Monday, 30 April 2012

Of tonal tapestries and musical mosaics

By Athirupa Manichandar

Uyir, nee kankanda deivam (Life, you are divinity personified) goes the chorus of a popular Subramania Bharati song. Lights brightened the artistically designed stage, and rhythmic beats followed by a chorus of voices set the tone for an evening of transcending music at Aikya 2012, at the Music Academy on 26 February.

Aikya 2012, described as a ‘kaleidoscopic concert’, had a legacy to live up to as the two previous versions organized by Global Adjustments Services and Interface were popular successes. The concerts, in support of Smrutha Dhwani, an NGO, have been an initiative for honouring retiring artists in the field of performing arts. They have been marked by themes such as diversity and duality that aim to create a nexus between music and everyday life, according to Anita Krishnaswamy, President of Global Adjustments. Having featured accomplished singers such as Aruna Sairam, Sudha Raghnathan and TM Krishna in previous years, Aikya 2012 starred Bombay Jayashri.

The concert, with its central theme described as an exploration of relationships as metaphorical strings and circumscribing boundaries, was a musical pastiche. It unfolded in a seemingly arbitrary manner to feature a variety of tunes, of broadly varying genres and periods.

There was something on offer for everyone. As a rasika of music, you could sample the Sanskrit composition ‘Sri Valli’ in ragam Natabhairavi, the Hindi song, ‘hanak jhanak payal baje and the abhang, Bhakta jana vatsale. Carnatic music fans savoured the familiar notes of Tyagaraja’s Mokshamu galada in Saramati, rendered in Jayashri’s mellifluous voice, while the ghazal Ranjish hi sahi and a Tansen melody in Gurjari Todi were pleasant offerings from the music genres of the north.

A number of listeners would have been taken by surprise when the orchestra broke out into the strains of popular film songs like Aap ki nazaron ne samjha. Instrumental renderings of various Ilayaraja melodies were met with enthusiastic applause. Movie songs are those familiar tunes that remind us of many things, Jayashri said, in one of her many brief commentaries that interspersed the singing.

The final tillana in the ragam Sindhubhairavi rose to a crescendo and provided the perfect climax to the evening.

The concert, according to the organizers, commemorated 150 years of the Indian national anthem and was dedicated to the Bengali poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. A sample of Rabindra Sangeet would have thus been a perfect acknowledgment of the poet’s contribution to our musical and literary heritage.
The orchestra was an excellent complement to the vocals of Jayashri and seven of her students. In combination and perfect tandem, the strings, percussion and keys provided a soulful background to the traditional music and wove a tapestry of non-conventional tunes, including some from South East Asia. Embar Kannan with one of his spellbinding performances on the violin and Navin Iyer on the flute were exceptional. The soul-stirring lyrics of the Bharatiyar composition, Maalaipozhudhil were enhanced by the ambience of twilight created by Navneeth Sundar on the keys. Sai Sravanam on the tabla and J. Vaidhyanathan on the mridangam ably augmented the depth of the instrumental talent of the evening.

Speaking about being part of Aikya 2012, Embar Kannan said, “It was a really out-of-this-world experience,. a musical journey for all of us in different genres. We all went through the journey together. It wasn’t about an individual. It’s the greatness of our music.”

Though at many points Jayashri’s voice seemed to be eclipsed, her vocal range, perfect enunciation and unique tonality did indeed mesh to provide the musical treat that was Aikya 2012. Speaking about the choice of the versatile artiste for this edition of Aikya, Anita Krishnaswamy said, “No one else can sing an entire range from classical to the lightest form, spanning all genres of music. And the theme just lends itself. She understands music in every little way and blends everything seamlessly, taking the audience with her.”

Aikya 2012, though near perfect in many aspects, did not carry over the conceptual and artistic grandeur of the previous editions. The stage lighting, which has always been a noticeable feature of the framework of design, seemed to be mismanaged in places. The acoustics of the Academy too, did not prove satisfactory on the occasion.

The author is a postgraduate student of Asian College of Journalism.

Pied piper

By Vivadi

The call of the waves, the twittering of homebound birds, sea breeze scattering neem flowers, agal vilakkus twinkling at the stars, a platform under the banyan tree... What an enchanting setting for enthralling music!

There were many things the Oli team was worried about when we fixed Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman’s nagaswaram concert at Spaces in Besant Nagar. Will there be an audience for a nagaswaram concert at a venue unfamiliar to Carnatic music audiences? Will there be too much noise from a Saturday evening crowd at the beach? What about the mosquitoes? But half an hour into the concert, when a contoured, booming mandara sthayi nishadam in Bhairavi reverberated around the garden, our doubts became irrelevant. Here was a maestro, in complete control of his art, exploring the heaviest of ragas as delicately and unhurriedly as duskfall, to an intimate, knowing audience.

Nagaswaram concerts without microphones are not novel, for the instrument was designed to be performed in the open air as part of moving processions, but surprisingly, Kothandaraman admitted at the end of his concert that it had been a while since he had played without any amplification. “There are microphones at weddings also these days, you know... It took me a few minutes to adjust to this setting,” he said.

The lack of amplification brought its own special effects. When the nagaswaram is pointed at you, it is significantly louder than when it is pointed away from you. Also, when Kothandaraman raised it off the ground and held it aloft, it did look and sound as if he was calling out to someone in the skies. And when he rotated it in a vertical circle, mirroring the phrase he played, the sound seemed to travel in that circle, passing you for a brief moment before visiting the others in the audience!

The two main raga alapanas of the evening, Bhairavi and Nattakurinji, revealed the fact that Kothandaraman doesn’t explore ragas through ascending and landing swaras; he explores them around sangati-s. He tosses off a phrase, and then he waits for it to sink in - not just into the audience, but into himself. He then builds another one around the first, pauses again, the pause slightly shorter than the first, and follows it up with another variation of the same theme. Then comes another flourish, and another, and another, in quick succession. He throws a volley of sangati-s coiling around one another until they come back to where they first started. Then he takes a break to adjust his seevali, Kongampattu Murugayyan fills this gap with some swinging tavil rhythms. Kothandaraman signals his readiness with the next phrase to explore.

After he explored Bhairavi in this manner, one grand sangati after another, he launched into Syama Sastri’s magnum opus, the Kamakshi swarajati. The swara and sahitya, each sounding distinct from the other, were peppered with the most authentic Bhairavi inflections and accents - one glide from the panchamam to the shadjam during the penultimate swara-sahityam drew a collective sigh from the entire audience. We were no longer in Besant Nagar under a sidelit banyan tree; we were in Kanchi and Kamakshi was listening to the leisurely, majestic swarajati sitting amidst us.

