Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Born to Sing: A Shy Girl from Madurai

By Shankar Ramachandran

The title of the JustUs Repertory production, Born to Sing: a Shy Girl from Madurai, was as seductive as it was appropriate.  We at Dhvani, the India Performing Arts Society of Central Ohio, immediately booked the show for the first day of our three-day celebration of MS Subbulakshmi Centenary. I have seen and heard many of Gowri Ramnarayan’s theater and music productions and was aware of her ability to mould and wrest unique performances out of youthful performers. But a musical presentation about MS poses many challenges. I couldn’t but wonder how the group was going to pull it off. 

The song list was impressive and, like most of the songs in MS’s repertoire, these would be very familiar to many in the audience.

I was kept busy with logistical and other issues during the days leading up to the festival and my fears and concerns didn’t get much attention, care or feeding. 

One of the singers was unwell and watching the rather low-tech ministrations of honey, turmeric, garlic and pepper concoctions set my jitters in hyper mode again and didn’t do much to assuage my pangs. On the day of the show, by the time the stage lights dimmed at the packed theater, I was a bundle of taut nerves.

Once the programme began I realized that my fears were quite unnecessary.  Gowri Ramnarayan’s seemingly effortless and informal introduction immediately captured the audience and the team never did let them go till the final chant from the Gita marking the show’s conclusion. At the very beginning Gowri set the stage for introducing the iconically familiar MS to the audience under some less familiar lights. MS, the personification of South Indian traditional womanhood was revealed as having deep commitment to social and political reforms. As the programme wound on, Gowri skilfully painted an intimate portrait of MS and Sadasivam as a couple who effectively pursued their vision of a better India through the music of Subbulakshmi.

What about the musicians on stage? They too wove their spells as Gowri handed the reins to each of them in turn. Aditya and Sushma sang the familiar MS repertoire songs with involvement.  While their renditions revealed what must have taken months of training, their presentations were anything but casual. There was sincerity, concentration and worshipfulness in every phrase.  Aditya’s Khamas followed by Brochevarevarura  and Sushma’s Hindolam and Maa Ramanan were both weighty and mellifluous. Neither attempted to sing the same sangatis or the same alapana phrases that MS would have done. But both of them left the audience breathless and eager to hear more. Tagore’s Mallika Boney and a bhajan from the Khalsa tradition, Naam Japana, stole the show for their soulful poetry and expressions of deep human longing, which flowed through Sushma and Aditya’s imaginative renditions. Violin, mridangam, tabla and flute were interwoven in a collage of colourful sounds--subtle and heard without loudness. Shreya seemed to lead off effectively; switching slides seamlessly from song to song and from sruti to sruti.  The instrumentalists also provided a romantic interlude with the songs from Sakuntalai--a useful ploy in the structure to give the audience a break from the more serious and more demanding elements of the show.

It could not have been easy for these artists to leap from song to song, each so different in approach, style, structure, language and emotional impact, throughout the two-hour production. Practice and effort were evident as was each of their underlying talent and commitment to the production. Ramesh Babu and Thiagarajan rounded out this team, Ramesh with his seasoned fingering and gumki - used to change the impact and to create the illusion of changes in nadai- skilfully added another dimension to each and every song. Thiagarajan’s flute added the colours of innocence and of song, effectively creating a sense of storytelling, which was exploited by Gowri’s direction and her narrative.

True to Gowri’s introduction, the programme presented much more than a selection of the songs popularized by MS Subbulakshmi.  Each of the songs was chosen for a reason and weaving them together  was expert storytelling. Gowri told us about a young girl born in Madurai in a devadasi family. Along with music she also imbibes a sense of the nationalist values of the time.  Inevitably these values lead her to question the social mores and stigmas of the times.  Her passion and her intelligence lead her to quietly challenge (if MS’ voice could be called quiet) the conventional roles of her birth and her gender. In Sadasivam she finds a life companion who shares her passion for freedom and social justice. Together they work to use her music to promote an array of values and causes.  From the independence struggle, and the Kasturba Foundation to the Tamil Isai movement where her participation caused her to be banned for a time by The Music Academy, MS was no conformist.  The songs in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Sanskrit and more flow together to portay a musician’s striving for national unity, religious tolerance, economic justice, social and gender equality and much so much more. 

The end of the show came reluctantly. The photograph of MS on the stage now seemed three-dimensional.  The audience didn’t want to leave and many of them milled about in the lobby in animated and excited discussions.  Everyone who attended could agree that it was a most appropriate beginning to Dhvani’s  three-day MS Centenary celebration. It was great entertainment, it was solid and soulful music, it was an appropriate semi-biographical introduction to MS Subbulakshmi, it was good theater and a sincere effort. 

No celebration of MS Subbulakshmi and her legacy would be complete without an effort to help others. In tribute and celebration of the life work of MS and Sadasivam, the members of the audience opened more than their hearts. They donated enough money to Free to Smile Foundation to perform cleft palate surgery for eight children.  They also donated money to Akshyapatra.org to provide lunches for nearly 70 children for six months.

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