Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Sruti editorial, May 2013

From the Editor

Yet another Titan of the world of Carnatic music has passed away. Though Lalgudi G Jayaraman had not been in the best of health for a couple of years now, news of his death has been received with shock and disbelief by his legion of followers.

So many senior musicians, many of them octogenarians, paid condolence visits to the Lalgudi home—as they did, not long ago, when fellow violin maestro M.S. Gopalakrishnan passed away. It was a moving experience to witness the genuine emotion and profound sense of loss exhibited by these veterans, but it also gave us much food for thought—about how close to the end of their own innings some of them are.

Despite age and infirmity, there is much music and wisdom in the best of these grand old elder statesmen (and ladies). It is up to us to ensure the documenting and dissemination of their ripe knowledge. Fortunately, Chennai has in recent years seen a surge in the number of private and public initiatives in this regard. In the case of Lalgudi Jayaraman, the Sruti Foundation conducted a seminar  in the 1990s on his music, spearheaded by Dr N Ramanathan, musician and musicologist, and now a member of Sruti’s advisory board. Its recording constitutes a valuable resource for musicians and music scholars.

Much valuable work was done in the area of documenting and recording for posterity some of the riches of the vanishing heritage in classical and folk music by Sampradaya, the pioneering Chennai-based archival institution, which has in recent years languished for want of funding. With some of our greatest artists already in the late evening of their lives, we need to strengthen the hands of such institutions, lest we are forced to rely on our memories to retain the authenticity of our musical traditions.

With the passing away of Lalgudi Jayaraman, one of the most iconic and charismatic of the Carnatic musicians of the last century, we have lost a traditionalist not averse to innovation, especially as a composer, and whose interests included collaborative endeavour, both with other musicians and in dance compositions. He was one of those responsible for the spread of Carnatic music beyond the cognoscenti and for drawing young listeners into its fold. He leaves behind devoted disciples and many admirers among young musicians devastated by the loss. While Sruti’s coverage of the Lalgudi legacy has been extensive and in depth, we hope to revisit it in a fitting manner in our June issue. 

Kittappa Pillai 

It continues to be the season of centenarians. While we at Sruti are still catching up with acknowledging artists who completed a hundred last year, we are happy to feature in this issue a tribute to Bharatanatyam guru Kittappa Pillai, a descendant of the Tanjore Quartet, by our senior associate Nandini Ramani. We are also happy to reproduce in Pages from the Past a comprehensive article on Kittappa Pillai written by the late S Ramaswamy, an assistant editor of Sruti then. The first Indian branch manager of Burmah Shell, Ramaswamy was an ardent devotee of Tyagaraja’s music, and offered much wise counsel to the Sruti editorial team in its earliest days. As the grandfather of Bharatanatyam dancer Srividya Natarajan, he came to know her guru Kittappa Pillai quite closely. This happens to be Ramaswami’s centenary year, too.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Saroja Vaidyanathan receives Padma Bhushan

Saroja Vaidyanathan, senior Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher,  received the Padma Bhushan award from the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, on 20th April at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Saroja who learnt Bharatanatyam from Guru Lalitha at the Saraswati Gana Nilayam in Chennai, and later from natyacharya Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai, also studied Carnatic music under Prof. P. Sambamoorthy at Madras University, and obtained a D.Litt in dance from the Indira Kala Sangeet Viswavidyalaya, Khairagarh. She is the founder-director of Ganesa Natyalaya in Delhi, where she has trained a number of dancers.She has authored several books on dance and music including 'The Science of Bharatanatyam', 'Carnataka Sangeetham', 'Bharatanatyam: An In-depth Study', and 'Classical Dances of India'.

Saroja is the recipient of several honours including the Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman from the Government of Delhi, the Kalaimamani title from the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram, Padma Shri from the government of India, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Kalidas Samman from the State Government of Madhya Pradesh.The Padma Bhushan is the latest feather in her cap.

Mysore Subramanya honoured

Mysore V. Subramanya, senior critic and musicologist was recently conferred Honorary Professorship by the Tumkur University. Prof. Subramanya, grandson of the great vainika Veena Seshanna, is the recipient of many awards including the Critic's Award from the Karnataka State Academy, Senior Fellowship of HRD, and Sangeeta Kalaratna from the Gayana Samaja, Bangalore.

Sudha Raghunathan enthralls audience in NY

By Prakash M Swamy

NEW YORK: The Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Committee and Jana Seva hosted the Morning Raga fusion concert featuring noted Carnatic singer Sudha Ragunathan and six other renowned artists in New York.

Sudha Raghunathan, a star among Carnatic musicians in India, was joined in the concert by Amit Heri, the lead guitarist, Keith Peters on bass guitar, Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan on mridangam, Raghavendra Rao on violin, Arun Kumar on drums and Guru Prasad on ghatam. They blended Carnatic and Jazz music in a fine woven of melody.

The passion, experience and golden voice of Sudha Raghunathan blending with the dexterity of Amit Heri on the lead guitar and the musical creativity of other leading accompanists created an eclectic fusion of modern and classical music. The concert helped Sudha to have a conversation with her rasikas through the music who have drawn from various nationalities and age groups. The fusion ensemble was something unique to the Carnatic music lovers of New York metro area who are used to the traditional ragam, thanam and pallavi concerts.

Sudha started the concert with a sloka followed by the kriti on Lord Ganesha - Maha Ganapathim Manasa Swarami in raag Nattai. She then sang Maathe in dharu varnam in the raga Khamas and followed it up with India Funk in raag abhogi that kept the audience tapping their feet.

She transported her fans to a new world when she sang the traditional number Thaaye Yashodha in raag thodi and after intermission sang the very popular Kannada song - Krshna nee begane baro -and then the popular Telugu number Brahmam okate.

Sudha sang Peace which was Amit’s composition in raag Hamsadhwani and enthralled the fans with the ever-popular English note and ended the concert with Seetha Kalyana Vaibhogame, Bhagyadhalakshmi and Kurai Onrum Illai kanna composed by Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari and sung by M S Subbulakshmi at the United Nations in 1967. She completed the three-hour concert with the thillana of Dr. Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna in the raag Brindavani.

Sudha has a distinctly stunning voice with which she has ignited musical imagination and spirit across languages, frontiers and ideologies. Her deep relish for tradition and mystical old world charm is cloyingly addictive. As the heir apparent of her guru the legendary M L Vasanthakumari, Sudha has succeeded in holding aloft her guru’s banner while simultaneously imbuing her style with her own innovations such as The Morning Raga.

