Saturday, 29 April 2017

A thinking vocalist

By Meena Banerjee

Shashank Maktedar, a die-hard devotee of Hindustani classical music, is among those bravehearts who are striving hard to win the approval of the elders in the field. He was not born with a golden voice like Rashid Khan, is not glamorous like Zakir Hussain; he is a shy, reticent, almost self-effacing young vocalist. And despite all these ‘disqualifications’, his music has haunted me ever since I heard him in 2012 during a mega-event at Dhaka, Bangladesh. Jointly organised by the Bengal Foundation, Dhaka, and ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, this major Indo-Bangladesh venture in the arena of Indian classical music and dance, held from 29 November to 2 December, had four night-long sessions that featured almost a hundred top-ranking artists from all over India.

After this I attended numerous renowned annual soirees in Kolkata, but Shashank’s version of raga Sree, reverberating in the huge Army Stadium in Dhaka, stayed in my mind like a flawless painting. Pundits would probably give credit to the perfect timing which helped the raga to cast its spell – rendered as the last coppery rays of the day were slowly engulfed by the mysterious veil of dusk. Maybe, but any sensational musician, with his ego and showmanship ruling the roost, could have spoiled the mood. Instead, here was a devotee who, in his unobtrusive, quiet manner, with his eyes lovingly focused on the raga’s pristine features, was invoking its true spirit with utmost sincerity. It is the same sincerity that made his rendition of raga Bhoopali as impressive when he performed at the Jnana Pravaha Music Festival (22-24 February 2013) under the aegis of Vijay Kichlu’s Sangeet Ashram. Kichlu took pride in introducing this young maestro when he said, “Shashank was a scholar during my tenure in ITC SRA. He is one of the stars today, knocking at the doors of super-stardom.”

Early impact

I had heard Shashank in the late 1990s when he was receiving taleem from Ulhas Kashalkar, one of the best khayal exponents of this era. Even then he got noticed for his ear for purity of raga in the manner of his guru; so much so that the guru-sishya duo won the Jodu Bhatta award. But that was that. Maktedar then opted to become a teacher and joined Goa College of Music in 2000. A couple of years later he came down to perform at ITC SRA. The impressive maturity with which he etched the characters of the heavy Malkauns followed by a light-hearted Sohini is still fresh in my memory. He did not wring Malkauns out of its seriousness, nor did he drag Sohini down. Very few musicians show this kind of sensitivity in choosing ragas that can showcase their contemplative mood steeped in emotions along with sheer virtuosity. I had asked him then what inspired him to be so when the trend was to coerce the raga till all imagination (read khayal) ceased to exist. He had said, “Now that I teach, I get enough time to think.”

Home away from home

I wished to talk to him before he became a superstar. The only place to catch him in Kolkata is his guru’s residence within the ITC SRA premises. It is a home away from home with delicious Maharashtrian food dished out from the kitchen of Sanjeevani Kashalkar (his loving guruma), music and pooja sessions with his guruji and younger guru-bhais Sameehan Kashalkar, Omkar Dadarkar and many others. I dropped in unannounced on them one evening. While Shashank was having his supper, Ulhas, like a devoted father and the master of the house, came out of the dining room to treat me to sweets and equally sweet information, “Shashank is Dr. Shashank Maktedar now!” he announced with well-placed pride, “He has been awarded Ph.D for his Analytical Study of Pandit Gajananbuwa Joshi’s Musical Contribution. He is Assistant Professor in the vocal department of Goa Music College.” When Shashank stepped in, guru Kashalkar decided to slip out quietly to allow undivided space for discussion. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Who initiated you into music?

‘I belong to Aurangabad (Marathwada) and was fortunate to receive training in vocal music from Pandit Nath Narelkar, my first guru. I was barely eight years old when he accepted me as a student of his gurukul where, this vidya was given free of cost in the guru sishya parampara. Sincere dedication was all that he demanded. For twelve years I went there twice a day. So, morning and evening riyaz of two to four hours became my habit. The training followed a system but we never heard the word ‘gharana’ there. Frankly, in Marathwada, there was little or no influence of the Gwalior school. We admired Pandit Bhimsen Joshi a lot and, therefore, Kirana elements crept into our singing to a great extent.

What prompted you to come to the Sangeet Research Academy?

A National Talent Search was organised in 1991. I appeared from Hyderabad but there was no competition or audition test. I sang, they recorded my voice and sent it to SRA. I did not know what to expect. Suddenly we received a telegram which advised me to go to Calcutta. Upon reaching there, I was asked to sit for the competition immediately. And I stood first! When I went back home, my folks and Narelkarji encouraged me to take up this opportunity. I came to SRA as a scholar. Soon after, in 1992, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar joined the academy as a Guru. Kichlu Saheb gave me an option and I came under guruji’s guidance.

Was there any difference in their styles of teaching?

Huge! Earlier, after the basics, Narelkarji allowed us to use our imagination to do free-flowing alap. But here I learnt that alap too followed a frame, a structure. Pure raag-roop with the help of important phrases of the raga were most important. Perfection was the key word. There was no laxity, nothing between black and white. It was so different from what I had experienced earlier. It seemed that after tasting the life of a free bird I had entered a cage. There was a time when nothing seemed to move forward. It was very frustrating. Then suddenly avartan bharna (filling up the composition with innovative phrases), vistaar (elaborations), bol-alap (lyrics-based improvisations), taans – all became easy.

Ulhas Kashalkar sings in three different styles. Did you too learn Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra?

