Friday, 4 December 2020

A RASIKA’S PERSPECTIVE

Enhancing listening experience of virtual concerts

By S. Ram

The past months have seen a surfeit of virtual Carnatic concerts in the pandemic environment. Despite the initial fears and doubts in singing without being able to connect with the audience, such concerts have been gaining acceptance.

Having watched many such concerts, I felt that vocalists could do a little more to enhance the listening experience of rasikas sitting in the comfort of their homes, to make it more engaging. 

I am a great believer in consumer connect through my professional experience and in audience/ rasikas connect in the performing arts -- especially music and theatre. Thus, came the thought of thinking creatively  to reinforce the connect with rasikas!

The virtual concert is a brand-new format to experience but it will never replace a live stage experience. How to successfully blend the two types of experiences is the question. Can a crisis be converted into an opportunity for musicians to experiment in the way music is presented virtually?

Performing artists, apart from their musical skills, are articulate and have the ability to connect with the audience with clarity and warmth which can be leveraged for mutual benefit.

As the curtain goes up, the vocalist begins with a varnam or a kriti. It would be better if the artist takes a few minutes to share what’s in store and then introduces the pakkavadyam artists. Instead of simply singing one kriti after another, could the vocalist talk to the audience through the concert to keep them engaged? Real value is not only about music per se; it is also about the connection that artists establish  with their rasikas.

Virtual concerts are being presented today in a traditional manner. Is it possible for  the performing artist to provide rasikas with a different listening experience by engaging with the audience in the following ways?

# Engage in storytelling mode before the rendition to convey details about the raga, composer, respective deity and the temple, and the essence of the composition.

# Talk about the influence of their  guru in their musical  journey.

# The sahitya in a composition can sometimes make it a transcendental experience for the artist. Can the vocalist transfer that feel to the rasikas to enhance their listening experience?

#Tyagaraja wrote his songs in emotive Telugu and his songs reflect his state of mind whether it is grief, yearning or joy. His vast repertoire has diverse lyrical content and context from simple songs to complex Pancharatna kritis. Can the essence be shared with the rasikas thereby enriching the listening experience?

# Audience interaction at the end can include a short discussion – thereby sharing a slice of the artists’ explorations of the art form.

# There are several nuggets that can be shown in digital performances which the audience cannot experience in a live concert. The camera can from time to time focus on the expressions and exchange of glances between artists, the hand and finger movements of the accompanists. It can also display the expressions and playing techniques during jugalbandis and the tani avartanam  in a split screen. Listening to instrumental music gives the freedom to imagine the lyrics on a blank slate.

# Ask a Question:  Rasikas can be informed about this beforehand, and some  time can be devoted at the end for the artists to answer relevant questions, for example,  on raga, composer and composition, manodharma, and the greatness of music legends. 

Time can be allotted for the above components, for example : introduction -  5 minutes , storytelling mode through the concert  - 10 minutes, the concert  - 100 minutes, and  Ask a Question at the end lasting 5 minutes, thus making it totally a two-hour concert.

In Carnatic music, a composition has manifold roles: It acts as a vehicle along the path of devotion since the theme of most compositions is devotional. It not only reflects the sentiments of the composer, but when rendered with involvement, reflects the emotions of the performer too. Hence, is there a way to take experiential involvement to the next level in a virtual environment?   I am in no way suggesting that it should be done in a lecdem mode. It may not seem traditional but in the current context of singing with no audience, the vocalist is unable to gauge the mood of the audience through the concert.

The pandemic will have a long-lasting impact, but the good news is that we’re just at the beginning of an exciting new era of interactivity. Technology can be a driving force behind connecting artists with rasikas.  

Will the rasikas accept this approach ? It could create a differentiating and  feel good factor for the rasikas which may result in positive disposition, especially for  paid concerts.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

FROM THE EDITOR

December is synonymous with the renowned music and dance season in Chennai. For several
decades now, every year, the city has been enveloped in the fervour of Margazhi bhajanai, lecdems, the cadence of classical music and the rhythms of classical dance. Artists and rasikas alike gear up for the season enjoying the synergy it generates – fine tuning their respective instruments, refurbishing their wardrobe, drawing up a tentative time-table, rushing from one venue to another to savour what is offered inside the sabha halls as well as in the canteens. It is the time to soak in the art live from morning till night. But Covid 19 has played spoil sport in a big way and changed the very nature of the Chennai season. Very few live concerts will be staged for an audience; almost all organisations are hosting online festivals this year.

