Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Vidushi Jayalakshmi is no more

Chennai, 27 May 2014

Well known Carnatic vocalist Jayalakshmi (82), one half of the famous Radha-Jayalakshmi duo, passed away in the early hours this morning. Ailing for quite a while, she had been hospitalised for about a month when the end came. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

S Rajeswari

Music for Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

To meet S Rajeswari—who has been in the music and dance field for over five decades and hear about her journey from rigorous practice sessions with music stalwarts to kutcheris to natyam performances and to academics—is inspiring.

What strikes you about this unassuming artiste is her confidence and varied musical achievements rooted in a strong pathantaram. She has no regrets about not being a frontline Carnatic vocalist. As she says with a smile, ‘Our duty is to learn. How we use that knowledge is left to Him.’

You have had training from many stalwarts in the field.

I was very lucky to have the best gurus guiding me through my career. I started my training at the age of six or seven under Tanjai Balasubramaniam. I was exposed to classical music as my father, a music enthusiast, was a sabha secretary and we had many musicians coming to our house. My aunts and sisters too learnt music. I continued my training with Ramnad Krishnan. As he became very busy with his performances and could not teach me regularly, he encouraged me to continue my learning with someone who could spend more time honing my talent. Madurai Krishnan agreed to teach me and for the next seven years, I was under his tutelage. Each of these gurus laid a strong foundation in music for me and contributed in different ways to my skills. I was simultaneously trained in Tevaram and Tiruppugazh by Dharmapuram Swaminathan. I learnt so much about tala and laya with this training. I broadened my knowledge in vivadi ragas through S. Rajam. And how can I forget my wonderful years of learning with D. K Jayaraman!

Your education in music did not stop there. Your journey into music theory and academics continued.

Yes. I joined the Central College of Carnatic Music and was blessed once again to learn from giants like T.M. Thiagarajan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, and T Brinda. It was here that a turning point in my career took place. I was 43 when I completed my B.A in Music from Madras University and in 2006 completed my M. Phil. The journey is not over. I would like to do my Ph.D. soon.

Time management seems to be the secret of your success. How did you balance performances and classes?

My day started at 4 am when my father woke me up for practice. There was no chance of sleeping later than that, as his second wake-up call was by splashing water on my face! I started cutcheri performances from the age of 11 . I sang at the Music Academy when I was 15. I was actively singing in all the sabhas by then. I won the AIR competition in both the light music and classical music categories. In 1995, when I performed in the senior slot at the Music Academy, my guru D.K Jayaraman blessed me. My learning never stopped in this period.

Your early focused start in Carnatic music points to a career as a star kutcheri performer. How did this path suddenly change?

You can call it fate! I said earlier that the Central Music College was a turning point for me. In 1967, the college had arranged a lec-dem by veena vidwan S Balachander. I was a student watching and participating in the workshop. A lady who was keenly watching me leaned over and told me that I was singing well and asked if I would go meet her at home. It was none other than the dancer Kamala Lakshman! When she asked me if I could sing for her performance, my father encouraged me to accept her request as she was a senior artiste and it would give me a new experience. His only advice was that they should not change my singing style or control me. I sang for Kamala till 1975 when she moved to the US. I was doing solo cutcheris as well during this period

Looking back do you feel that the move to accompanying Bharatanatyam artistes deprived you of opportunities as a solo artiste

I don’t feel that the quality of my music was in anyway affected by this decision to sing for Bharatanatyam. In fact it added another dimension to my music in terms of emotion, understanding of sahityam and pronunciation. However, it affected my opportunities for solo performances as people felt they had heard my music in dance performances already! When I came back to India from Mauritius in 2000, I applied to all the sabhas informing them that I was available for any concerts and performances but nothing materialized.

Did you find it difficult to adjust to your new role as a Bharatanatyam vocalist?

Not at all. I think once your foundation is strong and you understand the soul of Carnatic music then you can adapt it in any way to suit other art forms. The biggest plus points were that Kamala and most of the artistes I sang for gave me complete freedom with my music. I had an instinctive understanding of what was needed for Bharatanatyam. I used all the techniques of ragam rendition, tanam and neravel to suit the mood and emotion of the dance. My performances with Kamala were a hit. People said the combination of music and dance was a perfect blend.

I have sung for Anita Ratnam, Sudharani Raghupathy, Vempati Chinna Satyam, Chitra Visweswaran, Alarmel Valli, Srinidhi Chidambaram and Rajashri Goutham, to name a few.

You also did nattuvangam and learnt Bharatanatyam…

Yes, I learnt for sometime from Adyar Lakshmanan Sir and was a rasika of Bharatanatyam even before entering the field. In fact for many years, I taught Bharatanatyam till I moved to a house where I was unable to conduct classes at home. I think my foundation in tala especially fom Tevaram and Tiruppugazh singing gave me an understanding of the requirements for nattuvangam and jati composition. It was a natural progression.

What is the main difference between singing for Bharatanatyam and concerts?

The music is the same. I never diluted or changed my music just because I was singing to complement the dance. It is important however to choose the sangadhis and prayogas which suit the abhinaya being performed. Or to plan the neravel or raga alapana based on the what the dancer is communicating. That sense is required to make a performance a success.

In a solo cutcheri one has free rein. The presentation of Carnatic music with all its technical nuances is the focus and the vocalist is the leader.

Tell us about your other roles besides being a solo performer and accompanying vocalist for natyam.

