Thursday, 28 February 2013

Murugan’s Torment

Sruti fiction

By Rama Varma, UK.

He had travelled most of the day and now the car had broken down. They were still about a hundred kilometres from the city. For a while, he breathed in the final, lingering coolness of the AC. The award ceremony was later tonight; Sangita Kalanidhi, Sangeeta Samrat, he couldn’t remember what exactly the title was. He would probably give away the shawl, unless it was really expensive – he had a cupboard full of them. It wasn’t like the early days when he made a note of him like a batsman making a note of his every hundred. He would get his driver to buy all the newspapers the following day. If one of them had relegated it to the tail end of the Arts section, he would note the name of the newspaper and the next time they asked for an interview he would put it off on one pretext or the other.

Once the Illustrated Weekly had done a full-length supplement with his photo not only on the cover, but several pages within, in various Kutcheri poses, his face contorted in birth-agony, gnashing swaras and contemptuously spewing them out, while the violinist and the mridangist looked on in awe. The many bhavas of Srinivasa, the author had called it. The reference to the Lord of the hill secretly pleased him. In his younger days, he was called Srinivasa. It was only after some complicated numerological consultations that he had adopted the name Senkottai Krishna Iyer after his grandfather; a three-part name, of course was a prerequisite for any Carnatic Musician of repute.

He had bought twenty copies of the magazine and kept them for a long time, until his wife, in a sudden cleaning spree had given them along with numerous press cuttings and articles to a street vendor in exchange for a pressure cooker. Senseless woman! He still felt a twinge of pain when he remembered the day he walked into his room to find it bare, with only the Tambura and the mat on which he had explored for over fifty years the intricacies of Todi and Bhairavi.

The slight scratch in his throat worried him. He had to sing that evening, although not a full concert and that too, only to some VIPs and Ministers; most likely none of whom could not tell Hindolam from Pantuvarali. A fast varnam, a few brisk kritis and some rapid-fire swaras, followed by one of his old film numbers should satisfy them. A man in a starched white dhoti and kurta, with the occasional black strand showing through his greying hair was briskly approaching the car. He was saying something to a slightly hunched, younger man who obsequiously followed him with an umbrella, rapidly nodding his head.

Senkottai Krishna Iyer, or SKI (he never tired of the pun, Sabhash, what a performance – SKI is the limit) lowered the window and the man in the dhoti saluted him.

“I am the village headman. Your driver has gone to the next town in search of a mechanic. Our local one is out on business in Arakkonam. We have all heard your music, Ayya. We would be grateful if you would accept some coffee and snacks that we have prepared at the Murugan Temple.”

“We play your devotional cassettes in our temple every day, Ayya,” said Pannaiyar, revealing his betel-stained teeth, “Oru dinam, en manadile nee, O Muruga…”

SKI flashed the brief, condescending smile he reserved for fans. There was never a concert where someone did not pass him a piece of paper with a number of “request songs” and Oru Dinam was invariably one. Whether he was tired of singing it or not, the audience certainly wasn’t. And yet, he admitted to himself as he walked past the cow-dung pasted huts and the urchins standing curiously beside the wattle fences and thickets of straggly bushes that spread out into the horizon, he had, of late, begun to doubt himself.

Critics were always in violent agreement that he had carried on the strict traditionalism of his late guru, who passed away over three decades ago. He was a living embodiment of a way of life that went back to the Trinity itself. The only cloud on SKI’s firmament was TKS. About his own age, TKS had never achieved his success and acclaim and still lived in his small two-bedroom house in Mambalam teaching a handful of pathetic students and making vitriolic comments about his music. TKS, he knew was driven by that age-old malady that affects every artist. But in his heart of hearts he was troubled by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, TKS knew what he was talking about.

They were now passing the village pond, where an unkempt youth wearing an old T-shirt and shorts that had been awkwardly cut-off from a pair of full-length trousers, was angling.

“Hey, Vetrivel, what are you doing here letting that bullock of yours stray into the fields?”

“Shh…you will disturb the fish,” he said, not even turning around.

“Rascal,” said Pannaiyar, “don’t you know you addressing the headman?”

“But I had nearly caught one, he said, turning from the reed bed, rather piqued. “And Murugan is grazing near the temple.”

“You are supposed to watch him.”

“Pannaiyaraiyya, he won’t go on the rampage again,” he winked. “I know why he did it last time.”

“I don’t want to hear your explanations. Now go and tie him up. And check with Subbamma if the snacks and coffee are ready.”

Sulkily he put his rod away and walked towards the village.

The temple was on a slight rise overlooking the thatched roofs and dish antennas of the village. The slope was carpeted by green grass. A big banyan tree stood to one side of it and its leaves now danced in the breeze. SKI had to admit that sitting in the mandapam of the temple with the evening breeze ruffling his hair was much better than being stewed in the car. He settled down on the dais and put his electronic sruti box beside him. He might forget his wallet, but not his sruti box, which he carried even if he were just going to the corner shop for a betel leaf. He had finished his coffee, which was slightly too sweet for his taste and the piping hot lentil vadas that were too spicy and induced a fit of coughing. But Subbamma, who had stood quietly by the side of the mandapam, making sure the preparations for their guest was not found lacking in any department, looked on anxiously and poured him a glass of water from a stainless steel flask. He took it gratefully and cleared his throat.

At a recent concert, after finishing a long elaboration of Raga Kalyani, he had scanned the faces of the audience at the front row, mostly consisting of senior vidwans for clues as to how they had taken it. There was all the customary applause. He had taken great care not to introduce any elements of Yaman that was almost the norm now, but was anathema to the SKI bani as they were now beginning to call it.

When a critic called it traditional, he wondered if he was subtly saying it was a bit jaded. He was considered the master of that raga, but was he now repeating himself? Perhaps after the US tour in the summer, where he was performing 16 concerts at various cities and teaching at the Pittsburgh temple, he should take a break from concerts. There was also a 3-day stop at London on the way back a concert at the Bhavan and one at Wembley, organised by some association or the other, which were again, not too taxing, but greatly beneficial to the wallet, with all those CDs to be lapped up at London prices. His presence alone should be a big thing for those adoring NRIs starving for music. And then maybe he should withdraw into himself for a few weeks, away from the hordes of adoring fans, to come up with new ideas to wow the critics at the Music Season.