Initially I was taught the Gwalior style.. That is when I learnt ragas like Yaman, Sree and Behag. Later Guruji gave me Jaipur’s Behagda and Pooria. In 2006-7, I won a scholarship from Delhi’s Sanskriti Pratishthan. That is when I received extensive training in the Agra style and learnt ragas like Barwa, Gara Kanada and Dhanasree. Initially I was a photocopy of my guruji’s style of singing. He pushed me to come out of it. Now, as a teacher, I realise what treasures have been handed down to me. Whenever I need something, I peep into my collection and find such precious gems. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel a great sense of responsibility. This forces me to think about my music and inspires me to showcase this inherited treasure with utmost care. I need the blessings of my listeners to help me do so.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Friday, 28 April 2017

K. Rajasekharan

Musicians in Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

K Rajasekharan was one of the early vocalists to sing for Bharatanatyam in Chennai. Trained at Kalakshetra and with many years of service at the Little Flower School for the Blind, Rajasekharan looks back with contentment on his career spanning more than four decades. He shares some of his memories and thoughts with Sruti.

How did you come to Kalakshetra?

I had no intention of joining Kalakshetra. My father was a well-known vocalist for Kathakali in Kerala. It just happened that when my father and I passed through Chennai, we met Rukmini Devi who urged my father to send me to Chennai to study. I was only in third standard and came to Kalakshetra in 1958 or so. At one point Athai wanted me to leave my studies and join the music course as a full time student. I was very interested in studies and actually refused to do so! Being the generous person that she was, Athai let me complete my matriculation. I then finished the six-year Sangeeta Siromani course in music offered by Kalakshetra. I was a part of Kalakshetra for 16 years.

Who were your teachers at Kalakshetra?

I was trained by stalwarts like M.D. Ramanathan, Budalur Krishnamurthy, Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Ramaswamy Iyengar and D. Pasupati. What a galaxy of stars!

My mentor was Rukmini Devi. Sometimes on my way to college, she would pass by in her car and stop to ask me about my progress. She would even ask me to sing some new kriti I had learnt. It was a beautiful time in Kalakshetra. Athai was a gem of a person and it was amazing how her mind was always planning and strategising! One day an attender in school came to class and said that Athai would like to meet me. She needed a young Rama and Lakshmana for the dance-drama Sita Swayamwaram, and she was hoping to cast me. Fortunately for me, I was too small for the role or — who knows — today I might have been a dancer and not a vocalist!

What made you leave Kalakshetra? Was it a difficult decision?

After my course, I was keen on getting a job as I married early and wanted financial security. Kalakshetra was not in a position to offer me a job as we had great artists already teaching there. Somehow I was disillusioned by the lives our great teachers were forced to lead. I have seen my own teacher – Ramaswamy Iyengar – such a knowledgable musician, going from house to house to give tuitions to make both ends meet. I decided early in life that even if my salary was low, I wanted the security of a regular income.

Your decision led you to the Little Flower School for the Blind. How did you start the next chapter of your life there?

Initially, I worked with Dhananjayan Anna and Shanta Akka and they were of tremendous support. They guided me in singing for natyam and I sang for them for a long time. I also worked with M.V. Narasimhachari. One of my visually challenged colleagues in Kalakshetra knew that I was looking for a job and when an opening came up at the Little Flower School for the Blind, he asked me to apply. I was one of the first male tutors to join the institution and stayed there till I retired a few years ago. Maybe it was God’s will that I teach the students there. It was a wonderful experience.

Was it difficult to teach students at the school? Did you have to change your teaching methodology?

Not at all. Teaching visually challenged students is no different. The only thing I had to help them with was keeping tala. I would hold their hand and show them how to maintain tala. Otherwise it is the same. The level of their understanding depended on their interest and talent. Many of my students became good singers and have passed the higher level exams in music.

Besides vocal music, what else are you trained in?

I learnt gottuvadyam from Budalur and even performed a few times. I learnt Bharatanatyam for two years at Athai’s insistence. I was taught by Anandhi Teacher. I trained in nattuvangam thanks to Dhananjayan’s encouragement. At a time when students were not even allowed to touch the tattukazhi and nattuvangam in the Bharatanatyam world was termed ‘soyyam’ derogatively, he encouraged me to learn nattuvangam. I too was keen to pick up skills that would help me later.

Who are some of the well known artists you have sung for?

Besides the Dhananjayans and Narasimhacharis, I have sung for Chitra Visweswaran and Shobana. We have travelled widely abroad on long tours.

What are the challenges an artist faces as a Bharatanatyam accompanist?

It is not as easy as mainstream kutcheri artists think it is! It requires a different approach. I remember once during the Natya Kala Conference, the mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman commented on stage that playing for dance was easy. Someone from the audience got up and challenged him to play for Bharatanatyam the following year at the same conference. He accepted and went to Adyar Lakshman to practise. The next year at the conference, he admitted that he was mistaken and that it was actually not that easy!

I feel that music should be used in any way beneficial to others. It does not matter whether you are a kutcheri artist or an accompanist for dance. We have to serve society in whatever way we can.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

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

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Kaushiki- Rakesh jugalbandi

A triumph of communication

By PNV Ram

My four-day long visit to SIFAS helped me to understand the work the institution has done in the last fifty years to promote Indian classical music and dance in Singapore. Among the people I met were those who extended their warm hospitality and shared several insights into the functioning of SIFAS. Mr PS Somasekharan took great trouble over making my stay comfortable and gave me a delightful lunch at Singapore Cricket Club, where I had played a match back in January 1978 as a member of the visiting Deccan Blues Cricket Club. He also made sure I had transport and good seats at every concert besides driving me around whenever possible. Mr Ashok Talwar was another person who made my visit enjoyable.

