Song of Surrender

Monday, 2 January 2012

Words of wisdom from Semmangudi (part 1)

By Gowri Ramnarayan
(Semmangudi spoke to Gowri Ramnarayan a few years ago)
Before the 1930s, musicians performed before small groups of 200 to 300 listeners. The microphone brought about a revolution. The singer did not have to develop a voice of full-throated resonance any more. Thousands could hear his murmurs and croons. But amplification has been at the cost of tonal clarity, as also of depth, weight and vocal power. The mridangam is a victim too. Restraint robs it of natural force and lucidity. This new style of music may please the ear, but cannot haunt the mind.
The amplifier’s feedback can be a hindrance on the stage. So it is for listeners assaulted by the gigantic speakers in the hall that convert music into noise. The distortions can be minimised by placing small speakers at regular intervals to project more even sound. The bell-shaped speakers of the early days, placed above the pandal, were far better than the models we have now.
Once Budalur Krishnamurti Sastrigal and I sat on the bridge across the Kaveri in Tiruvaiyaru to see how well we could hear the flute recital of Palladam Sanjiva Rao at the high school venue nearby. Sanjiva Rao’s lengthy mandara phrases were nectar from heaven. Mandara sthayi has gone out of vogue. We have neither the vocal strength nor the taste for it any more.
Carnatic music was nourished by the nagaswaram tradition. As a child I followed the pipers through the four streets around the temple in the procession of the deities. Now and then the pipers stopped and elaborated a raga. The crowds thronged to worship as well as to listen to the music. The brothers Kiranur, Tiruppamburam, Tiruvizhi-mizhalai... Mannargudi Chinnapakkiri, Chidambaram Vaidyanatha Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Viruchami Pillai... they were giants. That kind of expansive, contemplative music has vanished. I can still hear their morning ragas - Kedaram, Bilahari, Saveri, Dhanyasi, Nattakurinji - as the deity was taken to the riverside mandapam for the tirthavari ritual, and the evening strains as he rode the silver chariot back to the sanctum. Today the children of those pipers have exchanged their family art for office jobs.
Present-day singers have developed a better voice culture than in our times. They have also developed better sruti alignment. Of course many of them are inaudible without the mike.
The growth of music depends as much on the listeners as upon the artists. Nowadays people do not have the time or the temperament to savour four- to-five-hour-long concerts. But they know much more theory, which makes them formidable. It is very difficult to satisfy them. What a contrast to the old-timers who often identified Kambhoji not by name but as the ‘Sri Subrahmanyaya namaste raga’! Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar not only gave us the concert format we follow now, but also popularised many ragas and a variety of kritis in them.
The old listeners had patience and discipline. When an organiser found someone gossiping in my concert, he literally dragged him by the ear and threw him out of the hall. Once when I found some Mylapore advocates chatting in the last row I asked them: “Would you let me talk in your courtroom?” At the least sign of inattention my guru, Sakharama Rao, would simply pick up his gottuvadyam and stage a walk-out. He did not tolerate any insult to the art he worshipped.
Today performers not only tolerate indiscipline, they also rely more on the razzle-dazzle of virtuosic skills, which do not permit depth. But listeners have been trained to appreciate ragas sung in ways difficult to identify or understand. This trend is lauded as clever. People have come to believe that real enjoyment comes from what they do not understand. They crave for ragas “new” and “rare”, but so limited that there is no doing anything with them except racing up and down the scale.
A regrettable modern tendency is to burst into applause for every little thing. This creates the illusion that the success of a concert is to be gauged by the volume and frequency of the applause. Determined performers work towards a crescendo of superfast swaras tagged with the “tadinginatom” - in other words, arranging swaras to imitate drumbeats. Laya wizard Dakshinamurti Pillai would exclaim even in those days: “Leave drumming to us! Sing from the soul!” But from Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai to the Alathur Brothers there were those who indulged in fireworks. Today this has become the rule rather than the exception. The music and the applause are equally mechanical. Once in Bangalore, when violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and I traded kalpanaswaras in fast and slow speeds, stimulating each other to plunge more and more into Anandabhairavi, finding poruttams each more beautiful than the one before - there was no need for any climax of calculated rhythms. And the hall was filled with an exhilaration beyond thoughts of applause. My friend and contemporary the late Musiri Subramanya Iyer used to be so lost in bhava that he never thought of evoking any response.

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