Saturday, 30 November 2013

Sudha has imbibed the MLV bani

By A. Kanyakumari

I first met Sudha in 1976 at MLV Amma’s residence. She had come to learn vocal music from MLV through a scholarship. She sang Dharmavati that day and I could sense that Sudha had a bright future. It is challenging to play for, or sing along with a vocalist as great as MLV. You had to be very alert and extremely intelligent to grasp MLV’s creativity and spontaneity. And Sudha had it all – intelligence, grasping power, sincerity and a malleable voice as sweet as honey. You must listen to Sudha’s Tamil Eelam recording done years ago to believe this. I cannot recall now, but for some reason MLV Amma could not record for the CD.

MLV Amma’s concerts were planned to suit the audience’s mood, response and interest. Having spent years on-stage singing beside her guru, Sudha has also learned this concert planning. MLV gave Sudha appropriate chances in concerts which highlighted her vocal credentials and capabilities. I remember Sudha sang the tara sthayi sangatis brilliantly. Sudha proved her talent on the spot whenever given a chance by her guru.

Sudha is a sincere musician. Be it a sabha concert or a marriage kutcheri, she does not compromise on either the quality or the repertoire. This is yet another attribute which Sudha has imbibed from her guru.

Those days there was this practice of reviewing and discussing each artist’s performance – the dos and don’ts – after a concert or a tour. Sudha was always a keen observer, and improved and gained a lot from these discussions. She has very well absorbed the “MLV bani”. I recollect Sudha’s mother was very particular that her daughter should travel with me, she was confident that I would take care of her.

Sudha’s efforts, hard work and guru bhakti have all contributed to her making a mark in the music world. She must be appreciated for being successful for so many years, living up to the expectations of her rasikas and for achieving so much in this field. My blessings and best wishes to Sudha Ragunathan.

Melharmony Day in Wisconsin

Mayor honours Chiravina Ravikiran 

By Samudri

Middleton, WI
November 16, 2013
As a tribute to Chitravina N Ravikiran's concept of Melharmony, the Mayor of the city of Middleton, WI, USA, has decreed the 3rd Saturday of every November as Melharmony Day.

The proclamation came on the eve of the first OVK-Bach Festival, held at Middleton, featuring Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi and Johann Sebastian Bach, two 18th century composers from two different parts of the world.

Here is the text of the Mayor's proclamation:


Melharmony Day in Middleton-November 16, 2013


The two major approaches to music in the world have been melody and harmony; and


Even though the two systems evolved in parallel in various parts of the world over centuries; and


Melodic music made great strides around the 1700s in India through composers such as Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (OVK), Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and others; and


Just as the concept of Harmony scaled high peaks in the West around the same time through creators such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others; and,


The concept of Melharmony was conceptualized in the year 2000 by musician-composer Chitravina N Ravikiran to create music with harmony but with an emphasis on melodic rules; and,

The USA has been committed to preserve, project and protect such diversity over the last several decades; and,


The United States has been committed to preserve, project and protect such diversity and innovations over the last several decades; and,


One of the Wisconsin standards for music requires that students learn about music as it relates to history and culture, and a comparison of the approaches of these two 18th century styles will provide an invaluable insight into connections between the East and West at that time; and,


Middleton desires to give its students practical exposure to such diverse and traditional forms of music by supporting cultural concepts and festivals such as the OVK-Bach Festival at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, Saturday, November 16. 

Now, Therefore, I, Mayor Kurt Sonnentag, do hereby proclaim the third Saturday, November 16, 2013, and every third Saturday of November in subsequent years,

Melharmony Day

in the City of Middleton, and urge all citizens to support efforts strengthening our city's cultural programs; and,

Further, I urge all citizens to take part in such diverse cultural events to gladden the hearts and promote the well-being of present and future generations, and I thank Arohana School of Music & IFCM-USA for presenting this great opportunity to the citizens of Middleton.

This proclamation is made on this --- day of November, 2013.

            _______________________           _______________________

Kurt J. Sonnentag, Mayor                                                              Lorie J. Burns, City Clerk

Ravikiran's Melharmony goes to US schools

Friday, 29 November 2013

Who’s Who in Classical Music

Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan

By Priyadarshini Ram

Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, the youngest of the “sitar trinity” of Hindustani classical music, after the legends Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan, recently celebrated his 85th birthday.

Son of the late Ustad Jaffer Khan, a popular beenkar, singer and sitarist of the Indore Beenkar gharana—the style of performance made famous by Ustad Bande Ali Khan and Murad Khan—Abdul Halim has earned national and international acclaim with his musical accomplishment. Since the 1940s he has been a distinguished performer on All India Radio; he daringly and innovatively pioneered the Jafferkhani Baaj in Sitar playing and made famous his perceptions on innovation in music through his unique style. The evolving of this playing style that brings simultaneous use of two strings leading to the production of harmonic notes and a range of echoes, brought him many accolades. He has been in the forefront of adapting ragas from Carnatic music to Hindustani music, introducing popular ragas like Kharahapriya, Keeravani, Latangi, and Shanmukhapriya. while reviving obsolete ones such as Champakali and Rajeshwari. His repertoire and rendering of these ragas on the sitar through a Hindustani sensibility brought him in contact with the veena maestro Dr. Emani Sankara Sastry and thus set the stage for a Hindustani-Carnatic music collaboration.

