Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hits and misses at Tiruvaiyaru

By S Sivaramakrishnan
Being present if not singing at Tiruvaiyaru during the aradhana is easily regarded as the greatest tribute to pay to the memory of Tyagaraja. And if you are a practising musician, nothing can be as elevating as an exclusive slot to perform in the Pancharatna kirtana on Bahula panchami day.
After a gap of several years, I was fortunate enough to attend a few sessions of the 165th Tyagaraja aradhana observed this year from 9-13 Jan 2012 at Tiruvaiyaru in Tanjavur District. As usual the Pancharatna Kriti rendering by group of devotees on the Samadhi day which was however ‘more than adequately covered and reported’ by the media in all its hues.
I limit my remarks to the events I witnessed at random on various days of the series.
The inaugural function attended by several political leaders had a sizable strength of partymen at the venue. Interestingly though, a speaker mentioned that Tyagaraja was ‘cremated’ in Tiruvaiyaru. Another read from his written speech that ‘Rama Sastrigal’ was one of the Trinity! But one thing that made immense sense in the speeches was the references to unstinting patronage, leadership and support extended by the G K Moopanar family in the conduct of the aradhana for many years now. Encomiums were also paid to the present secretaries of the Sri Tyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha Utsava Committee—Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel and Srimushnam V. Raja Rao—for their hard work, devotion and organizational skills apart from their artistic acumen.
It is a rare honour to get the inaugural slot of the aradhana but the Priya sisters chose to render Adugathura as the first song. Many felt that a kriti like Sree Raghukula (Hamsadhwani) or any other in a ‘bright scale’ would have lent a special charm as the opening number of the series (notwithstanding the fact that the kriti in Manoranjini is a unique composition of Tyagaraja).
O.S. Arun, Papanasam Ashok Ramani and Anuradha Krishnamurthy who sang familiar compositions fared average in their slots.
T.N. Seshagopalan started off appropriately with Entara nee (Harikambhoji) but a bad throat posed him challenges during the upper octaves of the Kalyani alapana for Bhajana seyave. He didn’t relent and in the process strained himself oblivious to heightened excitement among the audience for Kadri Gopalnath’s saxophone waiting next in row. Kadri with his shining livery was a big draw, but his Saramati didn’t register well. I have often wondered why Kanyakumari’s violin should sound like a second saxophone on the dais!
Mandolin Shrinivas walked away cool with Marubalga (Sriranjani) and a scholarly Nenarunchara (Simhavahini).
N. Ramani was his usual self with Dharini (Suddhasaveri), Ganamurte and Endamuddo (Bindumalini).
Nithyasree gave a fine, emphatic recital with Janakiramana (Suddhaseemantini) and Siva siva sivayyena (Pantuvarali) and a couple of other kriti-s.
Though veteran N.C. Soundaravalli’s choice of Nagumo (Abheri) was welcomed by a discerning audience, the ‘multiple and must not avoid sangati-s’ seemed challenging.
Subha Ganesan, Rudrapatnam Brothers, and K. Gayatri. Gave good recitals.
Trivandrum Krishnakumar and Binny Krishnakumar impressed listeners by their selection of a rare kriti in Saranga on the presiding deity of Tiruvaiyaru, Panchanadeesa.
Mahathi who rendered Evarey Ramayya (Nasikabhushani) showed care in handling a swarakshara prayoga at the charana sahitya passage Pagavari. Nasikabhushani seemed to be the favourite of many.
It was heartening to note that quite a few veena artists participated at Tiruvaiyaru this year. Mudikondan Ramesh presented a well articulated Mokshamugalada (Saramati) in his late night slot.
Saliamangalam Ramdass played a good Mohanam for Nanupalimpa. Trichy Sivakumar’s Kamalaptakula (Brindavanasaranga) was good.
Mangala isai by Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and Kalisha Beevi that preceded the inaugural session gave a solemn start to the aradhana. They played an excellent Kapi. But in their rendering of Janakiramana (Suddhaseemantini) an occasional chatusruti dhaivatam in place of suddha dhaivatam showed up in the pallavi sahitya (Ramana).
There were numerous other nagaswara concerts during the aradhana (many of them in the afternoon slots) and it was heartening to note that youngsters are increasingly showing keen interest in the melam. A welcome revival is taking place and hope the trend stays on.
The percussionists played tani for about 20 minutes or even more in the evening prime slots. Despite the attractive presentation by these vidwans, the enjoyability quotient was at a low ebb because of the high decibel amplification at the venue and extended playing. A veteran rasika in the audience felt that the artists must limit the duration of the tani to match the spirit of the congregation. “I have not forgotten the full bench, lengthy percussion ensemble a few years ago which also featured Zakir Husain accompanying Kadri on the tabla,” he reminisced.
The first concert slot in the AIR live relay session on the concluding evening was by Ganesh-Kumaresh (violin) who played Sujana jeevana (Khamas) and Ninne bhajana (naata). I felt they could have played Naata as the first item.
Yesudas, whose was the star concert featured in the second half of the AIR relay, had among his audience bureaucrats and political leaders and the entire band of the utsava committee. He rendered his favourite pieces like Sree Gananatham (Kanakangi) and Ksheersagara (Devagandhari) and the huge gathering lapped it up all. (A vidwan of his stature should not be using a laptop for sahitya reference).
Yesudas surprised his fans by going straight to the Saint’s Samadhi (instead of a waiting car) after the recital for offering prayers. He was duly honoured with parivattom (tying of a ceremonial head-gear) by the priests. As he was coming out, many were seen falling at his feet.
The sea of humanity dispersed immediately after listening to Yesudas and consequently the Anjaneyotsavam marking the conclusion of the aradhana had poor attendance. The customary ‘Geetarthamu’ (Surati) was sung by the staff and students of the Music College of Tiruvaiyaru. The members of the Utsava Committee and a few rasikas joined the rendition with devotion. As the concluding session is ‘open to all’, I was fortunate to sit on the hallowed dais.
The mridanga for this concluding session was not sruti-aligned. Surprisingly no one advised the mridanga vidwan to underplay the strokes or at least remove the exclusive mike. This at a venue where more than a hundred sruti aligned concerts had just taken place!
Veteran T K S Mani—the official announcer for all concerts for many years at the venue—was at the mike till the finish. At the end of the Anjaneyotsava, on behalf of the Committee, he happily read out a very lengthy vote of thanks which acknowledged the role of numerous persons, patrons, proprietors and philanthropists in the conduct of the aradhana. Just saying Endaro mahanubhavulu andariki vandanamu would have sufficed.
I could spot at least a couple of old rasikas–seemingly natives-among the audience who were singing along almost all the kritis rendered by the artists on the dais. They turned emotional on many occasions proving they knew the meaning of the songs. The insensitive among the audience chided them often.
The periphery of the pandal had stalls erected by event sponsors and co-sponsors, institutions, traders, dealers of musical instruments and manufacturers of electronic gadgets etc. Tavil accessories and an Ekaanda Veena (made of a single log of wood) attracted many. A firm dealing in music software had a person in charge who was an epitome of patience explaining the product trying to pick up its sruti amidst the hustle and buzzle outside! A publishing company with a few titles in music could also be seen. Women thronged fabric and jewellery shops. Portraits of the Trinity (courtesy S Rajam), Tanjore plates and icons sold well. Many rasika-s blissfully bargained in the background of Tyagaraja kriti-s! Eateries suitable for puritans weren’t many. As hotels in Thanjavur are grossly inadequate to contain the rush, many depended on friends, relatives and facilities available at Tiruvaiyaru.
Despite arrangements by the district administration for additional transport facilities, buses to and fro Tanjavur ran jam-packed. Many were seen taking photos of the vintage buses plying on the route. “We would sue the transport corporation if such unfit automobiles were seen on the road”, said an irked NRI rasika. “View it as a pilgrimage; tolerate everything en route to Tiruvaiyaru. Where else can you experience the presence of Tyagaraja?” a devotee hastened to silence him.
The event sponsors consisted mainly of banks which had chipped in with decent contributions asserting that nidhi’ was certainly an integral part of enriching the sannidhi at least during the aradhana.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Neelotpalambal of Carnatic Music

