Saturday, 30 January 2016


By V Ramnarayan

It has been yet another season of jubilees, anniversaries, centenaries and more. For those of us who knew that he was teaching at Kalakshetra in 1960 or thereabouts and those who learnt songs from him then, it is hard to believe that this is Mysore Vasudevacharya’s 150th birth anniversary year. Incredibly, he was teaching and composing into his nineties. This is also Papanasam Sivan’s 125th year, and he too was composing music and leading the Mylapore Kapali temple bhajana into his eighties. It is Ariyakudi’s 125th year, too, and many of us have heard him live in our childhood. One of the dancers of pan-Indian stature to have emerged more than seven decades ago, Mrinalini Sarabhai, breathed her last just the other day at the age of 97. She too was active almost till the end.

Among the great artists still among us, Vyjayantimala Bali who is in her eighties, can still give a standout Bharatanatyam performance that can put youthful brilliance in the shade. C.V. Chandrasekhar is astonishingly fit and agile, while continuing to dance with precision even at age 80. He is also an enthusiastic and demanding teacher. 91-year old mridanga vidwan T.K. Murthy, is capable of full-fledged kutcheris even today. He was Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s senior as a disciple of Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, along with Sivaraman’s later guru Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer.

Sivaraman’s entry into his eighties has been heralded with some fanfare. He is still going strong, as brilliant as ever in his mridangam artistry, and with exemplary scientific curiosity, leading and participating in experiments to analyse and simulate the sounds of his instrument, when he is not collaborating with percussionists from other parts of India and abroad. Another outstanding mridanga vidwan, Guruvayur Dorai, turned eighty last year, and while his career has been relatively low-key, his vidwat understated, few will doubt his mastery of the mridangam. He continues to quietly add lustre to many a concert, and is a much-loved guru. P.S. Narayanaswamy, mentor extraordinaire and senior representative of the Semmangudi bani, and R. Vedavalli, an articulate scholar and teacher from the Mudicondan school, are both examples of holistic music.

Compared to them, Guru Karaikkudi Mani, just entering his seventies, is a stormy petrel, and of course, a brilliant percussionist and imaginative innovator. Sruti will be carrying his profile very soon.

By the time this issue of Sruti reaches you, we will have honoured two artists of excellent repute: Indira Rajan, the recipient of the E. Krishna Iyer Medal, and Suguna Varadachari, who receives the Vellore Gopalachariar Award. Indira Rajan, the dance guru and nattuvangam expert, is 75 years old, while Suguna Varadachari, or SV, is a mere 70. Like her late namesake, gurubehen and dear friend Suguna Purushothaman, she is loved and adored by her students. Both have been guardians of the Musiri Subramania Iyer parampara, and SV is determined to uphold the tradition as assiduously as Suguna Purushothaman did in her lifetime.

As speaker after speaker said at a recent felicitation function, SV was passed over by concert opportunities and acclaim when she and her voice were young, but many honours have come her way in the late afternoon of her life. She has made the most of these belated opportunities, and has a legion of students and admirers in India and abroad, but can any of that make up for the disappointments of the past?

Friday, 29 January 2016

Thanjavur Rajalakshmi

By Nandini Ramani

Thanjavur Rajalakshmi, musician (disciple of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer), Bharatanatyam artist and teacher, film actress of yesteryear and Director of Sri Gurulaya Academy, passed away recently at Chennai. She trained many students for solo performances and choreo¬graphed several dance dramas. Noteworthy was the thematic production in 2004  in which Rajalakshmi had set to dance some of the immortal compositions of Yogi Suddhananda Bharati. Her choreography for the dance ballet presented during the annual Nritta Makarandam seminar at  Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan had some memorable moments that recall with joy. Rajalakshmi received the Kalaimamani award from the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Writer Ashok Vajpeyi reflects on the state of culture

By Shrinkhla Sahai

The relationship between the state and culture has been deeply vexed. ‘Between Hope and Despair’ was the title of the talk delivered by Ashok Vajpeyi at the Ila Dalmia Memorial Lecture at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Reflecting on the waxing and waning coalition between polity, policy and the arts, Ashok Vajpeyi shared his experiences as a former civil servant and the development (or the lack of it) on the cultural scene in the decades of the 1970s and 80s. An acclaimed poet, critic and connoisseur of the arts, he has recently been in the news for returning state accolades as an ideological position. In 2015 he was one of the writers who initiated the movement to return their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against intolerance that eventually arm-wrested the Akademi into taking a stand on the issue.This year, following the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in connection with the bitter battle with the Hyderabad Central University administration, Vajpeyi has also returned the D Litt conferred on him by the same university. 

Tracing what he called, “the hope that was and the despair that is,” he turned to his personal trajectory in the 1970s when the links between the state and the field of culture were gradually disconnecting. Presenting an overview of the situation from the perspective of a civil servant at that time, he mentioned that the states were reluctant to take serious action in the field of culture and many of the states till date do not have state akademis; the number of well-informed bureaucrats with an interest in culture was dwindling; the academic world had not deeply studied the dynamics of the relationship between the state and culture; and the artistic community remained fragmented. He observed that the state largely viewed the notion of ‘culture’ as the responsibility of the community, and mainly took up the agenda of preservation of heritage, which then, emerged as a challenge to contemporary creativity. 

Ashok Vajpeyi has played a significant role in in the fields of culture and education, establishing institutions like Bharat Bhavan Bhopal, Kalidas Akademi, Dhrupad Kendra, MP Adivasi Lok Kala Parishad and Chakradhar Nritya Kendra. He was also the Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi (2008-2011). As an insider to the bureaucratic machinery, he pointed out that in terms of appointment of efficient resource persons, the Akademis are often caught between the goals of representation versus excellence.