She was invited to sing Vande Mataram at the Central Hall of Parliament in New Delhi in 2000 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Republic of India. She was honored by the Government of India with Padma Shri for her contribution to Indian music.

One of India’s biggest names in jazz fusion music, Amit has shared and worked with numerous internationally renowned artists including Charlie Mariano, Robert Miles, Angelique Kidjo, George Brooks, Matt Garrison and Zakir Hussain.

Born into a family of percussionists, Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan was initiated into mridangam at the age of six and now he is one of the top percussionists playing for legends such as Dr M Bala Murali Krishna, K J Yesudas, Dr. N. Ramani and those seniors such as late M L Vasanthakumari, Maharajapuram Santhanam, D.K. Pattammal and K V Narayanaswamy. His playing style is characterized by melodic richness, technical dexterity and balanced use of left and right sides.

Keith Peters is the best base guitarist in India today and Chennai-based Peters is a veteran of over five thousand live gigs and played over thousand songs. He worked with composers such as A R Rahman.

Jana Seva is a New York-based non-profit organization that aims to construct homes for orphans and destitute children in India so that these hapless children get the best education they deserve and contribute to the development of India. The first such center is being opened in Mullai, Jolarpet in Tamil Nadu.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman is no more

By V Ramnarayan

Lalgudi G Jayaraman, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th Century, passed away today at Chennai. He was 82.

Jayarama, who was tutored and mentored by his father Lalgudi Gopala Iye,  is survived by his wife, son and daughter.  GJR Krishnan and  GJR Vijayalakshmi, his two children,  both his disciples as well have been carrying forward the family tradition of nuanced  violin  playing.

Hailing from Lalgudi in Tiruchi district, Jayaraman accompanied some of the greatest names in Carnatic music, always the perfect accompanist who nevertheless left his own unique imprint on every concert. With his inimitable Lalgudi bani he was the hearthrob of a whole generation of rasikas who thronged his solo concerts and his team efforts with sister Srimathi Brahmanandam, and later with Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi.

Lalgudi was a versatile composer too, his tillanas in particular proving to be the favourite of every Bharatanatyam dancer of repute. 

A Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (2010), Jayaraman received the Padma Bhushan Award from the Indian government in 2001. 

The music Lalgudi composed for the feature film Sringaram won him a national award in 2006. Overlooked by the Music Academy for the Sangita Kalanidhi in his prime, Jayaraman stopped performing there. The Academy more than made up by honouring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first in its history, in 2008.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A close friend of Lalgudi Jayaraman

By Akhila Srinivasan

The chairman of the Shriram Group, R Thyagarajan, has been a great patron of the arts and several good causes in his own quiet style for decades now. Carnatic music has been a major beneficiary. A close friend and associate of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, Thyagarajan makes no secret of his extraordinary admiration for Jayaraman’s musical prowess. In fact, he has often publicly stated that music for him begins and ends with Lalgudi.

Thyagarajan was recently a recipient of the national award of Padma Bhushan. We reproduce below a slightly edited version of a tribute to him by Akhila Srinivasan.

R. Thyagarajan, fondly known as RT, is a Padma Bhushan awardee today. Those close to RT know the enormous persuasion they had to exert on him to accept this exceptional honour. Not that he disagrees with such symbolic affirmatives, but because his life is so simple that the limelight does not fit in to the scheme of his beautifully simple narrative of life. And finally when he relented to accept this honour it was only for the reason that this moment of national recognition could further catalyse the Shriram Group which he founded and guides to raise its own bar in reaching out to the community. For RT, the ultimate end of business and enterprise building has always remained empowering of the community through economic freedom, sustained education, scientific advancement and cultural development. In a globalised and highly competitive corporate world whose greed, opulence and pomposity have come to cloud the liberating splendor of wealth making, R. Thyagarajan represents the audacity of an ancient civilization with unalterable coding of simplicity, dedication, detachment, integrity and common good.

Here is a man blessed with a sharp intellect, business acumen and an awe-inspiring capacity for structured reasoning who built the Shriram Group from a small non-banking financial entity to one of India’s leading business conglomerates. But what stands out as striking is the shining simplicity of the person who remains completely untouched by the spectacular business success. A man whose material needs are bare minimal and wants literally nothing. Almost all his wealth has been given away to the community. Never one to project or profile himself, he did all the giving quietly, befitting the spiritual dictum of true giving - let the left hand not know what the right hand is giving. The list of the good causes and public initiatives he has supported are too many to make a legion.

Endowed with sterling human qualities, Thyagarajan is always a man of edifying composure. Never one to get carried away by subjective human emotions, his inner self is simply wired to be a living template of calmness, dignity, grace and fairness. He has consistently maintained a high degree of fairness and righteous magnanimity in dealing with people. His understanding of human nature is so fine and profound that people who go to him come back unburdened, reconciled and in peace.

To that extent, the greatest contribution of RT to nation building is his generous and committed support as well as trusting mentorship to venturing entrepreneurs with ideas. He is one corporate leader who gives budding entrepreneurs the freedom to fail as well. Without this fundamental commitment of trust in entrepreneurship, the Shriram Group would not be what it is today.

With the Padma Bhushan award, RT joins the exceptional league of extraordinary citizens. But the truth is he will remain the same as ever, utterly unaffected by this rare honour. However it is our responsibility to institutionalize the life of this amazing personality as an enduring source of inspiration for generations to come.

A Kshetra in North Chennai

By V Ramnarayan

Attending the tenth annual art festival of the Rukminidevi Natyakshetra Foundation based in Anna Nagar West Extension was a memorable, hope-giving experience. Over three evenings, the art school showcased the offerings of its students—in the form of an art exhibition, song and dance. On the first day, it presented an instrumental ensemble followed by the dance drama Azhagar Kuravanji. Over the next two evenings, the audience was treated to music in the cutcheri format, choral singing by the younger children and margam exposition by students of varied ages. Some of the painting exhibits including realistic depictions of nature and still life would have done adult artists proud.

I was a guest on the last evening, and was hugely impressed by how faithfully young S Premnath, the founder of the foundation, has tried to recreate the ambience and good taste of Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra in this distant outpost of Chennai, so far removed from Mylapore and Adyar, the acknowledged centres of classical performing arts in this part of the country.

“I know for myself that the real Natya is Ananda, the Ananda of the higher self, not the lower self.” Quoting these words of Rukmini Devi, arts activist VR Devika has said about Premnath, “He is trying to impart the full import of the above statement in his Natyakshetra, which he established and conducts in a deeply reverential manner, to bring in a taste of the beauty of the art he learnt at Kalakshetra.”