By Priyanka C Prakash

Not until three years of learning under my guru, Sangita Kala Acharya Neela Ramgopal, was I to know that her name was, in fact, short for Neelotpalambal, the presiding goddess of the Tiruvarur temple. Neela Mami was singing a beautiful ‘Neelotpalanayike’ in Kannadagoula, when she quietly mentioned that she was born ‘Neelotopalambal’. No surprise then, that Mami’s music is so divine and spiritual.

Born in an orthodox Tamil Iyer household in Kumbakonam, Mami is candid as she narrates the fascinating and engrossing story of her childhood. She is as comfortable talking about her orthodox upbringing in Kumbakonam, as her post-marriage life in bustling Bangalore. Bangalore and Kumbakonam may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but Mami loves both—she has made both places her own.

Mami fondly recalls how she began her music lessons with Nedundheru Sadagopacharya, who taught her the sarali and janta varisais, alankarams and other basic lessons. Though passionate enough about listening to music to surreptitiously sneak out of the house, against her father’s wishes, to attend concerts of great musicians at Kumbakonam, she never trained to become a professional musician.

She however, learnt many kritis taught to the girls in the house, primarily with the objective of singing before a prospective groom’s family. Interestingly, Neela Mami’s husband, Ramgopal Mama remembers he was stunned when he heard the young Neela sing Vasudevayani in front of him and his parents when they went to “see her.”

Neela Mami’s intensive musical training began only at 23 – an age at which many current musicians already have many performances to their credit. Undeterred by the delayed start, Neela Mami persevered to improve her musical prowess in a journey that reflects unflinching determination, infectious energy, and a strong will to bounce back after any number of setbacks. She has successfully overcome roadblocks in her musical career and several chronic health problems—including a brain hemorrhage and cancer. Mami’s journey of unflinching resolve continues to inspire and awe.

Karubaru Seyuvaru

At the age of 23, Mami began her training under critic, connoisseur and musician NM Narayanan. Interestingly enough, the first composition she learnt was Tyagaraja’s masterpiece in Mukhari, Karubaru Seyuvaru. To learn such a sophisticated composition as your first must have been a daunting task, but Mami recalls lapping it up eagerly and quickly. While teaching me this kriti, she painstakingly explained to me every single nuance in the pallavi, how to contrast the power of the ‘karu’ with the mellow, gentle caress of ‘baru’, how to link the last word of the line ‘seyuvaru’ with the next sangati of ‘karu’, how to prolong the ‘karubaru’ with a long karvai after the last sangati of the pallavi, a musical learning I will never forget. Such ‘sookshmangal’ make Mami’s music so beautiful and soulful.

Valaputala vasama

This is one class that will remain very special in my memory. It was after a concert in Chennai where someone had requested Mami to sing a padam, and she immediately obliged with Swati Tirunal’s evocative Valaputala vasama in Athana. The day after she came back to Bangalore, Mami began teaching me this stunning song. The way she taught it was different from how she would teach a kriti such as a Sri Krishnam bhaja manasa, for instance. She handled the padam delicately, like a flower – and yet, full of azhuttam. Mami told me, this is the purest of the pure ghee, even one drop of anything else will make the ghee impure; you have to struggle to learn it.

The way Mami sang this padam was incredible – I remember telling Mami that I did not want to sing it after she did, for I did not want to change the mood she had created – it was electric, and captivating.

The way she sang with odukkal-sedukkal’ (the musical improvisation of gently pushing and pulling the word from its place in the song within the rhythmic framework of the talam), the way she sensitively sang the ‘dp-dp’ notes of Athana, the way she oscillated each note and linked each line to the next – the effect was beautiful and blissful.

Guru Neela Ramgopal

Mami believes in the values of chaste classicism and tradition. She follows a rich pathantaram acquired from authentic sources, and is uncompromising while teaching kritis – if a single sangathi is missed out, Mami would immediately reprimand, to sing it several times so that it is never forgotten in the future! Her paathantharam and teaching methodology and singing kritis is so beautiful that several eminent musicians have remarked, ‘What a solid and strong vazhi!’.

