Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Pappu Venugopala Rao honoured

Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao, eminent scholar, academician, and writer was presented the title of 'Natya Kala Visaaradah' by veteran artist Vyjayanthimala Bali  at the inaugural function of the 36th Natya Kala Conference on 26 December 2016 at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai. Y. Prabhu, General Secretary, SKGS and Natya Kala Conference Convenor Dr. Srinidhi Chidambaram  look on.

Friday, 23 December 2016


 An exciting opportunity for emerging Carnatic vocalists below 25 

TAG Corporation and Karnatic Music Forum, both involved in promoting Carnatic music, and Sruti, India’s premier performing arts monthly, join hands once again to conduct the third edition of the annual Talent Hunt to spot five top voices in the field of Carnatic music.

The TALENT HUNT will be held from 9th to 14th January 2017 at TAG Centre, Alwarpet, Chennai.

Applications are invited from young, aspiring vocalists looking for opportunities in the Carnatic music performance space. The applications must be accompanied by the applicant’s biodata and audio CD to the address given below:

Mrs. Usha Bharadwaj, Coordinator, D1/9, Anand Apartments, 50, LB Road, Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai – 41 or by mail at musicforum.chennai@gmail.com

Out of the applicants, 18 will be selected to perform for an hour each during the January 2017 event. The top five voices of 2017 to be selected by a panel of experts, will each receive prize money of Rs.5000 and a citation.

  • The artists must be below the age of 25 as on 1st January 2017. 
  • The CD must contain one classical kriti with raga alapana, niraval and Kalpana swaras for a maximum duration of 25 minutes, and a light classical song. The total duration of the CD should not exceed 30 minutes. 
  • December 26, 2016 will be the last date for receipt of applications.
  • During the hour-long performance, the selected applicant is expected to present a mini concert that will include raga alapana, niraval and kalpana swaras.
  • Proper vocalisation will be an all-important criterion in selecting the top five. Open-mouthed, akaram-oriented singing will be a must.

Violin and percussion accompaniment, to be provided by the organizers.

The organizers’ decision in respect of all matters to do with the competition will be final and no correspondence will be entertained.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Thinking Body

By Buzybee

A classical dance documentary THE THINKING BODY will be screened at 8 am on 29th December, at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha Mini Hall, as part of the Natya Kala Conference 2016.

The film has been directed by Kadambari Shivaya and produced by Films Division, Government of India. Cinematography is by Vanaprastham director  Shaji N Karun and sound design by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. 

Monday, 19 December 2016

Nobelman at the gates

By Jaideep Varma

It is perhaps not hyperbolic to say that Bob Dylan’s prize for Literature is the most discussed Nobel award in its history. However much people had argued over eventual choices in the past (including bizarre ones like Obama winning the Peace prize in 2009), no one quite had the occasion to argue about the recipient’s presence in that specific category. Never had so many people appeared to care so much. 

While the literary fraternity appears to be divided about the validity of this choice, there are many more who have voiced outrage this time more than ever before. Sample writer Irvin Welsh’s response, for example, that this was “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Meanwhile, fans of Murukami, DeLillo, Oates, Kundera and Roth, were dismayed, not to speak of those who supported the Syrian poet Adunis or Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o – other favourites, if bookmakers were to be believed.

Thing is, the latest recipient would probably be the last one to argue about this. It is curious that Dylan did not respond for over two weeks, after the announcement, much to media outrage, before finally letting on that he was “speechless”, adding that it was “amazing, incredible; whoever dreams about something like that?”

The roots to his relative indifference perhaps lie elsewhere. In 2004, when St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland, bestowed an honorary degree on Dylan (his second, after the one from Princeton in 1970), he was asked on stage what his songs were about. Dylan deadpanned: “Some of them are about three minutes and some are about five minutes.” This sits neatly with a famous 1965 interview moment where, in answer to the question, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” he replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” The consistency of thought over 39 years reveals a great deal of how Dylan sees himself and his art.

Dylan  is the greatest creator of songs in human history, if volume, influence, innovation and longevity are prime factors. There is little to argue about there. (But some still do, and I envy the time they have on their hands.) But, and this is the relevant departure here, this is not because of his lyrics. 

Mythologizing lyrics 

Song lyrics are not meant to be poetry; they may have a lot in common with poetry, but fundamentally, the two are different art forms. 

