Song of Surrender

Monday, 30 September 2013

Generation Next

By Nandini Ramani

Arjun Verma

Arjun Verma is a brilliant young sitar player trained by sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. Arjun was nurtured in the serene ashram of scholar-spiritualist Sri Ram Murthi Sharma in Monroe, New York, where his father Roop Verma is a resident musician-teacher and mother Tracy is a yoga instructor. Roop Verma, a disciple of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, is a well known sitarist. It was Pandit Ravi Shankar who named the child Arjun. The boy showed signs of musical talent even as a three-year-old and started learning from his father. While in his early teens, Arjun was deeply inspired by sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, so he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to directly learn from the great teacher for eight years.

Arjun received a Shenson Fellowship from the San Francisco Foundation which enabled him to study at the Ali Akbar College of Music. His training continued under the able guidance of Alam Khan, son of Ali Akbar Khan, after the maestro passed away in 2009.

Arjun quit his regular job after graduating from college to become a full-time musician, devoting all his energy to intense practice and performance. He has an innate skill and passion and has equipped himself well in methodology, all of which he combines to bring out the best in the Ali Akbar Khan style with its different methods of practice, focus on purity of raga, compositional excellence and the overall exquisite quality of the Maihar Senia gharana.
Inspired by his guru, Arjun has introduced innovations in sitar techniques. He acknowledges the influence of another preeminent sitarist, Nikhil Banerjee. Incorporating a rich measure of musical elements drawn from Roop Verma, Arjun plays on the sitar presented to his father as a wedding gift by Ravi Shankar.

Arjun has a brilliant performance record; his concerts have received wide acclaim. His talent was recognised even at the age of seven when he began playing in concerts in the U.S., Europe, and India. Some of his noteworthy performances with his father include the one at Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, and the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Arjun has performed with his guru Alam Khan, as well as with renowned tabla players like Sharada Sahai and Shabbir Nisar.

Arjun is a member of the faculty at the Ali Akbar College of Music, where he teaches and performs, and at the Jazz School Institute in Berkeley, CA, where he teaches north Indian ensemble music, focusing on its rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements. Arjun recently composed one of Ali Akbar Khan’s musical pieces for a Western instrumental ensemble in Western musical notation. Apart from this, he has experimented with using the sitar in other musical genres such as Western classical, Celtic and Jazz music. He has performed with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Fareed Haque, Celso Alberti and Kai Eckhardt.

Arjun’s passion and drive have made him a star musician-performer of the sitar. The future is bright for this torchbearer of the rich musical tradition of the maestro Ali Akbar Khan.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Thirtieth anniversary of Sruti

By A. Seshan

The completion of 30 years of life is as much a milestone for a journal as it is for the humans. In both cases it marks the entry into middle age with advantages of youthful energy backed up by intellectual and emotional maturity achieved through experience. The one major contribution of Sruti is in blazing new trails in documentation in the field of fine arts relating to personalities, institutions, techniques, styles, events, etc. It has filled up a major gap in the cultural history of the country. There is evidence of considerable research work done through references to the existing literature and what is called ‘oral history’, that is, getting artists and others to talk about the professions, gurus, styles or banis, etc. As a student of musicology and choreology I have immensely benefited from the description and discussion of various banis in the fields of both music and dance. That the magazine has an open and eclectic mind is evident from the fact that it has spared space for what is called light music. Thanks to Sruti we now know that javalis and padams that are dismissed as tukkadas (tidbits) to be sung at the end of a Carnatic music concert call for as much skill in voice training, modulation and rendition as the main kritis that are sung elaborately with the paraphernalia of alapana, niraval, sangati and swaraprastaram.

The only caveat that I have to enter in my otherwise full-throated appreciation of the journal is about some of the biographies tending to be hagiographies (the writings of the lives of saints), the artists having only virtues and no vices. We should not forget that the personalities dealt with are humans with all their limitations including possibly the lack of scruples and following the principle of ends justifying means. They are not Mahatma Gandhis or Jesus Christs. When Gandhiji was assassinated Pearl Buck’s son is reported to have wondered whether such a person had ever trodden on earth. I get the same feeling when I read the biographical sketches of some of the artists. This danger is particularly present when they are written by the descendants of the artistes or their disciples. We do not expect the latter to say that the person under reference was a rogue in his personal life or a fly-by-night operator who would do anything to solve the financial problem of running a large family. But there is a tendency in our country to imagine that a great artiste must necessarily be a great human being. A gullible editor can easily be taken for a ride. Thanks to the proliferation of media, today artistes, especially the established ones, are highly respected persons in society so much so that marriage alliances are arranged by some parents just for the prestige of saying that “Kalanidhi Kuppuswami Iyer is our sambandhi” ignoring all other important factors bearing on a successful marital life! Their children also inherit a false sense of values. I remember Anup Jalota once saying that despite his singing bhajans he was a non-vegetarian. There is no inherent contradiction in his being so but the average Indian would consider it to be odd. The need to look at a person differently from two angles, as an artiste and as a human being, is ever present in writing biographies. I feel that even the Carnatic music Trinity, though highly respectable, should be looked at as humans and not as divine personalities. The Englishman does not attribute divinity to Shakespeare or Milton. While there are interesting episodes there are others which can be eschewed in the absence of verification. That, before teaching Smara sundaranguni (Paras), Brinda insisted on Semmangudi always singing it with prati madhyamam, although it was against grammar, is of interest to me because it clears my doubt as to why the latter was doing so. But if someone claims that his ancestor had helped Mahatma Gandhi with the use of enema when he stayed in his house I would not publish it because there is no way to verify it. Unfortunately, there is so much craze for publicity, press conference and the printed word that those who want to gloat in reflected glory make all types of claims while, at the same time, suppressing or downplaying information whenever it is unfavourable. I have always wondered at the brilliance of the statement of Robert Louis Stevenson that the cruelest lies are often told in silence. I call them ‘unspoken lies’. (See “The Search for Truth”, A. Seshan, Bhavan’s Journal, December 15, 2002). This is true in all walks of life whether personal, official or business.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Archive of Contemporary Music to spotlight India

By Shuchita Rao

B George, Director, ARC
Can you imagine 5,000 Bhangra dancers in a massive dance procession on the streets of New York City celebrating Indian music, dance, culture and spirit?  Well-known Bhangra D. J. Rekha will kick-start “India Music Week” (IMW) on October 6th at 5 pm on pier 15, South Street Seaport in NYC. The India Music Week (IMW) project, directed by B. George and assisted by Dr. Brian Q. Silver is an effort by the New York-based organization, the ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC), to popularize Indian music and culture this year on a global scale.  

