By Sukanya Sankar
The inaugural day (29 June) of the Pallavi Darbar festival organised by Carnatica and Parthasarathy Swami Sabha at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, commenced with an interesting lecture demonstration on the 'Art of tanam singing' by Carnatic musician and Sanskrit scholar Dr. T.S. Sathyavathi. She began by highlighting the importance of breath control in singing tanams, and explained the significance of 'swasa sastra' and 'siksha sastra' – the two anchors of tanam.
When Sathyavathi said that the inspiration for tanams stemmed out of the veena, it seemed like interesting trivia, but when she went on to demonstrate how each syllable should be actually sung and how it resonates from the nabhi or navel, the “Taanam..anantam” sounded just like the veena. The manner in which Sathyavati was able to demonstrate every syllable in various permutations and combinations of swara patterns of 3,5,7 and moved from a six-pattern to a three, were commendable.
She beautifully demonstrated how to approach a tanam using the ghana ragas – the combination of notes in ghana ragas she said, naturally leads to an aesthetic unison of ghana and naya (powerful and soft) and hence is a fine choice for singing tanam. Tyagaraja’s pancharatnas, a fitting example of the ghana ragas were demonstrated in tanam and the beauty of the raga flowed seamlessly.
She then moved on to the importance of practicing tana varnams. She demonstrated the simple Abhogi, Mohanam and Saveri varnams in the tana krama, using the solfa syllables, ‘Takara and Nakara’. She demonstrated on how one can shift the breath control and stress on the syllables while practicing the tana varnams and they can actually produce a scintillating effect on the listener.
Sangeeta Ratnakara, Natya Sastra, and other Sanskrit treatises give different musical interpretations to tanam. These texts have explained tanam as a series of six, five, three or two notes arranged in a specific combination. The straightforward combinations of these notes are called ‘suddha tanam’ (for example, ss rr gg, srg) and the vakra combinations which are not straightforward are called ‘kuta tanam’ (Sa ma, Da pa da ri). She demonstrated and explained the training for such tanams using the sahitya of stotras like Mudakaratta modakam and the Kalabhairava Ashtakam.
She then went on to explain the different type of tanams which when sung, depict the movement or gait of birds and animals, such as the gaja (elephant), hareena (deer) markata (monkey), and mayura (peacock). Every time she demonstrated the tana krama for each of these classifications, you could actually visualise the animal or the bird. Her demonstration of Ghanta tanam and Sankha tanam was really powerful and it is a pity that we do not get to hear some of these tanams in concerts today.
While most musicians talk of innovation in their concerts, why not adopt some of these existing techniques in tanam singing? When the audience today is willing to accept changes in the kutcheri paddati, why not try something novel in the form of a tanam? It could well be a totally new ‘Ananta’ for both the musician and the rasika.