Ramakrishnan Murthy’s chamber concert for Oli took up the theme Vistaaram (Expanse) at Ras Vihar. The ambience – the spacious hall tastefully and elegantly adorned with lamps brimming with flowers – seemed most fitting. The audience’s curiosity to see, and hear, how such an abstract theme would be handled by a youngster was palpable. They were not disappointed. Ramakrishnan’s selection of kritis, treatment and commitment were all reflective of his prowess.
True to the theme, Ramakrishnan presented only four pieces over the course of two hours. He began with a short slokam (Akhandamandalakaram), followed by a Surati chauka-kala pada varnam in Rupaka talam, Sami entani delupudura by Subbarama Dikshitar. The sedate rendition brought out all the contours of the raga. This varnam was replete with archaic prayogas in Surati and brilliant swarakshara patterns for which the entire Dikshitar family is renowned. You’d have thought this kind of composition was okay for yesteryear post-prandial tinnai listening, with vetrilai pakku potti to pep things up. No. The metro listeners gave their rapt attention to every nuance and detail, as Ramakrishnan made each line and phrase dovetail into the next one, maintaining continuity of raga and bhava.
VVS Murari on the violin was the perfect foil, supporting the voice, and instrumental in that continuity. B. Sivaraman had trouble with the sruti alignment of his mridangam, which took its time to recover even after the airconditioning was adjusted to a lower temperature. However, he eventually overcame the problem.
That brevity can also suggest expanse was proved by the sketch of Kedaram that followed. Muttuswami Dikshitar’s intensely visual description of Lord Nataraja (Anandanatana prakasam) in his ethereal state performing the cosmic dance was then sung with complete commitment. Every line and every sangati were established firmly. The interesting nadai variation at the end of the sollukattu made us sit up and take note.
Instead of the usual ‘sangitavadyavinoda’ line, niraval was aptly taken up at bhukti mukti prada daharaaakaasam, the sky a metaphor for the unending vastness that is the mind of the devotee. The raga Kedaram itself is rather limited in scope; yet Ramakrishnan brought out simple variations in the niraval, keeping the sahitya bhava intact. Both niraval and kalpanaswaram felt just right in terms of length. There was no artificial build-up of pace concluding in a crescendo. Everything fell in place with poruttam, a comprehensive whole.
It had to be Bhairavi next. A one-minute teaser by vocalist and violinist whetted the listeners’ appetite for a sumptuous rakti treat that was to come next. The detailed alapana was a grand build up of the majestic raga with some rare, unexpected pidis. VVS Murari’s imagination flowed and blended with the whole. An all-too-brief tanam caused a flutter in the hall with knowing smiles suggesting a premonition of a pallavi. After all, Ramakrishnan was a disciple of the pallavi maestro, Chengalpattu Ranganathan.
But Ramakrishnan chose to stump us all with Tyagaraja’s Chetulara. This song, usually side-lined for instrumental performance in Pancharatnam congregations, made a refreshing comeback on the concert platform. Ramakrishnan’s pathantara suddham and sincere rendition of the kriti were admirable. Niraval and kalpanaswaras at Aani mutyaala konda vesi were well-structured, measured and textured, with raga bhava and sahitya bhava again working in tandem. The swarakshara prayogas employed at the phrase Parimala gandhamu without fuss or seeming contrived.
Sivaraman’s tani avartanam was apt, with a just a few avartanas showing nadai variation, quickly concluding with the mohra and a simple korvai. There was peace and a sense of fulfilment at the end, no dramatics or sentimentality.
The mood was only heightened when Ramakrishnan took up MD Ramanathan’s Sagara sayana vibho in Bageshri. The wave-like nature of the raga and kriti echoed, extended and carried forward the same idea of undulating expanse.
Bharatiyar’s kavadichindu Kaalamaam vanathil, originally sung by MS Subbulakshmi to the tune of Kadayanallur S Venkataraman, was the final item. If at all one must nitpick it would be about the relatively diffident rendition of this song. Then again, that is hardly a grouse given how completely riveting the rest of the concert was.
Special mention of the Oli audience must be made here, especially in a concert with an experimental, abstract theme such as this one. Their willingness to listen (really listen) to the blossoming of ideas from the artists and their abstinence from breathless clapping even before a piece ended, were commendable. This audience allowed the artist to take his time as he meticulously overlaid ending phrases to finally converge, and the mridangist to complete the arudi. Each piece culminated in genuine applause, in the fullness of silence, without spoiling the mood.
Slokam (Akhanda mandalakaram)
Sami ni entani – Surati – Rupaka – Subbarama Dikshitar
Ananda natana – Kedaram – Misra Chapu – Muttuswami Dikshitar
Chetulara sringaramu – Bhairavi – Adi – Tyagaraja
Sagara sayana vibho – Bagesri – Adi – M D Ramanathan
Kalamam vanathil – Ragamalika – Tisra Adi – Subramania Bharatiyar
Ramakrishnan Murthy is an emerging star in the current crop of young musicians. A disciple of Padma Kutty in the USA, Ram went on to train under Delhi P Sunderrajan. He has also had the opportunity to learn from several other veterans including Chengalpattu Ranganathan. Ram’s music is known for its maturity in content and execution and is high on laya and bhava aesthetics.
VVS Murari comes from a great musical lineage. He trained under his father VV Subrahmanyam and continues to perform duets with him. Murari who has imbibed a fine style of accompaniment is a pillar of support to the vocalist but also shines as a complete musician on his own.
B Sivaraman hails from a family of musicians. His father, Sethalapathy Balasubramanian was a foremost disciple of Papanasam Sivan. Sivaraman has trained under greats such as Kumbhakonam Rajappa Iyer and T K Murthy. He is known for his sprightly and energy-packed accompaniment.
Vistaaram (Expanse)…the theme is so abstract that perhaps only music can truly convey its sense? Together we will try to put down more thoughts to help us realize this expression of space and time.
Kabir once said, ‘Everyone knows that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.’ We may be but specks in this vast cosmos but nevertheless share a symbiotic relationship with it. The glimpse of an unclouded sky… untiring waves of the ocean… unfurling fronds of an unfettered Bhairavi… never fail to take one’s breath away.
The ever-fading horizon seen from across the vast ocean always evokes adbhuta rasa (awe) not merely owing to size but also because of the promise of inexhaustibility, limitlessness and freedom.
Saints and poets have addressed the mysticism and spirituality of space in several ways, be it, bhavasaagaram (ocean of existence), daharaakasam (all pervading ether), viraat-purusha (the primeval force), viswarupa (all encompassing form), ananta-sayana (unending trance).
Ezhandattu appaalan…avan en kannulaan “He who is beyond the seven universes is within my eyes.”
Great mystic poets have internalised the metaphoric significance of the cosmos and employed it beautifully in their works. Appar encapsulates the expanse that is his Siva-bhakti into a few words. Not an entirely dissimilar concept is a cauka varnam, where the grand gait of this Surati composition is contained within the deceptively brief rupaka talam.
Bhukti mukti prada daharaakasam…
What could be more vast and fertile than the human mind? Is it not equally, if not more, pervasive than the ether that envelopes all creation?
Listen to Chetulara sringaramu. Doesn’t the slow, intense musical imagery best explain the advaitic experience of oneness with nada, the ultimate sound principle?
We end with a Bharatiyar poem where the sound of sabda (word) and nada unites with artha (meaning), not to describe but to immerse you in a mystic vision.