Friday, 22 January 2021

Revel in Glory with SIFF Young Artiste

India has been home to some of the finest artists in the fields of music, dance and theatre since time immemorial. With a rich heritage in the arts, it is no surprise that India is nothing short of a gold mine of exceptional talent. The Singhal Iyer family foundation (SIFF), a Bangalore based philanthropic organization that was set up with the singular purpose of providing young talents in India, a safe and healthy environment to hone their skills and evolve into the best versions of themselves. It seeks to bring about a common love and respect for the arts and cultivate it with the necessary resources to facilitate a seamless journey.

The seed for Young Artiste was sown decades ago, as the founders Kavita Iyer and Sandeep Singhal realised the significance of cultivating these art forms in children. The arts often tend to take a back seat often as per the academic curriculum. Even in institutes where the arts are taught, students are unable to pursue it further due to the lack of a structured training program. SIFF Young Artiste is a platform that was birthed to fill this gap, with emphasis on both classical and contemporary art forms.

SIFF Young Artiste 2020 is a national level talent hunt, providing scholarships to students between the ages of 11-18, to showcase their skills in the multiple genres of music and dance, ranging from classical to contemporary forms. Receiving over 12,000 entries, the talent hunt has proven to all that there is always a time and place for the arts to flourish, even in the middle of a pandemic! The finals for YA 2020 are set to take place in Summer 2021.

Dr. L Subramaniam, Violin Maestro and YA jury member and mentor says, “I am very happy to be a part of Young Artiste 2020, and to know that they have organised workshops in order to provide advanced facilities and educational opportunities to some of the most talented students whom they have selected. By undergoing this mentorship program, the students can learn several complex techniques, compositional forms, and interpretation, which are the building blocks of music. I wish all the students great luck!”

After several months of a rigorous selection process, SIFF Young Artiste 2020 announced 100 finalists and scholarship recipients who are currently undergoing the Young Artiste Advanced Mentorship Program (YAMP), a series of masterclasses, workshops, and collaborations among fellow young artists. The purpose of the mentorship program is to expose students to world-class maestros in their respective fields and provide them with the rigour and structure of any academic program. The students will be enabled to recognise and build on their strengths, learn advanced techniques and practice methodologies, while also addressing their shortcomings. At the end of the program, these students will come out with a deeper understanding of the discipline and focus required to pursue a career in the arts. The mentorship program, for a duration of nearly six months, will culminate in a grand finale performance in the summer of 2021.

An esteemed panel of judges for SIFF Young Artiste have been involved with YA 2020 from the very beginning and are currently leading the mentorship program for all 20 categories. Music and dance virtuosos such as L Subramaniam, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and Madhavi Mudgal have consented to mentor the participants. Additionally, experts in the field such as Rukmini Vijayakumar (Bharatanatyam), Anupama Bhagwat (Sitar/Sarod), Nikhita Gandhi (Indian & Western Vocal), Sagar Bora (Hip-Hop), among others, will be driving the category specific sessions. The finale, which will be a showcase of the exceptional talent recognized, will be hosted in accordance with the evolving COVID-19 situation and government guidelines issued at the time.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the landscape of performing arts and art education. Owing to the digital lifestyle, it is bound to have ramifications on how the arts are taught and absorbed by teachers and students alike. This holds particularly true for complex forms such as dance and instrumental music, as it is best served when the student and teacher share a physical space. According to the organizers, the mentorship program has been challenging to execute and yet the overwhelming response to this initiative has been extremely encouraging.

The arts play a vital role in shaping young minds. Whether or not a student of the arts goes on to becoming a performing or career artist, the exposure and discipline of learning the arts manifests itself in everything that one endeavours to do. Taking an institutionalised and rigorous approach to art education in India is still at its nascent stages. Often, the art is passed on from generation to generation within large artist families. While that makes India stand apart from the rest of the world, it also often means that many don’t get to discover their talent and channel it in a productive manner. With that in mind, SIFF is also poised to set up an online learning institution in 2021, which aims to provide young aspirants with a structured and focussed curriculum over seven to eight levels of proficiency. It hopes to be a haven for all aspiring young talents to discover, cultivate and give wings to their passion. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2021


 A life in nada

Rithvik Raja

Visiting Krishnan Mama was always a wonderful experience. Conversations at his home were laid back, with him recollecting many old memories and sharing invaluable stories from his travel and concerts. He took immense pride in how the past masters lived through music. He was constantly filled with nostalgia, and once shared a vivid and detailed account of how every station master would know when they were travelling in the first class compartment, and special hot water arrangements would be made for their bath followed by meals that were freshly prepared and served on banana leaves, all immaculately coordinated bet een stations. While he shared these poignant stories, they always had an important lesson in them, from which we could all learn.

