Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

An interesting Sruti

By A Seshan

In Sruti 341, S. Sivaramakrishnan has raised some good questions on the gayaki style on instruments. Often artists use the term to describe their style without explaining what they mean. It seems to convey the impression that it is superior to other styles. Like him I do not agree with this idea. The gayaki and non-gayaki styles have their own individual charm. He has made the remark: “Thank God, nobody has so far attempted to describe any singer as possessing a ‘vaadyaki’ style!” No, we do have vaadyaki styles of singers who follow either the nagaswaram bani or the veena bani. In this case the distinction is clear-cut. The former refers to the use of brigas and long karvais calling for good breath control. Semmangudi and GNB were examples of this style. On the other hand, the veena style is known for staccato phrases and emphasis on gamakas exemplified by Madurai Mani Iyer. I won’t spend time arguing about the superiority of one over the other. The instruments of artists like Lalgudi can literally sing the sahitya, if you are familiar with the text. But, even if it does not, does it really matter? In the case of vocal music how many singers or rasikas can understand the sahitya if it is not in their languages?

Sruti deserves kudos for highlighting the multifaceted artistry of Sambasiva Bhagavatar, not known to many in the current generation of rasikas. He had his own brand of humour. In one concert at the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai he asked the audience to name the kriti where Tyagaraja had said that he had not borrowed money from anybody. There was no response. He sang the charanam of Ramanannu brovara in Harikambhoji in which the term ‘appu’ refers to a loan. Then he made the remark that there were people who called themselves “Appu”! Another joke he cut, somewhat offensive, was that Amavasya was welcome to two groups of people – purohits and burglars!

It is thoughtful of you to have reproduced the write-up on U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi on the occasion of the birth centenary of the former. One outstanding contribution of Rao is his book entitled “A Dictionary of Bharata Natya” covering the entire gamut of the technical terms in the art form. To me its beauty and utility lie in the fact that despite its slimness (71 pages), whenever I referred to it to understand a term, I found it there well explained.

Vedavalli’s exposition of the varnam was comprehensive. In the past it was de rigueur for concerts to start on a varnam, used to follow this convention. It is said that once Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar started his concert with a kriti and the rasikas demanded that he should start all over again with a varnam, and he obliged them. His disciple Ariyakudi followed him in this respect most of the time. In his later years Madurai Mani Iyer used to start his concerts with either Vatapi (Hamsadhwani) or Tatvamariya (Reetigaula). I was surprised that he sang the Mohanam varnam Ninnukori in one of his performances early in his career. I do not know why he gave up that practice. There was another convention in the past of giving the rasikas an advance notice of the raga to be taken up for ragam-tanam-pallavi by singing a varnam in that raga. MS occasionally followed this custom. At the Air India Staff Welfare Fund concert in October 1965, she sang Era napai in Todi, which was the raga featured in RTP later. In one AIR National Programme she sang the Bhairavi varnam and later sang Tyagaraja’s Enati nomu phalamo elaborately in that raga.

In Part 1 of her article, Vedavalli made the following statement while referring to Syama Sastry’s swarajatis:

“It is interesting that what is today grouped together as Pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja also share a similar structure of sahitya alternating with swaras. The epithet of ’Pancharatna’ was a much later addition.” Subbarama Dikshitar called them swara sahityams. There is a hypothesis floating in some circles that Tyagaraja composed his Pancharatna kritis in lieu of varnams when some of his sishyas asked for the latter. To support this idea, the Arabhi piece is cited. It has a charanam (Samayaniki) that is repeated at the end of every stanza and swara sequence a la varnam unlike in the case of the other four where the pallavi is the refrain. It is called upapallavi.

In her interview, Sudharani Raghupathy has not referred to her excellent series on Bharatanatyam on Doordarshan many years ago. In terms of demystifying Bharatanatyam, I found that Sudharani’s was the best in a series of lecdems DD telecast then. Doordarshan will be rendering a service to today’s rasikas by repeating its telecast.

Dhananjayan has pointed out more than once the inappropriateness of the word dance for Bharatanatyam, which is much more than the bodily movements implied in dance. At his lecture demonstration at the Music Academy in December 2006, its Expert Committee unanimously endorsed his view that Bharatanatyam should be referred to only as natya. Dhananjayan has also argued effectively about the inappropriate use of the word ballet for our dance-dramas. I hope Sruti will ponder these serious semantic issues in editing articles to help benchmark the technical terms for the literature on the art form.

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