The Nattakurinji raga alapana, ending in a crescendo, with Kothandaraman and Anandan (on the accompanying nagaswaram) trading whirlwind phrases in rapid succession, was followed by a rare display of tanam on the instrument accompanied by the tavil, followed by an uncomplicated pallavi highlighting the raga’s inherent symmetries. The energy of the concert was held aloft through Murugayyan and Sethuramam’s tani avartanam, with complex patterns rolling off Murugayyan’s fingers with consummate ease. The tani avartanam might just have been a little lengthy for a two-hour performance, but that was a small excess in what was a remarkable evening.

As Gowri said in her thank you speech, we hope to hear Kothandaraman play Nilambari the next time!

The programme

Mallari - Gambhiranattai – Misra Triputa
Marugelara - Jayantasri - Adi - Tyagaraja
Kamakshi - Bhairavi - Misrachapu - Syama Sastry
Himagiritanaye - Suddha Dhanyasi - Adi - Harikesanallur Mutthiah Bhagavatar
Ragam-Taanam-Pallavi - Nattakurunji - Adi
Arabhimanam - Ragamalika - Adi - Tarangambadi Panchanada Iyer

Friday, 27 April 2012

Kadayanallur Venkataraman

By Gowri Ramnarayan

It was Subbulakshmi’s good fortune to have had the right persons walking into her life at the right time—Sadasivam, Radha, Semmangudi, Musiri, Dilip Kumar Roy.  The last of the musicians to make a dynamic contribution to her music had a long innings of composing many of the best-known MS songs.

Born in 1929, Kadayanallur Venkataraman studied at the Swati Tirunal Music College, Thiruvanantapuram, and worked as a concert tambura player in his early years. A job with AIR Madras made for closer association with Semmangudi, whose disciple and accompanist Kadayanallur became. Though his extreme reticence kept him out of the music circuit, one aspect of his talent fortunately came to be recognised without any effort on his part.

MS was required to sing a range of new pieces for many occasions, and fresh compositions were in high demand. Recommended for the task by Semmangudi, the self-effacing Venkataraman found himself at MS Subbulakshmi’s residence. There was nothing impressive in his brusque manner. Said MS, “When he began to sing, I knew he was a godsend.” Time and again, Kadayanallur was able to compose music that was perfect for MS’s voice. The ragamalika Kandu kandu uniquely matched verse by melodic verse poet Poondanam Nambudiri’s ranging reflections on the uncertainties of life. Kadayanallur’s arrangement, brought to life by MS’s spectacular rendition of the chorus Krishna Krishna, transformed a standard litany of the Lord’s names into the expression of a philosopher’s world weariness and human distress. Kadayanallur showed through this piece and many others that he could internalise the bhava and find the exact raga to expound core themes and emotions, valuable strengths in a composer.

When the Tirupati Devasthanam decided to popularise the works of Annamacharya, the fourteenth-century poet credited with thousands of Telugu devotional lyrics, MS Subbulakshmi was entrusted with the job of recording his oeuvre. All the original music was lost, though a few songs could be acquired from vidwans like Nedunuri Krishnamurti who had set them to music. But most Annamacharya pieces had to be set to ragas afresh. MS loved to narrate how Kadayanallur came up with scores to suit every mood and every need. He could arrange a Kedaragowlai (Koluvudi) in an imposing grid, innovate a Kalyani chittaswaram (in Sarvopayamuna) beyond the pale, invent a playful Khamas (Dolayam) for the oonjal ritual, or conceive a Kapi (Jo Achyutananda) brimming with a mother’s love for her child. Sometimes he surprised even himself, as when he set Kannula dutite in a raga he later decided had to be Jog. He tamed the lyrically unruly Entamatramu so that verses cascaded in a frenzy of devotion. “I cannot forget the day he came in without a single word, played the sruti box and began to intone Bhavayami gopalabalam in Yamunakalyani,” MS recalled. The song begins in tenderness and ends in rapture, as does that evergreen gem Krishna ni begane. MS would be shaken by a tingling shiver when she touched the suddha madhyamam in that song.

To watch Kadayanallur compose was an experience. Sitting on the mat, eyes closed, nothing but sruti in ear and mind, he came up with endless variations, all of them tailormade for Subbulakshmi’s voice. He could get the best from her voice, whether glide, glissando, or plain note. A perfectionist, Kadayanallur monitored recording sessions to make them flawless. Sometimes, he played the tambura for MS, though few realised that the man in the rear had so much to do with the music she made.

The Balaji Pancharatna Mala, a set of five records (the sixth came later), was recorded by Subbulakshmi for the Tirupati Devasthanam. The focus was on Annamacharya, but a range of poets like Jayadeva and Chaitanya were also included.

When the first LP record was released, it was placed on the Tirupati temple niche where copper plate engravings of Annamacharya’s songs were accidentally discovered in the modern age. Listening to those recordings is to be astounded by the commitment of a singer who learned so many new compositions, getting every syllable right, every note right.

The project achieved its purpose. Today many of those songs are part of the music and the dance stage.

What made the partnership so creative? Was it Kadayanallur’s grasp of raga swarupa? His swara gnanam? Perhaps it was his attitude that struck a perfect chord with MS. He did not understand commercial goals. “We don’t take up music as a profession because we want to make money. There are other, surer ways of making money. We take up music because ... Well, if you are the sort of person to whom I have to explain it, you won’t understand anyway.” It is clear that Kadayanallur didn’t have to explain anything to Kunjamma. His gift of music and lack of worldliness assured him her abiding regard over 20 years.

Excerpted from MS and Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The process behind the MS magic

By Gowri Ramnarayan

MS Subbulakshmi’s music notebooks testified to her all round concern for every aspect of rachita or composed music, a vital part of Carnatic music dear to musicians as the outpourings of saintly souls in Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam. MS sang in north Indian languages too, mainly Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. One of her albums contains songs in ten languages! Once-in-a-while attempts include the English hymn by Rajaji that she sang with Radha at the United Nations as a goodwill gesture, and an amalgamation of apt lyrics in Sanskrit, Arabic, Japanese and Tamil (even English) at the Afro-Asian Congress of Ophthalmology in 1976.

Every one of these songs, by composers old and new, was first inscribed with its meaning in her notebook, and then each phrase notated with its literal and metaphoric meanings. Music notation came next.

The initial learning process included checking diction, emphasis, and the right spot where a phrase could be split in melodising. Experts were consulted to ensure accuracy.

MS had studied Tamil, Sanskrit, Hindi and Telugu, but did not consider herself a scholar. Yet, her Sanskrit diction amazed the pundits. The proud purohits of Kasi granted that she had flawless diction. Veteran Agnihotram Thathachariar in Tamil Nadu admitted that what had taken him a lifetime to perfect came to her in a flash of intuition. Her vak suddham (lucid enunciation) matched her sruti suddham (fidelity to pitch).