A few yards away, Vetrivel was tying Murugan, a big, strong creature, with two splendid horns, to the banyan tree. The rope seemed woefully inadequate, but Murugan appeared meek as a two-year old child. He let Vetrivel tie him up to the tree and appreciatively licked his face as he patted his head. He turned to them and smiled.

“See, gentle as a goat. He likes being around the temple, Ayya. In fact, I have great difficulty dragging him away in the evenings. It is only when…”

“That’s enough, Vetrivel,” said Pannaiyar. “Ayya is not here to listen to your stories. His is a great singer.” Then he turned to SKI. “Ayya, Subbamma has a request.”

“Don’t hesitate to ask, Subbamma,” he said like the kings of yore, pleased at someone’s service, “I haven’t had vadas like these in years. The blushing Subbamma attempted to dissolve into the pillar.

“She would like to hear you sing, Ayya.”

SKI smiled. Perhaps he should humour these simple village folk. What did he have to lose? It would be a good warm-up for tonight.

“We even have a mike system which the headman bought at the last village festival. Wait, let me set it up.”

By then the headman had sent someone around to spread mats on the floor and he and the other important dignitaries of the village were beginning to approach in groups of twos and threes. SKI was surprised at the turn out.

The headman saluted him and began a speech, saying he needed no introduction and then proceeding to introduce at length the legendary singer and remind them how fortunate they were to have him. SKI was beaming. Nonetheless he did not forget to glance at his watch. Pannaiyar had assured him his driver would be back in an hour, just enough time for him to sing some of his most popular devotional numbers. He switched on the sruti and hummed.

The speaker system was perfect. No echo, no unwanted screeching. He finished the first piece with aplomb and was mid-way into the second one when he heard a noise. His ear was tuned so well to the sruti that the slighted off-key note disturbed him. He continued regardless and when he finished the piece, he realised it was the buffalo, Murugan, lowing.

The hitherto placid animal had perked up his ears and was looking at his direction in a decidedly unfriendly manner.

He ignored it and started the next one, Oru Dinam, often hailed as his masterpiece, dedicated to the Lord Murugan of Palani. The bit where the composer beseeches the Lord not to delay his coming was a particularly poignant line that one notable critic had said seemed to have been composed especially for SKI. His speciality was to stop the accompaniments at a certain point and call out passionately to the Lord thrice, once in each octave. He did not get to the third call. A tornado seemed to have burst in their midst. The men in the audience had pulled up their dhotis and broken into a run. Women and children hid behind pillars. SKI alone sat petrified on the dais. A furious black form had toppled the speakers and was now raking them with its horns. After it had completely wrecked the sound system, the buffalo slowly approached the dais and fixed SKI with a look of severe reprimand. For some reason it reminded him of TKS. He could the next day’s headlines in him mind’s eye. “Legendary singer’s final call to Murugan…”

To his great relief, Vetrivel suddenly appeared. Murugan turned to him in annoyance, but something about his presence seemed to soothe the animal.

SKI sat at the dais, mopping his brow. Never had his concerts been so rudely interrupted. The headman and Pannaiyar emerged apologising profusely, hoping nothing had happened to him. He looked around like a martyr, lapping up all the attention. He wondered loudly how much longer the driver would be and emphasised how important the evening’s function was.

The headman sent a man running to look for another man whom he had sent to look for the driver.

Vetrivel was brought to the temple and duly told off. He merely stood there grinning.

“But I was going to tell you earlier, Pannaiyarayya. Why did you play that cassette?”

“You mean SKI Sir singing?”

Vetrivel burst out into uncontrollable peals of laughter.

“So you are the man who sings that song. I had always wanted to see you. You see, I normally find it so difficult to drag Murugan away from this temple. But on the couple of occasions Pannaiyaraiyya has played your cassettes he has invariably run away and caused mayhem in the village. Very sensitive animal, you see…”

Later, in the car, SKI sat glumly staring out of the window. When the driver finally arrived, SKI ordered him to turn round.

“Where are we going, Ayya?”

“Back home, where else?”

SKI had quite a temper. The driver did not dare point out that it would take most of the night.

“But the award, Sir?” he asked in disbelief.

SKI did not seem to hear the question.

Friday, 22 February 2013

'I can't live without music': Rama Varma

By M Ramakrishnan

Rama Varma was in Chennai recently to conduct a two-day workshop (9 and 10 February 2013) ‘Swarasadhana,’ at the Satyananda Yoga Center at Triplicane. Here he speaks of the event, his journey in classical music and his thoughts on the changing trends of the art form.

How did Swarasadhana happen? 

I have been teaching in this village called Perla near Mangalore for the past four years, at a music school called Veenavadini, run by the musician Sri Yogeesh Sharma. He gets musicians from outside to visit once a year. Four years ago Veenavadini invited me. They enjoyed my teaching a lot and I enjoyed being there too.  My visits became regular. Some of these lessons were video-recorded and uploaded on YouTube. The Tirupati based Sri Venkatesa Bhakti Channel telecast around 200 episodes of the programme. The organizers of Swarasadhana were familiar with my way of teaching through these sources as well as through having attended some teaching sessions directly.

What is it about Swarasadhana that hasn’t been done before? 

This is the first time I’m conducting such a camp in Chennai. Also, 2013 is the 200th birth anniversary of my ancestor Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. So I have chosen some unique compositions of his that the participants may not be able to learn from many other sources. 

Maharaja Swati Thirunal was undoubtedly one of the most important modern composers, one who included Hindustani styles in his compositions.

Nowadays it’s become fashionable to calim to avoid Hindustani in Carnatic music or the other way around. But looking back, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was among those south Indians who became luminaries in the north Indian style. How many south Indians are really open to Hindustani music is debatable. The late M S Gopalakrishnan Sir was very competent in the Hindustani field for example and my colleague Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan is a Carnatic musician open to Hindustani ragas – he’ll sing a pallavi in Bageshri, for instance. Then again there are fundamentalist groups who think Behag, Sindhubhairavi, Yamuna Kalyani, Sivaranjani and their ilk should be totally done away with. 