His musical innovations and experimentations paved the way for musical collaborations with the Dave Brubeck Quintet, the international Jazz ensemble. Abdul Halim’s collaboration with the famous English guitarist Julian Bream in the early 1960s was also well received. On a national level, he has worked with some of India’s famous film music composers like Anil Biswas, Madan Mohan, Naushad and C Ramchandra, creating some memorable melodies.

A recipient of the title ‘Tagore Ratna’ from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India, Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan continues to tutor students from all over the world, along with his son Zunain Khan, at his Halim Academy of Sitar which he founded in 1976.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Who’s Who in Indian classical music

Sarod maestro Aashish Khan

By Priyadarshini Ram

Ustad Aashish Khan (also known as Aashish Khan Debsharma) has recently been in the news for his efforts to revive the Indo-Jazz musical group Shanti which he founded in 1969 collaborating with Ustad Zakir Hussain.  The keenly awaited event happened in Bangalore featuring compositions based on popular Hindustani ragas, which were given English names.

Being in the limelight comes easy to Aashish Khan, a third generation sarod maestro in the lineage of his late grandfather, Padma Vibhushan awardee Baba Allauddin Khan and his father, Ali Akbar Khan, the renowned sarod maestro.  With his mastery of the instrument and his virtuosity in playing style, he is one of India’s leading sarod exponents.

Born in 1939 in Maihar, a princely state in the erstwhile British Empire notable for its rich musical tradition, Ustad Aashish Khan was initiated into the fascinating journey of North Indian classical music at the tender age of five by his grandfather, Baba Allauddin Khan.  Growing up in Maihar and Calcutta (now Kolkata), he continued his rigorous training under the guidance of his father, Ali Akbar Khan and his aunt, Annapurna Devi, leading exponents of the Senia Maihar school of music which followed the traditional Beenkar and Rababiya gharanas in the Dhrupad style.  His first public performance accompanying his grandfather came in 1952 when he was only 13, on the National Programme of All India Radio, New Delhi.  The same year, the Tansen Music Conference in Calcutta saw young Aashish give a recital in the company of his father and grandfather.

His foray into Indo-Jazz propelled him as a pioneer in the world music genre.  His links with the musical culture of New Orleans, considered the Mecca of Jazz, and notable musicians like Charles Lloyd, Don Pope, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and the Philadelphia String Quartet have endeared him to the international music fraternity as a promoter of Indian classical music in the Western music arena.  Closer home, his association with Pandit Ravi Shankar saw the setting of many musical compositions for stage productions and path breaking films directed by Satyajit Ray, that have passed into the annals of history.

With a rich repertoire of experience on the faculties of the University of Washington, Seattle and the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California, Ustad Aashish Khan continues his musical journey as a most admired musician and teacher to his vast group of students not only in India but in Canada, Europe and the US as well. He also serves as Adjunct Professor of Music at the California Institute of Arts, LA, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The recipient of many international awards and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Aashish Khan is the first Indian classical musician to become a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Homage to Lalgudi in Boston

By Durgalakshmi Krishnan

MITHAS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Heritage of the Arts of South Asia) and Chinmaya Mission, Boston, are two organizations enriching the cultural life of the Boston area for more than 20 years. Established in 1993 by Dr. George Ruckert, a disciple of Ali Akbar Khan, and a Senior Lecturer in the World Music Department at MIT and dedicated to present quality music and musicians from across the globe through concerts, work shops and lecture demonstrations, MITHAS has gained the respect of both artists and audiences. The Chinmaya Mission, Boston, has more than 500 children and adults attending several classes in music, dance and other art. These two organizations recently held events honouring the memory of violin maestro Lalgudi G. Jayaraman.

The first was the launch of the biography of the maestro titled An Incurable Romantic: The Incredible Journey of Lalgudi Jayaraman (Harper Collins, 2013) by Lakshmi Devnath organized by MITHAS at the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 29 September. The dance and music exponent and author Sujatha Vijayaraghavan was the guest speaker at this event. She elucidated several key points and interesting anecdotes of Lalgudi Jayaraman’s life from the book, along with her own experiences when she was collaborating with him at the time when he was composing his magnum opus Jaya Jaya Devi for dance. She also went on to explain how the title, An Incurable Romantic, aptly describes him and released the book that was received by Dr. George Ruckert.

The ceremony was followed by a violin duet by Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi that commenced with a recently composed varnam of Jayaraman in the raga Hamirkalyani and included a triple raga (Shanmukhapriya, Sama and Anandabhairavi) pallavi in Chatusra Ata talam that he had composed almost fifty years ago. They made the concert memorable by their brief introductions to the compositions stating the significance of the items to the legacy of their father, and took the audience on a very emotional and nostalgic journey.

The second event was a Bharata natyam program in the margam format titled Lalgudi Nartanam by Sunanda Narayanan and four of her senior students Amrita Mangalat, Ramya Ramadurai, Anjana Mangalalt and Jaya Iyer from her school, Thillai Fine Arts Academy. It was organized by the Chinmaya Mission, Boston, on 20 October in Andover, Massachusetts. The programme honoured Lalgudi Jayaraman’s memories by presenting in dance the songs he composed, set to music or popularized through his concerts.

