Thursday, 4 August 2022

Vipranarayana : Vintage vignettes

 “There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them,” Vicki Baum observed rightly. I happen to be one of those fortunate beings who discovered this shortcut at an early age. I had the privilege of being trained by great masters like Vempati Chinna Satyam in Kuchipudi and K.J. Sarasa in Bharatanatyam and started performing on stage in my pre-teens along with my sister Rathna (Papa) Kumar. I stopped dancing after marriage, but my job profile at Doordarshan kept me continuously connected with dance until the day I retired. I continue to engage with dance post-retirement, and whenever I encounter roadblocks due to unforeseen circumstances, I rekindle evergreen vintage vignettes to maintain the happiness quotient.

Fifty-two years ago, I played a small but significant role in the dance-drama, Vipranarayana, choreographed by my revered guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. Eighteen years later, I had an opportunity to direct it for television, and it holds many special memories for me both as a dancer and a broadcaster. Vipranarayana, the story of the Vaishnavaite saint Thondaradipodi Alwar, was initially written as a Telugu musical opera for All India Radio, Vijayawada, by my grand-uncle Devulapalli Krishna Sastri. This was at the behest of renowned theatre actor Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao and Kuchipudi exponent Chinta Krishnamurthy. They were Sangeet Natak Akademi awardees and staunch promoters of Kuchipudi who were instrumental in establishing the Siddhendra Kalakshetram in Kuchipudi in 1957. Krishna Sastri composed extraordinary lyrics in the Yakshagana style, and Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao gave them wings with his outstanding music. My mother, Vinjamuri Anasuya Devi, decided to renew this brilliant piece of work and present it as a Kuchipudi dance drama in Hyderabad. She commissioned Kuchipudi maestro Vempati Chinna Satyam to choreograph it with my sister Rathna (Papa) Kumar as the heroine, Devadevi, and popular cine actor Chandramohan as the protagonist, Vipranarayana. Kothapalli Padma performed the role of Devadevi’s older sister, Madhuravani and Durga was their mother, Vesyamatha. I was Lord Ranganatha Swami, who sets right all the wrongs in the end, and my younger sister Kamala was Vatu, the Lord in the guise of a young boy. It was the first time we three sisters performed together on stage. Chandramohan was a committed artist despite being a highly sought-after film actor. He had to squeeze time for dance practice after his busy shooting schedule. It was a demanding task as a master was an uncompromising disciplinarian. As the rehearsals unfolded, both my master and my mother felt the need for additional lyrics for smoother transitions in the story. My grand-uncle complied, and my mother, who was a top-grade music composer for All India Radio, composed these songs in the same genre as Rajani to blend in seamlessly with his style.

It was a red letter day in the annals of Kuchipudi dance when Vipranarayana was premiered at the Ravindra Bharathi in Hyderabad on 31 December 1969, under the auspices of the Vinodini Sabha. The auditorium was filled with connoisseurs, celebrities and dance enthusiasts who came from far and near. Expectations were high as it was the coming together of three great legends of literature, music and dance. In addition, the vocals were rendered by the incomparable Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna and stalwarts like Mullick, Vinjamuri Lakshmi and B.K. Sumithra. It was for the very first time in his musical career that Balamuralikrishna sang live on stage for a dance programme and we were blessed to have this exemplary singer lend his voice for our dance! Master created magic with his brilliant choreography, and two of the songs from the dance drama, Koluvaithiva Rangasayee and Vedalera Vayyarulu got inducted into the Kuchipudi margam as solo items.

The recording started on a euphoric note, and I managed to complete the opening sequences and the finale in the temple background. The huge temple set had to be dismantled, and a simple hut had to be erected for the romantic interludes between Vipranarayana and Devadevi. By the time the set and lighting were completed, it was 5 pm, and my studio time was up. The recording had to be stopped abruptly due to the paucity of time. It was an awkward situation, and I was close to tears. Chandramohan had been gracious enough to attend all the rehearsals and be at the studio all day along with the other artists, participating for the sheer love of art, as there was not much monetary benefit from dance those days. Imagine my predicament with an unfinished production and everything at a standstill! We were understaffed and had to adhere to strict schedules. But this was an exceptional situation, and I begged my director to provide me with minimum staff to record the remaining sequences with a single camera. He helped me put together a small crew to complete the recording. It was a paradigm shift from the macro to the micro, but all the artists gave their concerted best to make it blend seamlessly.
 
