Song of Surrender

Monday, 24 April 2017

Sandeep Ramachandran and Apoorva Krishna

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

The recent years have seen many young musicians from parts of India outside Chennai, as well as overseas make waves in Carnatic music. Many of these young musicians take pride in preserving the true essence of the music without diluting it and ensuring that they are flag bearers of the rich heritage of the music. This interview with Sandeep Ramachandran, a young violinist who moved to Chennai from Singapore, and Apoorva Krishna, a Bangalore-based violinist,  will reassure music patrons that the future of Carnatic music is indeed in safe and passionate hands – literally! 

Tell us about how your music journey started. 

Apoorva: My inspiration for music started from a young age as I grew up constantly listening to music at home. My late great grandfather Sri S Rajagopala Iyer was a musician and the author of Sangeetha Akshara Hridaya—a book on laya intricacies. My grandmother Shakuntala Murthy was also a vocalist. When I was six years old my parents took me to a violin solo recital of my guru Smt. Anuradha Sridhar. My parents realised that I was fascinated by the instrument, and so they took me to her house. 

During that time, her mother, Lalgudi Srimathi Brahmanandam was also present and she initiated me into violin playing. I continued my training under Anuradha Sridhar for a few years in the US. We moved back to India when I was in sixth grade and I furthered my learning from Lalgudi Srimathi Mami since then.

Sandeep:  I started learning violin at the age of 7 at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society from various tutors there. My father used to take me to classes every weekend. Over time, my interest in the art form blossomed. Once, when Sri N Vijay Siva visited our home in Singapore, he suggested that I learn from Sri RK Shriramkumar. That sparked my musical journey with Shriram sir. I learnt from him whenever I came to Chennai on vacation. 

The very first song he taught me was the Ata tala varnam in Bhairavi. In 2008, we shifted to Chennai from Singapore, and that allowed me to spend more time with Shriram sir. I count myself very fortunate and blessed to learn from such a learned vidwan and scholar. It is not only his outlook on music, but also life on the whole, that has shaped me on my musical journey so far. 

Tell us more. 

Sandeep: To say that Shriram sir is immensely knowledgeable would be a complete understatement. He is a treasure trove of knowledge – many musicians today seek his input, advice and opinion. What awes me is his humility and guru bhakti despite being such a great vidwan and having accomplished so much. He takes a lot of care in moulding our music the way he has absorbed it from all the great stalwarts whom he has been associated with. He is very encouraging, yet gives me a disapproving look whenever I play something suspect. Under his tutelage, I've come to imbibe many of these values in my life as well. Besides being my guru, he's been my philosopher and best friend. 

How is it performing solo vs performing with a vocalist? 

Apoorva: Accompanying a vocalist can be very challenging, but I enjoy the spontaneity and style variations that I am exposed to and imbibe when paired up with different musicians of Carnatic music.

Sandeep: I've been performing with vocalists in most of my concerts. While playing solo, it is incumbent upon the violinist to satisfy both his and the audience's musical hunger. On the other hand, being an accompanist, the violinist is required to be well equipped to handle the challenges and surprises while playing for a variety of artistes. Playing as an accompanist also benefits the violinist as he or she is exposed to new ideas and creative thoughts that may be absorbed and inculcated in his or her own music, which leads to a constant evolution as a musician.

Apoorva, how do you ensure that the new ideas and various styles of music you’re exposed to do not affect your own padantharam? 

Apoorva: Accompaniment playing is an art in itself. The key is to find the fine balance required to support and enhance a performance without overdoing or overstepping in a concert. Sometimes, I get a new idea while accompanying a main artiste during a raga alapana. I try to feature it in my response in a subtle manner. But I ensure that the Lalgudi bani stays throughout my performances, be it solo or accompaniment, because that is my identity and I would not want to astray from my pathantaram.

In all honesty, would you be able to tell the school of music when you listen to a violinist? 

Apoorva: Oh yes, most of the time, I'll be able to identify which school of music they belong to. 

What would you attribute the success of the violin as an integral instrument in Carnatic music to? 

Apoorva: In my opinion, a violin is like a shadow, inseparable from the voice at least in a concert setting. It has received its stature, thanks to our illustrious forefathers and mahagurus. The reason for this is the fine blend that it makes with the tanpura strings to raise the overall quality of music in the performance. Right from the beginning of a concert, till the end, the violinist is always closely playing the instrument to accompany the voice of the main artiste, like a shadow. I think that this role cannot be completely eclipsed by the flute or veena, even though they could add their individual flavour or colour by themselves.

Sandeep: I personally believe the violin has the innate ability to mirror and mimic the voice. In many concerts, especially by mahavidwans, one has heard the violin following the voice in unison, serving almost as vocal support. This, I feel, is a unique feature of the violin. There have been concerts where the flute or the veena have accompanied the voice too. In fact, it was the veena that used to play the accompanying role before the violin was introduced into Carnatic music. Concerts having these instruments present a different outlook and experience and enrich the concert in their distinctive ways.

Share a moment when you were truly caught off guard on stage. 

Apoorva: This was at one of my violin solo performances as a part of a day long series of concerts. Due to some miscommunication, we only found out while setting up our instruments on stage, that the percussionists had brought their instruments tuned to different pitches; the mridangam at F and ghatam at E. The ghatam is an instrument that has a fixed pitch. Since the show had to go on and there were hardly ten minutes for the concert to begin, I requested the mridangam artist to raise the mridangam's sruti to F sharp, as the ghatam artist who performed in the previous concert kindly agreed to lend us his C sharp instrument (which is the panchamam of F sharp).