In 1979 I joined my alma mater (Government Music College) as a lecturer. I worked there for 26 years as Professor and later Principal in charge. In 1980, the TV station conducted a music meet for 12 episodes directed by S. Balachander and I sang Carnatic music and Lakshmi Shankar performed Hindustani music. Amazed at my sruti alignment, she asked me if I had a tambura attached to my voice box!

In 1996, I was sent by ICCR, New Delhi, to Mauritius to teach music at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture for four years. I groomed many students in Carnatic music there.

I am at present the arts director at a junior college called La Chatelaine. I teach music at home and to students abroad on skype. I would be happy to train up and coming dance vocalists and pass on my knowledge and experience to them.

You have also composed music for Bharatanatyam.

Yes. I composed many songs for Kamala and full length works like Tiruvachakam and Rukmini Kalyanam. I have composed many jatiswarms and varnams for artistes like Jaya Mani and Rajashri Shankaran.

What is your training like?

My students are trained in a methodical way. I take only individual classes and teach them both practical and theory of music. One of my students in Singapore – Saraswathy Kishan a dedicated and bright artiste– runs Lahari, a forum for music promotion where I am the visiting Professor and Director . Both Saraswathy and I have written a book Ganamrutha Varshini, a Carnatic music guide for students and parents.

Name some of the CDs you have brought out.

I have recorded basic lessons in Carnatic music produced by HMV in 13 volumes, Slokas for children, Marriage songs, Ganesa Stutis and Lalita Sahasranamam for Cosmic, to name a few.

Memorable moments in your career…

A performance in 1983, in which I was singing for Vempati Chinna Satyam, lasted from 630 to 1015 pm. MGR, the chief minister then, attended the function and although he was only supposed to stay for a short time, ended up staying for the whole show. During his speech he mentioned that he had been following my music career for a long time and that he had bought a bhajan cassette of mine which he regularly played in his car while travelling to work. In 1984, because of the efforts of MGR, I received the first Kalaimamani award instituted for dance musicians.

Many great musicians like M.S Subhalakshmi and D. K. Pattamal whom I admired also gave me their stamp of approval after listening to my music. Such words of praise from legends and rasikas alike are my true awards.

I was happy to receive the ’GandharvaNipuna’ award from ABHAI in 2009 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2010 for contribution to dance music.

I enjoyed a performance with Dhananjayan Anna, when he performed a vruttam impromptu and I sang for him. Once during Kamala’s performance, a rasika asked her to perform an item on Muruga which he had written. During the interval, I tuned it and Kamala danced.

TR Balamani

By V Ramnarayan

(Text of a speech at TR Balamani felicitation function at the Music Academy mini-hall on 17 May 2014)

A recent letter from an irate reader—is there any other kind of reader?—criticised us roundly for doing a cover story on the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi. He faulted the Vidyalaya for failing to produce topnotch musicians in its seventyfive years of existence. The same criticism can be laid at the doorstep of many a formal institution teaching the performing arts.

I wonder if it is at all the objective of teaching institutions to produce performers of calibre. Or, turning the question on its head, can great artists be churned out by institutions? Can even a guru ever take credit for an illustrious sishya? Can an illustrious performer produce another illustrious performer?

These are questions without easy answers, but there have been exceptional institutions in the history of classical music. They were made exceptional by exceptional teachers. Gurus like Musiri Subramania Iyer and his own sishya Govinda Rao, for instance. Look at how many outstanding musicians, and even more important, outstanding gurus, such teachers and such institutions have produced.

TR Balamani is one such product of a great guru and a great institution like the Central College of Carnatic Music of yore. She herself has clear views on the role of the guru. In an interview for Sruti, she said to K Venkat:

The onus of producing students of high calibre lies with the guru. The guru must guide and groom the students correctly right from the inception. A guru must set a strong foundation by teaching varnams in great detail. A wealth of music resides in the varnams, and learning and practising as many varnams as you can will set a strong base in order to build a  musical edifice.
Balamani also belongs to another rare breed: the wonderful gurus of Bombay. Again how many of them went from Kerala via Madras to Bombay! These teachers much beloved of their students not only passed on their musical treasures to their little wards at their little Bombay flats as in the case of Balamani, TS Krishnaswami, Bombay Ramachandran, Alamelu Mani or more recently Vamanan, to name a few, but many of them also taught at institutions like Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bharatiya Fine Arts Society, and Fine Arts Chembur.

Much of my knowledge of Balamani came from talking to Bombay Jayashri whom I interviewed for Sruti. She would recall how immaculate her guru’s planning and time management was, how considerate she was of her young pupils.

She spoke of the idlis and hot drinks that would be ready for her at Mami’s pattu class for her to have before going to the afternoon shift of her school. How Mami would have finished her day’s work before 9.30 am and the kitchen would be spanking clean, all set for the class.

Teaching methods may vary and so may the gurus’ ways of appreciating or motivating their students. Many traditional gurus are deeply proud of their disciples’ achievements but are rarely effusive in their praise. I remember as a teenager taking a what I thought was a brilliant diving catch in an intercollegiate match back in the 1960s and everyone praising me to the skies—except my young uncle who was playing for our opponents the Madras Christian College. In the evening, on our way home he said to me, ‘Anda catch nee sumara pidichaeda (Roughly, “That was not a bad catch by you”).’

Later I had the privilege of playing with some great captains and mentors in cricket. My Hyderabad skipper ML Jaisimha was one such senior who rarely praised me. Actually the closest he came to doing so was when he cursed me for doing something wrong and followed up with “I didn’t expect this from you of all people!’ High praise!