Do you use the same style of teaching as your gurus?

I had four gurus, one of whom is alive today. Each guru had something special. For example, my first vocal guru Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir would repeat parts of songs as many times as I wanted, until I got it right. But he wouldn't allow recording. I imbibed his level of patience. My two veena gurus Trivandrum R.Venkatraman Sir and K.S.Narayansamy Sir were very analytical, splitting phrases into the smallest fragments until each gamakam became perfectly clear. Dr.Balamuralikrishna Sir… he doesn't really teach, per se. He could be compared to a sumptuous buffet in a five-star hotel. All sorts of goodies would be there in front of you and you could help yourself to whatever you liked. Only an advanced student can truly benefit from him, because he doesn’t repeat parts of the song 300 times or break it up into smaller fragments. While teaching, he would sing as he would in concert. But he has absolutely no problem if you record him. I record his lessons and the tape recorder becomes my guru as I play them over and over again.  So, my teaching style is essentially a combination of all these different approaches. 

What do you like about the way Swarasadhana was organized? 

It was a very sincere effort. Sometimes there are big moneyed organizations that might help you with organizing something but their effort might not be genuine. Outside India, you get much more money for teaching but no job satisfaction, much of the time. There could be exceptions, though.

Does your title make things easier for you? 

I don’t use the title myself. If I did, I could have this royal image tag that could give me certain advantages. But people have branded me as a prince in virtually every report where my name appears. If you look at my visiting card, it does not use the title. It’s just Rama Varma. I follow this rule even when I write an article or produce a CD. Earlier there was a misconception that I used my title and family influence to get concert opportunities or obtain sponsors easily. People did not know that my family was totally against my performing publicly. As royal patrons they believed that their duty was only to endorse and financially support musicians and singers. This tradition (in the Travancore royal family) was first broken by me. 

You have said that classical music should be accessible to the common man. Do you see this transition happening or is there still a long way to go? 

This sort of transition is a constant process, but it has been done before. Classical music has had mass appreciation through the efforts of people like KB Sundarambal, Madurai Mani Iyer and even my guru, Dr. Balamuralikrishna Sir.

Can this task be achieved through cinema or new-age music? There have been films like Sankarabharanam, Chithram and Bharatham in the past which have managed to pull it off. 

Yes, these films definitely had a major impact at the time. Some people feel you have to mix classical music with electronic keyboard sounds, a saxophone or a medley of film songs to have greater reach. I stick to my own method, which is to take the trouble to know the meaning of what each word in a song means and convey the same to my audience. 

Is this style of explaining the history behind a song as an introductory note also inspired from one of your gurus or entirely yours? 

I have not seen many others do it. 

Western music involves the participation of groups of people in the form of gospel choirs which essentially are based on their classical styles.  Is this applicable to the Indian scenario as well? 

Both classical systems (in the east and the west) started out as forms of worship. While Christianity emphasizes a congregational effort, Hinduism allows more individualism. The same principle applies to our singing. If ten persons were to sing Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham, they would choose different tempos and even different sangatis. Our classical music is meant to be a solitary pursuit with potential for instant creativity, pushing limits and exploring new methods. Of course, we also have bhajans which sound beautiful when sung as a group. 

So the team effort in Carnatic music is restricted to the main musician and accompanists.

Yes. There are also cases of students who have studied under the same guru and sing perfectly in sync. But when I lived in Europe earlier for 10 years, I sometimes had to do concerts without accompaniment or microphones. They were just solo performances with the tambura. It gave scope for elaboration in raga alapana and other new ideas, without worrying about coordinating with the accompanists. Singing alone has its own rewards but you should be knowledgeable enough to know how to go about it. It requires great stamina, aesthetic sense and a sense of proportion. There shouldn't be any hesitation in the mind. Otherwise it is better to stick with your team and perform. 

What are your plans? 

To continue the same as much as possible. When I was 20 years old, I never thought I’d go to Europe. While in Europe I never thought I’d go to that small village in Karnataka to teach. My family and Dr. Balamuralikrishna never got along, but I ended up learning so much from him. I was initially attracted by some of his compositions thinking I would just learn a tillana or two and leave. But it’s been 19 years since that meeting took place and I’m still learning from him. I just go with the flow, more or less. I don’t plan.

Is Swarasadhana on the way to becoming an annual event in your calendar? 

That depends on the organizers really. I would be perfectly happy to come again if they were to invite me again.

How much does music mean to you?

During my SSLC exams I used to squeeze in my music classes even between examination breaks. My guru back then used to say no other disciple of his had done that before. After the exams, I remember that Sean Connery’s comeback film as James Bond, ‘Never Say Never Again’ had just been released. All my friends planned ahead and went for it. I finished my exam and came back in the evening for my music class. I realized even then that I couldn't be without it, without ever imagining I would be a singer. They say the same about marriage: you should marry not someone you can live with but someone you can’t live without. I can’t live without music.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Festival of Sacred Music

By Samudri

Chennai’s Prakriti Foundation has announced the annual Festival of Sacred Music at Tiruvaiyaru. The festival this year will feature the following performances.

 1 March 2013 at the courtyard of an old Maratha palace
  • Music of Benares: a sitar duet by Pandit Shivnath Mishra and Deobrat Mishra of the Benares Gharana, accompanied by Prashant Mishra on the tabla.
  • Qawwali concert by Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers from Pakistan
2 March 2013 at the Pushya Mahal Ghat on the banks of the river Kaveri
  • Saptaakshara by percussionist T.H. Vikku Vinayakram
3 March 2013 at the Panchanadeeswara temple
  • Vocal music by Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Profiles of the artistes

Shivnath Mishra was born in 1943 in Benares, United Provinces, British India into a family of professional musicians stretching back to the 15th century. He began receiving his initial training in vocal music at the age of five from his father Badar Prasad Mishra and uncle Pandit Mahadev Prasad Mishra. At the age of eight, he started learning the sitar.

