Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Ariyakudi phenomenon

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (19 May 1890- 23 Jan 1967)
A disciple's tribute

By Alepey Venkatesan

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar  was the doyen of Carnatic music and the leading vocalist of the 20th Century. He developed a unique style of his own that represented a drastic, epoch-making departure from the prevailing concert in both form and content ; was the architect of  the modern concert format, which, with some minor modifications, is still in vogue. He was a source of inspiration and a role model to the great musicians who came on the scene after him. His concerts used to great advantage the skills of three generations of the greatest accompanists.

Salient features of his music
His music was a compendium of diverse but quintessential features which are the vital ingredients of sound, tradition-based Carnatic Music. These included: a rich and choiceful repertoire of the compositions of a wide array of composers, with central importance accorded in the concert to the inspired creations of the Trinity; the central role of the madhyamakala; the primacy of gamakas, the lifeblood of Carnatic Music; an intelligent voice culture which kept the voice consistently musical under all conditions; facile modulations of the voice (thick gliding seamlessly to thin without making a laboured point of it) facilitating blending with the sruti without the shouting effect, especially in the tara sthayi; the complete and scrupulous avoidance of all ugly and unseemly mannerisms; the importance of finesse in enunciation with just the right amount of stress so as to be intelligible but never so harsh as to degenerate into speech and mar the musical continuity ; the vital role of laya, not as mere finger-counting arithmetic but as the very sheet anchor on which to mount the lilt and majesty of the melodies; the knack of drawing the best out of the accompanists, be they stalwarts or beginners; the antenna for assessing the expectations and absorption level of the audience almost like a mind reader; and last but not the least, the hallmark of true mastery -- the fine art of making the difficult seem deceptively simple.

Early years

Sri Ramanuja Iyengar was born in 1890 to Sri Josyam Thiruvenkatachariar and Smt Chellammal in the village he was to make so famous and synonymous with lively, classical Carnatic Music. Ariyakudi is located near Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. He received his early music lessons from Shri Malayappa Iyer of Pudukkottah. Ariyakudi’s boyhood years were spent mainly in Devakottah & Karaikudi. His father was the court astrologer to the Raja of Chettinad, who patronized Ramanujam and helped him to come up. In his early concerts, there used to be many rasikas from the Chettiar community, who were proud that their “Josyan’s son” had made a mark as a musician. Around the same time, he also received a basic education in Sanskrit (This had a lasting influence, for, throughout his life, his conversations in Tamil always had a liberal sprinkling of Sanskrit words). Through his teens and early twenties, he underwent gurukulavasam under Namakkal 'Pallavi' Narasimha Iyengar in Srirangam for two years and later under Ramanathapuram 'Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar for about eleven years.


When he became a disciple of Ramanathapuram “Poochi” Srinivasa Iyengar, Ariyakudi acquired the privilege of belonging to the “Sishya Parampara” (the Genealogy of  Disciples) of Saint Thyagaraja -Poochi Iyengar’s guru was
Patnam Subramania Iyer, whose guru Manambuchavadi Venkata Subba Iyer was a direct disciple of the Saint.


Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar was often accompanied by Thirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer on the violin. Young Ramanujam playing the Thambura at these concerts was greatly attracted by Krishna Iyer's style, which was one of the profound influences in shaping the Ariyakudi Bani. Other important influences which went into the shaping of the Ariyakudi style were Veena Dhanammal,(from whom he learnt not only Padams and Javalis but the sense of vishranthi and an awareness of gamakas with which he tempered the racy style of  Poochi Iyengar to fashion the Ariyakudi style), Malakkottai Govindaswamy Pillai, Sarabha Sastri and Sakharama Rao among others. Having had the advantage of such close association with the great masters of his time, he evolved a unique, distinct style of his own,  judiciously synthesising the aesthetic graces in the music of his gurus and other inspiring role models.

Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar,popularly known as ‘Poochi Iyengar”, as a tribute his exceptionally flighty voice, was born on the 16th of August, 1860 to Sri Ananthanarayana Iyengar and Smt Lakshmi Ammal in the village of Parpankulam in Ramanathapuram Zilla. The Raja of Ramnad, Sri Bhaskara Sethupathy, discovered his talent when he was a student in the 4th class, patronized him and put him under the tutelage of Patnam Subramania Iyer.

After gurukulavasam for a few years,Srinivasa Iyengar gave his debut concert in the Durbar Mantapam of the Ramnad Palace in the presence of his guru and the Raja, accompanied by Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer on the violin, Alagar Nambia Pillai on the mrudangam and Mamoondia Pillai on the khanjira.

The Raja soon appointed Srinivasa Iyengar his asthana vidwan. After that, there was no looking back. He is said to have been blessed with an exceptionally pacy voice, which could thrill the listeners with its briga sallies. He also came to be respected for his erudition in sangitha sastra and was hailed as a “lakshana vidwan” who composed about 55 praiseworthy compositions, (most of them in praise of the Lord of the Seven Hills) covering different musical forms, such as tana varnam.

Pada varnams, kritis, javalis,tillanas (including one in the “Lakshmeesa” talam, the 106th in the group of 108 talas as well as one in a melakarta tala) and a Kavadi Chinthu. Arguably, he was the most gifted composer of chitta swarams after Syama Sastri and Subbaraya Sastri. He passed away in the year 1919. His senior disciple was Salem Doraiswamy Iyengar. His most famous disciple, who popularized his compositions, was, of course, Ariyakudi.