Sandeep: Once when I was playing in a concert for my good friend Vidhya Raghavan at Chromepet, a dog came on stage and sat right next to me while I was playing kalpana swarams. I didn't know how to react then. It's very amusing when I think about it now.

Sandeep, let me bring you off stage and outside of your classroom for a moment. What are the songs or raga that come to your mind and reflect your mood when I present you the following situations? 


1 Reading a review of yours in the paper - "Enduku peddala vale buddhi iyavu"

2 Drinking a good filter coffee – “Marubalka”, because it needs a lot of energy to sing the song

3 Listening to a disappointing concert - "Nyayama Sri Meenakshamma?"

4 Having a good lunch at one of the sabha canteens - Nilambari, because a good lunch followed by sleep is bliss!

Apoorva, if you could ask Sandeep a question, what would it be? 

Apoorva:  How would you plan to spread Carnatic music among the masses and reach out to more and more rasikas amongst the present generation?

Sandeep: I think it most important for us to be true to music, to be proud of our art form and pursue it with vigour. The duty of each musician is to be committed and dedicated to the art form. This will help in attracting recognition from all.

Generation Next

By Nandini Ramani

Pavitra Bhatt

Among young and up-and-coming male Bharatanatyam dancers, Pavitra Bhatt stands out for his commitment and dedication to his art. With his immense talent and sincere, hard work Pavitra has worked his way to establish himself in the dance scene. Having trained initially with Vasantha of Kalanjali, Mumbai, Pavitra Bhatt further honed his skills with Deepak Mazumdar of the same city.

Watching Pavitra in solo and group numbers at a major event in Pune, provided a pleasant insight into his innate skill. He is a brilliant dancer endowed with ample grip in both nritta and abhinaya – he has rich potential to handle the various aspects of a performance with maturity, be it the technical or the interpretative layers of Bharatanatyam. He adds a graceful extension to his delineations while communicating the nuances of the concept. His ability to improvise spontaneously gives his work an electrifying touch, as a soloist. 

One of Pavitra’s strengths is his handsome stage presence which creates a charismatic impact. He is an intelligent and thinking dancer-choreographer whose sincerity and commitment are reflected in his artistic endeavours. He seems to have an in-built note of propriety or auchitya, based on his conviction and confidence that show up in his delineations. He has evolved into an impressive dancer of merit, building up gradually from his early training. His participation in the productions of Chennai-based dance teacher Anita Guha has added further dimensions to his choreographic skills.

Pavitra Bhatt has a gold medal in Dance Studies from Mumbai University. From 2003, he has been performing for several prestigious cultural organisations in India and travelled abroad several times, to the U.S.A., Canada, France and Malaysia for solo performances and group productions. These have received good response. He is credited with productions like Krishna Leela Tarangini, and Radhey Radhey Govinda, to name a few. He is also well trained in nattuvangam. He established the Pavitra Art Visual Instititute (PAVI) in Mumbai, with a branch in Pune. It has earned a good name and has a strength of 300 students.

Pavitra Bhatt has received several awards, prominent among them being the Yuva Kala Bharati from Bharat Kalachar, Chennai, and Singar Mani, Mumbai, apart from awards from well known organisations in Maharashtra. He is an “A” grade artist of Mumbai Doordarshan.

(Reproduced from Sruti 366, March 2015)

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Friday, 21 April 2017

Stillness in movement

SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance 2017

By Sruti Rao

It hits you with a sudden jolt that the SIFAS Festival has started as soon as you enter the campus. The usually bare and yellowing walls are decorated with an abundance of marigolds, strings of flowers and blue silk streamers. Just as a proud family extends a red carpet welcome to its guests, adorned in their best saris and kurtas, with bright smiles but anxious brows, the SIFAS Principal Vidhya Nair and her loyal entourage of staff and festival committee members take turns to receive the first attendees at the steps before scurrying down the halls towards the humble auditorium.

At the inauguration, the crowd collects, for what proves to be a momentary stillness compared to the 16 days that follow. Committee members, students, loyal festival followers and even a couple of new faces fill the temporary seating construction.

Dr ST Kasinathan welcomed the crowd to the 14th Annual SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance. The evening began with a customary musical welcome from the SIFAS gurus, as Carnatic and Hindutstani vocal gurus Bhuvaneshwari and Shibani Roy took the stage with other gurus Srikanth (mridangam), Mihir Kundu (tabla), along with Praveen Kumar on the violin and Nabendu Bhattacharya on the harmonium.

The gurus introduced themselves with an alapana and slokam in Kalyani raga, even as the evening winds merge with the melodies and the rhythmic accompaniment of the percussion. Somewhat of a musical experiment followed. To my dismay it didn’t particularly work in the artists’ favour. Songs in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles were interspersed with each other—Sarasa mahamani followed by ‘um bin more, but felt forced and didn’t quite meld in synergy. 

Shortly after the musical performance, the audience was in for a mesmerizing Bharatanatyam performance by Jyotsna Jagannathan. While the organisers and committee members socialized during a 15-minute break to congratulate the gurus, dance students (including myself) scurried to the front of the auditorium to ensure they could study the dancer’s perfection in clear view. I hadn’t heard much about Jyotsna beforehand, and was simply looking forward to a decent dance performance in the cosy comfort of the SIFAS auditorium. What I saw was, however, magnificent.

Jagannathan sprang confidently on to the stage with a Gambhiranata mallari, filled with statuesque movements that couldn’t but remind us of the style of Malavika Sarukkai, the dancer’s guru. The resemblance was admirable and refreshing. In the varnam Innam en manam in Charukesi, Jagannathan brought a whimsical confidence in to the characterisation of the nayaki. 