Now in its 28th year, ARC has the largest collection of popular music in the world, with more than two million recordings, including numerous world music discs, and has catalogued more than 25,000 Asian Indian recordings from all around the world.  ARC has had great success in two previous projects—Muslim Music Day 2011 (muslimworldmusicday.com) and Brazilian Music Day 2012 (brazilianmusicday.org) with participation and response from all over the globe. Future ‘Weeks’ will explore the music and culture of Scandinavia (2014), Cuba (2015), Louisiana (2016) and China (2017).

India Music Week will be a worldwide event, both actual and virtual, turning the spotlight on Indian music and culture. Among other challenging and creditable goals, it will attempt to create the world record for the largest Bhangra Dance for the Guinness book of World Records. Partners for the Bhangra event include Molecule Communications and The Association of Indians in America, New York Chapter.

India Music Week will publicize musical events occurring from 6 October through 13 October all over the world on a new ARC Website, www.IndiaMusicWeek.org, to be posted in the beginning of October, which will be freely available to all. Columbia University, Gracenote, The Internet Archive and Incredible Labs, among others, will support the effort.  The ARC aims to educate a global audience about various facets of Indian music, and will offer online a range of resources and links, all highlighting the importance and beauty of Indian music through the comprehensive IMW Website, (www.IndiaMusicWeek.org). This website will constitute the largest online reference resource for Indian music, serving as a database for individuals and institutions, including universities and music schools, recording companies, publications, and organizations and institutions promoting Indian music, as well as the various genres of Indian music and Indian classical and folk instruments.

The current IMW Project blog is at http://www.indianmusicweek.wordpress.com/

Shuchita Rao, Sruti magazine’s US Correspondent, interviewed the director of ARC, Mr. B. George.

When was ARC started and what was the mission?

ARC was started in 1985 with a mission to collect, preserve and provide information on the popular music of all cultures and races throughout the world from 1945 to the present day.

What is your role at ARC and how would you like ARC to grow, develop and evolve over the next decade?
I am the current director and co-founder. Our goal is to move beyond our American Popular Music collections, now the largest in the world, and make sure we are preserving as much music from other cultures as possible. Ideally we would move from preservation to a center where all the music could be listened to and enjoyed.

Does ARC provide free audio/ video recordings and articles relating to art to people all over the world? 

We do not provide free audio/video recordings to the general public. Our services are now music industry based and material is only available to the right owners.

How does ARC help artists?
We help artists by preserving their work and aiding in research projects for publications, use of their music in films, and the re-issue of their materials from original recordings in our collection. Our music 'days' and 'weeks' are part of our outreach to the general public, providing links to the work of thousands of musicians.

You spent a year in India in 1970. What did you take away from the time spent there?

I was on a year-long independent study programme through the University of Michigan, primarily studying ephemeral art and drawing, with three months spent in Benares photographing the burning ghat ritual. This caused my attraction to the culture and a life-long love of Indian music.

What are your hopes and expectations from ARC's India Music Week(IMW) project to be held between Oct 6 and 13 this year?

Our goal is to let people around the world learn more about all forms of music from india - that there is more to the music than Ravi Shankar and Bollywood. Of course we want people to have fun, and that is the main reason for the inauguration of IMW with  Bhangra dance. We would love more participation from India. So far it is the expatriate community that has been most helpful. We are surprised that none of the successful Indian Corporations or the mainstream music industry has offered assistance, except the independent record companies. When the project is over we would like to turn it over to an institution or business in India to maintain and grow. Regardless we will keep the site up permanently. Our main purpose is to celebrate the importance and beauty of Indian music.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Miradasi

By Impana Kulkarni

The soft notes emanating from the hollowed wood strained the beautiful scenes, dances and dialogues from way back into the past, and dropped on to us the way honey gently flows out of its jar and drops ever so smoothly from the table on to the floor. Every note so shrill that it stung stronger than a bee seemed to hardly brush by the ears as it assailed our hearts. Every nerve in our body was like a string on which each melody drew tight and hard and released its hold at the very pique straight at our soul. Sitting with legs crossed on a cemented floor, we were transported to a world where music drives life, music sustains life, music rejoices in life, music is life. Every note was so powerful, that it gushed at us with the force of water released through a pichkari.

A single stream of petulant vibrating honeyed melody unconsciously strung together all the beady-eyed enraptured listeners. And as the wind carries the wingless dried fallen leaves through the air, conducting them through a frenzied dance or a melancholic glide, so the single flute raised its pitch high into the night sky, the lyrics crying out Oh Lord do come down and hear us, and elevated everyone around to unseen dimensions of melody, beauty and devotion.

Gowri Ramnarayan, grandniece of M S Subbulakshmi, recounted her days with the musical queen, as M S sat with Remaji and learnt the bhajans of Meera, Surdas, Kabir, Ras Khan and Tulsidas he composed music for. She sang the Hindi words in her own Carnatic style, because all that mattered was for it to be heard by the lord. Many of them she never sang onstage, they were for his ears only. But Gowri caught snippets of some of those songs from her memory and recited them to us. All of those songs sung by MS today plunged us deep into emotion and love through the voice of Nisha – Rajagopalan, her hum indiscernible from the bass sound of the flute or the velvety violin voice, her lips effulgently singing the same words that those saints and Subbulakshmi sang, and her voice ringing out into the night. While the flute, played by J. B. Sruthisagar, made the entire atmosphere ethereal, the violin, played by Padma Shankar, captured and brought out every thought that passed through our minds, every feeling that struck our heart, it opened a human world within the envelopes of the ethereal. The music and the recollections from its past didn’t transport us away from reality as most people believe classical art does. It showed how our world could merge with the more sublime one, and give such happiness that few get to experience.

The Lord did hear the calls of the flute. As soon as the flute quietened down to allow the singer to begin her aalap, the clouds broke open thunderously and lightly cried tears of joy. As the flute merged with her voice and shredded our body to make way for the overflowing hearts it pelted heavily onto the parched ground- so much that the amplified mridangam and khanjira sounds also got muffled. As the violin along with the flute slowly reopened forgotten memories and then tried to console us, the thatched roof couldn’t hold the rain out any more. And as the music mellowed and pulled us out from that atmosphere, so did the clouds seal their eyelids – to open on another such day when the night will be filled with such music, and the ground hold people willing to listen and receive.