Instinct might have played its part, but the effort expended on such mastery was considerable. When MS decided to record the Vishnu Sahasranamam, pundits chanted the verses in her home for a 40-day cycle. When she recorded Kamban’s Ramayana verses, Tamil scholar Justice MM Ismail was consulted before she embarked on the project, as also before the actual recording. Notably, none of these recordings saw her hold the written text in her hand. Learning by heart was vital to truly knowing the words and melody, to flawless delivery in performance.

She was always generous towards young musicians, but the one practice MS invariably condemned was looking at the written lyric while singing. It was an insult to the composer. “How can you experience the feelings in the verse, if you are unsure of the words?” Performance was not the end of music. It was merely the outward manifestation of a long process of internalisation whereby melody and meaning became part of the singer’s psyche. Her devotion was given as much to the training process as to the godhead within. MS was convinced that music was a means of transcendence.
A related attribute was swarasthana suddham, or accurate pitching of every note in its rightful slot. No fudging, no blurring. Guru Semmangudi taught her the mega composition of the 72 melakarta ragas, where the identity of each successive raga has to be established by minor shifts in the notes. He had her record them for posterity. “Who else can render them so faultlessly?” he asked. When her spiritual guru Paramacharya heard it, he declared that this achievement would stand as long as the sun and the moon shone in the sky.

There was something intoxicating about Kunjamma’s voice. It made people say, “She sings the way she does out of sheer instinct.” Even informed listeners fell into the trap of denying her self reflexivity. The question is, can a sophisticated art form be practised at the highest level, over six decades, without razor sharp intelligence? Especially as our ears can trace through these years the evolution of an individual style, as elegant as it was emotional? MS acquired her vast repertoire from several sources, but when she sang Rama rama guna seema or Jagadoddliarana, how did they become her own, though true to the pathantara of the vidwans from whom she learnt them—Musiri and KVN?

Her editing skills were amazing. Every sangati and karvai had a proportionate length. If the vocal accompanist exceeded it, she would say, “Cut! cut! Jeevane poyidum” (the life force will go). She could demonstrate different kinds of volume control and modulations—the expected and the unexpected. She could hook her swaras to myriad anuswaras for silken nuancing, and very different sound effects while singing the same sangati twice. Even in her heyday of blitzkrieg brigas there was evidence of this phenomenal control. Her expression was gamaka-rooted. But there was no overkill. “Atiye koodadu,” (there should be no excess) was her inexorable principle. Kunjamma thought her music through and shaped her own original aesthetics. Like the ancient Indian aestheticians she believed that auchitya or appropriateness was essential for art that was allusive, art that strove for the sublime.

Excerpted from MS & Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dark Horse

By V Ramnarayan

“When do we start rehearsals?” was the crisp reply from Sundar (Dhritiman to the world) Chaterji to my wife Gowri Ramnarayan’s email to him attaching the first draft of what was to become her first play, Dark Horse, Walking Down Arun Kolatkar’s Lane. The protagonist of the play, the reclusive, iconoclastic Mumbai-based poet, had died a few days earlier, and Gowri, who had literally hunted him down a decade earlier for a newspaper interview, had been moved by the power of his poetry to write a script that included a number of his verses to be enacted on stage.

One thing led to another and soon was born JustUs Repertory, the theatre group that was the brainchild of Dhritiman Chaterji and a few other theatre fiends, the late Bhagirathi Narayanan the most prominent of them. Nearly six years, six plays and some fifty performances letter, incredible as it may seem, the Madras Players, arguably the oldest English theatre group in India, recently collaborated with JustUs to produce a Gowri Ramnarayan Retrospective of three plays at Chennai. The shows on 2, 3 and 4 July this year were sell-outs, suggesting that the fledgling of 2005 has come some way from its tentative beginnings. And when we look back with nostalgia and some pardonable pride, we cannot help feeling that the journey would not have even begun without Dhritiman’s inspired recognition of the potential of the Dark Horse script.

Like most Indians of our vintage, my wife and I had been blown away by Dhritiman’s standout performance in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi, back in the early 1970s. South Madras was hardly the place we would have expected to run into him years later. It was with incredulity therefore that I caught sight of this look-alike of his at a cigarette shop in the neighbourhood I used to frequent. I ran into him frequently, but it took me months to gather the courage to walk up to him one evening and ask him if he was Dhritiman Chaterji, the celebrated actor, fully expecting to be told he was very sorry to disappoint me, but he was Somasundaram or Mahalingam or Ramaswamy!

To my delight, it was indeed Dhritiman, who had moved here from Calcutta with his wife Ammu and son Pablo in the 1980s. Soon we became friends, and realised not only that he had no starry airs about him, but also that we shared common interests in the arts (and sport). We often ran into one another at literary events and the theatre, and even watched one memorable ODI together, when rain forced us to repair to the Madras Cricket Club bar after the game was abandoned. Watching his own films with him, ones directed by Ray in particular, with Dhritiman furnishing background information and sidelights, was a highly rewarding experience, as was listening to recordings of his conversations with the great master. Gowri and he memorably discussed Ray films for film buffs at the British Council once, and the seeds for artistic collaboration were sown.

It was thanks to Dhritiman’s initiative that we brought Dark Horse and a subsequent play by Gowri, Water Lilies, to Kolkata. With his iconic and powerful performances as Arun Kolatkar in the former and a Serbo-Hungarian author in the latter, Dada, as they all called him with great affection, was a huge influence on the younger members of the troupe. Not only did he set a great example with his no-nonsense, disciplined work ethic, always on time for rehearsals and always focussed on his role, he loosened up enough after the plays, to show the boys and girls the sights and sounds of the city, not averse to shaking a stylish leg in their company. Of course, they felt comfortable enough with him despite his star status to enjoy pulling his leg, claiming that his roles as writers in the two plays allowed him to carry the script hidden inside books on stage. They even go a step further to relate the apocryphal tale of how he once read from the wrong page of the script!

Today, JustUs Repertory has earned a reputation for serious theatre—strong scripts, well-rehearsed performances, good production values, and a striving for excellence—with its consistent showing in several cities in India, but the memory of our first foray outside Chennai, at the Birla Sabhagarh at Gariahat in the Hutch Festival of 2005 is inerasable, for more reasons than one. Dada had fallen ill close to the date of the show, and there had been some suspense about his making the trip, and we were understandably nervous about our Kolkata debut. Dada and the rest of the cast won the hearts of a an appreciative, even indulgent audience, and the live music of the play—composed by Gowri and sung by Savita Narasimhan—stole the show. We had arrived!

Written in 2011

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Overwhelming nayanam

Oli Chamber Concerts
Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman and party

By TT Narendran

The effort made by Oli  to provide the pleasure of listening to Carnatic music sans mikes has indeed, been laudable. Over the last couple of months, a violin concert and three vocal concerts have happened. The next was to be a nagaswaram recital, they said. “Nagaswaram in a chamber?” Well, not quite. Oli found the ambience that suits this majestic instrument. An open air setting in the compound of the late Chandralekha’s house in Besant Nagar, bang on the beach road and yet, largely free from the noise of vehicles on the road (alas! not so lucky with a couple of aircraft that flew above!).