There were admittedly moments of the seeming light-heartedness in the nayaki’s conversation with Krishna didn’t allow me to connect to the emotions of the character poignantly as in other presentations of this varnam, but that didn’t stop my wide-eyed appreciation of the way Jagannathan carried herself through the piece. She tirelessly glided through long and complex jatis, and ascended to the lyrical expressions with the same poise. This careful balance of controlling the body, while letting go to immerse yourself in the piece, gave us glimpses of how much more there is to master in a dancer’s presentation. Another admirable quality was the quick switches in characters throughout the repertoire. From the confident lover in the varnam, Jagannathan morphed into the gentle mother of Lord Rama, in her subsequent presentation of Tulsi Das's Tumak chalat. While some of us were glued to the beauty of her control and professionalism, younger members of the crowd were enamoured with the precision of her taihat taihi which they had just learnt in their previous dance class.

Confidence came in the form of Singapore talents as well, with local artists grasping the opportunity and platform to develop their own performance skills. SIFAS alumni Sai Vigneshwar, Sushma Soma and Nishanth Thiagarajan, did the institution proud, with their bold rendering of heavy compositions in their vocal concerts.

Young dancers of the Singapore arts fraternity also held their own on the SIFAS stage, with Bharatanatyam and Kathak repertoires that brought traditional margams to light. Popular senior dance students like Preethi Devarajan, Varsha Vishwanath and Gauraangi Chopra gave endearing performances, their diligent practice showing in their nritta and stamina, while their abhinaya may still have scope to bring forth deeper connotations of the characters they were portraying.

A performance marked by maturity and precision amid the series of daily performances at the campus was that of SIFAS guru Geethanadhan. Kalakshetra came to Singapore on that breezy Monday evening, as Geethanadhan represented his alma mater’s aestheticism through his clear and energetic movements throughout the margam, beautifully accompanied by the traditional rendering of the live orchestra of SIFAS gurus. The neatness of his every movement—from the swastika of his feet to the tripataka of his hands—was a dance student’s delight to watch and process.

The offering of workshops and interactive sessions was a wonderful addition to the festival this year. One session was by the bright-eyed rising star of the Carnatic music scene, Ramakrishnan Murthy. On the eve of his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the humble musician brought to a mixed audience of young and experienced vocal students and music teachers, a workshop on using compositions to render raga alapana. The atmosphere of the enclosed rehearsal room allowed for a casual and interspersed Q&A with the artist, while he presented examples of how sangatis of age-old kritis can be referenced when rendering alapana. For instance, the anupallavi line Neela sareera from Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Balagopala in Bhairavi can be pulled upon as – in the artist’s own words – a “magnum opus” for setting the tone of Bhairavi, as he skilfully translated the sangatis of the pallavi into phrases in an alapana. While the structured insights of Ramakrishan Murthy were indeed thought-provoking, the commentary and varied questions that came from the audience were just as interesting to hear, bringing to light what we as students of music can learn not only from professional performers, but from each other as well.

The key big-ticket performance that I was anticipating the most was Mythili Prakash’s Jwala, presented at the Esplanade Theatre on the penultimate day of the festival. Mythili and her musician brother Aditya Prakash are no strangers to the Singapore stages, already enjoying quite a loyal fan-following here, and they did full justice to their expectations through their presentation of Jwala – the rising flame. The production allowed the audience to see a side of Mythili’s that it hadn’t before. The flame signifying memories of a loved one, and its role in the emergence of new life and love, was portrayed with a genuineness in the way it brought out personal parallels of the dancer’s own life experiences. The courage with which Mythili allowed herself to be vulnerable to this truth on stage was admirable and soul-stirring. Familiarity came through nonetheless in the dynamic fast-paced choreography of Mythili’s dance. Time and time again, the inspirational dancer has shown an intelligence in her varied interpretations of movement, knowing when to enthrall with brahmaris and hovering speeds, and also when to stand still and enrapture the audience with her mature and relatable expressions. Though certain components of the production felt superfluous, such as the attribution to Sivasakti in the middle, the performance in its entirety still kept the audience engaged and in complete awe of the dancer’s grand energy.

The musical ensemble in this show especially brought an elevated dynamic to the dance more than any other presentation in this year’s festival. From Easwar Ramakrishnan with his  superior rendering on the violin, Jayashree Ramanathan with her clear and precise nattuvangam, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram with rhythmic synchronization on the mridangam, and Krishnan Venkatesh with some  incredible lighting, to Aditya Prakash and Sushma Soma’s melodic and mature navigation of the music with each member, gave the entire production a beauty that allowed us to internalize the visual elements of the dance in ways we could not have without them. Aditya Prakash’s rendering of the Sufi poem Ji chaahe to sheesha banja at the end was especially poignant and graceful.

One Esplanade performance that disappointed however, was Rajendra Gangani’s Kathak presentation Rachna. The craft and ability of the dancer cannot be questioned, as he showed great skill and a natural laya or rhythm in his form, the format of the presentation failed to captivate. Following a brief introduction with the Siva panchakshara stotram, Gangani followed a near lec-dem format throughout the remainder of the evening, with explanations of bols and chals followed by their presentation. This felt simplistic, and inadequate for the Esplanade stage, while a more solid conceptual presentation might have engaged the audience in a better manner. While this show in essence didn’t move me, I could stand corrected, for the hundreds of remaining audience members were applauding vociferously to each of his pauses and tattakaras.