Dr ST Kasinathan took me on a conducted tour of SIFAS, taking me to a variety of class rooms and introducing me to the dedicated faculty and other staff. Dr Seshan Ramaswami, Ms Sarita Alurkar-Sriram, Mr and Mr Shankar Rajan have all been part of Kala Manjari, a coffee table book on SIFAS's role in propagating Indian music and dance for the last fifty years, and it was a pleasure to interact with them and learn a bit of the SIFAS lore from them.  More about this in a later blog post.

Among the highlights of the SIFAS festival this year was the jugalbandi between Kaushiki Chakraborty and Rakesh Chaurasia. The duo obviously enjoy a brilliant chemistry on stage, and this enabled them to keep the packed hall totally hooked to the music on offer. Both boast impeccable pedigrees as does Satyajit Talwalkar, the tabla artist who accompanied them that evening. Not only did the artists offer music of quality, both Kaushiki and Rakesh, displayed a certain spontaneity as communicators, and drew as much applause for their witty remarks as their music. The vocalist and flautist performed solo first before combining in the second part of the concert. The choice of ragas was refreshingly different from the menu we are used to in Chennai, where visiting Hindustani musicians tend to give us an overdose of Yaman. Kaushiki's Rageshri was beautifully rendered, especially in the slower pace. The gifted singer that she is, Kaushiki tends to overdo the virtuosic part of superfast taans and incredible voice modulation that she is capable of. Sure enough, she earned tremendous applause with her extraordinary prowess, but it did seem like avoidable overkill to an old-fashioned rasika.

Likewise, Rakesh Chaurasia, too, knows how to wow his young audience, and who are we traditionalists to complain when speed and extreme sound effects take over from evocative music to the delight of the majority of those present? Like many other rasikas I know, I have long been a critic of the harmonium as an instrument for Indian classical music, but within the limitations of the instrument, young accompanist Tanmay Deochake was delightfully inventive and supportive of the main artists, showing excellent aesthetics.

Of the SIFAS musicians and dancers I heard or watched, PK Geethanadhan, a Kalakshetra product, was most impressive in his margam performance. His abhinaya was as striking as his nritta, and his trim, boyish figure made the performance a visual treat. The singing by TP Nishanth (said to be a disciple of PS Narayanaswami and a recent entrant into singing for dance), nattuvangam by PN Vikas, violin by Naveen Kumar, flute by V Sivakumar and mridangam by Tripunithura Sreekanth, were a perfect foil for Geethanadhan's dance, and the overall effect was as dignified and aesthetically pleasing as a Kalakshetra production.

The other local artists (among those I heard) to give a good account of themselves included Seema Jayesh (Hindustani vocal), Sabapathy Tirupathy Ramana (Carnatic flute) and Gayatri Krishna (Carnatic vocal). Ramana tended to get carried away with his own virtuosity, while his accompanists Naveen Kumar (violin) and Tripunithura Sreekanth (mridangam) were a sobering influence on him. Both Seema Jayesh (of the Kairana gharana) and Gayatri Krishna seemed to have minor vocal niggles, but both acquitted themselves very well. Gayatri has been a student of the redoubtable teacher Seetha Rajan of Chennai, and the Semmangudi bani was very much in evidence in her concert. The violin-sitar jugalbandi by Bharati Murali and Priya Bedekar never really took off after promising much, perhaps as a result of insufficient practice together. Young Kathak dance Os Agrawal did a neat job of her performance, bringing credit to her guru Mulla Afsar Khan, an ever present encouragement at the venue.

It was overall a very satisfying sample of the local talent available.

Tabla maestro Hashmat Ali Khan passes away

By Shrinkhla Sahai

The senior-most artist of the Ajrada gharana of tabla, Hashmat Ali Khan passed away in Delhi at the age of 85 on 22 April, 2017. He had received his training in the intricacies of tabla from his grandfather, Mohd. Shafi Khan. He was later groomed in the art by Niazu Khan, a noted representative of the Ajrada gharana.

His greatest contribution to music was the way he upheld and enriched the repertoire of the Ajrada gharana, specially the laggi sections that carried his unique signature. He had numerous students across the world and was known to be a taskmaster, yet a magnanimous guru.

The mantle of his musical legacy now rests upon his son and disciple, the eminent musician Akram Khan, and his grandsons. 

Birthdays & Anniversaries

T.K. Shanmugam & A. Janardhanan - Buy Now

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

When speeches trump music

By Priya Purushothaman

Do we go to concerts to hear the self-congratulatory speeches of organisers and their cronies, or the much-anticipated music of the invited artists?

This scenario has become the reality for the vast majority of concerts being presented in Bangalore in the last few years. It’s time for organisers to take a step back and look at the decisions they make and whom they serve. 

At a recent concert of a very prestigious musician organised by another well-established musician, concertgoers would have witnessed the following: 40 minutes of speeches, including a special felicitation of the artist, a general speech by another respected musician who is not related to the function in any way, a speech by the President of the venue, overall commentary by a flowery yet verbose MC, another MC for artist introduction, and garlanding and shawl presentation to all four VIPS sitting on stage. Meanwhile, the artist is sitting on stage, blatantly looking at his watch and wondering how much music he should play, should his chance ever come. 

What was the content of these speeches, you may wonder. There are some speakers who can really shed meaningful insight on the artist or art, setting a wonderful atmosphere for the concert. But when a speech is just a platform to speak about yourself, or share old, irrelevant anecdotes, or even extensively praise the organisers for their effort, what purpose does that serve other than self-promotion and patting backs? 

The focus has completely shifted away from the artist and his art.