His music was a culmination of all these experiences. Having played for so many great musicians, he followed intently and assimilated the best from all of them. He always mentioned Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, and called him the ideal musician. Having shared the stage with him from a very young age, he firmly believed that his principles are important and relevant even today to maintain the core classical values and learn the nuances of concert presentation and proportion. He instructed me to go listen to a specific recording of Ariyakudi effortlessly singing Ongi ulagalanda at an unusual gait, to understand how deceptively simple his music was, but how difficult it I  to sing like that. Needless to say, the kalpanaswaras that followed were a   lesson in Arabhi, with Krishnan Mama flowing along breezily.

Semmangudi Mama was held in highest regard, and Krishnan Mama considered it his blessing that he could learn under such a stalwart. He emphasised how much importance Semmangudi gave to pathantara, and how he instilled that discipline in all his disciples. Bhava laden raga delineations were the forte of both, and it is no wonder that they performed so many enthralling concerts together. I can recall, many years ago, when he began playing Surati during a concert, he stopped after a few initial phrases and explained where the Surati nishada should ideally be and how Semmangudi Mama taught him that. He even conceded how he didn’t quite get it right at the beginning. A few seconds later, he quipped “Ah, that’s where it is!” Such was his honesty and humility towards the art, which he always placed  above himself.

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 His heart commanded the fingers

Charumathi Raghuraman

Violin maestro Trippunithura Narayana Iyer Krishnan wasborn on 

6 October 1928 and passed away on 2 November 2020 in Chennai. 

It was providence that brought me into the wondrous and most cherished orbit of violin maestro T.N. Krishnan Sir. It happened exactly 25 years ago. I was a young girl, a novice violin student in Mumbai. At the suggestion of a close family friend, my mother and I proceeded to meet TNK Sir at NCPA, where he had a visiting professorship. I was too young and clueless to realise that, at that very moment, I had found the purpose in my life as a violinist.

Upon entering NCPA’s campus, we were taken to Sir’s workshop where I walked into a room brimming with eager eyes and ears, all tuned to a welcoming soft face and a distinguished aura. I was one among many, but his charisma was disarming and personalised to every single person. The violin sat on him like the perfect head jewel of a crown.

Then, like a true Zen master, he wielded the instrument that served his every command and musical gesture. There was no microphone or any other artificial enhancement, just the simple acoustic violin which filled the room at the NCPA and my heart. The sound was complete as its own entity. The richness of the tone, the purity of the bowing, the sway and lilt of the melody and many more magical qualities I was unqualified to know at that time, became imprinted in my mind on that very first encounter with Sir and the violin.

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Monday, 11 January 2021

The Voice of Our Heart: Tribute to S.P. Balasubrahmanyam

It was some years ago that I received a call asking me to be a part of a special concert. I was being asked to play with the legendary ‘SPB’, and I was further told that he wanted these segments to be just with me and no other accompanist on stage.  I grew up in an era where SPB was perhaps the only singer on every song I loved (with maestro Ilayaraaja being the composer of nearly all of them).  For the years that followed, I became a part of his ‘posse’, a dedicated fan group of the person that he was, in addition to the superlative vocalist and performer that he was.  And I will say that to know SPB is to become a part of this privileged group that knows of his extraordinary kindness, sense of humour and ability to inspire joy wherever he went. To be a good musician is to be a keen listener to life, he was to remark on many an occasion. And I saw him living it. He was generous to a fault, and an avid participant in the business of life – negotiating tumult and greatness with grace and agility.