Critiquing the colonial legacy that led to the bifurcation between arts (as esoteric and transcendental) and crafts (focusing on skill and labour), as well as the binary between the classical (largely music and dance) and the modern (mainly literature, theatre and visual arts), Vajpeyi suggested that it was important to have an exchange between various forms. He concluded the talk strongly advocating for a lobby for the arts and the need to address systemic issues within cultural institutions like a clear policy of succession, professionalism, autonomy and synergy between vision and action.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Kereya Neeranu Kerege Challi

The early morning walkers around the Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru were greeted by the  chant like strains of the Malahari Geetham “Kereya Neeranu Kerege Challi” sung by Sumitra Nitin. This was the opening of the Kere Habba, the dawn to dusk Lake Festival and Sumitra made the theme of her presentation that morning as, you guessed it, WATER.

There was every reason to celebrate the Lake Festival, for it is the first lake in Bengaluru to be revived through the efforts of Citizens. In 2009 the lake was but a marshland and Priya Ramasubban, a resident nearby took the initiative along with others like Ramesh Sivaram and formed the association MAPSAS (Mahadevapura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti) to revive the lake. The citizen’s group raised funds to clean up the surroundings, plant more than 1000 trees around and took care of the upkeep of the lake. The volunteer group have their hands full trying to maintain the grounds, provide security, arrange for deweeding, arrange for organic manure, make sure there is no sewage inflow, deal with miscreants, chase after officials to get pending work done and so on. Inspired by their example efforts are on by citizen groups to protect other lakes in and around Bengaluru.

In order to draw the residents around the lake and to create an awareness about its preservation the Association holds activities around Kaikondrahalli lake such as the Kere Habba. For the first time they organized a musical morning by Sumitra Nitin on 9th January, 2016 at the amphitheatre on the lake shore. As they did not want to scare away the birds in and around the lake the amplification was kept low and there were no accompaniments. On that cold, misty morning there were a good number of walkers of all age groups who sat down to listen to this concert with a difference.

Sumitra Nitin commenced with the Malahari Gitam, composed by Sangita Pithamaha Purandara Dasa, which is one of the first lessons learnt by a student of Carnatic music. The song may be simple but the meaning is profound. It says that the learned ones scoop water from the lake and pour it back in a ritual when they offer their prayers to the Lord. Similarly our life given to us with compassion by Hari is surrendered back to him.

She followed this with the Thiruppavai “Ongi ulagalanda” in Arabhi. Here Andal, the Vaishnavite Saint poet describes the purpose of the penance Pavai Nonbu as praying for rains thrice a month so that the land may be fertile and prosperous.

Next came Tyagaraja’s description of the river Yamuna in his opera Nauka Charitram. The song “Choodare chelulara” in Pantuvarali describes the beauty of the river and the flora and fauna on its banks. Sumitra followed this with two Tharangams of Naryana Thirtha’s Krishna Lila Tharangini. The first in Punnagavarali with the refrain Bhavaye Hridayaaravinde has the description of the overpowering of Kaliya, the snake, who poisoned Yamuna river. The context of the next song Govardhana Giridhara in Darbari Kanada is the incessant spell of rain sent by Indra and Krishna’s lifting of the mountain to protect the humans and animals from the deluge.

A Vachana by Basavanna on Kudala Sangama Deva in the ragam Durga was the next number. Kudala Sangama Deva is enshrined at the confluence of the rivers Malaprabha and  Krishna. In this Vachana Basavanna compares the Vibhuti adorning the devotees to the beauty added by the waterlily to the river and the waves to the ocean.

Having presented a song on havoc by rain Sumitra now rendered one with a prayer for rain in the kriti Anandaamritakarshini in the ragam Amritavarshini by Muthuswamy Dikshitar. He had prayed to the Goddess to bring on the rains to the parched arid landscape around Ettayapuram. “Varshaya varshaya varshaya” he pleaded and the Goddess is said to have showered her compassion as welcome showers.

The major kriti that followed was Jambupathe in Yaman Kalyani by Muthuswami Dikshitar, composed on Siva at Thiruvanaikkaval. One of the Panchabutha sthalams of Siva, the Lingam in the sanctum sanctorum is surrounded by water, signifying the element of water.

Sumitra concluded the musical event with the Meera Bhajan “Chalo mana Ganga Jamuna theera”

The concert with no accompaniments other than the Sruti contained brief alapana, and each song was preceded by a description of the song, its context, meaning, significance and was connected to the present day environment.

Filled with the feast of music and fervent hopes for clean water, the audience left with the song on their lips,

“Ganga Jamuna nirmal pani
Sheetal hotha Sareer
Chalo mana Ganga Jamuna theera

“The pristine waters of Ganga and Jamuna cool our body. 
O mind ! let us go to the banks of Ganga and Jamuna”

Report by a correspondent

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Essence and Grace of Mrinalini Sarabhai

“Break a Coconut” ….
“It will relieve the stress..”

These words echo in my mind almost 18 years after I heard them from Mrinalini Sarabhai “Amma” at Darpana in Ahmedabad.

There was an issue with a copying machine; and these were the words that Amma used to assure the person dealing with the copier that everything would be all right.

Yes, “Everything will be alright” was the reassuring place that she came from. There was no issue hard enough; it would all be resolved. I still think of her words any time I find something stressful.

Amma then was almost 80; just a few years younger than my grandmother. She was from that generation that had been born in the pre-electricity era. She was in the big league along with folks like Lakshmi Shankar; a South Indian who had made a name for herself all over India and the world, outside of the world of Karnatic Music and Bharatanatyam – very strongly grounded in her native art form. She had built institutions and had taken art forms to new dimensions.

And she radiated simplicity and majesty at the same time; elegance and poise were the words that came to one’s mind when you saw her. She was part of day to day affairs of the Institution, yet she was a transcendent Goddess in her Office – a space that was full of history of art that had broken barriers for about half a century.