I walked into the venue, listening to strains of Gambhira Nata (probably a mallari) and an adroit spell of tavil-playing in misra jati triputa tala. Tyagaraja’s Marukelara (Jayantasri) prepared the listener for a melodic outpouring. The piece de resistance was Bhairavi. Kothandaraman’s alapana was truly out of the world! Such gamaka-laden exposition, such dignity, majesty, melody, fertile imagination!.  Sunil Gavaskar, in the commentator’s box, said of Sourav Ganguly’s innings (he scored 183) in the 1999 World Cup match against Sri Lanka at Taunton, “I am blessed to have witnessed this match.” Similar thoughts ran in the mind as the alapana progressed and was followed by Syama Sastri’s immortal swarajati (Kamakshi). It was not Kothandaraman alone who held the show. There was Kongampattu A.G. Murugayyan who lifted the swarajati to cloud nine with his sensitive handling of the tavil. We know of mridanga artists who relate(d) brilliantly to the composition they play(ed) for. Here was a tavil vidwan who showed how much he could do with the tavil to enhance the rendition of a song. It took me a while to come out of this overwhelming experience and tune in to listen to the next raga, Natakurinji, in which Kothandaraman also showed his ability to play tanam, a rarity in nagaswaram. There was a pallavi in Adi tala, executed well with all the variations of speed, swaras and tani avartanam. One cannot fault the artist for not rising to the incredibly high standard he set in the Bhairavi piece! There was just one tukkada, a well-known ragamalika, Aarabhi manam vaithu and mangalam. The long applause by the 50-60 crowd that had gathered was richly deserved by the artists.

Did Kothandaraman remind me of any yester year artist? The name that came to my mind was (the late) Vedaranyam Vedamurthi whose playing was soaked in melody.

Oli will go from here, from strength to strength, but what can the music/sabha fraternity do to provide hope to artists of such calibre? Carnatic music will survive, but the two instruments, nagaswaram and veena, which produce the finest nuances of the music, seem to be heading towards oblivion, if the dwindling numbers of audiences and of learners are any indicators.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Veteran dance guru

By PNV Ram

When CV Chandrasekhar, Bharatanatyam guru and Padma Bhushan awardee, dances before the beautiful Panduranga idol at Tennangur, a hamlet in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu, it is an act of total surrender. His sense of abandon is however accompanied by total control and precision, perfect abhinaya and nritta in the best classical traditions. The dancer is a mere 77.

For Chandru Anna, as every dancer young or old addresses him, it is part of an annual ritual in which he leads some 30 to 40 students and teachers of his art form in a three-day workshop, held at a large facility adjacent to the temple in this centre of pilgrimage. On two evenings during the workshop, all the participants dance before the deity, swinging into ecstatic action during the dolotsavam, when the idol is worshipped in a cradle, and the garudotsavam, a procession around the temple, with the local residents and visiting pilgrims joining them. So many professional and amateur artists coming together in such a joyous celebration of their art in a temple ambience must indeed be a rare spectacle.

The workshop called Natya Sangraham, now in its second decade, with Chandrasekhar presiding over it, is organised by Natyarangam, the dance wing of the Narada Gana Sabha, one of Chennai’s major sabhas. Experts from the fields of dance, music, poetry and theatre engage the participants, mostly young dancers and dance teachers, in academic and practical sessions on predetermined topics. The daylong activity is stimulating and rigorous, but the delegates are housed in considerable comfort and served delicious vegetarian food.

The informal post-prandial ‘tinnai’ sessions at night are an opportunity to listen to stories from the rich past of the stalwarts and discuss current issues affecting the performing arts scene. The whole event has the blessings of the movement behind the temple, the GA Trust—founded by the followers of the late Swami Gnananda Giri—which among other things extends education and healthcare to a number of villages in the vicinity.

Adding to the atmosphere is the architectural beauty of the temple—built under the auspices of the late Swami Haridas Giri, Gnananda’s disciple, in the authentic old style of the Puri Jagannath temple—and its gopurams in the Pandya style.

I first came into contact with CVC, when he and Leela Samson, at present director of Kalakshetra of Chennai and Sangeet Natak Akademi, gave a thrilling performance of a tillana in praise of Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra on her 80th birthday, more than a couple of decades ago. A youthful fifty-something then, Chandrasekhar was head of the department of dance in Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University, Baroda. An alumnus of Kalakshetra, which he joined as a boy in 1945, CVC later went to Benares Hindu University where he did a masters in botany and taught for a while before moving to MS University, where he eventually became Principal. He served there till his retirement, relocating at Chennai some ten years ago. His wife Jaya and daughters Chitra and Manjari are Bharata Natyam dancers, too, and the Chandrasekhars are well known for their many productions that include both solo performances and dance drama. Chandrasekhar has choreographed and produced many dance dramas including Bhumija, Meghadutam, Ritu Samharam and Aparajita, showing a marked liking for the classics of Kalidasa. Jaya learnt Bharata Natyam from Lalita Sastri of Delhi, Kathak from Birju Maharaj, the maestro of the Lucknow gharana, and Odissi from the one and only Kelucharan Mahapatra. She too taught at BHU, MS University and later at her own institution Nityashree in Baroda.

Chandrasekhar is an amalgam of varied influences. A south Indian who started school in Delhi, he graduated in dance from Kalakshetra and botany from Vivekananda College, Madras. Well versed in Carnatic music, he grew comfortable with Hindustani as well as folk forms of music during his long years in Gujarat. His travels overseas, beginning with his tour of China in the 1960s as a member of a cultural delegation, brought him a sophisticated awareness of art forms and trends everywhere. While quite at home in so many diverse milieus, CVC remains firmly rooted in the austere traditions of the classical dance he learnt from great gurus at Kalakshetra. Clean lines and good taste characterize his every move.

A vastly experienced performer and guru, and among the most accessible veterans of his art, Chandrasekhar is superbly fit and still able to dance like a young man. He is a giving teacher, holding nothing back while sharing his accumulated wisdom with his students and the participants at the annual workshop.

Praying for the gift of playing the nagaswaram

Sheikh Subhani and Khaleeshabibi Mahaboob at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana 2004

By Shankar Ramachandran

This is the first time the Cleveland Aradhana has included a full-length nagaswaram concert. The artists, Sheikh Subhani Mahboob and his wife Khaleeshabibi Mahaboob say they need at least three hours for a concert as it takes time for the wood wind instruments to settle down in these dry and cold conditions. And they cannot practise and warm up the instruments in their hotel room for fear of disturbing the other guests.

