S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Pantula Rama and friends

By MV Swaroop

There is a certain dignity about Pantula Rama - her sarees and jewellery are always easy on the eye, there are hardly any facial contortions when she sings, and the controlled ease with which her music flows hides its virtuosity. Take the Kuntalavarali raga alapana she sang yesterday at Mudhra, for instance. The raga is rarely elaborated, but she showed that by according the same respect you would a Todi or a Sankarabharanam, you could coax a startling variety of sangati-s from it.

A friend who came for the concert with me asked, "She sings so well, and the hall is only half-full?"

When a musician approaches a kriti with fifteen charana-s sung in the same tune, two temptations can show up - first, to omit some charana-s and sing, say, only five or six; and the second, to decorate each charana with an avalanche of ornate sangati-s. Rama's student, Ranjani Sivakumar, at the hard-to-locate Karpagam Gardens Vinayaka Temple, avoided both temptations. She sang all the charana-s of Tyagaraja's Rama Rama in Huseni, and she sang all of them with measured minimalism - one of two flourishes, a small touch here, a teasing variation there, a pause, a line of silence - letting Tyagaraja's lyrics, their anguished devotion and swaying rhyme, take centre stage. Nothing flashy, nothing flamboyant. The effect was mesmerising.

Vijay Siva, at Vani Mahal, paused for a few seconds after the tani avartanam, and sang two phrases dripping Khamas. They were so obviously Khamas that the hall was filled with an air of joyful recognition. No need to take out our little raga books, the audience seemed to say.

But the mama and mami behind me were slightly off the pulse.
"Kapi!" the mama declared.
Kadavule, how!? I thought.
"Che, che," the mami said, "This is not Kapi."
Thank Heavens, the right answer is...
"This is Sindhubhairavi," the mami said, rather unsurely.
Oh, come on mami. You can do better than that, surely.

The mama vehemently disagreed and proceeded to demonstrate Sindhubhairavi for the mami. He sang just like Ariyakudi. If Ariyakudi were alive today, and 111 years old, and still singing.

The mami declared, "See! There's no connection between this and Sindhubhairavi!" After a moment's contemplation, "This must be Behag," she said.

The mama hummed Adum Chidambaramo, and said, "Hmmmm. But Behag also sounds slightly different. Yamankalyani-yo?" They launched into a tour-de-force of Yamankalyani in a sruti alien to Vijay Siva's.

Vijay Siva, at this point, was reeling off sangati after sangati, but I could hear only this couple's alleged Yamankalyani in my ear.
I had enough. I turned around and said, "Mama, this is Khamas." I turned back, pleased with myself, to Embar Kannan's reply.

The mami said, after careful consideration, "The boy is right. This is Khamas." And started off again, "O chaturaananaadi vandita..."

A famous thinker, I can't remember who, said that intellectuals are the most sorry lot, because they cannot enjoy anything without thinking about it. My Carnatic training perhaps comes in the way of my enjoying music as music. When someone asks me why I liked a particular rendition, my answer is usually shrouded in swara-s and phrases and tadiginatom-s. So, when the editor of this blog told me to tone rhapsodising on the nishada-s and sangati-s, I found myself unable to write reviews.

I cannot help it - the technical side of music, for me, is not divorced from my enjoyment of it. And when I sit down to write about Pantula Rama's Chintamani swaraprastara, my mind says, "I loved the fact that she descended four different times in four different ways, and each of them was still Chintamani and nothing else. I loved the fact that she didn't feel the need to sing a second kalam at all, and what a first kalam that was!"

Jim Emerson, the film critic, recently wrote (http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2011/11/it_aint_the_meat_its_the_motio.html):

"One wants very much to talk about what makes Tolstoy uniquely Tolstoy and Renoir uniquely Renoir -- and that's their technique, their vision -- not just their stories or their themes. You can't "distinguish form and content for the purposes of analysis," because (as we all know) the form is the content, and what the artist has done is how the artist did it. You can't perceive the whole without taking notice of the specifics, any more than you can absorb a novel without reading the words or see a movie without looking at the images."

Dear Swaroop,
The fact I published this, including Jim Emerson’s views, does not mean I agree with you. - Editor.


  1. I know you don't agree. I wanted to write this only to start some kind of debate.

  2. Chanced upon this during some random google search.
    Swaroop, testify. I couldn't agree more! Reminds me of this thing I heard from a Physics prof many years ago about how a famous astrophysicist (can't remember who) once said that all the equations he drew up describing the behavior of stars - treating them as just big blobs of gas - didn't make them any less pretty :)

  3. Chaned upon this as well. Curious to know which part did the editor not agree with?!