Monday, 29 June 2015

K.P. Anil Kumar

Musicians in Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

Mridanga vidwan Professor KP Anil Kumar is a talented musician who hails from a traditional family of musicians. He has made his home in Kalakshetra, where he has been for more than thirty years. One of the few mridangam accompanists adept at both music and Bharatanatyam concerts, he is an A’ grade artist with All India Radio, Anil Kumar is known for his keen sense of humour and quiet confidence. He talks to Sruti about his decision to remain in Kalakshetra away from the limelight.

How did your training in mridangam begin?

I come from a family of musicians. My father and first guru K.P. Bhaskar Das, a mridangist based in Calicut, also played for Bharatanatyam. He was working in an institution where Kalamandalam Chandrika was teaching dance. They used to travel a lot performing with the dance-drama troupe. I used to accompany my father for these programmes and assimilated a lot by participating. I played the mridangam and tabla for many of their shows and this continued till I was about nineteen years old. My siblings are also in the arts field. My brothers play mridangam and tavil and my sister is a dancer.

You came to Kalakshetra in 1979. Tell us about that experience.

I came to Kalakshetra to continue my training in mridangam. I also studied under Pudukode S. Krishna Iyer and Palghat Raghu during my holidays. I learnt vocal music while I was a student and even a little Bharatanatyam with Sarada Hoffman! After three years, I left Kalakshetra to work outside and came back in 1984 as a staff member.

I have to say that my extensive practice and confidence also come from playing for Kalakshetra dance-dramas for almost 30 years now. Even today, playing for Rukmini Devi’s Ramayana series gives me the most satisfaction.

What was the first dance-drama that you played for in Kalakshetra?

In 1980, Athai (Rukmini Devi) began working on Ajamilopakhyanam and they needed a mridangist to be present during choreography. That was how I was first introduced to dance-dramas. Adyar Gopi used to play for the dance-dramas in Kalakshetra then. For the first show, he played mridangam and I played the maddalam. 

After you left Kalakshetra, did you work with other dancers?

Yes, I worked extensively for Adyar Lakshman. I must say that it was he who gave me sound training in playing for dance. I also worked with Chitra Visweswaran.

How did you come back to Kalakshetra?

In 1983, Rukmini Devi invited me as a guest artist to play for the dance-dramas. In November 1984, I joined Kalakshetra as a teacher. 

Was the mridangam training in Kalakshetra exclusively directed at Bharatanatyam?

No, it was a regular course. I would like to introduce a certificate course to train mridangists who are interested in playing specially for dance.

What are the challenges for concert artists face as accompanists for Bharatanatyam?

The base is the same for both. The difference lies in how we adapt to the needs of the other art form. One has to have a basic understanding of the adavu system and learn to respond to the footwork of the dancer. Instinctively, as kutcheri players, we play for the sahityam or the jati composition. However, if we follow the footwork then the dancer gets support from the percussion. In a jati, the pattern of the adavus composed may not necessarily go with the jati kanakku. There are cross rhythms created and the dancer’s footwork gets enhanced if the mridangam can play those patterns. To put it simply, it is like learning to swim in a pool after swimming in the sea. One has to adapt.

Did you make a conscious decision to be a Bharatanatyam accompanist?

As I grew up watching my father play for Bharatanatyam, it was a natural decision to continue in this line. I came to Kalakshetra mainly to get a recognised diploma and stayed on in this field. However, I continued playing for kutcheris. Till today, I am comfortable switching from one to the other. I have recently been auditioned for the A-top grade at All India Radio.

How difficult is to straddle both worlds?

Although the initial training is the same, the application is completely different. If one loses touch with playing for kutcheris, then it is not easy to get back to that line. The fingering may be the same but the chollukattus are different. Bharatanatyam accompanists who have been only playing for the adavu system will find it difficult to be mainstream performers. Manodharma is common to both, but a mridangist must develop his skills to manage a tani avartanam in a kutcheri. That requires a different kind of practice.

Many mridangists are now composing jatis for dancers. What is your opinion about this recent trend?

In the olden days nattuvunars composed jatis because they knew dance and had a strong command of tala. There are certain chollukattus which are meant specifically for dance. A mridangist who has been in the dance field is an ideal person. However, in my opinion, it is better not to mix traditional mridangam chollus with natyam chollus when composing Bharatanatyam jatis.

Having been in Kalakshetra for many years now, any regrets about not being a freelance musician?

I have no regrets. I did try to start my career outside Kalakshetra in the 1980s but found that it was not financially viable. In those days, a show in Delhi or Kolkatta would take me out of Chennai for a week because of the travel. I could only accept two or three shows a month.

Being in Kalakshetra has not only given me financial stability, but has kept me busy in the field that I enjoy. Besides the work at the college, I have time to develop myself as a kutcheri artist. It is the best of both worlds.