At the end, the artist has lost whatever inspiration he may have received from his felicitation because of the litany of speeches that followed. The time allotted to him has been severely eaten into by so many formalities that he presents a very abbreviated rendition. The modern artist is also in a position of tremendous dependence on these organisers for opportunities, as concerts and funds are few and the market is fiercely competitive. Thus, he remains silent. 

Audiences who have chosen to spend their fairly limited free time to hear quality music, have presumably travelled through traffic and other obstacles of modern day living, only get to hear 45 minutes or so of a raga. 

How have we reached this place and why do we continue to stay there?

We have assimilated so many Western elements into the modern concert scenario. Our music, which was always in a mehfil or baithak setting (chamber music), moved into big concert halls and therefore used amplification. Clapping in between pieces, let alone within the same piece, was a completely foreign habit that overtook the custom of verbal appreciation that fit the chamber context. Whether these were for better or worse is another debate, but we have accepted these as consequences of musical evolution. 

Why then, do we not try to incorporate some aspects of Western concert presentation that could enhance our experience without taking away from the music or the tradition? Why not remove the obligatory speeches and begin directly with music exactly at the publicised time? Most concerts present souvenirs or brochures with artist and organisation info – why read the same text out loud and waste the artist’s precious concert time? Why honour VIPs in many cases who are totally unconnected to music except through money or influence – and put the audience through the ordeal of witnessing empty gestures? Acknowledgments can be made in print, even if not in a brochure, in the event flier, or in the banners that hang on many stages. Most times, they are in all these places and mentioned repeatedly in speeches.

In Indian culture, according respect to guests of any sort is taken very seriously. Let us apply this value to our artists too in the relevant way. Other than the show of garlands, shawls, and lamp lighting, treat them well by paying attention to every detail related to their concert engagement. First and foremost, compensate them well for their service. Arrange high quality accommodation, transport wherever required, see that they are comfortable and happy in their short stay. Personalise interactions with them so they do not feel abandoned in an unfamiliar place. Be selective about choosing a venue that fits the ambience of the music, that is clean and has green rooms and toilets that are clean, and a sound system that will not jeopardise the whole concert. 

Ultimately, a happy artist translates to an inspired performance. Isn’t this what we all want?

(The author is a Hindustani vocalist)

Monday, 24 April 2017

Sandeep Ramachandran and Apoorva Krishna

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

The recent years have seen many young musicians from parts of India outside Chennai, as well as overseas make waves in Carnatic music. Many of these young musicians take pride in preserving the true essence of the music without diluting it and ensuring that they are flag bearers of the rich heritage of the music. This interview with Sandeep Ramachandran, a young violinist who moved to Chennai from Singapore, and Apoorva Krishna, a Bangalore-based violinist,  will reassure music patrons that the future of Carnatic music is indeed in safe and passionate hands – literally! 

Tell us about how your music journey started. 

Apoorva: My inspiration for music started from a young age as I grew up constantly listening to music at home. My late great grandfather Sri S Rajagopala Iyer was a musician and the author of Sangeetha Akshara Hridaya—a book on laya intricacies. My grandmother Shakuntala Murthy was also a vocalist. When I was six years old my parents took me to a violin solo recital of my guru Smt. Anuradha Sridhar. My parents realised that I was fascinated by the instrument, and so they took me to her house. 

During that time, her mother, Lalgudi Srimathi Brahmanandam was also present and she initiated me into violin playing. I continued my training under Anuradha Sridhar for a few years in the US. We moved back to India when I was in sixth grade and I furthered my learning from Lalgudi Srimathi Mami since then.

Sandeep:  I started learning violin at the age of 7 at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society from various tutors there. My father used to take me to classes every weekend. Over time, my interest in the art form blossomed. Once, when Sri N Vijay Siva visited our home in Singapore, he suggested that I learn from Sri RK Shriramkumar. That sparked my musical journey with Shriram sir. I learnt from him whenever I came to Chennai on vacation. 

The very first song he taught me was the Ata tala varnam in Bhairavi. In 2008, we shifted to Chennai from Singapore, and that allowed me to spend more time with Shriram sir. I count myself very fortunate and blessed to learn from such a learned vidwan and scholar. It is not only his outlook on music, but also life on the whole, that has shaped me on my musical journey so far. 

Tell us more. 

Sandeep: To say that Shriram sir is immensely knowledgeable would be a complete understatement. He is a treasure trove of knowledge – many musicians today seek his input, advice and opinion. What awes me is his humility and guru bhakti despite being such a great vidwan and having accomplished so much. He takes a lot of care in moulding our music the way he has absorbed it from all the great stalwarts whom he has been associated with. He is very encouraging, yet gives me a disapproving look whenever I play something suspect. Under his tutelage, I've come to imbibe many of these values in my life as well. Besides being my guru, he's been my philosopher and best friend. 

How is it performing solo vs performing with a vocalist? 

Apoorva: Accompanying a vocalist can be very challenging, but I enjoy the spontaneity and style variations that I am exposed to and imbibe when paired up with different musicians of Carnatic music.

Sandeep: I've been performing with vocalists in most of my concerts. While playing solo, it is incumbent upon the violinist to satisfy both his and the audience's musical hunger. On the other hand, being an accompanist, the violinist is required to be well equipped to handle the challenges and surprises while playing for a variety of artistes. Playing as an accompanist also benefits the violinist as he or she is exposed to new ideas and creative thoughts that may be absorbed and inculcated in his or her own music, which leads to a constant evolution as a musician.

Apoorva, how do you ensure that the new ideas and various styles of music you’re exposed to do not affect your own padantharam? 