Otherwise, what stops the finest musicians of our age from teaming up with the greatest contemporary poets and producing unalloyed masterpieces? Has it happened even once in popular music? Sure, artists as varied as Joni Mitchell, Aaron Copeland, Carla Bruni, The Waterboys, Natalie Merchant, Keane and many others have attempted this, but despite their relative merits, no one would say that any of that music would figure on a list of even their most memorable work. 

Another point, in the same vein: if Dylan was primarily a lyric-writer — like, say, Robert Hunter (who wrote for the Grateful Dead) or Bernie Taupin (who writes for Elton John) — do you honestly believe his words would have had anywhere near the same impact? Finally, how many people do you know who read Dylan purely as poetry, as text? 

Bob Dylan’s greatness as a songwriter is about how he expressed himself through song. This is self-evident really: that searing sensibility crackling through the ether, where the power of his harmonica complemented that uniquely straining voice delivering those words while guitar chords lurked beneath. Those words are less notable as autonomous poetry than as navigation points for the song as a whole, rhythmically and thematically (a very significant and noticeable role), and how they themselves sound (as opposed to mean). This may seem blasphemous, but many of his famous lines could easily perhaps be interchanged with others, and no one would really miss them, given the weight of that sensibility, if the familiar words were not lodged in listeners’ heads. It’s not the words themselves that are indispensable; in song, their power lie elsewhere. 

An analogy – lyrics perhaps carry the same weight in a song as the leading actor does in a film. Even if he or she is sometimes the most visible thing about a film (as words often are in Dylan’s uniquely articulated music), the question to ask is if he or she is really indispensable? Again, it may be blasphemous to say that someone other than Marlon Brando could have made “On the Waterfront” as memorable, or someone could have replaced Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” or Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” – but there are enough instances of famous performances not being done by first-choice artists for the conceit of that conviction to be rather misplaced. But can we say that about the script or the director of those films? Are they not far more indispensable to the film? 

Those who repeat many of Dylan’s lyrics as slogans for our times really miss the point. What proportion of greatness in the song “Not Dark Yet” lies in the most quoted line of the song "Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain”? Or does the line “"He not busy being born is busy dying" justify the existence of the song “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”? Does the line “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure’s no success at all” define the song “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit”? Would these songs really be any lesser if these three lines were not in them? There are rooms you might be laughed out of if you insisted on calling them “poetry”, as you would if you put up the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” and hailed them similarly. Do they really retain their power on paper? Sometimes people have argued that Dylan’s own process of being led by those words (which sometimes came first) led to those songs. That may be true, but that is as significant to his listeners as whatever else may have inspired him: his Muse or the light falling on the wall or his favourite cushion. 

And yet, there is no doubt that Dylan’s most unique contribution was to bring a certain literary sensibility and approach to the popular song, and expanding its scope with his own influences: classicist poetry at first, then the Beats and the symbolists (Rimbaud remained a big influence for a long time) in a manner no one before or since has done. He changed the preoccupation of the popular song and redefined its boundaries, bringing it closer to literature than any other artist. But, in the end, it wasn’t the words that gave the songs their emotional resonance (inarguably, their most important function); it was the music they served. 

Scholars of all hues have compared Dylan’s lyrics with poetry in the past, with Keats, Blake, Eliot and the Ancient Greeks, most notably the former professor of poetry at Oxford University Christopher Ricks, in his 2003 book Dylan’s Visions of Sin. It has never been a particularly well-received argument because it was devoid of the big picture.

Melody as the mainstay 

Curiously, during the same week Dylan won this prize, The New Yorker carried an article on Leonard Cohan by David Remnick, in which Dylan is quoted as saying, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius.” It is a pity not enough people talk about Dylan in that context; there is much, much more to speak of here, in fact, more than about any other musician in history. 

That is what really expanded the folk song in the 1960s, when he wrote some of the greatest songs in that format (“Blowin’ In the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). He wrote modern music’s first “anti-love” song (“It Ain’t Me Babe”) and later its first anger song (“Positively 4th Street”) – as notable thematically as musically. 

Then, calling the folk format “static” and “one-dimensional”, he went electric, and created folk-rock and some of the greatest music in history till date (“Like A Rolling Stone”, “Visions Of Johanna”). Earlier in that phase, he laid the seeds of rap (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), which was also famously the world’s first music video.

Then, with The Hawks (who later became The Band), he made rock even more distinct from rock 'n' roll music (“I Shall Be Released” and The Basement Tapes), laying the roots for Americana. Then, he did a country-rock album, that still has at least two bonafide classics (“Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”). He did one ostensibly confessional album (Blood On The Tracks) in his career, and it remains one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in that sub-genre (“Simple Twist Of Fate”, “Idiot Wind”).