Any advice to young artists who wish to take up mridangam as an accompaniment for dance?

I think it is very important that they spend time practising mridangam in a dance class and learning how the adavus are executed. It is not enough to play well. One has to know how to support the dancer without distracting. After all, it is teamwork which makes a performance successful.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

[Note: Anil Kumar referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Top honour for Sanjay

21 June 2015

Sanjay Subrahmanyan to be Sangita Kalanidhi

The Music Academy, Madras, has announced that vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan, 47, will receive the Sangita Kalanidhi award in this year's annual conference there.

The other awards announced are:

Sangita Kala Acharya awards
Vocalist Mysore GN Nagamani Srinath
Percussionist TH  Subhash Chandran

The TTK awards
Nagaswara vidwan Seshampatti Sivalingam
Veena vidushi Kamala Aswathama

Musicologist Award
Dr Gowri Kuppuswami

Pappa Venkataramiah award for violinist
MS Mani

Natya Kala Acharya
Alarmel Valli
This award will be presented on the inaugural day of the dance festival in January 2016.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

How not to be a rasika

By Subhashini Goda

Let us admit it. We have all, at some point of time, been unruly in a concert hall. While some of us do feel awfully guilty about it, most of us would pass it off as a rare occurrence, and as an error of negligible nature.

Such errors sometimes happen all at once.

To parody Shakespeare's words, “When errors come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”!

And so it happened that I found myself in the middle of a packed average-sized, little-too-cold hall, eagerly waiting for a friend of mine to begin her solo Bharatanatyam recital.

For the first fifteen minutes, I did stay immune to disturbances around me, I was absorbed in the narrator’s explanation of the event to follow, the hall d├ęcor, the orchestra fiddling with their instruments… and then I heard it.

The smart phone that someone “accidentally” put on loud. With one of those indecipherable verses. First rings, and then continues to ring. Would they not answer it? Yes, the person chose to answer it, right in the middle of the concert, and barks a loud “Hello!!! Where are you now?” even as my friend’s tisra alarippu fades into the backdrop. By now a couple of us are staring at the phone-wielding person who sheepishly, but nevertheless loudly, continues to give directions to the concert hall. 

One down, and the alarippu has ended. Time for the varnam, the masterpiece – and are we so eager and expectant! Yes, most of us, except the three women behind me, who clearly have not seen each other for a good ten years at least – how else can one explain the amount of news they just had to share with one another, even as the Bhairavi raga struggled, with no luck, to attract an audience? And the louder the song, the louder their voices carried over it to make themselves heard. By now, more than half of us were more interested in the trio’s recollective capacities than my friend’s emotive ability.

Must I even mention the number of times I saw a light switch on (from the smart phones of course), for checking messages, typing messages, receiving messages, looking up calls, calling someone, calling someone back, trying to call someone, trying to take a video, taking pictures? And then there was constant light! And then someone wanted to eat, like eating popcorn at the movies.

As the commotion began to settle like dust on a dirty highway, I suddenly noticed a pair of fingers go up in the air and play an invisible mridangam. Indeed, one of the rasikas was so involved, he had to play the talam, albeit erroneously. Most of us would have been happy if his fingers were lowered. 

“Sir, could you please move left?”, “Thambi, please sit down”, “tchh”, “Ayyo, why are you sitting in front of me, I cannot see anything!”, and the voices continued to harass my ears even as the varnam concluded loftily. Kids were screaming on my left and right, some were shifting incessantly in their seats, some even shifted seats incessantly, some kept asking their parents to leave with them as they were bored, some wanted to use the restroom--all in a span of one hour. I saw the main door open and close a good thirty times--for people to walk in fourteen to forty minutes late and people to leave halfway or towards the end. I saw people greet one another noisily and get up to hug and invite others to their own shows, right in the middle of the hall, where the show was going on.

And then she was dismissed with an “Oh I saw her perform last season, absolutely no feeling!”

Why should we indulge in loud-mouthed criticism in a concert hall when someone is on stage performing for us to watch? Is it not disrespect to the artist? To the art form itself? What are we trying to prove? That we have seen better performances? Why can we not stay till the end of a show? And most important, how would we feel if someone were to do the same to us when we performed? We all know how it is to talk to an uninterested bunch of people, and yet we repeat the same mistake over and over again?

We need to learn the ethics of behaving in a concert hall, as much as we learn the ethics associated with art itself. We need to cultivate that sensitivity, that minimum sensibility and mutual respect. For, only with a good spectator is a good artist born.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Naada Yoga – celebrating music and yoga

By S Janaki

Music is a discipline, so is yoga. Both are meditative, involve breath control, create positive energy and wellbeing if practised properly. You are in for a double treat – of music and yoga – this weekend (20 and 21 June) in Chennai on the occasion of World Music Day and International Day of Yoga. The Naada Yoga Music Festival is being organised by The Art of Living and Carnatica on Saturday 20 June from 5 pm at the Music Academy.