Vipranarayana was a landmark success as a musical opera, a dance drama and a television show because of the confluence of great artists. From the concept to the final presentation, every artist involved gave their 100 per cent. I had a most unusual experience first-hand witnessing this. For the stage show in Hyderabad, Rathna left along with the master and the other dancers two days early for stage rehearsals. My mother and I travelled a day later along with Balamuralikrishna. We ended up missing our train as we got held up in a massive traffic jam due to some protests and diversions en route to the station. My mother moved heaven and earth to get us on a later train up to Warangal, and we had to travel from there by bus. After a trying, long journey, we finally reached Hyderabad and barely an hour later, he enthralled the audience with his mesmerising music. To this day, these vignettes are etched in my mind and I still feel a great sense of gratitude for my involvement with this amazing project.

I was keen on recording Vipranarayana for Doordarshan, but it took me almost eighteen years to revive it. My mother tried to gather the same artists once again, but unfortunately, Balamuralikrishna was not available for the recording. Bhagavathula Seetharama Sarma sang with equal verve along with Vinjamuri Lakshmi and Prakasa Rao. Rathna and Chandramohan did the lead roles, but this time, Sailaja was Madhuravani. Our set designer Venugopal created a magnificent Srirangam temple set and Nandavanam nearby. I could not participate in the programme as I was directing it but the divine vigraham of Ranganathaswami effectively resolved all the issues in the end through visual special effects.

Seetha Ratnakar

Peep into the Past - Vipranarayana

It was one of the most memorable summers I had ever spent at my great uncle Devulapalli Krishna Sastry’s house in Hyderabad. Three visionaries, Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao, credited with breathing new life into Kuchipudi, Kuchipudi maestro Chinta Krishnamurthy, and music composer Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao, had all come together in a creative collaboration. I was fortunate to be privy to witness the unfolding of this magic, but little knew the important role it would play in my future.

Vipranarayana had its unforgettable debut in 1969. Actor Chandramohan was playing the title role at the height of his film career, and rehearsals would start at 10 pm and continue till 1 am or even later. Master garu – Vempati Chinna Satyam, was at his creative best even at that late hour, and revelling in the sheer beauty of the wonderful lyrics and mesmerising music, none of us complained! Chandramohan even learned some Kuchipudi basics from master just for this programme! The choreography turned out to be flawless, master, being a perfectionist, but the icing on the cake was having my favourite singer, the incomparable Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, singing for us, live on stage, for the very first time for a dance performance! What a thrilling experience, and how lucky we were! During my sister Seetha Ratnakar’s tenure as the producer for dance programmes at Chennai Doordarshan, we had the opportunity to present it again with some necessary changes. Needless to say, the passage of almost two decades had in no way mitigated the extraordinary beauty of the Yakshagana nor our happiness in doing it again. Some performances remain etched indelibly in one’s memory, and my role as Devadevi in Vipranarayana was a defining moment for me.

RATHNA KUMAR 

Artistic Director, Anjali Center for Performing Arts, Houston, Tx, USA

Monday, 1 August 2022

Editor's Note

15 August 2022 is a red letter day for India  that is Bharat. The Government of  India has launched the special initiative ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’  to celebrate and commemorate 75 years of the nation’s  Independence and the glorious history of  its people, culture and achievements. The official journey of the Mahotsav commenced on 12 March 2021 beginning a 75-week countdown to our 75th anniversary of independence and will conclude on 15 August 2023. This Mahotsav, dedicated to the people of the country, is a festival of awakening of the nation; festival of fulfilling the dream of good governance; and the festival of global peace and development.

Let us take a look at the interesting themes of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav: (1) the ‘freedom struggle’, (2) ‘Ideas@75’ which focuses on programmes and events inspired by ideas and ideals that have shaped India and will guide us as we navigate through this period of Amrit Kaal (25 years between India@75 and India@100). It covers popular, participatory initiatives that help bring alive India’s unique contribution to the world. (3) ‘Actions@75’  highlights the steps being taken to implement policies and actualise commitments for multi-modal connectivity. (4) ‘Achievements@75’  showcases evolution and progress across different sectors  along the way. It is intended to grow into a public account of our collective achievements as a 75-year-old independent country with a legacy of 5000-plus  years of ancient history. (5) ‘Resolve@75’.

It is heartening to note that ‘Amritam Gamaya’ - the International Festival of Performing Arts, is being conducted in July-August 2022.  The aim of the festival is  “proclaiming association with the past, connecting through art and delving deep into the roots of the rich heritage of India so that succeeding generations can explore, expand and contribute to the cultural and creative economy of our nation.”