I wish those artists knew all this. I wish they knew what power they wielded, what effect they had on us. I wish I could have told the singer and the flautist that they brought down such wonderful rain, and that as soon as they stopped so did the rain. That so beautifully had the rain linked itself to their music that it would only be fitting to call it divine.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tiruppamburam Natarajasundaram Pillai

(15 Dec 1869-16 Nov 1938)
 
Who’s Who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

Tiruppamburam Natarajasundaram Pillai hailed from a family of musicians who migrated from Kalyanachozhapuram near Mayavaram to Tiruppamburam. He was born on 15th December 1869 to nagaswara vidvan Swaminatha Pillai and Paripoornathammal.

Natarajasundaram and his younger brother Sivasubrahmaniam first learned nagaswaram from the maestro Injikkudi Kumarappillai. To expand increase their kriti repertoire, Swaminatha Pillai placed them under the care of Umayalpuram Duraiswamy Iyer and Sattanur Panchanada Iyer, the first a storehouse of Tyagaraja kritis and the latter of Dikshitar compositions. Swaminatha Pillai invited them to his town. 

Natarajasundaram Pillai and Sivasubrahmanya Pillai were perhaps the first nagaswaram duo. Srivanchiyam Govinda Pillai, Mannargudi Pallupakkiri Pillai, Ammapettai Pakkiri Pillai and Vazhuvoor Muttuviru Pillai were some of their tavil accompanists. 

The Tiruppamburam Brothers as the pair was known, paid much attention to fidelity to the sahitya of the songs they played, employing tuttukaram to optimize the aural impact on listeners brought up on the lyrical masterpieces of Carnatic music. Sahitya bhava was central to their playing style.

Like Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer and the Tiruppamburam Brothers, Veena Dhanammal also learnt Dikshitar kritis from Panchanada Iyer, whose ragabhava-soaked singing she admired. Long years later Dhanammal not only recognised Natarajasundaram immediately when he visited her in Chennai, but also agreed to sing in unison with him, when they found that they had retained their Dikshitar kriti pathantara identically.

Natarajasundaram Pillai published a collection of Muttuswami Dikshitar compositions titled Dikshita Kirtana Prakasika. In Tamil script, it contained 50 notated kritis. 

Pillai built a Vinayaka temple at his own expense near his residence at Tiruveezhimizhalai. At its kumbhabhishekam in 1929 such leading vidwans as the Karaikudi veena brothers, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, Ariyakudi, and Brinda-Muktha, gave concerts and Saraswatibai performed Harikatha. The great nagaswara vidwans of the day like Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai, Perambalur Angappa Pillai and Tiruvudaimarudur Veeruswami Pillai added lustre to the proceedings.

Natarajasundaram Pillai’s son Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai—who taught at the Government Music College, Madras—achieved eminence as a flautist, whose disciple T Viswanathan went on to emulate his guru as a great vidwan and teacher. 

Natarajasundaram’s other sons included Somasundaram Pillai who became principal of the Palani temple’s nagaswaram school and Sivasubrahmanya Pillai, a lecturer at Annamalai University.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Karukurichi Arunachalam

Who’s Who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

When Karukurichi Arunachalam passed away in 1964 at the age of 43—survived by his wife, seven daughters and four sons—the world of Carnatic music, the nagaswaram fraternity in particular, mourned his loss as that of the worthiest successor of TN Rajaratnam. A potentially spectacular career was cut short prematurely, though Arunachalam had achieved quite a bit in his relatively short career.

Karukurichi Arunachalam did not hail from a traditional nagaswaram family. His father Balavesam was so fascinated and impressed by the artistry and prestige of Koorainadu Natesa Pillai that he attempted to learn to play the instrument and become a performing artist. Unfortunately he did not quite make it as a musician, but found solace in his son Arunachalam’s talent for the instrument. Arunachalam learnt nagaswaram from Kattumalli Subbiah Kambar and vocal music from Kalakkad Subbiah Bhagavatar and his son Ramanarayana Bhagavatar. (Some accounts have it that he learnt vocal music from Kallidaikurichi Ramalinga Bhagavatar). A great fan of nagaswaram wizard Rajaratnam, Karukurichi constantly dreamt of training under him. Through a fortuitous opportunity to accompany him on stage when TNR’s aide Kakkayi Natarajasundaram Pillai fell ill before a concert at Karukurichi, he did fulfil his dream.

Arunachalam did gurukulavasam shadowing TNR at home and concerts and learning the nuances of his music largely by osmosis. Soon he assimilated the best facets of Rajaratnam’s music in abundance, and became renowned in equal measure for the beauty of his handling of ragas and compositions.

At the height of his fame, Arunachalam had a large fan following, hugely enhanced by his nagaswaram contribution to the film Konjum Salangai, in which he played pure classical music as well as raga-based songs composed for the movie. The song Singaravelane deva in which the playback singer S Janaki sang in tandem with his nagaswaram playing repeating every phrase of his became a runaway hit, still remembered and enjoyed by audiences fifty years later. Once he became well settled in his music career he left Karukurichi in Tirunelveli district where he was born and settled down at Kovilpatti town in the same district.

A tribute in the Indian Express on 7 April 1964 said, “Sri Arunachalam’s renderings of ragas, kritis and pallavis were noted for their tonal purity and melodic beauty.” Natabhairavi, Kharaharapriya, Pantuvarali, Shanmukhapriya, Nata and Gowla were described as his favourite ragas, while rare ragas like Chandrajyoti and Takka were his forte, too. According to a charming story, Rajaratnam, who was a fan of his disciple’s music, once sat down on the road in T’Nagar to listen to Arunachalam’s Huseni raga alapana in a temple procession, refusing to move even though he was causing a disruption of the traffic.

Karukurichi Arunachalam’s death at the Palayamkottai Government Headquarters Hospital on 6 April 1964 marked the end of a distinct era in nagaswaram music of the Rajaratnam school. It would not be unrealistic to speculate that he would have reached great heights in music, even achieved the Sangita Kalanidhi title at the Music Academy where he often electrified audiences.

