Saturday, 26 April 2014

Maestro as maverick

A rasika's thoughts on TM Krishna's A Southern Music

By PK Doraiswamy

(The portions in italics below are TMK’s views in his own words).

TMK’s book is weighty, wide-ranging in content, with superb command of English and almost audible passion. A few very insightful and debatable views have, therefore, been reproduced in his own words including, wherever possible, their rationale, sprinkled with the reviewer’s comments. The heart of this book lies in TMK’s perception that Carnatic music is pure art music, with unique aesthetics and intent. According to TMK, it should be the goal, and duty, of every Carnatic musician to understand, enjoy, abstract and convey these to the listener without distortion or dilution. This perception has, in turn, led to his firm conviction that most performing aspects of Carnatic music have today become unthinking and formulaic and need to be revisited and reinfused with aesthetic sensitivity. From this conviction flow most of his views.  The 27-essay book has three parts – experience, context and history.

Most chapters open with an almost epistemo-etymological analysis of the concept discussed, followed by a sedate description and a provocative critique.

Many of TMK’s views are insightful and non-controversial. Quite a few others may provoke debate, denial, dismissal and even shock and anger.

The first analysis is that of the concept of music and its aesthetics, going on to convention, tradition and sampradaya. Some of the noteworthy views expressed here are:

Musical aesthetics is the understanding of the intent, form and organization of sounds that impact our senses.

While this sounds ideal, what are the performance parameters by which to judge objectively whether a musician has understood the aesthetics and the intent or not? Do we allow for variation in understanding from one musician to another?

Tradition is a change that retains within it the essential threads that define the whole.

A subtle but vital point.

Is there any way to make society accept and rediscover the beauty of traditional forms instead of compromising with them to suit modern performance needs? Cleverness can build a dam and canals but not the river.

Tradition is not something to be destroyed but something to be built upon– ‘innovation without iconoclasm’.

Examining different genres of music—folk, film, namasankirtana, bhajan, harikatha, western pop and Carnatic—TMK says:

Different genres of music have different intents. Carnatic music is art music and its intent is to explore the abstract ideas of melody, rhythm and prosody, creating an aesthetic unit that is experienced holistically.

By what performance parameters are we to judge how well such an exploration and creation of a holistic aesthetic unit has been done by a musician, or is it left to the judgment of individual musicians and rasikas?

Creative freedom exists within the aesthetics of the basic art form which has elements of both the past and the present. Creativity, therefore, has both rights and responsibility.

In other words, kalpana is not musical anarchy but what Lalgudi termed ‘disciplined creativity’.

The fundamental components of Carnatic music are analysed in detail and critiqued sharply. Some insightful comments made here are:

In its totality, a raga is a combination of musical heritage, technical elements, emotional charge, cognitive understanding and aural identity.

This is a comprehensive checklist to evaluate a raga exposition. The inclusion of heritage is significant: the raga does not start with the musician; it is he who starts where heritage has placed it.

The music of many compositions has been reinterpreted irresponsibly leading to the original composer’s intent being completely lost.

Does he mean a misinterpretation of the dhatu itself, or that the bhava of the composition and the rasa the musician evokes do not always match?

Manodharma consists of two words – mano meaning one’s will and dharma meaning righteousness. This is a challenge to the musician’s ego – how much of it is he willing to give up to let the dharma lead the will.

Who or what should shine on the stage, the music or the musician?

A phrase in alapana or kalpana swaram, if it is true, generates the essential sound of a raga and should not be just a decibel unit. Improvisation born out of purely structural rules that are imposed on a raga lack the organic quality of creativity.

This is the heart and soul of true alapana.

In organically evolved ragas, the phrases have not evolved with the scale of the raga in mind. A linear step-by-step approach to such ragas has resulted in some cases in unnecessary stresses on regions and swaras of no relevance to the raga, leading to a loss of its aesthetic identity.

GNB’s alapanas were of the step-by-step kind but did the ragas lose their aesthetic identity? Is the fault, then, with the method or the musician?

Niraval is unique and valuable because it uses the creativity of the vaggeyakara to kindle that of the musician.

An original, insightful way of putting it.

The mrdanga provides a parallel layer to the experience of music. It gives every melodic movement a rhythmic counterpoint as well as a rhythmic casing.

This is what it should do, but what it is actually doing is described by TMK without mincing words later in the book. 

