Saturday, 28 January 2012

Palghat TS Mani Iyer Centenary

Mridanga maestro Palghat Mani Iyer’s centenary is being commemorated at a special event at the Music Academy, Chennai on 28 January 2012.

Born for the Mridanga

[Excerpts from a three-part profile of Palghat TS Mani Iyer by Sriram V (Sruti 270-272), now available as an e-book at]

Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer was born on 12th June 1912 at Pazhayanur, Tiruvilvamala Taluk, in Palghat District to Sesham Bhagavatar and Anandambal as their second son. The couple had many children of whom some died early with only two sons (Mani Iyer and a younger brother) and two daughters surviving into adulthood. Sesham Bhagavatar was a vocalist in the Harikatha troupe of Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, a famous exponent of the art form. Mani was christened Ramaswami at birth— after his grandfather who was a school teacher besides being a good singer.

The Guru-s of Mani Iyer

Chathapuram Subba Iyer was Mani Iyer’s first guru. Born on December 28th 1894, Subba Iyer came from a strong musical tradition. His father Annaswamy Bhagavatar was a violinist and grandfather Appaswamy Bhagavatar was a vainika. Noticing his interest in percussion the father gave him the basic lessons and from an early age he began accompanying bhajan sessions where his father played the violin. In 1909 he apprenticed himself under Kalpathi Krishna Iyer, a mridanga vidwan of repute. Later he trained under Chokkanathapuram Aacha Bhagavatar who, apart from being a mridangist, also ran a drama troupe.

By 1914, Subba Iyer began accompanying Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar for his Harikatha-s. Gradually he became the accompanist of choice for all the visiting stars such as Ariyakudi and Maharajapuram, apart from Chembai whom he accompanied often. Ill health prevented Subba Iyer from seeking concert opportunities elsewhere and soon he also began training many disciples, among whom was Mani Iyer. Others included T.S. Vilvadri Iyer who shone as a ghata vidwan. Subba Iyer passed away on 17th June 1961. A road in Palghat is named after him.

Not much is known about L.S. Viswanatha Iyer, one of Mani Iyer’ guru-s, except that he was of affluent means, and that music was central to his existence. He is said to have accompanied many prominent artists who visited the area.

Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer was the third and perhaps most important influence on Mani Iyer as far as the mridanga was concerned. Sruti has devoted a full issue to him (Sruti 126). He was also influential in getting Mani Iyer to savour the culture and lifestyle of Tanjavur of which the latter was to become a lifelong admirer.

Standing up to Pillai

The first meeting with Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai was fiery to say the least. Pillai, always an awe inspiring personality, could make himself scary on occasion and decided to do just that to intimidate Mani. The concert was by Chembai with Mani wielding the mridanga and Pillai the khanjira.

When the turn came for the tani, at the end of the RTP suite, Mani played his initial phrases and gave way to Pillai who put up an awe inspiring performance. Then, unexpectedly he also went on to play the teermanam and coming to the point of take off simply said “Pallavi” in a loud voice thereby telling Chembai to sing it. As far as Pillai was concerned the tani was over.
Mani was not to give in. Barely had Chembai sung the line when he launched into a detailed tani on the mridanga and like Pillai, played the teermanam and announced “Pallavi”! Chembai much amused, sang the line once again.

Pillai, not to be outdone, now launched into yet another display of virtuosity ending with a roar indicating that the pallavi ought to be sung. Chembai sang it, only to have Mani begin on the mridanga.

This went on for two or three rounds with the laya fascinated audience lapping it all up. Chembai brought it to a close by laughingly telling both the artists that he was enjoying himself and as far as he was concerned they could go on forever and he would sing the pallavi line as many times as they wanted him to.

It was a head on collision, but over the years, the relationship ripened into genuine affection and respect.

Padma Bhushan for MSG and TVG

By Sruti

Sruti congratulates M.S. Gopalakrishnan (violin) and T.V. Gopalakrishnan (vocal and mridanga) on being honoured with the Padma Bhushan award.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Seasonal mamas and mamis

KV Krishnaprasad
With over 100 sabhas and over 300 concerts a day, the Chennai season offers a counter culture relative to urban India today. Along with young music students, teachers, diehard rasikas, and eager foreigners, there are loads of elders – our ‘Mamas and Mamis’. They close their kitchens for a month and help themselves to the delightful canteen food served by Padmanabhan, Gnanambika and the like. Their stories are interesting and their enthusiasm is infectious.
Diehard mamis come to the academy for tickets at 5 am. She sits there even after buying tickets for the popular evening concert - just in case!
There is the nostalgic mama I met - a professor in a Canadian university. I could not have guessed his background, with his veshti costume, his abhorrence of cell phones and his predilection for buses.
There is the peaceloving mama who believes that every single performer out there sings well. When he paid a generous compliment to an evening performer who could not keep a steady note that night (due to the season virus), I started maintaining a safe distance from the mama.
Some are very helpful. When we were being tormented by an obscure ragam chosen by the performer for his bhajan, she volunteered to find it out and tell me the next morning. God bless her!
There are doctorate mamis who come fully armed with reference tomes and song-raga compendiums and jump into intense research the moment the singer utters the first line. They discuss and research and discuss again with identification of the raga their only objective. Pretty oblivious to the rendition itself, and amusing to watch from a distance, they are found singly and also in groups.

Then there is the name-dropping type: ‘Jayashri was telling me the other day that the music was not audible at all from the stage’, TM Krishn’a voice is not Ok, I believe,’ ‘Sanjay asked me to come to the concert early as the traffic was heavy.’
Some enthusiastic mamas keep polling for the best concert of the season. Any argument that tastes differ does not carry any weight with these mamas.
There is a lonely, friendly mami who gives her phone number to every one from her city of Bangalore and asks them to come and visit her. I am a proud recipient of her number.
There is this crooning mama who though in awe of TVS’s singing, launches into a parallel concert. Each one has his/her ways of enjoying the concert(s).
I have stayed away from a talkative mama who attempts to involve you in the hot topic of the day (Anna Hazare, Corruption, Cricket are all fair game). Beware!

Despite their many idiosyncrasies, the common thread of enthusiasm and love for music and all things musical runs strongly through all these mamas and mamis. These are the pillars of the season carrying the torch of nostalgia and unconditional love of music through generations. What will the season be without them? But, all the same, choose your seat wisely if you want to lose yourself in the music!!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Music keeps him alive

V Ramnarayan

“Look up the meaning of the Tyagaraja kriti Sangita gnanamu in the book there ,” the frail old man bundled up and blanketed in the chair in front of me said, a minute after I entered his bedroom in his nephew’s house inside Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, when my friend Sampathkumar and I visited him earlier this month.

Near nonagenarian and confirmed bachelor Tanjavur Sankara Iyer may be a very sick man today, needing the constant care of a loving family, but his musical creativity and devotion to past masters including the Trinity remain undimmed. True to the words of Tyagaraja, he still pursues sangita gnanamu with fervent devotion, still composes his own bhava-rich compositions and still sings and teaches everyday. The object of his love and affection and guru kripa is his 12-year-old granddaughter Aparna, on whom he pins his hopes for the future.

