By MV Swaroop
I first watched Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam on a fuzzy, dark print with frequent shakes, blackouts, white spots and scratches. The sound was sometimes too feeble to be heard, sometimes too muffled, and sometimes too loud. Even so, half an hour in, I was so sucked in by the story’s unsettling darkness that I watched the whole movie in one go, and revisited this very print frequently over the next couple of weeks. At Abhishek Raghuram’s concert for Karaikudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya at Asthika Samajam on Sunday, I was reminded of this old print of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.
From where I was sitting, I could only see the the artistes’ heads – Abhishek’s head swaying in all directions, Mysore Srikanth’s looking down at his violin in deep contemplation and Neyveli Narayanan’s fixed in a concentrated gaze at the main artiste’s. The sound was downright terrible, and I’m being charitable. Abhishek’s diction, when he’s rendering kriti-s is usually quite clear—he’s garbled when he comes to niraval—but through this sound system, every syllable he sang was as indistinct as the other. There were three microphones for him, perhaps because he sways so much, but they all combined to fashion a most unpalatable sound. (He should try a collar mike next time!) The mridangam’s microphone had too much bass and an unnecessary reverberation, making it hard to discern the sollu-s. Again, Narayanan’s is definitely amongst the clearer mridangam tones going around. Srikanth’s violin thankfully resounded clearly through the speakers, but when it combined with the others, it got drowned out in the hum. Adding to all this confusion was Abhishek’s curious decision to use a manual sruti box—yes, the reeded sort you used at practice – and give it a separate microphone.
I spent much of the varnam in Sri and Varanamukha in Hamsadhwani cursing the sound system. But then, just like the film, I got sucked into the power of Abhishek’s incredible niraval in Begada. Taking the line, “Saketadhipa sarasa gunaprameya” from Tyagaraja’s stirring Lokavana chatura, he built the niraval like a Begada fortress, laying a strong, heavy foundation and constructing towering bastions all around. Just when you thought he was done, there came another round, more dizzying, grander than the previous.
Abhishek is amongst the most original musicians going around today and his alapana in Keeravani was ample evidence of that. It had everything—the traditional and the modern, the cliched and the eccentric, the cute and the grand, the winding and the plain, the jovial and the serious, the clever and the melodramatic. One felt for Srikanth, having to respond after this performance, but he replied splendidly with an alapana of remarkable clarity of thought and expression.
Narayanan’s support and anticipation were consistently superb, but he outdid himself in the tani avartanam pulling out korvai after korvai out of a hat, before proceeding to demonstrate a near-perfect tisram section of the misrachapu tani.
Abhishek’s manodharma could have been a little less all-over-the-place, yes, but sometimes I think that is a part of the Abhishek experience. He dips into an almost infinite well of creative genius to pluck out ideas and throw them out into the open. He is unafraid of segueing into narrow alleyways or climbing staircases that might lead nowhere. If his music followed a stricter pattern, it might not be as thrilling.