A few organisations have dared to organise live programmes for a restricted audience while following the directives laid down by the Tamil Nadu government. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan has bravely launched its 22-day cultural festival with a hi-profile inauguration on 28 November 2020. The open-air programmes, with pick-up and drop, as well as drive-in facility too, are being presented to a limited audience at the Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram campus in Kilpauk. The Kalakshetra Foundation too is allowing a limited sale of 80 tickets per day to watch the live programmes of its 67th annual Art Festival from 21-31 December 2020, which will be streamed online for a price every evening from the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium.

Most organisations have chosen to record the concerts and upload it online during the season. The Music Academy is hosting a week-long online music fest from 24 to 31 December, but no lecdems and no dance festival this time. Concerts by seniors will be ticketed for non-members and the concert-streaming will be peppered with interesting anecdotes about the prestigious institution. And much before the start of its season, the Academy would have its new office-bearers in place – this being the election year.

The Federation of City Sabhas has drawn up interesting programmes including music, dance and lecdems in a month-long online season hosted on Kalakendra.com from mid-December 2020 to mid-January 2021. Many of its presentations too will be ticketed, as all the organisations wish to pay the artists facing a tough time during the pandemic. So get ready with your gadgets to gauge the online season.

This month Sruti’s cover story is about the Lalgudi siblings G.J.R. Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi, torchbearers of the famous Lalgudi bani. They combine style and substance, an intelligent blend of technique and emotion, melody with laya prowess and vidwat. Soaked in the bani, they have embellished it with their creativity and carved a place for themselves. Read the first part of their candid interview.

In this issue we launch a new series called ‘Artreach’ in which we propose, from time to time, to feature artists who are successfully applying the arts to bring about social change. The first artist showcased in this series is dancer and social activist Sangeeta Isvaran. We also have insightful reports and reviews on a range of online activities. You will certainly enjoy reading about the majestic sweep of folk music written by bilingual writer Suganthy Krishnamachari, and the life of veteran vainika S. Rugmini Gopalakrishnan by C. Ramakrishnan.

Now to an aspect of our cultural policy. While it is heartening that the government at the centre is introducing music, dance and drama as part of education in schools, it does not seem to have proper schemes for the welfare of senior artists—no schemes for pension, proper accommodation or health insurance to help them lead a life of dignity in their twilight years. It is sad that several veteran artists in the Capital, decorated with the Padma awards, have been asked to vacate the houses allotted to them years ago, where they have been smugly living for decades. Social security schemes for art practitioners in India is the need of the hour.

S. JANAKI


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

The Akkarai Sisters

A three-in-one versatile duo

Sukanya Sankar

The early nineties saw an advent of inventions and trends such as the internet, cable television, online chat rooms, restaurant chains and the like. Amongst these sprawling developments, were two sisters, who hailed from Akkarai, a village in Suchindram to whom these didn’t matter! S. Subhalakshmi and S. Sornalatha – Akkarai Sisters as they are known, were solely focused on their practice. Their minds were occupied with only music and playing the violin. The seeds for such thoughts were sowed in their minds by their father and guru, Akkarai S.  Swamynathan -- who worked with the Indian Bank as manager, and is also a violinist and a relentless teacher. A musical family in the truest sense, their grandfather Suchindram S.P. Siva Subramaniam was a versatile musician, adept at singing and playing the violin, harmonium and mridangam. He was no mean composer either and his compositions are well-structured with several  ornamentations like swara-akshara, yatis and gatis. Grandmother R. Sornambal was also a musician, music teacher and a Harikatha exponent.

The sisters were based in Delhi during their formative years and Swamynathan made sure his daughters practiced a minimum of six hours a day! Apart from spending six hours at school, the rest of the day was reserved only for learning and practice. The Akkarai Sisters listened to concert recordings and radio broadcasts of yesteryear stalwarts – both Carnatic and Hindustani. They played along with the recordings as accompanists -- a unique training technique devised by their father. Thus, playing by the ear became second nature to the girls. Swamynathan was a strict disciplinarian and these sessions were non-negotiable! The family resided in the Indian Bank quarters in Delhi and the beautiful campus was always filled with sounds of children playing outside. If the sisters hinted on playtime, Swamynathan’s reply would be “Play with your violin….  that’s your playground”! The sisters however have no regrets. They feel that if they had lost out on those golden years of continuous practice and learning, they could not have been successful musicians today. While in Delhi, the sisters also learnt from V. Janakiraman, O.V. Subramaniam and later from his daughter Padma Natesan.