For those unfamiliar with Sankara Iyer’s contribution to Carnatic music, I reproduce below a brief extract from a Sruti (issue 195) profile of the vidwan by Lakshmi Devnath:

Sankara Iyer is a highly respected vaggeyakara. His compositions have been a source of delight both to the vidwans and to the general public, but he himself speaks with great modesty about his works. “I should not be bracketed with the Trinity or other famous composers of the past. But I can say my compositions are rooted in sampradaya, as theirs are, while they cater at the same time to evolving needs without being light. Shall I say, my compositions are a bridge between the old and the new!”

Anyone who has listened to Sankara Iyer’s vocal concerts, lec-dems and his own compositions, will readily agree that he is indeed a bridge between the old and the new.

My planned interview with Sankara Iyer never took place, because, thrilled to meet visitors from Chennai, he was keen to demonstrate his granddaughter’s singing, and more important her ability to absorb his lessons on sruti suddham, raga lakshana, and clear enunciation of sahitya. He stressed the vital importance of the last of these aspects of music, but was quick point out that on his list of priorities, the raga overrode the Bhakti emanating from understanding of the lyrics. “The lyrics could be about Rama, Krishna or Karuppannasami; it’s the musicality that matters.”

We were fortunate to catch glimpses of his highly evolved sense of aesthetics through his profound enjoyment of the beauty of both verse and tune, whether by the Trinity, Sankara Iyer himself or Kalki Krishnamurti, whose Poonkuil koovum pooncholaiyil orunal, he taught Aparna with obvious relish. “What a wonderful poet!” he exclaimed.

When I reminded him about a T Viswanathan concert he had attended more than a decade ago at my Chennai home after which I dropped him home, he instantly recalled, “Muktha was in the audience, wasn’t she, and I remember she joined Viswa in a song whose words he momentarily forgot. In the car, you asked me if I would perform at your residence. What happened to that offer?”

That was indeed a doosra from the veteran. I had no answer to that.

Kathak nritya with political trappings

By Buzybee
Huge ugly banners lined the TTK Road leading to the Narada Gana Sabha auditorium. They had close-ups of the special guests Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah, actor Kamal Hassan, M.A.M. Ramaswamy, some Congress party members and also that of a Kathak dancer. “We welcome her highness,” screamed some posters. Who could the queen be you wonder?
Sharmistha Mukherjee, daughter of Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was coming to Chennai for the first time to perform Kathak Nrutya with her group, at the invitation of Congress MP J.M. Haaroon. The publicity splash orchestrated by Chennai politicians included larger-than-life posters, a huge backdrop on the stage, advertisements in local dailies, and enviable coverage by leading dailies and tv channels. It certainly pays dividends to be connected to the top. If only dancers in Chennai could get even a wee bit of this publicity blitz!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Designer concerts

By S Sivaramakrishnan
Going by the emerging trends in the presentation of Carnatic music, the day may not be too far when concerts of these sorts happen:
Multi star concerts
If you could roughly divide the concert into three parts, the first artist will render a varnam, a few kriti-s and the so called ‘sub-main’; the key vidwan will handle the core segment consisting of rare numbers and the main piece and the third artist will go merry with the tukkada section. An RTP expert will chip in, if needed, between the core and tukkada segments.
Multi-pitch concerts
Very simple. For ‘medium-sthayi’ oriented pieces (for example, the Todi swarajati Raave himagiri) the artist will happily choose a bright pitch. He will select a low pitch for kriti-s like Ksheera sagara, where hitting the upper panchama at Taraka nama is mandatory. Needless to say multi-pitch concerts will be a boon for artists who do not have a sweeping range. Of course you have to put up with the interludes for change of sruti or instruments between songs.

Double duets
In other words, two duets on the same platform. This can promote healthy competition. Requires adequate space on the platform. The so-called ‘stage presence’ will be guaranteed!
Vaggeyakara concerts
Here the artist will dress up like the composer of the kriti. As considerable time may be needed for change-overs, two or more artists may participate and ‘alternate’ the slots.
A group of well rehearsed artists sit together. Songs won’t start at the pallavi. Singers take turn to sing sahitya passages at random to make meaningful formations to elicit audience admiration and finally arrive at the kriti. These events will also have raga alapana with rare pidi-s leaving the listeners guessing the raga name. The exact raga roopa will emerge after a while.
Three or four rasika volunteers can be provided with buzzers and rewarded with gifts for quickest identification of the raga as quiz programmes.
Camaraderie concerts
The raga will be rendered by one team, the kriti by another, the niraval-swaraprastara by yet another and so on. Entertainment assured!
Sing along concerts
If you are a great fan of a particular singer, you can fulfil your dream singing along with the star your favourite kriti sitting beside him or her on the stage. Mind you, the cost can be high or even exorbitant.
Walk-in music
The event promoters bring a celebrity to your doorstep quite unexpectedly on a Sunday. How well you receive the team and treat them to instant snacks with ingredients provided by the sponsor will be the challenge for the host. The reward will be in the form of a song of your choice rendered by the guest artist.
Any more ideas?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Visakha Awards

By Sruti

It was awards galore at the 42nd annual festival of music and dance organized by Visakha Music Academy from 26th November to 1st December 2011 in Visakhapatnam. Carnatic vocalist Nithyasree Mahadevan received the ‘Bharata Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi Puraskar’ on the inaugural day. The ‘Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale Puraskar’ was presented to veteran natyacharya Adyar Lakshman, the ‘Sripada Sanyasirao Puraskar’ to mridanga vidwan Yella Venkateswara Rao, ‘Dr. Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu Puraskar’ to violinist Peri Srirama Murthy, and ‘Sangita Kalanidhi Nedunuri Krishnamurthy Puraskar’ to young Carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan. The title of ‘Sangeeta Kala Saagara’ was conferred on Carnatic whistle artist K. Siva Prasad. (See Photo Gallery on