The SIFAS Festival is at its core a celebration of art, its present and its future. It gives aspiring artists a platform to grow while presenting a plethora of established performers to represent how much more there is to explore and appreciate. This year’s festival certainly grounded us art-lovers in appreciating the vastness and diversity of the classical Indian arts. The depth of the compositions, the intensity of traditional choreographies and the engaged rapture of the generations of audiences that sat through a continuous array of performances persuaded even ambitious professionals constantly looking for the next move of success, to stand still, and appreciate the beauty and the generosity of the classical arts, for their roles in our lives and in the society we live in.

Akshay Padmanabhan

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By P.N. Ramani

Carnatic vocalist Akshay Padmanabhan is a student of renowned musician P.S. Narayanaswamy, who resides in Chennai. Hailing from a musical family, he started learning music at the age of five. An AIR (A grade) artist, he completed his graduation in M.Com. 

Are you a full time musician? If so, when did you take the plunge, and how difficult was the decision?

At present I am a professional musician. Besides performing at Chennai and elsewhere in India, I travel abroad every year to give concerts.

I believe I took the decision to be a full time musician around two years ago. It was quite difficult initially, but as my guru used to say, patience is a virtue and I convert any free time into practice. That keeps me going and also I attend many concerts regularly and many musicians and sabhas know me quite well.

Who was your inspiration? Any musicians in the family?

As an evolving musician, I was always going to find new inspirations. I am primarily inspired by my guru P.S. Narayanaswamy and his guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. In my family, my grandmother can sing and play the veena, and my father was a mridangam player during his youth and also later learnt vocal music from Neyveli Santhanagopalan. My mother is a walking encyclopaedia of music; she was everything for me initially.

What appeals most to you in Carnatic music?

To me Carnatic music is akin to the innovations we create in our lives. What makes it so is the judicious usage of the limitless creativity and imagination it offers while satisfying the most basic expectation of a listener listening at that time; to redesign the music to our personality. The feeling of connecting and communicating with a rasika sitting and listening to my performance – this aspect appealed to me first and grows on me everyday.

Have you taken any voice training? Are seniors critical of such attempts to improve your voice?

In addition to my fixed morning routine, I also practise during most parts of the day and in between my mundane physical activities. Through the day, I keep singing and working on problems.

Voice training is as important as practising and learning music. I personally never took training from professionals, but my gurus and colleagues give me advice and tips to work on. They critique me as much as they appreciate me when I perform well.

A word about your gurus. Their teaching methods?

My current guru and all the gurus I learned from helped shape the various facets of my music. They were responsible for my innovations in music at various stages of my evolving career. Sri PSN is very simple and easily approachable to learn from, and this makes learning a very relaxed activity. My guru has definitely taught differently at different times and I am at awe whenever I leave class and go home and assimilate whatever I learnt. I am really fortunate to be his sishya.

Do you feel confident about your future in music? 

All the music organisations in Chennai, and important institutions in India and abroad know me well and are kind enough to provide me opportunities during the season and off-season. In fact during the last music season a couple of important sabhas promoted me to senior slots and also awarded me. Also the AIR has awarded me the A grade last year. I do feel confident with regard to my music as I am working on it every day. I believe problems exist for any full time musician but how he recovers from it and learns and uses it as a stepping stone is the right way of going about it.

Do you listen to other genres of music? Any other talents?

I listen to any genre of music that appeals to me and I take as much from it and apply it to my performance as well. I play the guitar, keyboard and flute. I am now learning the mridangam from vidwan Sree Sundar Kumar. Working on several things is quite difficult, but it sometimes helps in giving a full picture in terms of thinking about music.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Random notes

By V Ramnarayan

Should song elevate?

Research cited in his books by the recently deceased neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) has suggested that certain parts of the brain are better developed in children with especial musical ability. Sacks also provided evidence based on experiments to show that children continuously exposed from the age of four to music and musical training, will in time have similarly developed brain parts and musical ability. 

Another interesting discovery neuroscience has made about the relationship between the human brain and musical ability is that different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of music. For example, absolute pitch and musicality could be two different things; in fact, you can have perfect sruti and not be very musically gifted and vice versa. Natural rhythmic perfection is again said to be controlled by a different zone. 

According to a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher was only 14 when he said, “God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.’’

In his book Musicophilia, Sacks quotes from a Somerset Maugham story, The Alien Corn, in which George, a young man being groomed for a gentleman’s life, is passionately interested in becoming a pianist. The family is against the idea, but allows the young man to go to Germany to learn to play the piano but with an assurance from him that he will return to England in two years, to be evaluated by a professional pianist. George works hard and plunges into music in Germany, and duly returns on the appointed day to be examined by an expert, Lea Makart. George plays a Chopin composition, quite competently, but the expert is unimpressed that his future lies in a professional career in music. She tells him that she would have beseeched him to give up everything for music, had she been convinced of his talent. She however comforts him by saying, “Art is the only thing that matters. .. I can see that you have worked very hard. Don’t think it’s been wasted.’’

The fictional expert Lea Makart’s view that working hard at art is never wasted, even if you do not have it in you to become a professional artist, is so true. A very dear friend of mine struggled for decades to master Carnatic music enough to become a concert vocalist. Unfortunately, for all his dedication, and despite training under a great teacher, he lacked the talent for that no matter how deep his devotion and how hard he worked. I used to wonder why his guru, whom my friend adored, never told him the truth, but he must have truly believed that the sishya would be a better human being for having tried so sincerely. My friend finally realised that he had only been daydreaming about becoming a bhagavatar, but is a happy person nevertheless, still worshipping his late guru and his wonderful music. Music has shaped his career in an allied field and given him a pair of ears that can tell good music from bad and give him countless hours of joy, listening.