In his born-again Christian phase that lasted five years, he wrote gospel songs, a few of which will perhaps have the same status 200 years later that “Amazing Grace” has now (most notably “Every Grain Of Sand”). He lost his way thereafter somewhat, even though he produced masterpieces occassionally (“Jokerman”, “Dark Eyes”) and his second wind came with an album that overcame a serious creative block “Man In The Long Black Coat”, (“Shooting Star”), which was also stunningly captured in a chapter on the album Oh Mercy! in his book Chronicles: Vol 1 – one of the best pieces of writing on that subject.

A serious health scare in his mid-50s led to a Grammy-winning album which has some of the greatest songs on mortality in popular music (“Not Dark Yet”, “Trying To Get To Heaven”). His work over the last 15 years has been groundbreaking too, as no one in popular music has chronicled the last quarter of life as vividly as Dylan has been doing (“Mississippi”, “Ain’t Talking”, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”, the album Tempest). 

The point here is that Dylan has always sung his age, his preoccupations invariably keeping pace with that, and of course, his words servicing this sensibility. But the only reason why his work has been so relevant for so long, with so much of it ostensibly timeless, is because of how he contructed those songs, and that goes way beyond just the words. 

His own voice 

It is also about his voice, often reviled for its unusually rough quality. But unlike classical music, where virtuosity plays such a big part, modern music (especially rock) is about expression and the quality of being “real”. It is not about prettiness or technical prowess but about how much they “tell the truth”.  Even in his 70s, Dylan’s chalk-and-gravel voice rasps with an urgency and honesty most younger singers with far more energy cannot match.

So, if there are so many other elements to Dylan’s art, how does his Literature Nobel make sense then? Well, the Nobel citation specifically praises Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It does not mention lyrics or words but poetic expressions, which is what songwriting is (not “song writing”, which is equated squarely with only lyrics in India, but “songwriting” as the composer of songs, and the lyrics). Thing is, words did lead the way in this – much like, to use an earlier analogy, a leading actor may get a film made purely on his star power. But, in the end, the film stands on its own feet because of how it is written and directed, and how all the elements come together. So, even if lyrics do not constitute the most critical element in Dylan’s songs, they have led the way noticeably and invaluably in defining his art. 

There is an argument that suggests that Dylan is, in fact, the second songwriter to get the Literature Nobel—after Rabindranath Tagore, who got his in 1913 primarily for a book of verse “Gitanjali” which was actually a bunch of song lyrics translated from Bengali to English. It is a spurious argument though because it is clear from Tagore’s citation (“his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the west”) that the panel never even considered the context of song here; they were clearly seen as verse on paper, meant to be read. In any case, while it had huge impact in Bengal, Tagore’s music meant (and means) nothing to most people outside that region, leave alone India, nor did his music ever really transcend its form, like Dylan’s did, several times. And that is not merely because of the universality Dylan’s language gave him. 

Those who seem to think that Dylan’s Nobel opens the door for other songwriters and musicians to also get the prize should also give it a rest. No one else comes close to what Dylan did – using a unique approach to words to change an art form repeatedly. Words as a means, not an end, but still crucial in their import. 

Forget music, there is no other artist who comes to mind, who used words in such a manner as to transcend and transform his art form. Those who think this also opens the door to screenwriters, web series creators and stand-up comics to be awarded the Literature Nobel, might just struggle to determine who the Dylan equivalent is in their respective art form. No single person even comes close. 

Yes, giving the award to Bob Dylan has expanded the scope of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a good thing in these rapidly changing multimedia times. But it is highly unlikely anyone else will be let in through these expanded gates anytime soon. The purists can breathe easy.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Lifetime Achievement Award

Radha and Raja Reddy, veteran Kuchipudi exponents, gurus and founders of Natya Tarangini in Delhi, received  the Lifetime Achievement Award  from Kartik Fine Arts at the inauguration of the Natya Darshan confest convened by Krithika Subramaniam, on 16 December at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Auditorium in Chennai. Chitra Visweswaran, Member Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram and L. Sabaretnam, Chairman, Kartik Fine Arts presented the awards. The Madurai N. Krishnan memorial award was presented to Rathna Papa Kumar--senior Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. The Nrithya Jyothi Award was presented to US-based Bharatanatyam dancer Madura Viswanath Vijay, and the Natya Sudar Award was bagged by young Bharatanatyam dancer Sudharma Vaidyanathan.

