Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Vijay Siva and Venkatesh Kumar stand tall

By V Ramnarayan

Two vocal concerts stood out amidst the more satisfactory performances of this season: Vijay Siva’s and Venkatesh Kumar’s, both at the Music Academy. Both seemed to transcend performance to achieve intense focus, precision and raga bhava. To listen to each of them on the day, especially to Vijay Siva, was to witness a yogi in action, totally immersed in his art.

On 17 December, Vijay Siva surpassed the expectations of an audience used to his consistency, with a powerful demonstration of the strides he has made over the decades in strengthening and polishing his naturally high-pitched voice. A noticeable aspect of his vocalisation that evening was his deliberately sustained occupation of the lower registers in niraval that added a new, poignant dimension to his manodharma forays. No less emotive, however, was the impact of his tara sthayi explorations.

The highlights of the concert were a majestic delineation of the Yadukula Kambhoji masterpiece among the Syama Sastry swarajati trilogy and a nuanced rendering of ragam-tanam-pallavi in Charukesi (Padamenru nambinen amma Uma ninadu pankaya).

Each of the other pieces in the concert was a gem—the Hamsadhwani varnam, Orajupu (Tyagaraja) in Kannadagaula, Sri Sundararajam bhaje (Muthuswami Dikshitar) in Kasi Ramakriya, Seetamma Mayamma (Tyagaraja) in Vasanta, Sri Kamalambayam (Muthuswami Dikshitar) in Bhairavi, Kanden kali teernden (Gopalakrishna Bharati) in Kalyani, to name a few, not to mention the ragamalikas (within the ragam-tanam-pallavi as well as afterwards).

Vijay Siva’s concert was a truly emotional experience for those who came expecting to be saturated with the rakti of ragas flawlessly executed by a devotee of chaste Carnatic music. Predictably the consummate accompanying artiste in RK Shriramkumar proved an empathetic and imaginative foil on the violin, while J Vaidhyanathan (mridangam) and Alathur Raja Ganesh (khanjira) gave percussion support of a high order, never loud or brash, but offering subtle rhythmic embellishment at every stage of the concert.

Vijay Siva’s concert was the climax of a satisfying day of music at the Academy, when the youthful team of debutant Bhavana Iyer (vocal), Kaushik Sivaramakrishnan (violin) and Ranjani Venkatesh (mridangam) had made a promising beginning and Sumitra Vasudev (vocal) had continued the good work, accompanied by Padma Shankar (violin), B Sivaraman (mridangam) and Trivandrum D. Rajagopal (khanjira), impressing the knowledgeable among the audience with her brilliant Ramapriya ragam-tanam-pallavi in the tala Ragavardhanam.

Venkatesh Kumar, a disciple of Puttaraj Gawai—a blind musician who rehabilitated many disabled children and adults through music (Sruti)—and one of numerous sterling vocalists from the Dharwar region owing allegiance to the Gwalior and Kirana gharanas, has been a Chennai favourite among Hindustani musicians visiting the city for some years now. His powerful voice in a style of vocalisation so reminiscent of Bhimsen Joshi was heard in full flow on the last night of 2012 at the Academy, unhampered by what seemed a severe attack of cough and cold.

The concert more than lived up to the artist’s reputation until overzealous listeners started shouting their choice of ragas and made him sing Shankara, clearly not a raga that he had planned to purvey that evening, and therefore pedestrian in comparison to his earlier efforts.

Thankfully, Venkatesh Kumar had been in magnificent form till then offering ragas less often heard on the Chennai concert stage from visiting Hindustani musicians—Maru Behag and Durga were both enchanting in the delicious irony of their lilting beauty in Kumar’s stentorian voice, so well modulated and sruti-perfect in their execution.

Kausi Kanada followed, a representative of an aesthetics relatively rare in Carnatic music: a jod raga, a combination of two ragas. This pairing of Darbari Kanada and Malkauns had the audience guessing, but not for long because the contours of both component ragas were so pellucidly sketched, so that even if you did not know the name of the jod raga, you had little trouble guessing its origins. Venkatesh Kumar was at his expansive best while depicting this raga, elevating the audience to a higher plane as it were. Even to an ear untrained in the exotic qualities of twin ragas—which can deny you the unalloyed joy of soaking in any one raga—the marriage sounded perfect.

