S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Monday, 16 October 2017

G Vijayaraghavan

Musicians for Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

G. Vijayaraghavan is one of those musicians who have not received the recognition their artistry deserves. A mridangam and khanjira artiste, nattuvanar, lyricist and composer all rolled into one, Vijayaraghavan is at home in both the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam worlds. With over three decades of experience in playing for dance, he has honed his skills as a mridangist par excellence. Today, he is also a sought after composer of jatis and lyrics. His sensitive approach to literature and music can be seen in his unique style of accompaniment in a dance performance.  Asked if he wonders if true recognition has eluded him, G. Vijayaraghavan shrugs with a contented smile and replies,  ‘ The satisfaction I experience everytime I perform is my reward. In the two hours that I am on stage, I am immersed in the creative world of rhythm, music and dance. Can an artiste want anything more?’

Who and what were the major influences in your childhood?

I was exposed to music and literature from a young age. My father played the violin, though not professionally. He was a Sanskrit pundit whose passion was to compose slokas in Sanskrit when he was not in his office. His last work was composing the Ramayana in 80 lines. I hope to publish all his works sometime in the future.

Please tell us about your mridangam training.

From a young age, my fingers were constantly drumming on any surface I could find. I started learning the mridangam at the age of six from Madurai T. Srinivasan. After his transfer to Hyderabad, I came under the guidance of Kumbakonam T.V Balu.  Turaiyur Rajagopla Sarma presided over my arangetram in 1980 at the Sai Baba temple. I accompanied Vijay Siva in my first concert. 

I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to be a mridanga vidwan. I even refused an evening college seat because it meant that I could not perform in concerts. I held a clerical post at the KFI school (1985-87) , but I soon realised that I needed the time and freedom to pursue music the way I wanted to. 

When did you enter the Bharatanatyam field?

In 1986, I received a call from Vyjayantimala to play for her performance. I had absolutely no experience in playing for dance, but thanks to her guidance, I learnt the skills needed to adapt to playing for Bharatanatyam.  I had only ten days to train for the performance and we had marathon sessions from morning to night. I played exclusively for Vyjayantimala from 1986 to 1991.

Who were the other dancers who helped you in your initial entry into the field?

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam was a tremendous influence in my early career. I started playing for her in 1991. My first performance abroad was with her in London. I played extensively for her for a decade. All the nuances and training I received for accompanying a Bharatanataym artiste, I owe to both these doyennes. What really inspired me to enjoy playing for dance was the freedom they gave me to explore my own creativity. I learnt a valuable lesson from both of them. True mentors not only instruct but allow you to express yourself so that the learning becomes internalized and allows you to stand confidently on your own two feet.

What were some of the challenges in the initial phase?

In cutcheris, the mridangist works fully with his own manodharma, responding to the music.  In Bharatanatyam there is an added track that we have to tune in to – the dancer’s feet! Vyjayantimala used to always remind me, “Just as a concert mridangist observes the vocalist’s mouth and plays, a dance mridangist must not take his eyes off the dancer’s feet.  We have to be aware of the music while simultaneously supporting the footwork of the dancer. For this, you need to know the adavu system and the modulation of sound needed for each adavu . In fact, I learnt dance for a short while just to understand this better. I learnt all the basic adavus and hastas.

The importance of silence was something inculcated in me from my mridangam training. My guru always said that you need not play continuously to show your vidwat. At times, letting the listener enjoy the sound of the singer merging with the sruti shows our musical maturity.

I apply this same principle to dance. Sometimes I let the music take over and at other times, I fill in a gap to give the moment the right effect. It all comes with experience.

Many who have worked with you or heard you play often comment that your style of playing the mridangam is very distinct. 

Yes, over the years, I have developed my own system of playing. It is a combination of techniques used in music concerts and while playing for dance.  While it is possible for a mridangist for dance to play for a cutcheri, it is not possible the other way around unless he is accustomed to playing for Bharatanatyam. I have played for many stalwarts like Kittappa Pillai and Seetarama Sarma. Kittappa Pillai’s jatis have their own stamp. The adavus and sollukattus are set in different patterns. Many times, the adavus are in a slower pace than the jatis. Similarly, Sarma Sir’s jatis have their own musical quality and cross rhythms in the adavu patterns. Exposure to all these styles of jathis gave me an understanding of composing for dance.