As I watched the sincere and aesthetically pleasing efforts of the students of the school, the thought ran through my mind that if every Indian child were exposed to such learning, the country would be a vastly better place.

I found this very thought echoed by the principal SK Saraswathi in her note in the festival commemoration volume. She says: “At a time when terrorism, selfishness and greed are destroying man’s essential nature, I appeal to teachers, parents and students to join this selfless institution in its mission of moulding man through the arts.”

It was a truly inspiring experience to witness the change Premnath and his team have wrought in an urban milieu. They offer us hope in these turbulent times.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Connecting People Through Music

A successful conference at Boston

By Shuchita Rao

Boston based Learnquest Academy of Music, whose mission is to connect people through music, hosted its eighth Indian classical music conference between 25 and 31 March. Learnquest offers lessons in Hindustani and Carnatic vocal and instrumental music through the year and has conducted successful conferences for eight years in a row drawing visitors from all over the USA.

After a lec-dem-heavy opening leg, the conference segued into a stellar series of back-to-back music recitals featuring more than 20 Hindustani and Carnatic artists from India. The first night took place at a packed music hall within the Berklee College of Music and was marked with a strong presence of people of non-Indian origin. Purnaprajna Bangere, a disciple of HK Narasimhamurthy and grand disciple of the late MS Gopalakrishnan gave an introduction to the Indian system of ragas as well as a competent demonstration of how a pentatonic raga such as Mohanam or Bhoop is treated in the Carnatic and Hindustani styles. Praveen Sheolikar of Bhopal followed next with an authentic presentation of raga Gorakh Kalyan in the Hindustani style. The two artists ended with a sonorous jugalbandi accompanied by Amit Kavthekar on tabla.

Next day, Warren Senders conducted an interactive question answer session on the subject of improvisation in khayal at MIT. Questions ranged from “What do the hand gestures that accompany your singing mean?” to “How do you teach good aesthetics in improvisation to students?”

On Wednesday, 27 March, I gave a lecture-demonstration on thumri with live demonstration of bandish and bol-banao thumris and allied folk forms such as dadra, kajri, chaiti and hori. I also projected several movie clips of performance recordings of master thumri singers such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Shobha Gurtu, Girija Devi and Kathak dance to self composed thumri by Birju Maharaj.

A festival of music performances began two days later at the Regis College auditorium in the scenic town of Weston, a prominent suburb of Boston where Learnquest has held its conferences for the past seven years. A sense of peace, tranquillity and shared contentment pervaded the atmosphere. Carnatic vocal music by M Balamurali Krishna, the Priya Sisters and Malladi Brothers, and the Sankara ensemble, violin by Purnaprajna Bangere and flute by V.K Raman were complemented by performances in Hindustani recitals by Arati Ankalikar, Uday Bhawalkar and Anand Bhate (vocal), Praveen Sheolikar (violin), Shahid Parvez Khan (sitar), and a grand santoor-tabla finale by Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain.

While kritis, tillanas, bhajans and compositions by several famous composers including the Trinity regaled Carnatic music lovers, a variety of Hindustani genres such as Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Thumri, Dadra, Hori, Tappa and Abhang pleased the Hindustani enthusiasts. Since all the performances took place at a single location, (Regis College), music lovers from different parts of the world got to experience the two mainstreams of Indian classical music under one roof. Connoisseur Prof. Marc Rossi of Berklee College of Music sitting to my right effortlessly identified raga after raga and a relative layman, Hui Zhong of Taiwan, sitting to my left, meditated while listening to the music performances. Music lovers engaged in discussions on subjects like voice culture, gharana gaayaki, and ragas and talas common to both the Carnatic and Hindustani systems. Photographs and spontaneous critiques of performances this year as well as comparisons on performances from the past years flooded Facebook.

It became evident that the shared experience of listening and ensuing conversations not only gave tremendous satisfaction to music lovers of all ages but also led to learning more about Indian heritage, culture and important Indian traditions. A useful workshop of vocal music designed for junior and senior students of Carnatic vocal music was attended by 40 students who learned beautiful kritis taught patiently by the accomplished Malladi Brothers. “I enjoyed learning music - it was fun” said Sreya Sankar, a third grader residing in Framingham, a suburb of Boston.

The grand finale of the Learnquest 2013 conference was held on the evening of Sunday March 31 at the famed opera style Sanders theatre in Harvard University. Veteran santoor player Shivkumar Sharma was deeply immersed in spinning out a sequence of imaginative alap in raga Kaushik Dhwani when Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna who had just entered the recital hall walked up to the stage to greet him. Shivkumar Sharma briefly stopped playing and warmly reciprocated the greeting. Obviously, music holds the supreme power to dissolve geographical boundaries and bring people of different traditions together. In a fitting ending to the festival, Learnquest Academy’s mission of connecting people through music came alive at this precious moment.

Purnima eclipsed

A tribute to Purnima Chaudhuri

By Meena Banerjee

At the peak of a busy music career, top-ranking thumri exponent Purnima Chaudhuri breathed her last on 4 March 2013. She had an exceptionally busy season this winter and a number of concerts were lined up across the globe. She was held in high esteem for her music as well as her simple, genuinely affectionate nature.

When sitar maestro Ravi Shankar went to tabla wizard Mahadev Prasad Mishra to persuade him to teach Lakshmi Shankar thumri, Mishra asked him to go to Purnima Chaudhuri, one of his disciples who, according to him, had mastered his style of Purab anga thumri in its pristine form. It was high praise coming from a dhrupad exponent, a wonderful harmonium player, a master of thumri and above all an extremely successful guru who shaped several disciples including veteran tabla maestro Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay, shehnai players Anantlal and his son Dayashankar, and violinist Dr. N. Rajam.

Benares was then on the world map because of the presence of legends like Ravi Shankar, tabla and shehnai maestros Kishan Maharaj and Bismillah Khan. Purnima was noticed immediately by the local music circle which could hardly boast of newcomers in thumri singing. She won the ‘Top grade’ of Akashvani and was invited for National Programmes of Doordarshan. Very soon she began receiving invitations from prestigious organisations in different parts of the country. Film Director Gautam Ghosh focused his camera for one of his films on this unassuming thumri singer while depicting a floating sit-in on a huge bajra – a typical Benares scene of yore. Rituparno Ghosh used her voice in his hit film Chokher Bali. Purnima Chaudhuri was perhaps the first Bengali who, despite hailing from a conservative family, scaled the peaks of authentic Purab anga thumri gayaki – a genre hitherto dominated by professional singers.