V.P. Dhananjayan appointed Dean

Natyacharya V.P. Dhananjayan has been appointed as the Dean of the Performing Arts section of the Chidambaram Annamalai University which offers graduate and post graduate degrees in the performing arts. Shanta Dhananjayan has been appointed faculty member.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Rare appearance by Yella Venkateswara Rao

Sannidi Academy's Annual Festival

By Samudri

Sannidi Academy's 6th Annual Festival on Saturday17th and Sunday 18th December 2o16, will feature a range of artists in an intimate setting.

The festival has been lovingly curated every year since its inception by  mridanga vidwan  TR Sundaresan, who served as faculty for over a decade at the Kalakshetra Foundation and then went on to teach for many years for the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society. He has performed alongside many of the great musicians of our time over the years.

The highlight of theSannidi festival is mridangalayavinyasam on the opening day(6-7 pm) by Sundaresan's guru YellaVenkateswara Rao,  a disciple of Palghat Mani Iyer and Padmashri awardee. Known for his ability to produce extraordinary tones on the mridangam and for his innovative and sensitive playing of the instrument, Dr Rao is a Guinness record holder for nonstop performance on the mridangam for 36 hours.  

This is a rare Chennai appearance by the maestro, thanks to the efforts of Sundaresan, his devoted disciple. 

On Saturday, 17 December , the festival features concerts by JA Jayanth (flute) in the morning and Bangalore Shankar (vocal) in the evening. 

On Sunday, 18 December the headlining artists are Sripriya Vijay (vocal), MuraliPavithran (violin), Karaikkal R Jayshankar (vocal), B Seetharaman and VimalanGopalan(vina duet), S Srivathsan (vocal), VijayalakshmiSubramaniam (vocal), and TV Ramprasadh (vocal). 

Sannidi Academy's festival reflects the honest effort of a distinguished vidwan and teacher to honour his guru and serve the music community with an impressive lineup of stalwarts and burgeoning talent that emphasizes instrumental and vocal music alike. 

The festival will be held at the Tamil Virtual Academy Auditorium (next to Anna Centenary Library), Gandhi Mandapam Rd, Kotturpuram, Chennai 600025 (contact 88616-31828). All are welcome.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The great December challenge

Music Academy Season Tickets. 

Rajagopalan Venkatraman

(Reprinted from Sri. Sri. Sri. Faceseasonananda's diary entry of three seasons ago. Suitably modified with addendum #9 to factor in the current climate).
Rain or shine, currency or card, bike or boat, TADA or Nada, the show must go on!
For the benefit of those who haven't yet seen the customary full page programme schedule on the Music Season Special Supplement of The Hindu today --
Eligibility / Selection Criteria for Season Tickets ---
1. Minimum of 75% in 10th and 12th Stds. Notary attested mark sheets to be presented.
2. Minimum of 70% in Bachelor's and/or Master's degree. No arrears in any subjects in any semester. Attested mark sheets of all semesters to be produced.
3. Ration Card, PAN Card, Passport, Driving License, Aadhar Card and Voter Id -- all of the above in original to be produced at the ticket counter. Two attested copies of each need to be submitted.
4. Those holding valid Drivers' License issued in the continental states of the US of A are given 5 grace marks.
5. Residents of the Greater Mylapore area, immediate blood relatives and descendants of performers in the evening slots and super senior slots in the morning are given 5 grace marks upon producing attested, documented proof for the same.
6. Written Test carries a weightage of 50 marks. Broadly covering Trinity, Papanasam Sivan, Purandaradasa and 20th century composers from TN, Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala.
7. Group Discussion carries a weightage of 25 marks. Topics will only be on Trinity compositions.
8. Personal interview carries 25 marks. The panelists comprising Shri. PSN, Smt. Vedavalli and Shri. BM. Sundaram will conduct the personal interviews. Their decision will be final. No further correspondence will be encouraged with the President and/or any Executive Council members of the Academy.
9. Those who bring the old Rs. 1000 and Rs. 500 notes shall bring an authorization letter in original duly signed by Hon. Shri. Arun Jaitely and Shri. Urjit Patel along with two photocopies attested by the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Egmore/Saidapet.
Also, applicants are strongly advised against queuing outside the Academy premises from this afternoon onwards. The counters open sharp at 09:00 am tomorrow and applicants are strongly advised to come to the venue not earlier than 6 hours before.
Here's wishing all the very best for applicants.
Have a Happy and Fulfilling Music Season 2016.
Issued on behalf of the Office of Sri Sri Sri Faceseasonanda.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

G Ravi Kiran

Photo by Subramanya Shastri
Young Voices

By Sushma Somasekharan

Many musicians are really passionate about the art form, keen to share their love for music with their listeners and others. Meet a musician who is so overcome by one particular composer that he even started a trust, Guruguhaamrta, to express his love and respect for the composer.