You have a passion for composing lyrics...

From a young age, I have been drawn to poetry. I am sure that my father’s interest in Sanskrit played a pivotal role. I used to recite the sahasranamam at the temple at a young age. I write in Tamil, Sanskrit and Manipravalam. My father used to guide me when I first started composing. In 1991, I started composing lyrics for dancers and released a book and CD Nritya Gaanaamrutham. I was fortunate to have Dr. Balamuralikrishna tune my compositions for a full margam which I composed later. Other musicians who have tuned my compositions include C.N Thiagarajan, Hariprasad and recently Rajkumar Bharathi. 

Looking back, I think my early exposure to Divya Prabandhams and research in Tiruppugazh influenced my style of writing. In fact, I composed a whole margam based on tiruppugazhs. I feel that the poetic value of the lyrics have to be very high. At the same time, for dance, they must have a dramatic and emotional quality. They must tell a story. When I write lyrics, I do not force the words. I write when the ideas come to me naturally and there is a creative flow.

Composing jatis

I started composing jatis many years ago. In 2013, I was asked to present a lecture/demonstration on ‘Rhythms and Vibrations’ at the Natya Kala Conference convened by Priyadarsini Govind.  I spoke about the technical aspects of composing jatis and presented a variety of jatis I had composed.

I used to play for our family friend, Vidya Bhavani Murthy (a student of K.J Sarasa) in 1988-89. I started composing then but it took years to fine-tune and develop my skills.  Over the years, many dancers have asked me to compose the rhythmic sections for their recordings. I found that I enjoyed composing jatis and continue to do so for many leading artistes.

What are some of the points to keep in mind while composing jatis?

Firstly, we must ensure that there is a proper structure to the jati, and secondly, use sollu kattus of the same ‘family’. The composer must also know the kala pramanam, ragam and mood of the item he is composing for. I do not believe in using the same jatis for multiple varnams. Each composition has its own feel and tempo. I like to try different things while composing. A trikala jati I have composed in one cycle is often performed by Priyadasini Govind.

Today, jati composition has evolved tremendously and many traditionalists frown upon some of these new experiments. Have you faced a similar situation?

I still follow a traditional pattern when composing. Some of the early nattuvunars  were a great influence when I started composing. At the same time, I do not hesitate to experiment when it suits the composition and situation I am composing for. I think when there is clarity about that, an effort to create something new only adds to the flow of creativity in any field.

For example, I have composed a ‘mantra jati’ using the Devi bija aksharas. Similiarly using the syllables Namasivaya. These days, many jatis are composed using mridangam sollu kattus. I personally feel that this is avoidable. Bharatanatyam has its own traditional sollus which are distinct. I feel it is important to preserve that tradition. These controversies will always arise. The responsibility to carry forward the beauty of tradition is with each artiste.

Who are some of the artistes you have performed with over the years?

I have accompanied Dr. Balamuralikrishna, Kunnakudi R. Vaidyanathan and Lalgudi Jayaraman to mention a few. I have worked with most senior Bharatanatyam artistes. Two memorable jugal bandi performances were those of Sanjukta Panigrahi and Birju Maharaj with  Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. I was happy to do nattuvangam for a Bharatanatyam performance in cutcheri style curated by Umayalapuram Sivaraman, where he played the mridangam for Priyadarsini Govind. I have been playing for Hema Rajagopalan from Chicago since 1995. Over the years, I have played with the Chicago symphony orchestra and have collaborated with jazz musicians and modern dancers in Chicago.

What other instruments do you play?

I am a ‘B high’grade khanjira artiste at All India Radio. I have also done nattuvangam  for performances.

Some of the awards you have received?

I received the ‘Laya Kala Vipanchee’ award from Dr. Balamuralikrishna and the Dr. Sudharani Ragupathy Endowment from Narada Gana Sabha.

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