Born on 28 January 1945 at Behrampur in West Bengal, Purnima was the youngest daughter of renowned lawyer Shashanka Shekhar Sanyal. Her passion for music was noticed by her mother who encouraged her to enter the world of the radio station while on a tour of the city of Calcutta in the 1950s. So Purnima stayed back with her law-practitioner elder sister for schooling and to learn classical music from renowned vocalist and guru A. Kanan. She was barely four when her musical journey began. But according to her, she was a late starter, as she was married off at 17! And as usual, a happy marriage meant lots of give and take. Purnima, as a young bride, made Bilaspur (Madhya Pradesh) her home with her husband, caring mother-in-law and two sons. Her first love, music, took a back seat, though at parties they attended. Her husband was a popular harmonica player. Her mother-in-law played the organ and sang Rabindra Sangeet and popular devotional songs. She once asked Purnima what she liked in classical music, which had hardly any lyrics! This was a turning point and Purnima soon learnt some light numbers to please her affectionate in-laws and local listeners. Some devotional numbers thus found a place in her enviable repertoire. But that happened much later when after almost after a decade the family migrated to Benares, the former mecca of thumri and she met Pandit Mahadev Prasad Mishra. By then her boys were grown up enough to let their mother pursue her music with renewed enthusiasm.

This time Purnima ventured to blend intangible classicism with tangible lyrics – and what better genre than the thumri! At the feet of her guru Purnima found a fantastic world of sur-taal-laya and sahitya steeped in the culture of the Hindi heartland of India. By this time she was more than comfortable with Hindi. She took to it like a fish to water and very soon emerged as a thumri exponent who could handle the intricacies of rhythm like no other – not even Girija Devi who became her mentor after the demise of her guru. He had instilled in her the rhythm-encrusted bol-baant ki thumri (melodic divisions of lyrics) inspired by dhrupad-dhamar, laggi (the exciting tailpiece or interlude of light classical genres) and tappa replete with chiselled loop-taans with pin-point accuracy in rhythmic designs.

During the ITC SRA Sangeet Sammelan in 1998, unseasonal heavy rains delayed the schedule. Though Purnima was not so well-known in Calcutta circles, she captivated the listeners who had turned up in large numbers to listen to renowned flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in the final slot. Purnima’s gayaki reflected the exuberance of her fun-loving persona – so very different from Girija Devi’s slower, peaceful style. This success made her famous and encouraged the Chaudhuris to shift base to Kolkata by 2000. Soon enough Purnima became a most sought-after guru, who took great care in teaching this light classical genre as well as the culture associated with it. She was among the most easily approachable masters of this widely loved melodic form in Bengal. Her mischievous smile invariably lit up her eyes and added a twinkle, infusing indomitable optimism. She would giggle like a small girl at any given opportunity – while grooming her students, even during her stage shows, when she had to turn her face away from her listeners to take puffs to keep her nagging asthma at bay.

Purnima’s disciples looked up to her as their loving aunt, `Pishi’, who would lovingly address their emotional problems. She helped each student flower according to his or her individuality. Her success as a guru was evident when, as a member of the jury of the pan-Indian Purab Anga Gayaki Utsav 2011, I found a cluster of her students climbing the top slot with perceptible ease and winning the prestigious ‘Girija Devi Puraskar’ instituted by the famed VSK Baithaks (Delhi).

Through her organisation ‘Swar Ganga’, she strove to celebrate the seasonal moods with their authentic Banarasi flavour, and the festival of Holi was one such occasion.

Now, Purnima, the full moon of the world of thumris has been eclipsed forever and gone. It is hard to believe that someone as lively and strong-willed as Purnima could have given up on life after a brief tussle with illness. Her sudden demise has left the music fraternity shell-shocked.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

A gentle colossus

SK Saxena (1921-2013)

By V Ramnarayan

When Sruti congratulated Professor Sushil Kumar Saxena on his being conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Ratna award in 2007, his reply was characteristically modest and self-effacing. By that time his health no longer allowed him to contribute articles to us, and he was unable to travel to Chennai during our silver jubilee celebration in October 2008, when we planned to honour him as one of our seniormost associates. We continued to hold him in the highest respect, as did musicians, dancers, musicologists, philosophers, aestheticians, and critics everywhere for his original insights into the arts.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi citation of 2007 is a fine tribute to the many-splendoured accomplishments of Prof. Saxena, who passed away recently.

Born in 1921 in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, Sushil Kumar Saxena is a noted philosopher of arts who has distinguished himself as a writer on Hindustani music and Kathak dance. From 1948 to 1986, when he retired as Professor, Saxena taught philosophy at the Delhi University, focusing on the study of aesthetics for most of his academic career. Once a music critic with the Hindustan Times, he is known also as an expert interlocutor who has engaged performing artists in extended conversations on their art, recorded in archives of music and dance. An illuminating speaker on the arts, he has made a mark as a creator of new compositions for Kathak dance.

After his retirement, Dr. Saxena has worked ceaselessly on research projects on Hindustani music and Kathak dance. He has published his work in philosophical journals such as Diogene, the British Journal of Aesthetics, Kant Studien, Il Veltro, and Philosophy East and West. In India his articles have appeared in Marg, the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, the Indian Philosophical Quarterly, Sruti magazine, and Sangeet Natak — to which his contributions have been the most copious.

His pioneering books on the aesthetics of Indian music and dance include The Winged Form: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm (1979), Swinging Syllables, Aesthetics of Kathak Dance (1991, reprint 2006), Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians (1994), and Hindustani Sangeet and a Philosopher of Art (2001). Saxena’s latest aesthetical work Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today, is currently under publication by Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Saxena has been honoured by various institutions for his scholarly contributions in the performing arts. The Sahitya Kala Parishad of Delhi conferred on him its Samman for 1995-96, and Sangeet Natak Akademi bestowed on him its SNA Award for scholarship in the performing arts in 2004. He recently received the state honour of Padma Bhushan (2008) for his contribution to the arts.

Dr. Saxena was variously described as the best known philosopher of modern India after Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the only professional philosopher to publish books and articles on Hindustani music, rhythm and Kathak dance over a period of five decades, all of them in a contemporary aesthetics perspective, and a prolific recipient of awards and honours for his scholarly contributions as a philosopher/ aesthetician in the fields of music, rhythm and dance. From “Studies in the Metaphysics of Bradley” and “Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians” to “Gandhi and the Commitment to truth” and “Suffering, the Good Life and Gandhi”, his books, articles and research papers covered a wide range of subjects across disciplines.