The pushpanjali and the mangalam in praise of Devi in her many manifestations were from Jaya Jaya Devi. The jatiswaram in Rasikapriya created visual images of creepers swaying in a gentle breeze, peacocks roaming in a a beautiful garden, frisking deer, gliding swan and so on. The main piece of the evening was the varnam in Neelambari that Jayaraman had composed initially as a tana varnam on Saraswati and later converted into a pada varnam on Lord Muruga. Jayaraman’s music for the familiar Kilikanni Cholla vallayo of Subramanya Bharati traced a progression of emotion from the maiden’s joyful anticipation to painful separation, delineated by Sunanda in abhinaya. A high point of the evening was the song Teerada vilaiyattu pillai, which was performed to the recording of an old violin concert by him. This illustrated how he was able to bring to life incidents and shades of emotions through his virtuosity. The choreography just had to follow his music. Under Sunanda’s choreographic guidance, the dancers became a medium to meld perfectly the music of Jayaraman into a visual form and celebrate his contributions to Bharatanatyam.

Once again Sujatha Vijayaraghavan played a vital role as the compere and shared several insights into the compositions, their lyrical and rhythmic beauty, and how the nuances are most suited for dance.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Prakriti Foundation's Hamara Shakespeare

Sixth edition at Kalakshetra

By V.R. Devika

Ranvir Shah’s Prakriti Foundation presented the sixth edition of Hamara Shakespeare festival this year at Kalakshetra. 

The Bhand Pather artists were very clear about their decision to have three sons for Badshah Pather (Shakespeare’s King Lear), when they heard the story from the director M. K. Raina. Shakespeare’s tragedy has three daughters to the King. The first two praise him sky high and tell him in elaborate words how much they love him. The youngest says she has no words to describe her love for him. Angered, the King disowns her and divides all his wealth between the first two daughters. His power is completely cut off by the two daughters who turn him out. The youngest rescues him and has to die in the act. His lament after he realises his folly is one of the most poignant scenes in Shakespearean tragedies around the world. But here in Badshah Pather (King Lear) performed by a Kashmiri group of traditional artists, there were three sons to the King. “Daughters would never abandon their fathers,” they told Raina, “sons would...”. 

Presented at Kalakshetra, the play was so clear and straightforward that lack of understanding of the Kashmiri dialect they spoke did not bother me at all. The centuries old native form called ‘Bhand Pather’, a form of farcical theatre, is full of dance and song and clowning. It is said to have entered Kashmir from Persia through the Muslim courts in the 14th century and then spread through the rest of north India.

“Travelling all the way from Kashmir with their theatre that had been silent for a long time during the strife days to Chennai, to Kalakshetra, is a pilgrimage,” said MK Raina. “To present it in their own language is a special honour.” My mind travelled back to another time when King Lear was presented in Kannada by the Ninasam group from Heggodu. 

King Lear in Kashmiri was performed on the second day. On the first day was an extremely confident “A Winter’s Tale” in English and Hindi in promenade theatre, where the audience moves with the play to different locations for different scenes. The play began on the Rukmini Arangam stage at Kalakshetra, where the audience was invited to sit all around the play area. This first section in which Leontes, the King of Sicily, convinces himself in a fit of wild and unfounded jealousy, that his pregnant wife is carrying his best friend’s love child and plots to kill his friend, was played in English. I have never heard such Shakespearean dialogue delivered in such an easy and supremely confident manner. The tragedy of the jealousy was peppered with song and dance and great acting.

Then the audience was asked to turn to the back of the auditorium where the little baby girl of the queen was abandoned and found to be raised elsewhere. This was played in Hindi. The audience was next asked to move to the banyan tree, where Bohemia was shown in festivity and the little girl had grown up and fallen in love with the prince. Every dialogue was applauded loudly by the Kalakshetra students who have perhaps never seen the banyan tree used for such flamboyant costumes, romancing and bawdy comedy. I had to leave at this stage as I had promised an elderly couple a ride back home and they said they had lost focus in the move to the new location. I later heard generous praise for the last section at Padma Pushkarini for one of the most theatrically exciting endings.

Neel Chaudhuri and Anirudh Nair gave a performance with vivid costumes, original music, songs, dance, and acrobatics and an extremely enjoyable play.

On the final day Twelfth Night was performed in Hindi as Pia Behurupia by the company directed by Atul Kumar. It brought the roof down with its relentless humour. 

In the household of Olivia, two campaigns are being quietly waged - one by the lovesick Duke Orsino against the heart of the indifferent Olivia; the other by an alliance of servants and hangers-on against the high-handedness of her steward, the pompous Malvolio. When Orsino engages the cross-dressed Viola to plead with Olivia on his behalf, a bittersweet chain of events follows. Twelfth Night combines cruelty with high comedy and the pangs of unrequited love with some of the subtlest poetry and most exquisite songs Shakespeare ever wrote.

Piya Behrupiya, a Hindi translation by Amitosh Nagpal, has a “strong Indian folk leaning” even though it is a translation and not an adaptation. It was a riotous comedy with different accents. Sir Andrew had a Bengali accent while the heroine Olivia was pure Punjabi. Each member of the cast sang very well, while dancing away in glory. The audience was rolling with laughter even for songs sung seriously. A qawwali was a superb inclusion. An unforgettable experience.

It took a while to come out of the spell of these three plays. Prakriti Foundation brought some superb plays in the earlier Hamara Shakespeare festivals. There was a brilliant Jangal Mey Mangal in the Tamasha style in Marathi, a hilarious Romeo and Juliet in Malayalam and an unbelievably beautiful Macbeth in solo Koodiyattam by Margi Madhu.

The one thing the audience must understand is to come and feel the language. Every one knows the stories of the plays Shakespeare wrote and it is not difficult to read up a summary on the Internet. It is the feel of the different language that lends this festival its very special USP. That there was a very good audience this time was a tribute to the dogged perseverance of Ranvir Shah.