I never did ask Jayashri about Balamani’s approach to this aspect of the guru-sishya relationship, but I can guess that she was perhaps a little softer in her approach without going overboard with praise. I know that she is enormously proud of all her wards who have distinguished themselves in different fields. We all know how gifted and accomplished Shankar Mahadevan is, what a mature vocalist Raji Gopalakrishnan is. Prasanna Venkatraman is one of our bright young stars, as we all saw from his nuanced, bhava-rich singing today—and of course Jayashri.

To me even more important than these well known performers are the many genuine rasika-musicians she has produced, the people who have a day job but can do their guru proud whenever they sing in informal settings. I know how sensitively Sabesh can sing, how aesthetically genuine Mala Mohan’s involvement in music is.

Going back to the Bombay school of Carnatic music, I must test your patience with yet another reference to cricket. In my playing days, Bombay was the most formidable team in India—don’t be misled by the way Mumbai Indians are playing these days. Visiting players were sometimes treated with contempt. I remember suffering from an upset tummy and asking for buttermilk at lunchtime on a hot day at Wankhede Stadium, and the official telling me rudely, "Not on the menu!" 

In Carnatic music, the story was different, and every musician, from Bombay Sisters to Prasanna Venkatraman had to migrate to Madras if they wanted to make it big. The story was however quite different when it came to teaching. Bombay produced, and continues to produce some of the finest Carnatic music gurus.

All these wonderful teachers have had one thing in common: the absolute love and support they enjoyed from their families—parents who encouraged them, spouses who stood by them, children whom they nurtured. These gurus also shared these precious family bonds with their students and their families to create an unusual network that transcends all manner of barriers—geographical, language, even genres.

Carnatic music is indeed indebted to these exports from Tamil Nadu. Thanks to the reverse brain drain that has been taking place in recent years we are now able to say today, welcome back Smt TR Balamani. May you continue your great work for years and years at Chennai.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

My heart was always in teaching music


T.R. Balamani in conversation with K. Venkat

T.R. Balamani has long been a name to reckon with in the Carnatic music scene in Mumbai. She is a versatile guru, having trained three generations of disciples in Mumbai, many of whom are renowned performers and teachers. Recently she relocated to Chennai where her daughter lives in an apartment at Mylapore. Excerpts from a conversation with the veteran:

How did your musical journey begin? Who were your gurus?

I grew up in Kerala. My father T.S. Ramanathan encouraged me to listen to a lot of music even as a child. We were four girls and two boys, in the family. We only listened to Carnatic music. My father was a double M.A. –  in Sanskrit and English Literature – from Annamalai University. He was well versed in ragam singing, and could render many small kritis very beautifully. Though he had not learnt the lakshana of music, he had a strong sense of the lakshya. We absorbed a lot of music instinctively from him, whenever he sang at home. As my father used to visit the music department at Annamalai University, giants like Sathur A.G. Subramaniam and others became his close friends, and would often visit our home in Kerala. All these associations, as well as my father’s abiding interest in music, inculcated a passion for music in me and my siblings from a very young age. I began performing at the age of  nine. Initially my father was a little reluctant to allow me to perform as society was more orthodox then, and girls who performed often were frowned upon by polite society.

My first guru was Narayana Bhagavatar. He taught me some ashtapadis and small songs. Whenever he used to pass by our house, he would come in and ask my father, “I want to hear Balamani sing. Will she sing for me now?” He showered me with affection and encouraged me to sing whenever the chance came by. Soon my father began supporting the idea of me performing. I began performing with my sister, T.R. Sarasa, under the name “Thatthamangalam Sisters”. My father was a Post Master in Tripunithura, but refused a promotion as he would be transferred to different towns, and he did not want any kind of break in my music training.

Once we all travelled from Tripunithura to Cochin to listen to Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. All my siblings were as smitten with music as I was. We eagerly went to the concert venue, well before time. I remember Rama Bhagavatar sang Kharaharapriya that day, followed by Tyagaraja’s Rama nee samanamevaru. I was awestruck with his handling of the raga and the kriti. My father had to report early to work the next day. He looked at me at one point during the concert and on observing that I was listening to the music dumbstruck with wonder, he smiled and sat through the entire concert with us. That was the kind of sacrifice he was ready to make for us. I  choke with emotion when I think of those days.

I completed my SSLC at Tripunithura and secured good marks. I had a choice of either continuing my academics, for which I would have had to enrol at the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, or continue my musical journey. I wanted to chose music. My father suggested that I join the Central College of Carnatic Music, in Madras. I readily accepted. I moved to Madras soon after and stayed in a hostel, while studying at the Music College.

I remember when I first went for the interview, I was apprehensive about what I might be asked to sing. I was told that the standard expected of the students was very high. But with the blessings of the Almighty, the interview went smoothly. I was directly enrolled in the 4th  year. I passed out in 1957 with flying colours. Though the principal Musiri Subramania Iyer encouraged me to answer my theory papers in English, I was adamant about writing them in Tamil, as I wanted to master the language. 

My mentors at the college were Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai and T. Brinda. Swaminatha Pillai was very affectionate towards me and taught me many rare pallavis. I also learnt from Chittoor Subramania Pillai. I had opted for the veena as my subsidiary elective in college and thus got to learn from M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar and Devakottai Narayana Iyengar. I learnt the Kalyani Ata tala varnam Vanajakshi as well as many kritis like Janaki ramana (Suddha Seemantini) on the veena.