Carnatica (founded by K.N. Shashikiran) has been celebrating World Music Day for several years now. What is special this year is that Naada Yoga is in aid of education for the less privileged. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living has identified about 75,000 children in Corporation schools across Chennai to equip them with life skills. The cost works out to Rs. 200 per child and the two collaborating organisations hope to raise substantial funds for the cause. Star Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, who is participating in the special programme on the 20th, has already come forward to support 200 children, and they hope many artists and music lovers will follow suit. A single donor pass is priced at 100 rupees and couple-passes and such are available for those willing to sponsor the wellness of several children.

The Naada Yoga festival celebrates music and yoga. True to the meaning of "yoga" which means "coming together", the event seeks to bring together several aspects under one roof. The event opens with a Children's Symphony comprising  150 members, which has been practising under Dr. Sudha Raja's baton for about three weeks to combine melody and harmony. Aruna Sairam will not only present a musical bouquet of songs in different languages, but will collaborate with the Manganiyars and also include a "sing along" segment with the audience. The Manganiyars from Rajasthan are a perfect example of communal bonhomie, with their heady music combining rhythm and melody, the secular and the spiritual. For instrumental you have the Hindustani music maestro Vishwamohan Bhatt playing on his very own Mohanveena, and the young "Keyboard Sathyanarayana" who plays Carnatic music, dabbles in fusion and arranges and composes music. The whole event has been conceptualised and curated by K.N. Shashikiran, Founder and Trustee of Carnatica.

On Sunday morning, The Art of Living Tamilnadu chapter is organising the  Yogathon –  a mega public event –  from 6 am to 8 am, at the Pachaiyappas College Grounds to celebrate the United Nations International Day of Yoga. Participation is free.

On World Music Day (21 June), in the evening, Carnatica is organising a global virtual music workshop called "Gurukool-Gurukul" under the Vidyadaan project. The live session, to be conducted at Arkay Convention Centre in Chennai, from 6 pm by eminent teachers like vidwan Neyveli Santhanagopalan, will be streamed live on

For more details contact Shashikiran at 9840015013 / 9444018269 or Vidyut Udiaver at 8754596056 / 9841019715

Friday, 12 June 2015

M.D. Ramanathan and fishing

Venkatasubramanian Viraraghavan

As I listen to Poorvakalyani by MDR, I am reminded of many things. The first is M.D. Ramanathan’s fame for keeping the raga intact even when not adhering to the raga “rules” perfectly. In this Poorvakalyani, he uses many phrases that a critic could object to: phrases such as MDN, PDN with emphasis on the N, and quite unbelievable too, as a long note.

My brother used to say that there will be confusion about ragas only if the confusion already exists in the performer’s mind, which then “percolates” to the listener. As long as performers have watertight compartments in their own minds, no amount of “incorrect” swara sancharas can sully that division. And, that is exactly what MDR once said: “If you want the real Hamsadhwani, you must forget SRGPNS, SNPGRS.” In this case, he practised it in Poorvakalyani. I think this is the point where the scientific analysis of music breaks down. It may take aeons before we can scientifically explain why an “incorrect” swara sanchara may not cause the listener to feel that the raga’s identity is becoming ambiguous. Borrowing from MDR’s article (and I believe now that he wrote this statement with full understanding): the science and the art of music presuppose the existence of each other. Without resolving this conundrum, I feel it is not possible to preserve the raga boundaries. Approach it scientifically and it sounds contrived; approach it emotionally and it lacks rigour.

The point is that MDR had understood how the science and the art of music can both presuppose the existence of the other; he understood the balance between the two.

MDR had those watertight compartments and while immersing himself in a raga he “forgot” the arohana and avarohana. Then, how did he approach the swaras? The wonder doubles. In the swara mode, you realise that he could “hit” any swara at will: as in a phrase like SM;GRS in Poorvakalyani. This is another tricky balance – he could sing any note in a plain manner, but he could 'forget' the notes to bring out the best in the raga. I am pretty sure he would have managed to sing spot-on a computer-generated random sequence of notes without confusing the raga’s identity.