It hopes to recreate awareness of the connection between the varied forms of dance and music, both classical and folk, tribal and innovative art present throughout the length and breadth of India and trace the parallels between certain Indian and international art forms through curated presentations in various venues across the country.

 

In this context, Sruti magazine can take pride in playing its role in helping to document, create awareness and propagate the performing arts in India and the world.

In this August issue the focus is on the late sarod maestro, the great Ali Akbar Khan. He was a colossus of a musician whose influence on Hindustani instrumental music was immense, which has been highlighted by our eminent writers as well as his son. Sruti pays tribute to him on the occasion of his centenary. With a sense of fulfillment we are also happy to present the concluding part of the feature on Mysore Vasudevachar -- the ‘grand old man’ of Carnatic music.  A profile-article long due!

 

As 22 August is celebrated as ‘Madras Day’ and the Chennai metropolis gears up to celebrate the occasion in various ways, you may be surprised to know that a Mylapore anthem was composed over a decade ago! Our spotlight this time is on the anthem,  its theme and its composer. 

 

As usual, we have several reports of music and dance events celebrating artists and the art forms in our News & Notes section. Happy reading!

 

To conclude on a patriotic note – as we celebrate 75 years of independence, let us decorate our hearth and homes in our national tricolour for three days beginning 13 August; let us hoist the  national flag on Independence Day; and resolve to celebrate the immortal, invincible, and intangible heritage of Bharat, and  instill pride in our rich culture. Jai Hind!

 S. Janaki

 

 

 


Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Passionate about music and linguistics

When K.G. Vijayakrishnan retired from The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, as a linguistics professor, in 2017, he wanted to devote all his time, attention, and love to music, taking a permanent break from linguistics.

And music truly was the first, and arguably the most serious, love of his life. Right from his childhood, Vijayakrishnan was not drawn to anything as much as he was, to music. He started learning veena from his mother Karpagavalli Gopalakrishnan, a disciple of Rangaramanuja Iyengar -- the notable vainika from the Dhanammal bani. Being an astute learner, Vijayakrishnan grasped the formidable Veena Dhanammal technique and style of veena-playing swiftly and gave his maiden concert when he was barely nine years old. Though he was exposed to the music of the maestros of the 20th century like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and M.S. Subbulakshmi, right from his childhood, his ultimate muse was Veena Dhanammal. She was no different from Goddess Saraswati to him.

He took it upon himself as his life’s mission to spread awareness about Dhanammal’s music among the Carnatic fraternity. He gave away CDs containing her records to aficionados of Carnatic music, delivered several lecdems on her musical genius, made a documentary focusing on her style and technique, and was always keen and willing to pass on this tradition to those who expressed regard. His repertoire was colossal. While he played the cherished and time-tested compositions of the Carnatic music trinity, with Amba Kamakshi (Bhairavi / Syama Sastry) being his all-time favourite, he also played several rare compositions of less-known composers like Inta kopamelara (navaragamalika varnam / Veena Kuppier), Radha na meedha (Hameerkalyani / Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar) and Dalachi dalachi (Keeravani / Neyyakarampatti Seshayyar), only to name a few. Even though these pieces in his repertoire were acquired from different sources over the years, they sounded homogenous. This is because he scrutinised every music he came across through the unfaltering lens of the Dhanammal bani.

Unlike most Carnatic musicians, he did not believe in the mechanical repetition of a sangati; he in fact despised it. He noted that this was a unique feature of this school of music. So, there was no rigid separation between the kalpita and the manodharma forms of music. He never merely rendered these songs; he was constantly in the zone of creation. The second iteration of each sangati would contain minor and subtle variations from the previous delineation. This demanded the audience to be on tenterhooks, through the entire length of the performance.

Special mention needs to be made of his pathbreaking book The Grammar of Carnatic Music, which explores the connection between music and language. He seriously started working on this one-of-a-kind endeavour, which resulted from this “collaboration between the musician and the phonologist in a one-man interdisciplinary project”, as the acclaimed linguist Paul Kiparsky cites in 1982 and published it in 2008. In this pivotal work, which holds the distinction as a pioneering document of the field, by proposing mathematical charts and scales for measuring pitch values in various ragas and to see constraints on their manifestations, their permutations, and combinations, Vijayakrishnan aspired Carnatic music to the status of a testable scientific theory, and on a broader level, to hopefully understand the music faculty in humans.

