Friday, 30 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Pappu Venugopala Rao
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Born 30.6.1948
Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao would have been an automatic choice for such an award this Chennai music season; only, going by the number of recent accomplishments to his credit, Man of the Year would be a more appropriate description. In addition to delivering several brilliant lectures and lecture demonstrations, he was also a prolific author during the year, with his outstanding works including Rasamanjari (a treatise on the nayika-nayaka classification of Bhanudatta), Research Methodolgy for Music and Dance Students, and A Bunch of Javalis. His conduct of the morning academic sessions at the Music Academy – as its secretary and a member of its experts’ committee – during the season was immaculate, with his effective control of the proceedings often leavened by humour and warmth. Venugopala Rao has always worn an impressive variety of hats. He has taught physics, mathematics, Sanskrit and Telugu, and has also been a management expert. A member of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, editor of the Journal of the Music Academy, Associate Director General of the American Institute of Indian Studies, which he served for more than two decades, he has also been an accredited ashtavadhani with numerous performances to his credit. Does that surprise anyone?

To read full story, buy Sruti 329

Pudukotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai (1875-1937) 

Most of us have not heard this yogi of a percussionist play either the mridanga or the khanjira, but all any of us has to do is listen to the rave reviews of his performance— and personality— given by the nonagenarian Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to understand that this exponent of the Pudukotai style was an exemplary sideman with a magnificent sound that matched his heart. He exerted a tremendous influence on the music of his times.

(Excerpted from the Sruti archives
Sruti 183)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Music Academy awards

By S. Janaki

Now that the elections are over at the Music Academy, the committee will now get down in right earnest to discussing and declaring the Sangita Kalanidhi and other awards. The Meccademy seems to have a mindboggling rotation system of sorts—one year a vocalist, the next year an instrumentalist—after a violinist may be a vainika or percussionist? A female followed by a male, and the latest (introduced a few years ago) is that of alternating between the old and the young! Now I wonder whether last year's Sangita Kalanidhi A. Kanyakumari is the youngest among the veteran group of violinists or is she the seniormost among the young violinists! Better clarity may help us speculate better about the awards this year.

If Kanyakumari belongs to the younger category, this should be the year for senior and veteran musicians, as also for vocalists or percussionists.  For several years now, Sruti has been advocating that more than one musician be honoured  with the Sangita Kalanidhi award—a vocalist, a string or wind instrumentalist, and a percussionist. There are several such musicians like vocalists O.S. Thiagarajan, Aruna Sairam (last year the awardee was a woman, so I wonder), R. Visweswaran (veena), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam), and  Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel (tavil), to name a few. As Parur M.S. Anantharaman, V.V. Subramanyam, and L. Subramaniam are violinists, they probably may not be part of the list this year.

In the younger brigade we have seniors among them who are deserving contenders like N. Ravikiran (chitraveena) and Neyveli Santhanagopalan (vocal). Let's wait and watch. It is a pity that the life of a young genius was snuffed out in his prime, for none can deny that Mandolin Shrinivas should have been the first young musician to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi; wishful thinking that the Academy should have got the idea a year or two before it did! 

Regarding the Natya Kala Acharya award of the Music Academy, stalwarts like Guru T.K. Kalyanasundaram of Mumbai, and Shanta Dhananjayan are yet to be honoured—I wonder why! In fact they should have been among the early recipients. Veterans like N.S. Jayalakshmi, C.V. Chandrasekhar and  V.P. Dhananjayan were honoured with  the Sangita Kala Acharya years ago, when the Natya Kala Acharya award with its handsome prize money had not been even thought of. Fame did not have purse-strings attached!

Will the Academy start honouring stalwarts belonging to other classical dance forms too or will it restrict itself to Bharatanatyam? (Only Carnatic musicians are honoured with Sangita Kalanidhi because Hindustani musicians do not perform in the regular season slots.) However, solo and group presentations in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Kathakali, Mohini Attam and Manipuri have become an integral part of the annual Dance Festival of the Academy; Sattriya, Koodiyattam and Chhau could follow suit. There are veterans in each form who are pioneers and need to be honoured before moving on in Bharatanatyam where it has already come down the ladder! 

The Academy honoured icons like Bharatanatyam exponent Kamala Narayan and sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar with the lifetime achievement award in 2003 or so. Why not honour more such icons during their lifetime, before it is too late?


Building community through music

Kanniks Kannikeswaran in conversation with Shanthi Murali

Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran holds a Ph.D in Indian music and has been teaching Indian Music Theory and History as adjunct faculty at the University of Cincinnati since 1994. He has made his research presentations on Dikshitar and Swati Tirunal at the Music Academy of Chennai. He composed the music score for Mahotsav choreographed by Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika. At the finale at INK Talks Mumbai, he presented a spectacular performance with a newly assembled choir comprising children from underprivileged backgrounds and with the group Dharavi Rocks. Kannikeswaran is known most for his pioneering work in composing and producing  large-scale symphonic work based on ragas and for his efforts in building communities around music. From his base in Cincinnati, he has taken this work to several cities around the US, working with more than 2500 performers. The boundless enthusiasm and energy he brings to his productions pervade this conversation with Shanthi Murali for Sruti.