A couple of years ago, when some Hindustani music enthusiasts approached Venkatesh Kumar with a request to perform at Chennai, his immediate response was: “Main kumse kum char ghante gaoonga (I’ll sing for at least four hours)!” On 31 December 2012, he seemed to labour under the misapprehension that he had to wind up his concert in under 90 minutes, until a representative of the Academy assured him that he could go on till 9.30 pm. Perhaps but for this faux pas on his own part and the mindless request for Shankara which might have upset his own plans, the Dharwar veteran would have scaled greater heights than he did. It was nevertheless an outstanding performance that gladdened the hearts of the audience at New Year’s Eve, with an exhibition of voice control and projection rarely matched in the season.

Other delights of the season included the heady mix of hot-and-sour, sweet-and-spicy Andhra music offered by the Hyderabad Brother (oops, that should have been Brothers). It was a stunning waterfall of ragas that the duo rained on the Academy on the evening of 16 December, a wide range that included Dhanyasi, Kalyani, Sama, Saveri, Bhairavi, Mohanam, Hindolam and so on. Eccentric asides to the accompanists, excruciating physical contortions, complete dominance of one brother over the other who was reduced to a mere spectator for nearly half the duration of the concert—none of these seemed to matter to the section of the audience that stayed till the very end to savour the magic of Raghavachari and Seshachari’s music, with the exquisite, often unexpected phrasing of their extraordinary raga essays. The Saveri ragam-tanam-pallavi must rank among the best of the season, with the rhythmic excellence of the pallavi equalling the poetry of the alapana and tanam segments. The unsolved mystery was: How can the Carnatic music stage offer music of such rare beauty in the midst of such scant regard for form and decorum?

The Malladi Brothers gave one of their better displays in recent years at the Academy, with a solid Kambhoji (Sri Raghuvara, Tyagaraja) the centrepiece of a chaste, clearly vocalised concert where the ragabhava was king throughout. The opening salvos in Tulasi jagajjanani (Saveri, Tyagaraja) and Anandeswarena samrakshitoham (Ananda Bhairavi, Syama Sastry) followed by a lovely Himagirikumari Eswari (Muthuswami Dikshitar) set the tone for a crisp, often moving demonstration of the Pinakapani bani, a style that has won the brothers a steadily growing fan base.

The ragam-tanam-pallavi in Gaurimanohari was immaculately executed with the lyrics of the pallavi paying homage to the Trinity in the ragas of Tyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis, Dikshitar’s pancha bhootalinga sthala compositions and Syama Sastry’s three swarajatis.

The accompaniment was a delightful adjunct to this pleasant concert, with Embar Kannan’s creative juices flowing in a steady, controlled stream with his wonted artistry in exploring little-known crevices of a raga. KV Prasad was at his melodious best on the mridangam and Udipi Sridhar the co-percussionist did full justice to his upapakkavadya role. The tani was outstanding, with Prasad leading the way with panache.

Ranjani-Gayatri and OS Thyagarajan were in mid-season form among the seniors, with thunderous applause for the sisters’ rendering of ragam-tanam-pallavi in Subhapantuvarali bringing the roof down, while Bombay Jayashri captivated her audience with the unexpectedness of her ragam-tanam-pallavi in Jog.

Among the newly promoted seniors, Nisha Rajagopalan delivered the high quality music we have come to expect from her, and Amritha Murali strove hard without quite reaching her best, yet touching hearts with the sheer musicality of her output.

Among the younger vocalists, Sandeep Narayan celebrated his higher status in the Academy hierarchy with a vivacious concert, while Ramakrishnan Murthy was another highly appreciated junior, with Bharat Sundar not far behind. Bharathi Ramasubban and Vignesh Ishwar (vocal) and JB Sruthi Sagar (flute) were very impressive among the juniors.

(More concert coverage and focus on accompanists in the next issue)

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