Kalpana swaras must be guided by the aesthetics of the raga and not the permutations and combinations possible from the bare swaras of the raga. Pre-rehearsed calculations treat raga aesthetics with scant respect. 

Ariyakudi, MDR, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani and GNB never depended on climactic korvais and yet ruled the stage.

Some of the following statements may be true in particular cases but as general propositions are debatable:

Over a period of time, the essential qualities of the music may yield to the prevailing listener environment.  In Carnatic music today, the format has compromised with aesthetics to satisfy performance needs.

The presentation of items in a strict prescribed order does not in any way contribute to the aesthetics of Carnatic music. If this format is dismantled and reworked, every piece can be presented with extensive manodharma and even in chauka kala.

This is perhaps the most controversial view expressed in the book. TMK has not explained specifically how the present format prevents a musician from contributing to the aesthetics.

The irony is that TMK himself has given outstanding performances within the existing format. It is a case of a highly skilful and successful workman quarrelling with the tools for unknown reasons! 

Many varnams and padams are far more complete art pieces than the kirtanas we present. As aesthetic presentations, they can be presented in any section of the main part of the concert and should be presented with alapana, niraval and kalpana swarams. 

A brilliant varnam will already have sufficient aakaaram between syllables like a niraval and after singing it in three speeds and singing a beautiful chitta swaram and ethukkadai swarams, separate niraval and kalpana swarams may sound relatively dull, tiresome and redundant.  

Does the violinist shadowing the vocalist actually enhance the aesthetics of the alapana, or are we conditioned to believe that it does? I see no reason why it is needed at all. 

The same view was expressed by Rangaramanuja Ayyangar in 1972.

It would be better if the vocalist presents an independent alapana of a raga, and the violinist alone presents an alapana of another raga in the course of the concert. 

This is worth a trial. In one of TMK’s concerts, he performed the alapana and the violinist the tanam. It was received well by the audience.

Over the last century, percussion styles have evolved based on personal technique, dexterity and intelligence, without reference to the aesthetics of the vocalist’s music. This results in the aesthetics of the music taking a back seat. The mrdanga vidwans have conditioned the vocalist to render certain kritis at a certain speed.

Many vocalists confess to this privately.

The dominance of mathematical calculations in kalpana swara is the direct influence of the percussionists. The applause is the musician’s bane. It is a drug, and an addictive one. Through the years, musicians have mastered the art of generating applause and trained and re-trained the audience in this direction. 

According to Rangaramanuja Ayyangar, lack of depth breeds a lack of self-confidence and a craving for applause.     

There is science in Carnatic music but if creative musical expression demands the scientific framework being bent, so be it. The reason for the existence of art music is music itself and not logic.  

Lakshana has always yielded to lakshya, as in anya swaras and visesha prayogas. 

There is some truth as well as some error in the perception that Carnatic music is too percussion-oriented. The melodic movements in Hindustani music flow without accents on every beat until the completion of the melodic line, which is always constructed to emphasise the first beat of the tala cycle the sam or sama. The Carnatic compositions clearly display the division in their melodic structure and in multiple places the syllabic and the melodic form is emphasised. This aesthetic makes it necessary that every beat in a tala be a clear division. At the same time, the divided beat approach has resulted in the mrdanga artists developing accompanying techniques based purely on the framework of the tala rather than the melody. This distortion has resulted in the mrdanga artist dictating the manodharma. 

Once when Palghat Mani was accompanying Ariyakudi on ‘viribhoni’ varnam, a rasika commented, “ We are listening to Mani Iyer’s viribhoni and not Ariyakudi’s “. 
TMK has strong views on the gender bias and bhakti orientation in the Carnatic music field:

A Carnatic musician’s training, repertory and musical practice necessarily includes music soaked in bhakti. Do I, as a musician, want to remove myself from this? Yes. I do. I seek bhakti, but to the aesthetics of the music and not to the names of Hindu gods and goddesses. 

If this is possible for TMK in spite of singing bhakti-laden kritis, it should be possible for others too.

Many compositions are chosen less for their aesthetic content than for the religious emotion it engenders or the philosophic content. This can make a katcheri look like an evangelical congregation. 

Dramatic and amusing to read, but surely an exaggeration? .

I also believe that, in due course, we should see if it is possible to engage with Carnatic music without the religious factor.  