Masked devotion no masquerade

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Heartfelt condolences

The last week has seen the passing away of three personalities deeply associated with Carnatic music. The demise of V. Subramanyam, well known Carnatic musician and teacher came as a shock to the fraternity not aware that he had been ailing for the past few months. Recipient of the Sangita Kala Acharya from the Music Academy in 2007, Subramanyam was better known as a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who provided vocal support in his concerts for years. He passed away on 12 November in Chennai.

Rajalakshmi Jayaraman, wife of violin maestro Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, died on Monday night 18 November, after a brief illness. She was 74. She was a great source of strength and support to her husband and nurtured her son Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and daughter Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi.

S.R.D. Vaidyanathan, famous exponent of the Semponnarkoil school of nagaswaram, too died here on Monday. He was 85 and is survived by his wife, six daughters and a son. Vaidyanathan played the nagaswaram with his brother S.R.D. Muthukumarasamy. He was an expert in playing pallavis and rakti.

Sruti conveys its heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

St. Louis Indian Dance Festival 2013


The fifth St. Louis Indian Dance Festival was held from 19 to 21 April in St. Louis, Missouri. It has successfully completed five editions under the able guidance of guru Prasanna Kasthuri. Soorya Performing Arts is a not-for-profit organisation in St. Louis, U.S.A. that has committed itself to promoting traditional Indian dance, music and other forms of allied arts.

This year, the festival had more than 150 artists performing on three days (both mornings and evenings). They came from India (Bangalore, Kolkata, Baroda, Bhubaneswar and Kochi), Paris, London and the US cities of New York, Detroit, San Jose, Alabama, Chicago, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cupertino, Wisconsin, Dallas and the host town of St. Louis. Seven classical dance forms (Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Mohini Attam, Manipuri, Sattriya and Odissi) and Yakshagana from India were presented at the festival. It showcased young artists as well as seniors with decades of experience and gave the rasikas a taste of the layers of artistry and the flow of tradition across generations. According to Prasanna Kasthuri, the chief convenor of the festival, “This dance festival gives equal opportunity to senior dancers as well as second generation Americans”. As an immigrant community in a foreign nation the organisers work hard to preserve classical Indian culture in a world of movies and entertainment.

The festival opened with the lighting ceremony by elder citizens of the Indian community. This was followed by group singing by the students of Seema Murthy Kasthuri, and a brisk dance presentation to the music of Chittibabu by the students of Prasanna Kasthuri.

Gatha Odissi, the final performance of the day was an elegant, polished presentation of Odissi by Aruna Mohanty and group. While the male dancers excelled in their energy, the female dancers matched them with their grace. The lighting and music support was excellent. Yudhishtira Nayak deserves special mention. Gatha Odissi touched the nerve of the audience and set an amazing standard for the dance festival. It was preceded by a graceful Kuchipudi recital by Sailaja Pullela (disciple of Vempati Chinna Satyam), Bharatanatyam by young Shalini Subbarao (disciple of Prasanna Kasthuri), and an energetic presentation of Yakshagana and Bharatanatyam by Prof. Mangala Anand and Rajendra Kedlaya. The duo presented Draupadi Vastrapaharana and Mohini Bhasmasura, using Bharatanatyam to portray lasya and Yakshagana for masculine characters.

The second day brought a touch of novelty. For the first time, Sattriya was presented at the St. Louis festival. It was an elegant presentation of the compositions of saint poet Sankardeva by Madhusmitha Bora, Prerona Bhuyan and Willow Swidler Notte. This was followed by another first for St. Louis – a presentation of Manipuri dance by Krishnakali Das Gupta. Some of the dances were choreographed by the late guru Bipin Singh. It was an eye catching performance.

If Bharatanatyam dancer Prakruthi Hoskere’s abhinaya was impressive, the rhythmical phrases in the Jaipur style of Kathak by Sharmila Sharma mesmerised the audience. Her rendition of Ahalya Uddhar and the tarana were impeccable. Prasanna Kasthuri presented a collaboration of Kathak and Bharatanatyam to live music. It was a novel idea and the nuances of both dance forms were well portrayed. He was ably assisted by Sushma Mohan (nattuvangam) and Seema (vocal). The dancers featured in the morning were Neha Kidambi, Smriti Bharadwaj, Joshua Cherian, and Anisha Gururaj.

The morning session on the concluding day had Bharatanatyam by Annuja Mathivanan, Ma Bavya, and Sowmya Kumaran. Sowmya inspired the young St. Louis dancers with her nritta and unhurried abhinaya. Manasvini Avvari stole the show with her elaborate Kuchipudi performed with commendable maturity.

The evening session began with a powerful presentation of Kathak by Sunaina Rao, who included a Bharatanatyam composition and rendered it in Kathak with ease. She also effectively presented a modern theme of injustice towards women. Kripa Baskran brought a team of talented Bharatanatyam dancers from Wisconsin. Sahasra Sambamoorthy used Bharatanatyam to portray different aspects of choreography; her portrayal of peacocks and peahens had the audience chuckling. Kathak exponent Prashanth Shah was majestic in his solos and also danced a duet with Sunaina. Though impressive, his performance fell short of the expectations raised by him the previous year. The concluding presentation was a Mohini Attam performance by Smitha Rajan, whose Jagadoddharana had the audience spellbound. The festival ended on a high note with mangalam by the Mohini Attam group.