There was majesty, calmness, artistry, wisdom, unbounded love and hospitality and of course Godliness. To her Krishna and Shiva were not abstract and distant entities but ideas that she could relate to in everything that she did and in everything around her. To her, even the pair of Katputlis (puppets) sold in the Law Garden area were “Shiva and Parvati”.

Grounded in her native art and sound in her wisdom she experimented and encouraged experimentation. She told me once: “I tell my instrumentalists – not to exude the machine-like sugar coated perfection; I like spontaneity; an occasional apasvaram, even an intentional apasvaram is what makes it interesting”.

Her words urging you to break the proverbial coconut and get rid of stress echo in my ears almost two decades later. Her life ended three years before her centenary. But her legacy will live on for ever.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Tabla legend Pandit Shankar Ghosh

23 January
By Shrinkhla Sahai

Known for his magnetic stage presence, energetic artistry and dynamic outlook, Pandit Shankar Ghosh was not only an acclaimed tabla maestro, but also a musical visionary. The 80-year old veteran passed away in Kolkata on 22 January 2016. Following an angioplasty in December 2015, he went into a coma and was in a critical state for 40 days before succumbing.

Born in 1935 in Kolkata, Shankar Ghosh was a disciple of Gyan Prakash Ghosh. He also trained with Feroz Khan, Anath Nath Bose and Sudarshan Adhikari. Amalgamating the techniques of numerous gharanas, he developed a repertoire and style marked by flair and individuality.  A remarkable soloist and accompanist, he performed with a galaxy of maestros of the last century. His most significant contribution to the world of music has been his experimental work with tabla ensembles. He led the unique drum orchestra Music of the Drum (later called the Calcutta Drum Orchestra) which became extremely popular and revolutionised percussion and collaborative music-making in the Hindustani classical genre.  

A founder member of the faculty of Ali Akbar College in California, USA, he developed engaging pedagogical methods and later initiated an online tabla academy.

The maestro is survived by his vocalist wife, Sanjukta Ghosh, son Bickram Ghosh, an eminent tabla player, daughter-in-law Jaya Seal Ghosh and two grandsons.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Epic Retold- Akram Khan’s Until the Lions

By Shrinkhla Sahai

Recently, in response to a concern that the ratio of female choreographers in comparison to their male counterparts is presently dismal in the dance sector in the UK, dancer-choreographer Akram Khan is reported to have said that though the problem is big, the number should not be increased for the sake of it. He has received some flak for this. Though personally I don’t find this comment problematic or indicative of lack of gender sensitivity, I do find his consequent substantiating pointer at dance history interesting. He cites an earlier era where there were fewer male choreographers in the times of Martha Graham and even Pina Bausch. The question, then, is whether the sector has always been afflicted with gender imbalance, one way or the other. The exploration becomes more nuanced when one considers that there are certain notions of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ that strongly accompany the idea of dance itself. Secondly, the representation of gender, specially in traditional forms like Kathak for instance (in which Akram Khan is trained and experiments), are very deep-rooted.

In her most radical book, Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler argues that gender is socially constructed and performative. If we turn around this idea of ‘gender performativity’ to examine it from the other side- how do the performing arts represent gender? Dance lends itself powerfully to expose, the otherwise naturalised, social performance of gender.

Most of our epics are deeply gendered. And that is why there are numerous retellings of the same tale, to find silent voices and invisible perspectives that have the quality of reframing the story. Mahabharata is one such epic. Interestingly, one of the earliest landmark performances of Khan was in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. In his latest production of contemporary dance, he returns to the epic to reframe Amba’s story- the fiery princess who was abducted by Bhishma, and was reborn to take revenge. Taking author Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata as the foundation, the production hinges upon the question of the female voice.

While Khan the dancer plays the role of Bhishma, Khan the choreographer focuses on Amba’s world. A dramaturgical delight by Ruth Little, the production premiered at London’s Roundhouse Theatre in January 2016. This is a challenging performance space that offers in-the-round, 360-degree view of the stage. To create a choreography that is equally absorbing from vantage points on all sides is a task for a master and Khan conducts this with finesse.

The set design by Tim Yip recasts the cross-section of a tree-trunk as the stage with cracks, crevices and fissures that appear and fade away at strategic points in the narrative. Ching-Ying Chien plays the ebullient princess in the opening act, juxtaposed to the sharp and serious warrior Shikhandi played by Christine Joy Ritter. Both have a wild streak, yet Amba is confident, feminine and sensuous while Shikhandi is androgynous and animal-like. Khan and Little balance abstraction along with high fidelity to the narrative. Vincenzo Lamagna’s scoreis layered with recorded music, live drumming and open-throated singing by Sohini Alam and David Azurza. Michael Hulls’s lighting comes alive in the white and brown shades of the set and costumes.

Khan assigns simple and precise postures to each character. Amba transforms from a leaping joyous individual to a crawling, clasping caricature. She loses her honour after being abducted by Bhishma, and on discovering his unwavering vow of celibacy, she also loses her spine kinesthetically. Bhishma is unbending, unyielding and upright. Their duet is emotional, violent, tender and poignant. There is a complex dynamic between desire and duty, power and pain. Starting out as what seems like a soft contact-improvisation exercise, the piece accelerates into crude jerky movements with dramatic pauses. Khan excels in his use of rhythm here, interpreting Kathak movements and bol as non-verbal dialogue.

In the second half, Ritter takes over with her portrayal of Shikhandi. There is unnecessary repetition in the later part and the 60-minute production would have been riveting with some efficient editing. The climax depicting the killing of Bhishma by Shikhandi is stunning in terms of scenography and stagecraft. Given that Khan has already declared his retirement from performing by 2018, this production might be one of his last ones where he is on stage. 

Until the Lions reclaims the female voice in the epic. Although it does not radically explore fresh perspective, it shifts the lens.It transforms a narrative of pathological revenge into a compassionately compelling question- but then, what about her?