The world-renowned aesthetician Suzanne K. Langer once wrote to him: “I feel that you have understood what I have actually said. Perhaps your Indian background is more conducive to understanding than our Western habits of thought. I am sorry that we have never met each other.”  It will be my lasting regret that I  never met Dr. Saxena either. He was a towering figure in his field, but by all accounts a gentle colossus.  A great loss to  the worlds of art and philosophy.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Team players

By V Ramnarayan

I was a participant not long ago in a debate on Facebook initiated by vocalist Lakshmi Sreeram who asked, “Why did the violin not emerge as an accompaniment in Khayal as it did so successfully in Carnatic music?” A few opinions were duly offered and trashed or appreciated based on the debater’s place in music and understanding of the situation prevailing in both the southern and northern systems of music. Lakshmi herself is in the (un) enviable position of being an accomplished performer in both streams, but some of the others were naturally limited by their preferences and domain knowledge. I posited two basic arguments: first that the few Hindustani violinists, especially those of high quality, perhaps do not want to play second fiddle, preferring to be solo artists; second that it may be time to provide accompanying violinists in Carnatic music greater openings to display their art, their creativity. I suggested a jugalbandi format in which the vocalist and the violinist appear on stage as equals, as if they were a vocal or instrumental duo. It is a variation from the usual concert structure I have thought of and even discussed with some musicians who are not averse to the idea—purely as an interesting occasional alternative, no more. Lakshmi Sreeram was quick to point out that I might not find too many musician takers for my idea, and she is probably right. She also mentioned how great musicians through the decades have collaborated in a spirit of teamwork to produce great music. Again there can be no quarrel with her statement. Great partnerships on stage have always been the prime reason for the success of Carnatic music concerts.

My jugalbandi idea is based entirely on the assumption that the vocalist and violinist are of equally high calibre; they must also be perfect team players. It cannot work between two people bent upon upstaging each other, a not uncommon practice in the past, if not now. At any rate, there is no likelihood that such a pair will ascend the stage to perform in tandem as equals. My whole thinking on the subject was prompted by some idle speculation on my part on the psychology of an accompanist. Does a violinist, who has spent a lifetime perfecting his art, not feel the urge occasionally to express himself with freedom, untrammelled by pakka vadya dharmam? How does he get to do that in the absence of solo concert opportunities, as is the case nowadays?

The answer to my question is probably provided in Lakshmi Sreeram’s assertion. When a vocalist and a violinist perform together without their egos interfering with the satisfactory execution of a concert plan, both artists can give free vent to their creativity, with of course the lead artist—the vocalist—setting the agenda. The more generous vocalists even allow the violinist to lead the way with his or her own ideas; give and take would about sum it up.

Some of our musicians are known to make undying declarations of humility, on the primacy of the vocalist, on the clearly supporting role they themselves play. This, like the much-celebrated virtue of guru bhakti which sometimes seems overdone, makes you wonder how the artist ever works up the motivation to express himself. Yet, great violinists like Lalgudi Jayaraman or TN Krishnan have always managed to produce glorious manodharma essays without breaching the code of the accompanist. For example, the duration of their raga alapana is invariably shorter than the time taken for the same purpose by the vocalist, but that does not curtail their creativity.

I am not fond of drawing parallels between music and sport (cricket, to be more specific as I played the game as a professional), but for once my ruminations on this subject took me to paradigms that make the game so great. Like other team games, cricket allows the individual to give the fullest expression to his own talent, even compete with a teammate, yet contribute to the team’s cause. I remember watching from close quarters the iconic Pakistan fast bowling pair Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz competing fiercely with each other while bowling in tandem. Each was openly trying to prove better than the other, but the net result was agony for the opposing batsmen, ecstasy for their own team. The famed Indian spinners were fine team men but each of them was also extremely proud of his art. They again operated in friendly combat among themselves to the team’s advantage. This was even more obvious when two of the same kind played together—for example Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, both off-spinners for South Zone.

Another wonderful example of team spirit in cricket is a partnership between a top order batsman and a tailender—when the senior must forego singles while farming the strike, and the other batsman has to be content with defence and handing over the strike to the specialist batsman. I have also been witness to superb displays of sportsmanship in the team’s cause, when a younger, fitter batsman takes on the quicker bowlers, to enable an ageing but more accomplished batsman to thrash the less dangerous bowlers.

Coming back to the subject under discussion, I was a lucky listener at a recent vocal concert by veteran Suguna Purushottaman, who, a little under the weather, had to exercise considerable restraint, especially when her voice was challenged by the demands of manodharma. As is her wont, she was all smiling and cheerful encouragement to her accompanists, who rose to the occasion in a true spirit of cooperation. While J Vaidhyanathan and BS Purushottam were delightfully nuanced in their understated percussion support, Dr R Hemalatha proved yet again what a perfect accompanist she can be. She played follow-the-leader with scrupulous care, but blossomed in her own manodharma forays. She is one violinist who seems to have mastered the art of aligning her style with that of the main artist without any diminution in her own creative explorations.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Sugandham Sangeetam

By Vivadi

An unusual thematic concert by vocal duo Lakshmi Rangarajan and Savita Narasimhan.

Though they began with the introduction that bhakti remains the indispensable and major element in Carnatic music, vocalists Savita Narasimhan and Lakshmi Rangarajan showed in their choice of theme that this devotion could indeed be approached from a different angle.

More, it could feature not only divine love, but also give a glimpse of human love, depicted in the exquisite verses of poets like Kalidasa.

Sugandham Sangeetam (at Hamsadhwani, Indiranagar, Chennai) began with a Saundarya lahari image of the goddess bathed in ethereal fragrance. This recital of two hours and 45 minutes highlighted the many facets of adoration by evoking the scents associated with bhakti and romance.

Muthuswami Dikshitar proved to be the mainstay of the recital, right from the opening kriti Sri Matrubhutam in raga Kannada, where the consort of the deity is described as Sugandhi kuntalamba, the lady with the fragrant locks. In the elephantine pace of Chetasri Balakrishnam, the singers chose three apt lines referring to the olfactory experience, for alternating swaraprastara – navaneeta gandhavaha vadanam, navatulasivanamalam and nava champaka nasikam. The piece de resistance was another Dikshitar kriti in an unrivalled Hamirkalyani. What else but Parimala Ranganatham? The raga alapana was presented with the respect and detailed ornamentation commanded by so imposing a composition. The niraval and swaraprastara too unfailingly maintained this grandeur.