Over the years, the St. Louis Indian Dance Festival has become a much awaited annual event in the St. Louis area. Guru Prasanna Kasthuri, whose brainchild it is, thanked the hundreds of volunteers and the Missouri Arts Council, Regional Arts commission for their support and encouragement in the conduct of the festival.

Visit Gallery for more photos.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Three-day music fest in Melbourne

Tribute to Lalgudi

Despite a wet and cold winter’s day in Melbourne, several music enthusiasts gathered at the Kel Watson theatre in Burwood on 31 May to be part of a tribute to Lalgudi G. Jayaraman who passed away in April this year. Two musicians from the Lalgudi tradition in Melbourne, Narmatha Ravichandhira of Sruthi Laya Kendra and Uthra Vijayaraghavan of Keerthana Music School, organised the tribute with the help of friends. It was a rich collage of music, dance, video, audio presentations and talks, which brought to life the genius that was Lalgudi. Two visiting artists, from India and the U.K., vainika P. Vasanth Kumar and violinist A.G.A. Gnanasundaram who had come to attend the two-day Mummoortigal Festival were also present at the event.

The evening began with a prayer, a composition of Lalgudi, sung by Chaitanyaraman Gnanasundaram. Uthra Vijayaraghavan, (disciple of S.P. Ramh) and her students presented a couple of Lalgudi’s varnams, followed by a violin rendition by Narmatha’s students. Later in the evening, both Uthra and Narmatha along with their students, presented vocal and violin concerts of Lalgudi’s tillanas, including a dance choreographed by Narmatha Ravichandhira for the Madhuvanti tillana. It was a fitting tribute to Lalgudi the composer famous for his rhythmically challenging yet melodious varnams and tillanas. The accompanists of the evening were Chaitanyaraman and Gnanasundaram (violin), and Ravichandhira and Sai Nivaeithan Ravichandhira (mridangam).

A.G.A. Gnansundaram, a senior disciple of Lalgudi Jayaraman, paid a rich and emotional tribute to his memory. He spoke about his long association and shared several anecdotes. Vasanth Kumar too recounted several memorable encounters with the violin legend. He also gave a scholarly analysis of kritis not only popularised by Lalgudi Jayaraman, but which have acquired a distinct dimension through Lalgudi’s correct usage of music grammar. The Iyer Brothers of Melbourne fondly remembered the close relationship they had forged with the violin maestro in Chennai, and with G.J.R. Krishnan & Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi during their visits to Australia over the last two decades.

The homage also included a 20-minute video on Lalgudi Jayaraman and a power point presentation put together by Jothin Vallathol and Nagasundaram, which had some wonderful snippets from the life and music of this genius. A video of a concert tour of Australia by Karaikudi Mani and Lalgudi Jayaraman in 1995 was also presented, which had the mridangam vidwan extolling Lalgudi’s adherence to tradition and his innovative spirit in developing new ideas. Tributes from disciples G.J.R. Krishnan and S.P. Ramh (audio message) provided a fitting finale to the homage paid to the colossus who strode the Carnatic music scene for more than six decades.

Tribute to the music trinity

The same venue also witnessed the annual Mummoortigal Jayanti and the Swati Tirunal bicentennial celebrations on 1 and 2 June, presented by the Academy of Indian Music, Australia (Inc) and Sruthi Laya Kendra (Australia & India), from 1 pm to 10 pm. The Mummoortigal Jayanti commemorates the contributions of the Carnatic music trinity, and included Swati Tirunal as well this year. This year marks the 28th annual festival in Melbourne under the artistic directorship of Ravi M. Ravichandhira.

The festival began with the traditional singing of Tyagaraja’s Pancharatna kritis and a few compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry, followed by performances by well known music teachers and artists in Melbourne. This two-day festival is organised on a grand scale and is a much anticipated event in the cultural calendar. Besides recitals by accomplished musicians of Melbourne, there were concerts by visiting artists P. Vasanth Kumar (veena) and A.G.A. Gnanasundaram (violin). Gnanasundaram and his son Chaitanyaram performed a violin duet. They were supported by Hariharan Balasri and Sainivaeithan Ravichandhira on the mridangam. Vasanth Kumar, senior disciple of Pichumani Iyer, presented a solid, traditional veena recital (exploring the ragas Bilahari and Gaulipantu), with Ravichandhira accompanying him on the mridangam. It was sponsored by the Iyer Brothers, Melbourne-based vainikas.

The second day featured a TYME concert – an orchestra comprising some of the best young musicians of Melbourne. The concert (arranged this year by the Iyer Brothers) was a crisp and polished presentation. Sridhar Chari conducted the percussion ensemble which had talented youth drawn from various mridangam schools. This was followed by solo concerts of 45 minutes each by well known Melbourne artists including Sundari Saripalle, Rama Rao, Jayashree Ramachandran, Ahilan Sivanandan, Sridhar Chari, Murali Kumar, Narmatha Ravichandhira and M. Ravichandhira, Vijaya Peters and the Iyer Brothers.

The three-day music fest was a treat for rasikas.

Visit Gallery for more photos.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Aruna Sairam

Who's Who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

For years a musician's musician, one of very few concert vocalists offering regular samples of the music of the Dhanammal music, she was virtually born again in the 1990s as an iconic singer with a powerful voice she virtually rediscovered with the help of German voice expert Prof Eugene Rabine. Until then struggling to attract sizable audiences with her pristine music, she became a huge popular draw with her made-over voice and repertoire.