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Backstage Notes from the Royal Opera House

By Shrinkhla Sahai

If I were Alice, this would be my wonderland, I thought as I made my way through the revolving door of the Royal Opera House. The ballet had always held a magical charm for me, and each visit to London had been marked by the regret of not having been to one yet along with a strong mental footnote in my must-do-next-time list.

The Royal Opera House (ROH), in the heart of London, is home to both opera and ballet. The outer appearance of the building humbly masks the architectural grandeur of the theatre inside and its compelling historical legacy. I was excited about the backstage tour I had registered for and wondered if it would really take me through the looking glass, into the world beyond the wings. About 15 of us assembled at the theatre entrance for the tour, waiting for the guide. We made an interestingly assorted group comprising elderly connoisseurs, adventurous art enthusiasts, serious young dance students and tourists who had just wandered in. Shortly, we were greeted by the tour guide—a pleasant, petite lady. We discovered later that she could be rather strict and matron-like when anyone from the group wandered off a bit or attempted to stealthily click photographs.

We halted briefly in the lobby as the guide pointed to the entrance that might have extended into a portico in the earlier days. I was transported back to the 18th century as she vividly created scenes of horse carriages drawing up at the entrance, nobility stepping into the outer lobby, drinking and dining and then making their way into the grand theatre. In a world without lifts and escalators, it would have been quite a journey to the balcony with unending staircases.

“In that era, the theatre was not so much a place to see, but rather was a place to be seen,” remarked the guide insightfully. Later, inside the theatre she pointed out the box where Queen Victoria used to be seated. At the lower right side of the theatre, it would hardly provide the best view, I was intrigued. The guide expected our momentary confusion and broke the suspense after a dramatic pause, “As you may notice, that particular box definitely does not have the best view of the stage, but it certainly is a place that can be best viewed by the entire theatre.” It was specially chosen so that everyone present in the hall could witness the entrance of the queen herself. The significant social performance around the actual stage performance distinctly differentiates audience behaviour then and now. It is also important because it historically denotes the changing functions of the theatre itself.

The Royal Opera House, is almost like a set that has had many lives and various avatars. As we know it now, the building was largely renovated in the 1990s. The present one is the third theatre, the earlier ones having been burnt down in fires. The space transitioned from being a playhouse initially, later converted into an Italian opera house. During World War I it was used as a storehouse for furniture, and in World War II it was recreated as a dance hall.

I noticed an exhibit box that looked like a miniature set of an actual production. As we looked around the lobby, there were many more. These were ‘model boxes.’ Each model box was 125th the size of the stage and was critical part ofstagecraft as well as an active archive that played a major part in the exact recreation of sets of an earlier production that was being revived. We were told that the ROH has an opening night every 7-9 days, with 7-10 new productions each year including opera and ballet and the rest being revival productions. Not surprisingly, Romeo and Juliet is the ROH’s longest running ballet, for almost half a century.

It was a moment of overwhelming beauty, as we finally entered the theatre that can seat more than 2000 people. The pulsating red decor and the magnificent chandelier that I had often seen in images and postcards were breathtakingly grand in real life. A rehearsal was in progress and the guide informed us that each revival production followed a six-week rehearsal process with merely four rehearsals on stage.

Next, we made our way to the costumes department. This was indeed a labyrinth, with as many as 180 chorus costumes for one show. The guide pointed out that sometimes quick changes were as short as 30 seconds and dancers were responsible for their costume changes. As we made our way to the props department we also caught a glimpse of the set being moved behind-the-scenes. “Set change is a performance in itself,” said the guide. It was colossal and the exercise had to be swift and silent.

The props department had the aura of a carpenter’s workshop. There were objects of all kinds—from pillars, glasses, wands, gates, anything one could think of. The only difference was that they weren’t real objects, they were deceptively lighter and fragile, yet durable.

Our last stop was the studio. We were a little disappointed when we saw the empty studio with silent bars and encompassing mirrors. Just as we had given up hope, someone from the group exclaimed, “There is a tutu!” We all watched entranced as the ballerina practised her pirouettes, extensions and leaps. It was interesting that she also chose to rehearse the facial expressions with the recorded music. Behind the tender beauty and glamour of the ballet is a painstaking life of labour, discipline and competition. The rehearsal routine is tightly packed along with performances, vacations are few, specially during the performance season. With a huge number of aspiring dancers, the absorption rate of the Royal Balletis heartbreakingly low. Career span is short and there is always a high risk of injury. And that, is life, on the other side of the glass.

We were hypnotised, watching the ballerina in action at such close quarters. We observed her rehearsal-performance, our silence punctuated by sighs at a brilliant posture, a surprisingly quick pirouette or a poignant pause.

I gracefully landed back from the reverie of a parallel universe where I aspire to be a prima ballerina, as the tour guide said softly, with a wink in her voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me lead you back into the real world.”

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Milapfest honours South Asian artists in UK

By Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

Milapfest, Britain’s leading Indian arts development trust, recently instituted seven national-level awards to recognise and honour the contribution of artists from among the South Asian diaspora in the UK. These awards, which hold the unique distinction of being the first ever in the realm of Indian performing arts in the UK, include a Lifetime Achievement Award in Arts & Education, Acharya Ratna awards for distinguished teachers and Yuva Ratna awards for promising talent in  Indian classical music and dance.The awards ceremony was held at Nehru Centre, London on 8 October 2015, presided over by Dr. Ranjan Mathai, Indian High Commissioner to the UK and Althea Efunshule, Deputy Chief Executive of Arts Council, England. The programme began with an invocation by young Carnatic vocalist Yarlinie Thanabalasingham, followed by the welcome address by Prashant Nayak, Executive Director, Milapfest. 