Friday, 13 January 2012

A day in the life of a teacher of music—via Skype

By Vidya Subramanian
My typical day starts at 5:30 AM with a cup of steaming coffee handed by my dear mother-in-law. I check my Calendar, email, FB page, read the morning news online and then log onto Skype in time for a 6 am conference session. Today, I will be teaching two US based teenagers: Kavya from Texas and Subha from New Jersey. Both girls have sent me a practice log for the previous week via email. I skim through the practice logs and have them sing a varnam in two speeds. Subha is preparing for a competition and sings me her chosen song. We polish up some sangatis. Kavya is participating in the Festival of Nations at her school and we together decide that Lalgudi Sir’s scintillating Behag tillana would make an interesting choice for her heterogeneous audience. She sings it quite well but struggles with the tala in the latter half of the charanam. Using a combination of loud hand clapping and webcam, I help her get the patterns accurately. We then proceed with our current work-in-progress, Dikshitar’s Kamalambam bhajare. The class ends with a few rounds of kalpana swarams for the pallavi of the beautiful Kalyani kriti. 
The next 90 minutes are spent frantically getting my two little ones ready for school. My seven year old son’s science textbook decides to hide itself in a nook and my three year old daughter spills juice onto her outfit, presumably to add color to the day’s proceedings. After much scrambling and cajoling, we run down the stairs, breathless but just in time to greet the school van.
My 10 am session is a 45-minute trial class with a Canada based homemaker. Biruintha is a Srilankan Tamil who has received training for a number of years and would like to hone her skills further. I teach her excerpts from a Tyagaraja kriti and then hear her sing a song that she has learned a long time ago. We discuss various learning options as well as pros and cons of online lessons. I then call Ramya, a Bangalore based teacher and performing musician, who is part of my team and check with her if she would be able to teach Biruintha on a weekly basis.
Post lunch, I walk to Pondy Bazaar to finish some errands. I stumble upon Usha, an acquaintance from my days as a CA student. Usha and her mother are sari shopping in T Nagar. We exchange pleasantries and contact info – Usha has settled down in the San Fran Bay area after marriage, done her CPA and now works for a Big 4 audit firm. I brief her on my journey over the past decade – CA, MBA, marriage, two kids, a couple of corporate and consulting positions in California and New York before heading back home to Chennai for good. “So, wow, you did your MBA after your CA. Are you now into management consulting?” asks Usha. “No, I made a career switch – I decided to pursue Carnatic music full time,” I say. “That must have been a tough decision – to waste all your academic education!” says Usha, looking at me rather sympathetically. “I don’t think I have wasted any effort at all. Carnatic music is very challenging and creative. I am learning a lot and enjoying my experiences immensely! I have always been into it from childhood but decided to pursue it as a serious vocation only a few years ago. In fact, I feel my MBA skills are being put to very good use in my musical activities which include online teaching, podcasting and so on.” I am trying my best to sound confident. Usha’s mom’s eyebrow goes up 1/16th of an inch (Jeeves and Bertie Wooster aficionados will surely relate to my comment!) “So, how come you guys moved back to India? Did you or your husband get laid off or did your Greencard application run into issues?” “Neither, we had always wanted to return to India.” Usha’s mom looks at me incredulously.
Before Aunty can pass the next comment, I excuse myself and rush back home just in time for an afternoon Skype session with Gabriela, my Brazilian student. Here is the real interesting part. Gaby doesn’t speak a word of English (and of course, I am clueless about Portuguese). How do we communicate? Ah, music is a universal language you may say. True, indeed! But how do we interact, discuss and converse? Google’s Translate tool comes to our rescue although I sometimes end up getting rather quaint sounding chat messages (I know she does too). “Can you please explain me what the raga Bhashanga term mean?” types Gaby. And so, we go back and forth, singing and typing. It is a slow process but both of us enjoy our interaction immensely.
3 pm. Kids are back from school. I get Skandan, my older one, started on his homework and look at my rather ambitious to-do list for the day. 1. Need to learn a specific Ramaswami Sivan kriti for a student who wants to sing it at a Composers Day event. I search online and find a beautiful rendition by Sri KVN. I listen to it a few times and decide to come back to it later in the week. 2. Need to plan for a concert this weekend. 3. Need to record and email song mp3s to a bunch of students. 4. Need to gather material for our next episode of Raaga Rasika (the free podcast series I co-host. I jump to item no 4 while feeding my daughter Parvathi her afternoon tiffin with one hand.
4:30 pm – Class with two students (again by Skype conference): one in Europe and the other in Gurgaon. We try out ghanaragamalika tanam, inspired by a recording of Veena Dhanammal. 
My inbox by now includes an email from a teacher in my group who would like me to follow up with a student who habitually forgets to show up on time for class and another from a Kenyan of Indian origin who would like to discuss online Carnatic music learning options. While I am typing my response to the Kenyan, I hear a discussion between my husband and my son on whether dinner will be home made parathas or dosas at one of T Nagar’s umpteen restaurants! I check the evening news update, my FB page, email, and Calendar for the next day before putting my laptop into a state of hibernation. The thing I like best about being an independent musician is that I can choose and shape my path based on my skills, strengths and constraints, and it is such a fun learning experience each day. For, as the saying goes - “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn!”
About the author: Vidya Subramanian ( is a Carnatic vocalist and disciple of Lalgudi Jayaraman. Also a gold medal winning Chartered Accountant with an MBA in Finance from Boston College, USA. Vidya is based in Chennai and can be reached via email at Her free educational Carnatic audio podcasts can be accessed from
Note: * Student names have been changed to protect privacy.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Carnatic cocktail

By MV Swaroop
I was at Zara last night with some friends, sitting at the absolute edge of a table of nine people. I didn’t hear a word of the conversation at the table. I was distracted by a little thought-breakthrough, an idea that took over my mind.
Music at Zara’s, and most other decent pub/bar/lounge-types in Madras, suffers from three issues. First, it’s the same kind of music everywhere. If you don’t like that particular kind, you’re stuck, you have no option (of course, there’s Queens Bar in T.Nagar that plays the SS Music Channel with Jyothika dancing on a hill in a frosted blue saree, but those are exceptions). Second, it is usually too loud, yet not of danceable variety. So, you cannot talk, and you cannot dance. Which means you end up staring at each other with a rather silly expression on your face for most of the evening. Third, the music simply sucks. Last night, at Zara’s, they were playing The Offspring. For Lord Kapaleeswarar’s sake, The Offspring! I count buying that cassette with Pretty Fly (For a white guy) in eighth standard amongst the most embarrassing moments of my life.
So, I told my friend, a fellow Carnatic musician sitting next to me, “Dude, we should start a bar that plays Todi raagam.” He demonstrated an exaggerated Todi, and I said, “Yes. Exactly.”
Here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. Music: The music will be hardcore Carnatic - you are likely to hear Punnagavarali or Asaveri over Kurai onrum illai. There will be no songs in Marathi. There will be no Meera Bhajans in badly pronounced Hin-dee. We will play the English Note, don’t worry.