Australian award for Sruthi Laya Ensemble and AAO

By Ravi M. Ravichandhira

Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya Ensemble and members of the Australian Art Orchestra won the Performance of the Year award at the 2013 ART Music Awards, for their excellent performance of Sandy Evans’s Meetings at the Table of Time. Combining Western jazz and Carnatic music, this unique work created a unified performance of depth and integrity. On 26 August the winners were announced across 11 national and seven state categories.

According to Sandy Evans, “The award is for the performance of a work by an Australian composer across all categories of ‘Art’ music worldwide and is most often won by Western classical orchestras. So it was a great tribute to Guru Mani and Sruthi Laya that our performance was recognised in this way. It was given based on a live recording from concerts in Chennai and Hyderabad last November.”

The far reaching vision, mutual respect, innovative spirit and relentless pursuit of music by Sandy Evans and Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani and his team have led to this milestone. Australian Carnatic musicians and art lovers are extremely proud of this outcome.

According to the judges, “the genuine enjoyment and enthusiasm of the performers for the work and the real sense of collaboration in the improvisations made for a lively and engaging experience”.

Hosted by APRA AMCOS and the Australian Music Centre (AMC), the ART Music Awards are the only national event in Australia to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements and creative successes of Australian composers, performers and educators in the genres of contemporary art music, jazz and experimental music.

Peter Knight, the Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra, was in Sydney to receive the award.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Namagiripettai K Krishnan

Who’s who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

Namagiripettai K Krishnan (1924-2001) was among the first nagaswaram vidwans to achieve stardom after the era of TN Rajaratnam Pillai and Karukurichi Arunachalam. Born as the eldest of ten children in Salem in a family with no great musical pretensions, owed his career in music to his father’s efforts to give him the best nagaswaram exposure. Kaathaswami Pillai initiated his son Krishnan into Nayanam with a small nagaswaram, and trained him step by step in the Sankarachari padikattu. His grandfather Chinnappa Mudaliar gave him vocal training and groomed him for the concert platform in nagaswaram.

Though Krishnan was ready to perform at the age of 14, his father sent him to Arupukotai Ganesan for training in residence for a further four years.

At a congregation of young nagaswaram talent film director K Subrahmanyam convened at Chennai, Krishnan impressed an elite gathering of musicians and music lovers with his rendering of Kalyani raga alapana and the kriti Vasudevayani with niraval and kalpana swara for half an hour. Both raga and kriti were to become his life-long favourites, with a TNR composition Sivaguruparaney another important Kalyani piece in his repertoire. Abhogi, Andolika, Hindolam, Kalyanavasantam, Keeravani, Mohanam, Shanmukhapriya, Tarangini and Todi were other ragas he enjoyed playing. He was also partial to Bharatiyar and Bharatidasan lyrics.

Krishnan adopted TNR as his manasika guru, and developed his own individual style marked by its smooth melodic flow, proportion and judicious concert planning. He soon became a popular vidwan nationally recognised. He was a regular on radio and TV besides providing the background score in many films.

A lover of perfumes, Krishnan was an avid follower of cricket who witnessed India’s World Cup triumph in 1983, as he happened to be in the UK at the time, and rushed from a BBC interview to Lord’s to watch the final.

By all accounts a lovely human being, Krishnan was an advocate of due recognition for tavil vidwans and responsible in some measure for the percussionists receiving titles like Isai Perarignar and even Sangita Kalanidhi.

Krishnan was convinced that nagaswaram was the correct name of his instrument, citing numerous proofs for that from literature and history.

Krishnan travelled extensively in India and abroad with his music during a career that lasted nearly six decades. Decorated with many awards including Tamil Nadu’s Kalaimamani, he was an Asthana vidwan of the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam.

Krishnan’s successful concert career came to a premature end in November 1993 owing to poor health. His last concert appearance was at an event to felicitate music director Ilayaraja.

A meeting with some dancers of the diaspora

In San Jose, California

By Nandini Ramani

I spent a nice evening with some of the renowned dancers of the San Jose, CA area sometime last year, where we discussed interesting issues pertaining to the dance scene there. I met Mythili Kumar and her daughter Rasika, Indumathy Ganesh and her daughter Akshaya, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Vidya Subramaniam, Jayanthi Sridharan, and Radhika Shankar who shared their observations and experiences over crunchy, hot pizzas.

Mythili (director of Abhinaya Dance Company), Indumathy (Nrithyollasa Dance Academy), Vidya, and Nirupama (Sankalpa Dance Foundation) narrated how they spend as much time on logistics of a production as they do on choreographing and directing it. This came as a surprise to me as it was quite contrary to the notions we have of dancers in the diaspora. Wherever I travelled in the United States, I found dancers stating in public that it was not so easy to produce and mount a dance production – be it solo or group. Government grants are usually given for specific projects, and the dancers, by and large, have to raise their own resources. As a result, dancers have to combine the roles of artist and art administrator and learn to manage behind-the-scenes logistics including renting of performance venues, conducting publicity and PR for specific productions, and dedicating time for fundraising. Pretty similar to what we find in India! Most often, revenues from ticket sales are insufficient to cover all performance costs.

When I asked them about the reception in the US to a traditional Bharatanatyam margam, the dancers said it was a challenge to adhere to margam-based solo performances as the audience did not respond favourably to watching the same local dancer perform repeatedly. Moreover, grants are given more frequently for group productions which also draw a considerable audience.

Mythili, Indumathy, Vidya and Nirupama have all choreographed and presented many group productions over the three decades of their residency in the US, roping in many of their own students to perform in these works. Vidya Subramaniam, who has been performing in India and the US, said that of late her focus has been more on her own solo performances and works.

Before the meeting, I watched a rehearsal session of Mythili’s production titled Gandhi, a video presentation of Rasika and Akshaya’s duet, and a classroom session of Indumathy. All these gave me an insight into the dedication and commitment which these dancers have brought to their work and chosen paths.

Do dancers in the US feel that Bharatanatyam is an important means to keep in touch with their roots and to propagate Indian culture in the US? Yes, they all chime in one voice. Many Indian parents in the US want their children to learn Bharatanatyam and perform. Mythili Kumar and Indumathy have conducted more than 100 arangetrams each and have also trained and shaped their own daughters to blossom into fine dancers. But how many in the next generation will take up dance as a full-time career remains to be seen.