Addressing the gathering, Althea Efunshule emphasised the vital role of the arts in everyday life, and how they are undeniably “about the search for personal fulfillment; about strong families and friendships; about bringing joy to our learning; and about promoting the bond between grandparents, parents and children, through the way that we hand down our culture, revere the memory of where we come from, and celebrate the world we now all share.” She presented the Yuva Nritya Ratna  award to Kathak artist Parbati Chaudhary, and the Yuva Sangeet Ratna  award to Yarlinie Thanabalasingham.

Ranjan Mathai conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award for sterling service to Indian Arts & Education to Dr. M.N. Nandakumara, Executive Director of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London. The Sangeet Acharya Ratna award for music was conferred on Sivasakthi Sivanesan, Carnatic music guru of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London.  It was  a proud moment for the Bhavan as two of its guiding lights were honoured. The Nritya Acharya Ratna  award for dance, was awarded to Bharatanatyam guru  Pushkala Gopal. The Samyo & Tarang Musician of the Year awards were presented to Sanjuran Keerthikumar and Jasdeep Singh Degun respectively. 

In honouring artists who have served the arts for several decades, driven by their  passion for the arts, Milapfest has ensured that  India's art and culture will be cherished, celebrated and further enriched by the younger generation of South Asians in the UK in the years to come.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


By Shrinkhla Sahai

In the 1990s, Sarajevo was a city under siege. Bombs, guns, mortar shells and constant fear had become part of the daily lives of the war-weary citizens. In better days, Vedran Smajlović had played as a musician with the Sarajevo Opera and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. While he lost his livelihood, he remained a musician during the war. Renowned now as the ‘cellist of Sarajevo’, Smajlović played his cello among the ruins and rubbles, at funerals, on the streets and other dangerous war zone sites in those critical times. Amid crisis, threats, death and despair, his performances expressed the pain that words dare not articulate; musical notes heralded a vision of peace and hope which could not be articulated through any other medium.

It is the same passion for their art, friendship as artists and commitment to imagine a better world that brought Indian and French artists together to pay tribute to the victims of the recent Paris terror attacks. The audience reciprocated with immense warmth and braved the freezing Delhi winterto assemble in large numbers at the open-air theatre at India Habitat Centre.

Titi Robin (buzuq), Murad Ali Khan (sarangi), Mahua Shankar (Kathak), Mithilesh Kumar Jha (tabla), Vinay Mishra (Harmonium), Ashwani Shankar and Sanjeev Shankar (Shehnai), Suheb Hasan (vocal), Aalok Shrivastav (poetry) and Dino Banjara (percussion)enthralled the audience with their seamless jugalbandis and collaborative pieces. Adhering to their traditional forms and frameworks, they created a conversation between different instruments, interspersed with poignant poetry, precise vocalism and rhythmically intricate dance pieces. 

The power of music heals, strengthens, unites. It also carries within it the universal language of love: ‘Mohabbat’. Mohabbat, in Hindi as in Urdu, is a word for love. It is derived from the Arabic for ‘affection’. In Turkey, the gatherings of the Alevi communities are known as mohabbat, which means ‘love’ in a mystical sense as well as to meet and talk together. According to the artists, “For us, the title we have chosen for the show- Mohabbat, combines all those different meanings and cultures. In this tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, we wish to express the ties of kinship, which through our language as musicians (singing, dancing, music, poetry and rhythm), lies at the source of the artistic gesture, bringing hearts closer together.”

In his recent book, Terror and Performance, Rustom Bharucha makes an incisive argument for disentangling ‘terror’ from ‘terrorism’. The arts can play a major role in dislocating the deeply settled ‘terror’ that pervades our lives today. Arts are important elements of cultural diplomacy, politics and protest. When Smajlović was questioned by a reporter about playing music during the war years, he replied “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?” Time may have flown by, yet chords and questions struck in another time and age echo through the corridors of history even today as we grapple in a world under the siege of terror.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Monday, 18 January 2016

Musical stories celebrating ‘Womanhood’

By Shrinkhla Sahai

Rudaad-e-Shireen, a unique concert featuring women vocalists of the Dilli gharana, paved a refreshing and entertaining path to celebrating ‘womanhood’. Conceptualized by Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan and presented by his disciples, the concert masterfully blended the soulful poetry of Hazrat Amir Khusro and paintings of the celebrated Raja Ravi Varma with the andaaz and technique of Dilli gharana vocalism. 

The stage came alive with the aesthetically conceived light and set design, the six performers with lamps, dressed in red, with the backdrop of the paintings looked poignant and stunning.  Adopting the format of musical story-telling, the performance invited the audience into the world of Shireen, a world that resonates with the lives of many women today. The narrative starts with the carefree, joyful childhood of Shireen and follows the trajectory of her life, touching upon themes like child marriage, centrality of marriage in the life of a woman, her struggles in a patriarchal society, the social taboos that a woman faces when she tries to carve out her own space and identity.

Vusat Iqbal Khan excelled with her emotive appeal as the narrator, and the compositions were charmingly presented by Bhawna, Anju, Mohena, Leena and Shaheen. The bandishes of Hazrat Amir Khusro were composed by Ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan and included a wide variety consisting of jhoola, geets, sawelas, keh mukarniya, qauls, qawwalis, bidais, banhda geet and baramaasa geet.

The fresh perspective that differentiates this performance from regular classical music concerts is that it presented the traditional repertoire while raising critical questions about modern Indian society. The classical and the semi-classical compositions were interpreted as spaces of freedom and expression of the otherwise oppressed feminine voice within the narrative. Interestingly, the protagonist eventually finds her identity and self-actualization as a musician as she follows a Sufi mystic through the streets, away from the boundaries of home and domesticity. 