In being asked to write about his musical legacy, it is difficult to know where to begin. I find analysis very tough when it comes to singers as prolific as he was (he has recorded nearly 43,000 songs across languages and genres!) as adjectives do not do justice, language often struggling to encompass what can only be transmitted musically. A turn of phrase, a tremor especially affected for a phrase,  a bass quiver – and you know that your life is changed forever due to that particular rendition, the gravity and depth he confers that particular moment in a narrative. In India, we tend to turn any retrospective into a hagiography, and I know I am already in that zone.

SPB was transcendental in a way few singers were, but knowing him was also loving his approach to music. He saw it as a part of a whole, as his ‘karma’ towards a greater ‘seva’ to humanity, retreating behind his composers and his music directors rather than enjoy the shine.  I feel that it is this quality that endeared him to most of us. We would be discussing Nanda en nila and he would sit like a schoolboy, his face in a reverential trance as he transformed into a young Balu singing for the late, legendary Dakshinamoorthy Sir. He would discuss Kamban emandhan and get palpably excited when discussing MSV and that odd note (the end of the second line is on a different gandharam). He was least aware of the effect he was having on all of us around him, listening in rapt attention as also his vocal acrobatics in providing, on the spot, three or four different sangatis on the same line, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

So in deciding to write this, I thought I would use five songs of his (I am thrilled to say that I have played these songs with him on stage and on television), as it helps me with the framework for analysis.  Each of these songs also varies by genre, stories they fit into and different stages of his musical trajectory. Each of these selections also reflects a different use for the voice, and I believe there is much to be gleaned from observing them carefully.

For instance, in Teertha Karaiyinile (1980, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, MS Viswanathan) It is the gentle and melancholic ballad that is given prime importance. Bharatiyar’s immortal poetry is used to reflect a protagonist pining for a love that is now irredeemably lost, a song of nostalgic pain and hurt. MSV chooses to characterise this with just the voice and a gentle guitar backing, leaving the former to do most of the heavy lifting. And it does with SPB’s muted and controlled emotion, laying emphasis on the words, their enunciation and that tremendous irony in the lyric. In fact, when the song reaches its end the line Nanoruvan mattilum pirivenbadhor naraga tuzhaluvadho (“When it is only me suffering this separation, it is like being tossed into hell”), the ‘holding back’ that he has done in the previous lines suddenly suffuses into a free-flow of emotional release, and he lingers, mid-phrase – to let the listener empathise with the narrative. It breaks the heart, and makes Bharatiyar’s own tribulations well up and coax the tears out of each of us.  

In Enakku oru kadhali (1976, Muthaana Muthallavo) we see the serenade, beautifully essayed on screen by Vijayakumar and ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan. With a piano and a violin to keep them company, MSV and SPB (a rare combination for singing) take us through a sweet paean to romance. SPB masters this form once again, and the use of his voice to sculpt the beautiful end-phrase of the pallavi is among the masterpieces in film music literature. The violin mimics the voice, and the voice the violin in a pas-de-deux between these two melodic strains, and SPB offers up sangatis that are as evocative as they are wondrous.

I had asked SPB about that turn of phrase and how he decided to craft it that particular way, to which he retreated, in his characteristic style, to the superlative vision of MSV. He went on to remark that MSV made him practice that phrase multiple times, and was quite strict about it. We shall now never know what actually transpired, but we have this delightful melody to savour.

In rendering the classical, such as in Manasa sancharare, Sankarabharanamu or Dorakkuna, I have often been told by purists that this would not pass muster in a classical concert. The heaviness of SPB’s bass notes, and the relative lightness in the uccha sthayis are not desirable, I would be told. But we must remember that these were rendered for film. Indeed, in Naa jeevadhara in Thyagayya (1981, Telugu, KV Mahadevan), the architectonics of the first and second sangatis of the pallavi line are so redolent of the Lalgudi style of rendition. When I referred to this in conversation, he replied that the Lalgudi rendition was his gold standard to practice this, and he ended the comment by his usual self-effacing apology when it comes to the classical. “Unlike you all, I am not classically trained”, he would often remark.  I often wonder if humility is the true hallmark of greatness, because if so, SPB was a great testament to that notion. Purists’ opinion aside, SPB displayed tremendous reverence for the classical, often referring to the late M. Balamuralikrishna and often his ‘Anna’, K J Yesudas as his exemplars and teachers.  