Of course, lots of Todi will figure.
The evening will typically begin with some KV Narayanaswamy, and over the course of the night, it will progress through Brindamma’s wailing padams, Mali’s broken spurts of beauty, and S. Balachander’s overwhelming ragamalika tanams. And then, after the waiter asks you for the last order and makes the lights a little brighter, and you’re in that phase when you get up and realise you’re drunker than you thought you were, we wind down with MD Ramanathan’s baritone that seems to emanate from the centre of the earth. It will give you a sense of balance and purpose.
There will be regular occasions, like November Nagaswaram Nights (ideally live, open-air, late night), February Fusion Week (we have to attract youngsters also), Mridangam Mondays (featuring extended tani avartanams with free drinks thrown in for “putting” correct talam), Tambura Tuesdays (you drink to the drone that somehow signifies the omkara, that primordial sound that contains a universe; yes, yes, we have philosophical pretensions also.), Flute Fridays, Violin Wednesdays, and the occasional Seshagopalan Saturday or Sanjay Sunday. Cheesy things like playing music by musicians called Krishna or Krishnan or Krishnamurthy on Christmas will be encouraged. Occasionally, like the Music Academy, the bar will feature a Hindustani Night (and the mama who comes there every week will identify every raga as Mishra-Maand) or a Ghazal Night (which will be popular amongst those mamis who find Hariharan cute and his voice mellifluous, and amongst posh Sowcarpet residents and the Annanagar North Indians.)
For the sake of inclusiveness, themes like “Raga-based songs of Maestro Ilayaraaja” and “Golden Melodies of AR Rahman” will appear once a year.
The sound system will be uniformly bad, the recording quality worse.
2. Decor: The walls will be plastered with portraits of “doyens” of “yesteryear” who rendered “yeoman service” to Carnatic music, with appropriate flower garlands, incense sticks and a solitary, small, red zero-watt bulb. Drinks will be served in steel tumblers with davaras. Plates will look like khanjiras, spoons like morsings, straws like flutes (with fake holes, of course), pitchers like ghatams. Just so that the electronic tambura doesn’t feel left out, one will be left on each table for no reason. You can irritate everyone at your table by constantly changing sruti. If they tell you off, tell them you’re playing jazz.
3. Decorum: Decorum without rum is mere deco. Therefore, the worse you behave, the better the ambience is. You will be expected to let out an occasional “Mtch-mtch,” or a “Tut-tut-tut-tut...” or a “Bhale” or a “Sabhash”. You are expected to noisily keep talam; and bring along a small raga book for ready reference.
If you wear shoes, you will be asked to remove them at the entrance (take that, Zara’s!), if you wear a veshti, you will get extra ribbon pakoda, if your shirt is un-ironed and nondescript, you will get the title of Rasikar Vendar along with some coconuts, bananas, a dilapidated orange, two suspect apples, a few betel leaves of no use to man or beast, two packets of pakku, a shimmering ponnadai that no human being can publicly wear, a citation and a purse of `101.
Men and women will be made to sit in separate enclosures. Oh wait, they already do this at Bikes and Barrel. Then we won’t do this, we don’t want to copy. Like Kamal Hassan, we will be different.
4. Food and Beverage: While all the regular items will make an appearance, there will be some raga-based cocktails. The Gandharam Gargle is a tribute to Todi’s ga - its taste will be ambiguous yet heavy, and it will taste differently when drunk from different parts of the glass. A vodka-and-Red Bull-based cocktail is planned for Kadanakutoohalam’s jumpiness. Prussian Blue, based on Neelambari’s lullaby will lull you into comforting slumber. Piping hot filter coffee with a dash of brandy will be available.
As a tribute to the local, Vorion 6000 beer will be given prime importance.
Keerai vadai, samosa, and ribbon pakoda (the menu will spell it as “rippon bakoda”) will form the side eats. Special sundal during navaratri. Pongal and chakkarapongal during Pongal. Atirasam, murukku and mixture from Suswaad, T. Nagar, throughout the year.
5. Karaoke Night: Once a fortnight, there will be a Carnatic karaoke with live mridangam and violin. They will play the raga and song of your choice, which you will choose from an unmemorable yellow and pink printed file, to which you will be required to do elaborate niraval and swaram. Sometimes, there will be a Royal Challenger RTP Challenge where each table nominates one person, and the pallavi goes around the bar in sequence. Tables will be eliminated if they muff up their round. The eduppus and the ragams get tougher as each round progresses. In the last round, the remaining participants will be required to stand on one leg, balance three volumes of the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini on their heads, put two different talams with two hands, and sing a monstrous pallavi incorporating all the five nadai-s. All this after they have consumed a few potent Gandharam Gargles.
More ideas are welcome. This is a work-in-progress.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The sultan of sarangi

By Veejay Sai
On a cold winter evening in Bombay in the late 1990s, after much hesitation he decided to give an interview in his house. The bargain was that he had to be a part of the tele-serial I was researching for Star TV. When I arrived, he was all ready, well-dressed and waiting to welcome. A bit disappointed that it wasn’t going to be a videographed interview, Sultan Khan opened up his world of music and passion on a rather emotional note. A modestly furnished home with a wall to wall navy blue carpet and floor seating with pillows adorned his humble living room. “Main anpadh hoon yaar, angrezi me baat nahi kar sakta. Jo bhi hain mere paas, yahin hain! Aakhri dumm tak mere sarangi ke saath rehna chahtaa hoon” (I am illiterate and cannot speak in English. Whatever I have is here. I just know that I want to be with my sarangi till my last breath), he said in a choked voice. “Whatever I had earned all my life, I bundled it and gave it to Zakir and we managed to buy this little house. After all it’s not easy for artists like us to live in a city like Bombay”, he went on to explain.
Over endless cups of tea and samosas, we spoke late into the night. That formed an unforgettable bond of friendship between us over the years.
Over the last few decades the sarangi had almost started fading off the concert stage because of its ridiculous association with the music of tawaif-s by caste-conscious event organisers and musicians. Many artists like Sultan Khan faced the backlash. Constantly out of work, and catering to requests of egoistee film music directors and the like had hurt the maestro beyond repair. And that emotional side of him was reflected in his music eventually. He was more popular in the West than in India.
Born into a family of artists, Sultan Khan started learning sarangi from his father Gulab Khan and his grandfather Azeem Khan of the Indore gharana. As a child, like others his age, his interests lay in various sports and games but it was the sarangi that shaped his destiny. He gave his first concert at the age of eleven. “I’ve shed blood for the sarangi. It’s my good fortune to be with it. The pain you find in its sound isn’t found anywhere else,” he would say about how the sarangi chose him as an instrument for its propagation. Fond of the three gharana-s (Agra, Indore and Patiala) that he was highly influenced by, he even cut an album as a tribute to the guru-s he learnt from.
He was responsible for the growth and popularity of the instrument in the west. Having toured and performed with the likes of Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Peter Gabriel and others, he had ardent fans in Madonna and Duran Duran. He accompanied all the greats of his time and shared a great bond and friendship with Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which he loved to talk about often. “How does it matter what language each one speaks? We are all musicians and we understand each other’s language of music and gestures and that is more than enough to make music,” he often said.
Sultan Khan had a great sense of humour. Once at a concert, an organiser insisted on asking him if he was south Indian and that irked him. “I am north Indian, I am Rama. You are south Indian, you are Ravana!,” he retorted lightheartedly not realising the mike was on and the people in the audience who heard this were in splits. “Once I was sitting in my room and watching some French movie on the TV when Zakir came in and asked me how I was able to understand the movie. I said how do I care if it is French or English? I understand neither and both sound the same to my ears.”
With Sultan Khan’s constant stream of jokes, you never noticed the passage of time. Behind this fa├žade of his was an emotionally fragile artist who opened up to close friends and colleagues.
With the onslaught of Indie pop albums, his popularity grew by leaps and bounds when he recorded Piya basanti re and Albela sajan aayori for the film ‘Hum dil de chuke sanam’. Though he never intended to be a singer, he became a household name and there was no looking back. Endless offers from music directors came his way after that. Although he accompanied every other artist, his favourite was to give a sarangi solo performance with either Zakir Hussain or the late Shafat Ahmed Khan playing the tabla for him. He became emotional when he played the Rajasthani maand. And on his request, when we finally managed to record for the teleserial, he insisted on playing the maand and we aptly titled the episode Sounds of Rajasthan. He recorded another of his favourite pieces ‘Dheemo re’ in Rajasthani, moving the whole crew of our recording unit to tears. A double bonus for the unit was when he brought his grandfather’s century old sarangi, which he maintained in the best condition and performed with it. “This instrument has seen the hard work of the hands of my father and grandfather and I’ve inherited it,” he announced to all of us there.
Over the years we shared a great friendship and spent good time on several occasions we met at —backstage, at concerts or airports, while he was travelling. He was ailing for quite sometime. He leaves behind his son Sabir Khan and several students to carry on the legacy of the sarangi. He recollected an incident when an American journalist asked him what the ambition of his life and music were and he replied, “I sing with love and with my heart. That’s why even God listens to me. I want to do this till my dying day.” He shall be remembered as the ‘Sultan of Sarangi’ in the history of Hindustani instrumental and world music.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Drumming up a storm