Born in Mumbai into a Tamil family deeply into music, Aruna had her earliest music lessons from her mother Rajalakshmi Sethuraman. Her father, a connoisseur of arts, hosted leading classical musicians and dancers at home, especially south Indian artists visiting Bombay. Aruna met her guru-to-be Sangita Kalanidhi T Brinda, when she was a guest in her Bombay home. That is how Aruna acquired the Dhanammal bani.

Aruna won her first award, a gold medal, when she was barely eight—at the Shanmukhananda Sabha Competition. She was 14 when she gave her first solo concert at the Rama Navami festival, Bhajana Samaj. At 21, she won the Madras Music Academy’s Best Young Musician Award during the December season.

Aruna’s early musical style was an admixture of Brinda’s Dhanammal school and the Bombay influences, including the excellent tutelage she received from Bombay Ramachandran and AS Mani Bhagavatar, a sishya of Tiger Varadachariar. She also honed her prowess in swara and pallavi singing with lessons from Prof. TR Subramanyam, then based in Delhi. Another revered mentor was veena vidwan KS Narayanaswamy. She built up an admirable repertoire of padams and javalis during her training under Brinda, in addition to kritis in some of their chastest versions. She acquired both a deep appreciation of the nuances of ragas and considerable elegance in the rendering of swaraprastara from these outstanding teachers.

According to her own website, “Her musical perceptions were enriched by exposure to film, western and Hindustani (Northern Indian) classical music. She ushered in a new approach to concert presentation, extending the boundaries of the Carnatic repertoire while remaining firmly rooted in the classical grammar and tradition of this great art form.”

The tipping point of Aruna’s life occurred when she came into contact with Prof. Rabine during her quest for a trainer to help her exploit the potential of her voice fully. The rest is history.

Other voice experts she has benefited from include Sangita Kalanidhi M Balamurali Krishna and New York-based David Jones.

To expand her repertoire and add new dimensions to her music, Aruna has sought and received guidance from such varied sources as the late Pallavi Venkataraman and nagaswara vidwan Semponnarkoil SRD Vaidyanathan who helped her with her research into Mallari.

It was veteran vocalist Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar—who spent months in Aruna’s Mumbai home—that gave her the valuable legacy of the compositions of Oottukadu Venkatasubbier. Like Chitravina N Ravikiran, Aruna has played a key role in propagating the Kavi’s “brilliant, yet relatively neglected compositions” on the contemporary concert stage.

Aruna has performed at the most prestigious venues all over India and abroad. Known for her theoretical knowledge and articulation, she regularly participates in lecture-demonstrations on her art and has been a veritable ambassador of Carnatic music worldwide. In 2011, she became the first Carnatic vocalist to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall. She has also sung at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, and Morocco’s Festival of World Sacred Music. Her collaborations with Dominique Vellard, a master of Gregorian and medieval song, and the Moroccan Sufi vocalist Noureddine Tahiri have been among the more spectacular of her collaborative efforts.

The recording of Aruna – Thousand Names of Divine Mother, a concert, was done in the crypt of a Benedictine monastery in Germany in collaboration with Christian Bollmann and Michael Reimann.

She has also partnered the popular film musician Shankar Mahadevan and the brilliant mandolin artist U Shrinivas, in duets across the land.

Aruna has received many national and international awards. These include the Padma Shri and the US Congress Proclamation of Excellence. She is widely expected to be honoured with the Sangita Kalanidhi title in the foreseeable future.

Aruna Sairam’s strong and reverberant voice is indeed a rarity among Carnatic vocalists, often appealing to a new and enthusiastic breed of listeners.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Calcutta Cheema

Sruti Fiction

By V Ramnarayan

He was the quintessential “minor[v1]” immortalized by early twentieth century zamindari aristocracy—epicurean, bohemian, sharp-tongued, tending to smell like a flower-garden both from the perfumes he wore and the scented tobacco he chewed, totally lacking scruples of any description. He was what we in Tamil country like to describe as a connoisseur of arts—which, translated, means that he sat in the front row of most music and dance concerts in his spotless white mull shirt and veshti, with the top two buttons undone and a zari angavastram carelessly slung across his left shoulder. Nodding his head imperiously during the rare moments in the performance that met with his approval, he continued the betel chewing. He made loud remarks, sometimes complimentary, at other times admonitory, nonchalantly directed towards the artist, unmindful of the effect it had on the performer or the audience. Sometimes, he tried to carry on a conversation with the musician during a concert, as he did once with the flautist T Viswanathan when he was performing at the Pillaiyar Koil in Besant Nagar.

It was a small, intimate gathering well suited to the kind of music Viswa purveyed, and the audience was lapping up a marvellous exhibition of his unique brand of music of the Dhanammal school in reverential silence. As was his wont, Viswa interspersed his flute-playing with vocal interludes, and most of the listeners were there for just that very treat. Not so, Cheema, as we found out midway through the concert, when he stopped nodding his head and swaying in his chair, to admonish the artist, with whom he appeared to be on first name terms. “Why don’t you shtop shinging and shtart flaying the fullankushal?” he announced in the middle of a majestic Sankarabharanam kriti. Obviously relishing the sound of his own voice, he repeated, “Kushal, kulal, kuzal, flute, floot, flooot, float…” so and so forth, continuing to sway all the time. He then toppled forward head first in a stylish namaskaram towards the stage. He then went to sleep there, and the concert continued. 