The narrative is important, as is the narrator, he once said: The story is paramount, and all craftspeople in service of that story, he would add. He would become the ‘voice’ of the protagonist, and his rendition the storyline. It was a different era to grow up in music, and he took his cues from the innumerable music directors he worked for across the country. These were times when as a highly sought after performer, he would record four to five songs in a day! To think that he would still take the time to sit down and listen to the story, to the implicit directions of his composers, and become the character is tough to believe in a digital era where singer-celebrities often eclipse the context they represent.

And yet the SPB I knew was not a man who placed undue emphasis on ‘voice management’ or ‘silences before concerts’.  He would be joking in the greenroom, regaling us with some story or the other, and be a perfect marvel minutes later when curtains opened. And he would be able to hold the stage for hours afterwards, getting better with the passing hours!  He loved his food, his indulgences and his life, it would always seem.

In rambunctious melodies such as Ram bam bam (Singaravelan, 1992, Ilayaraaja) or Margo Margo (1990, Vetri Vizha, Ilayaraaja) we see an SPB who is having a whale of a time, imbibing the verve and pizzazz of the great Western pop ballad and swingtime singers, inflecting little phrases of excitement (the ‘ha’s’ and ‘hoo’s’ make those songs!), and he somehow made even these genres his own. To misquote the famous song, “it got that swing so it does mean a thing”). He manages steady doo-wop style passages (one a clock, two a clock three o clock kan muzhichu) with steady energy. He has often mentioned Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong in conversations and speeches, and it is easy to see how listening to these masters would have influenced his oeuvre.

But it is perhaps in the lyrical nocturne that SPB becomes an indelible part of our lives. In Nilave Vaa and Kanmaniye kadhal enbadhu and countless others, SPB carries the romance in his phrasing, imbuing phrases with so much tenderness that the listener picturises themselves in the narrative.

The relegation to the self towards serving others, reverence to one’s teachers and colleagues, taking it ‘easy’ and taking things in one’s stride, to be an avid listener and above all, to be compassionate – my list can go on. These are lessons for all of us.

These are the songs of our lives, and these are the melodies of our own youth and romances. In his passing, I do not believe that we have lost a great singer. I believe we have lost the soundtracks to our lives.

ANIL SRINIVASAN is a well-known pianist and respected music educator. He has also worked closely with the late SPB.

Friday, 8 January 2021

NISHA AND VASUNDHRA RAJAGOPALAN Musicians and multipotentialities

 By Lavanya Narayanan

Vocalist Nisha Rajagopalan stands in her kitchen over a pot of simmering Akkaravadisal. It’s her paati’s signature recipe, and amidst the screams and laughs of her children, six-year-old Vidyuth and 16-month-old Kavya, she calls mother Vasundhra in a frenzy to verify that this is actually what it’s supposed to look (and taste) like.

They are adding to the cooking blog, A Pinch of Turmeric, that began as Vasundhra’s aid to daughter Nisha and her two sisters, Deepa and Divya, as they attempted to recreate podis, masalas for their own households. A passion project that took roots as early as May 2019, it became a full-time venture during the lockdown, in light of the Corona virus pandemic that seems to have usurped 2020 and the Margazhi season as well.

Now, Nisha is what mom Vasundhra jokingly calls “tech support”.

“I don’t understand technology at all, so since the beginning, Nisha has been in charge of the website, the formatting, everything. And now, we’ve begun a YouTube channel for it, which she is taking charge of. So a huge thank you to her,” she chuckles. Ask Nisha, and she’s just grateful for the abundance of recipes that have come to her aid and satiated her taste buds.

The blog is just the tip of the iceberg for the mother-daughter duo that share much more than a love of indigenous cooking. Both Carnatic vocalists, an unexpected and rather-delayed love for the arts took hold in the 1960s when, at the age of 16, mother Vasundhra began learning vocal music from Delhi-based vidwan Gopal Iyer. A dream that seemed short-lived at the time, marriage whisked her away to Toronto, Canada, a mere six years later and, occupied with a full-time corporate job, her passion transformed into classes, annual Tyagaraja festivals, and the one-off concert in a city barren of Indian classical arts at the time. 