Ganesh V

(Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar’s tayambakam demonstration at the Madras Music Academy on December 15 was a tour de force)

Looking back, I don’t think the audience knew what was coming its way. The soft-spoken elderly gentleman wearing only a mundu, with the top cloth tied around his waist in the traditional fashion of Kerala, was introducing the subject of talas to the audience. It was a prelude to his demonstration of chenda vadyam and tayambakam. He patiently explained the different tala systems used in chenda vadyam, and compared them with the tala systems prevalent in Carnatic music. Speaking in English, he peppered his explanation with short bursts of self-deprecating humour which quite tickled the audience (“I can’t count beyond nine. All of you will have to help me” and “I am from Kerala. I know only Malayalam. Please excuse me.”) All this while, an innocuous looking percussion drum (measuring about 2 feet in height) was sitting next to him. On top of the drum lay two short sticks with bent ends.

He then went on to introduce the different kinds of chenda vadyam, such as pandi melam, adanta melam, and panchari melam. His pronunciation was correct and clear. He then introduced his team (about nine of them, including his two sons) and said that they would now present a 40-minute demonstration of chenda vadyam and tayambakam. He politely requested the amplifier and microphones in the auditorium to be switched off.

A short explanatory note is due here. The chenda is a drum which has been used in the temples of Kerala for many centuries, as part of temple festivities and religious processions. It is usually played along with various accompanying instruments like the edakka (a very small drum which produces a bass sound, hung from the shoulder and played with one hand), ilathalam (cymbals), and kombu (a horn-shaped wind instrument made of brass or copper). Also, chenda vadyam has always provided mood-enhancing background music for Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam, traditional forms of dance-drama. In fact, we can’t think of these dance-dramas without their accompanying music!

Tayambakam is one of the ways in which the chenda and other instruments are played, in a certain rhythmic arrangement.

Back to the lecture-demonstration. If anyone in the audience was wondering why the mikes had to be switched off, he was soon to find out.

The elderly gentleman picked up the drum and sticks and stood at the centre of the stage. All around him, his team members arranged themselves in a semi-circle. They started by playing a simple beat and steadily got into a rhythm. Within minutes, they had built up the tempo to a dizzying speed. And that is when the audience realized the sheer talent of Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar.  And the depth of his music.

The chenda weighs about 12 kg. While its stock is made of jack wood (like the mridangam), the tightly-stretched skin at either end of the drum is made of calf leather. It is hung from strong cloth straps, which are slung around the neck of the player. To lug it for even ten minutes and stand still, leave alone play it, is itself a challenge. Yet, despite being on the wrong side of sixty, Sankarankutty Marar handled the instrument with effortless ease and virtually drummed up a storm! From time to time, his face would break into an impish grin, as though he were amused at the way the audience was spellbound. As the recital progressed, I was thoroughly mesmerized and completely lost track of time.

Marar’s sons and the rest of the team kept pace with him all along. With the drums keeping the beat and cymbals chiming in at just the right moment, a beautiful sound was created. During the solo relay, the way in which each member of the team played for a while and then handed over the baton smoothly to the next member without a beat being missed, was breathtaking. It was a reflection of the team’s perfect sense of timing and anticipation. Chenda vadyam is a team game. It calls for not just individual brilliance from each player, but also deep mutual respect and understanding of your teammates. Sankarankutty Marar’s team was right up there, in all these respects.

Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar is a colossus in chenda vadyam. He passed out of the portals of Sadanam (short for Gandhi Sevasadanam), that venerable school of performing arts located in Peroor-Kerala. From a young age, he has been carrying forward the legacy of Pallavoor Appu Marar, Pallasena Chandra Mannadiar, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and other stalwarts of the earlier generation. Chenda vadyam and tayambakam were so far mainly played within and near temples, with the result that not many people outside Kerala know of them. It is only in the past few years that these musical forms have been played at other venues. As a result, geniuses like Sankarankutty Marar are not known outside their circles. Nevertheless, the Government of India has recognized his contribution to this art form and has awarded him the Padma Shri.

Padma Shri Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar’s moving performance kick-started the lec-dem sessions at the Annual Music Conference and Concerts of the Madras Music Academy. With their astonishing display of sound, synchronization and rhythmic artistry, Sankarankutty Marar and team won over the hearts of the chaste Madras audience.

As for me, the goosebumps did not subside for several minutes after the programme.

Bhajana by children in the Mada Streets of Mylapore

By Buzybee
The Mada streets of Mylapore came alive to the sounds of music and dance in the early hours of 1st January 2012. A number of children and elders, in traditional south Indian attire, did bhajana and performed Kummi and Kolattam in the streets around the Kapaleeswarar temple, from 6 to 8 am. It was the tenth year of ‘Bala Vidwan Bhavani’ organised by Sri Sumukhi Rajasekharan Memorial Foundation. Children from local music and dance schools, along with their parents and the general public, enthusiastically sang bhajans, Tiruppavai, Tiruvembavai and namavalis. Tiny tots dressed as Krishna and Andal stole the hearts of the crowd. Not only was it a colourful treat, but it was one for the palate too as delicious venpongal and chakkari pongal were distributed to the participants and the onlookers. A few octogenarians happily recalled the days when Papanasam Sivan conducted the Margazhi bhajanai in the Mada streets of Mylapore.