When I first met Calcutta Cheema—in the 1980s—it was clear he had seen better days. His shirt and veshti were still spotless, but he was skin and bones and could no longer afford any of the other appurtenances of “minor’hood. He was a regular at concerts, especially in south Madras, as he lived by himself at the seaside suburb of Besant Nagar. His reputation as a sometimes foul-mouthed, “spirited” critic of the music and musicians of the period kept most people at a safe distance from him. In his sixties, he was friendless, except for the company of a 50-something art-lover famous for his excellent collection of music and music-related memorabilia. Thin, almost emaciated Cheema and the somewhat overweight Subbu were a truly odd couple often seen together at sabhas, cafeterias, even hairdressers, in the Besant Nagar-Tiruvanmiyur belt. That the impecunious Cheema did not die of starvation must have owed much to generous subsidies from Subbu, and I suspect that Cheema’s vast repertoire of gossip about celebrities was the currency with which he repaid his benefactor. 

As I lived in Valmiki Nagar, often passed Cheema’s house while driving to or from work, and ran into him at cutcheris, I got to willy-nilly know him reasonably well. He was a perfect snob with an aquiline nose and stiff-upper lip kind of features, which were nature’s gift for the role he had assiduously cultivated for himself., For some strange reason, he seemed to want to make friends with me and sought me out for idle conversation at every opportunity. He claimed to be an admirer of my wife’s columns on music and dance, though the way he put it, he approved rather than admired her work. I was always puzzled that he deemed me deserving of his superior company, and never really figured the puzzle out. Still, I was quite innocent (or naïve, according to my wife), with no training in warding off “evil influences” (again according to my wife) like Cheema, and gradually learned to tolerate his annoying habit of cornering me at the most inopportune moments to share words of wisdom with me. Cheema also took to waylaying me to cadge a lift every now and then in my gleaming white Standard Herald car, which gave people the impression that I was a collector of old cars. It was in fact the cheapest car in the second hand market and I had spent a minor fortune on giving it a makeover. Anybody who has ever owned a Herald knows that any improvements you made to its body could only be cosmetic. 

Graduating from free rides to borrowing the car was child’s play with Cheema, as I soon found out. Most of my troubles in life have sprung from my inability to say ‘no’ and my meekly agreeing to lend my car to that rascal in white was no exception. The first time it happened, I waited in a friend’s shop in Besant Nagar until Cheema came back from his wanderings, which meant that I returned home in my car and noone was any the wiser about my abject surrender to his wiles. It was not long before I got caught by my wife, who like many others of the gentler sex, has this uncanny nose for her husband’s indiscretions. Normally someone who walks around in her own dream world of fantasies, she chose to notice the absence of the car the one day Cheema borrowed it and seemed to have disappeared with it. I walked home around 11 pm from Amar’s shop after my friend pulled the shutters down, well past closing time. “Don’t tell me you’ve lent your car to your great friend again!” she greeted me. By now I had begun to really worry, as I was certain our hero had stopped at some waterhole and met with an accident afterwards driving sozzled to the gills. I paced up and down for the next three hours, with no idea how to contact Cheema, or where he had gone. He finally returned at 3 am, nearly dashed the car against my gate, got down and wobbled away, too far gone for me to attempt any conversation with him. He however had about him an air of great dignity befitting Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther series. 

That was of course the last time Cheema borrowed my car, and I took great trouble to avoid any contact with him. I started new routes of getting to Adyar from my Valmiki Nagar home, thereby eliminating any chance of being accosted by my nemesis on the road. One morning, however, I had to run an errand in Besant Nagar, and came face to face with the champion betel chewer- spitter opposite Maharaja’s Store on First Avenue, and swerved to avoid running over him as he stood waving furiously demanding a lift. I waved back, shouting that I was late for work (which I was) and drove off at breakneck speed endangering the lives of a handful of innocent bystanders. That evening, a very inebriated Cheema accosted me at the Music Academy, where I had gone to attend a concert, as I was parking my car. After first questioning my parentage and my musical acumen, he slurred, “Who do you think you are, you pittance?” at me. “What do you mean, pittance?” the grammarian in me wanted to shout back at him, but I hurried wordlessly from the scene. Cheema had struck with a vengeance during the concert I discovered, when I returned to the parking lot at the end of it. One of the many chronic infirmities my old Herald suffered from was the refusal of its front window to close, and this chink in my armour, Cheema had used to his advantage to get his own back at me. 

The driver’s seat was a disgusting mess, blobs of betel spit, saliva and phlegm splashed across it in the shape of some abstract painting. It took me the better part of an hour to clean the car. The worst part of the whole experience was that it had been a lousy concert as well. I did not see Calcutta Cheema again, nor did I ever want to see him again. Months later, he was found in his apartment, apparently dead for days, by neighbours who had to break the front door open. 

 [v1]The word minor here has nothing to do with age but for some reason came to mean a young (or old) man with a roving eye and love of the good life, often a “roué and cad”.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Art and spirituality

By V Ramnarayan

There are a number of musicians and dancers in my extended family—which includes my family by marriage—not to mention painters, writers and even sportspersons. Every generation has felt the need to inculcate in the young of the family the values of one or other of these fields of activity. The artistic members of the family, who tend to secretly sneer at the sports-minded, are determined to instil spirituality in their offspring by exposing them to the fine arts of music and dance, especially of the Mylapore or Kalakshetra kind.

