Song of Surrender

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Random notes

By V Ramnarayan

The Season survives the floods

The floods have receded, the sun has come out, and the Chennai December music season is on. Missing still are the usual sparkle of the festival and the swirl of crowds inside the halls and at the canteens, but they are gradually coming back. The musicians on their part are effortlessly proving that they are as resilient as the brave denizens of the city who have done themselves and all of us proud with their gallantry in adversity. The few performances I have attended have been just as absorbing and electrifying as the best fare the circuit usually offers. Some of the programmes I have been to were presented by artists from elsewhere. 

Amrutha Venkatesh of  Bengaluru, for instance, has been an old favourite of mine for some years now. She is actually a young musician with an impressive voice, and evidently clear views on what kind of music works for her. At the Sivagami Pethachi auditorium for Brahma Gana Sabha, she gave  a recital that could have been idiosyncratic had she not rendered every song with the utmost integrity. It was slow or medium paced almost from start to finish, but her sruti and laya sense was impeccable and her understanding of raga music seemed deep and keenly felt. Her nuanced delineation of Sankarabharanam and a super slow M.D. Ramanathan composition in that raga was quite simply outstanding. 

The 1980s and early 90s were an exciting time for Carnatic music. Brilliant young musicians like U. Shrinivas, N. Ravikiran, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Vijay Siva, Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashri, T.M. Krishna, and R.K. Shriram Kumar emerged as major talents to be watched. Some of us tend to bemoan the lack of such a resurgence in recent years, but every now and then a Ramakrishnan Murthy or Ashwath Narayanan gives us hope. 

Another promising youngster, Sandeep Narayan, made a sparkling debut in the senior slot this season at the Music Academy. He displayed great aesthetic sense while exploring ragas like Kedaragaula, Nata and Hamsanadam in the early part of his concert, indicating that he had drunk deeply of the music of his gurus and several past masters. In the main raga Todi, too, he was fresh in his approach, before he seemed to get carried away by the urge to be spectacular. Born and educated in the US, Sandeep Narayan has for some years been one of the brightest vocal talents around, showing signs of late that he is emerging as an original musician, no longer a clone of his guru Sanjay Subrahmanyan, yet retaining the best features he has imbibed from him. He indulged in a grahabheda exercise in the raga Todi, which left some of us mystified and dissatisfied, particularly after listening to an excellent lecdem on the subject in the morning by Gayatri of the Ranjani-Gayatri duo. Gayatri had stressed the importance of aesthetics in this art of shifting the tonic or adhara shadja and moving from one raga to another. It should be done in an organic manner, she said, subject to the artist deeply internalising and being aware of  both the ragas concerned throughout the exercise. Her lecture followed another enlightening demo, by vainika D. Balakrishna, who presented nine pallavis he learnt from his father Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar and other stalwarts of the last century. The Sangita Kalanidhi designate Sanjay Subrahmanyan described Balakrishna’s lecture as ‘a throwback to the past’ and Gayatri’s as ‘a window to the future.’ 

Voices lost – and regained

Singers in Indian classical music, especially Carnatic vocalists, have historically been prone to afflictions of the voice, sometimes creating serious problems for their careers, even ending them prematurely in a few cases. Overuse of the voice, is often cited as the prime cause of damage to the vocal chords, as in the case of teachers of music among these performers. The wonderful musician Neyveli Santhanagopalan has been a case in point. There are also unfortunate examples of medical causes of loss of voice. 

Another quite credible but not often accepted cause of voice problems among Carnatic vocalists is the reluctance to adopt voice training methods. Why do we need voice culture or training when we have our traditional abhyasa ganam or song exercises from the time of Purandaradasa – ideal for the purpose – is the oft posed question when the subject of voice engineering is raised. How many musicians continue these exercises into their adult years would be a moot point.

One way of preserving the voice is to literally pay lip service to vocalisation, relying on amplification via the microphone, rather than the whole-body approach to singing where such parts as the diaphragm, torso and lungs come into play, rather than just the throat and mouth. Many Carnatic vocalists croon or sing nasally when they are not barking into the mike, with resonance a major casualty. Not only can you save the voice from strain this way, you can also create the illusion of sruti perfection, which is hard to achieve in full-throated singing without hard years of practice. Like some popular musicians, I am tempted to use a cricketing allusion here, namely that it is much easier to bowl accurately if you do not aim for sheer pace or sharp spin, an easy route run-of-the mill bowlers tend to take.

The stories of vocalists who lose their voices temporarily or permanently can be tragic and traumatic. One famous story with a happy ending however was that of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who rediscovered his voice years after he lost it – thanks to divine intervention, he was convinced. A more recent, if equally miraculous, instance of such good fortune has been that of the loss and subsequent recovery of the voice of Ananth Vaidyanathan, who while seeking expert help to restore his voice, trained to become a voice guru himself. He has since improved the singing voices of hundreds of young musicians, many of us know. 