Every December, the family travelled to Chennai to attend concerts during the season and in December 1998, Subhalakshmi made her debut at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, accompanying vocalist Abhishek Raghuram, a concert which is still talked about! In 1999, Subhalakshmi had her maiden performance at the Music Academy accompanying vocalist Sriram Gangadharan. The family eventually moved back to Chennai, where the sisters began performing extensively. In Chennai the sisters learned vocal music from vidwan P.S. Narayanaswamy and Chitravina N. Ravikiran.

Subhalakshmi (born 7 November 1983), started learning vocal music when she was barely four. She even accompanied her grandmother at a Harikatha performance at that age and presented a solo violin concert when she was just eight! Subhalakshmi has also played several violin duet concerts with her father. Sornalatha (born 26 January 1987), followed in her sister’s footsteps in learning vocal first and they performed as a vocal duo when Subhalakshmi was ten. The sisters have also performed several violin trio concerts along with their father, Swamynathan.  

In a freewheeling conversation the young achievers share their thoughts on music and their journey so far.

Akkarai Sisters in conversation with Sukanya Sankar

Why did you choose to accompany and not remain as a duo for vocal and violin?

There is a joy and a very healthy challenge in accompaniment, posed to us on stage. Appa has told us that to be able to play whatever is thrown at you, is the beauty of a true accompanist. By facing all these impromptu challenges you gain a lot of experience. In duets, we have the choice to decide what we want to perform. It has its own beauty and challenges too. But the most fascinating aspect of being an accompanist is the spontaneity, which we love. In Carnatic music, one has to be spontaneous, not rehearsed.

In a highly competitive industry, how do you balance between accompanying and performing duets? Also with the rotation system in some sabhas is it easy to get featured as an accompanist, and as vocal and violin duos?

We have been in Chennai for over 21 years – and that many years of concert experience has given us a larger perspective about the field. We have never faced any problems with regard to concert opportunities  Of course, there is a huge difference in the ratio between vocal and  instrumental concerts (very few). This trend needs to be changed. 


Also, being women artists, there are so many men who don’t prefer female violinists as accompanist, and a lot of other politics is involved as well. As child artists we faced a lot of issues – like when the focus was on us, especially when we played better than the main artist, it did not go down well with a few artists. If we have to curtail from playing our full potential, we would rather not accept. We don’t perform just for the sake of performing; we would rather play only when we can give our 100 per cent. Accompanying is such a beautiful and challenging art and it is upsetting if that is compromised and diluted. Luckily, today we are in a position to choose to play for artists who are broad minded, such artists are fewer in number. So keeping all this in mind and since we had an advantage of performing together we kept that going and established ourselves as a duo both in vocal and violin. We have a lot of time to practice and focus on performing together.

As accompanists we are extremely blessed and grateful to have got the opportunity to perform with several eminent artists. As main performers, we miss performing with some of these artists who have a principle of not performing with women artists as main performers. 

How do you approach your vocal and instrumental concerts?

We believe that we have to balance the virtuosity of the instrument as well as the gayaki ang in our violin playing. Though Carnatic music largely revolves around compositions, it gives a lot of scope for creativity as well. Certainly, music can be made without compositions too, but we have a responsibility of being in a system that is predominately composition-oriented. If we present both vocal and instrumental in the same way, then the performance will lack colour and life as both have their unique characteristics. In our violin concerts we explore how to creatively use kalapramanam, the various bowing and fingering techniques.

We also feel that audiences in Chennai prefer vocal over instrumental. Some have the notion that they will not be able to relate to instrumental concerts mainly because they cannot identify the lyrics or the composition.  We want to break that notion and we are consciously working on that. In our violin concerts, we also sing a few kritis that the audience may not be familiar with -- one of us sings, while the other plays. We are happy this has been received well.

As instrumentalists,  we feel that our responsibility doubles as it is not just listening to the notes alone, it is also listening to the composition; we have to reveal the beauty of the lyrics and the raga too.

What aspects do you value in each other when you perform together?

Sornalatha: It is definitely a healthy competition. We gain a lot from each other. We perform together but as two separate individuals. When we present compositions, we make it a point to stick to the original sangatis as taught to us. But sometimes one of us has the urge to sing one extra sangati. Since we share a similar wavelength, we immediately sense that and the other person takes a back seat and allows the sangati to flow.

Subhalakshmi: Sorna is extremely good at laya and has an inclination towards exploring its different aspects. However complex the pattern may be she will think on-the-spot in a kutcheri and execute it with brilliance. So when we present laya oriented pieces, I give her the upper hand. We complement each other.