By coincidence, the organisers of Tamil Isai movement in their first manifesto said almost the same thing: “ Songs need not always be tied to religion and praise of God. Why not sing about nature or social problems? ”.  Replacing the huge volume of historically evolved bhakti-based kritis, many of them brilliantly composed, with equally good secular compositions is a Herculean, perhaps unnecessary, task and very unlikely to happen.

Recently I heard Gurucharan singing beautifully  ‘silambosai ketkudamma ’ a song entirely about Tamil literature and culture in Saramati after an elaborate alapana ending with kalpana swarams. It is open to musicians of calibre to upgrade such kritis to the status of regular kritis.

The dominance of brahmins in the field of Carnatic music is a fact but TMK portrays this as something manoeuvred and conspiratorial. He, however, concedes that the community has served Carnatic music well:

Carnatic music has been dominated by the brahmin community both in the practice of the art and in audience composition. To believe that strong community support did not play a crucial role in Palghat Mani Iyer’s ascendancy would be na├»ve. Palani Subramaniam Pillai and Ramanathapuram Murugabhoopathy are two names always mentioned along with Mani Iyer’s. Yet it was Mani Iyer alone who is placed on a pedestal. This is not purely on musical or scholarship grounds. One of few devadasis who was able to create a niche for herself was Veenai Dhanammal. However, she was treated by the brahmin modernists as a storehouse of a bygone, exclusive music which did not seem to have a contemporary place, unless reinterpreted by the very same brahmins. The Tamil Isaai movement was also closely linked to caste equations. Brahmins lived by the Vedas and Sanskrit texts, non-brahmins lived by the various religious texts like tevaram. So caste and language were intertwined in this battle. With the creation of the katcheri based mostly on the kritis of the trinity all three brahmins in Sanskrit and Telegu, and the parallel marginalisation of the isai vellalars from the Carnatic story, the existing social divide deepened.

However, I would also like to acknowledge the tremendous support that individuals from the brahmin community have given to this art form. 

A friend once said in a lighter vein, “TMK is the Alfred Hitchcock of Carnatic music”. When asked to explain, he said, “AH was a master of suspense on the screen. TMK is a master of suspense on the music stage. There is always a suspense about whether he is going to start the concert with a varnam or a mangalam, whether he will sing a tillana next or a virutham, whether after an alapana he will sing a kriti in the same raga or a different one or not at all, and finally, when was he going to end his concert.” Another friend of mine called TMK the Kejriwal of Carnatic music: “Kejriwal wants to flout existing systems, waive water and power charges, claims he is an anarchist and expected his government to be toppled any time. TMK wants to dismantle existing practices like the cutcheri format and use of mike, wants his concerts to be free and once said that, by sticking to his convictions, he may go without an audience one of these days”. Once his comments on violinists and mrdangam players in the book are out, he may find it difficult to find accompanists! Jokes apart, there is no question that TMK is a musician of awesome talent, creativity and mastery. To this, the book now adds musical scholarship and an excellent command of English. TMK indirectly gives his own justification in the book for many of his  ‘idiosyncrasies ’. Enjoyment and evaluation of music will always be subjective, unless they relate to purely grammatical aspects like an apaswaram, a missed beat, being out of sruti, etc. It is impossible to logically prove such opinions right or wrong. Many of TMK’s views in this book are of this type. Rasikas conditioned by listening to their favourite musicians in traditionally formatted concerts may find some of his views strange, unacceptable and even anarchic. In fact, in the absence of specific performance parameters, one can turn round and ask TMK, “How do we know that YOU have understood the aesthetics of Carnatic music correctly?” Only those who approach music with the same degree of detachment and experience it with the same degree of intensity as TMK will understand his viewpoint even if they do not agree with him. But then TMK himself is not out to prove anything. For him, “This book is a search, not a destination; a quest, not an arrival; a musical voyage to see why I stand where I stand.”

Friday, 11 April 2014

From Malaysia – to widen their horizons

By Nandini Ramani

On a pleasant afternoon in November, I was happy to witness some 40 and odd students from Malaysia, dancing a crisp Mallari, in the foyer of the Narada Gana Sabha. They had been trained by Bharatanatyam dancer-teacher Roja Kannan in Chennai for nearly a week. Initiated by Nalini Ratharishnan, Founder-Director of Ratharishnan Bharatanjali, even nine-year olds had come all the way with their teachers to be part of this intensive training programme, which comprised teenagers and some dancers in their twenties and thirties.