In 1967, Mishra won the prestigious All India Radio competition held at Allahabad. This was followed by a gold medal at the All India Music Conference in Calcutta in 1967. He has played many times at the  Ganga Mahotsav Cultural Programme organized by the government of Uttar Pradesh. He has shared stage space with such  tabla stalwarts as  Samta Prasad,  Kishan Maharaj, Nanhku Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj and also sarod maestro Aashish Khan. A prominent ‘A’ grade artist of  All India Radio and TV, he has been featured in feature films. 

Shivnath Mishra, his son Deobrat, and  other members of the Mishra-Maharaj family were featured in the 2011 British ITV1 documentary A Passage through India narrated by Caroline Quentin.

In the 13th century, Hazrat Yameenuddin Abul-Hasan Amir Khusrau, a legendary musician,unparalleled poet, soldier, Sufi and philosopher, trained a group of twelve elite youngsters in the art of qawwali, to be known as the  Qawwal Bachchay Gharana of Delhi or Delhi Gharana. The prominent names of the torchbearers of this mystical style of performance are Mian Saamat, AI-Haaj Meer Qutab Bukhsh alias Mian Tanrus Khansaheb, Ghulam Ghous Khansaheb and Haji Suleman Khansaheb. 

Ustad Qawwal Bahauddin Khansaheb is the son of Haji Suleman Khansaheb and a maestro in the Khusrau tradition of Qawwali. He enchanted audiences all over the world with his knowledge, voice and command over  different . He  successfully transferred this spiritual art and style to his sons, Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and  Brothers. In 2004, Najmuddin, the eldest son of Qawwal Bahauddin was appointed as doyen in the Chishti Sufi order to carry on the spiritual tradition and propagate its message of love, peace and humanity apart from his performances all over the world.

The magic of South Indian classical percussion springs to life with Layasamarpan.

At the forefront of this group is T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram, an international celebrity with his arresting drumming on the ghatam.

Vikku’s father, Sri T R Harihara Sharma brought the concept of SapthaLaya Aksharangal also called the seven syllables used in the   Carnatic percussion system. Vikku  always wanted to establish the richness of  Carnatic percussion at a global level. His dream was thus fulfilled by the creation of Saptakshara.

The instruments performed by the group's talented musicians are the ghatam, violin, tavil, khanjira, and morsing while vocal music as well as  konnakkol (vocal percussion) are part of its offerings.

The movements of the group are assembled in mainly in three ways. The vocalist sings the spiritual slogan, each rhythm then translates into its own tone and after the serial replay, all of them combine together and follow the melody.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He began learning music at the age of seven. His initial training was under V. Lakshminarayana on the violin. He later switched to vocal music and was trained by Rukmini Rajagopalan for a period of almost eight years. Sanjay continues to learn from nagaswaram maestro Semponnarkoil SRD Vaidyanathan.

Sanjay teaches music, and has many successful students such as Prashanth Viswanathan, Swarna Rethas, Sandeep Narayan, and Prasanna Venkatraman in the contemporary music field. Sanjay has enthralled music loving audiences in Chennai as well as in Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore, Delhi and other places all over India. He has toured Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, the US, Canada, the UK, Switzerland and Oman.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Dharwar: A southern seat of Hindustani music (Part II)

By Gowri Ramnarayan

(Continued from blogpost dated 15 February 2013)

Two eminent singers from Dharwar started with the same guru from the Gwalior gharana, and worked in drama companies, but developed their own original music.

Mallikarjun Mansur was born in a family of agriculturists in Mansur village. His exposure to music came from brother Basavaraj of Wamanrao Master’s drama troupe. Nilkanthbua was so impressed by his talent that he took him on as his disciple. Mansur returned to acting for his livelihood, but dreamed of becoming a classical singer. It was suggested he take further training from Sawai Gandharva, but Mansur did not rate his music high. At a friend’s shop in Bombay, he chanced to meet Manji Khan, son of maestro Alladiya Khan. The friend played a record of Mansur to persuade Manji Khan to teach the Dharwar man. Followed rewarding lessons, which continued after the master’s demise under his brother Bhurji Khan. The bristling complexities of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana fascinated Mansur. He revelled in its challenging rhythm patterns, its vast repertoire of ragas, in the techniques of khyal singing. It gave him freedom to improvise in the grand manner. His treatment of the antara came in for special attention.

Son and disciple Rajshekhar Mansur, a vocalist who teaches English at the Dharwar University, reminisced, “Our house of two rooms had to hold us eight siblings. We woke to father’s morning riyaz, returned from school to hear him practise, and went to sleep at night with his voice ringing in our ears. No, he did not encourage me to take up music as a profession. He had faced too many problems in his career”.

Many thought Mansur was difficult, haughty. Certainly he had few disciples compared to those who crowded the Rajguru home. “Father was impatient,” admitted Rajshekhar. “He never praised me. Today I am glad he didn’t. It kept me growing”. Disciple S. V. Bhirdikar reasoned that perhaps Mansur’s sishyas simply did not meet his standards. “He was totally engrossed in his music. Were we as passionately committed, I wonder.” A friend repeated Mansur’s rueful admission in old age, “People flock to hear me now as they never did when I was at the peak of my powers”.

The vocalist could be sharp tongued. When an old timer complained he did not sing like Alladiya Khan, Mansur demonstrated that style and said, “This is Khansaheb’s method, but am I his stenographer?” Scholars surmised that Mansur’s highlighting the tara shadja was the influence of Rehmat Khan of Gwalior. Rajashekhar summed up, “Unlike Rajguru, my father never tried to please the audience. Rather, he tried to raise them to his level”. Mansur is remembered for introducing the highly philosophical Kannada vachanas of Basava and Mahadevi Akka in Hindustani music. The idea was mooted by Kannada novelist A. N. Krishnarao on a stroll by the Shalmali river.