Less formidable pieces were interspersed with this solemn fare. Tyagaraja’s Tulasidala, listing the sacred flowers used in puja was introduced with a suitably reverent alapana of Mayamalavagowla by Savita Narasimhan, while Lakshmi Rangarajan undertook to paint a traditional Ritigaula before the playful Brindavana nilaye of Oothukadu Kavi, and Swati Tirunal’s faster Pahi sada pankajaksha was sandwiched adroitly in between.

Andal’s Karpuram naarumo came first after the tani interlude, followed by Jayadeva’s description of the heady perfumes of flower-filled woods in springtime. Dushyanta’s first sight of the lotus-like Sakuntala ended the feast of love.

The singers were lucky in their accompanists – R Hemalatha’s violin added incense, while J Vaidyanathan (mridangam) and Anirudh Athreya (khanjira) helped to spread the many different kinds of scents across the hall.

The vocalists acknowledged the contribution of Gowri Ramnarayan whose brainchild the theme was and who helped select the songs.

Despite the erratic acoustics which played havoc with volume and tone, the concert managed to offer pleasant and tasteful fare.

Monday, 15 April 2013

PB Srinivas

My favourite voice in Tamil film music

By V Ramnarayan

Art by S Sankaranarayana
His was a voice I liked way more than other voices in Tamil film music. In the 1960s when I first heard him, it came as a gust of fresh air in the midst of the strong tones of TMS, the unorthodox ones of Chidambaram Jayaraman and Tiruchi Loganathan, the nasal AL Raghavan and the slightly effeminate AM Raja. His was a likeness of Talat Mahmood, but somehow more resonant, if Talat fans will forgive me. In fact, PB Srinivas’s was my favourite voice in Tamil film music.

I first heard him in Paadai Teriyudu Paar and Aval Yaar, in which he sang the unforgettable Tennankeetru oonjalile and Naan tedumpothu nee odalama. He followed these during the heyday of A Bhim Singh-Viswanathan Ramamoorthi-Sivaji Ganesan, with his memorable numbers for Gemini Ganesan. I will not catalogue all his famous songs, but will of course mention the evergreen Ninaippadellam from Nenjil Oor Alayam.

What was special about PBS’s voice? It was a silken voice, unaffected and untramelled by artifice—an apparently trained voice, conversant with the nuances of raga music. I don’t know if he ever trained to be a classical musician, but he seemed so, the thousands of songs he composed in a variety of ragas more than sufficient proof of his knowledge of classical music. He was also obviously a linguist, so many languages did he compose and sing in.

From his stylish singing, I always assumed him to be a stylish person, and indeed some photographs I saw of him in his youth seemed to indicate an elegant, modern kind of person. When I, like many other regulars at Woodlands Drive-in restaurant started seeing him spending entire days there, surrounded by his unruly bundles of paper, composing away unmindful of the crowd, taking a break only when some admirer walked across to chat with him, I was slightly surprised to find him veering more and more towards almost ceremonial expressions of orthodoxy in his clothes and appurtenances. I don’t say this in disapproval—I have no right to—but disappointed that his appearance did not match my mental image of him. His commitment and volume of output were extraordinary. Here was a true karmayogi in full view (and unmindful) of an admiring, often intrigued public.

PBS was a complete rasika whose pleasure in listening to good music, especially Hindustani, he liked to share with fellow listeners, and sometimes the artist of the evening. I was present at two vocal concerts by Shantanu Bhattacharya during last year’s music season (or was it early 2013?) The first was at the Narada Gana Sabha mini hall, where the musician acknowledged PBS’s presence in the auditorium with reverence. The second concert was a private affair in Gandhinagar involving the climbing of a steep and winding staircase, which the indefatigable PBS negotiated without a second thought. He was ecstatic at the end of the concert and paid a handsome tribute to the young musician.

It was only long after Woodlands Drive-in was snatched away from us that I gathered the courage to walk up to him one evening to introduce myself as editor of Sruti. This was at the other open-air Woodlands cafeteria—at Narada Gana Sabha. I expressed my desire to feature him in the magazine and promised to call on him soon. He was kind enough to agree. Unfortunately, I kept postponing the visit thanks to other commitments, and now it is too late. Not only did I not do the story personally, it did not even occur to me to ask Vamanan, who has done major profiles for Sruti, of musicians involved in films, and who is working on a PBS biography, to do it. Vamanan will still hopefully write a tribute to PBS for us, but I am kicking myself for not making it happen in PBS’s lifetime.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

School Spotlight: ‘Mozart of Indian Music’ visits Middleton-Cross Plains : Wsj

School Spotlight: ‘Mozart of Indian Music’ visits Middleton-Cross Plains : Wsj

Alangudi Ramachandran

Who's Who in Indian Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

If today, ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram is synonymous with the ghatam, there was a time such giants as Tiruvilvamalai Vilvadri Iyer and Umayalpuram Kodandarama Iyer added lustre to the magic mudpot of Carnatic music. Alangudi Ramachandran was one such exponent of the ghatam, someone who made significant changes to its practice. K Ramachandran was born on 22 June 1912 at Koduntarapalli, Kerala and passed away on 15 June 1975. Learning the art of percussion and ghatam playing from Kuttalam Kuppuswami Pillai, Kuttalam Sivavadivelu Pillai and Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Ramachandran first ascended the performance stage as an accompanist of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. Even as a child, Ramachandran had unusual interest in music, percussion in particular, and after his father Krishna Iyer settled down at Alangudi, often walked a few miles to listen to radio concerts at Terezhundur town. Fascinated by the tavil prowess of Meenakshisundaram Pillai, he took up a job in a restaurant at Needamangalam to facilitate his joining him as a student. It was Pillai who persuaded him to take to the ghatam. Ramachandran later took lessons from mridanga vidwan Mayavaram Kuppuswami Pillai.

Big-made Ramachandran had the right physique, potbelly and all, for the effective demonstrative style of ghatam playing. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was very fond of him; he would not hesitate to add him as an unscheduled second ghatam artiste to his cutcheri ensemble. A believer in meaningful collaboration on stage, he underplayed his role if he thought it necessary for the success of a concert. Known for his precision fingering, “the sound of his fingers would resemble hitting with steel, that too on a Manamadurai ghatam” (Centenarians 2012, Chennai Fine Arts). Eventhough he used a very heavy ghatam, he invariably tossed it up for dramatic effect in concerts and composed special korvais for the act, according to mridanga vidwan TV Gopalakrishnan, a friend, colleague and admirer.