“Because I had just had around five years of exposure to Carnatic music in India itself, I hardly considered it a career option. It was just something I was passionate about and wanted to share with others, especially with our communities in Toronto and Ottawa,” says Vasundhra.

Hands full with a life abroad and raising her daughters, the family journeyed to the popular Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh, PA occasionally, often when visiting artists presented concerts or a festival was being held. It was on one such occasion that they chanced upon a concert by vidwan T.R. Subramanyam (TRS) who Vasundhra happened to know during her time in Delhi, all those years ago.

“He was thrilled to see me, as I was him! As it turned out, he was spending that summer in Pittsburgh, teaching music and running a summer programme,” she adds.

The next day, Vasundhra went to meet him, taking young Nisha, only 10 years-old at the time, along with her. TRS prodded her to sing and she did: she remembers the incident vividly.

“It was Siddhi Vinayakam in Mohanakalyani – Amma had taught it to me,” she smiles fondly. The rendition immediately caught the vidwan’s attention and he had only one piece of advice that he shared with Vasundhra, almost instantly: “Move back to India if you want to have Nisha make it in music”. 

Of  course, it would be a few more years before that move materialised. While Nisha spent her weekends that year attending the summer music camp along with Vasundhra, the family visited Delhi just a year later for more intensive training. It was then that a surprise cancellation in a temple saw Nisha present her very first concert: it was a 45-minute-slot that would trigger a life-altering decision.

“I hadn’t realised the importance of music when I was growing up and honestly, I didn’t want Nisha to have the same regrets I did. So I spoke to my husband and we decided to follow our instincts: we moved back,” Vasundhra says.

Whether or not Nisha would pursue music as a full-time career was yet-to-be-seen, but with the ball rolling, the family packed their bags in 1992 and headed back. They went first to Delhi and, under the guidance of guru TRS, continued to learn from him before journeying and finally settling down in Chennai in 1995. 

Adjustment, of course, is never immediate, and it was far from it in Nisha’s case: plagued with a slight foreign accent and placed in a new environment, immersing herself in both music and its new social strata took time. Despite having led what most people would consider an ‘Indian lifestyle’ in Toronto, the new environment posed a host of challenges. Continuing under the tutelage of guru TRS, she began to grow and evolve as a musician. 

Comfort, however, gradually came calling in the form of additional gurus P.S. Narayanaswamy and Suguna Varadachari, who both Nisha and Vasundhra began to learn from whilst in Chennai, supplementing classes during guru TRS’ short Chennai visits. Guided by the intricacies and nuances of each guru, Nisha blossomed. This novel phase even allowed her to begin to perform, compete, and get involved with the popular youth-led organisation, Youth Association for Classical Music (YACM).

“That was when I really began interacting with musicians my age and got involved,” she tells us. Juggling education as an engineering student and what evolved into a full-time performing schedule as an artist, a seemingly well-timed hiring slump gave Nisha the time to pursue music full-time before, three years later, she was bitten by the ‘work bug’.

“I started wondering what a corporate career would be like, for some reason,” she laughs. She joined the HR department of Flextronics, beginning what would be an incredibly hectic phase as she balanced corporate culture and performance pressure alongside mother Vasundhra’s balancing act of her own.

The stint lasted for two years before finally, Nisha was exhausted. Something had to give and somewhere, she knew what that ‘something’ would be. 

“One day, I was sitting at Nandanam signal, stuck in traffic – as always – and I called Amma and said ‘Amma, I’m quitting my job’. Her only question to me was ‘What took you so long?’ ” They both laugh heartily. Not an ‘aha’ moment, they say, but one that Vasundhra could more than relate to: it’s how she felt when she quit her own job at a prolific multinational firm in India after returning.

“I was working steadily but one day I asked myself: Didn’t I return to India for the sake of music, for me and my daughter? So why was I distracted? That clarity, it seems, was all I needed,” Vasundhra shares. 

It’s been over a decade since that paramount shift and the ladies have only gotten busier with time. They tell us that in the busiest of Margazhi seasons, they will practically not see each other, often occupied with their own concert activities and schedules. 