Followers of Hindustani music will know about the oft-repeated plea among its practitioners for the creation of a battalion of kansens or people with good ears, a play on the name of Tansen, the musical gem of Akbar’s court. It is true that in both the north and the south, it is the devoted army of rasikas who have kept our music alive through their unswerving support of music and musicians. Even the much maligned species of sabha secretaries consists of diehard rasikas who have turned impresarios in their thirst for more and more music.

One of Sruti’s veteran contributors, R. Ramaswamy Iyer, passed away quite suddenly on 9 September at New Delhi. A highly respected bureaucrat regarded as an authority on river water management, he was an intellectual with a deep social conscience. Like many others of his background (Tamil brahmin, IAS), he had a genuine interest in Carnatic music, and through the decades, developed into a clear thinker and eminently readable writer on the art. Fortunately, he did not let his steady acquisition of musical expertise make him a dry cynic of a critic, but continued to enjoy listening to musicians young and old.

Ramaswamy Iyer was not afraid of dismantling obsolete ideas of tradition in our music, and his admiration for great artists was moderated by his expectations of constantly high standards, especially in terms of sruti suddham and good aesthetics. Conversely, his critiques were tempered by empathy for the musician, who despite a lifetime of labour, can occasionally fail to live up to high expectations. As a result, his writing was marked by a gentle touch even when critical of an artist or institution. He liked and encouraged youngsters but was wary of new-fangled ideas.

Ramaswamy Iyer and his wife Suhasini invariably allocated a day for a visit to Sruti whenever they came to Chennai to enjoy the music season. Both of them made enjoyable conversation with Sruti staff expressing their opinions on the concerts they attended, besides enquiring about our friends and relatives. A beautiful couple, who brought calm and good cheer with them every time.

He was much my senior, wise, knowledgeable, and mellow, and I should not have the temerity to say so, but the fact is that we did differ on a few matters musical. He was not averse to writing to me to point out the error of my ways, so to speak, taking care, however, to stress that these letters were not for publication. There were some exceptions, like the last letter from him we published in Sruti. He had not overly liked the tone and content of my editorial on the state of Carnatic music, and I did have a personal correspondence with him on the subject in which he conceded that my views were not entirely unacceptable. 

News of his death was unexpected and distressing. When his son called to inform us, it was from Ramaswamy Iyer’s phone, and I assumed something in the latest Sruti had upset him! As it happened, the issue, with his letter to Sruti Box and his article on caste in Carnatic music, had arrived too late at his doorstep for that.

Today, though the Ramaswamy Iyers of Carnatic music are still with us, an increasing number of rasikas are knowledgeable about the intricacies of music; they can tell the raga of a song either by relating it to songs they know, or more scientifically through their knowledge of the arohana and avarohana as well as the standard prayogas of the raga. They are armed with the learning they imbibe from lecture-demonstrations, online lessons and mobile musicopedias. What some of these expert listeners however seem to lack is the ability to discriminate between good and bad music, between a proper voice and crooning, and vocal mannerisms over-dependent on the microphone. They are often guilty of lack of interest in visranti, mesmerised as they are by pyrotechnics and the more complex permutational swara expertise they look for in vidwans and vidushis. In contrast, my friend, the unsuccessful vocalist of an earlier paragraph, has been a successful rasika. He has impeccable taste in music. He knows that ‘’song elevates our being’’.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Rare birds of dance

By Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

This was a new group I had not seen before. Young boys and girls, obviously from somewhere in the north, were chatting and laughing around the table at the Music Academy canteen. Striking up a conversation with them I found they were all students of the dancer Vaibhav Arekar and that they had come from Mumbai to attend the Academy’s dance festival from 3 to 9 January.

It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised. Here we have been trying for years to draw young students of dance in Chennai to attend dance performances, most of which are free. Chennai, famed as the “cultural capital of India”, must have thousands of such students. If but a fraction of them turned up, they could fill the largest auditorium in town. But no. They will not, except for a handful seen at the venues. Most of the gurus and veterans attend all the performances – by the young, up-and-coming and star performers. Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar is sure to be at a dance performance whenever he is in town. So are Rhadha and Savitri Jagannatha Rao. 

V.P. Dhananjayan lamented once that a good number of his disciples did not turn up even when he asked them to attend a performance. The late R. Krishnaswami, former Secretary of Narada Gana Sabha and Natyarangam pronounced, “Dancers are not interested in dance. They are only interested in themselves dancing.”

A musician learns a great deal by listening to music. ‘Kelvi gnanam’ or knowledge gained by listening, plays a vital role in the maturity of a musician. So it is with dance. Could we call it “parvai gnanam” or knowledge gained by watching? There have been gurus who have prohibited their students from watching performances by other schools. There have also been gurus like Rhadha, who used to ferry her students in her car whenever there was a programme, which they would watch till the end. The next day she would sit with them to analyse and explain the merits and flaws of the performer.

These students of Bharatanatyam from Mumbai (see photo) – Gautam Marathe, Eesha Pinglay, Deepika Potdar, Vaishnavi Tupe, Mrunal Milind, Aditi Paranjape, Romasha Iyengar and Ankita Bagrecha – are rare birds, and as I got to speak to them I was amazed and happy. Students of Bharatanatyam, they had come down for a week at their own expense, roughing it out with accommodation and transport. They were all starry eyed and thrilled at the “heavenly opportunity to see dance all through the day, wonderful young and senior dancers, several styles....”

“How lucky the Chennai dancers are!” they said wistfully, “to be able to have all this right at their doorstep.”

Their enthusiasm and commitment were palpable. “We would like to scout for opportunities here, to do research, to work out themes, to read, to find poetry and song and music, to interact with scholars.”