Among Ramachandran’s happy accomplishments was his longish stint as an accompanist of MS Subbulakshmi and popular musicians KB Sundarambal and MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatar. He had the rare blessing of dying in harness, immediately after his tani avartanam for a DK Jayaraman concert at Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bombay.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai

Who's Who in Indian Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

‘Fiddle’ VR Govindaraja Pillai was an important link between two eras of violin playing in Carnatic music: the time of Chowdiah, Papa Venkataramiah and Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and the period of the famed trio of superstars Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan. Born on 12 May 1912 at nearby Vazhuvur, the handsome violinist was known as Mayavaram.

There was music in the Pillai family. Uncle Vazhuvur Veeraswami Pillai, a nagaswara vidwan, was Govindarajan’s first music teacher and parent as well, after the boy was orphaned at the age of three. His aptitude for the violin took the lad first to Mayavaram Bhootalingam Pillai and later to the venerable Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai. He acquired yet another guru in Simizhi Sundarappa Iyer, from he learnt numerous kritis. Govindarajan eventually married Veeraswami Pillai’s daughter.

Starting with a concert in 1930 along with his guru Rajamanickam Pillai, Govindarajan grew up to be a leading violinist of the time, known especially for the beauty of his raga alapana essays—which on occasion tended to overshadow the efforts of the main artiste. Always strictly adhering to the grammar of Carnatic music, his accompaniment often elevated the concert to a higher plane. He was considered a perfect match to Madurai Mani Iyer with his sarvalaghu excellence, and equally comfortable accompanying the Alathur Brothers, known for their swara complexities. He could incorporate laya subtleties into the concerts of musicians innocent of them.

Govindaraja Pillai was known for his high principles, pleasant manners, total guru bhakti and devotion to God. He was scrupulous to the core in financial matters, even returning part of the fees if he felt he had been overpaid. With his students, he was kindness personified. One of his prime disciples Sikkil Bhaskaran—Kuttalam Vaidyalingam Pillai was another—is one pupil who remembers his gurukulavasam with him with affection and gratitude. In addition to lessons at home, he made his students practise during train travel, enjoying the whole process of learning. He took them to listen to many concerts.

While teaching at Annamalai University, Govindaraja Pillai tuned many kritis. His awards and honours included Asthana Vidwan of Travancore, Isai Perarignar and Kalaimamani. 

He passed away on 2 February 1979.


Carnatic Music Workshop by Prince Rama Varma


SWARASADHANA, is a two day Carnatic Music Workshop. There were many spontaneous ecstatic outpourings of poet composers of the past which remain largely unknown. These compositions have not been widely taught or heard sung on concert platforms. It is such “rare gems” that will be taught in this workshop.


SWARASADHANA will feature renowned Vocalist and Vainika- Prince Rama Varma, scion of the Royal Family of Travancore, who is a direct descendant of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. Besides being a concert artist and an organizer of music festivals, Prince Rama Varma is also a dedicated teacher. His workshops at Perla and Hyderabad were broadcast on SVBC Channel for well over 200 episodes, perhaps the longest run program of music classes on television.


Music students having vocal training upto Keertanam singing level.


May 11th and 12th, 2013, from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm with breaks for tea/lunch


P.A.C. Ramasamy Raja Hall, 2nd Floor, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, East Mada Street, Mylapore, Chennai – 600 004


Seats at the workshop are limited and enrolment would be on first-come first-served basis. For registration information please call 98408 04385 / 97910 17752 or write toswarasadhana2013@gmail.com.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Alathur Srinivasa Iyer

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

It is a sign of our times in a very Carnatic music sort of sense that the centenaries of so many musical luminaries are being observed, indication that many of the practitioners of the Ariyakudi concert format would have turned 100 over the last couple of years.

Celebrations were conducted worldwide in 2012 in memory of such great artists of the last millennium as Palghat Mani Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, T Brinda, and TK Rangachari.

Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar, Alathur Srinivasa Iyer of the Alathur Brothers, Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai and Alangudi Ramachandran were some of the other would-be century makers of last year.

Born on 21 January 1912 to Lakshmi Ammal and Angarai Sankara Srautigal at Ariyalur Trichy, AS Srinivasan was to reach the pinnacle of the Sangita Kalanidhi in Carnatic music as Alathur Srinivasa Iyer in 1965, a year after his younger vocal partner Sivasubramania Iyer, his guru Alathur Venkatesa Iyer’s son. And thereby hangs a tale that we’ll come to later in this account.

Srinivasa Iyer was one of eleven children. The Sankara Srautigal family lived in the tiny village of Angarai on the bank of the river Kaveri, very close to Srinivasan’s place of birth. Of the eleven children, three went on to pursue careers related to Carnatic music. Angarai Viswanatha Bhagavatar performed Harikatha, AS Panchapakesa Iyer wrote books on music and Trichy Raghavan became a mridanga vidwan.

It was Srinivasan’s deep interest in music as a member of the local bhajana groups that led to his first guru nagaswara vidwan Sivanandam Pillai taking him to Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, who had a formidable reputation as a music teacher. Srinivasan was only 12 then. He was to spend the next 12 years in gurukulavasam.

Venkatesa Iyer’s family had moved from their native Tiruvaiyaru to Alathur, where he acquired a rich repertoire of kritis. In time, Venkatesa Iyer shifted to Trichy, where he taught many students, some of whom went on to achieve success on the concert platform, or in the movies, as in the case of MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatar. Chengalpattu Ranganathan achieved greater fame as a teacher than as a performer. His son Sivasubramania Iyer or Subba Iyer and Srinivasa Iyer were to team up as possibly the greatest duo combination in Carnatic music as the Alathur Brothers. It is of course obvious that they were not siblings. The Brothers debuted at the Tyagabrahma Utsavam organised at Kanchipuram by Naina Pillai. The boys had been recommended by the venerable Kumbakonam Dakshinamurti Pillai.

The Alathur Brothers became famous for their mastery of the rhythmic aspect of music, their complex ragam-tanam-pallavi renderings, and their expertise in Tiruppugazh. To learn the intricacies of pallavis in chhanda talas and conquer the challenge of Tiruppugazh, they made a sabbatical visit to the Madras home of mridanga wizard Palani Subramaniam. They were so adept at these arts that they gave exclusive Tiruppugazh concerts. Palghat Mani Iyer was an admirer and willing accompanist of the Brothers.

The Music Academy originally announced the 1964 Sangita Kalanidhi award to Srinivasa Iyer, who insisted his guru’s son should first be so honoured. With Subba Iyer demurring, the problem was resolved by a draw of lots, which favoured the younger Subba Iyer. Srinivasa Iyer was to receive the award the following year, but before that Subba Iyer passed away. Srinivasa Iyer accepted his award with a heavy heart, but satisfied that his guru’s son had preceded him.