The mood created by the talented duo was contemplative throughout. The Natakurinji varnam preceded Hamsadhwani and Dwijavanti (Akhilandeshwari). Sogasuga mridanga talamu in Sriranjani was accompanied with a soft touch on the tavil. The Todi alapana was expansive and in the grand tradition of their guru Sheikh Chinna Moulana. They executed the difficult piece Chesinadella marachitivo O Rama Rama with a precision not found in many vocal concerts. The nagaswaram seemed to virtually speak the lyrics out aloud.

Many senior artistes were in the audience enjoying this soul fest—T.R. Subramaniam, T.N. Krishnan, T.M. Krishna, Ramnad Raghavan, and Guruvayur Dorai among them. During the tani, Vembu Muthukumar and Manickam Sankar showed their dexterity demonstrating that the tavil could be played softly and produce sounds of exceptional nuance and resonance. They ended the concert with the ten Bhaja Govindam verses in the ragamalika popularized by M.S. Subbulakshmi. Again one could sense the nagaswarams’ chaste enunciation of the Sanskrit verses of Adi Sankara.

Here was a Muslim couple playing Hindu religious music. The box that held the nagaswaram had pictures of Hindu gods. The couple were the asthana vidwans of the Sringeri Peetham. I was curious to know more about how this husband and wife team was introduced to this music. Did they know the words of the songs they play so soulfully? Do Hindu rituals also enter their lives at home?

We caught up with the artists backstage. The soft spoken, unassuming couple and the equally modest and quiet tavil duo sat down and spoke in a Tamil not adulterated with the usual English vocabulary.

Do you remember how you started to learn nagaswaram?

I was five or six years old when my father started including me in the lessons he gave other students. By age ten I was playing at concerts with my father. She (he indicates his wife sitting by his side with an affectionate nod) is my own Athai’s daughter. She was taught by her chittappa and by age nine she was also giving concerts.

How were you able to wield such a big instrument when you were so young?

We learned on a smaller nagaswaram. Within a couple of years we were able to play the full-sized instrument.

How did you come to be introduced into this life of playing religious Hindu music?

Our families have a story about this (he says with a smile) that is written in our family record book. It may or may not be true, but it is our family history. Eight generations ago one of our grandparents was a young boy in Saathulur in Guntur district. The boy did not do well in his lessons and his father punished him with a beating. He ran away from home in pain and hid in the nearby Munivandamma temple. That night, the Amman deity of the temple appeared before the boy and comforted him. It is said that she wrote a mantra on his tongue and blessed him with the gift of nagaswaram music, not only for his lifetime but also for the next seven generations to come. The seventh generation ended with my father. We are the eighth generation (smiles coyly). So we now pray to receive the blessing for the next seven generations.

Do you learn the music as swaras or do you also learn the sahitya?

We have to learn the words. Paattu cannot be learned and played by just learning the swaras. We are trained in vocal music and have learned all the pieces we play.

What religious traditions do you observe at home?

For us, all religions are one, but at home we observe the Muslim holidays and traditions. Our marriage was a traditional Muslim ceremony. However, my father asked me to tie the tali myself. Normally this is not done as the groom rarely meets the bride before the wedding, and the elderly of the house tie the knot. We were the first to set this trend and since then, all the youngsters in our family do it. At that time it was a big thing.

Are you satisfied with your concert today?

No (quickly with feeling). We had a lot of trouble with the dry and cold weather. The sivali (the removable mouthpiece for the nagaswaram) gets dry and it takes time to settle down. It is made from the leaves of the naanal thattai bush that grows along the banks of the Kaveri. The leaves are picked, steamed and dried and then the sivalis are made. If you buy a dozen, only three or four will be usable.

You say the art of playing the nagaswaram is going through a revival now with many colleges teaching the instrument in Tamil Nadu. What about the art of making nagaswarams?

Nagaswarams are made from the wood of the accha maram. It is very hard to find today. Beams from old houses being demolished are scavenged to make new instruments. It is a dark wood. The dark color of the nagaswaram is the natural color of the wood itself. All nagaswarams are made in Narsingapettai near Mayavaram where a family of two brothers are continuing their tradition of generations.

(Written in April 2004)

Friday, 20 April 2012

A versatile musician

By V Ramnarayan

Had he just focussed on the violin, he might already have gone down as one of the great solo and accompanying Carnatic violinists of all time, fit to rank with giants like Lalgudi G Jayaraman and TN Krishnan. As it is, he is certainly ranked with the top accompanists of today, with a sound as sweet as the best the instrument can offer. The trouble with—or rather the value of—Sriram Parasuram is that his accomplishments in music are wider than most musicians can only dream of, even if they have the breadth of vision to look beyond their own area of specialisation. Both heredity and environment must have played equal parts in the evolution of this multifaceted artist who straddles the musical universe with expertise in several genres—both vocal and violin, Carnatic and Hindustani—and more than passable skill in western classical, jazz, sufi, folk and film music. With an MBA from IIM-C—following his mechanical engineering degree from Bombay University—and a PhD in world music from the Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA, Sriram built a superstructure of amazing variety on his upbringing in a typically academically inclined Tamil household in Mumbai also steeped in south Indian classical music.

Many have been the deeply satisfying concerts in which Sriram’s empathetic, bhava-soaked bowing has enhanced the music of lead musicians such as his guru, flautist Tanjavur Viswanathan, contemporary instrumentalist Chitravina Ravikiran or veteran vocalists like RK Srikantan and Nedunuri Krishnamurti. On such occasions, you are transported to another, exalted zone, by a man you are convinced was born to play the violin, and wish he would go deeper still into the realm of Carnatic music with his instrument.

But then you listen to a lecture-demonstration by him—along with Hindustani vocalist Suhas Vyas—on south Indian ragas in Hindustani music; a musical tribute to the genius of Subbarama Dikshitar who codified a sizable treasury of Carnatic compositions in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini of 1904; his presentation of Kabir’s poetry with folk singer Prahlad Singh Tippanya; or his popular TV programme Ellame Sangeetam Taan (It’s All Music), partnered by his wife and well known film singer Anuradha Sriram, in which he switches effortlessly in his role of vocalist from Carnatic alapana and compositions to Hindustani music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan songs, ghazals and Hindi film songs, and you know that it is impossible to tie such a versatile talent down to one form or branch of music.

Like such famous south Indians before him as A Kanan and N Rajam (Hindustani classical), Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan (Hindi film and popular music), and a few others, Sriram Parasuram has mastered an idiom outside his own natural legacy. Learning Hindustani vocal music from the late Pt. CR Vyas, he has reached the level of accomplishment of a ‘native’ practitioner. The difference is that Sriram is of concert level proficiency in both systems.