A friend tells me that some months ago, when Leela Samson organised a two-day seminar on the Varnam to celebrate Spanda 20 in Chennai, dance gurus and young dancers came all the way from Pune and Mumbai to watch seniors like C.V. Chandrasekhar, Sudharani Raghupathy, Lakshmi Viswanathan and Nandini Ramani perform and share their insights.

There is no need any more to despair over the indifferent attitude of young dancers. The interested and enthusiastic ones are there all right. It does not matter if they are a few hundred miles away.

(The author is a writer, musician and dance scholar)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Ramanathan Kalaiarasan

By Anjana Anand

Ramanathan Kalaiarasan has been in the music field for over 25 years. He began his career with Adyar K. Lakshman and Bharatakalanjali (headed by the Dhananjayans). His keen musical sense and classicism have made him a much sought after violinist for Bharatanatyam. Kalaiarasan has received several awards for violin accompaniment for dance from prestigious sabhas like Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (2010 ) and Natyarangam, Narada Gana Sabha (2011).

Was your family involved in music?

My father Sangeeta Bhushanam Prof. A.S. Ramanathan was a complete musician. He was a mridangist and my first guru. He taught me several music techniques. All my siblings are also into music – we are three brothers and two sisters. One sister plays the mridangam, another is an AIR tambura artist. Both my brothers play the mridangam. Our family moved to Sri Lanka when I was very young as my father was appointed professor of mridangam in Jaffna University. Musicians like Maharajapuram Santhanam were then teaching there.

How did you become a violinist?

I was interested in the violin even as a child. I used to skip my vocal classes and go for violin lessons instead. I was attracted to the kalpanaswara playing of a violinist I heard in my younger days. I was amazed at the manodharma which allowed the swaras to flow for several avartanams. I would go home and repeatedly try my hand at kalpanaswara. There was a time when I had to struggle to play even half an avartanam of swara; it was quite frustrating. I think this challenge is what drew me to become a violinist. I feel vocalists have a chance to rehearse before a kutcheri but the violinist must have the confidence and creativity to respond on the spot.

From whom did you receive training in violin playing?

I initially started with a teacher who did not freely share her knowledge with me for whatever reason. Later, my father suggested that I learn from Thanathevy Mitradeva who was also teaching at Jaffna University. She lived about twenty kilometres away from my home, but that did not deter me. I used to cycle to class in the hot sun. Sometimes, if she was not at home, I would cycle all the way back and return in the evening for class. That was how determined I was to learn the violin. Luckily because of my vocal background, I was quick to learn the violin and within three years began to play for kutcheris.

When did you move back to India?

My parents were from India – my mother from Kumbakonam and my father from Tanjavur. After the Sri Lankan problem broke out, he decided it was safer to come back to India. My father was active in the Annamalai Manram and he was known to the Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University who offered him the assignment of mridangam professor.

We moved back to India and the first year was difficult as we had to adjust to life here. I completed a four-year course at the Music College (Annamalai University). It was there that I gathered a lot of experience. My mridangist brother Yogaraja and I used to play as a team and we won the first place at the annual South Zone youth festivals. In 1987, before the Festival of India in the USSR, they arranged for a jugalbandi competition in India. In the national competition, another player got the first place and I got the second. We were selected to play at the USSR festival together. The festival featured only dancers but we were the only two instrumentalists representing the country. My career as a solo artist began soon after that.

How did you enter the Bharatanatyam field?

I was very ambitious about becoming a solo violinist and wanted to make it as a concert artist. After successfully completing my Sangeeta Bhushanam course at Chidambaram, I decided to move to Chennai to further my career. In the beginning, my father was hesitant as we did not have many contacts in Chennai. He then took me to Adyar Lakshman for advice.

What was your experience with Lakshman Sir? 

I knew it would be difficult to find opportunities in the concert field immediately, so I decided to take any opportunity that Lakshman Sir gave me. I started playing for Bharatanatyam performances. It was the turning point for me. I was in awe of his musical prowess and I learnt many things from him. It was he who introduced me to V.P. Dhananjayan at an ABHAI function and I started playing for him as well. 

Do you feel that accompanying musicians are not used to their full potential in a dance performance?

Yes, sadly, many dancers do not realise the importance of this. V.P. Dhananjayan is one artist who knows how to use each instrument to its full potential. In a musical score, each instrument plays a distinct role and contributes to the soundscape of a dance production. In some presentations, I find that the pakkavadyam is used merely to follow the vocalist, there is no plan for orchestration. If a dancer has knowledge of music and a larger vision, then the accompanying musicians can elevate the production to another level. I realised over the years how important it is for the dancer to become a complete artist like Adyar Lakshman and V.P. Dhananjayan.

Did you continue to seek opportunities as a solo or concert artist?

Yes, I have a B-high grade at AIR. Unfortunately because of my travel schedule over the last few years, I have not been able to go for the scheduled upgrading regularly. I make it a point to perform solo at least five or six times a year. It is important for me to continue practising as I am a solo violinist as well as a violin accompanist for dance and music concerts.

How did you venture into recording?

I was always interested in recording. When I was in Sri Lanka, I started learning Radio and Electronics at the Polytechnic and worked as an assistant at a recording studio. It was always my dream to run my own studio. I have achieved that dream in a small way by setting up my own studio at home. I bought equipment over the years during my travels abroad. Today, I record full productions in my in-house studio. Baba Prasad (Adyar Lakshman’s son) has been very helpful in this venture. I recently recorded a full production called Ganga for Anuradha Murali who lives in the U.S.A.