Sruti recently spoke to Carnatic vocalist G Ravi Kiran, disciple of T.M Krishna, about his music and his fascination with Muthuswami Dikshitar.

How did your tryst with Carnatic music begin? 

My first guru was Gayatri Kesavan who noticed that I could sing. She taught me the introductory lessons of Carnatic music. I later learnt from Vasanta Ramanujam and RS Ramakanth who then suggested I learn from his father, the legendary Sangita Kalanidhi RK Srikantan Mama. It was in late 2002 that I started learning from TM Krishna Anna. I am grateful to all my gurus who have been instrumental in my musical journey in various ways. 
How has learning from various gurus influenced your music?. What would you say you have imbibed from them?

It took me a few days to gather the courage to talk to Srikantan Mama, but once I did, I was pleasantly surprised to discover his childlike enthusiasm and curiosity for music. He is a musical titan with several decades of musical experience. Yet, the keen interest he displayed in music made him seem like a new student, like any of us. It made me realise that his humility, his respect for the art form made him the legend that he is.
After each class with him, we had several informal interactions when he would recollect his experiences with the legends of the pastespecially his two idols Musiri Subramaniya Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. I would often wonder at the sincerity and dedication of Srikantan Mamaespecially his sense of time and his emphasis on diction. Even till his last days, he took great care of his body and his voice. I hope to have imbibed some of his discipline.
In late 2002, I was fortunate to be accepted as a disciple by TM Krishna Anna. Even before that, I was one of his innumerable fans ever since he performed at my college, BITS Pilani, in 1998. His Bhuvini dasudane and Nidhi chala sukhama left me spell bound and I felt a deep connection with his music.

Learning from Krishna Anna has been a memorable journey. He is a strict task master and does not spare you till you get a sangati right in its entirety. Nothing is left for ‘tomorrow’ or the ‘next class’. His ability to switch on and off is also something I greatly admirehe can be talking jovially with you before class, but once it comes to music he is in a different space altogether. His commitment to what he believes in and his sincerity in everything he doesthese are some of the qualities in him that inspire me day in and day out.

When did you consider pursuing Carnatic music professionally? 

My true calling came when I spent four years at BITS Pilani.  It was then that I realised the beauty of Carnatic music. My roommate during my college years was another stellar musician DB Ashvin, and those years inspired me to become even more passionate about this pristine art form. After graduating from college, my concert career also started blooming slowly and steadily. My first full length concert was for a sabha in Bangalore called Ananya with Srikantan Mama in the audience. I have been fortunate to be recognised and encouraged by so many sabhas in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and elsewhere. Over the past few years, I have performed in several leading sabhas all over India and have also performed in France, Singapore and Australia.

I enjoy performing at different venuesbe it the prestigious sabhas of Chennai, the temple audiences in Kerala with their sheer passion for Carnatic music or the Rama Navami concerts with their old world charm in Bangalore.- each of these has a special charm and each concert is a learning experience. Ultimately, I want to be true to my music and surrender to it with humility and respect. 

You are also a full-time engineer. How do you ensure you strike the right balance between both your careers?

It is all about discipline. So long as I am able to practise at least a couple of hours every day, there is always time to pursue both careers. I listen to recordings of the great masters whenever I find time during the day. My day begins with music and I have been fortunate to maintain that discipline from the day I joined the corporate work space. Striking this balance is also made much easier by the support of my parents and my wife Archana, a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.

Tell us more about your Muthuswami Dikshitar movement.

I really do not remember when I started getting fascinated with Muthuswami Dikshitar. It just grew on me over time and before I knew it, it enveloped me completely. I found an 
outlet to this obsession, if I may call it that, through Guruguhaamrtaa trust I formed in 2009. RK Shriramkumar Anna, an artist very close to my heart, named it.

My fascination for Dikshitar was stoked by Krishna Anna, when he start researching Dikshitar as well as the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini. It was also during this time that I learnt several rare gems from him. Frankly, the grandeur of Dikshitar is something I am just barely beginning to fathom. I can only look at it with awe, wonder and reverence.