When I realise that he has not sung this type of Poorvakalyani elsewhere (at least not in my collection of about 60 concerts), another memory comes back to me. When in the 12th standard, we had a lesson called The Badger by Jug Suraiya which describes how a teacher keeps the pride of his position intact in the face of adversity. During the narrative, it mentions the purpose of fishing (yes, fishing). The point of fishing, it says, is not to catch the fish and show them off or eat them (doesn’t philosophy begin on a full stomach?), it lies in the joy of catching the fish and then letting them back into the water. Sometimes, when I listen to MDR's music I imagine that he did precisely that: he caught fish from his manodharma stream in each concert and threw them back in. In the next concert, he would catch a different set of fish, but he was certain to throw them back in. Perhaps, that is what kept him going – the insatiable desire to keep fishing, but never yielding to the temptation to hoard fish.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Guru, Guide and Grandmother

By Shreya Adiraju

Remembering Suguna Purushothaman. Salt is the key to everything, it brings to life the structure of the rasam. Add it too early, and the rasam gets too salty; add it too late, and it just floats around and doesn’t really get absorbed in the liquid. Suguna Mami’s rasam was always perfect – bright, smooth, energising, and both sweet and spicy at times. She would stand at the stove, deftly swirling in ingredients with one hand, the other gripping the edge of the counter for balance. I would shadow her, quickly reaching into cabinets to be ready as she called out for certain ingredients, but also on guard as she drilled me with raga and gamaka  questions or even delved into an explanation of some raga that just popped into her head. 

Cooking sessions and many other similar instances with Mami were almost as important to me as class. As her student, sishya, and most often, granddaughter, I saw Mami in many forms and in each instance my respect and love for her grew. A devotee of music itself, Mami was also one of Carnatic music’s greatest muses and facilitators, much like the salt in her rasam. The intensity but delicate grace with which she sang, composed, and taught was unparalleled and unmatched. 

Mami often spoke of her father, a lawyer and “her first guru”. She once fondly recalled how her father would walk her to Panagal Park – the most popular park in Chennai at the time, just to hear the evening radio station play classical music. They would listen to the late greats together, Tiger Varadachariar, M.S.  Subbulakshmi, and other icons such as her own main gurus, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. 

In the spring of 2014, I left my job in Chicago, U.S.A. to spend time with Mami. As a remote student shuttling back and forth for about ten years, I was growing more frustrated about getting to spend time with Mami in bite-sized portions. Then, 2014 hit and the urgent itch of wanting to go to India grew month by month, the odd feeling soon taking over my daily thoughts. So, I finally took the risk, quit my professional life and moved alone to Chennai to be with her. 

Living in Chennai was a struggle, with few contacts, no knowledge of the language, and the pains of adjusting alone to a foreign place. I was far from home, friends, finances in some sense, and everything I knew as comfort. Every day I would shuttle to Mami’s house in the morning and stay as long as it was safe to do so without worrying about taking an auto home in the dark. I would complain of my transportation and living woes and Mami would patiently listen. She would tell me stories of how she jumped from bus to train to walk, juggling her jam-packed schedule of teaching music, going to school, and somehow fitting in her own training  – all from the age of 16 or so. I would sit cross-legged on the floor, laughing with her, recorder in hand for the random bursts of music wisdom she would mention mid-conversation. Sometimes we would break for tea and rusk biscuits, sipping and enjoying the silence of each other’s presence. 

And of course, there was the music. No class or teaching of a new song went by without some diversion into a unique story or detailed explanation of the colour, flavour, and the magnitude of bhava that sit within the body of the kriti and pulse  through the veins of the raga, while the tala, like the muscular system flexed and held strong to support the entire effort. Mami eloquently and elegantly explained and directed my musical development, always pushing me to reach beyond what I thought I could handle. She was a traditionalist but never married herself or her teachings to structure and form, and mostly focused on the feeling above all. As she was a descendent of the great saint-composer Tyagaraja’s sishya parampara, bhakti almost came before the output of music itself. That being said, she held a tight standard for sruti and technical perfection and did not let even a single gamaka go untouched. Also a student of mridangam master Thinniam Venkatarama Iyer, Mami was a genius of beats and the display of them, notably her ‘Dvi-tala avadhana’ (putting two different but parallel beat sequences on each hand). 

On top of this, Mami would every so often delve modestly into her own compositions and the creative bursts leading to them. Whether it was on a train or visiting a remote temple down South or in an endless bout of musical thought-ridden insomnia (that I quickly started developing from her), her own compositions were as beautiful and personal as everything else about her. She would reminisce about how Prof. Sambamoorthy, the famed head of the Music College at Madras University and her professor/mentor, encouraged her even as a young college student to continue composing and let her thoughts flow. 

With all this, I would leave Mami’s house in a fog, my head about to burst. The knowledge, anecdotes, music, and the love and affection overwhelmed me on almost a daily basis. As many instances like this can be, the intensity also lent itself to difficult times. As Mami’s health deteriorated, I struggled to fight my emotions about the situation. Having left everything to be with her heightened the emotional attachment. Seeing and being with her was painful for me, especially knowing that she was in a drastically more compromised state mentally and physically. But, the grace she held throughout her last year was unlike anything else. It motivated me to also find it in myself to hold my composure and see beyond the physical limitations of the human body and the fate it sometimes must endure. Her music served as her pacemaker, her religious nature as her eyesight into the beyond. It was inspiring. 