As I distributed the certificates to the participants of this training camp, I was touched by the earnest pursuit of these budding dancers, who spent their time and resources to make this trip to learn more about Bharatanatyam. Nalini had organised this project with the objective of providing the youngsters some exposure to other schools of Bharatanatyam in Chennai which is undeniably an important centre of Bharatanatyam. It was a worthwhile attempt as Nalini had chosen to rope in a teacher and senior exponent like Roja Kannan, who is one of the best students of the veteran Guru Adyar K. Lakshman.

It was heart-warming to see the sincere efforts of Nalini Ratharishnan who also joined her students in this camp. The students were happy to have enriched their repertoire and more so that they got an opportunity to perform the items learnt in the city before their departure. The group also learnt a little bit of the dance texts and visited some local schools. It was heartening to see the students attempting to rise to Roja Kannan’s expectations as she had put in a lot of hard work to achieve such a result.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Vasantrao Deshpande Award for Deepak Raja

By Samudri

The Vasantrao Deshpande Smruti Puraskar was conferred on Deepak Raja during the Vasantotsava music festival organised on 19 January 2014 in Pune. The award is given by the Vasantrao Deshpande Pratishthan every year for outstanding contribution to scholarship in the performing arts. It was instituted in memory of Dr. Vasantrao Deshpande, popular and erudite vocalist on the concert platform and regional theatre.

Deepak Raja received the award from the legend Vikku Vinayakram. The ghatam maestro gave a mind blowing performance before a 4000-strong crowd, which was also very appreciative of the awardee’s acceptance speech.

Deepak S. Raja, a columnist for Sruti, is among the finest contemporary writers on Hindustani music. He is the author of several books on Hindustani music and frequently contributes papers to seminars and prestigious journals on music. This scholar is also a musician who plays the sitar and the surbahar. Well versed in the traditional concepts of Indian musicology, Deepak Raja brings to his writing a fresh perspective using the conceptual tools and analytical methods cultivated by his careers in media research, business journalism and financial accountancy.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Remembering PBS

By V Ramnarayan

Visitors to Chennai’s iconic Woodlands drive-in restaurant near the Gemini flyover during the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium came to expect the presence there of another icon of the city—PB Srinivas, the man with a mellifluous voice who had entertained film music listeners for decades earlier. Srinivas was already a senior citizen but with his creative instincts intact and his productivity as a composer of semi-classical and devotional songs amazingly high. Grandly attired in traditional south Indian clothes topped by a resplendent zari-bordered turban, he sat through the day at one of the tables of the restaurant surrounded by files and his pocket filled with pens of different hues. Over the years, some of the restaurant’s regular clients picked up the courage to go up to him and engage him in conversation, discovering in the process that his voice was still as strong and resonant as when he sang his immortal melodies in films.

When the drive-in restaurant was taken over by the state government in 2008, not only were residents of Chennai deprived of a popular meeting place where students, salesmen, entrepreneurs and executives wove their dreams and planned their projects, they were also denied the pleasure of running into a much-loved celebrity of the city. Srinivas shifted his informal office to other Woodlands cafeterias in the city, but it was never the same again.

Srinivas, popularly known as PBS, was arguably the most versatile, cerebral and well-read musician in the film world for the six decades he was part of it. He was a fluent linguist, for one thing, with mastery over the enunciation of lyrics in Tamil. Telugu, Malayalam. Kannada and Hindi, among other languages. For those not familiar with Indian films, they often have songs in them (six to ten songs in a movie was par for the course for several decades until recently), with the actor lip-syncing with the recorded voices of ‘playback’ singers. Tamil cinema was dominated by a handful of stars when PBS entered the scene, and singers like TM Soundararajan lent their voices to the leading stars of the day, like Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran. PBS’s voice was not a good match for those of these stars, but fortunately for him, it suited the voices of some other actors like Gemini Ganesan and Muthuraman, for whom PBS sang some of the most memorable melodies in southern cinema.

Born to P.B.V.L. Phanindraswami, an inspector of cooperatives, and Seshagiriamma, in coastal Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, Srinivas grew up in a sprawling house belonging to his grandparents. He was in his early teens when he fell in love with Hindi film songs composed by such wizards as Naushad.