Srinivasa Iyer performed solo for the next 16 years, much encouraged by the support of Palghat Mani Iyer. His first concert without his erstwhile partner was at a Pillaiyar temple at Tanjavur, accompanied by Lalgudi Jayaraman and Palghat Mani Iyer. He was a caring teacher, who guided the likes of Chengalpattu Ranganathan, Tiruppunturutti Venkatesan and Bangalore Vijayalakshmi.

It was said of Srinivasa Iyer that music was his life and that Tyagaraja kritis were his worship. With a vast repertoire, he sang in a structured manner, unmindful of the need for applause on stage. He was an advocate of proportion and balance in concert music. Self-effacing to a fault, he did not believe in promoting his career. He was respectful and supportive of his accompanists all his life. He and his wife Parvati, daughter of Valadi Krishna Iyer, had five children.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Seethalakshmi Mami

By V Ramnarayan

The name Trivandrum Seethalakshmi popped up out of The Hindu’s entertainment announcements column. I started wondering if she was the same lady who taught my daughter Carnatic vocal music at Columbus, Ohio, and who went to great trouble to treat us to a traditional lunch a couple of years ago at her daughter’s home there during my visit to the US.

Seethalakshmi Mami is a most loving teacher, infinitely proud of her own guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer whose memory is her constant inspiration. With my daughter and wife away in New Delhi, I went alone to the concert that evening at Raga Sudha Hall in Mylapore. It was the same Seethalakshmi Mami all right, and she had excellent accompanists in Dr Hemalatha, J Vaidhyanathan and Anirudh Athreya, each of them a personal favourite of mine.

I had listened to Mami at her Columbus residence without accompaniment and heard my daughter’s rave notices about her teaching methods, her uncompromising adherence to the Semmangudi bani, and her deep guru bhakti. This was however the first concert of hers I was listening to. She did not disappoint me. There was something childlike and plaintive about her strong, bell-like voice and her impeccable diction. Her manodharma was astounding, every bit as creative and original as you would expect in a topnotch artiste.

It was a memorable concert in which Todi was the main raga featuring Gajavadana sammodita. Starting with a lovely Bilahari, she took us on a tour that included Vasanta, Suddhadhanyasi, Mukhari, Varali, Ritigaula, a wonderful ragamalika slokam, Behag, Hamsanandi and Surati.

People who know Seethalakshmi know that she is a self-effacing kind of person, unused to starry airs of any kind, but the attention she received after the concert from an astonished audience could have turned anybody’s head!

“How come we don’t get to listen to you during the season?” asked one admirer, leaving the singer literally speechless.

Here are a couple of excerpts from some of the reviews I found on rasikas.org:

" The team was just awesome. Pristine Semmangudi sangeetham at its best!” —Bharath.

“Such intensity! Such energy! Astonishing. She sang with the power and energy of a nagaswaram recital” — Nick H.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Akshay Anantapadmanabhan

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, an American citizen, has been residing in Chennai since last year. A mridanga vidwan, Akshay is happy to declare that his tutelage under his guru TH Subhash Chandran in the USA has been in the gurukula system. Apart from playing the mridangam, Akshay is also known to many as a talented khanjira and konnakol artist.

Akshay spoke to Sushma Somasekharan. Excerpts:

Akshay, what does being a musician mean to you?

I define myself as a performer, traditionalist and innovator. Being a mridangam, khanjira and konnakol artist in New York has given me the opportunity to perform with artists from varied genres. As a traditionalist, I am a Carnatic musician adhering to conventional practices and methods. The innovator in me explores new opportunities and conceives new ideas in both the Carnatic art form and other areas.

Why did you move to Chennai?

One of the main reasons behind moving to Chennai was to perform with more local musicians. In my opinion, however talented you may be, you can only be regarded as a successful Carnatic musician if you establish yourself in Chennai.

Also I wanted to be exposed to music at all times and Chennai was the best place for that to happen. I did not want music to be a weekend affair anymore. It is an enriching experience to listen to live concerts here, observe what the audience is looking for and how the senior artists package their concerts to cater to their tastes. I have been here for less than a year, but I can tell that I have improved tremendously from just being in this music environment.

You have performed with artists from various backgrounds. How popular are our Carnatic percussion instruments on the global front?

I feel there is not sufficient knowledge of the existence of Carnatic percussion; many are more familiar with the North Indian classical instruments like the sitar and the tabla. Konnakol remains unknown even to some of our Indian listeners!

Is this where your identity as an innovator comes in?

Yes, I try to think of ways of creating more awareness of Carnatic percussion. I want to introduce listeners to the potential of my instruments.

I was recently involved in a rhythm workshop in Abu Dhabi which brought together musicologists, neuroscientists, performers and many more to speak about rhythm from their points of view. At the end of the workshop was a musical diversity concert in which I performed with an Arabic percussionist, a Spanish percussionist and a Jazz drummer. When I was approached for this performance, the organisers themselves were not entirely sure what Carnatic percussion entailed.

For my segment, I did a creative kuraippu involving the mridangam, khanjira and konnakol in different nadais.

What was the audience’s reaction?

The audience was extremely receptive. I was pleasantly surprised. What I have learnt through experience is that any form of art is easy to follow if the artists present it in a simple and appealing manner. I explained Adi talam and nadai before I started on my segment. I also introduced konnakol and explained the verbal aspect to percussion, that it is our language of percussion.

You hold an engineering degree. Has that been beneficial for you in your understanding of rhythm?

It most definitely has. I have been involved with research in IIT Madras in Carnatic music and my engineering background allows me to appreciate the study more.

I published a paper, ‘Automated Stroke Transcription of the Mridangam’, which I will be presenting at a conference in Vancouver next month. I think it is the first scientific paper to be presented with the word mridangam in the title. My science background definitely aided me in writing that paper.

What is the role of konnakol in today’s world?

I think konnakol can be used to explain all the mridangam, khanjira and ghatam strokes. I see it as the language of percussion, and not many genres have a similar oral percussive aspect. Unlike percussion instrumentss, konnakol is easily portable. All you need is your voice! It is an art form that will follow you wherever you go and you can present it whenever you want to. It may not feature in a conventional Carnatic concert now but it works very well with other genres. A parallel that can be drawn is ‘skat singing’ in Blues. I collaborated with a Brazilian pianist who performed skat and I did konnakol to complement that. In collaborations like that, I think konnakol has the capacity to create awareness of Carnatic percussion.

(Sushma Somasekharan is a young Carnatic vocalist)