Song of Surrender

Friday, 12 June 2015

M.D. Ramanathan and fishing

Venkatasubramanian Viraraghavan

As I listen to Poorvakalyani by MDR, I am reminded of many things. The first is M.D. Ramanathan’s fame for keeping the raga intact even when not adhering to the raga “rules” perfectly. In this Poorvakalyani, he uses many phrases that a critic could object to: phrases such as MDN, PDN with emphasis on the N, and quite unbelievable too, as a long note.

My brother used to say that there will be confusion about ragas only if the confusion already exists in the performer’s mind, which then “percolates” to the listener. As long as performers have watertight compartments in their own minds, no amount of “incorrect” swara sancharas can sully that division. And, that is exactly what MDR once said: “If you want the real Hamsadhwani, you must forget SRGPNS, SNPGRS.” In this case, he practised it in Poorvakalyani. I think this is the point where the scientific analysis of music breaks down. It may take aeons before we can scientifically explain why an “incorrect” swara sanchara may not cause the listener to feel that the raga’s identity is becoming ambiguous. Borrowing from MDR’s article (and I believe now that he wrote this statement with full understanding): the science and the art of music presuppose the existence of each other. Without resolving this conundrum, I feel it is not possible to preserve the raga boundaries. Approach it scientifically and it sounds contrived; approach it emotionally and it lacks rigour.

The point is that MDR had understood how the science and the art of music can both presuppose the existence of the other; he understood the balance between the two.

MDR had those watertight compartments and while immersing himself in a raga he “forgot” the arohana and avarohana. Then, how did he approach the swaras? The wonder doubles. In the swara mode, you realise that he could “hit” any swara at will: as in a phrase like SM;GRS in Poorvakalyani. This is another tricky balance – he could sing any note in a plain manner, but he could 'forget' the notes to bring out the best in the raga. I am pretty sure he would have managed to sing spot-on a computer-generated random sequence of notes without confusing the raga’s identity.

When I realise that he has not sung this type of Poorvakalyani elsewhere (at least not in my collection of about 60 concerts), another memory comes back to me. When in the 12th standard, we had a lesson called The Badger by Jug Suraiya which describes how a teacher keeps the pride of his position intact in the face of adversity. During the narrative, it mentions the purpose of fishing (yes, fishing). The point of fishing, it says, is not to catch the fish and show them off or eat them (doesn’t philosophy begin on a full stomach?), it lies in the joy of catching the fish and then letting them back into the water. Sometimes, when I listen to MDR's music I imagine that he did precisely that: he caught fish from his manodharma stream in each concert and threw them back in. In the next concert, he would catch a different set of fish, but he was certain to throw them back in. Perhaps, that is what kept him going – the insatiable desire to keep fishing, but never yielding to the temptation to hoard fish.

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