We have always believed that music has to be spontaneous, so we respect each other’s manodharma. If it is rehearsed then there is no charm in that performance. Music has to be from within, and while on stage we explore the most. At home, during our practice, we create and come up with several ideas. But on stage it is a different experience. The identity of a good musician is spontaneity and creativity; we feel it is okay to make mistakes as it is a part of the learning process and can  make us perform the next part better. Of course, after the performance we do feel  that we should not have made those mistakes, but that is unavoidable. We have to take that risk to evolve as a natural musician.

What about sibling rivalry both on and off the stage?

Subhalakshmi: We are very close to each other. Arguments do arise, especially during practice sessions. On stage, usually, I am the villain. I get angry quickly and very often give the “stare”! Off stage, we do have arguments but we patch up quickly. Sorna is more forgiving. Off stage, both of us stingingly criticise one another, of course for our betterment, as both of us have a lot of expectations from each other. Both of us are quite intense but the difference is that, she thinks before she reacts whereas I react instantaneously!

Have you ever felt dominated by the other?

Sornalatha: Never thought of it like that. We respect each other, for what we do on stage, off stage. We are quite open with each other and we discuss everything -what to avoid, what can be done been better. We also appreciate each other’s effort after a performance. In the concert, it may look as if akka is dominant but given her vast experience, she thinks of what is best for both of us and implements that.  Both of us together take the responsibility towards the success of the concert!

Subhalakshmi: Sorna is never dominant on stage. I get involved quickly and I am quite intense on stage so perhaps sometimes I feel I’m too dominant. I perhaps look that way, but that is not my intention. My intentions are always positive and only think of what is best for both of us.

Has violin influenced your vocal music and vice versa?

Yes it has. Knowing to play a fretless instrument helps in more precise understanding of notes, minute details, gamakas and positions. This helps us when we sing as we can visualise the movement of the notes.  Similarly, the learning from singing also adds value to our violin renditions. Whatever sounds good on the violin may not be good for vocal music and vice versa. When we play the violin, there are times when we want to showcase the expertise of the instrument through our music, like varying the kalapramanams, podi sangatis and such. But if you use the same variations and techniques in singing, it may sound inappropriate and sometimes out of sync when it’s not executed well. There are times when it automatically flows during the concerts. So we consciously approach both differently and try to make sure we don’t go overboard. Our years of musical experience have given us the maturity and proficiency to draw that line and execute both with ease.

Has music taught you life lessons?

Through music we learnt so many things in life. Initially, when we started travelling for concerts, especially outside the country, we did not know many things -- we would be very quiet, all we knew was to go on stage and perform.

Subhalakshmi: I used to be very shy and quiet but at same time very observant. Colleagues have said I am a perfect traveler and that is because I observed minute details from a very young age. I only learnt through experience. Music has given  me this experience and courage to face the world. I have witnessed several situations where accompanists were not given due respect and were blamed if a concert didn’t go well.  Back then I did not know how to voice my feelings. But now I know that these things have to be addressed; I have to be true to myself and my art. My introversion broke when I saw these incidents happen around me and I started speaking up.

How did the fraternity accept this?

Subhalakshmi: I always believed in being honest and true to my conscience. I never feared to voice out my opinions and the people whom I have spoken to, be it the organisers or the artists, have understood my point of view. I also strongly believe that there’s no point in talking to people who don’t believe in it at all.

Besides, I also feel many artists who can voice out on behalf of the fraternity are not speaking up. Of course, there are a very few exceptions!

Unfortunately, the field is ‘main artist centric’! Even if the accompanying artists/ co-artists want to speak out, they are afraid to do so as they might lose out on concert opportunities. Of course there are exceptions to this. Only if we speak for music, the standard will improve for the better.

Do you both consciously listen to a lot of violin concerts? Who are your inspirations?

Yes, we do listen quite a bit. Having listened to stalwarts every day since we were children, they seem so familiar, we have always imagined them live. Our practice sessions were also tuned this way.

 

Our top favourite is Lalgudi Mama – his reflexes on stage and how he adapted to the singer while accompanying -- is the true identity of an accompanying artist.  MSG sir is also our favourite – we admire his technique, precision, and the way he handled vivadi ragas with absolute ease. Also, the pure tone and clarity of T.N.  Krishnan mama is soul stirring. We have also been greatly influenced by the music of  nagaswaram maestro T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai.