The current Chennai music season has been no exception to the general run of weak voices, especially among the men, though a refreshing contrast was provided by the vibrant young duo of the Trichur Brothers during their recent Music Academy concert. Quite apart from strong voices, the brothers also showed sensitivity to the nuances of raga music and pushed the envelope in manodharma quite adventurously. Listening to them that afternoon, especially while they did a ragam-tanam-pallavi in the raga Dwijavanti, the suspicion crossed the mind that they like to listen to Hindustani  music. My conversations with some experts revealed a certain reluctance among them to put their stamp of approval on their music. Mine is a dissenting vote. Another singer to impress with her significant improvement in vocalisation and her nuanced manodharma has been Brinda Manickavasagam, a talented disciple of Suguna Varadachari.

Through the decades, there have been Carnatic vocalists who have been less fortunate than Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. The names of Balaji Sankar and Rajkumar Bharathi come to mind as those who never made a comeback as vocalists, though Bharathi has reinvented himself as a hugely successful dance music composer. 

In the midst of such gloom, I was very happy to see a glimmer of hope while listening to the Music Academy concert of Papanasam Ashok Ramani, who seems to have regained some of his long lost sruti suddham and gamaka aesthetics. It will be a great day if he returns to his winning ways of the 1980s.

Few parallels

He must be among the finest instrumentalists in the history of Carnatic music, right at the top of the ladder in the mastery of his chosen instrument – the gottuvadyam, which he renamed the chitraveena some decades ago. At his recent Music Academy concert, N. Ravikiran furnished proof – if proof is indeed needed – of what a consummate artist he is. In a performance steeped in tradition, he exuded positive energy all the time, encouraging his accompanists and the audience in an exhilarating  journey of raga exploration and discovery. Rarely do we come across such swarasthana suddham, striking the right note every time as he does, and such sublime rendering of the ragas he chooses to play, common or rare. Grandeur and dignity mark his music when he is on song, pun unintended. Whether it is composed or improvised music – be it raga alapana, niraval, tanam or swaraprastara – Ravikiran has few parallels in purity of sound. 

We all know he was a child prodigy who could identify scores of ragas even at the age of two. Trained by his father N. Narasimhan, he took to the instrument his grandfather Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar had been master of, and in a period of a little over four decades, he has not only scaled the peak in his field, but also made the chitraveena a household name. His efforts to propagate Carnatic music worldwide, his attempts to introduce harmony to its essential melodic nature in collaboration with symphony orchestras and his evangelical promotion of the compositions of Oothukadu Venkatasubba Iyer have made him an unusual icon in the world of music, but to me he remains a sangeeta kalanidhi pure and simple, a veritable treasure house  of music.

There are many talented instrumentalists in Carnatic music today, most of them forced to play supporting roles as accompanists. Solo instrumental kutcheris are no longer as popular as they were in the 1970s, when artists of the calibre of Lalgudi Jayaraman, N. Ramani, T.R. Mahalingam (in the evening of his career), and Chittibabu ruled the roost. In addition to the many accomplished violinists and percussionists enriching the kutcheri scene, quite a few flautists bring a touch of glamour to it.  Nagaswara vidwans of the calibre of the flamboyant Injikkudi E.M. Subramaniam are not far behind.  J.B. Sruthi Sagar and J.A. Jayanth are among the young brigade of flute vidwans drawing crowds. Jayanth gave an impressive display at the Music Academy just the other day, both with the kriti repertoire he doubtless imbibed from his late grandfather T.S. Sankaran, and his delightful creative exploits. Like the great Mali and N. Ramani in the past, he dares to attempt the impossible at times, but will probably achieve greater balance and poise sooner rather than later. Not that his appreciative audiences are complaining about his adventurous spirit!

The morning lecdems are an integral part of the season, especially at the Music Academy and Sri Parthasarathi Swami Sabha. Another iconic instrumentalist was remembered with nostalgia, the unforgettable mandolin genius U. Shrinivas who performed on the 23 December at the Academy every year. His untimely death has not only left a huge void in the music world, but has made it a challenge to fill the gap in the season calendar. Last season, the Academy paid its first tribute to the young maestro, while this time around, his younger brother U. Rajesh, himself a gifted disciple of his, presented  nuggets of  his music to a visibly moved audience. Shrinivas’s humility, his musical gifts, his devotion to his instrument, his work ethic, his photographic memory, especially when it came to learning new music, were all highlighted in Rajesh’s presentation. It was no doubt a happy celebration of the genius of Shrinivas, but nonetheless a deeply emotional experience as well. There was a not a dry eye in the auditorium at the end of the programme.

(These pieces first appeared in the Deccan Chronicle)

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