Through Guruguhaamrta  I have been conducting concerts and lec-dems focused entirely on Dikshitar, conducting two flagship events every year (for the past six years). The first is a day-long akhandam at Ettayapuram where several musicians from South India participate and the second a national level Dikshitar Kritis competition through which I hope to encourage more and more students to learn and sing Dikshitar kritis. I would like to share my love for Dikshitar with everyone, and I can only hope that these events will spark the interest and curiosity for the great composer.

I am thankful to all the seniors as well as my colleagues who have been gracing Guruguhaamrta with their presence and participation. I am also grateful to all the patrons of Guruguhaamrta, without whom I would not be able to move forward with my movement.

Many would say that Dikshitar is an acquired taste, as his compositions are very scholarly and technical, rich in lyrical and musical values. How do you ensure that even the common rasika appreciates your goal and is on board with it?

I honestly believe that we could get everyone to appreciate Dikshitar kritis if more and more artists sang them on the concert stage. At a fundamental level, that alone would ensure that rasikas are exposed to as wide a Dikshitar repertoire as possible.

At a secondary level, the aim is to present the multiple facets of Dikshitar kritismusical, lyrical and spiritual. Under my guru’s guidance, I have embarked on a personal mission to sing and document all the Dikshitar kritis in raganga ragas. These ragas are all unique and have an independent identity which is different from the more popular 72 sampoorna melakarta ragas. Dr R Hemalatha, ace violinist and scholar, is collaborating with me on this project to share the theoretical insights of these raganga ragas.

Indulge us. What are your favourite renditions of Dikshitar kritis? I’m sure our readers would like to share your love for Dikshitar too.

This is really tough. All his compositions are remarkable in their own right. Hmm, if I had to choose, I would say Semmangudi's Chetha sree, Santana Ramaswaminam and Balakrishnam bhavayami. And Krishna Anna’s “Sri Bhargavi bhadram in Mangala Kaisiki and Rama Rama kali kalusha” in Ramakali. These are my all-time favourites.

(As part of Sruti's policy, honorifics and titles are avoided as far as possible, even when the writer or artist employs them as a mark of respect to their seniors. This blog post is no exception).

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A sishya moves on

Homage to Sangita Kalanidhi Balamuralikrishna

By Ragavan Manian 

I heard from Guruji’s family that he was no more, within minutes of his peaceful passing away yesterday, 22nd November. It was as if my autonomous nervous system took over when I found myself in his house in twenty minutes.

He was laid in the very same room where I had met him in 1986 for my first lesson, a dazed and star-struck 11-year old. Fast forward thirty-odd years; only this time I felt the little boy in me despair that the polestar of his musical life would not rise again to guide him. The first thought that I could verbalise from this heart-wrenching, soul-sucking feeling was “Guruji, how am I expected to carry on?”.

Over 24 hours have passed since then and I am no closer than before to a convincing answer to the question. I had wept with his sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters. I had clung on to Annapurnagaru, his loving wife who was like a mother to all his sishyas. We were all consoling, and being consoled by, each other. I witnessed the overwhelming display of adulation and sorrow that poured forth from all directions, from maestros to ‘ordinary’ men and women, from all walks of life. He had taught so many, and had touched so many people’s lives through his art. The grief is still very raw, but sharing it with the entire world eases it just a little.

I have had the privilege of discussing Guruji’s legacy with him on numerous occasions. I tried to recall some of those conversations with the hope that I would find an answer in them. In those discussions, his attitude had ranged from passionate to fatalistic. The range of attitudes was understandable, for he was impossible to classify. Most eulogies to him read like roster lists of awards and achievements, the breadth and depth of which boggle the mind. There can be no boxing his genius. Indian music was his second nature, and within this broad vista there was not a single idiom that he hadn’t fully internalised and worked his magic upon. Voice, instruments, opera, cinema, language, movement—he was monarch of all he surveyed. His purported muse was the ancient and revered Goddess of Music. Given this, how can anyone carry forth his legacy?

Nowhere was his genius more iridescent than on the concert platform. Having accompanied Guruji as saath or pinpattu on numerous occasions since my 15th year, I had made a hobby of observing his face and gestures from my unique vantage point. Like a trained astronomer detecting an astral shimmer by looking at it sideways rather than straight on, I’d looked lovingly at the smallest changes in facial expression, hand and body movement, and correlated them to a glide here, a crescendo there, a korvai here, a karvai there or an effective silence (recalling nisabdam, the ultimate syllable). I sensed that his gestures were somehow connected to a vast, deep, never ending font of creativity, the decoding of which would take a major breakthrough in AI to endeavour to crack! Therefore is it even humanly possible to recreate his on-stage magic, and keep his legacy going?