Sriram has collaborated with musicians from different cultures. Javanese Gamelan, West African drumming, and Japanese Koto are some examples of exotica he has played or sung along with. Born in a musically gifted family he partnered his brothers Viswanath and Narayan (Three Brothers and a Violin) and composed the music for an award winning Hindi pop album Savariya. With his wife, he directed the music for the Tamil film Five Star and produced a Tamil pop album Chennai Girl. He has been awarded the President’s gold medal for Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Extremely comfortable with technology, Sriram is in touch with the latest trends in world music and appreciates the beauty of Indian film music with its absorption of the best from a variety of sources, its use of orchestration to embellish Indian melodies, its ability to draw the bhava of the music most effectively.

For one so contemporary in his attitude to music, Sriram is also a traditionalist when it comes to the core values of classical music. His respect for his own gurus and the past masters of Indian classical music borders on the reverential, and this lends a poignant touch to his lecture demonstrations. His assertion that all Indian music is based on ragas—even if manifest as rap or hip-hop in film and pop music—is a reflection of his deep commitment to his priceless inheritance.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


By V Ramnarayan

Vyjayantimala Bali is a sprightly septuagenarian whose superb footwork and emoting on stage can even today put young dancers to shame. One of the most versatile artistes in the history of the south Indian performing arts, Ms Bali was the heartthrob of millions as a film star of great beauty and acting ability for a couple of decades till her early retirement from movies in 1968. She fully realised her potential in numerous fields—as a sports champion in athletics, table tennis and (after her marriage) in golf, as an actress, as a bharata natyam dancer of the highest order, and a sensitive vocalist in the classical idiom.

Vyjayantimala’s passion for her art is undimmed. Her uncompromising attitude towards maintaining the purity and tradition of her dance marked her distinguished career in films as well. Even as a young actress still finding her way around the industry, she demonstrated the courage of her conviction by turning down a national level award for best supporting actress in the Bimal Roy version of Devdas, in which she co-starred with Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. “My part as Chandramukhi was a joint lead role along with that of Paro in the movie. It was no supporting role,” she recalls, bristling with principled outrage decades later.

Vyjayantimala’s life can be divided into three phases. In the first, she was a child prodigy—shaped into a fine dancing talent by her beloved grandmother Yadugiri and mother Vasundhara—and an all round athlete in the making. The second phase was her sensational film career during which she was paired with some of the biggest heroes of Tamil and Hindi cinema. Marriage to Dr. Chaman Lal Bali brought her true happiness and a fulfilling second innings as a bharata natyam artist away from the world of celluloid. This was also the period when she took to golf and won amateur titles at the national level, and took up causes she believed in as a parliamentarian.

Today, she is the perfect picture of a consummate artist who has aged gracefully, one who has so much to pass on from her rich artistic past, a role model for young aspirants in every aspect of her art. She is an outspoken champion of tradition at a time when it us under siege from several powerful forces. That does not prevent her from encouraging young talent or genuine efforts at innovation rooted in tradition. She is a true blend of the past, present and future—as an artist, as a human being.

One of the two men she recalls with affection and respect is still with us—Dilip Kumar who not only inspired her with his perfect, almost effortless acting, but also put her completely at ease on the sets in the numerous films they did together. Of her other favourite film person, she says, “Bimal Da (Roy) had total confidence in me and encouraged me to give of my best as Chandramukhi, a role that demanded great histrionic skills, when all around us doubted my acting ability. After all, I was known only for my dancing talent and light-hearted roles in films. The results were there for all to see when the film was released.”

The Madras Music Academy broke with tradition when it anointed Balasaraswati Sangita Kalanidhi, the only time the award has gone to a dancer. Few will complain should the Academy decide to repeat that rare decision by honouring Vyjayantimala.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


By V Ramnarayan

I came to know Manna in 2006, when I rejoined Sruti after a 20-year hiatus, to take over as editor from KV Ramanathan. On his visits to Chennai, he and I struck a very pleasant rapport, often walking over to the restaurant next door for a typical south Indian meal on banana leaves. In food as in music and dance, Manna was a true rasika, enjoying the fare and appreciating the service wholeheartedly.

Though he was essentially a traditionalist, Manna was always ready to welcome fresh talent and innovation. He was a man of considerable reading and scholarship, though he did not make a show of it. For instance, his knowledge of the history of Tanjavur as a granary of all that’s good and great in art and culture was both extensive and intensive. No less impressive was his understanding of the history of the North, in particular the various streams of thought and artistic endeavour responsible for its rich and vibrant heritage. He brought enormous energy and enthusiasm as well as academic rigour to the many research projects he undertook, both out of his own interest and to help other individuals and institutions. He was ever helpful to artists and scholars alike and had an active and questioning mind that illuminated the many interesting discussions we had at Sruti and elsewhere whenever we were closeted together.

Nearly 15 years older than me, I know he did not approve of my addressing him as Mannaji. “Manna will do,” he said to me repeatedly in the recent past, though I was never sure that he was not making a facetious reference to Sruti’s avoidance of the use of honorifics in the way we refer to people in our pages, no matter how eminent.  On this and a couple of other issues, Manna did not see eye to eye with some of us at Sruti, and he made no secret of his feelings, but our affection and respect for him did not diminish one bit as a result.

Manna Srinivasan was our window to the North and a friend in fair weather and foul.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sankara Iyer CD released at Tirunelveli

By Sruti

Very rarely does a vaggeyakara give a concert of his own compositions.

Tanjavur Sankara Iyer--Sangita Kala Acharya (Music Academy), Sangita Ratnakara (Cleveland Aradhana), and Kalaimamani—a musician of excellence and the inventor of three ragas, Vishnupriya, Manoranjitham and Hamsakalyani, is also a vaggeyakara of exceptional merit. He has composed more than 100 songs, mostly in lucid Tamil.

On 30 March 2008, Sankara Iyer was persuaded to perform his own compositions at Raga Sudha Hall, Chennai, accompanied by Padma Sankar (violin) and B. Sivaraman (mridangam). Subsequently, a Compact Disc was made of this concert. The CD titled Sankarakrtam - the Musical Vision of a Vaggeyakara was released by Cleveland V. V. Sundaram at a function at the Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal Matriculation Higher Secondary School at Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, on 10 March 2012 in the presence of 88-year-old Sankara Iyer, now staying at his nephew’s residence there. Usha Raman, Principal of the School, in her welcome address, said she felt honoured that her school was chosen as the venue.

M. K. Jagannathan, the man behind the CD, expressed happiness that posterity would have the opportunity to know the mind and mood of the vaggeyakara in composing these songs.

While thanking his many friends who helped make the CD, Jagannathan recalled some lovers of the music of Sankara Iyer – K. J. Natarajan and Lakshmi Natarajan (a disciple of Sankara Iyer) of Mumbai, the late music critic N. M. Narayanan, T. T. Vasu, President of the Music Academy and S. V. Krishnan, founder of Nada Inbam – who  consistently projected the value-based music of Sankara Iyer.

