Song of Surrender

Friday, 4 August 2017

When brothers lost their voices

Random Notes
By V Ramnarayan

This must have been more than 20 years ago, perhaps in 1989 or 90. The Gundecha Brothers, Umakant and Ramakant, as well as youngest brother Akhilesh, were probably on their first visit to Chennai. They were accomplished young singers, in the city to do a live morning concert recording for All India Radio, but largely unknown yet in this part of the world. I got to know them through my wife Gowri, who had accompanied MS Subbulakshmi to Bhopal where she received the Kalidas Samman, and the young Gundecha Brothers sang the invocation. I took all three brothers to the concert and round the city in my battered old jalopy, and a jolly good time was had by all. It was a rare opportunity to listen to a morning raga live, and the siblings did not disappoint us.

The high point of that visit for the Gundecha Brothers was a visit to the MS household. They were quite overawed by the experience of meeting the lady they regarded as Saraswati incarnate. MS fondly remembered their singing at Bhopal and both blessed them and accurately forecast a bright future for them as musicians on the concert circuit.

Some ten years or more later, I was happy to attend a house concert by the Gundecha Brothers at MS Subbulakshmi's house. I had heard many young Carnatic musicians —as well as some less known but genuinely accomplished seniors like Papanasam Sivan's disciple  Setalapati Balasubramaniam—there in private recitals for small numbers of invitees. One unforgettable performance had been by the very young Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

By now, the brothers were world famous and I had heard many a sterling performance of theirs, mostly in recordings, and my anticipation of this concert was keen and eager. Unfortunately, the brothers disappointed us, with their normally resonant voices strangely subdued today. It was unexpected and sad. I started wondering if there had already been a decline in the quality of their singing.

Later that day, I made bold to ask the Gundecha Brothers why they had sung in such poor voice, almost false. Was this a deliberate choice or had their voices already suffered damage from constant concert singing?

The reply stunned me. Both Umakant and Ramakant said simultaneously, "How can we sing in our full-fledged vocal style before an icon like MS Amma? It is out of our reverence for her, our devi of music, that we sang in a false voice. It would be disrespectful to sing in true concert mode in her presence before pictures of the gods and goddesses she prayed to every day."

What a contrast this was to the attitude of a young Carnatic vocalist that I had experienced a couple of years earlier. I think I had arranged for the lady to sing before MS, and she gave a very good account of herself. After the recital, I asked her if she had felt nervous before her first recital at the MS home. Her reply shocked me. She said, "Me, nervous? Never. It doesn't matter if the listener is MS or the ordinary rasika. It's all the same to me." How different was this supreme show of confidence from MS Subbulakshmi's own approach to her music? She had butterflies in the stomach before every concert big or small all her life, even the very last programme of her career. Not one performance began without prayers to her God on earth, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi.

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