Mami’s last days invigorated my faith in the beauty of art, the power of music, and the truth in spirituality. She was and will always be the illuminated path that set me on a journey through the art form of classical vocal music and her voice will continue to guide me. Every time I sing a lyric, hold a note, or just switch on my sruti box, my mind moves directly to her voice, affectionate, silly, serious, and pensive at times. As Mami staunchly adhered to her bani and always stressed sincerity and originality in musical thought, it is now my duty to get the salt right and master my own rasam to perfection. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Line portraits of musicians

By Buzybee

'Nadarekhalu', a book  containing 186 pencil portraits of Carnatic and Hindustani musicians drawn by Sathiraju Sankara Narayana (Shankar), was released on 4 May 2015, at the Telugu University NTR Kala Mandiram. P.V.R.K. Prasad (IAS Retd.) presented the first copy to Kamisetty Srinivasulu (former Director of the Annamacharya Project, TTD). The programme started with a concert by up-and-coming musician K S Abhiram, a disciple of  Vyzarsu Balasubrahmanyam. Tanikella Bharani, Ravi Kondalrao, Ayyagari Syamasundaram,  S.V. Ramarao and Vara Prasada Reddy spoke about different aspects of the book.

Artist Sankara Narayana has been very generous in sharing his sketches of musicians with Sruti magazine. He is the brother of artist Bapu who passed away recently. The sketches in the book published by Shantha Vasantha Trust (Dr. K.I. Vara Prasada Reddy) have brief notes in Telugu about each musician, written by vocalist and music guru Vyzarsu Balasubrahmanyam. 

The e-book can be viewed on Youtube and  in the website

Monday, 8 June 2015

Kalasagar awards 2015

By Samudri

The Kalasagar awards instituted in memory of chenda maestro Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval, were presented on his 91st birth anniversary to several artists, on 28 May at Changapuzha park in Edapally, Kerala. The function was inaugurated by the chief guest Balakrishnan Koyyal, Station Director, AIR-Kochi. V.M. Girija delivered the keynote address, and rich tributes were paid to Krishnankutty Poduval by Dr. Mankulam Krishnan Namboodiri, V. Kaladharan and Dr. C.P. Unnikrishnan. 

Apart from Kathakali actor Peesappilly Rajeev, Kathakali accompanists were also honoured. They included Kalamandalam Babu Namboodiri (music), Kottakkal Prasad (chenda), Kottakkal Radhakrishnan (maddalam), and Kalamandalam Balan (chutti or make-up).

Artists belonging to different genres were honoured -- Vayalar Krishnankutty (Ottanthullal), Vallachira C.N. Ramachakyar (Koodiyattam), Kala Vijayan (Mohini Attam), Kalamandalam Sugandhi (Bharatanatyam), Kalamandalam Sangeetha (Kuchipudi), and Kalanilayam Udayan Namboodiri (thayambaka). The Panchavadyam artists felicitated on the occasion were Kelath Kuttappa Marar (timila), Kalamandalam Kuttynarayanan (maddalam), Tiruvalatoor Sivan ( edakka), Kalloor Raghu (talam) and Kummath Ramankutty (kombu).
The finale was the staging of the Kathakali play Baali Vijayam.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Chitrambari Krishnakumar

Musicians in classical dance

By Anjana Anand

Chitrambari Krishnakumar is a versatile artist who has adapted with ease to the Bharatanatyam field. She was selected by the Eyal Isai Nataka Manram (1995-96) under the scheme recognising promising young artists. Since then she has won many awards including the ‘Best accompanying artist’ award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. She also teaches music to students. A B-high grade vocalist with All India Radio, Chitrambari is happy that her music has brought her recognition and that singing has become an integral part of her life.

Does your family have a background in music?

I come from a very musical family. My parents sing. My paternal uncle was a disciple of GNB and I started my training with him. It was at my mother’s insistence that I took to music full time.

Who are your gurus?

My late uncle S. Balasubramaniam and Charumathi Ramachandran.

When did you start performing?

I used to sing a lot of Tiruppugazhs. I also sang light music on stage for a long time. It was only after joining Queen Mary’s College that I came to a stage when I started giving kutcheris.

How did you decide to join the music course in Queen Mary’s College?

Actually, it was not completely my decision. My mother filled up the admission forms and submitted them. I then completed the course and continued my Masters at Madras University. However, I soon realised that my interest was performance oriented. I think my decision to join a formal course was more for a degree certificate.

How did you first enter the Bharatanatyam field?

It happened quite by accident in 1994. My friend Shanthi Sreeram who was singing for Srekala Bharath, woke up on the morning of the performance with a bad throat.With no other option in hand, she requested me to sing for the performance that night. It was an evening of Swati Tirunal compositions. I will not forget that day as I had to learn the whole repertoire of songs in a few hours. My friend sat next to me during the show and gave me cues to move to the next line of the sahityam. That was my grand entry into the Bharatanatyam world.