Initiated in Delhi by the Sursagar Society of Delhi Gharana, the innovative approach and aesthetic detailing of the concert makes it a show that should travel across different performance venues in the country.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Nalco award for Ileana Citaristi

Ileana CItaristi received the NALCO Kharavela award for her contribution to Odissi dance (in the 'guru' category). The award, consisting of a scroll, a citation and a cheque of 1,00,000 rupees was given on the  Nalco Foundation Day on 7 January 2016 ,  in the presence of Narendra Singh Tomar,   Union Minister of Steel and Mines and Jual Oram, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Ragaland – A romance of many anubhavas

By Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam

The line was all too clear. There were the raktis and there were the scales. Of course, one could be rakti and also ghanam, or deshya, or anything else but merely scalar. The scales – or the “minor” ragas – were, to put it mildly, the estranged ones. “Ha! Here comes our light-minded Latāngi!” mocked Thōdi, one of the reigning lords of Ragaland. Dhanyāsi smirked. Many of the scales had been given such fancy names by the raktis: “Jejune Janaranjani”, “Naïve Nalinakanthi”, “Humdrum Hamsanadam” and so on. Shivaranjani who’d been watching, comforted Latāngi and retorted to Thodi, “Hey, at least our swaras are in place! Look at what you folks pass off as a gandhara or a madhyama!” “Oh the poor scales, their lives begin and end with swaras and swarasthānas!”, Dhanyāsi gibed.

So who were the raktis? The raktis, or the “pleasing ones”, were the self-assumed privileged class in Ragaland. They emerged from melodic formations and had a swaroopam or form that went beyond their constituent swaras. Combinations or patterns of swaras would in most cases not exhaust all the possibilities of the raga. They were wholes that were more than the sums of their parts, if you will. Kāmboji, Athāna, Begada, Nārayanagowla, Thōdi, Bhairavi, Yadukulakāmboji, Dhānyasi, and Sahaāna were some of the prototypical raktis. The scales on the other hand, were more straightforward folks. They could be quite completely defined by their arohanam-avarohanam. Scalar members included Hamsānadham, Hamsadhwani, Hamsānandi, Ranjani, Dharmavati, Simhendramadhyamam, Varamu, Gambhīranāttai, Vāgadīshwari, Valaji and the like. A large number of the scales were relatively new to Ragaland and that was another reason for the raktis’ pride: most of the raktis had lived there forever and so for them, the land truly was theirs’ and only theirs’.

There were some exceptions among the raktis though, who were very friendly with the scales and in fact championed them. Nīlambari was one of them and was in fact very fond of Nalinkanthi. She would often say to her, “They say you’re a scale, I’m rakti and all that. Who cares? I wish I had your sa-ga-ri-ma! That looks so good on you!” And Nalinakanthi would blush, and return the compliment: “Oh, how lovely are your vakra passages, especially with the occasional kaishiki nishādha!”

Some of the scales had gotten together for their daily hangout. Among them was Revathi. She had also witnessed the earlier exchange between Thōdi, Dhanyāsi, and Shivaranjani and that had got her ruminating. “You know, sometimes I wonder about the true purpose of our lives”, she said. “We have spent all our lives fighting for equality but may be the raktis are right after all. May be they really have more intrinsic worth than us.” Vāgadīshwari slowly nodded in agreement and added, “Dhanyāsi did make a valid point: our lives do largely begin and end with swaras and swarasthānas…”

“So what?!” interrupted Valaji. “Why exactly are swara and scale-transcending ragas superior?” What followed was a brief silence. It was an important question that nobody seemed to have asked in all seriousness until now. “Well, may be they have stronger individualities and identities?” offered Nalinakanthi. “Yes, gamakas and phraseologies lend them strong identities”, added Revathi. “But don’t our swaras do the same for us?” asked Simhendramadhyamam, puzzled. “Not in the same way that gamakas and prayōgas do for the raktis, I suppose”, replied Revathi.

Begada, one of the more amiable raktis, joined the conversation. “That sounds right to me” she said. “No offense, but take Dharmavati and Gowrimanohari for instance. Or even Sarasāngi and Gowrimanohari. What distinguishes one from the other are not characteristic gamakas, not prayōgas, but just plain old notes! The exact same string of swaras can be sung in any of the three, just changing the swarasthānas – and lo and behold, you’ll have a new “raga” each time.” ““Raga”? Great, now you’re questioning our very status as ragas!”, shot back Gambhīranāttai. Begada apologized and tried to clear the air: “I’m sorry, let’s try and understand each other better.” Seeing Begada, more raktis joined. Kedaragowla added, “Begada’s right: none of us can mutually swap a note or two to exchange our identities, unlike you folks. And that’s because highly specific and unique phraseologies form our lifeline – take Begada’s own characteristic ga-ma-pa- da-pa-sa and the long, sliding nishadha in the descent for instance.”

“But there’s a razor-sharp difference between Keeravani and myself!”, argued Simhendramadhyamam. “Although we share six swaras, don’t our madhyamas make a world of a difference? It gives us our distinct, individual flavors. It’s the same with Dharmavati and Gowrimanohari and so on. Agreed, each of us shares subsets of our scales with many others but please look at us as in our entirety – we have a swaroopa too! Yes, we are not defined by typical pidis and prayōgas and phraseologies – I’ll admit that unabashedly. But it’s unfair to gauge our stature by your standards. Why is your phrase-based uniqueness superior to our note-based one?”

Gowrimanohari chimed in at this point: “Right. Why should resemblance in parts be grounds for dictating the intrinsic worth of our existences? If strong individuality manifested within a small set of notes is the criterion for deciding who’s more of a “raga”, then sure, you raktis win. But that seems like an arbitrary criterion.”

“But”, responded Kedaragowla, “intending to present you, Gowrimanohari, when a musician opens with an akāram involving pa, ma, ga, ri, sa, ni the listener doesn’t know what’s coming: you, or Keeravani, or…..”

“Well, a musician can make it clear at the outset which one she’s presenting.”, said Gowrimanohari – “And once the identity of the raga is clearly established, it doesn’t matter if in the process of exploration the musician dives into certain specific regions of our scales, leaving out the rest.” “But to be fair, I should add that there are some musicians who like to deliberately obfuscate the raga they’re presenting.”, said Vāgadīshwari in an almost confessional tone. One time, in the hands – or rather vocal chords – of T.K. Rangachari my rishabham was simply not touched on for a good three-and-a-half minutes into the ālapana, leading unwitting rasikas to conclude that what they were hearing was Harikāmboji!”