I am satisfied with the way my music career has taken shape. Music has taken me to many countries and given me experiences which I could not have had otherwise.

[Note: R. Kalaiarasan referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]

Monday, 17 April 2017

An enthralling experience

Vishaka Hari at Ayodhya Mandapam

By Varsha Varadan

Vishaka Hari’s kathakalakshepam, more often than not, offers the best of both worlds - aesthetics for the elderly and her whimsical sense of humour for the millennials. Though not perfectly balanced between discourse and singing, her recital leaves everyone enthralled. 

Vishaka kick-started the performance for the evening on two cantos of the Ramayana, the Bala Kaandam and half of the Ayodhya Kaandam, with a viruttam in Harikambhoji followed by ‘Rama nannu brovaraa’ (Rama, please protect me!) by Tyagaraja. 

She commenced her discourse with an elucidation of the stature of the divine couple of Rama and Sita, which was impertinent to the topic. Delving into the central theme directly or just slightly touching upon their significance today might have been more impactful. 

Nevertheless, the concert oozed artistry. She went on a melodic rage with her kalpanaswaras, something quite unusual for a Vishaka Hari recital. The violinist B. Ananthakrishnan was very competent, mellifluously bringing in the essence of Arabhi. Percussionists S.J. Arjun Ganesh and Trichy K. Murali accompanied her on the mridangam and ghatam. Their fingers flitting about in the tani avartanam in Adi Talam reminded some of the viewers of the quirkiness of ‘Drums’ Sivamani. Vishaka’s son Rajagopal took the audience by storm with his clear-cut pronunciation of the Vedas during the rendition.

The event was put together by the Ayodhya Mandapam, a place rather ill-famed for its acoustics and ambience, as part of its 64th Annual Rama Navami celebrations. 

With Vishaka Hari's immense popularity, crowds thronging her renditions has now come to be accepted as inevitable, and this performance was no exception. The atmosphere - the jam-packed audience and the traffic outside the hall - made it an uphill task for some to give their undivided attention.

However, a remarkable performance by the whole team! 

Two outstanding young artists

SIFAS Festival 2017

By Vasudha Srinivasan

Photo by Manu Ignatius
As part of the annual SIFAS Music Festival 2017, Singapore was proud to host amongst other shows, two US born artists now belonging to the frontline of mainstream Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam—vocalist Ramakrishnan Murthy and danseuse Mythili Prakash. 

Accompanied by Charumathi Raghuraman (violin), Manoj Siva (mridangam) and BS Purushotham (khanjira), Ramakrishnan Murthy was masterly in his delivery. Entitled Parampara, his concert featured a line-up of songs rich in our musical heritage. He aptly embraces a style reminiscent of stalwarts of yesteryear, or as one of my companions put it, “very DK Pattammal”. His unhurried pace would have almost been plodding, if not for his song choices. Avoiding the conventional structure of peppering “tukkadas” to break up a singular pace, or relying on a tillana, RK Murthy instead played with songs of varying length. Spending just enough time to explore a raga, he was careful not to dwell too long in any song but his main, Tyagaraja's glorious Upacharamulanu. Such an approach was successful in keeping the tempo of the concert brisk. He wielded his musical knowledge with flair, dancing into the heart of the raga and delivering as much as needed to be. His restraint for a singer so young was beautiful; unlike many of parallel talent, he resisted the temptation to stuff his songs with ideas. Instead, by allowing the music to breathe, he gave us the room to appreciate the play of notes and the essence of the ragas. His accompanying artistes were well matched, responding to his music with equal sensitivity and discernment.

Yet, when I walked out, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, but unable to figure out why. It was only later, when I watched Mythili’s Bharatanatyam performance that I was able to grasp why.

“Jwala”, means intense flame in Sanskrit. Mythili engaged her audience with the same intensity she performed with. She stoked the embers of our interest as she explored the different manifestations of fire and its place within our lives. 

Her performance began with a tribute to Surya, the sun god, the source of our fire within and out. Donning his bright shades she summoned him in his various aspects as she cycled through other songs during her 90 minute performance. With her musical accomplices, vocalists Aditya Prakash and Sushma Somasekharan and Jayashree Ramanathan (nattuvangam), violinist Easwar Ramakrishnan and percussionist, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram, she beckoned and bewitched you into a visual feast. 

Mythili is an accomplished dancer, and her fluid movements swept through the expanse until they need to stop and then they stopped precisely, her hands and feet hovering, almost as though they were slotted into a space moulded for them. Complementing this visual mastery was the strategic use of light (with the help of Krishnan Venkatesh on lighting) to highlight the intent of her performance. In the piece Shivashakti, sung by Sushma Somasekharan, she explored the essence of feminine energy. Artfully framed by twin beams of horizontal light shining across the stage, her every leap and every bound were accompanied by leaping silhouettes on the side walls, creating a rich shadow play that added to the song's narrative. 

This symbiosis of light and movement literally took the limelight in her main piece as she stood on stage shrouded in darkness, save her hands and forearms, which were bathed in a single unbroken beam of red light. In this glow, she began evoking, with dancing fingers, a gentle flare of a flickering lamp. Dextrously, she progressed with swirling limbs and fingers, to paint a visual of flickering tongues of flame as they leapt higher and higher into the air, until they stopped, suddenly extinguished, shrouding everything in darkness once again. Within these moments, Mythili infuses a primal mysticism not commonly associated with Bharatanatyam, bringing a boldness to the dance form. With the low baritone of Aditya Prakash, the steady tattoo of the mrindangam and the hum of the violin, she ended in a similar vein, leaving us with her glowing and surging hands as the one indelible memory of this performance. 