In the early 1950s, PBS and film music composers GK Venkatesh and M.S. Viswanathan—who brought out Srinivas’s best in Tamil cinema—made a trio of musicians who swore by Naushad. Encouraged by maternal uncle Kidambi Krishnamacharya, a theatre actor and director, Srinivas dreamt of becoming a playback singer like the famous Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar of Hindi cinema.

His disciplinarian father discouraged him, even tried to forbid him, and insisted he obtain a degree even after he tripped twice in his school finals. Thanks to tutorials in Madras, PBS finally earned a BCom degree, but his father now wanted him to study for a law degree. Moving to Madras to join the Government Law College, PBS spent more time on music practice than law classes, even winning inter-collegiate singing competitions in the process. He enlisted the services of an astrologer to convince his father that his future lay in film music rather than a conventional job!

Veena virtuoso Emani Sankara Sastri, one of the music directors of Gemini Studios in charge of Hindi films, and a family friend, recognised merit in Srinivas’s lovely voice, and started employing Srinivas as his assistant. Emani proved a loving benefactor who tended to the younger friend like a father, showering him with warmth and affection. Sastri mentored him in growing into a sensitive purveyor of raga-based songs. (“A few decades hence, Emani was to witness the mature Srinivas compose and sing a ragamalika tribute to Tyagaraja. Srinivas even stumbled upon a new raga, which he named Navaneeta Sumasudha,” says film music expert Vamanan in his obituary).

Adinarayana Rao, G Ramanathan and MB Srinivasan, great composers of film songs with a classical touch to them, were some of the music directors to spot the talent in PBS and give him early breaks in Tamil and other southern cinema.

Through the 1960s and seventies, PBS enjoyed success as the most delicate and sensitive voice in Tamil cinema, with his duets with woman singers of the calibre of P Susila winning him a sizable number of admirers, but without the fanatical following of the likes of TM Soundararajan. He was at his evocative best while rendering sad or philosophical songs. He became part of a popular trio that included the music directorsViswanathan-Ramamurthy and lyricist Kannadasan, and delivered some of the most tuneful and emotive songs of the era.

Competition soon caught up with PBS, with some brilliant new voices in KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubramaniam and music directors like Ilaiyaraja transformed the film industry altogether with a predominance of SPB and Yesudas songs. Fading away from the playback-singing world, PBS reinvented himself as a composer of semi-classical and devotional music, exploiting his proficiency in languages, poetry and compositional ability. Though no longer a star singer in the films, he continued in the music field almost till his death in April 2013.

A man of many interests, PBS was a regular at many classical music concerts in the city, Hindustani music in particular, and invariably made it a point at the end of a performance to applaud the artists with some choice phrases of praise, including verses he composed on the spot. This writer was among those who marvelled at his devotion to music that made him nonchalantly climb a steep spiral staircase to attend a Hindustani vocal recital at a suburban venue one evening just a couple of months before his death.

Among some of the quirky sidelights of PBS’s life was a song he composed when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, PBS sent a recording of the song to Armstrong and Richard Nixon, then president of the US. He treasured their replies to him.

According to his devoted wife Janaki,  ‘He lived a carefree man; he has departed just as he lived’. The singer had had close brushes with death earlier, once butted by a cow with fierce horns on a busy Chennai street. When the end came, however, he had just sat at the dining table and passed away peacefully.

First published in Matrix, the house journal of The Sanmar Group

Guruguhamarta tribute to RK Srikantan

By V Ramnarayan

When I was young, I had the great good fortune of growing up in a large complex of three bungalows that straddled two major streets in the Alwarpet-Teynampet area, Murrays Gate Road, and Eldams Road. There were no compound walls separating the three houses, and the result was a vast, tree-shaded play area for all of us kids, a dozen or so cousins occupying those houses. Two granduncles, both sportsmen in their youth, were our match referees and adjudicators. The older of them, Venkata Mama, was by then semi-retired, and a sage presence in the midst of some of our frenetic games ranging from cricket and I Spy to carrom and Monopoly. We took all our disputes to him, all our interpretations of the laws governing our games. His word was always final, delivered firmly but with affection and kindness.

Vidwan RK Srikantan always reminded me of Venkata Mama, not in his physical appearance, but in his largely involuntary role of elder statesman among Carnatic musicians. If he had been a Chennaivasi, we would have heard his voice—not his singing voice but his views and perspectives on the great art he represents--more often than we actually did.