A couple of years after passing out, at the instance of Musiri Subramania Iyer, I applied for the Central Government scholarship. The panel of examiners were an intimidating lot – Musiri, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, Pazhani Subramania Pillai, and Parur Sundaram Iyer. After being grilled extensively for almost two hours, I was informed that I was selected. Learning from Musiri was an experience in aesthetics. He could paint myriad nuanced hues in an apparently simple phrase, during raga alapana or niraval. He was very appreciative of my niraval singing. After class, I would serve him some tiffin that I had prepared and brought from home. He savoured my cooking. It was a great blessing for me to serve him in whatever capacity I could. I cherish those times. In 1961 I completed my advanced training under Musiri sir. In 1962 I got married, and soon after moved to Bombay.

Was your husband supportive of your musical pursuits?

Oh yes! My husband was very passionate about music, and never once did he discourage me from pursuing music. As much as my parents supported me in my music before marriage, my husband was equally supportive after marriage.

How did your musical journey progress after you moved to Mumbai?

After moving to Bombay, Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, who was then principal of Bharatiya Fine Arts Music School in Matunga, contacted me and requested  me to teach in his institution. My husband was at the time not very enthusiastic about my leaving the house to go and teach music. He preferred that I teach from home. Ultimately, at the insistence of Narayana Iyengar, I began teaching at Bharatiya Fine Arts, and taught there for a few years. I never had any ambitions of becoming a famous performer myself. My heart was always in teaching and training the next generation. I used to regularly send my students to the music competitions held in the sabhas of Bombay. They used to invariably win the tambura prize.

Great legends like Dr. S. Pinakapani, Voleti Venkateswarlu and Nedunuri Krishnamurthi would  often visit us, when they came to perform in Bombay. Once K.N. Mani recorded me singing Manavyalakincha in Nalinakanti raga. On that occasion I had ventured to sing niraval and swaras for that song. He played that recording to Nedunuri sir, and the latter was impressed. He insisted on meeting me. I went to Mani’s house to meet Nedunuri sir and we got about to discussing music. When he asked me to sing, I sang the famous Sankarabharanam pallavi “Chakkagaani bhajana’. After that, every time he visited Bombay, he would always stay with us in our modest little apartment in Matunga.

Once I was asked to perform at Bharatiya Fine Arts, in memory of my guru Musiri Subramania Iyer. My husband informed the sabha organisers that T.K. Govinda Rao was a better choice, since he represented the pristine bani of Musiri. But the organisers were persistent,  so I agreed. As luck would have it, Govinda Rao was present in the audience. I went up to him before the concert and introduced myself. I informed him that I had learnt under Musiri sir while studying at the Music College and then for a few years as a scholarship student. He was very encouraging and told me that it would be a pleasure to listen to any musician trained by Musiri sir. I have a liking for calculations in music and that day too, I sang a pallavi in Dharmavati as the main piece, replete with many rhythmic calculations. After the concert, Govinda Rao came up to me and told me that it was my guru bhakti that had enabled me to perform music of such high quality. After that he became a family friend. Musicians like Madurai Sreenivasan (Cheenakutty) were also very encouraging of my pallavi singing. Once I sang a concert on the radio, featuring rare ragas like Narayani, Sumanesaranjani, and Rishabhapriya. Dr. S. Pinakapani, after listening to the broadcast, called up the radio station and enquired, “Who is that bold woman who performed today? I must meet her!”

Did your daughter take to music as naturally as you did?

My daughter Ranjani Chander picked up music naturally, listening to me sing and teach. Even when she was a baby, I used to take her to all the concerts that happened in Bombay, and she could recognise almost every major raga from very early on. She sang before Voleti sir when he visited us. She was quite young then. He was impressed and blessed her. She has a voice ideally suited to Carnatic music. She has a lot of azhuttham (depth) while singing, something that is essential to our music. She even teaches now.

What is the proudest moment in your career?

The day I was presented the first M.S. Subbulakshmi Lifetime Achievement Award by Shanmukhananda Fine Arts, Mumbai. K.R. Atmanathan presided over the function and presented the award to me along with V. Shankar, the Shanmukhananda president. A few days before receiving the award, I managed to get MS Amma’s phone number from Shanmukhananda and I called her to convey my gratitude. She was such a gentle and humble human being. A rare gem! That is one telephonic conversation that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Among the women vocalists of your time, whom did you idolise the most?

I always had a soft spot for D.K. Pattammal’s music. I loved the depth and the bhava in her music. I also loved to listen to her intricate pallavis. Once, Pattammal was to visit Ernakulam for a concert. A friend of my father’s hurriedly came home that evening and asked me if I would play the tambura for Pattammal. It was like asking me to have paal payasam! I jumped at the opportunity without a second thought. My father arranged for Pattammal and her husband Iswaran to come home to have some coffee and tiffin. When they came, and I finally saw her in person, I could not help myself. I became emotional. Pattammal was most affectionate. She enquired why I was crying. So my father told her that I was smitten with her music, and could not control myself, as I was meeting my idol for the first time. He asked her if after tiffin, it would be alright if I sang a couple of songs for her. She immediately obliged. So I sang Brovavamma in Manji. Pattammal was deeply impressed. Both she, as well as Iswaran, showered their blessings on me.

How did your performance at Cleveland come about?

As already mentioned, I never had any desire to perform, either in India or abroad. But one fine day in 2009 or was it 2010, V.V. Sundaram and his wife Gomati contacted me over the phone and asked if they could meet me in person. They came and met me, and informed me that in recognition of my contribution to music, they wished to award me the Sangeeta Ratnakara title that year, to be followed by my concert. That was the year they celebrated Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai’s centenary. As I am asthmatic, I was initially very reluctant as I was afraid the cold climate might affect me. But they were extremely insistent and I could not refuse after a point. They made all the arrangements and the entire trip was extremely comfortable. They also arranged a solo concert for my daughter. I was very touched by the speeches at the felicitation function. Many famous artists like Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Nagai Muralidharan, Mannargudi Easwaran, and Flute Ramani were present. They asked me to present a lecture demonstration. I told them that I was not used to doing so, and requested if I could address a question-answer session. They readily obliged. I remember Santhanagopalan asked me, “What is the secret of training so many great students?” I replied, “There is no secret to this. It is all hard work (both mine and my students), and the blessings of my parents, gurus and God.”