A restless spirit was Basavaraj Rajguru who spent his lifetime learning from as many sources as possible. An astonishing twelve gurus from many parts of India and several gharanas tell their own tale. He went to Lateef Khan in Pakistan, managing to escape with his skin intact during the Partition years. When bandits attacked the Frontier Mail near Amritsar, young Basavaraj hid under the train on the steel shafts. He was wholly without guile. “I found this cheez in the Agra gharana,” he would announce on the stage and proceed to sing it. On his boltaans the impact of Carnatic music was evident, especially of swaraprastara.

Rajguru’s home in Dharwar was unpretentious. We were welcomed by his son who ran a grocery shop at the entrance. Soft-spoken Prabhavati Devi was proud to share her memories of her late husband. “He was from a family of priests who served kings, but I always saw him as a raja. Begum Akhtar called him Sur ka Badshah (king of melody).”

We piece together the facts of Rajguru’s career from her account. Beginning with Carnatic music at six, and initial training under Panchakshari Gavai, Rajguru went on a cross-country pilgrimage of learning. Not satisfied with khyal, he studied dhrupad, dhamar, tappa, thumri, ghazal, qawwali and bhajan. He cut several popular discs, acted in plays which touched his concert renderings of natyasangeet with a verve all their own. With an amazing collection of 12,000 compositions, he shaped his individual style. And though he failed to train his children in music, he had many disciples who remember him with love and gratitude.

Shantaram Hegde who taught at the Karnatak Music College burst out, “He was everything we wanted in a guru. He gave us affection and no holds barred training, often correcting our mistakes with a joke. As accompanists we could not follow him on his soaring flights in the upper octave. He would smile at us with sympathy as he hit the high notes. He encouraged us to try many things, gave appreciation when it was due.”

Since this discussion took place at the radio station in Dharwar, we attracted staff members eager to share stories about this colourful artist. Raghunath Nakod, who accompanied Rajguru on the tabla, started describing Rajguru’s lovable eccentricities. “He carried 24 pieces of luggage, including a wooden crate which held his VIP suitcase”. Some of the trunks contained a whole kitchen of vessels and provisions. Rajguru cooked his own food, which he shared with his party. He would ask Raghunath to practise as long as he cooked - in order to drown the noise of the kerosene stove, banned in lodges!

He carried drinking water in pots placed in buckets. When the water got over between two concerts in Delhi, Rajguru thought nothing of journeying back to Dharwar for a refill. His love of milk made him take the train everyday to Hubli, to a special vendor who supplied it. In Bombay he would go to Victoria Road from his Dadar lodge, just to treat himself and his accompanists to milk at a particular halwai’s place. They were pressed to enjoy the delicacies of each town at the guru’s expense. Rajguru invariably halted at Pune on his way to Bombay to spend a few days at his favourite Badshah Lodge. There, late at night, he recorded some of his vast repertoire. “Generous to a fault, he spent lavishly,” sighed Hegde.

Dharwar has not made any notable contribution to instrumental music. But two families settled in the town produced three generations of sitar and tabla players. Arjunsa Nakod took music lessons to work in a drama company. Son Raghunath and siblings took up the tabla and perform as a trio. They are much in demand as accompanists to leading artists. Grandson Ravikiran is a talent to watch for.

The sitar family’s oldest living member is A. Karim Khan, with a vocalist grandfather and a beenkar father Rehmat Khan. “He had to transfer the been technique to the sitar to make a living. His guru forbade him to take money for playing the been,” says the bedridden Khansaheb. His seven sons play the sitar, including Bale Khan at AIR. The family orchestrates several sitars for the occasional show.

At the time of writing, Dharwar had no star musician except for Gangubai Hangal. The department of music at the university and the Karnatak Music College turned out only degree holding teachers. But the town had something of immense value. It had dedicated teachers of the Gwalior, Jaipur and Kirana gharanas like the gentle, sweet voiced Chandrasekhar Puranikmath; and Sangameshwar Gurav, a direct disciple of Bhaskarbua Bhakle and Abdul Karim Khan. His ancestors were Carnatic musicians, which explains his son Kaivalya Kumar’s introducing its flavours in his gayaki. To father and son, Abdul Karim Khan’s words were a litany, “Music must reach not the ear alone, but the heart”.

Such teachers were not without hope for Dharwar’s future in music. “There is excellent talent here,” said Puranikmath. “It may take a while to mature. And there are earnest listeners to encourage it”. Gurav conceded that the eagerness of youngsters could get dissipated because Dharwar did not offer them a future. There were no industrialist sponsors, no media attention.

But Kaivalya Kumar’s obvious vocal skills prove that, with commitment and sound training, such drawbacks can be overcome. Groomed by father Bale Khan in the sitar, young Hafiz Ali Khan had the last word. “Dharwar is a great place for learning music without the distractions and tensions of city life. Artists are respected here. A career can be pursued anywhere; the important thing is to complete my training”.

(This is an edited version of the article “Where North Meets South” that appeared in The Hindu Folio in November 1998)

Gowri Ramnarayan is a performing arts critic, playwright and translator)


Friday, 15 February 2013

Dharwar: A southern seat of Hindustani music (Part I)

By Gowri Ramnarayan

A sleepy town in north Karnataka, Dharwar flowered quite suddenly in the twentieth century into a prominent centre for Hindustani music, a departure from the 1880s when the region boasted Carnatic musicians of local fame. The formation of the Bombay Presidency by the British meant the merger of a part of Karnataka, north of Tungabhadra, with Maharashtra, sparking a dynamic interaction between people of different language groups, transforming the culture of Karwar, Belgaum, Bijapur and Dharwar. Somehow remaining undrawn into the freedom movement, the local populace had the leisure to enjoy drama and music.

The advent of Marathi drama cultivated in North Karnataka residents a taste for Hindustani music. Great musicians like Sawai Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru did theatre in their youth. Gangubai Hangal’s interest in natyasangeet made her family decide to train her in Hindustani rather than Carnatic music practised by her mother Ambabai and grandmother Kamalabai.