In his presidential address, V. V. Sundaram said the assembled students were lucky to study in a school headed by a caring principal and staff. He exhorted the students to emulate Sankara Iyer in his hard work, thirst for knowledge that led him to eminent gurus, and focus on excellence in his chosen field.

After honouring Sankara Iyer, Sundaram presented copies of the CD to
A. Natesan, Secretary, Nellai Sangeetha Sabha, R. Rajagopal, Secretary, Muthuswamy Dikshitar Memorial Committee, Ettayapuram, Usha Raman, Principal of the school, William Winfield, Headmaster, Mill Hill School, London and a benefactor of the school, R. Srinivasan, Secretary, Nadopasana, Chennai, and M. Radhakrishnan, Asst Secretary, Hamsadhwani, Chennai.

In his brief remarks, Sankara Iyer made the point that the Kamba Ramayanam and Tirukkural, great as they are as poetry, cannot be set to music. Music has its own prosody and it is for the vaggeyakara to weave the words into the music in a spirit of homage to God.

The function concluded with two young students of the school, C. Aparna and Sriram Nair, and two disciples of Sankara Iyer, Sankar and Valivalam Venkatraman, rendering a few of his compositions.

The event was a success, thanks mainly to the commitment, enthusiasm and organizing skills of the school principal and her devoted staff.

ITC-SRA seminar focuses on the media

By Devina Dutt

The annual seminars on different aspects of the research and practice of music organised by the ITC-Sangeet Research Academy at the National Centre for the Performing Arts have been important events attended by musicians, musicologists and media. This year the seminars were also supported by ICCR in association with the Music Forum, and chose to deliberate exclusively on the role of Media in the promotion of music. Ably guided by eminent sitarist and SRA trustee Pt Arvind Parikh, the seminar sessions were conceptualised as a quest for clarity on the functioning of Media at various levels and the opportunities that exist for musicians and listeners today.

The role of the media is all the more critical today when the urban context for music has seen sharp changes. An abundance of musicians eager to take the stage, the rise of big corporate sponsorship which has led to the Super Branding of a select few musicians, a media boom in the private electronic sector which ignores the arts and a decline in the numbers and quality of audiences, are factors that have an impact on the way music is presented and heard. The discussions that followed over the seminar this year were grounded in this context.
Prasar Bharti CEO Rajiv Takru began with a reassuring talk on the reach and resolve of both All India Radio and Doordarshan to serve the classical arts, emphasising that `12,000 crore had been set aside in the next Five year Plan for digitization among other technology upgrades and measures. He ended his talk by delivering a challenge to the electronic private media channels who, he hoped, “would consider a certain reservation for promotion of art and culture on which they consciously lose money”, in the interest of creating a far richer society. Such a challenge is quite appropriate in the present context. The Central government is said to be actively considering measures proposed by bodies such as The All India Musicians’ Group (AIMG) comprising iconic Hindustani and Carnatic musicians and convened by Pt Parikh, which will hopefully address a long standing gap in the contemporary cultural scenario. These steps include the setting up of a dedicated channel for the arts and special scholarships in the guru shishya mode for teachers and students alike. 

The keynote speech by Jayant Kastuar Executive Board member of the Sangeet Natak Academy, highlighted the problems of classifying such a vast musical heritage as exists in India and made the important point that although the discussion on music usually focused on classical music there was a greater unknown musical heritage in the folk and non-classical music traditions as well. While classical music had managed to re-contextualise itself for the urban patronage structures to an extent, the others were in greater need of attention. His references to changes within the media industry worldwide with fewer and more powerful media conglomerates delivering a homogenised global culture provided the perfect cue for a discussion on the role of print media.

N Murali, president of the Music Academy and a Director of The Hindu, cautioned against unrealistic expectations from the media. The panel had sharply divergent views from senior journalists Kalpana Sharma and Siddharth Bhatia. Sharma pointed out that the arts are critical and have a civilising influence on society. When Bhatia referred to newspapers as “supermarkets that have to offer everything to everyone” thereby relegating the arts to a niche interest, Sharma countered this by saying that in the hands of an imaginative editor the arts could be presented as riveting human interest stories, commentaries and features and not just as reviews.
It takes a brave man in these times to critique the contemporary classical music that is often heard, ironically enough from the more gifted classical musicians. V. Ramnarayan, editor Sruti pointed out that taking liberties with the form of the raga while staying technically correct was altering the very character of the raga. But in an age where critics lack knowledge how can they authoritatively critique these trends? “Lacking the knowledge of the critics of the past, journalists today cannot have strong views. So in the name of constructive criticism milder unremarkable criticism has become the norm”, he said.

Dispelling the gloom were two successful examples from the private sector. Subhasree Thanikachalam from Jaya TV in Tamil Nadu started Mazghari Mahotsav, twelve years ago, a festival of Carnatic music with top musicians in Chennai which runs for the first two weeks of December. One hour capsules are then telecast for the next one month between 6 and 7 pm when it is the most watched show for that time slot. This telecast has managed to take the music to a wider public across smaller towns of the state.
“We have taken away the fear and awe that ordinary people usually feel about classical music and musicians”, she says. Three years ago Jaya TV started a reality Carnatic music show telecast three times a year for five weeks at a stretch which advertises itself as an opportunity to “build a career and not a mere competition” an inspired reference to the sustaining power and depth of classical music.
Vijay Nair, CEO of Only Much Loudly, a Mumbai based artist and event management company and indie record label created a space for music which falls between the classical arts space and Bollywood style Big Entertainment. In the last ten years the group has used a mix of grassroots processes which include performing in colleges for free and spreading the word on social media to create a vibrant community connecting listeners with similar tastes in music across the country. “We are not mainstream enough and not traditional enough but what we do have is a great sense of community” says Nair, adding that the musicians in this space recommend each other for concerts and publicly support each other in myriad ways. This openness and sense of kinship has no doubt played a role in the creating of a constituency of listeners, musicians, organisers and sponsors who have organically come together to make their form of music count.

Last year, the company produced The Dewarists, a programme on musical collaborations between diverse artists from India and abroad across genres. It was a well produced show capturing the highs and lows of the process of musical collaboration. Its success has now spurred ten TV channels to work on a similar concept, a welcome move that will bring more diversity in the music market in the country.

A glorious past in need of restoration
Apart from offering a platform distribution for Indian classical music and employment to great musicians in the past, All India Radio (AIR) has more than 65,000 hours of priceless music in its central archives of which more than 50,000 hours have been digitised. In a session on AIR its Director General Leeladhar Mandloi announced that the station would offer 11 channels from AIR to the internet soon.

