Song of Surrender

Friday, 31 May 2013

Musical experiments

By Ramaswamy R. Iyer

What lovely photographs of T.N. Krishnan and Palakkad Mani Iyer in Sruti 329 (February 2012). I have some photographs of musicians on the wall in one of the rooms in my flat, and propose to add these. The Mani Iyer photograph is that of the mridangist in his younger years. As he grew older, his face acquired an authoritative, magisterial, even forbidding appearance. I would like to see a photograph in which that quality appears.

Indira Parthasarathy’s article makes very interesting reading. Without disagreeing with him, may I add a footnote to his thesis? There is indeed a need to read plays as plays, and this may apply equally to both Shakespeare and the modern playwrights that the author mentions. Shakespeare was essentially a theatre man, and he too, like Beckett and Anouilh, wrote his plays as production scripts. They certainly gain by being read as plays and being seen on the stage. However, Shakespeare was also a poet, an explorer of life and human nature through language (with which he had a love affair). Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and so on, are indeed plays, but they are also poetic drama. They contain some of the most magnificent poetry in the language, and there is no reason why one should not choose to read them as poetry. They are both plays to be seen and books to be read.

Radhakrishnan’s article is very clever and scholarly but it seems to me that it overdoes the cleverness and the scholarship. Shorn of cleverness and style, his point is that T.M. Krishna rendered the raga Mukhari in extremely slow tempo and that many in the audience found that difficult to take. What does that establish? Radhakrishnan proceeds to talk about a contract between the singer and the audience. I am not sure that the terminology of ‘contract’ is particularly useful. If musicians can be said to be under a contract with the audience, it is really to take the concert seriously and render the best music that they are capable of. Part of their responsibility is to enrich and enhance the taste of the general audience, and gradually accustom them to the new and the unfamiliar. Great musicians create their own audience. It took time for the beauty of M.D. Ramanathan’s and Brinda-Mukta’s music to be recognised. In TMK’s case, it was in fact his vilamba kala and ativilamba kala singing that first brought him to the fore. I was not present at the concert where he rendered an extremely slow Mukhari, but I wish I had been; I would have loved it.

I was there at the Academy where (in the 2010 season) he rendered the Bhairavi Ata tala varnam in the middle of the concert as a kriti, and (in the 2011 season) did the ‘stand alone’ alapana of Varali. I think he is entitled to experiment, but I am not entirely sure that these worked.

It was not just fashion or custom that assigned the starting role to varnam-s. They can indeed be treated as kriti-s and rendered in the middle of a concert, and this experiment may even work in some cases. For instance, Swati Tirunal’s Suma sayaka can be rendered either at the beginning of a concert like a varnam or in the middle as a kriti, but I am not entirely clear as to what this achieves.

Krishna has also been criticised for following an elaborate alapana of Kambhoji with a Kshetrayya padam rendered as a kriti with niraval and swaraprastara. Taking up a relatively light piece and giving it elaborate treatment is not unprecedented. Ariyakudi used to do this with the Tiruppavai verse Amabarame tanneere (Kalyani), and following his guru, K.V. Narayanaswamy did the same. In one of her academy concerts, M.S. Subbulakshmi gave bravura treatment to a Tiruvempavai verse in Sankarabharanam (Aartha piravi tuyarkkeda). The question is whether the piece in question lends itself to this kind of treatment. It was the view of some that the Kshetrayya padam that Krishna sang did not. I don’t entirely agree with that view. I think the experiment was worth undertaking, even if it did not wholly come off. A more serious point was that the pace of the padam did not enable the percussionists to do justice to the tani avartanam.

As for a ‘stand alone’ alapana, it occurs to me that a concert exclusively of alapana-s might be worth doing, but in the middle of a conventional concert with kriti-s, a single alapana without a kriti does not quite produce the intended effect. Further, a concert of alapana-s (if carefully selected and arranged) may well be successful, but it will cover only half of Carnatic music, namely, melody, as tala is the other half of our music. If the musician tries to remedy this by following up the alapana with a stretch of rhythmically structured singing with mnemonic syllables (say of tanam or swaraprastara) with mridanga accompaniment, what exactly is he or she trying to do? Escape the hegemony or tyranny of the kriti?

I am not drawing any conclusions from these ramblings, which are purely exploratory.

On 10 March there was a T.M. Krishna concert at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It was a superb concert. There was a bit of innovation in it. Krishna sang a wonderful, elaborate alapana in Todi, and when we were expecting the violinist (Akkarai Subhalakshmi) to follow, she did not do an alapana but went forthwith into a brilliant tanam. After the tanam, we were expecting a pallavi, but Krishna sang a kriti (Sree Krishnam bhaja manasa). The niraval was so elaborate that it took the place of a pallavi. Again, it was also virtually a swaraprastara, so there was no swara singing. From the niraval, the concert went straight into tani avartanam. So instead of a conventional RTP, we had ‘ragam’ (R) by the singer, ‘tanam’ (T) by the viloinist, and a ‘kriti’ (K) with niraval. An interesting experiment which, in my view, worked.

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