You sang for K.J. Sarasa’s school for many years.

Yes, I was with them for a long time, singing regularly till 1999. I have also sung for Kamala Narayan, Rhadha, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Hema Rajagopalan, Malavika Sarukkai, Srekala Bharath, Urmila Sathyanarayan and Sheela Unnikrishnan to name a few.

How did you adjust to becoming a Bharatanatyam vocalist?

When I began my music career, I had no connection with Bharatanatyam. After I began singing, I started enjoying the art form and today, I am glad to be in this field. Of course, going for rehearsals was the down side as I was living very far at that time and had to travel a long way for all the practice sessions. Also, as I am from the GNB school where speed and briga are part of the bani, I had to adjust my singing style for dance. However, I benefited in many other ways. My repertoire of songs, especially padams and javalis increased rapidly through my concerts with artists like Lakshmi Vishwanathan.

Any other changes?

Earlier, I used to just sing a composition by noting the number of repetitions. Over time, I started watching the dancer and responding to the mudras she held when moving to the next line of music. Today, I am familiar with the Bharatanatyam language – enough to sing accordingly. So in a way, singing for Bharatanatyam has made me adaptable and a rasika of dance.

Do you feel it is difficult to switch from being a concertartist to a Bharatanatyam vocalist?

Not at all. If your foundation is strong, then you bring classicism to the music which enriches the dance. Of course, one has to be adaptable. Otherwise, music and dance will go on their own individual tracks. Once you have a strong basic training, you can adapt the music to suit its need. My Kalyani raga in a concert will sound different from that sung in a Bharatanatyam performance. In the latter, I have to bring out the emotion and situation that the dancer is communicating. It is still Kalyani but the intent is different. I strongly feel that once you know the rules, you can play around convincingly so that the core of the music is not affected.

An example…

When I sing for niraval whether in a music concert or for Bharatanatyam, I always keep the original sahitya spacing (‘aas’) of the song. That is something T.S. Parthasarathy always advised me. He used to say that the beauty of the niraval was in improvising within the fixed sahitya structure. That is why each form of manodharma is different and exhibits a different skill set. I try to follow this even in a Bharatanatyam performance. 

Have you composed any music for dance?

Yes I have scored music for dance-dramas like Surya, Arupadai Veedu and Chidambara Kuravanji.

Any interesting incidents in performance?

Many. Once I had to sing a todayamangalam, Jaya Janaki in Khanda Chapu, for a dancer. I don’t know what happened that day but I started singing Purandaradasa’s Jaya jaya Janaki kantha which is also in the same tala. Only when I saw the dancer’s bewildered expression did I realise what I was doing! One never knows what happens on stage regardless of rehearsals. That is part of the excitement and spontaneity of stage performance.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

[Note: Chitrambari Krishnakumar referred to her gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]

Friday, 5 June 2015

Deboo performs for Swedish royalty

By BuzyBee

Astad Deboo was invited to perform in the presence of their Royal Highness the King and Queen of Sweden, Crown Princess Victoria, the President of India, Swedish dignitaries and Indian Govt officials, in the Winter Garden at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. The performance was highly appreciated.

Accompanied by live musicians, Deboo danced to three songs -- 'Vande Mataram', 'Oh Varmeland You Fair' (a Swedish folk song), and a dhrupad. The veteran contemporary dancer from India impressed the elite audience with his extraordinary balance, control and grace. "They were delighted with my performance and quite amazed that at age 68 I am dancing with such stamina,” said Deboo.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Ariyakudi phenomenon

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (19 May 1890- 23 Jan 1967)
A disciple's tribute

By Alepey Venkatesan

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar  was the doyen of Carnatic music and the leading vocalist of the 20th Century. He developed a unique style of his own that represented a drastic, epoch-making departure from the prevailing concert in both form and content ; was the architect of  the modern concert format, which, with some minor modifications, is still in vogue. He was a source of inspiration and a role model to the great musicians who came on the scene after him. His concerts used to great advantage the skills of three generations of the greatest accompanists.

Salient features of his music
His music was a compendium of diverse but quintessential features which are the vital ingredients of sound, tradition-based Carnatic Music. These included: a rich and choiceful repertoire of the compositions of a wide array of composers, with central importance accorded in the concert to the inspired creations of the Trinity; the central role of the madhyamakala; the primacy of gamakas, the lifeblood of Carnatic Music; an intelligent voice culture which kept the voice consistently musical under all conditions; facile modulations of the voice (thick gliding seamlessly to thin without making a laboured point of it) facilitating blending with the sruti without the shouting effect, especially in the tara sthayi; the complete and scrupulous avoidance of all ugly and unseemly mannerisms; the importance of finesse in enunciation with just the right amount of stress so as to be intelligible but never so harsh as to degenerate into speech and mar the musical continuity ; the vital role of laya, not as mere finger-counting arithmetic but as the very sheet anchor on which to mount the lilt and majesty of the melodies; the knack of drawing the best out of the accompanists, be they stalwarts or beginners; the antenna for assessing the expectations and absorption level of the audience almost like a mind reader; and last but not the least, the hallmark of true mastery -- the fine art of making the difficult seem deceptively simple.