Senior musician, sitarist and tabla artiste Nayan Ghosh brought a comprehensive and thoughtfully prepared list of suggestions that could improve the day to day functioning of AIR. This ranged from the upkeep of instruments to the absence of sound engineers and the poor quality of recordings. The discussion that followed exposed the disconnect between the pronouncements of the top rung of the government and their generous financial outlays with the accumulated systemic inefficiencies and red tape which plague these institutions and undermine their stated objectives. The paternalistic undercurrents which accompany the state’s munificence to the arts were also progressively revealed as the discussion threatened to go from good natured defensiveness to rather unpleasant as more musicians in the audience came forward to share their unhappy experiences with AIR.

Leading classical musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan’s well attended presentation on new media was a breath of fresh air. The duo set up Underscore Records almost a decade ago to promote musical diversity and set up a distribution channel for musicians on the net. “We are interested in creating an online community that celebrates diversity”, says Mudgal. Therefore the buying, selling and promotion of music is not limited to classical music alone. “If we musicians want to see ourselves as more than supplicants before patrons we need to stand on our own feet and the net is a terrific enabler”, Pradhan adds.

In order to help musicians of all genres as well as instrument makers use the net and its resources to their advantage, they have arranged special workshops training them to make podcasts and websites. Apart from protecting the dignity of the musicians these channels also liberate musicians from worrying about the saleability of their material since it is open for wider dissemination and appreciation.

Speaking as a musician who has understood the potential of the net, Mudgal says that at Underscore Records they believe that good music should be available everywhere. The musicians on their rolls give Underscore Records non-exclusive distribution rights that are detailed in transparent contracts which were displayed at the seminar. “We do not believe that there is any need for any kind of monopolistic control of material in this day”, they added. 

Discussing issues of performance context today, music critic Amarendra Dhaneshwar spoke about the problems that plague the performance stage and its politics and power games. Sarangi player Dhruba Ghosh cited the inherent social audit that used to allow elders in the past to keep tabs on the progress younger musicians were making before deciding that they were indeed ready for a public performance. With the erosion of those systems and the dawn of big ticket corporate sponsorship the eagerness to get noticed has created imbalances.

The last session invited views on the role of the media from the worlds of theatre and dance. Reacting to the gradual disappearance of reviews in the media today, playwright, critic and director Gowri Ramnarayan felt that critics played an important function. “By bearing witness to the directions that the arts take in every age, critics and their reviews are records and should be viewed as processes of cultural history”, she said.

Quoting Tamil writer Kalki writing in the 1930s about a Bharatanatyam performance by the legendary T Balsaraswati, Ramnarayan demonstrated just how indispensable an informed and sensitive review could be.

Reproduced from the ITC-SRA Mumbai newsletter

(The author is a Mumbai based arts critic, editor and corporate communications consultant).

Friday, 6 April 2012

Cane today, gone tomorrow?

By S Sivaramakrishnan

The cane chairs of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (KGS) must have witnessed several great and memorable Carnatic music concerts of Madras!

The sabha premises and auditorium are being renovated these days (in an enviably systematic manner), and I am afraid the cane chairs with their old world charm will soon make a historic exit.

But I just love the seats for their old-fashioned comfort, which modern furniture cannot provide (I am only 55)!

A recent photograph I took of the auditorium during a thinly attended event should give you an idea.

Monday, 2 April 2012

'Geetkar Shailendra, sangeetkar Pt. Ravi Shankar'

By V Ramnarayan

Some of the finest melodies in the genre of Hindi film songs were composed by Ravi Shankar, a fact unlikely to be known to most Hindustani music lovers or film music enthusiasts of a recent vintage. In understanding the demands of the scene in which a song appears, there could have been few equals to Ravi Shankar among even the greatest of Hindi film music directors, judging by his peerless creations in movies like Anuradha (1960), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and starring Balraj Sahni and Leela Naidu, and Godaan (1963, based on a novel of the same name by Munshi Premchand). Anjaan and Shailendra were the lyricists for these films, and Shailendra was Ravi Shankar’s favourite.

‘Haye re voh din kyun na aye!’ (, a song by Lata Mangeshkar from Anuradha was unforgettable. It was a beautiful melody based on raga Janasammodini sung by a mature Lata whose voice was not only still young and fresh enough to capture its every nuance, but also had that quality that tugged at your heartstrings.

The scene itself was memorable. When the film starts, Anuradha is a famous playback singer who has all of India in thrall with her wonderful voice and is riding the crest of a wave when she marries a doctor, played by Balraj Sahni who decides to work in a village. In a rather na├»ve depiction of a medical practitioner—who is also a research scientist—Mukherjee tells a touching tale of a loving couple, gradually heading towards estrangement, thanks to the doctor’s obsessive involvement with his work, which will save millions of lives, no less. The singer is forced to become a rural housewife, cut off from her music and her former life.

In a melodramatic but powerful denouement, an elder family member coaxes Anuradha to dust her veena, tune it after years of neglect, and sing again for him—just when she is beginning to consider leaving her doctor husband for an old friend, whom serendipity brings to her doorstep as an accident victim, and whom of course her husband saves. All’s well that ends well, and the good doctor realises in the nick of time that he is about to lose his precious jewel, and Anuradha too gets over her momentary weakness.

Though there are many lovely songs in the film, based on folk and classical music (Saavre saavre (, Jaane kaise sapnon me kho gayeen akhiyan (, and Hai, kaise din beete kaise beeti ratiya (, the last of which opens with an almost physical ache as Anuradha relives a happy but irretrievable past through the song which sarangi, violin, sitar and flute together completely immerse in tragedy) and the scenes are beautifully enacted by Balraj Sahni of the noble good looks, and the frail, delicate beauty, Leela Naidu, the final song was the most poignant, most emotive of the lot, especially when the line ‘Sooni meri beena, sangeet bina’ is sung. My wife and I saw the film in a morning show at Hyderabad in the early 1970s, and the audience burst into spontaneous applause after the song.

Mukesh’s Hiya jarat rahat din rain, o Rama from Godaan (, is a hauntingly simple peasant tune, which starts on a happy enough note, with the protagonist (Raj Kumar) drinking in the beauty of nature, of birdcall and blossoming life in the fields, but takes a poignant turn with a hint of drought; darat dil bechain, (the restless heart is afraid) is the concluding refrain of the song.

In contrast, Hori khelat Nandlal, Biraj mein (, of the same film by Mohammed Rafi is an effervescent Holi song, capturing the rustic expression of joy in a chorus of celebration. The instruments used in the song are typically folksy. Shades of Rabindra Sangeet seem to influence Chali aaj gori piya ki nagariya (, the shehnai-dominated song of separation in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar as a young bride leaves home for the unknown world of her husband. Ravi Shankar achieves heart-breaking pathos with the simplicity of this tune, the pace of the song and perfect instrumentation.

Though Ravi Shankar composed music for at least another major film, Gulzar’s Meera, with Vani Jairam singing the memorable songs of the Rajasthani princess-poet-saint, and also the score for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, to me, the music of his 1960s foray into film music, the songs of Anuradha in particular, were evidence of a rare mastery of the medium.