Our grandparents have always inspired us. Grandfather’s ideas were unique, specially his flow of thought in Tamil. He was mostly self-taught and was a genius. We make it a point to include at least one kriti of his in our kutcheris. When we worked on his compositions, it was a real eye opener for us. He has incorporated several good messages in his compositions; he has even demonstrated how to compose a kriti in one of them! Thatha used to compose for all of Paati’s Harikatha programmes. Thatha passed away in 2003 and we celebrated his centenary in 2017,  when with the help of my grandmother, we released a book of his 25 select compositions along with transliteration, translation and meanings.

Do you both also compose?

Sornalatha composes. She has composed a few kritis in Tamil and Telugu and a pada varnam in Tamil. Most of our pallavis are also composed by her. We all feel she has inherited Thatha’s genes!

You’ve accompanied many artists – with contrasting styles. How do you approach that?

Appa has always ingrained in us that the biggest challenge for an accompanist is to play exactly how the vocalist sings and the one who does that well is a true accompanist! When we are on stage, we have to reproduce what has been sung or played. As we get very involved in that process we manage to capture that feeling through our instrument!

Of course, this is not possible without rigorous practice. That’s where I think Appa’s unique practice method really helped. Since we were familiar with playing along with so many styles, it was a natural process for us to adapt to any style.

How do you keep yourself physically and mentally fit?

Actually that’s one thing that we have recently been thinking about. When we are taught to sing or play an instrument we are never taught to take care of our body --the vocal chords or our posture. Like in sports – both technique and physical fitness go hand-in-hand. I really wish we all had learnt yoga or some such form of exercise at a young age. Now we do yoga so we understand what is required to maintain physical fitness.

Concentration is another key aspect -- sometimes lack of concentration can lead to mistakes on stage. It is very important that we learn to move on during live performances and not mull over it. Overconfidence is another important aspect. When we get on stage there is always bhaya-bhakti; it is important to maintain that balance. With overconfidence you can lose that balance; our father has always helped us keep this under check. We have never heard him overly praise us for any concert! (laughs)

Where do you source your violins from? Are they very expensive?

Violins are very expensive, specially the vintage ones.  Some of our violins are very old, those which we have inherited from Thatha and we do have a few violins  gifted to us by our well wishers. In the last few years we have bought some violins from an artist who deals with vintage violins. Vintage violin is indeed a masterpiece -- be it the grains of the old maple wood, the resonating tone, and the workmanship… It is absolutely stunning! 

How do you service your violins?

There aren’t many skilled luthiers in India, who can service violins well. It would be nice as artists if we could learn certain technical intricacies. Our grandfather was extremely skillful and could repair any string instrument with ease. We regret not having learnt this art from him. Nevertheless, we would certainly like to posses this skill sometime in our lives. 

How has the pandemic affected you? Did you do anything special during this lockdown?

We did miss performing live, but we used this opportunity to dedicate a lot of time to practice. It has been a calm period, with no time constraints and deadlines, it felt like our childhood days of practice. We also love gardening and that’s a passion we seriously pursued during this lockdown.

We also worked on a special project suggested by Ganesh, a disciple of our grandfather. He had requested us to tune the Vaidyanatha Ashtakam. We were very happy to undertake the project. Sangamam was a nother project we worked on as a tribute to our grandfather and Lalgudi mama marking their 103rd and 90th birth anniversaries respectively. We did a medley of two compositions; one of each. In this project, Sornalatha even performed konakkol!  We started learning konakkol from mridangam vidwan K.U. Jayachandra Rao.

In both these projects, we did everything by ourselves -- from singing, playing, to recording, mixing the audio and video. It was a fulfilling experience both musically and technically. 

Another interesting project was Pookkaalam, a Malayalam poem, by Kumaran Asan. This was our first ever Malayalam single and we released it on the occasion of Onam.

These are among the many projects that we did during the lockdown period.

We would like to dedicate all our achievements to our parents, mother Janaghi who has been our pillar of strength and support, and father Swamynathan who still remains our best and worst critic. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Violin Maestro T.N.Krishnan passes away


Sruti deeply mourns the passing away of veteran violin vidwan T.N.Krishnan. T.N. Krishnan, a child prodigy, learnt his art from his father Tripunitura Narayana Iyer, a martinet of a teacher. Born on October 6, 1928 into an illustrious family of musicians acclaimed in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of Indian classical music,Krishnan’s talent was burnished by long association with the great vocal masters of the era. He was known for his ability to present the most complex nuances of Carnatic music with disarming simplicity, and his strong bowing technique that produced ringing clarity and purity of sound.