We all know he held strong views on tradition in Carnatic music—on voice training and sruti and laya suddham; we know his repect for the great vaggeyakaras and vidwans of the past. Sruti magazine, and I as a rasika, have been great fans of his music for the grandeur he brought to it—for his vast repertoire, his sense of balance in manodharma and most of all for his wonderful voice, his fidelity to sruti.

The many stalwarts present here today have a much better understanding of Carnatic music, far greater exposure to it, but I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread, and state that there has rarely been a greater male voice in Carnatic music than Sangita Kalanidhi RK Srikantan’s.

But Srikantan, like MS Subbulakshmi, was more than a great voice.

Someone- his son Ramakanth I think—once said Srikantan was a late bloomer. That one attribute of his straightaway endeared him to me, because I too belong to such a tribe, though my friends believe that I am a never-bloomer. BVK Sastry writing in Sruti November 1995, actually described his early singing as robust and impulsive. “Virtuosity seemed to overshadow artistic sensibility in expression.”  He pointed out this and other shortcomings which he said were “counterbalanced by his resonant, ringing voice, which invested his singing with a dynamic quality and which seemed to overwhelm the audience.”

Those of us who never heard the young Srikantan will find it hard to believe that his music did go through such a phase. In the same article, however, Sastry acknowledged the transformation in Srikantan’s music, beginning with the first noticeable changes in his mid-thirties, after he had internalized the music of great masters like Maharajapuram, Musiri, Semmangudi and GNB.

Sastry claims that Srikantan imitated GNB’s brigas for a while, adding his own touches, and gradually evolved his own style.  He noticed deep introspection, greater control and thoughtful planning in his concerts. He marvelled at Srikantan’s infinite capacity to surprise and delight audiences by singing different compositions in the same raga by different composers, in different concerts, even as the listeners expected the repeat of some song he had dealt with expansively in an earlier concert. This became a striking aspect of Srikantan’s music through the decades thanks to his enormous repertoire across genres and vaggeyakaras. Yet keen listeners could often guess the kriti correctly during his alapana because of his uncanny anchoring of it in the kriti without ever singing identical phrases.

The Sruti article came in 1995 to commemorate Srikantan’s 75th birthday, and Sastry concluded by saying, “his voice has not lost either its resonance or its ring. Thus the ragas sound full-blooded. They are handled now with greater involvement and feeling. The swaraprastara too has undergone a change. There is more spontaneity than deliberate designing, though he occasionally yields to the temptation of mathematical permutations.”

Srikantan only got better and better in all these respects, so that in his nineties, he was in full possession of his faculties physical, intellectual and musical. About the mathematical permutations, there was never any need to complain, as his arithmetic had its own beauty; never lost its umbilical connection to the ragas he was painting.

Returning to the theme of Srikantan as the archetypal guru and de facto oracle, Sruti was fortunate to hear some of his views and thoughts on matters relating to the teaching of music.  I ‘ll try to list some of these here.

An aspiring vocalist must sing naturally and without effort in a rich and flexible voice. He must be bold and creative as a performer. He must be free from bad habits. He should not be hasty and overenthusiastic to appear on the cutcheri platform.

The teacher should ask the student to listen to the sruti or the key note for a while and then sing sa-pa-sa.

The guru may hum two different notes and ask the student to identify the note that is higher in pitch.

He may sing some notes in one sruti and ask the pupil to repeat the same notes in a different sruti.

He may test the student similarly with a tambura not quite in tune, asking him which of the two strings is higher in pitch. He must train the better students to tune the tambura and other string instruments.

Similarly, he gives several examples of training in laya, stressing the value of the age-old practice of singing at least three speeds as a learner.  He cites varnam singing in three speeds as good training. One of the exercises he conducted with students included the guru singing simple melodies and asking the student to guess the talas.

I found Srikantan’s methods of voice training most attractive. In an interview to Sruti, he said a mellifluous, clear and pleasant voice was a gift of God. It is a delicate organ, easily injured by wrong use.

He gives hope to those not blessed with melodious voices, by assuring them that they can train theirs into musical voices. Here he highlights the benefits of yoga and pranayama, as well as higher and lower octave swara exercises.

Resonant humming is another method of training he recommends. Most important, all the voice training exercises should be practised in four tempos.

An important disclaimer Srikantan puts forth is the distinction he makes between loud singing by forcing the voice and a clear, ringing voice that is the product of good training.