The Season of Music

by Siddhartha Jagannath

Siddhartha is a sixth grader who learns Carnatic music

From Tirukodikaval to me

My first Margazhi season in Chennai has been very exciting, to say the least. Every activity we did was music related and everywhere we went we heard great music. We stood in line for concert tickets, and spoke to friends and strangers about song lists, reviews, concerts and schedules. I have more old Mama/Mami friends than my grandma. I have also eaten more cookies and candy in this one month than I have my entire childhood, thanks to all my Mami/Mama friends at the sabhas. In all this music related activity I ended up with a treasure. I am now the proud owner of a violin once used by Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer.

One lecdem I thoroughly enjoyed was T.N. Krishnan mama’s. After hearing all that Krishnan mama had to say about his childhood days and how much he practised to become the great maestro he is today, I became motivated to practise like him so one day I could play the violin like him. I came home completely inspired. I was greeted by my Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer violin, which made things even sweeter. I could not rest or go to bed. I was so exhilarated that I played my violin till past midnight. Needless to say that was shortlived!

Songs of the season

This Margazhi season there were some compositions that were popular selections by performers. Among varnams it was the Saveri Adi tala varnam. I have heard everybody from Sandeep Narayan to S. Sowmya sing this. I enjoyed the Chaturdasa ragamalika of Muthuswami Dikshitar twice in two days. Among kritis, O Jagadamba (Anandabhairavi) and Dinamanivamsa (Harikambhoji) were chosen by many artists. Kalyani raga was definitely in vogue—in RTP form or as main pieces. Since it was Madurai Mani Iyer Mama’s centenary, everyone’s set of tukkadas included Eppo varuvaro in Jonpuri.

Lecdems and kutcheris

I especially enjoyed the morning sessions at the Academy - the heated debates and discussions, the interesting topics and the “Expert Committee Members” comments and compliments”. A lecdem I found very entertaining was Bangalore Amrit Anna’s presentation on Harishankar Mama. I was surprised at how many techniques Harishankar Mama had introduced into khanjira playing that we normally take for granted in a concert. I also was fascinated with the way Amrit Anna did those fast gumki-s with one hand! The speed at which his hand worked was marvellous.

One of the most enjoyable kutcheris for me was Malladi Brothers at Singapore Fine Arts. The pallavi they sang was Simhapuri nilaye, Murugane, Sivan magane, Guhane in Anandabhairavi and in Khanda jati Triputa tala, tisra nadai. The words were cleverly chosen to honour the presiding deity of Singapore (Simhapuri) Muruga. I also loved the Mysore Brothers on violin and flute Shashank’s concerts.

Also a unique concert was Prince Rama Varma’s kutcheri. His main piece was a composition of Dr. Balamuralikrishna (his guru) in Lavangi (this raga has just four notes S, R, M, D) called Omkara. During the kalpanaswara-s he would sing one phrase of swara-s and T.V. Gopalakrishnan (who was playing the mridanga) would play the same phrase in perfect sruti on the toppi of the mridanga! The mridangam was singing indeed.

This season T.M. Krishna Mama started a trend of singing an alapana not followed by a kriti in the same raga. He sang an elaborate, beautiful, and slow Varali alapana followed by a speedy Chinna nadena in Kalanidhi. This created a lot of discussion and provided ample fuel for the following day’s discussion on kutcheri paddhati at the Music Academy.

Upuma maker vs. upuma eater

The kutcheri paddhati panel discussion was conducted by the critics who write reviews in the popular newspapers and magazines. Some of the participants were Dr. S.A.K. Durga (moderator) Seetha Ravi (Kalki), and V. Ramnarayan (Sruti). One question brought up was whether a critic needs to know how to sing in order to be a good critic. The press folks held the view that to enjoy and critique an upuma, one need not get into the details of how the upuma is made.

This same question was brought up the next day about musicologists and performers. A senior vidwan voiced his opinion and proclaimed that the upuma eater must also be an upuma maker in order to enjoy and eat the upuma. While it left most people amused on this profound question, all I could think about was running down to the Padmanabhan canteen for some Upuma and chakkara paal (sweetened milk).

On the brink of extinction

After listening to the vidwans and vidushis I have a long “to-do” list. For instance, Vedavalli Mami gave a talk on Desadi tala and how most Tyagaraja compositions were originally composed in Desadi tala, but in course of time, have changed into Adi tala. Vedavalli Mami told her student Sumitra Vasudev to demonstrate the famous Tyagaraja composition Girirajasuta tanaya in Desadi tala (in which it was originally composed) and then in Adi tala. The audience was asked to close eyes and listen to the two versions of the song. Then Mami asked the audience to comment on the versions. Most agreed that the Desadi version sounded more natural and had a good punch to it. She said that Desadi tala had almost disappeared. Mami also demonstrated the Simhanandana tala with a tillana. This tala, having 128 aksharas, fascinated me. It contained many hand thumps, waves such as the throwing up of the hand, swinging the fist from side to side (gurus, kakapadams, plutams and laghus). In my next paattu class, I pestered my Paattu Mami to teach me this tillana in Simhanandana tala and she agreed.

I love T.N. Krishnan mama’s violin concerts. His music is so crisp and clear and he has so much fun with it. At the Music Academy, he commenced his concert with the Narayanagaula Ata tala varnam. After completing the varnam Krishnan mama picked up the microphone and started speaking. He said that this Ata tala varnam was fast disappearing and not many people even knew about it. Mama also said Narayanagaula as a raga was on its way to extinction. I ran home and called my paattu teacher. I told her about what T.N. Krishnan mama had said and asked her to teach me everything in Narayanagaula before it vanished. She laughed and said Narayanagaula wasn’t going to run anywhere!

Vedavalli Mami for meditation

The opening performer for the Music Academy’s “December Art Festival” was Vedavalli Mami. My mother, who was seeing her for the first time, was struck by Vedavalli Mami’s posture, poise, grace and the calm that Mami’s music brought to her. She resolved that every time she got frustrated or angry she would think of Vedavalli Mami singing on stage. She was certain that the very mental image of Mami would calm her down. Moreover, she told me she was going to maintain a posture like Mami and rid herself of all back pain. Mother did not have to wait long to apply these valuable lessons.

A few days later, we were rushing to the mini hall in the Music Academy premises, to reserve good seats for Bangalore Amrit’s presentation on talas. We had just reached the junction of Lloyds Road and Royapettah High Road, when my mother hit a motorbike. Fortunately, she was moving “slowly”. Or rather, as my mother would like to say, the motorbike collided into our car! That too, a COP on a motorbike! We were in a car with a Karnataka licence plate, with an American driver’s licence and we had just knocked down a Chennai traffic policeman on the road. There goes my day, I thought! My mother maintained a stern face, and said nothing while the policeman cursed her, making violent gestures with his hands. Thankfully, after a few minutes of cursing, he rode off. After a big sigh of relief, my mother started to get really angry, and annoyed at the nerve of the policeman. I immediately reminded her to invoke the mental image of Vedavalli Mami, to employ the poise, grace and meditative music to calm herself down. It was a bad idea, a very bad idea indeed! My mother got even more angry and told me to stop being an “adhika prasangi” (which she tells me whenever she thinks I talk more than I should). I was being a good son, I thought. Much later, after she had cooled down considerably, we laughed about it.