Swaram singing

Mami’s swarams include interesting kanakku (mathematical patterns), fascinating ‘parallels’ (the name Mami assigns to singing three symmetric swara-phrases such as srsndns-pdpmgmp-srsndns, for instance), while retaining the raga bhava intact. Listeners have often remarked how effortlessly she combines kanakku with bhava – Mami has shown that the two are not mutually exclusive; she says that raga bhava is the soul of every moment of music; that swarams should have a meaning and a direction.

Bringing the lyrics alive

‘The most important aspects of a kriti and niraval singing are the raga bhava and the meaning of the lyrics’ – is what Mami remarks often. She believes that niraval should only be sung where the meaning is complete. For example, in the Tyagaraja-kriti Manasa etulortune (Mayalamarutam), Mami sings niraval at the anupallavi line ‘Dinakarakula bhushanuni’ instead of ‘Kalilo rajasa tamasa’. Similarly, in Manasu svadinamaina (Sankarabharanam), she sings niraval at ‘Raja rajesa niranjana nirupama’ instead of ‘Tanuvu tanu’.

Mami tells us that the lyrics should be sung with feeling – this is especially true when she sings Tamil compositions – for example, we can visualize the young Krishna with the dancing earrings when she sings Om namo Narayana. I remember a particularly embarrassing instance when I was playing the tambura for Mami’s concert, and ended up in tears after Mami sang a most touching viruttam on Muruga.

Neela Ramgopal the person

People often ask Mami where she derives her ceaseless energy from. She points to her head, and says, ‘It’s all in the mind - you can be 73 in age, but must be 37 in thought and action’. I have seen several times how she would have returned from a long journey from Trivandrum, or Chennai or Udupi, at 1 PM, cook for herself and Mama till 1: 20 PM, eat till 1:25 PM, and begin teaching at 1: 30 PM. Mami’s indefatigable spirit especially at age 76 is amazing.

Mami is ecstatic when a disciple wins a prize or an award. Her faith in the abilities of her disciples is a source of strength, especially at moments when we feel doubtful or apprehensive. I recall an instance when I was a little nervous before going to a competition, and Mami reassured me by reposing her complete faith and belief in me. With her blessings, I won the award.

Mami is truly selfless. She teaches her students everything, without holding anything back, she gives the most practical advice. One of her students, in a new place after her marriage, found it difficult to get accustomed to the new culture. Mami advised her, “You have to make yourself like the place, make the place your own”.

Mami is an extraordinarily affectionate person, and treats me as her own granddaughter. People in Chennai have often asked me when I am with Mami, “Are you Neela Mami’s granddaugher?”, and I always say, “I am like her own granddaughter!”.

Mami’s music is peaceful and energetic at the same time – it is ‘heavy’, sophisticated, and truly classical.

She is not just a prolific musician and a great guru, she is truly a wonderful human being – always unfailingly honest, affectionate and amazingly positive.

She is an example of how to survive and win against all odds. Her music and the fighter in her have helped her to bounce back quickly from every trial and become the Neela Mami we love, admire and respect so much.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Book on the Kaveri

By Sruti

It Happened Along the Kaveri: A Journey Through Space and Time is a delightful travel book along the banks of the river Kaveri by Padma Seshadri and Padma Malini Sundararaghavan, formerly colleagues in the Department of English at Stella Maris College, Chennai. Published by Niyogi Books and scheduled to be launched later this month, tells the reader “stories from mythology and history and anecdotes from the lives of great people who have shaped the region along her banks.”

Of particular interest to Sruti readers would be the coverage of the famous venues of the saivite Tirumurai and the paadal sthalams where the great Saiva saints sang and the centres where the Vaishnavite Divya prabandham first resonated.

Trivia and anecdotes abound, making the book extremely accessible, as you can see in this example: 
 Please watch out for our announcement of the book release function at

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sumitra Vasudev’s concert glows quietly

By Vivadi

Oli Chamber Concert 3

The Theme: Manikkam Vairam

Jewels and gems have been vital images in legend, folklore, literature and history. No wonder our own GNB, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramaniam Pillai and Rajamanickam Pillai were collectively nicknamed Mummaniyum manikkamum!

Many composers have painted dazzling visuals of their ishta devatas as marakatavarna (emerald-hued), ratnabharanadhara (bedecked in jewels), manimantapasthita (enshrined in a bejewelled mantapa). We see sheer magnificence in Hiranmanyim lakshmim. Our minds are filled with grandeur and beauty when we hear Papanasam Sivan’s description of the majestic Adhikara-nandi (Kana kankodi) or Bharatiyar’s reference to stars adorning Kannamma’s inky blue sari (Suttum vizhichudar), or the little Krishna’s cradle decorated with diamond trinkets (Manikkam katti).

Sumitra Vasudev’s Oli chamber concert explored this celestial splendour enshrined in classical Carnatic music.

That Deep Inner Glow

As I entered Rasvihar-Sarangi (Nungambakkam), routine dragged my feet to the stairs that would take me to their lovely silk sari collection. But I was here for an entirely different purpose. The furniture in one of the inner rooms on the lower level was being re-arranged to accommodate an audience of about 40 persons (finally 60 persons turned up!). Most of the rasikas arrived much before the artistes for the evening, and taught the Oli Team yet another lesson in concert organizing: make sure the artistes get tuned in well on time.

Soon leaflets were distributed, lost listeners circumambulating Loyola College found their way to the hall, wires tripped on, missing speech notes recovered, mobile phones switched off and prayer sung (what else but a tevaram about Oli!) and Sumitra Vasudev began her concert. What I believed until now to be merely a pleasant space turned out to be acoustically sound as well.

First up was a veritable tongue twister of alliterative prose (Jayatu jayatu), which Sumitra sang with consummate ease. In this churnika, Tyagarajasvami, with almost breathless awe, describes Narada’s vision of Vaikuntha with all its opulence. The beautiful sahitya caressed by the lilting notes of Arabhi, Mohanam and Varali made for a piquant opener.