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Guruji taught was not musical, but behavioural. He would often joke that he never once practised his art at home because deliberate sadhana was habit-forming; and habits lead to addiction! Many years later I encountered similar veins of thought in the practice of Sahaja Yoga and Vipassana. He would not prepare ahead of a concert, choosing instead to act on the natural ebb and flow of the moment. From wondering if he was being flighty I have come to realise that this is how he connected with his childlike spontaneity. When during adolescence my performing sruti dropped from a soprano G (5) to a baritone Bb (½) in a matter of months, instead of advising me to try and sing in an accepted concert pitch of say C/C#, he asked me to “choose whatever suited your singing voice comfortably”. This ran against conventional wisdom, but after many years of studying voice production, I have now come to realise that his advice was in fact based on physiologically and aesthetically sound principles.

On reflection, the easier way to carry on might be to embrace the joie de vivre behind his steady flow of maxims and witticisms. His was a mind open to ideas from all directions, untrammelled by conventional boundaries, instead seeking purposeful amusement from all quarters. He admired, nay prised beauty from everyday experience. His compositions reflect his unity: gods and saints were treated to the same silken touch as railway stations and political tussles. He once told me that he felt no less than a Sankaracharya; for while seers were fully absorbed in the metaphysical, he was fully given to nadam. What seemed to me like a whimsical quip then, strikes me now as the musings of an evolved being, forever in the pursuit of happiness.

As it was with everything Guruji, his deceptively simple, fun-filled approach to living was the embodiment of the mystic ideal of swadharma. His fierce independence and individualism were his way of being in touch with his feelings, and acting in direct accordance with them. His was the living essence of a higher ideal. He was a great soul, and remembering his broad, ever-present smile would therefore be my first step towards “carrying on without Guruji”.

Ragavan Manian, a Carnatic vocalist, has been a disciple of the late Sangita Kalanidhi

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A national treasure

Sruti Box

The great Balamuralikrishna will be missed by his fans and disciples. The denial of India's highest civilian honour Bharat Ratna to this multifaceted genius must rankle in the minds of Carnatic music rasikas. He will live through his disciples and hundreds of compositions.

A few years ago a friend hosted a small party in Chennai with MBK and wife as guests. On being asked then about his generously consuming ice cream, he smilingly said that ice cream would not affect his throat.

Two years ago, at the end of a concert in a US city, my son complimented him saying, "Your singing is just as it was forty years ago."  The maestro's response  was: "Is there no impromement at all?" 

Dr R Narasimhan

His music will live on

Sruti Box

The immortal voice has been stilled, but his music will live on. Balamurali was not a legendary musician; he was a phenomenon. He was a controversial musician, criticised by the orthodox as a breaker of tradition but therein lay his innovative genius. Who can honestly say they have not been seduced by the magic of his melody? His voice could soar like an eagle and, with equal felicity, plumb the depths of the lower octaves.

If DK Pattammal was almost the only female musician who could sing even complex kritis with clear enunciation and pronunciation, without lapsing into the cardinal sin of padacchedam, it can be asserted without fear of contradiction that Balamurali was almost the only male musician who could do likewise with what my English Professor used to call ''the slippery ease of the first person singular".

I recall with immense pleasure the youthful team of M Balamuralikrishna, MS Gopalakrishnan and TV Gopalakrishnan taking the Carnatic music world by storm with their infectiously joyous but strictly classical concerts in the 1960s and seventies.

I had occasion to host Balamurali for lunch sometime in the 1970s when I was posted in Chandigarh. My wife and her friend asked him, with some trepidation, if he would teach them a kriti. He graciously did so. The kriti was the rarely heard but delightful Dakshayani rakshamam dhritam in the raga Naganandini.

G Sankaran

The unbridled spirit of Balamuralikrishna

Kanniks Kannikeswaran

My friend Ramesh from our IIT days  in the 1980s called me last evening on my father’s mobile as I was headed back to T'Nagar from Mandaveli with the terse line, ‘Dai, Balamurali poittar da’. ‘We had just spoken about him at length during our conversation at the IIT Alumni Club yesterday’.

I opened Facebook soon after reaching my parent’s place; sure enough there were messages from friends. There were pictures posted by NRI friends who had posed with the bard for photographs and some recent selfies!. There were newspaper reports shared on social media. There were also videoclips of the maestro’s performances shared liberally on Facebook; most noteworthy amongst these is a videoclip from the 1965  film Tiruvilaiyadal featuring the song Oru naal podumaa’.