Apoorva: Accompaniment playing is an art in itself. The key is to find the fine balance required to support and enhance a performance without overdoing or overstepping in a concert. Sometimes, I get a new idea while accompanying a main artiste during a raga alapana. I try to feature it in my response in a subtle manner. But I ensure that the Lalgudi bani stays throughout my performances, be it solo or accompaniment, because that is my identity and I would not want to astray from my pathantaram.

In all honesty, would you be able to tell the school of music when you listen to a violinist? 

Apoorva: Oh yes, most of the time, I'll be able to identify which school of music they belong to. 

What would you attribute the success of the violin as an integral instrument in Carnatic music to? 

Apoorva: In my opinion, a violin is like a shadow, inseparable from the voice at least in a concert setting. It has received its stature, thanks to our illustrious forefathers and mahagurus. The reason for this is the fine blend that it makes with the tanpura strings to raise the overall quality of music in the performance. Right from the beginning of a concert, till the end, the violinist is always closely playing the instrument to accompany the voice of the main artiste, like a shadow. I think that this role cannot be completely eclipsed by the flute or veena, even though they could add their individual flavour or colour by themselves.

Sandeep: I personally believe the violin has the innate ability to mirror and mimic the voice. In many concerts, especially by mahavidwans, one has heard the violin following the voice in unison, serving almost as vocal support. This, I feel, is a unique feature of the violin. There have been concerts where the flute or the veena have accompanied the voice too. In fact, it was the veena that used to play the accompanying role before the violin was introduced into Carnatic music. Concerts having these instruments present a different outlook and experience and enrich the concert in their distinctive ways.

Share a moment when you were truly caught off guard on stage. 

Apoorva: This was at one of my violin solo performances as a part of a day long series of concerts. Due to some miscommunication, we only found out while setting up our instruments on stage, that the percussionists had brought their instruments tuned to different pitches; the mridangam at F and ghatam at E. The ghatam is an instrument that has a fixed pitch. Since the show had to go on and there were hardly ten minutes for the concert to begin, I requested the mridangam artist to raise the mridangam's sruti to F sharp, as the ghatam artist who performed in the previous concert kindly agreed to lend us his C sharp instrument (which is the panchamam of F sharp).

Sandeep: Once when I was playing in a concert for my good friend Vidhya Raghavan at Chromepet, a dog came on stage and sat right next to me while I was playing kalpana swarams. I didn't know how to react then. It's very amusing when I think about it now.

Sandeep, let me bring you off stage and outside of your classroom for a moment. What are the songs or raga that come to your mind and reflect your mood when I present you the following situations? 


1 Reading a review of yours in the paper - "Enduku peddala vale buddhi iyavu"

2 Drinking a good filter coffee – “Marubalka”, because it needs a lot of energy to sing the song

3 Listening to a disappointing concert - "Nyayama Sri Meenakshamma?"

4 Having a good lunch at one of the sabha canteens - Nilambari, because a good lunch followed by sleep is bliss!

Apoorva, if you could ask Sandeep a question, what would it be? 

Apoorva:  How would you plan to spread Carnatic music among the masses and reach out to more and more rasikas amongst the present generation?

Sandeep: I think it most important for us to be true to music, to be proud of our art form and pursue it with vigour. The duty of each musician is to be committed and dedicated to the art form. This will help in attracting recognition from all.

Generation Next

By Nandini Ramani

Pavitra Bhatt

Among young and up-and-coming male Bharatanatyam dancers, Pavitra Bhatt stands out for his commitment and dedication to his art. With his immense talent and sincere, hard work Pavitra has worked his way to establish himself in the dance scene. Having trained initially with Vasantha of Kalanjali, Mumbai, Pavitra Bhatt further honed his skills with Deepak Mazumdar of the same city.

Watching Pavitra in solo and group numbers at a major event in Pune, provided a pleasant insight into his innate skill. He is a brilliant dancer endowed with ample grip in both nritta and abhinaya – he has rich potential to handle the various aspects of a performance with maturity, be it the technical or the interpretative layers of Bharatanatyam. He adds a graceful extension to his delineations while communicating the nuances of the concept. His ability to improvise spontaneously gives his work an electrifying touch, as a soloist. 

One of Pavitra’s strengths is his handsome stage presence which creates a charismatic impact. He is an intelligent and thinking dancer-choreographer whose sincerity and commitment are reflected in his artistic endeavours. He seems to have an in-built note of propriety or auchitya, based on his conviction and confidence that show up in his delineations. He has evolved into an impressive dancer of merit, building up gradually from his early training. His participation in the productions of Chennai-based dance teacher Anita Guha has added further dimensions to his choreographic skills.

Pavitra Bhatt has a gold medal in Dance Studies from Mumbai University. From 2003, he has been performing for several prestigious cultural organisations in India and travelled abroad several times, to the U.S.A., Canada, France and Malaysia for solo performances and group productions. These have received good response. He is credited with productions like Krishna Leela Tarangini, and Radhey Radhey Govinda, to name a few. He is also well trained in nattuvangam. He established the Pavitra Art Visual Instititute (PAVI) in Mumbai, with a branch in Pune. It has earned a good name and has a strength of 300 students.

Pavitra Bhatt has received several awards, prominent among them being the Yuva Kala Bharati from Bharat Kalachar, Chennai, and Singar Mani, Mumbai, apart from awards from well known organisations in Maharashtra. He is an “A” grade artist of Mumbai Doordarshan.