The other issues which the dancers raised pertained to the Indian scene, such as the impact of NRI presence, paid programmes, awards and recognitions, and the challenges faced in getting performance opportunities in major arts festivals in India.

At the end of the day, however, I was left with a happy feeling after watching the creative energies of these dancers, their positive approach to their artistic lives, and their attempts to find unity in diversity, which is indeed the underlying current of our various artistic pursuits.

Vidwan Sithukadu T.G. Murugavel

By Charukesi

In the quiet sunset, when the garudotsavam procession began in the temple complex of the Thennangur Panduranga kshetram, mellifluous nagaswaram music wafted in through the breeze. It was so mesmerizing that the devotees stood transfixed close to the nagaswaram group, even when the garuda vahana slowly started moving.

The nagaswaram player was vidwan Sithukadu T.G. Murugavel. Bright faced, the young vidwan and his troupe had just arrived from Chennai specially for the evening’s garudotsavam.

“Mr. Krishnaswami asked us to rush here for the Garuda Sevai, when his Natyarangam group would dance to the tune of my instrument in this sacred place. We are blessed,” says Murugavel, in all humility.

It was the third time we were listening to him enchant the crowd of devotees and dancers at Thennangur.

Murugavel hails from a music family of Sithukadu, Tiruvellore District. His gurus were Malayambakkam M.D. Mani, Tiruvarur Lakshappa Pillai, Tirucherai T.S. Sivasubramaniam, Mambalam M.K.S. Siva and M.K.S. Natarajan for more than a decade and a half. For the past thirty years, Murugavel has been performing all over India receiving appreciation from discerning rasikas.

“I have been an honorary performer at the Kapaleeswarar-Karpagambal temple at Mylapore, the Murugan temple at Vadapalani, the Karumari Amman temple at Tiruverkadu, and the Mariyamman temple at Samayapuram, Trichy,” Murugavel tells us. “This annual performance here, is of course special. I also perform at the Thyagaraja aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru.”

Murugavel has performed in the Akashvani Sangeet Sammelan, as well as the National Programme of Music, twice. The Nadaneeranjanam programme at Tirupathi Devasthanam at Tirupathi has also been special for him.

Having obtained a diploma in music and the Vadya Visharada title from the Tamil Nadu Music College, Chennai, he received his first major recognition from the Tamil Nadu Government’s Department of Culture, in the form of the title of Kalai Sudarmani. Then came the title ‘Saptaswara Isai Gana Kalaratna Jyoti by the Tyagi Viswanatha Das Isai Peravai, Chennai. He has also been the Asthana Vidwan of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. At present studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Music (third year) at the University of Madras, Murugavel is an A grade artist of both AIR and Doordarshan. For about ten years, he has conducted and performed many concerts under the auspices of these two government organizations. Many young nagaswara vidwans are training under him.

“My aim is to spread the nuances of nagaswara music to the next generation next,” Murugavel says.

Professor of Nagaswaram for over two years in the Tamil Isai Kalloori at Raja Annamalai Manram, he is a familiar name in the sabha circuit. His cassette Mangala Vaibhavam is a popular recording.

Sithukadu Murgavel has forayed into the film music field and has collaborated with MS Viswanathan, Ilayaraja, Sankar-Ganesh and a few other music directors. He has played nagaswaram music for Suriyan FM.

Murugavel has served as a member of a panel of judges to discover fresh young talent for All India Radio, in both the nagaswaram and the flute. 

Murugavel was to tour Sri Lanka this July, but unfortunately it was politics that played spoilsport and the loss was only to the Tamils living there, who are ardent fans of nagaswaram music.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sheikh Chinna Moula

Who’s who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

Sheikh Chinna Moula ((12 May 1924-13 April 1999) was one of the finest vidwans belonging to the Chilakaluripeta school of nagaswaram music, ‘founded’ by Sheik Nabi Sahib, born in 1726, in the Narasaraopet Taluk of Guntur district. Pedda Moula Sahib (born 1890) and Chinna Moula Sahib (born 1893) were the most prominent representatives of the parampara in the 20th century. 

Born in such a nagaswaram family of several exponents of the instrument through the generations to Sheikh Kasim Sahib and Beebi Jan, Chinna Moula took to the instrument with great enthusiasm even as a child, held in thrall by the magic of TN Rajaratnam’s nagaswaram music, which he heard on gramophone records. With role models in grandfather Sheik Abdullah, uncle Madar Sahib and father Kasim Sahib, Chinna Moula had his frist lessons from Madar Sahib and Adam Sahib. He started performing very early, but both his father and he felt that he should go to Tamil Nadu from his native Karavadi, to acquire the Tanjavur bani he so admired in Rajaratnam.  He travelled to Nachiarkovil, where his father had identified NK Duraikannu Pillai as the ideal teacher for him. The brothers Rajan and Duraikannu Pillai were respected vidwans who had been performing extensively in India and Ceylon from 1934.  Their exquisite alapana essays had impressed no less an artist than Rajaratnam, For two months every year Chinna Moula trained for nine years with Duraikannu Pillai, who was all praise for his karpoora buddhi. While at Nachiarkovil, Chinna Moula refused concert offers as he was there as a student.

Chinna Moula’s first performance in Tamil Nadu was at Salem in 1960. By now he was generally being addressed as Chinna Moulana in his adopted state. Earlier accompanied on the tavil by Emani Raghavayya or Annavarapu Basavayya, Moula now started to team up with Tattamangalam Ponnuswami, known as Ravaneeswara, on the special tavil. He came under the influence of violinist Ramanathapuram Ganesa Pillai, who helped his concert career substantially. To be near him, Moula moved to Srirangam in 1964, where he bought a house. Though some local musicians were hostile to him, as a Muslim and an outsider, many others ahd no problems with him. His main tavil partner was Valangaiman A Shanmugasundaram Pillai accompanied him for 30 years. Initially not allowed at temple concerts, Moula was unfazed. His ancestors had performed at Hindu temples for generations in Andhra, and he believed he was protected by Ranganatha swami. To him and his family music was their true religion, though they were practising Muslims who followed all the rituals and festivals their religion mandated, and Islamic rites at their weddings. They observed Ramzan, Bakrid and other Muslim festivals, but also Vinayaka Chaturthi and Deepavali. “Rama is my ishta devata,” Chinna Moula said. 