Here, I will quote him verbatim: “A rich, full tone is to be aimed at rather than mere loud singing. Proper management of the voice is the very soul of good singing, or for that matter speaking, also.

Last but not least, he says, “The possession of a good ear is an essential requisite.”

Happily for a listener like me, Srikantan emphasizes lakshya gnana, even more than lakshana gnana, as well as good taste and aptitude for music. “Too much of theory orientation destroys the aesthetic side of the performer, he says.”

Srikantan was an opponent of distance learning.  He was against crash courses. According to him, an enduring student-teacher relationship is the key to true learning.

In his speeches and lec-dems, Srikantan expressed his views fearlessly, but with a gentle touch, despite his stentorian speaking voice. At an interaction organized by Sampradaya, he criticized TM Krishna for singing a varnam as the main piece of a concert. Krishna who was the organizer of the event smilingly quipped, “Let’s discuss this in private later?” I would have been delighted to be a fly on the wall when that discussion took place. Just like my own Venkata Mama, I’m sure Srikantan would have been gentle and affectionate but firm in his pronouncement in the matter.

The most fitting tribute to this extraordinary musician would be for musicians to follow his sterling guidelines and emulate his values, without of course, sacrificing originality. Let’s not forget that he was a self-made musician away from Carnatic music’s headquarters, and he was an innovator as well, for all his respect for tradition.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The KVN bani

By V Ramnarayan
In one of his last concerts, KVN moved listeners to tears with the depth of feeling of his rendering of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s, Varugalamo Ayya, Nandan’s desperate plea before the lord.
It was hardly surprising, for he was known for the emotional impact his music had on listeners, but he was himself always in control of the sruti-and laya-perfect music he purveyed.
Sangita Kalanidhi KV Narayanaswamy’s music continues to have a huge impact on many of the present generation of singers, the youngest of whom probably never heard him live.

I asked some of them why they liked KVN’s singing so much. None came up with an answer that really answered my question. It is as if the young musicians, both men and women, have turned to the quietude and bhava of his singing almost intuitively in their quest for beauty in their art. One of them said she admired KVN’s vocal technique, which he had devised to suit his voice; it put no strain on his voice or physique.
She described his style as a blend of melody and vishayam, with in-built rhythm and without undue emphasis on kanakku.
All the young musicians I spoke to agreed that his niraval singing went beyond stitching words and melody together to seamlessly integrate the rhythmic dimension as well.
Was his voice ever a powerful rather than a mellifluous one? Few recordings prove the existence of such a reality. His career is generally believed to have been divided by a heart condition into two distinct phases. Some of the early recordings hint at a more full-bodied, slightly more akaram-oriented style of singing than the later KVN voice.
But the KVN way has been a continuum uninterrupted by stylistic changes. It is already becoming evident that a number of young vocalists, of his and other sishya paramparas, are proving to be exemplars of his melody-rich school of music. I’m sure we shall soon be regularly speaking of the KVN bani.

His was effortless music of a kind we rarely come across. It has been said that he became “immersed in his music, thoroughly forgetting himself and thereby providing a divine experience for the listener.”
This effortlessness could be very misleading. I generally avoid cricketing metaphors, but I cannot resist the temptation today. Sir Garfield Sobers, arguably the greatest cricketer of all time, did look effortless while batting, bowling or fielding in a Test match. He indeed rarely practised in the nets in his mature years. Hidden, however, were years of strenuous practice, or rather sheer enjoyment of playing the game endlessly on the beaches and grounds of his native Barbados.
Likewise, KVN was known not to labour too much over pre-concert sadhakam in his mature years but to go on stage and sing spontaneously. The effortlessness was therefore more than mere appearance. What were not visible were the years of effort behind it.
His sishyas and associates knew that though he was blessed with natural fidelity to sruti, he was never satisfied during practice until he was certain he had got the notes absolutely right. In fact, sruti perfection was an article of faith with KVN, and lack of it in a sishya was the only thing that ever made him angry. The best tribute an aspiring vocalist can pay to KVN’s memory would be tireless practice to guarantee sruti suddham, not imitation of his style of singing.

Gowri Ramnarayan once said, “Some musicians appeal to the mind, to the intellect. Other musicians appeal to the heart. But only a very few in the history of music appeal to the soul. They charge the spirit within.” She was obviously referring to the rare musician that KVN was.