Strangely, it seems, the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic has been its own blessing in disguise. A forced lockdown means a lack of concert flurry – now, Nisha is able to see mom Vasundhra and dad Raju (alias Rajagopalan) weekly and despite having her hands full with her young toddlers, the two stay intimately connected through their love of food, music, and A Pinch of Turmeric, a venture that has now grown far beyond their initial humble dreams. 

In actuality, it’s far from ‘just a blog’. When Vasundhra’s ‘vaasana podi’, a powder used for organic baths for Nisha’s daughter Kavya, went live on the internet, it attracted the attention of someone who would become her first customer. At her behest, she began to sell it commercially, creating an e-commerce platform that sells homemade, indigenous soaps, herbal powders, and the like as close as in Chennai and even as far as America by way of courier services. 

Despite the almost instantaneous success, Vasundhra decided this was not a venture she wanted to capitalise on for profit. “I never intended to make money of   this -- my focus was simply to share our rare, home recipes with a larger audience.” Instead, she reached out to her network of peers and after intensive research, decided to partner with an NGO, Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust, located in Kolattur, Chennai. The organisation services 110 rescue children, all with special needs, and through her profits as well as special weekly music classes that Vasundhra has taken up for the children, a beautiful relationship has blossomed.

Of course, the never-ending pandemic has thrown up challenges of its own: shipping products abroad is a tall order, what with the multiple restrictions that have been imposed. But the mother-daughter duo continues to serve their local apartment communities, many of whom have ramped up their purchases, hoping to boost their own immunities in the wake of this deadly virus. 

It has also given the ladies a chance to develop the blog into a YouTube channel, one that continues to grow as Vasundhra now attempts recipes that reach outside the realm of ‘native foods’. For instance, her repertoire has grown: products like ‘tofu’, which have been harder to acquire in the market due to lack of supply, are being made in-house, allowing both Vasundhra and Nisha to continue to innovate and avoid the recipe and food fatigue that seems to plague other households as they attempt to innovate with what they have on-hand.  

Listening to the tale of the blog begs the question: What time is left for music? Especially when concerts are virtual and the hustle, bustle, and demands of the live festival season are absent this year, one would imagine that complacency sets in. But if anything, it seems the opposite is taking place.

“When we listen to these new, young singers nowadays, they all seem so talented, so equipped. There is a technical understanding and prowess that I definitely didn’t have at that age – it’s unbelievably inspiring,” Vasundhra says.

“Definitely. I think the access to material and resources has helped that; the wealth of concerts and knowledge available on the internet now is immense, and young artists are really taking advantage of that! It’s extremely praiseworthy, all the things they are able to do and constantly present,” Nisha adds. 

Ask the ladies what they personally prefer, tradition or innovation, though the answers might shock you ever-so-slightly! While Nisha is more comfortable in the realm of a conventional concert, Vasundhra presents the newer ‘katha kutcheri’ in which storytelling is juxtaposed with kritis to tell a compelling tale, often one taken from mythology or religious texts. 

“The speaking bits can still get me and nowadays, there is an increasing demand to speak on stage, even just to describe the piece you are presenting! I think the audience has become more aware, more knowledgeable even, of what they are listening to and well, I still have those slip-ups when it comes to telling stories, especially in sentamizh, on stage,” Nisha admits while Vasundhra laughs in the background.

So much, it seems, has changed since the days of Toronto, corporate life, and even the family’s heydays in music. There is a settled comfort in the music scene and its community now, one that the ladies have sought solace in during this trying time. A product of the evolving dynamic that surrounds them? Seems so. 

And yet, in some ways, they say it seems like nothing has changed at all. As they speak about those initial struggles, juggling schedules, gulping mouthfuls of ‘thayir satham’ between paatu classes and work shifts in a rapid, almost blink-and-miss-pace, there is a sense of heartwarming nostalgia. It’s one that reveals what the secret of this mother-daughter duo really is -- the tight-knit camaraderie that, if one didn’t know better, would suggest that they were sisters, best friends, or both. 

Entwined by music and food equally, enshrined in the throes of family loyalty and love, it stands testament to what the two have built in these multiple decades and to the years of both that lie ahead, waiting.