How were you able to mould so many students to become top-class performers?

I have always treated my students as my own children, my extended family. With God’s grace I have been blessed with students who are equally affectionate towards me. I have never had a student who was a laggard, or was disinterested. They have all been so sincere. All my students are equally important to me  – Shankar Mahadevan, his brother Mani Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashri, her brother Sabesh, Raji Gopalakrishnan, Susheela Raman, Vasumathi Badrinath, Prasanna Venkataraman, my daughter Ranjani, and so many others. They worked extremely hard to master whatever I taught them. It would be unfair if I was to take full credit for their success. But I would also like to add here that my students are not only good performers, they are also good teachers. I have trained them that way. I take great pride when I see my students’ students coming out today as good performers.

How important is it for a student to know  to read and write notation in Carnatic music?

It is extremely important to inculcate reading and writing notation among students from the beginning. If a guru teaches the student a varnam or song, with the notation in hand, we can ensure that the student rehearses the  composition correctly, even in the absence of the guru. This is of course subsequent to having learnt the composition from the guru in person. Notation cannot replace the guru’s importance, but it is vital in maintaining purity of pathantaram. Even years after they have learnt a song, my students can sing it perfectly. They can also teach it correctly to their students. Also I never allow my students to record any class, since the notation, coupled with their memory, is a complete guide.

What about gamakas in notation?

This is up to the guru. The guru must first teach all the nuances of the song and then introduce the notation as a guide to remembering. Notation cannot take the place of the guru. Personally I do not notate gamakas, as in my opinion it is unnecessary.

What are your special insights into teaching methodologies in Carnatic music?

The onus of producing students of high calibre lies with the guru. The guru must guide and groom the students correctly right from the inception. A guru must set a strong foundation by teaching varnams in great detail. A wealth of music resides in the varnams, and learning and practicing as many varnams as one can, both in Adi tala and Ata tala, will set a strong base in order to build a  musical edifice. Every varnam must be practiced assiduously in three speeds. Only then can you hope to master the foundation. The guru must insist on inculcating values like sruti suddham (fidelity to pitch), azhuttham (depth) and saukhyam (ease of rendition) in students right from the beginning. Also the guru must be able to gauge each student’s abilities and accordingly teach them, making learning a pleasurable experience for the student.

In earlier times, we were never taught how to sing raga alapana, or niraval. We were expected to grasp these things as we listened to the guru sing, either in class or in concerts. 

We were also expected to observe this in other singers. But today things have changed. I have taken raga alapana, niraval and swara kalpana classes for my students on innumerable occasions. I generally taught in groups, singing a phrase and then asking a student to repeat it. I would then sing another phrase and ask the next student to repeat and so on. So by the time I finished with the last student, we would have covered six or seven sangatis in that raga. I would develop the class like this.

Also, when I take a particular raga in class, I will first teach a varnam in that raga. Then I will go on to teach three or four kritis in that raga. By the end of the fourth kriti, the student will have a clear idea of the contours of that raga and its specialities. I have always given my all while teaching my students, no holds barred! 

Have you taught instrumentalists too?

Yes, after all, I myself learnt the veena at the Music College. I have students who play the veena, violin and flute.

Do you approve of Carnatic musicians pursuing other genres of music?

I have no such reservations. Each one’s calling in life is different and the paths they cut out for themselves are unique. Some of my own students have been successful in other genres. Bombay Jayashri has had many successful ventures in film music. Shankar Mahadevan, though a good Carnatic vocalist, has now become internationally renowned as a Bollywood and pop singer. My grandson learns the Western keyboard and my granddaughter loves Shreya Ghoshal. I never interfere with their musical choices. I even had some Hindustani singers who learnt Carnatic music from me. Reewa Rathod, daughter of  Sonali and Roop Kumar Rathod, and Sanjeev Chimmalgi, disciple of C.R. Vyas, learnt from me for some time. Sriram Parasuram first introduced them to me, when they evinced an interest in Carnatic music to him. I think music has no boundaries. At their core, all kinds of music speak a universal language.

Today voice culture has become quite the fashion among young Carnatic vocalists. In your opinion, what do you feel is the best way to utilise the voice in Carnatic music?

I think the most important aspect of voice culture in our music is azhuttham.  and full throated singing. Every gamaka, every phrase must be executed with that weightiness and breadth of voice that makes our music unique. I do not support artificial singing, or singing frivolous phrases. That won’t last long. While shouting is unnecessary, full-throated singing in a melodious, well-modulated manner is essential.

How would you guide a student who is weak in laya to sing pallavis?

I would introduce singing in four speeds in the varnams itself. I would often ask my students to sing Viriboni in 4-kalai tala, and maintain the tala speed while steadily increasing the speed of their singing. This is the concept of anulomam used in pallavi singing. So if the varnam is taught thoroughly like this, pallavi singing becomes very easy.

Do you have any advice for today’s Carnatic youth?