(Reproduced from Sruti 366, March 2015)

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Friday, 21 April 2017

Stillness in movement

SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance 2017

By Sruti Rao

It hits you with a sudden jolt that the SIFAS Festival has started as soon as you enter the campus. The usually bare and yellowing walls are decorated with an abundance of marigolds, strings of flowers and blue silk streamers. Just as a proud family extends a red carpet welcome to its guests, adorned in their best saris and kurtas, with bright smiles but anxious brows, the SIFAS Principal Vidhya Nair and her loyal entourage of staff and festival committee members take turns to receive the first attendees at the steps before scurrying down the halls towards the humble auditorium.

At the inauguration, the crowd collects, for what proves to be a momentary stillness compared to the 16 days that follow. Committee members, students, loyal festival followers and even a couple of new faces fill the temporary seating construction.

Dr ST Kasinathan welcomed the crowd to the 14th Annual SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance. The evening began with a customary musical welcome from the SIFAS gurus, as Carnatic and Hindutstani vocal gurus Bhuvaneshwari and Shibani Roy took the stage with other gurus Srikanth (mridangam), Mihir Kundu (tabla), along with Praveen Kumar on the violin and Nabendu Bhattacharya on the harmonium.

The gurus introduced themselves with an alapana and slokam in Kalyani raga, even as the evening winds merge with the melodies and the rhythmic accompaniment of the percussion. Somewhat of a musical experiment followed. To my dismay it didn’t particularly work in the artists’ favour. Songs in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles were interspersed with each other—Sarasa mahamani followed by ‘um bin more, but felt forced and didn’t quite meld in synergy. 

Shortly after the musical performance, the audience was in for a mesmerizing Bharatanatyam performance by Jyotsna Jagannathan. While the organisers and committee members socialized during a 15-minute break to congratulate the gurus, dance students (including myself) scurried to the front of the auditorium to ensure they could study the dancer’s perfection in clear view. I hadn’t heard much about Jyotsna beforehand, and was simply looking forward to a decent dance performance in the cosy comfort of the SIFAS auditorium. What I saw was, however, magnificent.

Jagannathan sprang confidently on to the stage with a Gambhiranata mallari, filled with statuesque movements that couldn’t but remind us of the style of Malavika Sarukkai, the dancer’s guru. The resemblance was admirable and refreshing. In the varnam Innam en manam in Charukesi, Jagannathan brought a whimsical confidence in to the characterisation of the nayaki. 

There were admittedly moments of the seeming light-heartedness in the nayaki’s conversation with Krishna didn’t allow me to connect to the emotions of the character poignantly as in other presentations of this varnam, but that didn’t stop my wide-eyed appreciation of the way Jagannathan carried herself through the piece. She tirelessly glided through long and complex jatis, and ascended to the lyrical expressions with the same poise. This careful balance of controlling the body, while letting go to immerse yourself in the piece, gave us glimpses of how much more there is to master in a dancer’s presentation. Another admirable quality was the quick switches in characters throughout the repertoire. From the confident lover in the varnam, Jagannathan morphed into the gentle mother of Lord Rama, in her subsequent presentation of Tulsi Das's Tumak chalat. While some of us were glued to the beauty of her control and professionalism, younger members of the crowd were enamoured with the precision of her taihat taihi which they had just learnt in their previous dance class.

Confidence came in the form of Singapore talents as well, with local artists grasping the opportunity and platform to develop their own performance skills. SIFAS alumni Sai Vigneshwar, Sushma Soma and Nishanth Thiagarajan, did the institution proud, with their bold rendering of heavy compositions in their vocal concerts.

Young dancers of the Singapore arts fraternity also held their own on the SIFAS stage, with Bharatanatyam and Kathak repertoires that brought traditional margams to light. Popular senior dance students like Preethi Devarajan, Varsha Vishwanath and Gauraangi Chopra gave endearing performances, their diligent practice showing in their nritta and stamina, while their abhinaya may still have scope to bring forth deeper connotations of the characters they were portraying.

A performance marked by maturity and precision amid the series of daily performances at the campus was that of SIFAS guru Geethanadhan. Kalakshetra came to Singapore on that breezy Monday evening, as Geethanadhan represented his alma mater’s aestheticism through his clear and energetic movements throughout the margam, beautifully accompanied by the traditional rendering of the live orchestra of SIFAS gurus. The neatness of his every movement—from the swastika of his feet to the tripataka of his hands—was a dance student’s delight to watch and process.

The offering of workshops and interactive sessions was a wonderful addition to the festival this year. One session was by the bright-eyed rising star of the Carnatic music scene, Ramakrishnan Murthy. On the eve of his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the humble musician brought to a mixed audience of young and experienced vocal students and music teachers, a workshop on using compositions to render raga alapana. The atmosphere of the enclosed rehearsal room allowed for a casual and interspersed Q&A with the artist, while he presented examples of how sangatis of age-old kritis can be referenced when rendering alapana. For instance, the anupallavi line Neela sareera from Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Balagopala in Bhairavi can be pulled upon as – in the artist’s own words – a “magnum opus” for setting the tone of Bhairavi, as he skilfully translated the sangatis of the pallavi into phrases in an alapana. While the structured insights of Ramakrishan Murthy were indeed thought-provoking, the commentary and varied questions that came from the audience were just as interesting to hear, bringing to light what we as students of music can learn not only from professional performers, but from each other as well.