As a teacher, he was simply the best. Extremely generous, patient, and most importantly, democratic. He always put his students first, and as his student, I can wholeheartedly attest to this fact. He believed in and emphasised wholesome learning of music, which included learning to play the veena, singing, reading music from notations, cultivating the expertise to interpret and internalise them, and the skill to write notations encapsulating even the minutest nuances of the musical phrase. He hardly refused to teach anyone who showed interest, but still, he did not have many earnest seekers for this style, which is immensely unfortunate.

He, however, strongly felt that the fate of this musical style was like the mythical river Saraswati, reputed for being invisible to human eyes. She emerges out of nowhere and flourishes, but astonishingly recedes underground, appears again but only scantily, disappears and magically springs up in an unprecedented fashion as she journeys to the mighty ocean. But she is invisible only to those who don’t care to look for her. Her distinct presence can always be felt, and is firm in our memories, and she will always arise when the time is right. That was his strong belief.

It is sad that my guru, vidwan K.G. Vijayakrishnan passed away on 23 March 2022, due to physical illness, at the age of 70.

Lashman

(Carnatic musician and disciple of Ramakrishnan Murthy and the late K.G. Vijayakrishnan)

Friday, 8 July 2022

A Janardhanan 80 – a monumental innings

Interview 

Prof. A. Janardhanan in conversation with Bhavani Ravindran:


I called upon the veteran artist and natyacharya at his home on 14 May 2022. I found Prof. Janardhanan to be very humble despite his achievements. Though he does not boast about it, he has all the productions of Rukmini Devi etched in his memory. He was and still is, able to recall to the minutest detail all that went into the original productions. This is what has helped revive all these phenomenal pieces of dance choreography which were in danger of extinction. We, as the viewing public and rasikas, owe a lot to Prof. A. Janardhanan for even this one great service to his alma mater without which we would not have been able to enjoy the masterpieces created by Rukmini Devi several decades ago. Some excerpts.

On Choreographic Styles

Rukmini Devi ‘Athai’ was a fountain of knowledge and innovation. She could comprehensively visualise all aspects of a dance production -- stage setting, costume designing, musical arrangements, dance movements, and abhinaya. Her vision was all-encompassing and she had truly great artists and teachers to assist her. She drew people to her like a magnet and each was a giant in his or her field. The stage backdrop by Srinivasulu was always breathtaking and suited her way of visualisation. There was no room for compromise and perfection was the only way to complete a sequence.

In contrast, my teaching is very minor in comparison -- to the extent that it is fairly uncomplicated. I teach what I have learnt. I do not have to really worry about the other aspects as they are already there. Athai was created from scratch, whereas my job is to see that it is followed to the letter and not allowed to die away. My contribution to art in Kalakshetra is akin to what the squirrel did to help Sri Rama.

On Selection of Dancers

Athai chose people for a character by her ‘feel’ of the person’s ability. She would say that dance is the fifth Veda and cannot be taught to everyone; if not properly chosen it would be like asking a drunkard to recite verses! I do not know why she chose me for the role of Sri Rama. She used to treat me like her son. Perhaps she had a soft corner for me as my father was also in Kalakshetra at the time! This is only my thought, I really don’t know the true reason. My father, Chandu Panikkar performed on stage at the age of 85, maybe Athai felt that being his son, I too would be able to live up to her expectations! Many people used to feel that Athai was always choosing the same people for prime roles. She would then remark that if you can find someone who can do better than the persons I have chosen, I will gladly keep them! Among us, there was no problem with who got which role, our faith in the judgement of Athai was total, and none of us had any ill feelings towards one another. This was probably due to the discipline with which we were brought up in Kalakshetra.

On Discipline

Here an incident comes to mind. During one performance of Sabari Moksham, the main spotlight fell down just missing me; I could have been grievously injured had I been one foot in the wrong direction in the path of the falling light.  The stage was plunged into darkness, it was pitch black with only the burning lamp for Nataraja giving some light. No one moved, it must be said that the audience too did not utter a single sound, Kalakshetra audiences are like that! Athai quickly got up, in the darkness she got the debris cleaned and restored the lights. This took three minutes. When the lights came on, all of us were frozen in exactly the same posture and expressions that we were in when the lights went off. The show continued from that point perfectly and smoothly. That is the discipline of Kalakshetra and I am proud to be one of them. 

On Teachers

I am eternally blessed to have been in the midst of a galaxy of great artists who taught us. They taught us like we were their children, not students of an institution where they were employed. They gave their all without holding back. It was an amazing commentary on the noble art of teaching.