Photo by Manu Ignatius
Aside from the technical aspects, she displayed a depth of emotion and maturity that I had not experienced in her previous work. True enough, she shared that some of these pieces were inspired by personal joys and tragedies. While not every piece seemed to fit as seamlessly as it could have, the boldness in which Mythili cast a traditional art form into a theatrical production mitigated the occasional incoherence.

It was only then that I realised the source of my dissatisfaction with Ram Murthy’s concert, easily explained by how he tackled the final song of his repertoire. He chose to close his performance with a tribute to KV Narayanaswamy by rendering Vargalamo from Nandanar Charitram. KVN's rendition is breathtaking in its expression. From the very first syllable, KVN draws each note from the ragam, like pulling water from a deep well. Gently tipping each note over its musical edge as it drifts into the next note, he infuses the humility and hesitance of someone who knows not where his place in society is. With each pause, Gopalakrishna Bharati’s heart reverberates in this song. Such depth of empathy from KVN could only be due to his observation of such circumstances in his lifetime. True enough, the history of the song highlights why KVN’s version resonates even today. While Ramakrishnan Murthy's version stylistically embraces KVN, dipping into notes and gliding into pauses, reproducing the same yearning deeply and sincerely is a challenge. And that hollowness was precisely what was niggling at me when I walked out. 

By any means, this isn’t a criticism of either performer. From these two concerts, I could point out that Ramakrishnan Murthy could do well to learn from Mythili’s boldness and emotional depth. And Mythili could also benefit by finetuning her boldness to deliver a punchier and coherent structure. But to focus on those would be doing both artistes a disservice as every artiste learns from each of her concerts. 

Carnatic music, or Bharatanatyam, like any other art form, is not static. It is a product of its times and circumstances. These two factors characterise the heart that shape the classical music (and dance) of south India, which is a reflection on the rich tapestry of human emotion. It may be obvious, but this aspect feels forgotten. Carnatic music increasingly seems to be benchmarked by the number of sabha concerts that a musician accumulates during the December season. Carnatic music has a story to tell outside of its intellectual complexity and devotional thread. To stunt its emotional richness in favour of technical prowess is not to be preferred. So, it is really for young artistes like Ramakrishnan Murthy and Mythili, who are consummate professionals, to push the boundaries meaningfully.

(Thanks to Mr Srinivasan Narayanan of Hyderabad for educating me on the history of Nandanr Charitram and for helping me with my reference to it).

The author is the editor of and a freelance writer. 

Ravikiran in sublime form

SIFAS Festival 2017

By PNV Ram

Arriving at Changi Airport, Singapore, on 1st April, I was happy to be received by Sushma and Shruti. Shruti left with my co-passenger Mannargudi Eswaran, while I stayed back with Sushma to await the arrival by another flight of Satyajit Talwalkar the tabla ustad who was to accompany Kaushiki Chakrabarty (vocal) and Rakesh Chaurasia (flute) in a concert on the 2nd at Esplanade on the Beach. Satyajit turned out to be a cool character, easygoing and confident in his self, the legacy of his tabla maestro father Suresh Talwalkar sitting lightly on him. We were taken straight to the SIFAS premises, where we freshened up in the guest house and had a breakfast of idlis and coffee, before we trooped to the auditorium to listen to Kauhsiki Chakraborty and Rakesh Chaurasia in conversation with a sizable audience. 

Moderated by the American accented Ganesh Anand (a Hindustani vocal student of SIFAS), the session proved lively and entertaining, even if Kaushiki spoke of how divine her father's (Ajay Chakraborty's) music and nature were in typically traditional tones of guru worship. Both she and Rakesh, who is flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia's nephew, spoke of the advantages and disadvantages of their inheritance, though even the so-called negatives did turn out to be positives in the long run. For Kaushiki the child, music was play, and growing up, she revelled in translating every song she learnt into sargam syllables, and pushing herself to extremes while traversing the octaves. Rakesh, in contrast, was lazy about daily riyaz, but Hariprasad overcame this obstacle in his nephew's musical path, by leaving blank cassettes with him in the morning and demanding that they be filled with his practice exercises by the time he returned in the evening. Both confessed to their openness to the idea of collaborations and fusion particularly, gave a strong reply to a member of the audience who suggested that some of these attempts to take classical music to the common folk would result in dilution of the art. 

Kaushiki drew parallels from the history of music, by referring to the Persian influence on Hindustani music, and even traced the raga Bhoop to the Chinese pentatonic scale. Kaushiki proved an articulate and confident champion of her school of music, and gave some lovely samples of the incredible range of her voice and her amazing virtuosity. He reached out easily to the young in the audience, though she tended to go on a bit too long. Rakesh showed several glimpses of his uncle's sense of humour and repartee, but he fooled no one into believing that he was playful in his pursuit of musical excellence. Like Kaushiki, he spoke of the collaborative work he enjoys doing. 

Chitravina N Ravikiran’s concert that evening was as good as his best concerts in India. Every raga and every kriti he played was rooted in the traditional mode, and the sound of his instrument resembled some ancient cry to the beyond, giving you goosebumps with its purity and magnificent reverberance. Is there a better Carnatic musician in the authentic tradition? Ravikiran had great support from Akkarai Subhalakshmi (violin) and Mannargudi Eswaran (mridangam) who was celebrating his 72nd birthday. Both of them complemented the chitravina with their sometimes subtle, sometimes dynamic playing. It was also an opportunity for the versatile local percussionist who was playing the ghatam this evening. Charged by the brilliance of his mridangam playing senior, he perhaps got away on occasion. All in all, it was a most memorable concert. 

(To be continued)