The key big-ticket performance that I was anticipating the most was Mythili Prakash’s Jwala, presented at the Esplanade Theatre on the penultimate day of the festival. Mythili and her musician brother Aditya Prakash are no strangers to the Singapore stages, already enjoying quite a loyal fan-following here, and they did full justice to their expectations through their presentation of Jwala – the rising flame. The production allowed the audience to see a side of Mythili’s that it hadn’t before. The flame signifying memories of a loved one, and its role in the emergence of new life and love, was portrayed with a genuineness in the way it brought out personal parallels of the dancer’s own life experiences. The courage with which Mythili allowed herself to be vulnerable to this truth on stage was admirable and soul-stirring. Familiarity came through nonetheless in the dynamic fast-paced choreography of Mythili’s dance. Time and time again, the inspirational dancer has shown an intelligence in her varied interpretations of movement, knowing when to enthrall with brahmaris and hovering speeds, and also when to stand still and enrapture the audience with her mature and relatable expressions. Though certain components of the production felt superfluous, such as the attribution to Sivasakti in the middle, the performance in its entirety still kept the audience engaged and in complete awe of the dancer’s grand energy.

The musical ensemble in this show especially brought an elevated dynamic to the dance more than any other presentation in this year’s festival. From Easwar Ramakrishnan with his  superior rendering on the violin, Jayashree Ramanathan with her clear and precise nattuvangam, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram with rhythmic synchronization on the mridangam, and Krishnan Venkatesh with some  incredible lighting, to Aditya Prakash and Sushma Soma’s melodic and mature navigation of the music with each member, gave the entire production a beauty that allowed us to internalize the visual elements of the dance in ways we could not have without them. Aditya Prakash’s rendering of the Sufi poem Ji chaahe to sheesha banja at the end was especially poignant and graceful.

One Esplanade performance that disappointed however, was Rajendra Gangani’s Kathak presentation Rachna. The craft and ability of the dancer cannot be questioned, as he showed great skill and a natural laya or rhythm in his form, the format of the presentation failed to captivate. Following a brief introduction with the Siva panchakshara stotram, Gangani followed a near lec-dem format throughout the remainder of the evening, with explanations of bols and chals followed by their presentation. This felt simplistic, and inadequate for the Esplanade stage, while a more solid conceptual presentation might have engaged the audience in a better manner. While this show in essence didn’t move me, I could stand corrected, for the hundreds of remaining audience members were applauding vociferously to each of his pauses and tattakaras.

The SIFAS Festival is at its core a celebration of art, its present and its future. It gives aspiring artists a platform to grow while presenting a plethora of established performers to represent how much more there is to explore and appreciate. This year’s festival certainly grounded us art-lovers in appreciating the vastness and diversity of the classical Indian arts. The depth of the compositions, the intensity of traditional choreographies and the engaged rapture of the generations of audiences that sat through a continuous array of performances persuaded even ambitious professionals constantly looking for the next move of success, to stand still, and appreciate the beauty and the generosity of the classical arts, for their roles in our lives and in the society we live in.

Akshay Padmanabhan

Young Voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By P.N. Ramani

Carnatic vocalist Akshay Padmanabhan is a student of renowned musician P.S. Narayanaswamy, who resides in Chennai. Hailing from a musical family, he started learning music at the age of five. An AIR (A grade) artist, he completed his graduation in M.Com. 

Are you a full time musician? If so, when did you take the plunge, and how difficult was the decision?

At present I am a professional musician. Besides performing at Chennai and elsewhere in India, I travel abroad every year to give concerts.

I believe I took the decision to be a full time musician around two years ago. It was quite difficult initially, but as my guru used to say, patience is a virtue and I convert any free time into practice. That keeps me going and also I attend many concerts regularly and many musicians and sabhas know me quite well.

Who was your inspiration? Any musicians in the family?

As an evolving musician, I was always going to find new inspirations. I am primarily inspired by my guru P.S. Narayanaswamy and his guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. In my family, my grandmother can sing and play the veena, and my father was a mridangam player during his youth and also later learnt vocal music from Neyveli Santhanagopalan. My mother is a walking encyclopaedia of music; she was everything for me initially.

What appeals most to you in Carnatic music?

To me Carnatic music is akin to the innovations we create in our lives. What makes it so is the judicious usage of the limitless creativity and imagination it offers while satisfying the most basic expectation of a listener listening at that time; to redesign the music to our personality. The feeling of connecting and communicating with a rasika sitting and listening to my performance – this aspect appealed to me first and grows on me everyday.

Have you taken any voice training? Are seniors critical of such attempts to improve your voice?

In addition to my fixed morning routine, I also practise during most parts of the day and in between my mundane physical activities. Through the day, I keep singing and working on problems.

Voice training is as important as practising and learning music. I personally never took training from professionals, but my gurus and colleagues give me advice and tips to work on. They critique me as much as they appreciate me when I perform well.

A word about your gurus. Their teaching methods?

My current guru and all the gurus I learned from helped shape the various facets of my music. They were responsible for my innovations in music at various stages of my evolving career. Sri PSN is very simple and easily approachable to learn from, and this makes learning a very relaxed activity. My guru has definitely taught differently at different times and I am at awe whenever I leave class and go home and assimilate whatever I learnt. I am really fortunate to be his sishya.

Do you feel confident about your future in music? 

All the music organisations in Chennai, and important institutions in India and abroad know me well and are kind enough to provide me opportunities during the season and off-season. In fact during the last music season a couple of important sabhas promoted me to senior slots and also awarded me. Also the AIR has awarded me the A grade last year. I do feel confident with regard to my music as I am working on it every day. I believe problems exist for any full time musician but how he recovers from it and learns and uses it as a stepping stone is the right way of going about it.

Do you listen to other genres of music? Any other talents?

I listen to any genre of music that appeals to me and I take as much from it and apply it to my performance as well. I play the guitar, keyboard and flute. I am now learning the mridangam from vidwan Sree Sundar Kumar. Working on several things is quite difficult, but it sometimes helps in giving a full picture in terms of thinking about music.