The fortuitous presence of several stalwarts fostered the love of north Indian music in the district. Bhaskarbua Bhakle who taught at the training college at Dharwar had many fans beside his disciples. Bhakle’s teacher Naththan Khan, court musician at Mysore, came to give advanced lessons to his pupil. His son Dulhe Khan stayed close by to train several women singers, like Pyarabai who had a lovely voice. Badalibai had the powerful personality to meet the demands of the Agra gharana.

North Indian artists, invited to perform in Mysore, especially during the Dussera celebrations, often broke their journey at Dharwar, where they found the weather as pleasant as the people. Connoisseurs like Vakil Pitre housed them and conducted baithaks to which attendance was free. Zamindars in Jamkhandi and Sangli were equally ready to play hosts and patrons. The ashrams in the region had swamijis with a taste for devotional music. The blind vocalist Panchakshari Gavai set up the Vireshwar Punyashram in Gadag town—a music school which encouraged blind or otherwise handicapped pupils. Many Dharwar, Murukhar and Devangere maths promoted music as a spiritual pursuit.

Celebrity vocalist Abdul Karim Khan from village Kirana in the north made extended stays in Dharwar and Hubli. On a visit to Kundgol village close by, Khansaheb happened to notice a boy humming the Bhairavi he had rendered the previous evening. This was Ramrao, the son of his host’s munim. At the host’s suggestion, the senior artist agreed to take the boy as his disciple if he followed him to Miraj, where he taught students who signed an eight year contract to study without breaks and distractions!

Despite his many concert tours Khansaheb made it a point to be at Miraj during the festival of the Khwaja Mirasaheb dargah. Thousands gathered to hear his expansive Todi, Jaunpuri and Bhairavi sung seated under a neem tree beside the tomb.

Ramrao absorbed the guru’s magic by listening to him practise and perform more than through formal instruction. The guru honed the sishya’s voice to suit the honeyed style even though originally it was not malleable for this purpose. Returning to Kundgol to get married, Ramrao joined a drama company and became a star overnight. He impressed legendary thespian Balgandharva in his role as Subhadra. Hailed as Sawai Gandharva, or as a “Second Celestial”, he created a sensation when paired with Hirabai Barodekar, soon to win more lasting fame as a classical singer. All the while, the guru looked upon Ramrao’s stage career as a waste of time by one destined for higher achievements.

Once when Abdul Karim Khan asked Sawai Gandharva to provide tanpura accompaniment at his concert, the sishya excused himself saying he had a sore throat. But Khansaheb found him performing his famous role of Subhadra that very evening, and cursed him with a permanent sore throat. From that day Sawai Gandharva had to make herculean efforts to get his voice into shape, he had to wrestle with it for an hour before any performance. Detractors of the Kirana gharana like to say that his disciples mistook these throat-clearing operations for raga elaboration, which is why they sing the alap to this day without rhythm accompaniment.

Sawai Gandharva attracted disciples like Bhimsen Joshi, Firoz Dastur, Basavaraj Rajguru and Gangubai Hangal. He cast such a spell on them that Joshi held an annual festival in his guru’s name in Pune, and unfailingly performed in Kundgol on the master’s anniversary. There he was joined by fellow sishyas like Gangubai. Such was the lady’s veneration of her guru, that, when a throat operation changed her voice to acquire a masculine tone, she saw it as a blessing. “Now it is closer to my guru’s voice”, exulted the Hubli’s famous vocalist.

After the initial classes with Krishnacharya and Dattopant Desai, Gangubai was lucky enough to find favour with the Kundgol maestro, known for his no-nonsense severity. The awestruck disciple was trained well, but did not dare to ask questions. Raga followed raga without her being told their names! Once she was scolded for singing raga Bibhas in a radio programme, because, having picked it up from notation, she had used a note that was foreign to Gandharva’s tradition.

Gangubai cut many discs early in her career. The recording company changed her name to a more familiar Hublikar, and her first name to a more romantic Gandhari. Soon Baiji reached a stage where she needed no catchy props to gain attention. She recorded thumris and bhajans but on the stage she sang only khyals. She remained a greater purist than her guru.

Gangubai recalled her first concert in Calcutta before musicians and the cognoscenti when a stranger, patted her with a “Wah, Bai, wah!” It was Kundanlal Saigal.

In Gangubai’s home I found four generations of women sitting in a circle, shelling peas. Baiji sat in the hall, listening to her student and suggesting phrases now and then. An octogenarian then, she continued to perform selectively. Her daughter Krishna was her accompanist; the granddaughter had stopped singing and gave tuitions in English. There were hopes of the great granddaughter though.

(This is part I of an edited version of the article “Where North Meets South” that appeared in The Hindu Folio in November 1998)

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Homage to T. Balasaraswati

By S. Janaki

Dr. V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, paid tribute to the Bharatanatyam legend T. Balasaraswati on 9th February at the German Hall in Chennai. It was Bala’s 29th remembrance day.

S.S. Jawahar, Principal Secretary to the Govt. of Tamil Nadu, and Commissioner, Museum & Art & Culture, presided over the function and released the DVD titled “In the Footsteps of Bala” containing a solo performance by Bala’s disciple Nandini Ramani. The first copies were received by Bharatanatyam exponents and teachers Jayanti Subramaniam & Parvati Ravi Ghantasala. Renowned Bharatanatyam gurus Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan were the chief guests; V. Sethuram, president of the Indian Fine Arts Society, Chennai, was the guest of honour. Veteran associates of the Raghavan Centre — vidwan B. Krishnamurti, vidushi R. Vedavalli, and natyacharya K. Ramiah participated in the event.

In the homage to Bala, senior dancers Roja Kannan, Priya Murle, Sreelatha Vinod, and Dr. Lakshmi Ramaswamy presented items which they had specially learnt for the occasion from Nandini Ramani. Sushama Ranganathan (daughter and disciple of Nandini) also presented compositions from Bala’s repertoire.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Yashodhara & Night's End

By Samudri

Two plays of JustUs Repertory of Chennai were recently staged at Darpana Arts Academy, Ahmedabad, as part of its Festival of Non-violence through the Arts.