Chinna Moula married Beebi Jan, a namesake of his mother, and their daughter Jan Beevi married Sheikh Suban Sahib, one of two sons of Mastan Sahib of Enugupalem. Suban, who was a disciple of Chinna Moula, and Jan Beevi have five sons, Mastan, Kasim, Babu, Chinna Kasim and Ali saheb, all but bthe last named nagaswara exponents. 

Known for his extreme concern for mastering the sahitya of the kritis he played and the beauty of his raga alapana, Moula sought perfection in all aspects of music. He modified the fingering technique, perhaps by accident, when he interchanged the positions of the fingers of the right and left hands on the holes of the nagaswaram from the traditional way of placing the left hand on the upper holes and the right hand on the lower holes, as recommended in the Sangeeta Ratnakara. His grandson Kasim too follows Moula’s method of fingering.

Founding his nagaswaram school Sarada Nagaswara Sangeeta Ashram in Srirangam, he taught there in the evenings, while singing and memorizing new songs in the mornings, with the help of notebooks where he wrote down all the songs. 

Chinna Moula travelled extensively in India and abroad, and received several awards, besides teaching at the Raja’s Government Music College at Tiruvaiyaru. Among his many disciples were Sheikh Mahaboob Subhani, his wife Kalishabi Mahaboob, Sheikh Abdulla, Sheikh Mastan, Sheikh Kasim, Babu and Chinna Kasim. Though Chinna Moula left is in 1999, his bani is alive and kicking in his sishyas and their sishyas.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Meera's Radha

 By V Ramnarayan

(Text of speech at felicitation at SKGS to Radha for completing 75 years in music; it is MS Subbulakshmi’s 97th birth anniversary).

Your Excellency Sri ESL Narasimhan, Governor of Andhra Pradesh, Smt. Narasimhan, Smt Radha Viswanathan, Sangita Kalanidhi TK Murthy, Sri Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty, Sri VV Sundaram, Sri V Shrinivasan, dear rasikas,

As I have been introduced today as someone who married into the MS family, I’ll try to strike a personal note.

Two occasions remind me of the impact MS’s music had on a vast populace beyond its elite admirers.  On the first, in the last 1990s, as I was walking past a slum colony towards the Tiruvanmiyur main road, the Vishnu Sahasranamam was reverberating in her voice from the radio set from each household. The second event was unfortunately her death in December 2004, when scores of poor people poured into her Kotturpuram residence to pay their last respects—with quiet dignity and genuine grief.

I first saw Radha Akka (that's how we all call her) in the 1960s, when she had come to Vasant Vihar on Greenways Road to accompany MS in a concert before J Krishnamurti. Three beautiful people mesmerised the small audience that afternoon—JK, MS and Radha Viswanathan. Needless to say it was a lovely concert with Radha the perfect accompanist to MS, but what struck us even more were Radha’s vivacity, sparkling intelligence and sense of fun, when we managed to eavesdrop on the pre-concert conversations among the artists and invitees. Anyone who knows Radha Akka will testify to these attributes  which have enabled her to face the vicissitudes with courage and a smile.

I also have some happy memories of the movies my wife and I enjoyed in the company of Vijaya and Rajendran, Radha and Viswanathan and some other friends and family. On one such occasion at distant Ram theatre in Kodambakkam, we were all seated in an exclusive box in the balcony, and Radha Akka regaled us with her witty running commentary during what turned out to be a silly potboiler.

As a child, Radha found a lifelong friend in Anandhi, who was later to become part of the family when she married Radha’s cousin Ambi. Anandhi was the daughter of writer Kalki Krishnamurthi, a close associate of Sadasivam. Anandhi remembered her first visit to the Sadasivams’ Landons Road home. “A little girl, twinkling eyes and smiles, was sitting on the swing and trilling out Anandaman solvene, a song sung by Subbulakshmi in Sakuntalai. I was captivated. I noticed the child's photographic memory and sense of rhythm. Her reproduction was perfect, and included the entire background score as well!”

Later, whenever Kalki came to visit, Anandhi accompanied him—to meet Radha. They were both learning dance from the same master, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, so there was much to chat, gossip and conspire about. The Landons Road children did not know that Kalki was a famous writer, but they buzzed around him like bees until he told them stories as only he could.  Radha had a special relationship with Kalki, and later collected his writings meticulously, covered his books with brown paper and so on. She is a very systematic collector of MS Amma’s music, photographs and memorabilia all labelled very neatly.

The Anandhi-Radha arangetram was performed in 1945, when Radha was ten years old. E Krishna Iyer who reviewed it, praised the programme as a rare cultural treat for the rasika. He drew attention to Radha's “restraint, dignity, light-stepping and ease, as well as grace of pose and movements.” He compared her poise to the river Kaveri in its lower reaches, regulated to a steady flow.

Without being aware of it, the girls had taken part in a revivalist cultural movement. Radha and Anandhi impressed everyone in the 25 or so performances they gave in many parts of India. Radha danced with Anandhi for some five years and as a soloist for a few performances after Anandhi's marriage.

A cherished performance came many years later during a Surdas Festival in Calcutta--on 27 September 1978.  MS and Radha gave an entire recital of Surdas lyrics. And like the old times, Radha got up to perform abhinaya to the song Boojhat shyam kaun tu gori in Jonpuri, which she had learnt from Bala, with her mother singing the song. Mr (‘Cleveland) Sundaram was witness to a similar demonstration a few years ago.

In her brief dancing career, Radha made a mark as a fine artiste. Subbulakshmi's padam singing made the whole experience all the more enjoyable.

It was at Lala Shriram's home in New Delhi that Sarojini Devi's introduction of MS in the opening sequence of Meera was shot. Radha's dance performance was organised at the same venue. Ramiah Pillai was specially flown in for the show.

“Amma sang for me. The Chinese ambassador, Rajaji and Nehru attended the show. It was the first time I was meeting Jawaharlal Nehru. During the interval, I came down with my autograph book. Rajaji drew the picture of a dancing figure and autographed it. A smiling Nehruji also signed it for me.

“I danced at the Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) when Rajaji was the Governor General of India.” Radha's beloved autograph book testifies to her constant encounters with celebrities in every field of human endeavour.