The season has given me great memories and I have learned a lot. I hope to be in Chennai every ‘season’ for this very special time of the year

Monday, 9 January 2012

Words of wisdom from Semmangudi (part 2)

By Gowri Ramnarayan
The briga is another dangerous device. Its glamour is often mistaken for grandeur. No attention-getting device has lasting value. Music must not draw attention to skills; it must make performer and listener forget themselves. Sometimes I feel that not having a good voice is an asset to the Carnatic musician. It impels him to Herculean efforts to grasp something beyond his reach - to explore new, original, fascinating territories. Of course, now you think I am talking about myself. Maybe I am.
There are many changes for the better. There are more sabhas, sponsors, government support and more musicians. Artists enjoy financial security, a far cry from the days when parents were afraid to get their daughters married to musicians. Yes, I speak from personal experience.
Another tremendous step forward is the emergence of women as equals of men in this male-dominated field. With the exception of the Dhanammal family, women musicians sang a string of songs exactly as they had been taught. They did not attempt much improvisation of raga and swara, they avoided the challenge of the ragam tanam pallavi. With the advantage of naturally sweet voices, women are now overtaking men in each one of these departments.
Concerts today have team spirit. Instrumentalists have made great strides. The violin has become a solo instrument on par with the veena and the flute. New instruments like the mandolin and the saxophone are crowd-pullers. We have to wait to see if they will endure.
The rasika has greater variety and choice than ever before. But there is less diversity in another area. In my time you could say this boy was trained by Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, this man is the disciple of Ariyakudi, and so on. But today every youngster sounds the same. Their concert pattern, manner of kriti rendition are all the same. They are all one even in refusing to descend from the higher octave until they extract applause.
The reason is that they are no longer merely the sishyas of this or that guru, but of the cassettes that flood the market. Nor has criticism developed as a constructive guide. Critics are more interested in attacking established artists to produce copy that sells.
Our age has seen a proliferation of musical compositions. The less-known kritis of the great masters have been discovered and polished. And each day brings a new composer to light. The old endures because it is steeped in the essence of the ragabhava. And time will decide the fate of the new. I will say that Papanasam Sivan's songs are not skeletal verses; they are filled with life-giving melody.
Staying with the guru for years and absorbing music by listening as well as learning is no longer feasible. Now we have institutions where music is taught to groups of students in one-hour slots - a waste of energy and money. In Thiruvananthapuram, where I was Principal of the Sri Swati Tirunal College of Music, I devoted a whole morning to a class, attended to the needs of each individual student and finally sang the whole piece so that they got the whole picture of what they were learning in parts. I find that those who learn from classes held in the home of vidwans show better results than government college students.
I cannot end without repeating my conviction about teaching methods. You know that children who learn in the Montessori method have a better grasp of the subject than those who are force-fed. They learn spelling and grammar after becoming familiar with the language. Similarly, exercises in the scales like sarali and janta must be taught after the child learns little, simple songs. Then he will learn more, enjoy more.
With all these developments in the art and its sponsorship, why is it that the impact of present-day music is confined to concert time? Why does it not linger in the mind for days after? One reason is that there is too much of it easily available round the year. You do not have to wait for it and seek it as in the past.
Perhaps the problem has to do with a fast lifestyle, one that hankers after novelties and innovations all the time. It lacks the perseverance and discipline on which the creative arts thrive. But Carnatic music will retain its grandeur and depth despite temporary trends. There will always be a group of committed listeners and performers who will refuse to compromise on values. It will remain a small minority. So what? The classical arts have never had mass appeal.

The GNB magic

By Raja Ramanathan
Without realizing, at that time, that he was singing it, I first heard a recording of GNB’s rendering of Mayuvaram VishwanathaIyer’s, ‘Jayati Jayati Bharata Mata’ at a family wedding in 1957.

The lilt of the song fascinated me and at my request, my indulgent father bought a 78rpm disc of the song which we would later play athome, often.   As I entered my teens the song stayed with me.  In those days, it was always played at school flag hoistings after the National Anthem and ‘jhanda ooncha rahe hamara…’ were played.   It was also a time when I was beginning to get interested in the history of the Freedom Movement, and, once I asked my Sanskrit teacher to help me translate the song.  As he did so, it came to me that this song should have at least featured in the short list of songs for the National Anthem.  I don’t think it did, though I have seen somewhere that Semmangudi sang it over All India Radio on August 15, 1947.  There was always controversy over whether Tagore wrote Jana Gana Mana in praise of the British King, and, Vande Mataram was, to a lot of people, too parochial, to capture the ethos of an emerging secular Republic.  With its sattvic poetry ‘Jayathi Jayathi…’ seemed to be a good choice. However, I guess the close association of the other two songs with the Freedom Struggle scored points.  Don’t know if the song is still played at school flag hoistings (or, for that matter if kids just sleep in on August 15th these days instead of marching off to school at dawn on August 15th as we used tio).  Better still, they maybe Skype-ing the whole function -J) It was only much after GNB had passed away that I got to appreciate the rest of his music.  I remember his songs from the movie ‘Sakuntalai’ with MS, and, later on I heard Himagiri tanaye which is my second top pick for GNB. The words ‘Himagiri tanaye’ conjure up for me an image of a beautiful child playing on the slopes of her father’s home, the Himalayas, and, all that is associated in that wonderful archetypal father-daughter relationship... and GNB’s rendering of the song brings out the wonder of a true devotee singing.

Unfortunately, I never got to listen to GNB sing live.  He passed away in 1965, far too prematurely. And, in 1965, I was interested in other things that interest teenage boys.  Later on, as I got to listen to recordings of GNB, I was fascinated and always wondered what was it that made his singing so attractive (am listening to Ananda Natesa as I write this).  Was it the depth of his voice? Was it just the man? He was tremendously good looking and had set many a female heart a-flutter in his days…What was it that made his music so unique?  And, this morning when I was working out on my elliptical machine listening to GNB through the head phones the phrase ‘passionate detachment’ came to my mind…
Yes…that was it…he practised passionate detachment…he could immerse himself so totally in the song and its meaning, and, yet remain detached…the true quality of a Rajarishi…the words attributed to King Janaka come to mind
Anantam iva vittam me, naasti me kinchana
Mithilayam pradeeptayam na me kinchana dahyate
(All the wealth of the Universe is mine, yet, there is nothing that is mine
Should the whole of Mithila be destroyed, nothing that is mine would be destroyed)

Yes, if Janaka could sing he would have been born as GNB.