For details of the festival, go to

YASHODHARA (9 February)

NIGHT'S END (10 February)

Kshetra Sangeetham

By Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam

Kshetra Sangeetham episode 15 , focussing on TIRUTTANI , will be presented on Tuesday – Feb 12, 2013 – 6:00 PM @ Narada Gana Sabha Main Hall . 

The concert will be preceded by a presentation on Tiruttani by Dr. Saraswathi Ramanathan, Tamil scholar and orator.

Accompanists for the concert: Usha Rajagopalan on the violin, Shertalai Ananthakrishnan on the mridangam, and  Alathur Rajaganesh on the khanjira.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Aradhana at Tyagaraja Vidwat Sabha

The 166th Tyagaraja Aradhana was inaugurated at the Thyagaraja Vidwath Sabha, Mylapore, on 30 January by V Ramnarayan of Sruti. The welcome address was delivered by Madurai R Rajaram and the presidential address by TN Seshagopalan, followed by a concert by senior vocalist Madurai GS Mani.

The aradhana highlighted by Tyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis rendered by a devout group was held the next morning at 10.30 am. The artists included PS Narayanaswami, V Ramachandran, SR Janakiraman, Mannargudi Eswaran, Carva Rajasekhar, Kunnakudi M Balamuralikrishna, Tiruvarur Girish, Mohan Santhanam, PB Srirangachari, and other regulars of the concert circuit. The weeklong concerts were launched with a Harikatha performance by Seshagopalan in the evening.

The conduct of the aradhana has been in the competent hands of the tireless Mannargudi S Rajaram, son of the late Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar, one of the architects of the Sabha. Sambasiva Bhagavatar’s centenary year concluded in December 2012.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Vijay Siva and Venkatesh Kumar stand tall

By V Ramnarayan

Two vocal concerts stood out amidst the more satisfactory performances of this season: Vijay Siva’s and Venkatesh Kumar’s, both at the Music Academy. Both seemed to transcend performance to achieve intense focus, precision and raga bhava. To listen to each of them on the day, especially to Vijay Siva, was to witness a yogi in action, totally immersed in his art.

On 17 December, Vijay Siva surpassed the expectations of an audience used to his consistency, with a powerful demonstration of the strides he has made over the decades in strengthening and polishing his naturally high-pitched voice. A noticeable aspect of his vocalisation that evening was his deliberately sustained occupation of the lower registers in niraval that added a new, poignant dimension to his manodharma forays. No less emotive, however, was the impact of his tara sthayi explorations.

The highlights of the concert were a majestic delineation of the Yadukula Kambhoji masterpiece among the Syama Sastry swarajati trilogy and a nuanced rendering of ragam-tanam-pallavi in Charukesi (Padamenru nambinen amma Uma ninadu pankaya).

Each of the other pieces in the concert was a gem—the Hamsadhwani varnam, Orajupu (Tyagaraja) in Kannadagaula, Sri Sundararajam bhaje (Muthuswami Dikshitar) in Kasi Ramakriya, Seetamma Mayamma (Tyagaraja) in Vasanta, Sri Kamalambayam (Muthuswami Dikshitar) in Bhairavi, Kanden kali teernden (Gopalakrishna Bharati) in Kalyani, to name a few, not to mention the ragamalikas (within the ragam-tanam-pallavi as well as afterwards).

Vijay Siva’s concert was a truly emotional experience for those who came expecting to be saturated with the rakti of ragas flawlessly executed by a devotee of chaste Carnatic music. Predictably the consummate accompanying artiste in RK Shriramkumar proved an empathetic and imaginative foil on the violin, while J Vaidhyanathan (mridangam) and Alathur Raja Ganesh (khanjira) gave percussion support of a high order, never loud or brash, but offering subtle rhythmic embellishment at every stage of the concert.

Vijay Siva’s concert was the climax of a satisfying day of music at the Academy, when the youthful team of debutant Bhavana Iyer (vocal), Kaushik Sivaramakrishnan (violin) and Ranjani Venkatesh (mridangam) had made a promising beginning and Sumitra Vasudev (vocal) had continued the good work, accompanied by Padma Shankar (violin), B Sivaraman (mridangam) and Trivandrum D. Rajagopal (khanjira), impressing the knowledgeable among the audience with her brilliant Ramapriya ragam-tanam-pallavi in the tala Ragavardhanam.

Venkatesh Kumar, a disciple of Puttaraj Gawai—a blind musician who rehabilitated many disabled children and adults through music (Sruti)—and one of numerous sterling vocalists from the Dharwar region owing allegiance to the Gwalior and Kirana gharanas, has been a Chennai favourite among Hindustani musicians visiting the city for some years now. His powerful voice in a style of vocalisation so reminiscent of Bhimsen Joshi was heard in full flow on the last night of 2012 at the Academy, unhampered by what seemed a severe attack of cough and cold.

The concert more than lived up to the artist’s reputation until overzealous listeners started shouting their choice of ragas and made him sing Shankara, clearly not a raga that he had planned to purvey that evening, and therefore pedestrian in comparison to his earlier efforts.

Thankfully, Venkatesh Kumar had been in magnificent form till then offering ragas less often heard on the Chennai concert stage from visiting Hindustani musicians—Maru Behag and Durga were both enchanting in the delicious irony of their lilting beauty in Kumar’s stentorian voice, so well modulated and sruti-perfect in their execution.

Kausi Kanada followed, a representative of an aesthetics relatively rare in Carnatic music: a jod raga, a combination of two ragas. This pairing of Darbari Kanada and Malkauns had the audience guessing, but not for long because the contours of both component ragas were so pellucidly sketched, so that even if you did not know the name of the jod raga, you had little trouble guessing its origins. Venkatesh Kumar was at his expansive best while depicting this raga, elevating the audience to a higher plane as it were. Even to an ear untrained in the exotic qualities of twin ragas—which can deny you the unalloyed joy of soaking in any one raga—the marriage sounded perfect.

