?!” (Who produced the book? Was it not Ramanarayanan?)
It was typically kind of him; I had myself not been satisfied with the outcome of the project. He was perhaps making allowances for something the two of us shared: Ramanarayanan had been his given name at birth!

In conclusion, I’d like to say that KVN has left a unique legacy of music rooted in bhava, technically perfect but never designed to show off technical prowess, a model for present and future practitioners to adopt for its total adherence to sruti suddham. Equally important is to remember that KVN’s pure music came from his pure heart and good nature, as Sruti Pattabhi Raman said.