Some thirty years ago, cousin Cheenu, who loved his school so much that he spent extra years in some of his classes, had the opportunity to show off his scripture knowledge as someone belonging to an artistic family. He was the only student to put his hand up when the teacher asked his class to inform her who wrote the Mahabharata. I can imagine the proud if short-lived smile on his face as he piped up, “Kamala Subrahmanyam” after the teacher let him speak up.

Shankar and Raju surprised their parents with the alacrity with which they volunteered to accompany the elders of the family one evening from their Kilpauk home to the Ananta Padmanabha Swami temple at Adyar to listen to a cutcheri by Jon Higgins. Imagine their shock and discomfiture when they discovered that the singer of the evening was not their hero the English professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, but a bhagavatar from North America!

The same pair of rascals also learned some noble lessons by watching the Kalakshetra Ramayana series and other mythologicals. They invariably assumed the roles of asuras in their own production of such plays at home afterwards. Hanging their sisters’ dolls upside down and torturing them in a variety of ways, they also let out blood curdling war cries to add to the effect. Plays based on the Bhagavatam were sufficient inspiration for them to take turns enacting the violent excesses of Kamsa, their siblings’ dolls once again adding a touch of realism to their stirring performances.

Back in the late 1980s, my wife and I decided that it was time our He-Man obsessed five-year-old, Abu, benefited from the great philosophical and moral lessons of the Ramayana and took him to Kalakshetra’s Art Festival. We were much impressed and heartened when he sat still and wide-eyed throughout the production. The brilliance of his enactment of Jatayuvadham—with some help from his plastic He-Man sword—that night in our drawing room has seldom been bettered.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From Muraliganam to Krishnaleela

Bharat Sangeet Utsav

By V Ramnarayan

Photos © by Sivakumar Hariharan

Carnatica and Sri Parthasarathi Swami Sabha have achieved their objective if it was their intention to shake up our little Mylapore world of music rasikas. Quite a few surprises, mostly pleasant, have already greeted the full houses the Bharat Sangeet Utsav has been drawing at the Narada Gana Sabha auditorium for the last two days.

I have attended most of the concerts so far, and heard glowing reports in praise of the children’s symphony the festival opened with—the grandeur of 135 children performing in unison to the accompaniment of some majestic violin playing by maestro VV Subramanyam.

Sangita Kalanidhi Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna seems to have ripened like old wine. He was in incredible voice despite a bad cough and congestion. His rendering of his own compositions in Latangi and Lavangi was magnificent, while Bagayanayya in Chandrajyoti was a master class in raga bhava as well as perfection in the enunciation of lyrics. The timbre of his voice, which reverberated around the hall, belied his 83 years, and he often seemed totally immersed in the nada in an egoless state.

The camaraderie that he induced on stage brought out the best in Nagai Muralidharan (violin), Tiruvarur Bhaktavathsalam (mridangam) and Vaikom Gopalakrishnan (ghatam). A memorable opening day.

The first Bharat Seva Puraskar awardee--for her charitable work under the Samudaya Foundation banner--Sudha Ragunathan partnered Shashank in an unusual jugalbandi. The consensus was that though both artists acquitted themselves well, the chemistry did not exactly set the house on fire, the young flautist in particular lacking in opportunity to reveal his class. 

Venkatesh Kumar took us to the brink of ecstasy with his ringing voice and sruti-perfect raga odyssey. Starting with an hour-long Multani, which he rendered in three speeds, he moved on to a lilting Bhimpalasi, followed by a grand Sohni, which he concluded with a tarana. The devarnama he sang in response to an audience request was crafted with delicate sensitivity.

The whole concert was a close-to-tears experience, meditative and serene. Many of us felt after it that any music that followed would spoil the mood.

Personally, I tried to deal with this unusual musical dilemma by spending half an hour away from the auditorium, giving myself the time to slowly come back to earth from the high of the afternoon, and walking in late to TM Krishna’s concert, something I hate to do. Krishna was half way through a Sahana alapana, the most nuanced, deeply explored essay of the raga I have heard in quite a while. If Venkatesh Kumar was the master conjurer swaying the audience with an emotion-charged yet controlled performance, Krishna seemed totally lost in the beauty of the music, rarely even opening his eyes.

Krishna is Krishna. He did not disappoint those who came anticipating a surprise or two in the concert. His alapana suite of multiple ragas was followed by an exhaustive tanam, followed by tani avartanam, with Manoj Siva and Anirudh Atreya serving up a delicious concoction.

In fact the percussion offered reverberant nada of a high order throughout the concert, and the violin virtually sang in the hands of Vittal Ramamurthy, like Manoj Siva, constantly encouraged by Krishna to give full rein to his manodharma.

After an evocative Sakhi prana in Senchurutti came listener’s choice Kaana vendamo, which Krishna rendered with the pathos and pleading we associate with the Dandapani Desikar version of the Gopalakrishna Bharati song. The mangalam in Sriranjani was a seamless extension of the song but surprised the audience like the googly when first sprung on unsuspecting cricket lovers.

In what was a lovely concert that revealed admirable growth in musicianship and musical integrity of a high order, Krishna interspersed soulful music every now and then with snatches of conversation with himself, his accompanists and his listeners. Such a menu of music and musings tends to complete the TM Krishna package, we all know by now.

The Carnatic music world seems to be divided between those who love Krishna and his music no matter what, and others who are vociferous critics of the way he presents concert music. Will he settle down to a new cutcheri bani, or will he go on experimenting, following his instincts without fear or inhibition? An interesting prospect.