A couple of years ago, when some Hindustani music enthusiasts approached Venkatesh Kumar with a request to perform at Chennai, his immediate response was: “Main kumse kum char ghante gaoonga (I’ll sing for at least four hours)!” On 31 December 2012, he seemed to labour under the misapprehension that he had to wind up his concert in under 90 minutes, until a representative of the Academy assured him that he could go on till 9.30 pm. Perhaps but for this faux pas on his own part and the mindless request for Shankara which might have upset his own plans, the Dharwar veteran would have scaled greater heights than he did. It was nevertheless an outstanding performance that gladdened the hearts of the audience at New Year’s Eve, with an exhibition of voice control and projection rarely matched in the season.

Other delights of the season included the heady mix of hot-and-sour, sweet-and-spicy Andhra music offered by the Hyderabad Brother (oops, that should have been Brothers). It was a stunning waterfall of ragas that the duo rained on the Academy on the evening of 16 December, a wide range that included Dhanyasi, Kalyani, Sama, Saveri, Bhairavi, Mohanam, Hindolam and so on. Eccentric asides to the accompanists, excruciating physical contortions, complete dominance of one brother over the other who was reduced to a mere spectator for nearly half the duration of the concert—none of these seemed to matter to the section of the audience that stayed till the very end to savour the magic of Raghavachari and Seshachari’s music, with the exquisite, often unexpected phrasing of their extraordinary raga essays. The Saveri ragam-tanam-pallavi must rank among the best of the season, with the rhythmic excellence of the pallavi equalling the poetry of the alapana and tanam segments. The unsolved mystery was: How can the Carnatic music stage offer music of such rare beauty in the midst of such scant regard for form and decorum?

The Malladi Brothers gave one of their better displays in recent years at the Academy, with a solid Kambhoji (Sri Raghuvara, Tyagaraja) the centrepiece of a chaste, clearly vocalised concert where the ragabhava was king throughout. The opening salvos in Tulasi jagajjanani (Saveri, Tyagaraja) and Anandeswarena samrakshitoham (Ananda Bhairavi, Syama Sastry) followed by a lovely Himagirikumari Eswari (Muthuswami Dikshitar) set the tone for a crisp, often moving demonstration of the Pinakapani bani, a style that has won the brothers a steadily growing fan base.

The ragam-tanam-pallavi in Gaurimanohari was immaculately executed with the lyrics of the pallavi paying homage to the Trinity in the ragas of Tyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis, Dikshitar’s pancha bhootalinga sthala compositions and Syama Sastry’s three swarajatis.

The accompaniment was a delightful adjunct to this pleasant concert, with Embar Kannan’s creative juices flowing in a steady, controlled stream with his wonted artistry in exploring little-known crevices of a raga. KV Prasad was at his melodious best on the mridangam and Udipi Sridhar the co-percussionist did full justice to his upapakkavadya role. The tani was outstanding, with Prasad leading the way with panache.

Ranjani-Gayatri and OS Thyagarajan were in mid-season form among the seniors, with thunderous applause for the sisters’ rendering of ragam-tanam-pallavi in Subhapantuvarali bringing the roof down, while Bombay Jayashri captivated her audience with the unexpectedness of her ragam-tanam-pallavi in Jog.

Among the newly promoted seniors, Nisha Rajagopalan delivered the high quality music we have come to expect from her, and Amritha Murali strove hard without quite reaching her best, yet touching hearts with the sheer musicality of her output.

Among the younger vocalists, Sandeep Narayan celebrated his higher status in the Academy hierarchy with a vivacious concert, while Ramakrishnan Murthy was another highly appreciated junior, with Bharat Sundar not far behind. Bharathi Ramasubban and Vignesh Ishwar (vocal) and JB Sruthi Sagar (flute) were very impressive among the juniors.

(More concert coverage and focus on accompanists in the next issue)

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Sruti February 2013

The Music Academy’s dance festival has been an important step forward in the conduct of dance performances in this part of the world. For starters, it is one of the few festivals offering the dancer sufficient remuneration to at least cover costs, and provide an aesthetically pleasing performance space with more than adequate facilities. The audience actually pays good money to watch these programmes conducted with professional efficiency, and in turn gets to witness a reasonable range of genres of dance from different parts of India with a neat balance of solo and group offerings. Sruti’s correspondents may have criticism and suggestions to offer in future issues, but the consensus is that despite its shortcomings, the series is one of the best things to happen to classical dance in Tamil Nadu in a long while. The buzz around it has rarely been matched outside of the Kalakshetra art festival in its heyday.

Kalakshetra is one institution that has managed to hold on to much of its value system through the decades, though some may complain of falling standards. Even its worst critics will agree that successive directors since the passing of Rukmini Devi Arundale have somehow managed to prevent serious inroads into the quality of instruction or dilution of the processes initiated by the founder.

Similar islands of excellence do exist elsewhere, and it will be condescending on our part to offer gratuitous advice to the dance world, but the ground reality of the dance teaching and performance scene is by and large depressing. Many dancers are dancers not because they see a good career in dancing (there is none), but because it is something some parents believe daughters should do as an additional qualification. (We are not going into the world of male dancers). It is an expensive proposition, not least because dancers must pay organisers for opportunities to perform, with ostensibly no viable revenue model to support dance. 

Ironically, there is steady demand for dance teachers because young people, mostly girls, still want to learn dance and every dancer who has paid her way through her performing career can for the first time earn some money through teaching dance.

Even with all the prevalent activity around it, and all the pious proclamations about how divine this art is, the probability of randomly walking into a good dance programme is significantly lower than that of attending a good music concert. However, thanks to widespread naivete of the emperor’s new clothes variety, the probability of said dance programme receiving a favourable review is not significantly lower. On the flip side, criticism can be harsh and unjustified if equally uninformed.

It is difficult not to come to the sad conclusion that much ado is made about precious little in our dance world, where unlike in the sporting arena, there are no rules to identify winners or losers. Mediocrity often masquerades as merit, and we are easily lulled into a false sense of complacency about the state of our dance. There seem to be no clearly defined criteria to determine what constitutes good dance, no yardsticks to measure excellence and no attempts to condemn poor taste. 

These observations have been made in a constructive spirit after discussing the issues with many concerned artists and art-lovers..