An endearing song sequence in the film, this classic represents the anti-hero TS Baliah, arrogant to the core, throwing his gauntlet into the ring, declaring himself to be the lord and master of music itself. This dare is met later in the movie only by the illusion of the entire universe coming to a screeching halt in a pregnant pause in the midst of the protagonist Sivaji’s rendition of an advaitic Pattum nane, bhavamum nane.

Situation apart, every phrase in Oru naal poduma describes everything that is special about Balamurali’s music.

It takes a lifetime to discover his music; my good friend Prince Rama Varma, a staunch devotee and disciple of the maestro, has spent several years of his life  doing just that: discovering and teaching Balamurali’s compositions.

Oru naal poduma declares that the singer’s voice is superior to the sound of the best of musical instruments. Isn’t it true with Balamurali? His honey-sweet voice captivated the hearts of millions. What a natural, supple voice rich in overtones, capable of superhuman acrobatics traversing three whole registers and more, making leaps between awkward intervals spanning an octave plus a seventh! And how sweet it was and how effortless the singing. And how incredible that a human voice would obey his complex musical orders.

This was a voice that endeared itself to connoisseurs of Carnatic music as well as to the millions that were mesmerized by Tiruvilaiyadal as well as the millions more that were dumbstruck by the Ritigowla stunner Chinnakkannan azhaikiran in the contemporary classical idiom in the 1976 film Kavikkuyil in the hands of the then emerging composer Illaiyaraaja.

‘Crowds will come running to see me’, declares the song. And so did the teeming crowds in Madras the bastion of the orthodox sabhas of cutcheri music to listen to a singer from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. Here was a musician who didn’t belong to the Kaveri delta, did not hail from an established Tanjavur lineage; it didn’t matter that he was a maverick in his own way. The crowds kept coming, even during his tour of the United States a couple of years ago.

Balamurali’s singing stood out. Markedly shorn of the heavy dose of kampita oscillation that brings the customarily expected Carnatic feel, his music had a fair share of precise straight notes that adorned the text that came to life with his bhava-filled rendition. It didn’t matter whether the text was written by Tyagaraja, or Bhadrachala Ramadasa or Sadasivam Brahmendra or Jayadeva or by Balamurali himself. His recordings have left a mark and his live performances have disappointed none. The singing appeared effortless, accompanied by a trademark youthful smile that adorned the maestro even when he was well in his eighties.

And there was his sense of humour.

I had heard of the time he apparently inadvertently stepped on the sharpened fourth, the prati madhyamam while singing Madhyamavati. Undaunted by this faux pas, the maestro carved out a few more phrases using the scale SRM#PNbS, spontaneously named the raga Pratimadhyamavati and oscillated between Madhyamavati and Pratimadhyamavati with a brand new composition minted right on the spot.

Echoing the words of Oru naal poduma, I have no choice but to add the cliched observation that it will take ‘more than  days’ to explain the brilliance of his work. Innovation within the realm of the self-imposed bounds of the cutcheri was just second nature to him. Balamurali is credited with a few hundred compositions covering a range of compositional forms including music scores for films. His newly sculpted ragas found expression through his compositions; some like Mahati even made it into films and turned blockbusters.

And there were the sruti bheda pieces. A long drawn alapana in Abhogi with a sruti bhedam resulting in Valaji or the sruti bheda tillana with wicked twists and turns starting with a benign Kalyani immediately come to mind.

There was never a dearth of excitement in his concerts.

The driving force behind his musicality was his nonchalant muse. Beneath this virtuosity lay a progressive and adventurous spirit that did not believe in shackles or constraints of any form. Here is a quote from Sruti magazine’s interview with Balamurali Krishna in 1984. ‘Tradition is nothing other than the basic grammar around which a superstructure is built’. He goes on to say in this interview that anyone is free to innovate and that only those innovations that ‘are good’ will secure the approval of rasikas for sustained periods of time and continue as traditions; and anything that survives the test of time is a classic regardless of whether it is a composition featured in a film or whether it is an innovation within the cutcheri paddhati.

What could be a better way to pay a tribute to his unbridled spirit than quoting a dare that he throws at Sruti readers again in this ‘must-read’ interview in 1984. “Those who harp on tradition (and tradition, the way they understand it) should either go along with the traditional musicians to heaven or understand what tradition really is”.