I will advise them to listen to music of the highest standard, especially of the old-time stalwarts. The teachers today must inculcate that sense of discrimination among the youngsters to emulate from the music of the titans of yore. They must eschew unnecessary antics and pursue pure music. That will ensure that the best musical values are passed on to future generations. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Girija Ramaswamy

Music for Bharatanatyam

By Anjana Anand

Girija Ramaswamy is a versatile musician who has made a mark in Carnatic music as a Harikatha artiste, vocalist for Bharatanatyam, cutcheri singer and dedicated teacher. A graded artiste of Doordarshan and All India Radio in vocal classical, Girija has been active in the music and Bharatanatyam field for over four decades. She is at present a lecturer in music at the Tamil Nadu Govt. Music College. Her unflagging enthusiasm has been the key to her success.

Your mother played a big role in shaping your music.

I come from a musical family, and without a doubt, it was my mother who made me the musician I am today. My grandmother used to sing beautifully. Although she never took it up as a profession, she had great interest and knowledge in Carnatic music. My mother Savithri Srinivasan learnt Carnatic music from the Music College in the 1960s, passing out with distinction. She used to practise regularly even after I was born. She was well versed in Telugu and could write poetic lyrics at a moment’s notice.

I learnt many things about life from my mother. She was very active till her demise about a year ago. She constantly pushed me to further my growth and learning. There was no question of rest. In fact, she would say that our end should be the only time we take rest – once and for all! That motivation has kept me going all these years. I am always looking for new ways to kindle my interest and learning.

What was your early exposure to music?

When I was about three years of age, she was practising a kriti in Mayamalavagowlai and I started identifying the swarams. Realizing that I had a talent in music, my mother decided to teach me Carnatic vocal. At five, she decided to train me in Harikatha and she requested Sri Saidai Tevaram. T. Natarajan (her Tevaram teacher) to teach me. At first Vaadyar said I was too young to learn Harikatha but at my grandmother’s and mother’s insistence, he finally agreed. The first two stories I learnt were the Kannapa Nayanar Charitram and Karaikal Ammaiyar. Along with my mother I also learnt tevarams from him. Besides learning continuously from my mother, I took part in a lot of competitions in tevarams, padavarnams, padams, keertanams and so on. I acquired an extensive my pathantaram. I can only thank my mother’s strict mentoring for that.

I was more her disciple than her daughter. My guru bhakti towards her was more than my relationship to her as her daughter. In fact, I was more a child with my father! With my mother, I obeyed her to the hilt and never questioned her – even as a mature adult.

Do you remember when you first performed on stage?

I was seven and my family wanted to arrange my arangetram. They were not sure how to go about the arrangements but my vaadyar told them to hold my first concert at the Sankara Math nearby. I was so tiny then and was almost lost in the big crowd there. One of the chief guests Vaidyasubramaniya Iyer presented me with a silver lamp which I still light in my puja room everyday. I soon started performing everywhere and was known as Baby Girija. For my second performance arranged in Alwarpet, I remember my mother coming late for my performance as she was in the taxi behind mine. I cried and refused to sing until I saw her! This is my 47th year as a Harikatha artiste and I can say with humility with the blessings of many great vidwans and well wishers I have been able to develop my talents to this level.

You received many awards and titles at a young age.

The first title I received was ‘Kala Rathnam’ from Pudukotai Sri Santananda Swamigal. I then received the title ‘Naavanmai Mikka Nallisai Selvi’ from my guru in 1970. In 1978, I received the second prize for classical music from All India Radio. It was presented by Lalgudi Jayaraman sir. I received these titles at a young age but at no point did it give make me proud. My mother believed that as you grow as an artist, you must become more and more humble. 

I remember that once I attended my school exams with flowers in my hair as I had to perform right after the exam. As children do, my friends teased me and I retorted that I was talented and could do many things. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, my mother overheard this! She took me to one side and told me that what I had said in pride was wrong and that learning is a lifetime journey. She said that every time I went on stage, it was a test and I was not to ever think that I knew everything. Her words ring in my ears even today. She showed me the path to my music and my life.

What are some of the memorable moments in your career?

When I was about 13, I won the Padavarnam competition and the judge was none other than Brindamma. I remember her saying to me with a twinkle in her eye, “Girija, people say that only I am capable of singing padavarnams but today you have proved otherwise’. I treasure her words of encouragement.

I was the first artiste to record Harikatha for Doordarshan. It was for fifteen minutes and we did not have a TV in those days. I peeped through a neighbour’s window to watch that broadcast!

In 2000, I received the Kalaimamani title for my music for vocal accompaniment for Bharatanatyam.

When did you start singing for Bharatanatyam?

In 1980, Mr. Sankaran from the sabha recommended my name to Dr. Vyjayantimala Bali to sing for her. At that time I did not know what a Bharatanatyam repertoire consisted of. However I chose the padavarnam ‘Atimohamkonda’ in Mohanam. I remember this varnam very well because it requires so much breath control and is so slow paced that when I was young, I found it boring! My mother advised me to learn these varnams as she said it would also help my chronic wheezing. How right she was!

For Vyjantimala’s performance, I sang ‘Sumasayaka’ in Kapi, which I learnt directly from her. In 1981, I got married and moved to Calcutta for a few years. On my return, I joined the Padma Seshadri school to teach music, slokas and Sanskrit. Mrs. YGP asked me to sing for Madhuvanti Arun. From then on, I sang for many dancers –Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Krishnakumari Narendran, Rhadha, KJ Sarasa, Dr. Saraswathi Sunderesan, Parvati Ravi Ghantasala and Shobanato name a  few. At one time, I sang solely for Sarasa Amma’s school which had many performances. The only time I took a break was for my Harikatha performances. I was happy to receive the Sudharani RaghupathyEndowment award from Natyarangam in 2012 for my music for Bharatanatyam.