It was all emerald and gold in quick succession with Marakatamanivarna and Hiranmayim lakshmim. Then, unfolding layer after layer of Anandabhairavi (with a viruttam Valliyai uyirtta on Sita) Sumitra moved seamlessly onto an imposing Kedaragoulai and Saveri, all of which were gems themselves. Despite the fact that the voice betrayed some tiredness, especially in higher sancharas, it was obvious that the vocalist had steeped herself in a tradition where gnanabalam reinforced bhavasukham, sahityam enhanced sangitam, and tenderness matched strength.

The viruttam brought to the fore Kamban’s striking image. A bashful bride-to-be, Sita walks towards the golden wedding mantapa. The lustrous floor of the mantapa, reflecting Sita’s emerald-studded anklets, transforms into a bed of grass put forth by Bhoomi devi for her beloved daughter, lest her feet should hurt walking on this cold, hard albeit golden floor. Arunachala Kavi, inspired by Kamban, incorporates the same imagery into his song Annai janaki (Saveri). And Sumitra in her turn sought to evoke some deep inner glow with her iridescent classicism.

The audience was visibly excited when Kambhoji was launched, as though well aware of the treat they were in for. Sumitra had allotted herself a substantial amount of time to do justice to both raga and the kriti (Kana kankodi vendum). I felt a little cheated when she plunged straight into svara-exchanges, eschewing niraval at the grand ‘manikkam vairam’ line. But my brooding was short-lived since Sumitra made up by opening the floodgates of svaraprastara, not only alternating between manikkam and vairam, but also creating unexpected glides, odukkal and tempo patterns.

Mahakavi Bharatiyar’s Suttum vizhichudar is perhaps one of the most flattering expositions of love a nayika could ever ask for. This ode to that celestial beauty, Kannamma, sung as a ragamalika viruttam where the vocalist showed her feel for poetry by playing on the words which enabled her to melodise in haunting ways.

The end of the concert came all too abruptly. K V Gopalakrishnan was all geared up to play a final flourish before he could rush for his bus to Madurai but Sumitra, for reasons we may never know, chose to end with a slokam in Surati.

M Rajeev and KV Gopalakrishnan did their best to accommodate themselves to a different flow of imagination and choice of items where they had less to do.


The Artistes

Sumitra Vasudev, a foremost disciple of Vidushi R Vedavalli, is known for her thought-provoking music steeped in classicism. Her music, a perfect blend of proficiency and aesthetics, only gains more flavor from her passion for Tamil and Sanksrit literature and poetry.

M Rajeev, a pupil of Vidushi A Kanyakumari, is a much sought after accompanist. His agile bowing and deft fingering techniques showcase his bani.

K V Gopalakrishnan is adept at playing both the mrdangam and kanjira. A disciple of Vidvan T K Murthy, he is known for his sensitive and skilled accompaniment.

Concert list

Ajnana timirandhasya (Slokam) – Nata
Jayatu jayatu – Arabhi, Mohanam, Varali
Marakatamanivarna – Varali – Adi – Tyagaraja
Hiranmayim – Lalita – Rupakam – Muttusvami Dikshitar
Viruttam – Anandabhairavi, Kedaragoulai, Saveri
Annai janaki – Saveri – Adi – Arunachala Kavi
Sri Rukmini – Manirangu – Adi – Misu Krishaniyer
Kana kankodi vendum – Kambhoji – Adi – Papanasam Sivan
Maniye (Viruttam from Abhirami andadi) – Sindhubhairavi
Manikkam katti – Nilambari – Adi – Periyazhwar
Viruttam (Suttum vizhichudar)– Surati


Oli, a yearlong project (Feb 2012-Feb 2013), revives the tradition of intense participatory listening, the life-giving matrix of Indian classical music, with two chamber concerts every month.

OLI chamber concerts are mike-less in order to preserve the tonal integrity of voice and instrument.

Ras Vihar/ Sarangi sponsored Sumitra Vasudev’s concert.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Sudharani Raghupathy is 68 today