Early years

Sri Ramanuja Iyengar was born in 1890 to Sri Josyam Thiruvenkatachariar and Smt Chellammal in the village he was to make so famous and synonymous with lively, classical Carnatic Music. Ariyakudi is located near Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. He received his early music lessons from Shri Malayappa Iyer of Pudukkottah. Ariyakudi’s boyhood years were spent mainly in Devakottah & Karaikudi. His father was the court astrologer to the Raja of Chettinad, who patronized Ramanujam and helped him to come up. In his early concerts, there used to be many rasikas from the Chettiar community, who were proud that their “Josyan’s son” had made a mark as a musician. Around the same time, he also received a basic education in Sanskrit (This had a lasting influence, for, throughout his life, his conversations in Tamil always had a liberal sprinkling of Sanskrit words). Through his teens and early twenties, he underwent gurukulavasam under Namakkal 'Pallavi' Narasimha Iyengar in Srirangam for two years and later under Ramanathapuram 'Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar for about eleven years.


When he became a disciple of Ramanathapuram “Poochi” Srinivasa Iyengar, Ariyakudi acquired the privilege of belonging to the “Sishya Parampara” (the Genealogy of  Disciples) of Saint Thyagaraja -Poochi Iyengar’s guru was
Patnam Subramania Iyer, whose guru Manambuchavadi Venkata Subba Iyer was a direct disciple of the Saint.


Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar was often accompanied by Thirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer on the violin. Young Ramanujam playing the Thambura at these concerts was greatly attracted by Krishna Iyer's style, which was one of the profound influences in shaping the Ariyakudi Bani. Other important influences which went into the shaping of the Ariyakudi style were Veena Dhanammal,(from whom he learnt not only Padams and Javalis but the sense of vishranthi and an awareness of gamakas with which he tempered the racy style of  Poochi Iyengar to fashion the Ariyakudi style), Malakkottai Govindaswamy Pillai, Sarabha Sastri and Sakharama Rao among others. Having had the advantage of such close association with the great masters of his time, he evolved a unique, distinct style of his own,  judiciously synthesising the aesthetic graces in the music of his gurus and other inspiring role models.

Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar,popularly known as ‘Poochi Iyengar”, as a tribute his exceptionally flighty voice, was born on the 16th of August, 1860 to Sri Ananthanarayana Iyengar and Smt Lakshmi Ammal in the village of Parpankulam in Ramanathapuram Zilla. The Raja of Ramnad, Sri Bhaskara Sethupathy, discovered his talent when he was a student in the 4th class, patronized him and put him under the tutelage of Patnam Subramania Iyer.

After gurukulavasam for a few years,Srinivasa Iyengar gave his debut concert in the Durbar Mantapam of the Ramnad Palace in the presence of his guru and the Raja, accompanied by Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer on the violin, Alagar Nambia Pillai on the mrudangam and Mamoondia Pillai on the khanjira.

The Raja soon appointed Srinivasa Iyengar his asthana vidwan. After that, there was no looking back. He is said to have been blessed with an exceptionally pacy voice, which could thrill the listeners with its briga sallies. He also came to be respected for his erudition in sangitha sastra and was hailed as a “lakshana vidwan” who composed about 55 praiseworthy compositions, (most of them in praise of the Lord of the Seven Hills) covering different musical forms, such as tana varnam.

Pada varnams, kritis, javalis,tillanas (including one in the “Lakshmeesa” talam, the 106th in the group of 108 talas as well as one in a melakarta tala) and a Kavadi Chinthu. Arguably, he was the most gifted composer of chitta swarams after Syama Sastri and Subbaraya Sastri. He passed away in the year 1919. His senior disciple was Salem Doraiswamy Iyengar. His most famous disciple, who popularized his compositions, was, of course, Ariyakudi.

Before Ariyakudi  

Concert scenario

In the early years of the 20th Century, music sabhas and such other institutions featuring Carnatic Music concerts were few and far between. Those were times when Carnatic Music throve mainly on the patronage of the kings of the princely States, notably Mysore and Travancore, as well as the Zamindars of various principalities of South India. Concerts were infrequent; audiences small and general level of awareness of nuances low. There were no Radio, TV or other organizations to provide exposure to an aspiring musician. Add to all that the Gurukula system which was exploitative of disciples and generally frowned upon youthful enthusiasm and aspirations as presumptuous and upstartish. Even at age 20, one was not considered concert material. Such was the Music Scene that Ariyakudi took by storm in the second decade of the 20th Century. It is noteworthy that he started performing only in 1909.