Shanti A Journey of Peace has completed its 12th year of performance.

Shanti is an oratorio 85 minutes long, and featuring sacred text in Sanskrit (with some verses in Tamil, English and Pali), that I wrote for a large mixed chorus, a string orchestra.  I wrote it in 2004. Shanti powerfully presents the 5000-year-old cultural history of India on a very large canvas and is centered on the message of universal peace and interconnectedness. It uses text from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as some lines from the Tevaram and the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. 

The score traverses several ragas such as Yaman, Sree, Durga, Vagadeeswari, Gambheera Nata, Bhoopali, Bhatiyar and more. About 90 Indian voices, trained and untrained, sing the melody while the Western choruses add layers of choral polyphony. An orchestra of strings and winds  adds more layers. Yet another layer of multi-genre dance (Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, folk, yoga movement) and multimedia visuals support the score, while a powerful narrative ties the entire score together.

Where has Shanti been performed and what is unique about the performances?

Shanti  premiered in Cincinnati OH in 2004, was performed again in 2006 and 2014, each time with a different cast. It has been performed in several cities including  Houston, Atlanta and most recently in the Bay Area. Each staging features a cast of about 250 performers. The tenth anniversary performance in Cincinnati drew an audience of 2000. The last two performances in the Bay Area had similar audiences, usually a mix of Indian and non-Indian connoisseurs of  music and dance.

Shanti is always performed by a local cast and the cast of singers and dancers is different each time. I make several trips to the area to work with the cast, collaborate remotely  and pull the production together.

How did your foray into choral music start?

I started composing in 1991; a friend of mine suggested the idea of working with choruses. I started a choir in 1993 and we debuted with a performance in 1994 featuring ragas like Yaman, Rasikapriya and Simhendramadhyamam. Word spread and we got invited to collaborate with a local Western choir in Cincinnati. It is then that the ‘goosebump’ moment happened as the SATB (soprano/alto/tenor/bass) Western choir, that sang the parts that I wrote, suddenly brought six different layers of sound together, even while the Indian choir was belting out melodies in ragas like Mand and Amritavarshini.

Why did you even write Shanti? What was your inspiration?

My friend and collaborator Dr. Catherine Roma suggested that I write an elaborate work themed on peace, soon after 9/11 happened, when we realised that the world we knew had changed forever. 

I visualised this new piece being sung by 100 singers with a Western orchestra and an ensemble of Indian instruments with various dance forms supporting it. The very idea of Sanskrit musical chants being powered with 100+ voices tugged at me and powered the creative process as the project came to life.

I knocked on several doors to get 100 Indian singers together—some were trained singers, many were not. The rehearsal scene was like the proverbial Tower of Babel with people speaking languages ranging from Malayalam to Assamese. Sanskrit somehow formed the glue that bound the singers together. Most of them had never sung on stage before. And when the Western singers joined us, the exhilaration was just unbelievable. All the participants were touched, moved and inspired. Those few months in 2004 when Shanti came together were some of the best in my life.

I have spoken to many of your singers and they are all nostalgic about their participation.

It takes months to make a production happen. There is the effort to recruit and nourish a choir. We as a community work together for a sustained period of time. There is a lot of camaraderie  during rehearsals. Western singers sing from the score. Indian singers learn by rote and reproduce. There is mutual admiration. Bread is broken together. Cultural differences dissipate. There is much bonding.  Most often, these are experiences to cherish for life.

You have been doing this work for over 20 years. What are your reflections on choral music?

Choral music provides a safe space for people to express themselves musically.  All choirs I have assembled have a mix of trained and untrained singers. The trained singers play the role of mentors; everyone rises to her fullest potential and in the process there is so much of positive energy generated. At the end of a three-month period you see a group of people, that did not know each other before, get together and create raga-spaces like Vagadeeswari or Kedar. Everyone is enriched and uplifted in the process. Every one of the Shanti experiences has been a source of empowerment to all. Every project is a collaborative one where every voice and every instrument matters. Everyone grows in the process.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

When I started doing this work in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, I was the only one that had the complete picture of what the production would look like. It was hard to get singers together in the project, or sponsors who would stand behind the project. Even audiences had no clue as to what to expect. This problem is resolved now—given the way word has got around thanks to social media. We also have plenty of recordings that can explain what the productions are about. 

We went through very interesting rehearsal experiences. We had Indian singers who were singing on stage for the first time, and also professional players from the symphony. In some of the preliminary rehearsals, the Western players could not stand the sound of the tambura and insisted that it be turned off!  In such a cross-cultural lab, we learned to not perceive this as an affront to tradition—and used it as an opportunity to see how they were trained to relate to music.