By Sruti
Excerpts from an interview published in Sruti 169, October 1998, with the cover story on Sudharani.
The mind of Sudharani Raghupathy
Editor-in-Chief N. PATTTABHI RAMAN, assisted by INDU VARMA, probed the mind of Sudharani Ragupathy during two interview sessions.
You have said: “Once a dancer, always a dancer.” Would you care to explain.
As a child I seem to have displayed a natural liking for dance. It was a child’s play, in a manner of speaking, but my mother and some of her friends seem to have thought I had an aptitude for dancing. Even though my father did not think much of it, my mother fixed up teachers for me and I learnt Bharatanatyam. If I had been born and raised in the North, presumably I might have ended up learning Kathak. Or, if I had not been encouraged to learn and perform dance, I might possibly have taken to writing poetry. Or I might have become a painter. I was good at it too. There was an element of chance in my becoming a dancer.
Success breeds success. I guess I became deeply involved with the dance even as a young girl as each performance led to another.
But in your case, you chose matrimony over a career in dance.
Yes, I did. It was a very practical choice, given the fact that dance did not then enjoy the respectability it does today. But deep down in my heart, I loved dance.
Are you happy you were able to resume dancing? You have done very well for yourself….
Yes. Dance has become a part of my life, in fact central to my life. In my experience, it involves body, mind and soul. It is a medium that helps one to experience -- and express -- the beautiful things of life. It is an aspect of our culture where art, religion and philosophy blend.
As an art, Bharatanatyam is a composite of dance, music, sculpture, poetry, rhythm, colour and facial expression. To learn it and perform it is a wonderful way to experience all these aspects.
I enjoy dancing, being involved in dance. Furthermore, when I take a step and draw people to me, it gives me satisfaction, contentment.
In a lecture you delivered several years ago, you said dance is an important branch of art in which man’s inner emotions find systematised expression and manifestation.
Yes, I said that and I believe that to be true. God is Truth and Beauty. Dance creates beauty, the image of the Infinite.
In the West, dance has come to be regarded as a means of self-expression, an expression of the artist’s individual personality. On the other hand, in the East, in India particularly, the conception of art is that it represents an interpretation of the ideal and the Universal and the sublimation of ideas by the effacement of the individual personality through well defined traditional codes, conventions, symbols and techniques.
In this conception, the art of dancing is a pathway to a trans-mundane experience. Its purpose is in the main spiritual. The dancer uses not only her feet but also her imagination to convey the true meaning of dance, the meaning of life itself.
All this sounds far removed from reality….
Well, maybe. Commercial instincts predominate today, but the ideal must always be kept in view. Those who understand the true purpose of art must keep underlining it. I am an optimist and I like to believe that the younger generation of dancers, at least those who apply their mind to what they do, will be guided by the ideal.
You have contrasted the Western perception of art, in which the individual ego is central, with the Hindu concept in which the dancer is expected to sublimate herself. Do you really believe that ego plays no role in inspiring a dancer to add something of her own perception to what she has received through learning, to modify or replace handed down ideas?
I am not denying that ego plays a role, but I am saying from experience that the great moments of art, which are often fleeting, result when an inspired performer forgets the self while on the stage. As a dancer I need an audience, but even then I dance for myself. I cannot, I should not, step out of myself to see how I am performing and ask whether I am pleasing the audience. I cannot get involved in the dance if I do that.
Talking of rasanubhava, I want you to answer a question from your experience. Let us say you are performing an item which has a divine theme. What is it that moves you or the audience? Is it bhakti or art?
In what way is it both? For example. In ‘Taye Yasoda’, is there the bhakti element?
You have raised a valid question, but the problem is that it is not easy to describe the meaning of bhakti. I think bhakti is a personal experience which is above the mundane, an elevated experience of the soul.
In the example I have cited, what is it that moves the audience, is it bhakti whichever way you define it, or aesthetic experience as postulated in the theory of rasa?
It is the aesthetic quality of the dance.
So, even a dance which has no explicit bhakti element in it can produce rasanubhava?
Yes, it can.
But you have said that you don’t believe in art for art’s sake, haven’t you?
Yes, but I would like to respond to your implied question in two ways. One is that, personally, I do not dance for money. God has kept me above want. Whatever I am paid, I distribute among the artists who provide me accompaniment. If there’s something left over after this distribution, I use it to help poor students.
The other is that, in line with the Hindu concept, I believe art is a means to an end, but not a selfish end, though. I believe that art should aim at producing transcendental bliss, or what I might call spiritual satisfaction.
Do you make a distinction between music or dance as an instrument for promoting the bhakti marga, and music or dance as an art-form for providing aesthetic satisfaction? Is there no difference, for instance, between a bhajana session and a music concert, or between a Harikatha and a music concert?
I understand what you mean. One can have an elevating emotional experience through dance even in the absence of bhakti in the sense of devotion to god.
The artist has to sublimate her ego in order to obtain, or give to sahridaya-s in the audience, what is called rasanubhava, or aesthetic relish. Does this perception mean that, while the ego is necessary as a stimulant, it should be sublimated during performance, or rather that there is aesthetic relish only when there is self-effacement on the part of the performer?
I used the word self-effacement to refer to the condition which results from the full involvement of the dancer with what she is performing. An artist can achieve sublimation despite her ego, so long she loses herself in the act of performing.
Tell us about the ideas and experiences that have played a significant role in moulding you as an artist?
First, I should mention that I was brought up in an environment in which stories from epics and mythology were told and retold vividly, highlighting moral issues and philosophical ideas. Though I have been exposed to other concepts and philosophies of other religions, I have remained a product of our own culture and civilization.
Second, the Hindu conception of art and its purpose has been a tremendous influence on me. Although I am acquainted with the ideas of the West in this regard, I totally subscribe to the Hindu conception.
Do you share the view that dance is a visualisation of music?
Yes, I do. Most certainly. If one learns dance from a guru who is also a good musician, it helps to add poetry to the dance. The dance becomes the one whole which Abhinavagupta constantly speaks of in his commentary.
Do you think the younger dancers need to be given training on how to present a programme, with an eye to creating a wholesome impact?
Yes, I think such training will help. I studied this aspect at Randolph-Macon College in the U.S. and gained valuable insights. For example, how make-up should be varied for different skin tones. Eleanor Struppa of this college told me – this was 33 years ago -- that some skins reflect light and some don’t, and that if a skin reflects light, it must be toned down.
How about lighting?
I believe a Bharatanatyam performance does not require too much juggling with the lights. The basic bright light is enough. It is different for dance-drama, though.
How many dancers today have it in them to visualise the total effect their programmes must create? Or take into account, besides music, costumes and jewellery, stage decor, the quality of sound amplification, lighting and compering?
I guess many dancers who are educated have the eye, knowledge and experience to articulate all these aspects. but they need help from their teachers and from the organisers as well.
I think dance is so commercialised today that when a dancer gets an opportunity to dance, she wants to make the best use of it to establish herself as a popular performer. All thoughts of dance as an instrument to try and create rasanubhava get pushed to the background.
Would you like to sum up what dance has taught you?
As I said before, dance involves the body as well as the soul. Intellect, emotion, imagination all come into play. It can make the person who pursues it sincerely more gentle, more aware of the environment, react in the right way to external stimuli, be more aesthetic in outlook -- in short be a very cultured person.
Dance, like music and other arts, helps us rise above the beast in ourselves.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Medium, The Message, The Music

By Shrinkhla Sahai

A recent television advertisement of a British daily depicts the hypothetical media coverage of the children’s tale ‘The three little pigs’ as part of its ‘open journalism’ campaign. The spot traces the coverage of the story in print and online media, from the arrest of the pigs for killing the Big Bad Wolf to protest on social media, editorials and debates to activism for economic reforms. Reflecting on modern news gathering, media representations and citizen journalism, the spot is an active springboard for probing further into the role of media in a neoliberal economy. In the case of media’s role in music, it is significant to review which musical genres are represented in what way and how that accentuates decisions on what kind of music is listened to, by whom and how. How do ‘the little pigs’ defend their musical moorings and in the matrix of media and music can the ‘wolf’ blow up or blow away certain musical forms?

These debates resurfaced at the recent conference on ‘Role of Media in the promotion of music in India’ organised by ITC-Sangeet Research Academy in collaboration with Mumbai's National Centre for the Performing Arts earlier this year. Facilitated by veteran sitar maestro Pt. Arvind Parikh, the two-day conference provided intense brainstorming sessions, yet the challenge remains in activating the music and media communities towards cohesive and concerted action.