Kedaragowla seized the moment: “See! That’s what we’re talking about!”

“But all this speaks more about the prowess and sensibilities of musicians rather than about us, ragas!”, muttered a bewildered Dharmavati. “It’s no fault of Vāgadīshwari that when her scale is presented only within the ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa range she sounds identical to Harikāmboji – her rishabha makes all the difference and once sounded, lends her her unmistakable identity. Whether or not a raga should be presented unambiguously right at the outset is to be settled between the musician and the rasika – it doesn’t have anything to do with us!”

“And by the way!” thundered Nīlambari who had been listening silently all along, “We’ve been boasting about our strong individualites and all that – what about our Chāyālaga friends?! Darbār and Nāyaki; Bhairavi, Mānji, Huseni and Mukhāri; Rīthigowlai and Ānandabhairavi to a good extent; Kedaragowla and Surati? If we don’t have a problem with some of us raktis sharing close similarities with each other, we shouldn’t have a problem with similarity among the scales either. I don’t see why swara-based similarities are in any way worse than so-called lakshana-based ones. The difference between Gowrimanohari and Sarasāngi is in fact much sharper than that between say, Bhairavi from Mukhari.”

Dhanyāsi jumped in: “We’ve been focusing too much on our similarities – or the lack of them. The real differentiator is our gamakas. Take for instance my gāndhara – or for that matter every single of my vikruti swaras! Render them plain and it won’t be me anymore! None in the scales clan has any such individualistic gamakas.”

 “It’s the same argument again”, grumbled a slightly annoyed Varamu: “Yes, you have highly specific gamakas that make you who you are, and we don’t. But why does that make us inferior? The type and degree of gamakas also seem like arbitrary criteria for deciding our worth. Don’t you realize the beauty of pure, plain swaras? Moreover, take Shanmugapriya or Chārukeshi – they originated as scales. But over time they have come to acquire beautiful gamakas for their nishadhas. Think of Shanmugapriya’s in the very opening of Pāpanasam Sivan’s Āndavane!”

Begada protested: “But we offer so much more scope for elaboration by musicians. And we present them with greater challenges.”

“Agreed, there’s lesser a musician can do with us” – admitted Kīravani – “but it’s a difference in degree, not in kind – even among you folks some of you have more layers to be unraveled than others. Moreover, a good musician can handle a scale skillfully and aesthetically for great lengths of time.” “Very true”, chipped in Vāchaspati: “I was once presented for an hour in a ragam-thanam-pallavi by Ālathur Brothers. It helped me discover facets of me that I myself hadn’t been aware of – it was cathartic.” “And sure, a musician might find it less challenging to present Dharmavati than Nārayanagowla.” – continued Kīravani: “But once again, we’re talking about the skills and sensibilities of musicians, not about who’s better among us ragas!”

Bhairavi retorted: “Oh, but it’s us who’ve been here forever. Most of you have come to live here fairly recently. She quickly glanced around and asked with a scoff, “How long have you been here, dear Vāsanthi? Or even you, Bahudhāri? And on the other hand, you folks – Mukhāri and Begada?” Bahudhāri got quite offended and said, “On top of being gamak-ist and phras-ist, now you’re being ageist!”

“She’s not”, replied Thodi. “Pidis, phraseologies, gamakas… these are not arbitrary criteria: these were the traditional criteria. We didn’t come into existence by humans handpicking certain notes and arbitrarily putting them together. We came into existence organically. But you on the other hand, were artificially created. And back in the day, only musical formations that came into being the way we did were truly ragas!”

“I knew you’d get here.” Shanmugapriya said wryly: “We understand that the special gamakas we may have today were put in by hand, as opposed to the gamakas of say, you, Bhairavi, Begada or Sahāna. Our genesis has been “bottom-up” – from swaras to (what you may think of as contrived) gamakas and prayōgas – whereas with most of you, it’s been “top-down”: you originated from your gamakas and phraseologies first, and probably then became associated with swaras. But why does all this matter so much to your acceptance of us as ragas? Why don’t you just look at us as new arrivers with a different kind of genesis, nevertheless as worthy as you of being considered ragas?”

Nāttaikurunji, another voice for equality among the raktis added, “If the scales were “artificially created”, did we raktis just land here as swayambhus? Don’t forget that you were creations of humans as well. We may have originated more out of aesthetics, and they, more theoretically – but that doesn’t make them inferior. Importantly, it doesn’t ipso facto make them less aesthetic! And do you realize that Ragaland has been continuously evolving and welcoming new settlers from time to time? And as Varamu just said, do you also realize that there are ragas that originated from scales but are hard to classify as purely scalar today – like Chārukeshi and Shanmugapriya? Moreover what about ragas like Hindōlam and our age-old Mōhanam? They are primarily defined by their swaras and don’t have special prayōgas or gamakas – now would you call them raktis or scales? They have such strong personalities! Swaras – and combinations of them – are capable of lending strong character to a raga regardless of gamakas or phraseologies. I’d argue that in fact Dharmavati and Simhendramadhyamam have distinct personalities owing to their madhyamas despite sharing the other six swaras.”

Dhanyāsi resisted: “If unique phraseologies and gamakas, and traditional origins and age are all arbitrary criteria for determining Ragahood then what according to you is an acceptable criterion for defining us ragas?!” 

“I’ll tell you!”, announced an unfamiliar voice suddenly. The ragas were all startled. Out of nowhere, a being had just manifested. “Who are you?” they asked in chorus. “You aren’t a raga – you aren’t a musical form. We have never seen anything like you! What are you doing here?” “I am Chitta”, came the reply. “Chitta? We don’t understand!”, they gasped. “We can tell that you’re here since we seem to be able to walk in and out of you, but we can’t perceive you!” “I am the human mind – I form the very core of the humans who created you – I reside in the humans and embody the feelings, moods, and experiences they get from you”, said Chitta.