Concert format

Typically, the concert duration was rarely less than 4 hours, often stretching to five or five and a half hours. One might think this was a long duration by current standards, but strangely, this format accommodated only a Varnam, 4 or 5 kritis and a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. The reasons were twofold. In the first place, raga alapanas and niraval and kalpana swaras tended to be lengthy, repetitive; sometimes boring and monotonous. Secondly, there were atleast two percussion interludes, each taking up thirty to forty-five minutes. Such was the concert format which Ariyakudi revolutionised and transformed so that it metamorphosed into the Modern Concert Format, which has stood the test of time and is still going strong, with minor modifications dictated by the march of time and changing lifestyles of the rasikas.

The Ariyakudi concert format

The modern concert format was fashioned and perfected by Ariyakudi. The most challenging part of the task, which  executed with consummate skill, consisted in drastically reducing the length of raga alapana. The raga essay had to be brief, but without leaving the rasika dissatisfied or with a sense of incompletion. Ariyakudi was the very man for this mission; for, he had both the fecundity of ideas and the fluency of voice to take one on an odyssey through a major raga like Sankarabharanam or Todi in a matter of four minutes, and amazingly, give the listener a sense of wholesome experience of the raga.

Having done that, he expected and successfully prevailed upon his violinists never to exceed his own duration of raga alapana, even if the violinist happened to be a senior artiste like Malakkottai Govindaswamy Pillai. Too, he did not countenance the persussionists hogging a disproportionate part of the concert time. He quietly asserted the primacy of the singer and his prerogative as to time management for the success of the concert. His charisma and leadership were such that even senior accompanists had to fall in line.

When he reduced the alapna duration, his innate sense of proportion led him to suitably prune the time spent on niraval and kalpana swaras. For example, if he sang a raga for 3 minutes and the violinist would play for 2 & ½ minutes, the kriti was rendered in 4 minutes, he would sing kalpanaswaras for no more than about 4 minutes. If niraval was sung, that might take another 4 minutes or so. Contrast this with what we often find even in 2&1/2 hour concerts. The musician goes on with a single suite(raga,kriti, niraval & swaras) for almost an hour; and as a result, is forced to make short shrift of the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in under 15 minutes. Such intelligent apportionment of concert time as he practised is more relevant today, since the concert duration has shrunk to less than half. Though he sang many scholarly, complicated pallavis, he also composed an array of short, entertaining pallavis, to be deployed according to the time available for the Pallavi in a particular concert. In his case, this usually happened in those concerts in which he had not planned to sing a Pallavi but a belated request cropped up. As a policy, he would not turn down rasika’s requests, even if the timing was not too good. Once such a request came, the concert time would automatically get extended, enough to do justice to a small pallavi.

All of the above measures freed up a substantial chunk of time. He utilised it in two ways. In the first place, he could present many more ragas and kritis in each concert than would have been feasible under the previous dispensation. Secondly, he made the tail-end miscellany longer, far more varied and interesting.

The Consequences of ’s Concert Format. The first and most obvious effect of his format was that there was no such thing as ennui in an Ariyakudi concert. With one stroke, he transformed the desultory, bored, yawns into joyous enthusiasm, keen interest and edge-of-the-seat anticipation. The listeners were delighted to be treated to a wide variety of songs of different composers in many
more ragas than had been in vogue in concerts. It also helped that he sang in Sanskrit and in all the South Indian languages as well as a few bhajans in Hindi and Gujarati.

Secondly, he brought a striking novelty, variety and popular appeal to the post-Pallavi miscellany segment of the concert. His famed concerts at Gokhale Hall, Madras in the 1920’s & 1930’s used to start at 4-15 p.m. on Sundays. At 8 p.m., he would launch the miscellaneous fare, by which time the hall was overflowing with college students, ready to raucously shout for an encore on every item. He used to present Javalis, Tiruppavais, Thiruvempavais, Tiruppugazh, Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam, (he was the tunesmith for most of these), nationalist/patriotic songs inspired by the Freedom Movement in different languages. The young men who came in droves to listen to this light fare later came to the earlier part of his concerts and learnt to appreciate his ragas, kritis, niraval, swaras and even Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. In this manner, Ariyakudi educated atleast two generations of music lovers, by gradually raising their awareness and levels of appreciation.

But by far and away the most significant consequence of this concert format
that  created and perfected was this. But for such a format which accommodated several songs even in a two and a half hour concert, many great and precious compositions of the Trinity and other great vaggeyakaras might have gone out of currency and been lost to us. 

(To be continued)