How did you learn compositions for Bharatanatyam performances?

I would notate all the songs as Sarasa Amma sang during practice. I did not have the habit of recording as we do today. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan also taught me many songs from Rhadha Aunty’s repertoire. I gained experience learning from Dr. Balamuralikrishna and Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan when they composed music for dance dramas.

You taught in Padma Seshadrischool for many years. Did you enjoy teaching?

I loved teaching. So many children have passed out having learnt music from me. I have learnt so much myself from teaching these children. Mrs. YGP often said, ‘Girija, you may be a great performer but let me tell you the satisfaction you will get from training and moulding the lives of children is unparalleled.’ She was absolutely right.

Did you aspire to become a Carnatic kutcheri performer?

I never planned anything. I think our path is predestined. It is true that I lost out on opportunities to become a kutcheri artiste because I entered the Bharatantayam field. Sabha organizers hesitated to give me a slot for Carnatic concerts as they felt I was already singing at their sabhas for Bharatanatyam performances.

Do you teach Harikatha?

Many people have expressed an interest to learn, but honestly, I do not know how to teach Harikatha! This art form has so many aspects to it – music, story telling, sound knowledge of mythology. I imbibed all this at a very young age and it came naturally to me. At PSBB, Mrs YGP encouraged me to teach Harikathato my son which he performed very well in his school days. I encourage my students at college who have good musical skills to learn Harikatha. They learn small stories and perform for the annual day. Unfortunately, after that they do not continue their leaning in this form. Harikatha requires regular practice. Only through experience and performances can you improve.

Which form do you enjoy most, Harikatha or singing for Bharatantyam?

I would say both. Both these forms have some common ground. In Harikatha, I sing and do some abhinaya to animate my stories. In Natyam, I sing and someone else does abhinaya. They require different skills. In Harikatha, you have to be somewhat of a linguist. Speaking in different languages depending on where we perform is important in reaching out to the audience. I make it a point to speak a little Kannada in a performance on Purandaradasa in Karnataka or in Telugu in Andhra. In Bharatanatyam, we have to be alert and watch the dancer carefully. With experience, I have learnt to sing watching every move of the performer. In some performances, a vrittam which the dancer and I performed on stage impromptu has worked even better than the practised items. I am also careful about the pronunciation of lyrics irrespective of the language.

My philosophy in life is simple. I am not ambitious in my musical career because I believe that opportunities will come to us if we are dedicated to our art form. When they come, I believe we must take each performance as an exam and excel. This way, we can focus on the process rather than the result. It makes life so much more satisfying and stress free.

Monday, 12 May 2014

A memorable debut by Rohit Ashok

Rohit Ashok with his grandfather KS Kalidas
By V Ramnarayan
Rohit Ashok’s mridangam arangetram at Raga Sudha Hall on 11th May was one of the more heartwarming debuts of the recent past. An obviously talented young percussionist, the schoolboy also proved lucky in more ways than one.

To be taught mridangam by one of the better teachers around—his grandfather KS Kalidas—a disciple of the eminent Palani Subramania Pillai, as well as his father Ashok Kalidas, was, along with his genetic predisposition to music, surely one of nature’s gifts bestowed on Rohit.

The setting was perfect too, with many top musicians and gurus as well as discerning listeners packing the hall in an obvious show of affection and respect for the lad and his grandfather-guru.

Rohit could not have asked for better vidushis or vidwans either to accompany on this all-important day of his life. Vocalist Sumitra Vasudev and violinist Dr R Hemalatha are both fine artists, among the most accomplished and nuanced musicians around, but rendered even more apposite for the occasion by their empathy for the young percussionist.

The main suite in 
Todi was exquisitein raga alapana, kriti rendition, niraval and swaraprastara, in more or less equal measurethough to me the raga alapana was the best part, with vocalist and violinist delighting the ear with unexpected phrases as much as keenly anticipated ‘known’variations. 

When Sumitra sketched the higher notes with some brilliant strokes, I was eagerly expecting her to stay there for a long while, but she descended rather soon from the peak after some tantalizing glimpses of the grandeur of the raga at that altitude. Perhaps she will let herself go completely on another occasion, getting drowned and drowning us in turn in the flood of her imagination. Hemalatha was delicacy personified. In the way she embellished the main artist’s explorations with her own creativity without once exceeding her defined role as accompanist, Hemalatha was true to her consistent propensity to do so, regardless of the stature of the main artist.

A festive atmosphere pervaded the concert, with the rasikas palpably willing the boy on towards an excellent display befitting the occasion, and he did not disappoint us. When, during the course of her felicitatory address, Sangita Kalanidhi R Vedavalli confessed her nervousness about the effect of two hours of drumming on the youngster’s soft, adolescent hands and finger, she was reflecting the collective anxiety of the audience. But Rohit passed the test with flying colours, demonstrating the efficacy of the intelligent hard work he had put in through years of abhyasa.

Both Vedavalli and fellow speaker Sangita Kala Acharya PS Narayanaswami blessed the boy wholeheartedly, after certifying him to be a true legatee of the great Palani tradition of percussion. They expressed their admiration for the youngster’s confidence and spirit of adventure in doing a tani avartanam in jhampa tala and his courageous rhythmic sallies, while acknowledging Sumitra’s contribution in the ‘merciless’challenges she set him. 

They both applauded Kalidas’s thorough preparation of his ward for the occasion, as they did the general high quality of his disciples, two of whom helped young Rohit on stage. 

Rohit’s parents played a dignified part in the proceedings of the evening, while honouring the guests on the dais and delivering a vote of thanks. 