“Amma loved Taaye Yasoda because she enjoyed my abhinaya in playing Krishna's pranks,” Radha recalled. One day Kalki, Sadasivam and TKC came to the class. At the end they decided that the girls were ready to make their debut. Papanasam Sivan composed new Tamil sahityam for the music of their old varnam, and new songs were chosen to express the nationalist aspirations of the time. Anandhi remembers how the tailor sat in the verandah and made their first costume in shiny satin. The girls were so disappointed when the elders rejected it as gaudy. The pattern too had to be more aesthetic. “Model it on Rukmini Devi's costume,” said Sadasivam. The poor tailor had never heard of Rukmini Devi and wanted to know if it was the name of a tailoring establishment.

Years later, when Radha fell seriously ill, Anandhi and Vijaya, Radha’s younger sister, nursed her devotedly. There was not a single day during her prolonged hospitalization when they were not there by her bedside.

V Shrinivasan, Cheenu to all of us, Radha’s son remembers how Anandhi was a great pillar of support when Lakshmi, Radha’s daughter was born. It was she who convinced Radha that her daughter was a special child, even as Radha was in denial initially.

At Sruti, the magazine I edit, we have been great admirers of Radha’s musical acumen and undying spirit. We honoured her with a tribute to these qualities in an article by Gowri Ramnarayan when she made her comeback to the concert stage after recovering from major illness. The same article was expanded into a chapter in the book MS & Radha, a Saga of Steadfast Devotion in 2009.

The way the book got written was by itself an interesting story. One day, in October of that year, Cheenu, who is now more and more like Sadasivam, his grandfather, came home and said, “Gowri Akka, when will the book be ready? I have fixed the date for the book’s release by the Prime Minister on 11 December, Amma’s birthday, and the day MS Paatti passed away.” I was completely taken aback, as this was the first time I heard any mention of a book. It turned out Gowri, who was herself bed-ridden with a painful ailment for quite some time, had agreed to do the book a few months earlier and forgotten all about it. The only way we could bring out a book was now to self-publish it, as no publisher would even think of doing something as crazy as bringing out a book in two months.

At first we thought we would collect all the magazine articles Gowri had written on MS, and the Sruti article on Radha, collate them, edit them and bring out a pictorial book with about 10,000 words. But when Gowri started writing, she could not stop, emotionally charged as she was about those two ladies, and a full-fledged book emerged within 15 days! Everyday, she would complete anything between 3000 and 5000 words, mail it to me, working in another room, I would do one round of editing (not that the text needed much editing) and then email it to my daughter in the US. She would then add her inputs and mail it to Abhirami Sriram, our external editorial resource in Chennai. Abhirami would then edit the text further and mail it back to Gowri, for one final look. In the meantime, Cheenu, in Bangalore, was attending to the herculean task of choosing appropriate images from his collection of thousands of photographs. All this took a maximum of 48 hours each time. The design and layout were also done at home by our friend Ashok Rajagopalan. We just managed to catch the 11th December deadline, leaving for Delhi, armed with seven copies printed digitally, as the offset printer could not deliver by then. Because the release was in the PM’s residence before an invited audience, no sale was permitted, and nobody noticed that we had only seven copies.

I shall now read some excerpts from the chapter Meera’s Radha from the book MS & Radha.

March 12, 1983. The Madras cutcheri scene has been missing the grandeur of MS's music for a while now. There is a hushed expectancy at the Music Academy auditorium at Madras, as her old faithfuls throng the hall, eager to renew their connection with her. She is singing in a fund-raiser for the Minakshi temple in Houston, Texas. Even as her sruti-perfect, majestic voice rings out, the excitement of the listeners is tinged with a feeling of sadness. They are poignantly aware of the absence of Radha. Since her childhood Radha had provided exemplary vocal support to Subbulakshmi.

An old timer remarks, “To see MS on the stage without Radha is to see the sky without the crescent moon. No doubt it is vast and starry, but something is missing.” Most of them know that a debilitating illness had struck her months earlier, leading to prolonged hospitalisation.

Radha had in fact knocked at death's door. The Music Academy audience also knows that her miraculous recovery from this devastating illness is still far from complete.

Miracles and MS Subbulakshmi are rarely far from each other, and today yet another miracle unfolds before a stunned, predominantly Mylaporean audience. Halfway through the recital, something totally unexpected happens. The curtain drops abruptly, triggering excited whispers. Curtains in the midst of a classical Carnatic music programme! What is the matter?

When the curtain rises again, there is more surprise in store. There is Radha! She's seated on the stage, in her usual place reserved for pin paattu, vocal accompaniment, next to her mother. Pillows support her at the back, and she has one leg stretched out (later during the concert, she stretches her other leg too). The whole auditorium explodes in a cascade of applause, enthusiastically welcoming the newcomer with affection and appreciation. Several in the audience breathe hard, lumps in their throats.

This is Radha's first appearance after her serious illness, a tremendous exercise of grit and will power. She begins her foray by singing solo at first. It is Tazh sadaiyum, beginning in Simhendramadhyamam and sliding into Brindavanasaranga. It is a favourite with her father Sadasivam, because it celebrates the oneness of Siva and Vishnu, and by extension the gods of all religions, though they appear in different forms. Today, for once, Sadasivam in the front row is not thinking of its philosophical import. There is a tremulous quality to Radha's singing, but as the performance gains momentum again, the initial strain disappears and Radha's voice gathers strength. After all, she is singing Sarojadala netri for Minakshi, her mother's special deity. As MS launches into the main piece in Sankarabharanam, Radha's years of training and experience assert themselves. It seems, in a life of lights and shadows, mostly alternating but sometimes overlapping, she is emerging from the deepest shadow of them all.

Radha's relationship with Subbulakshmi was a very special one. As she grew older, Radha began to assume more and more responsibilities and became an indispensable source of strength and support to Subbulakshmi in every way. She assisted her mother in personal life as well as in her singing career, taking charge of all practical and routine matters. MS relied on Radha to take care of everything.

“After my illness, the roles were reversed,” Radha said with a catch in her voice. “How strange it was to see Amma taking care of me!  It was Amma's turn to help me in everything, looking after me tenderly as if I were a child again.” And Radha felt the change all the more because to her, Subbulakshmi was mother and guru rolled into one. It was not a formal guru-sishya relationship. Radha explained:

“What matters is not the direct instruction that a guru imparts. The preceptor's worth and value to the disciple depend upon the devotion he commands and the inspiration he kindles. Listening to Amma's soul-stirring music has been such a precious gain for me.”