Could such soulful music rooted in all the vital aspects of music come together in a single musician by serendipity? Perhaps, they can, in one so naturally musical as KVN. But his teachers and mentors other than his Gurunathar Ariyakudi–whom he worshipped—included his father Kollenkode Viswanatha Bhagavatar and Papa Venkataramiah, both violinists, and mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer. (A rare photograph of KVN playing the tavil indicates the extent of his laya proficiency). His love of the Dhanammal school of music and his experience of learning songs from the family were also a significant influence on his music.
All these varied influences must be the background behind his mastery of raga and tala as well as his superb team ethos that invariably energized his accompanists to give of their best in his concerts.
It was my good fortune that I had several interactions with KVN and his family and a whole brood of sishyas—towards the end of the 20th century, right up to a few months before he passed away.
Assigned the task of editing and publishing his biography in Tamil by journalist Neelam of Swadesamitran fame, and an English translation by Justice VR Krishna Iyer, as well as several tributes by his admirers, I ended up also interviewing his family and his disciples including Prashanth Hemmige, Balaji Shankar, Pattabhiram Pandit, Karthik and Sudhir—to add weight to the slim volume.
Through many informal sessions at his home, I got to see at close quarters evidence of his endearing qualities of heart, his natural musicality (including his tendency to even speak in his singing sruti), his lovely habit of whistling some raga or kriti, and his affectionate hospitality. His students, a constant presence at the Narayanaswamy residence at Mandaveli, termed it “sishyakulavasam”. It was KVN and Padma who looked after them with love and concern, not the other way around.
KVN’s son Viswanathan confirms that KVN forgot the world in his pursuit of music. “He did not even know which branch of engineering I was studying,” he told me. He praised the Sruti commemorative volume on KVN soon after his death as the best tribute he read, Pattabhi Raman’s interview with Padma Narayanaswamy in particular.
He drew my attention to a reference in it to a conversation between KVN and Jon Higgins. Higgins wanted to know why audiences sat entranced when KVN was rendering Tyagaraja yoga vaibhavam, but tried to slip away when Higgins sang it. KVN explained to Higgins how to go about investing the song with appeal, but startled him by saying he learnt the song from a Higgins record.

Viswanathan also spoke of KVN’s mastery of concert music. He never asked anyone what he or she thought of his music. Once on stage, he was absolutely confident. He lifted the audience to a different plane when he sang songs like Varugalamo, Krishna nee begane, Enneramum, Aliveni, Mayamma and other favourites like Kana vendamo or Tiruvadi saranam, songs of total surrender. The listener was invariably moist-eyed, but KVN was in full control. According to KVN, a famous mridanga vidwan said he never had to worry about an exodus during tani, because everyone stayed to listen to KVN’s soul-stirring post-main pieces.

Another devoted sishya has been a close friend of mine. The self-effacing, now US-based Tulsi Ram (he was then known as Toufiq Tuzeme) was a French-Algerian disciple completely devoted to KVN, who in turn showered his affection on him. Tulsi fondly recalls how KVN once introduced him to the sage of Kanchi, proudly declaring that the young man was a vegetarian who shunned leather.
He also recalled how KVN enjoyed watching films like Maya Bazaar and Nandanar Charitram at Kapali or Eros cinemas, or during his Berkeley California days watching a kung fu tv serial up to the point sometimes of almost being late for the weekly concerts at the Center for World Music, fortunately only a few yards from the flat. He also remembers with gratitude how KVN and Padma looked after him spending their own money when he was seriously ill and again when he met with an accident. Tulsi never made it as a concert musician, but he could laugh at himself. When I once asked him about his progress in music, he said: “I must be improving. People ask me to stop singing these days. Earlier they would ask me to stop making noise.”

After the book I edited was printed, I made an anxious phone call to KVN inquiring about it, as he had not called to comment on the just published book. Reassuring me, he said, “Bookkai aaraakkum undaakkiyathu? Ramanarayanan allavo?!” (Who produced the book? Was it not Ramanarayanan?)
It was typically kind of him; I had myself not been satisfied with the outcome of the project. He was perhaps making allowances for something the two of us shared: Ramanarayanan had been his given name at birth!

In conclusion, I’d like to say that KVN has left a unique legacy of music rooted in bhava, technically perfect but never designed to show off technical prowess, a model for present and future practitioners to adopt for its total adherence to sruti suddham. Equally important is to remember that KVN’s pure music came from his pure heart and good nature, as Sruti Pattabhi Raman said.