The prayer song by Brinda Manickavasagam and the compering by Nikila Shyam Sunder measured up to the overall standard of the evening’s fare.

Friday, 9 May 2014

In step with the times

By S Janaki

29 April 2014  It was a riot of colours as young girls in pavadais, teenagers in half-saris or salwar-kameez, and women draped in saris stepped into the atrium of the Citi Centre mall on Radhakrishnan Road in Mylapore, Chennai. They mingled with the shoppers and hung around the kiosks enjoying their ice-cream, or snacks and hot drinks, or simply window shopping.

At 5.30 pm the music flowed in from the audio system placed strategically near a kiosk, Taking the cue, a few senior dancers casually walked to the centre and broke into adavu movements. As the music played on, more and more dancers joined in groups of five or six. 

In a jiffy, there were as many as 75 classical dancers on the floor. And what did these Bharatanatyam dancers perform? The centuries old Ganesa kavuthvam. Shoppers crowded in, and spectators watched from every floor as they clicked on their cellphones, television cameras rolled and the event was even telecast live on NDTV.

The flash mob was organised by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) to mark World Dance Day. It was a delight to watch young students dancing alongside senior artistes. At the end of the kavuthvam, the audience was asked to join the dance to instrumental music and many did so with enthusiasm. The artistes joined hands with the audience and danced in circles, even as some of them performed solos in perfect harmony. Holding a banner proclaiming ‘Viswa Natya Dinam’ two ABHAI members danced their way through the crowd. And as the music faded away, the dancers struck poses and  the crowd cheered. It was a joyous celebration. “We want classical dance to reach more people. We want to de-mystify it and share its celebration,” said Chitra Visweswaran, president of ABHAI, minutes before she was swept into the swirl of colour and movement.

The objective of World Dance Day as declared by the International Dance Council in 1982 is to reach out through dance to places where it is not usually performed. At the end of the presentation at Citi Centre, the message had been successfully and artistically communicated.

“It is the first time I am seeing a flash mob by so many classical dancers. It is beautiful to watch them,” said an onlooker. “It is such a delight to watch so many of them in traditional attire in a swank mall, performing classical dance,” said another.

“It was amazing to dance in a mall to a mixed audience. I am happy to be a part of it,” said a young dance student. “We demonstrated that classical disciplined dancing can also give so much joy,” said a senior dancer-teacher.

How did it all happen? It was an instance of putting social media and technology to good use. The idea of a flash mob mooted in a casual group conversation among dance lovers on Facebook was formally placed before the President of ABHAI by a board member of AAT. Enthused by the idea, the committee swung into action  and initially thought of the Kapali temple in Mylapore as the venue, but younger members came up with the idea of performing in a mall.

With barely a few days to go, arrangements were stepped up. Emails were sent out, and the youtube link of the Ganesa kavuthvam was sent to the dancers who had registered so that they could learn the item. The entire group met just a couple of hours before the event, when the ABHAI committee members tweaked the action into place. The dancers then proceeded in small groups to the Chennai Citi Centre, and what followed made everyone sit up and take note. The AAT crew led by its CEO Rathish Babu and film director and producer Sharada Ramanathan played a major role in facilitating the action.

In the midst of election fever, classical dance caught the attention of the media which generally shies away from coverage of things classical! The flash mob made a splash.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Ganesa Natyalaya celebrates Ruby Jubilee

Ganesa Natyalaya celebrated its Ruby Jubilee (40 years) on 26th April 2014 at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi. Eighty five disciples of Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan, Founder President of Ganesa Natyalaya (Padma Bhushan awardee) performed Bharatanatyam on the occasion. The function was presided over by well known art patron from Chennai, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti (Padma Shri awardee). The Shreshthakala Pracharak Award instituted by Ganesa Natyalaya.was presented to two eminent exponents of classical dance — Bharatanatyam exponent and guru Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar from Chennai, and Mohini Attam and Kathakali dancer-scholar Dr. Kanak Rele from Mumbai (both Padma Bhushan awardees). The two stalwarts were honoured for their deep commitment and dedication to promote Indian culture, especially Indian classical dance.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Children's workshop on heritage

By Marabu Foundation

We, the children at Marabu Foundation, are going to enjoy our summer holidays differently. We have started  learning Bharatiyar songs and we read story books which Athai has got for us. If you are wondering who Athai is -- it is Dr. Rama Kausalya who founded the Marabu Foundation and runs it with so much love and care. Every day Athai prepares tiffin for us and also explains to us how to prepare it. 

From 1st to 4th May we will have a number of workshops which will include group singing, flower-string making, drawing kolam, a crash course in computers, and a heritage walk around our village. We will be attending special lectures about our culture and heritage too.

Guess what, we won't be following a strict time table. Some of us will participate in the workshop on Marriage Songs from 9th to 11th. On 14th and 15th May we are going to sing Thirumurai songs during the Sapthasthanam Festival. From 17th to 19th we will attend a workshop to learn Tamil and English in which  most of us are not up to the mark! We will them be taught traditional games. Summer vacation promises to be fun!

The INTACH Tanjavur Chapter, under  Babaji Raja Bhonsle, Senior Prince of Tanjavur is going to help us in these projects.

We are going to videotape our games like Pallaanguzhi  and send the recording to Singapore Rhythms Society for the children there to learn them. And we have a few more interesting things
up our sleeve!

The aim of the Marabu Foundation is to promote peace and harmony  through traditional arts, literature and education. 

It functions from  

Jatavallabar House, 6/78 Thillaisthanam, Thanjavur - 613 203.
Phone No. 04362-260606