Divine grace, human goodwill, excellent healthcare, or a combination of all of them must have worked in her favour. Radha had emerged into the light of consciousness once again on 22 April 1982. She came home to a long period of convalescence. Recognising that music could be used as a tool of rehabilitation, her husband and parents encouraged her to practise singing and learn new songs as well. She did just that. “At the bottom of my heart burns a fierce desire, one may say determination, to excel in everything over and above everyone's expectation,” she said. With childlike wonder in her eyes, she added: “And when people show that they care about my plight, I feel so touched! When I joined Amma midway during that concert at the Academy, how people clapped and cheered!”

Radha's life has been a bewildering chiaroscuro of experiences, but her personality refuses to wilt, even thriving in adversity. The severe trials of her life have not sapped her vitality. She continues to show rare willpower in pursuing a goal set by Cheenu, which is to remain well enough and practise enough to be able to sing and teach.

It is her sense of humour that makes Radha so much fun to be with.  As a young girl, when her father asked her to serve sweetlime juice for their guest, astrologer Kaviseri, Radha found that there was no fruit in the kitchen. She exclaimed, “Why didn't Kaviseri intervene and suggest coffee? Surely as an astrologer, he should know that there is no sweetlime in the house!” 

Fifty years later, when frail Kunjamma got into a dolorous mood and went on and on listing her woes, Radha finally interrupted her with a giggle. “You know what, only you can sing Kurai onrum illai (I have no regrets) and convince the whole world that you have no worries at all, when actually you are bursting with worries from uchi talai (head) to ullangal (feet)!”

Adversity has not diminished Radha's powers of endurance or her courage, disasters have not deflated her enthusiasm for life. Her joie de vivre and elan remain intact; her indomitable will has helped her keep the MS tradition alive – with a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eyes.

Today’s event is at once a tribute to Radha and MS. Despite all her numerous setbacks, she continues to be the most cheerful person imaginable, and happily passes on her musical knowledge to Aishwarya, Soundarya and other students. On behalf of all of us gathered here, I salute her indomitable spirit.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Two plays in London

They examine human nature through different lenses

By Abhinav Ramnarayan

London is well into Shakespeare season now, and the theatre goer is besieged with opportunities to see classic and modernised versions of Julius Caesar, Othello, As You Like It and The Tempest to name a few.

But two contemporary productions, The Boat Factory and Chimerica, are the ones that truly portray the depth and breadth of the London theatre scene. Both productions excite the senses, tug at the heartstrings and examine human nature; but through entirely different lenses.

THE BOAT FACTORY is enacted by two players against a minimal set and in a tiny theatre at the back of a pub. The subject matter is introspective – a look at the lives of two people in a shipbuilding yard in Belfast.

It is a heartfelt first-person account of one shipbuilder, paradoxically combining nostalgia for the UK’s great manufacturing past with revulsion for the exploitative and dangerous conditions under which the shipbuilders worked.

All the roles are played by Michael Condron and Dan Gordon. Condron is the more versatile actor, slipping into different roles with ease, while Gordon makes up for a lack of flexibility with authenticity; he is also the playwright and the son of a Belfast shipworker.

The play is set around Davy, a young lad about to begin his first day of work at the shipyard.
He is accompanied by his surly, taciturn father and on his first day becomes involved in a mighty punch-up, before being put to work under an abusive superior who beats a fellow employee in front of his shocked eyes. The fight scene in particular is enacted with vigour, making you momentarily forget there is just a pair of them on stage.

Perhaps even more extraordinary is a scene where the protagonist meets a bow-legged fellow employee, Geordie Kilpatrick, soon to become his closest friend and confidante. The two of them are interrupted by their superior, a loud and unforgiving man and what follows is a masterclass in acting; the two actors share the three roles between them, effortlessly switching between the roles of the new boy, the bow-legged companion and the abusive superior, with just the aid of a bowler hat to distinguish the boss from his underlings.

The most moving scenes, however, are when the two main characters climb on to the crow’s nest of an unfinished ship. Bit by bit, Davy realises his companion is a poet and a dreamer trapped in the body of a crippled shipwright. Much of the play’s nostalgia is directed as much to the companion as it is to the shipyard.

In many ways, it is pointless to compare this with CHIMERICA, which is on another level altogether. It uses a large cast and an elaborate set to look well beyond Britain’s shores at the fractious and increasingly co-dependent relationship between the world’s foremost superpowers, China and the US.

The play is set in the cavernous Harold Pinter theatre and on the stage is an ingenious cube that turns to show its different faces: on one side a cramped Chinese living room, on another the front of a flower shop, on a third the front of a seedy strip bar in Chinatown in New York.

The scale, the professionalism, the set, the subject – all of it is on a larger scale than The Boat Factory.  And yet, it is missing something the smaller play has – a certain unquestionable honesty of purpose.

The starting point of the play, and the central image throughout, is Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. A man stands in front of a tank to stop it from proceeding further. Whichever the way the tank moves, he follows, forming a human shield on his own. What motivates him to do this, to risk his freedom and possibly his life in order to protest?

That is the question asked by American photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore), who captures this moment on film and hides the negatives in the toilet when police come searching.

To his excitement many years later when he is safely in the US, a rumour emerges that the tank man actually immigrated to the US. He risks everything – his job, his time and even the prospect of a relationship to try and track him down.

Meanwhile in China, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) is a survivor of the massacre, but haunted by the memory of his wife who died in front of those guns. Ably assisted by an outstanding expressionistic set that seems to reflect the state of his mind as much as his surroundings Wong ties the heart into knots with his performance.

The two characters, and the two narratives, are made considerably richer by a series of convincing supporting characters, and the tragedy is interspersed with humorous and tender moments.

The play has garnered five star reviews from some of the severest critics in the London scene. However, there is one flaw that takes away a lot of the play’s appeal. It is the suspicion that writer Lucy Kirkwood is every bit as guilty as her photographer anti-hero of using a genuine tragedy for her own ends.

Of course, it is the job of every writer to tell a good story. But clever plot twists, especially at the end of the play, cheapen the tragedy and reduce the grandeur of the subject and bring it down to the level of a clever crime thriller.

Perhaps Kirkwood sees the irony, and even plays up to it. But by reducing the complexities of a real life situation to an old fashioned plot-twister, the play falls short of the truly sublime that was well within its reach.