Song of Surrender

Monday, 30 April 2012

Pied piper

By Vivadi

The call of the waves, the twittering of homebound birds, sea breeze scattering neem flowers, agal vilakkus twinkling at the stars, a platform under the banyan tree... What an enchanting setting for enthralling music!

There were many things the Oli team was worried about when we fixed Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman’s nagaswaram concert at Spaces in Besant Nagar. Will there be an audience for a nagaswaram concert at a venue unfamiliar to Carnatic music audiences? Will there be too much noise from a Saturday evening crowd at the beach? What about the mosquitoes? But half an hour into the concert, when a contoured, booming mandara sthayi nishadam in Bhairavi reverberated around the garden, our doubts became irrelevant. Here was a maestro, in complete control of his art, exploring the heaviest of ragas as delicately and unhurriedly as duskfall, to an intimate, knowing audience.

Nagaswaram concerts without microphones are not novel, for the instrument was designed to be performed in the open air as part of moving processions, but surprisingly, Kothandaraman admitted at the end of his concert that it had been a while since he had played without any amplification. “There are microphones at weddings also these days, you know... It took me a few minutes to adjust to this setting,” he said.

The lack of amplification brought its own special effects. When the nagaswaram is pointed at you, it is significantly louder than when it is pointed away from you. Also, when Kothandaraman raised it off the ground and held it aloft, it did look and sound as if he was calling out to someone in the skies. And when he rotated it in a vertical circle, mirroring the phrase he played, the sound seemed to travel in that circle, passing you for a brief moment before visiting the others in the audience!

The two main raga alapanas of the evening, Bhairavi and Nattakurinji, revealed the fact that Kothandaraman doesn’t explore ragas through ascending and landing swaras; he explores them around sangati-s. He tosses off a phrase, and then he waits for it to sink in - not just into the audience, but into himself. He then builds another one around the first, pauses again, the pause slightly shorter than the first, and follows it up with another variation of the same theme. Then comes another flourish, and another, and another, in quick succession. He throws a volley of sangati-s coiling around one another until they come back to where they first started. Then he takes a break to adjust his seevali, Kongampattu Murugayyan fills this gap with some swinging tavil rhythms. Kothandaraman signals his readiness with the next phrase to explore.

After he explored Bhairavi in this manner, one grand sangati after another, he launched into Syama Sastri’s magnum opus, the Kamakshi swarajati. The swara and sahitya, each sounding distinct from the other, were peppered with the most authentic Bhairavi inflections and accents - one glide from the panchamam to the shadjam during the penultimate swara-sahityam drew a collective sigh from the entire audience. We were no longer in Besant Nagar under a sidelit banyan tree; we were in Kanchi and Kamakshi was listening to the leisurely, majestic swarajati sitting amidst us.

The Nattakurinji raga alapana, ending in a crescendo, with Kothandaraman and Anandan (on the accompanying nagaswaram) trading whirlwind phrases in rapid succession, was followed by a rare display of tanam on the instrument accompanied by the tavil, followed by an uncomplicated pallavi highlighting the raga’s inherent symmetries. The energy of the concert was held aloft through Murugayyan and Sethuramam’s tani avartanam, with complex patterns rolling off Murugayyan’s fingers with consummate ease. The tani avartanam might just have been a little lengthy for a two-hour performance, but that was a small excess in what was a remarkable evening.

As Gowri said in her thank you speech, we hope to hear Kothandaraman play Nilambari the next time!

The programme

Mallari - Gambhiranattai – Misra Triputa
Marugelara - Jayantasri - Adi - Tyagaraja
Kamakshi - Bhairavi - Misrachapu - Syama Sastry
Himagiritanaye - Suddha Dhanyasi - Adi - Harikesanallur Mutthiah Bhagavatar
Ragam-Taanam-Pallavi - Nattakurunji - Adi
Arabhimanam - Ragamalika - Adi - Tarangambadi Panchanada Iyer

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