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Random notes

By V Ramnarayan

Should song elevate?

Research cited in his books by the recently deceased neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) has suggested that certain parts of the brain are better developed in children with especial musical ability. Sacks also provided evidence based on experiments to show that children continuously exposed from the age of four to music and musical training, will in time have similarly developed brain parts and musical ability. 

Another interesting discovery neuroscience has made about the relationship between the human brain and musical ability is that different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of music. For example, absolute pitch and musicality could be two different things; in fact, you can have perfect sruti and not be very musically gifted and vice versa. Natural rhythmic perfection is again said to be controlled by a different zone. 

According to a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher was only 14 when he said, “God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.’’

In his book Musicophilia, Sacks quotes from a Somerset Maugham story, The Alien Corn, in which George, a young man being groomed for a gentleman’s life, is passionately interested in becoming a pianist. The family is against the idea, but allows the young man to go to Germany to learn to play the piano but with an assurance from him that he will return to England in two years, to be evaluated by a professional pianist. George works hard and plunges into music in Germany, and duly returns on the appointed day to be examined by an expert, Lea Makart. George plays a Chopin composition, quite competently, but the expert is unimpressed that his future lies in a professional career in music. She tells him that she would have beseeched him to give up everything for music, had she been convinced of his talent. She however comforts him by saying, “Art is the only thing that matters. .. I can see that you have worked very hard. Don’t think it’s been wasted.’’

The fictional expert Lea Makart’s view that working hard at art is never wasted, even if you do not have it in you to become a professional artist, is so true. A very dear friend of mine struggled for decades to master Carnatic music enough to become a concert vocalist. Unfortunately, for all his dedication, and despite training under a great teacher, he lacked the talent for that no matter how deep his devotion and how hard he worked. I used to wonder why his guru, whom my friend adored, never told him the truth, but he must have truly believed that the sishya would be a better human being for having tried so sincerely. My friend finally realised that he had only been daydreaming about becoming a bhagavatar, but is a happy person nevertheless, still worshipping his late guru and his wonderful music. Music has shaped his career in an allied field and given him a pair of ears that can tell good music from bad and give him countless hours of joy, listening.

Followers of Hindustani music will know about the oft-repeated plea among its practitioners for the creation of a battalion of kansens or people with good ears, a play on the name of Tansen, the musical gem of Akbar’s court. It is true that in both the north and the south, it is the devoted army of rasikas who have kept our music alive through their unswerving support of music and musicians. Even the much maligned species of sabha secretaries consists of diehard rasikas who have turned impresarios in their thirst for more and more music.

One of Sruti’s veteran contributors, R. Ramaswamy Iyer, passed away quite suddenly on 9 September at New Delhi. A highly respected bureaucrat regarded as an authority on river water management, he was an intellectual with a deep social conscience. Like many others of his background (Tamil brahmin, IAS), he had a genuine interest in Carnatic music, and through the decades, developed into a clear thinker and eminently readable writer on the art. Fortunately, he did not let his steady acquisition of musical expertise make him a dry cynic of a critic, but continued to enjoy listening to musicians young and old.

Ramaswamy Iyer was not afraid of dismantling obsolete ideas of tradition in our music, and his admiration for great artists was moderated by his expectations of constantly high standards, especially in terms of sruti suddham and good aesthetics. Conversely, his critiques were tempered by empathy for the musician, who despite a lifetime of labour, can occasionally fail to live up to high expectations. As a result, his writing was marked by a gentle touch even when critical of an artist or institution. He liked and encouraged youngsters but was wary of new-fangled ideas.

Ramaswamy Iyer and his wife Suhasini invariably allocated a day for a visit to Sruti whenever they came to Chennai to enjoy the music season. Both of them made enjoyable conversation with Sruti staff expressing their opinions on the concerts they attended, besides enquiring about our friends and relatives. A beautiful couple, who brought calm and good cheer with them every time.

He was much my senior, wise, knowledgeable, and mellow, and I should not have the temerity to say so, but the fact is that we did differ on a few matters musical. He was not averse to writing to me to point out the error of my ways, so to speak, taking care, however, to stress that these letters were not for publication. There were some exceptions, like the last letter from him we published in Sruti. He had not overly liked the tone and content of my editorial on the state of Carnatic music, and I did have a personal correspondence with him on the subject in which he conceded that my views were not entirely unacceptable. 

News of his death was unexpected and distressing. When his son called to inform us, it was from Ramaswamy Iyer’s phone, and I assumed something in the latest Sruti had upset him! As it happened, the issue, with his letter to Sruti Box and his article on caste in Carnatic music, had arrived too late at his doorstep for that.

Today, though the Ramaswamy Iyers of Carnatic music are still with us, an increasing number of rasikas are knowledgeable about the intricacies of music; they can tell the raga of a song either by relating it to songs they know, or more scientifically through their knowledge of the arohana and avarohana as well as the standard prayogas of the raga. They are armed with the learning they imbibe from lecture-demonstrations, online lessons and mobile musicopedias. What some of these expert listeners however seem to lack is the ability to discriminate between good and bad music, between a proper voice and crooning, and vocal mannerisms over-dependent on the microphone. They are often guilty of lack of interest in visranti, mesmerised as they are by pyrotechnics and the more complex permutational swara expertise they look for in vidwans and vidushis. In contrast, my friend, the unsuccessful vocalist of an earlier paragraph, has been a successful rasika. He has impeccable taste in music. He knows that ‘’song elevates our being’’.