In the inaugural address, Rajiv Takru, Additional Secretary in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, elaborated on the delicate balance between the twin motives of promotion and profit in media operations. 

It is generally agreed that in the current scenario, the largest slice of the media pie has primarily focused on film music. While the mainstream mould of Bollywood music has remained invincible for the past few decades, it is noteworthy that the increase in the number of private players in the field has not yet led to effective formation of niches for various other musical genres. Consequently, the marginalisation of other musical forms in media has been further intensified. While Bollywood and classical music are often positioned as the polarities of Indian music, there are myriad other genres that are often neglected in academic spaces and discussion forums as well. Raising this concern, Jayant Kastuar, Executive Board member of the Sangeet Natak Academy, pointed out that ‘Indian music’ expands to a vast corpus of musical knowledge beyond Hindustani and Carnatic classical to other musical traditions also. Many of these need immediate attention and constantly face the threat of becoming obscure in the face of media’s myopia and the challenge of globalisation and homogenisation of popular culture.

While the categorisation of India’s musical heritage is a contested area, another issue that afflicts music in media today is the inadequacy of journalistic skills to articulate the aesthetics of musical forms. Chaired by N. Murali, President, Madras Music Academy and Director of The Hindu, the panel on print media comprised veteran journalists Kalpana Sharma and Siddharth Bhatia, and V. Ramnarayan, editor-in-chief, Sruti magazine. Commenting on the current state of music writing, the panellists deliberated on aspects of media education, quality of media coverage, viability of media and the role of the newspaper.

Underlying this lacuna in music writing skills is also the need for a language for effectively talking about music. Either the musicology-derived terms make it too technical for the layman to comprehend, or the critique becomes too generalist belying any claims at musical knowledge by the reviewer. The issues of effective and informed reviewing and relationships between the audience and artists emerged in the panel that focused on theatre and dance. The discussions inquired into replicable models of art production and reception and intersections of music with other art forms. The necessity of evolving newer formats of art writing was also voiced by theatre personalities Shanta Gokhale, Sunil Shanbag and Gowri Ramnarayan.

In the realm of electronic media, case studies of erstwhile WorldSpace satellite radio’s Hindustani classical music station and Margazhi Mahotsavam—a festival of Carnatic music telecast on Jaya TV—provided insights into the successful development of niches with a growing listener base. Panellists Geeta Sahai (Radio Gandharv) and Subhasree Thanikachalam (Jaya TV) emphasised that packaging and presentation of content into entertaining and exciting formats was the key to sustaining and initiating newer audiences into specific music genres. Independent music is another significant area where new modes of production and distribution are being explored. Vijay Nair, CEO, Only Much Louder, shared his experiences of initiating and creating a vibrant community for independent music through his indie music record label and artist and event management outfits.

A session exclusively focusing on All India Radio gave vent to many grievances while AIR Director General Leeladhar Mandloi tried to placate participants with the announcement that out of 65,000 hours of recordings in AIR archives, 50,000 hours have been digitised. He further added that eleven channels of AIR are likely to be available on the internet soon. Voicing the concerns of the music community, senior artiste Nayan Ghosh offered a list of practical suggestions for the improvement of AIR facilities.

In an engaging discussion on the changing performance context, music critic Amarendra Dhaneshwar pointed out that multiplicity of programmes and abundance of talent are often offset by lack of equality of opportunity. The politics of concert organisation and corporate sponsorship is a prime factor that steers the performance world today. Sarangi maestro Dhruba Ghosh reflected on the changing social structures within music and its effect on the aesthetics of the form. Music critic and writer Deepak Raja traced the historical trajectory of the shift from concert to electronic media and their importance in defining the musician and her relationship with the audience. Talking about emerging career strategies, he pointed out that musicians today effectively use new media, for instance by uploading their links on youtube, and further encashing that in the concert scenario.

New media have indeed emerged as the most significant playing field providing space for new modes of exploration, production as well as transformation of performance spaces, contexts and relationships between performer and audience. In the session on new media, prominent musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan shared their journey of initiating a record label Underscore Records, that facilitates a more democratic distribution network for artists and promotes musically diverse forms and formats. New web applications and e-commerce models are being increasingly adopted by artists for independent publishing and creation of digital identities.

A creative, committed and connected online community has the power to transform media monopolies and offer new models for promotion, dissemination and appreciation of music. Nostalgia for a bygone era must give way to different ways of making music, thinking and talking about music. Modes of listening have transformed significantly from radio, cassettes, CDs to online music sharing and mobile phones. The need of the hour is to facilitate enabling systems for experimentation and to create spaces for coexistence of various musical styles. As artists turn to new methods of engaging audience in a digital era, media also needs to redesign strategies to carry forward the jugalbandi.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Ranjani-Gayatri capture the essence of the form

By Gayathri Sundaresan

OLI Chamber Concert 4

Oli’s fourth mikeless concert (17 March) threatened to turn into a non-event when indisposition made main performer Neyveli Santhanagopalan cancel his participation on the morning of the day he was to perform. But Oli listeners were not disappointed. They were lucky to hear exhilarating music from Ranjani and Gayathri, who graciously agreed to sing in his stead. They were ably accompanied by Vitthal Ramamurthy (violin) and B. Ganapathyraman (mridangam).

Going by the packed hall, the Oli concept seems to be catching on! For two hours, discerning listeners devoted their complete attention to flowing music, with no ubiquitous cell phone menace to distract them. This, and the proximity between performers and audience, created an ambience conducive to sheer excellence in the artistes, and alertness to every nuance among listeners.

The start was a pleasant surprise – the soft strains of Yadukula Kambhoji followed by Kaalaittookki (Marimutha Pillai).  This contemplative mood was offset by a brisk Raju vedala (Tyagaraja) in Todi, where niraval and kalpanaswaram glittered with energy, without forsaking the character and depth of the major raga.  
While every note they sang testified to their swaragnanam, (surely a spin-off from their expertise as violinists), Dikshitar's Mahalakshmi showed just how this swarasthana suddham could make a rare Madhava Manohari both majestic and heartwarming. The glides ending in tara shadjam proved enchanting, precisely because they were perfectly aligned to sruti. Brigas were equally well timed, where every anuswaram could be heard unerringly in every part of the hall.