Before Ariyakudi  

Concert scenario

In the early years of the 20th Century, music sabhas and such other institutions featuring Carnatic Music concerts were few and far between. Those were times when Carnatic Music throve mainly on the patronage of the kings of the princely States, notably Mysore and Travancore, as well as the Zamindars of various principalities of South India. Concerts were infrequent; audiences small and general level of awareness of nuances low. There were no Radio, TV or other organizations to provide exposure to an aspiring musician. Add to all that the Gurukula system which was exploitative of disciples and generally frowned upon youthful enthusiasm and aspirations as presumptuous and upstartish. Even at age 20, one was not considered concert material. Such was the Music Scene that Ariyakudi took by storm in the second decade of the 20th Century. It is noteworthy that he started performing only in 1909.

Concert format

Typically, the concert duration was rarely less than 4 hours, often stretching to five or five and a half hours. One might think this was a long duration by current standards, but strangely, this format accommodated only a Varnam, 4 or 5 kritis and a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. The reasons were twofold. In the first place, raga alapanas and niraval and kalpana swaras tended to be lengthy, repetitive; sometimes boring and monotonous. Secondly, there were atleast two percussion interludes, each taking up thirty to forty-five minutes. Such was the concert format which Ariyakudi revolutionised and transformed so that it metamorphosed into the Modern Concert Format, which has stood the test of time and is still going strong, with minor modifications dictated by the march of time and changing lifestyles of the rasikas.

The Ariyakudi concert format

The modern concert format was fashioned and perfected by Ariyakudi. The most challenging part of the task, which  executed with consummate skill, consisted in drastically reducing the length of raga alapana. The raga essay had to be brief, but without leaving the rasika dissatisfied or with a sense of incompletion. Ariyakudi was the very man for this mission; for, he had both the fecundity of ideas and the fluency of voice to take one on an odyssey through a major raga like Sankarabharanam or Todi in a matter of four minutes, and amazingly, give the listener a sense of wholesome experience of the raga.

Having done that, he expected and successfully prevailed upon his violinists never to exceed his own duration of raga alapana, even if the violinist happened to be a senior artiste like Malakkottai Govindaswamy Pillai. Too, he did not countenance the persussionists hogging a disproportionate part of the concert time. He quietly asserted the primacy of the singer and his prerogative as to time management for the success of the concert. His charisma and leadership were such that even senior accompanists had to fall in line.

When he reduced the alapna duration, his innate sense of proportion led him to suitably prune the time spent on niraval and kalpana swaras. For example, if he sang a raga for 3 minutes and the violinist would play for 2 & ½ minutes, the kriti was rendered in 4 minutes, he would sing kalpanaswaras for no more than about 4 minutes. If niraval was sung, that might take another 4 minutes or so. Contrast this with what we often find even in 2&1/2 hour concerts. The musician goes on with a single suite(raga,kriti, niraval & swaras) for almost an hour; and as a result, is forced to make short shrift of the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in under 15 minutes. Such intelligent apportionment of concert time as he practised is more relevant today, since the concert duration has shrunk to less than half. Though he sang many scholarly, complicated pallavis, he also composed an array of short, entertaining pallavis, to be deployed according to the time available for the Pallavi in a particular concert. In his case, this usually happened in those concerts in which he had not planned to sing a Pallavi but a belated request cropped up. As a policy, he would not turn down rasika’s requests, even if the timing was not too good. Once such a request came, the concert time would automatically get extended, enough to do justice to a small pallavi.

All of the above measures freed up a substantial chunk of time. He utilised it in two ways. In the first place, he could present many more ragas and kritis in each concert than would have been feasible under the previous dispensation. Secondly, he made the tail-end miscellany longer, far more varied and interesting.

The Consequences of ’s Concert Format. The first and most obvious effect of his format was that there was no such thing as ennui in an Ariyakudi concert. With one stroke, he transformed the desultory, bored, yawns into joyous enthusiasm, keen interest and edge-of-the-seat anticipation. The listeners were delighted to be treated to a wide variety of songs of different composers in many
more ragas than had been in vogue in concerts. It also helped that he sang in Sanskrit and in all the South Indian languages as well as a few bhajans in Hindi and Gujarati.

Secondly, he brought a striking novelty, variety and popular appeal to the post-Pallavi miscellany segment of the concert. His famed concerts at Gokhale Hall, Madras in the 1920’s & 1930’s used to start at 4-15 p.m. on Sundays. At 8 p.m., he would launch the miscellaneous fare, by which time the hall was overflowing with college students, ready to raucously shout for an encore on every item. He used to present Javalis, Tiruppavais, Thiruvempavais, Tiruppugazh, Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam, (he was the tunesmith for most of these), nationalist/patriotic songs inspired by the Freedom Movement in different languages. The young men who came in droves to listen to this light fare later came to the earlier part of his concerts and learnt to appreciate his ragas, kritis, niraval, swaras and even Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. In this manner, Ariyakudi educated atleast two generations of music lovers, by gradually raising their awareness and levels of appreciation.

But by far and away the most significant consequence of this concert format
that  created and perfected was this. But for such a format which accommodated several songs even in a two and a half hour concert, many great and precious compositions of the Trinity and other great vaggeyakaras might have gone out of currency and been lost to us. 

(To be continued)

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