The ecstasy—and some agonies

By Bala Shankar
The December music season is not far from an ecstasy drug. We reach a high during the festival and post-festival brings with it the withdrawal symptoms. People like me cope with it by writing or talking about it! Here are a few general takeaways from 2011 edition:
  1. Lec-dems seem to have finally got their due. Many of the programmes were well attended—and by earnest audiences. It is time the sabhas developed a master plan for their lec-dems rather than random themes and random presenters. There are plenty of knowledge seekers who can be consulted. Presenters need to be prepare professionally. Some of them barely touch the topic, as they like hearing their voices more than fulfilling their task.
  2. RTPs (ragam-tanam-pallavis) of convuluted or restrictive ragas continue. With the possible exception of Kosalam and Pasupatipriya, all ragas have been coronated at the RTP altar. I am not convinced of the validity of this quest. The R and T of most of these leave a lot to be desired. They are either composed of rasanubhavas without structure - only phrases strung together (for example, a recent RTP of Mand), or structured but clinical and scale-oriented (as in an RTP of Sivaranjani last year). In both cases, there is a sense of incompleteness. The musicians can do better to challenge themselves with the tala structures (including eduppu) and rendering trikalam without fumbling and competent niravals.
  3. Two-hour concerts tend to be frustrating, especially if they have 30-minute tani avartanams. For a detailed presentation with variety and depth, 2 hrs 30 minutes is a must, perhaps even more. Mridangists dont want to play ball to keep the tani crisp. With tani avartanams becoming tavil avartanams, even senior mridangists cannot seem to resist the temptation of the gallery and are often the culprits. There should be a cap of about 10% of the concert time for tani. In fact, there would be more interest in two short tanis, in two different talams and kalapramanams. The likes of GNB, MS, Semmangudi, and DKJ used to have about 20 songs in their concert. The number is not so important, but offered the variety and diversity. One is therefore unhappy with 4 or 5 song concerts, with a 45 minute raga alapana of the main song, sometimes replete with vocal exercises, extended from daily sadhakam.
  4. Venue standards continue to be deplorable in many cases. This is the topic of my next piece.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Words of wisdom from Semmangudi (part 1)

By Gowri Ramnarayan
(Semmangudi spoke to Gowri Ramnarayan a few years ago)
Before the 1930s, musicians performed before small groups of 200 to 300 listeners. The microphone brought about a revolution. The singer did not have to develop a voice of full-throated resonance any more. Thousands could hear his murmurs and croons. But amplification has been at the cost of tonal clarity, as also of depth, weight and vocal power. The mridangam is a victim too. Restraint robs it of natural force and lucidity. This new style of music may please the ear, but cannot haunt the mind.
The amplifier’s feedback can be a hindrance on the stage. So it is for listeners assaulted by the gigantic speakers in the hall that convert music into noise. The distortions can be minimised by placing small speakers at regular intervals to project more even sound. The bell-shaped speakers of the early days, placed above the pandal, were far better than the models we have now.
Once Budalur Krishnamurti Sastrigal and I sat on the bridge across the Kaveri in Tiruvaiyaru to see how well we could hear the flute recital of Palladam Sanjiva Rao at the high school venue nearby. Sanjiva Rao’s lengthy mandara phrases were nectar from heaven. Mandara sthayi has gone out of vogue. We have neither the vocal strength nor the taste for it any more.
Carnatic music was nourished by the nagaswaram tradition. As a child I followed the pipers through the four streets around the temple in the procession of the deities. Now and then the pipers stopped and elaborated a raga. The crowds thronged to worship as well as to listen to the music. The brothers Kiranur, Tiruppamburam, Tiruvizhi-mizhalai... Mannargudi Chinnapakkiri, Chidambaram Vaidyanatha Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Viruchami Pillai... they were giants. That kind of expansive, contemplative music has vanished. I can still hear their morning ragas - Kedaram, Bilahari, Saveri, Dhanyasi, Nattakurinji - as the deity was taken to the riverside mandapam for the tirthavari ritual, and the evening strains as he rode the silver chariot back to the sanctum. Today the children of those pipers have exchanged their family art for office jobs.
Present-day singers have developed a better voice culture than in our times. They have also developed better sruti alignment. Of course many of them are inaudible without the mike.
The growth of music depends as much on the listeners as upon the artists. Nowadays people do not have the time or the temperament to savour four- to-five-hour-long concerts. But they know much more theory, which makes them formidable. It is very difficult to satisfy them. What a contrast to the old-timers who often identified Kambhoji not by name but as the ‘Sri Subrahmanyaya namaste raga’! Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar not only gave us the concert format we follow now, but also popularised many ragas and a variety of kritis in them.
The old listeners had patience and discipline. When an organiser found someone gossiping in my concert, he literally dragged him by the ear and threw him out of the hall. Once when I found some Mylapore advocates chatting in the last row I asked them: “Would you let me talk in your courtroom?” At the least sign of inattention my guru, Sakharama Rao, would simply pick up his gottuvadyam and stage a walk-out. He did not tolerate any insult to the art he worshipped.
Today performers not only tolerate indiscipline, they also rely more on the razzle-dazzle of virtuosic skills, which do not permit depth. But listeners have been trained to appreciate ragas sung in ways difficult to identify or understand. This trend is lauded as clever. People have come to believe that real enjoyment comes from what they do not understand. They crave for ragas “new” and “rare”, but so limited that there is no doing anything with them except racing up and down the scale.
A regrettable modern tendency is to burst into applause for every little thing. This creates the illusion that the success of a concert is to be gauged by the volume and frequency of the applause. Determined performers work towards a crescendo of superfast swaras tagged with the “tadinginatom” - in other words, arranging swaras to imitate drumbeats. Laya wizard Dakshinamurti Pillai would exclaim even in those days: “Leave drumming to us! Sing from the soul!” But from Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai to the Alathur Brothers there were those who indulged in fireworks. Today this has become the rule rather than the exception. The music and the applause are equally mechanical. Once in Bangalore, when violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and I traded kalpanaswaras in fast and slow speeds, stimulating each other to plunge more and more into Anandabhairavi, finding poruttams each more beautiful than the one before - there was no need for any climax of calculated rhythms. And the hall was filled with an exhilaration beyond thoughts of applause. My friend and contemporary the late Musiri Subramanya Iyer used to be so lost in bhava that he never thought of evoking any response.

Guru K.J. Sarasa passes away

By S. Janaki
Well known Bharatanatyam Guru K.J. Sarasa died in the morning of 2nd January 2012 in Chennai. She was ailing for some time. The 77-year old veteran  had the distinction of being one of the first and most successful women nattuvanar-s of the traditional community in modern times. This famous natyacharya who initially sang for dance and soon took to nattuvangam,  carried aloft the flag of the Vazhuvoor tradition of Bharatanatyam most impressively for more than five decades. She has a host of talented and well known disciples who are continuing the tradition in different parts of India and abroad.

Karaikal  Jagadeesan Sarasa's style was marked by grace, ornamentation, sculpturesque poses, sparkling glances, and the charm of the Vazhuvoor style. Her emphasis was on encouraging individuality and creativity within the confines of tradition, and not on imparting an assembly-line uniformity and rigidity in her disciples.

It is quite amazing how Sarasa -- a single young woman established a name for herself in Madras in the 1960s and emerged as a highly respected natyacharya on the strength of her art. (See cover story in Sruti 247, April 2005)