Bilahari was the main raga of the evening, the alapana sung in two parts by both Ranjani and Gayatri. This detailed treatment of a raga not always centrestaged as the main piece provided ample opportunity to explore its possibilities. Gayatri's flight of imagination and rich prayogas had the audience sighing in wonder. Mysore Vasudevachar's Sri Chamundeswari, not often heard, came next, in a grand progression of systematic sangatis. Niraval and kalpanaswaram (Raaka nishakara sannibha vadane) were so sensitive that the devout among the listeners felt they could tune into the radiance of the Devi's face!

Their ability to make melody heighten the meaning and vice versa has Ranjani and Gayatri excel in viruttams, as evident in Kamban’s exquisite lines rendered on that day in Keeravani, Hamsanandi and Maand, as a prelude to Papanasam Sivan’s Ramanai bhajittaal.

No Carnatic music recital seems complete without madhyama sruti resonance. Ranjani and Gayatri offered a short ugabhoga viruttam in Yamunakalyani, followed  by the all-time favorite Krishna nee begane baro as the concluding piece, leaving the audience asking for more.

Accompanists Vitthal Ramamurthy and Ganapathyraman played in a controlled manner, banking the natural flow, well aware that voices could be drowned by overloud instruments. Ganapathyraman's soft strokes on the mridangam, especially while playing for the kritis, enhanced every mood. He kept his tani avartanam under a tight leash, aware of the time and the overall balance of a two-hour concert. It was a brainwave to lower the volume in the final crescendo, and, after the niraval line was signed off by the vocalists, summing up the whole piece with a flash of thunder.

The sisters' command and control over voice, crystal clear enunciation of sahitya, and adherence to classicism were seen in full measure. More, they knew just how to make the experience of a chamber music recital different from a public concert in a large auditorium. The fewer, well-chosen, contrastive ragas and compositions were, every one of them, treated with complete fidelity and devotion.

The evening reinforced our faith in Carnatic music as a collective experience of beauty, and in the fact that there are musicians to sustain these values; and, more important, that there are rasikas to appreciate and nurture this aesthetic experience.


Ranjani and Gayatri, the doubly-talented duo of vocalists cum violinists (disciples of Sangeeta Bhushanam TS Krishnaswamy and Sangita Acharya PS Narayanswamy) have carved a special niche for themselves amongst sahrdayas. This winning partnership is not altogether unlike cricket where the batsmen complement each other’s game.

Vitthal Ramamurthi is a torch-bearer of the Lalgudi bani. His mellifluous playing and bolstering accompaniment are well-known. He is especially known for spreading awareness of Carnatic music in and around his home-town near Dharmasthala, Karnataka.

B Ganapathyraman is one-Oli concert old now. His music is the joint legacy of his father Sethalapatti Balasubramaniam and his guru Kumbhakonam Rajappa Iyer. His accompaniment lends itself to the style of the vocalist and the mood of the concert.


1. Sketch of Yadukulakambhoji followed by Kaalaithookki
2. Rajuvedala, Todi, with niraval and swaram 
3. Mahalakshmi karunarasalahari, Madhava Manohari
4. Sri Chamundesvari, Bilahari - Ragam, niraval, swaram, tani
5. Viruttam (Kamban's verses in Kiravani, Hamsanandi and Mand) followed by Ramanai bhajittal
6. Ugabhoga followed by Krishna ni begane baro, Yamuna Kalyani


Oli, a yearlong project (Feb 2012-Feb 2013), revives the tradition of intense participatory listening, the life-giving matrix of Indian classical music, with two chamber concerts every month.

Oli's chamber concerts are mikeless in order to preserve the tonal integrity of voice and instrument.

Well known advocate and patron of music Vijayaraghavan sponsored the Ranjani-Gayatri concert on 17 March 2012.

Those who wish to receive intimation of future Oli concerts may please write to

The magic of the nagaswaram

By Wordcraft

According to a Wikipedia definition, the nagaswaram is the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument, “a wind instrument similar to the shehnai but larger, with a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.”

To south Indians, no ceremony or festival is off to an auspicious start without a nagaswaram preamble. Historically, the Nagaswaram accompanied by the tavil for percussion has always preceded the temple idol taken out in procession. It is therefore naturally an open air instrument, which explains the need for its loudness.

The great practitioners of the art of nagaswaram playing have belonged to families steeped in it, several of them in different parts of Tamil Nadu, most famously in the rice belt of Tanjavur on the banks of the Kaveri, the legacy being handed down from generation to generation through the centuries.

Some of the greatest artists in Carnatic music have been nagaswara vidwans, most notably Tiruvarur Rajaratnam Pillai who has had arguably the most seminal influence on most of the finest exponents of south Indian classical music, especially the major vocalists of the 20th century, and even some of today’s stars. One of the most charismatic singers of yesteryear, GN Balasubramanian, was much influenced by the nagaswara bani, especially the lightning fast brigas—a kind of modulation—of Rajaratnam that lesser mortals considered impossible of achievement by the human voice.

Semmangudi Srinivasier, the epitome of orthodox brahminhood, had great reverence for nagaswaram music. He was fond of telling the story of how he often crossed the Kaveri to listen to the incomparable music of a stalwart nagaswara vidwan, though past his best and under the influence of alcohol most of the time. Semmangudi’s eyes invariably misted over as he remembered those formative days of his music.

In addition to Rajaratnam Pillai, there have been many other magnificent exponents of the art—Karukurichi Arunachalam, Shaikh Chinna Moulana Sahib, the Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, the Semponnarkoil Brothers, and Namagirpettai Krishnan to name but a few. It is along with tavil playing perhaps the only branch of Carnatic music dominated by non-brahmin musicians, one that also features Muslim practitioners.

Nagaswaram and tavil are endangered species. Many of the best traditions of the art are rapidly changing and lack of glamour is driving many young inheritors of the legacy to seek other professions. Temples in the state have been invaded by light music, with hardly any classical music concerts being hosted there, and the grand mallari to herald the lord’sprocession getting diluted over time.