“We create feelings and experiences for humans?! And you’re saying you’re the embodiment of those?”, asked a confused Begada.

Chitta continued: “Indeed. You ragas evoke in humans different experiences and feelings – or anubhavas. I think the only criterion for what makes one a raga is their ability to create a meaningful anubhava for the musician and for the rasika – be it listening, performative, cerebral or anything else. For instance, I can say that Nalinakanthi and Hamsadhwani give pure visceral joy to a lot of people, whereas Shubhapantuvarali can make them deeply melancholic. Hamsanādam often evokes passion and is deeply moving, while Shankarābharanam can stir up a sense of blissful contentment. Nīlambari is reassuringly soothing while Thōdi and Bhairavi evoke a sense of grandeur and loftiness.

While a musician may on a particular occasion prefer to present Nārayanagowla to Dharmavati to showcase her talent, her knowledge of and/or preference for “tradition” and so on, another musician – or even the same musician on another day – may prefer to elaborate Dharmavati over Nārayanagowla perhaps because it makes her deeply contemplative and emotional. Yet another musician might derive great intellectual (as well as aesthetic) satisfaction by presenting a ragam-thanam-pallavi in Nirōshta. All of you are important in your own right as far as the human experience is concerned.”

All the ragas had been listening with rapt attention. This all proved to be profoundly revealing for them. Although they were keenly aware of their origins and geneses, they had never contemplated the effect they have on the human mind and the anubhavas they create for them – and so it took them a while to wrap their heads around what they had just heard. “So you mean each of us creates different anubhavas for humans and have the power to move and touch them emotionally and intellectually?”, asked Mukhāri, still a bit curious.

“Yes, exactly”, replied Chitta.

Dharmavati wondered aloud: “That’s amazing. If we all create a variety of anubhavas for humans then there’s really no reason for us to judge each other so rigidly – unless we get into a commentary on the human experience and rate various anubhavas from highest to lowest, which sounds absurd on the face of it.”

Chitta beamed. “Rightly said! At the end of the day what matters both for the musician and the rasika is the rāgānubhava – the complete musical experience. And raktitvam of raga, the way we have been construing it isn’t a necessary ingredient for meaningful raāgaānubhava! When a Valaji moves a rasika, how she moves!”

Ranjani had been quietly absorbing everything that said up to now and she had a question for Chitta: “Just for a second, I want to play devil’s advocate and take Dhanyāsi’s side: what you seem to be saying is that any bunch of swaras can be put together to make a raga. But doesn’t that make way for a dangerous relativism? Does anything go? Can say, a computer-generated scale ever become a raga? Should we prepare for an eventual overcrowding here?”

Chitta listened patiently and said, “You’re going down a slippery slope. I did not imply that anything goes. The rāgānubahva created is the ultimate decider. Let me elaborate. I ask that you not be opposed to “randomly generated” ragas on principle. Welcome them. The point is, time will tell. If musicians and rasikas find meaning and value in the anubhavas such ragas create for them, they will stand the test of time and stay, or else, they leave. If a raga is not able to make an impression on the mind of the musician and the rasika, they won’t last.”

Bhairavi who’d been listening intently and pondering had quite remarkably come around: “Come to think of it, remember how we ragas were defined in the treatises? ranjayati iti ragaha: that which pleases the mind is a raga. It now seems silly that we were arguing among ourselves and completely ignoring the human experience. We ought to understand carefully what Chitta has said: we should all be proud of each other for having the ability to create unique anubhavas for humans. It comes as a great revelation that our Nalinakanthi and Hamsadhwani can make one’s heart leap with joy, our not-so-humdrum Hamsānadham can create a sense of longing and passion, whereas our Shubhapantuvarāli can make one intensely melancholic. What value can we place on these abilities to create such intense experiences? And we call them “mere” scales and claim Ragahood solely for ourselves.”

Nāttaikurinji added, “The beauty and strength of our land lies in our diversity; in our pluralism. Together, we sport a variety of swaras and gamakas and phraseologies, and together provide a whole spectrum of anubhavas to musicians and rasikas. And together, we have to celebrate this. Isn’t it greatly satisfying when we all come together taking turns in a concert? Just yesterday, as I exited one fine musician’s vīna and entered another’s voice elsewhere, Nāgaānandini made an entry into the vainika’s strings. The more of us represented in a concert (not compromising on our depths and breadths of course) the wider the range of anubhavas created for the musician as well as the rasika, and the bigger our collective triumph.”

Thōdi who had been silently listening the whole time then remarked with a tone of contemplation and also a certain finality, “How arrogant and naïve have I been – I think we’ve arrived at an important lesson: rāgaānubhava lies at the core of our relationship with humans. And rāgānubhavas cannot be ranked!” The raktis slowly nodded in agreement and Chitta smiled approvingly.

A long, solemn silence followed. Today had been an important day in the history of Ragaland. For the first time, the raktis and the scales had engaged in an important and meaningful exchange, a largely mutually respectful Socratic dialogue at that – and thanks to Chitta, they were slowly but surely paving way for momentous social change.

Ragathil sirantha ragam ethu?... Sruthi shuddhamāgavum swara shuddhamāgavum, shuddha bhāvaththudan pādum ragame siranthathu – Kadalur Subramaniam.

-Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam

Note: Some readers will recognize that this piece is (loosely) inspired from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s brilliant 1884 mathematical fiction, Flatland – A Romance of Many Dimensions. I submit that this is an earnest – albeit probably feeble – tribute to the masterpiece that is Flatland, and of course, to the theory and praxis of Carnatic music, an incredibly sophisticated and beautiful art form.