The ubiquitous electronic sruti box has virtually replaced the old-fashioned ottu, the smallish nagaswaram look-alike that acted in the past as a drone to maintain the pitch. The compulsion to enter the concert hall from the temple grounds of the past to earn a livelihood as musicians has forced artists to adapt several aspects of their music to suit the changed environment. Audiences no longer flock to nagaswaram concerts, with the decibellage as a result of microphone usage perhaps one of the discouraging factors.

(Excerpted from Carnatic Music: a Pictorial Guide for the Intelligent Music Lover)

A memorable mikeless concert

As told to S. Janaki in 2011

A violin solo presented by vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman in 1983 in Chennai at the Rani Seethai Hall, was one of the most memorable concerts I have heard. It had many distinctions to its credit.

It was a farewell function for Dr. Thomas, who was the Director of the Alliance Francaise at Chennai. Dr. Thomas and Mrs. Nhung Thomas, were ardent connoisseurs of Carnatic music. Closely known to both the parties, I was actively involved in the programme as facilitator and organiser.

In the Western musical tradition, from which the violin has been adapted, it occupies the pride of place as the ‘king of instruments’. The soloist stands and holds the violin on his shoulders and wields the bow in full range. There is an air of majesty about it. The practice in India has been different, to suit the gamaka requirements of our system.

As we planned a mikeless concert in deference to the wishes of the couple and as a special tribute on the occasion, we had a rehearsal earlier, to check the acoustics of the hall, with Jayaraman playing from different positions on the stage. We then decided to place the platform, not in the centre of the stage as is usually done, but more to the front – closer to the edge of the stage near the orchestra pit. It worked out exceedingly well. The desired effect was achieved to full satisfaction.

The hall was packed with an elite audience, which was treated to a sumptuous feast of violin music – without mikes.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Developing Sruti Sense

By K N Viswanathan

In “Child MS meets a teacher” in the Sruti blog Gowri Ramnarayan describes how young MS played with the tambura and how she was hypnotized by the sound of the tambura strings. A sruti soaked voice is a pure delight to the ears. It helps the singer to establish instant rapport with the listener. Sruti mata layam pita is a saying often quoted in Carnatic music, but how much attention is paid to develop sruti sense in a beginner in Carnatic music?

The first music lesson for a child must be in developing sruti sense. She must be taught to play the tambura first for half an hour a day, encouraged to keep her ears on the tambura stem and listen to sa pa sa., then taught to tune the tambura.

The sruti box is not a substitute for the tambura. The beginner must listen only to sruti-aligned music. Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, MS Subbulakshmi, T Brinda and KV Narayanaswamy are some of the names that come to mind as sruti-perfect voices.

These artists had flawless vocal techniques, with no false voice singing, no nasal sound, no straining of the voice, no affected singing, no excesses of any kind. There is nothing unique about them except that they had an efficient vocal technique, sang open mouthed without restraint, and had excellent breath control.

Madurai Mani Iyer and MD Ramanathan sang in perfect alignment with sruti, butthe child may imbibe their unique vocal technique and try to imitate them. It takes time to appreciate the right things in music of say Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar or Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. They had problems of voice but compensated with superlative gyanam and other aspects of Carnatic music. The child can be taught to appreciate sruti perfection even by listening to old film songs of P. Suseela, Lata Mangeshkar, or Kishore Kumar, emphasising their sruti perfection and flawless singing styles. Kelvi gyanam is as important as learning from a teacher. Sabhas can encourage youngsters to play tambura for established artists. The outcome may be improved sruti sense amongst future Carnatic musicians.

Remembering T. Balasaraswati

By BuzyBee

The 28th Annual Remembrance Day of the legendary T. Balasaraswati was celebrated by her disciple Nandini Ramani, under the auspices of Dr. V. Raghavan Center for Performing Arts. The programme was held on 9th February at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chennai. Shantha Serbjeet Singh, Vice Chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi presided over the function and released a DVD and a book. The first copy of the DVD titled “A Tradition Continues - In the footsteps of T. Balasaraswati & K. Ganesan”, and the book titled "Bharatanatyam" (Tamizh) by Dr. V. Raghavan, were received by S. Janaki, Executive Editor, Sruti magazine, who also spoke about their salient features. The DVD produced by Swathi Soft Solutions is a compilation of excerpts from performances by the seniormost disciples of Balasaraswati -- Priyamvada Sankar and Nandini Ramani, and their disciple Sushama Ranganathan. The book written by Dr. V. Raghavan in Tamil about 50 years ago, has now been published by the Center with assistance from the central Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, President ABHAI, honoured veteran percussionist Kanchipuram G. Ekambaram and offered her felicitations. She recalled her interaction with Balasaraswati and narrated incidents highlighting her helpful nature. This was followed by “Natya Samaradhanam” in which senior Bharatanatyam artistes Priyadarshini Govind, Bragha Bessel, Srekala Bharath, Sailaja, Manjari Rajendra  Kumar and Sushama Ranganathan collaborated to pay their homage through dance. They presented a varnam, some padam-s and a tillana.

For details contact Nandini Ramani, Managing Trustee of Dr. V. Raghavan Center for Performing Arts, Ph: 044 - 24430344 & 98414 30344.

Oli concert today: Ranjani-Gayatri

By Sruti

The fourth concert in the Oli Chamber Concerts series is to be held at 6.15 pm today, 17 March 2012, at Besant Nagar, with the sisters Ranjani and Gayatri sportingly coming to the rescue of the organisers when the original artiste of the evening Neyveli Santhanagopalan cried off at the eleventh hour owing to indisposition.

Ranjani-Gayatri will be accompanied by Vittal Ramamurthi (violin) and B Ganapathiraman (mridangam).

1-A Vibha Apartments
12A, Oorur Olcot Kuppam Road,
Besant Nagar
Chennai 90
(Landmark: Rajaji Bhavan)
The concert has been sponsored by S.Vijayaraghavan, advocate.

Here's a link to The Ranjani-Gayatri profile carried in Sruti