You surely must be playing multiple roles in bringing these productions to life.

Yes, I do have to don the hats of a composer, arranger, lyricist, script-writer and arranger on the creative side. It is a thrilling experience when the sounds you imagine in your head and write in staff notation on a piece of paper come to life in an orchestral setting. I also enjoy teaching the music to choruses with varying levels of musical proficiency, coordination with the choreographers and the bigger role of directing the production and seeing it through. Apart from all this is the whole role of  managing the project and working with local coordinators across time zones. Performing with a different cast, it is almost like creating a new production each time! Needless to say, the joy of seeing it come alive is fresh every single time.

What would you regard as your unique contribution to music?

Over the past 20+ years, I have created a new-sound; that of Indian voices singing in raga based melodies in conjunction with a traditional Western choir (and orchestra) with different voice parts. The Western voice techniques are different from ours. When the two come together, the effect is magical. I have been fortunate enough to work with diverse groups and create this experience over and over again. The music is grounded completely in ragas; the core is all about ragas; it is just that the superstructure around it changes with every new composition, especially with the addition of layers and layers of polyphony, all within the bounds of the raga. I have taken Indian art music to a wider range of people; have built new audiences for this work.

How was your experience working with a Surinamese diaspora choir?

We NRIs cling on to our memories of India that we left behind in the 1980s. There are people that left India in the 1800s as indentured labourers, even back during the time of Tyagaraja to distant places like Trinidad and Surinam, and they cling on to the India that their ancestors left behind in the 1840s. Holland has a huge population of Surinamese Indians. We formed the first ever Caribbean Indian choir with them. This choir discovered the joy of singing  in Sanskrit; there were many emotional moments when we rehearsed Sant Tulsidas’ verses; it was through Ramcharitmanas that the entire Caribbean Indian population had tenaciously held on to their Hindu past over the past 170 years. 

Who are your sources of inspiration?

Muthuswami Dikshitar’s open mindedness in writing Sanskrit lyrics to European tunes is a constant source of inspiration. The very fact that an 18th century composer steeped in the orthodox Venkatamakhi tradition could step out of his shoes to listen to alien tunes played by the colonisers and even write lyrics to them, not just to a handful of tunes but to more than 30, is something that never ceases to amaze me. Nottuswaras apart, the entire opus of Dikshitar’s work that shows a syncretism not seen elsewhere, and allows you to discover something new all the time, is a constant source of inspiration.

The works of Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharati never cease to amaze me. I am an unabashed admirer of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar who constantly expressed himself in so many different ways. The list doesn’t end!

Have you released any recordings?  

Just last year, I released Sri Sharadambam Bhaje for the Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation. This album features compositions by the Sringeri Acharyas as well as compositions of Dikshitar on Saraswati. I have set the Sharadamba Stotram written by the Acharya as a ragamalika in eight ragas based on the context of the lyrics. I also released the first ever compilation of all of the 39 nottuswara sahityas of Dikshitar recorded with my then 12-year old daughter with Celtic and other accompaniment back in 2008.  I also set 25 verses from the Divya Prabandham to music and released this compilation as Tiruvarangam in 1992.

What was your childhood like and how has it influenced your work?

I was raised in Kachalisvara Agraharam near Parrys Corner and there was always some temple festival or other going on. Given our proximity to the temple, I must have heard so much of Gambheera Nata on the nagaswaram and marching tunes played by bands to which deities danced, to the late night sounds of the ashtottara namavalis sung by the late Ganesa Gurukkal in his sonorous voice in various ragas. Our proximity to the temple ensured that I listened to Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, Pulavar Keeran and so many others. Even Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar sang there each year.

Who are your mentors?

I grew up listening to my aunts learn music from my teacher Saraswati Ammal of the Dikshitar sishya parampara surrounded by legends from Dikshitar’s life. I was privileged to learn from Guru TVG during my days at IIT Madras and then take lessons in Hindustani music from Lakshmi Shankar in the US. I am grateful to Prof. Prameela Gurumurthy for her mentorship. I have also had the good fortune to work with several progressive people to help spread ideas of interconnectedness, multiculturalism and pluralism. 

Who are some of the people you have collaborated with?

The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Dario Fo Dutch Choir and the Hague Residentie Orkest have performed my work. I have collaborated with the renowned Gundecha Brothers on Guruguha Dhruvapada. We were honoured to have Lakshmi Shankar sing as a guest artist in the first three  performances of Shanti. Revanta Sarabhai and sitarist Anupama Bhagwat have performed several times with us.

What is your vision for Shanti?

We had never thought that the work we started in Cincinnati would spread to so many cities. I am hoping that the choral work of ours of so many years would spread to many more cities. What we started was something totally new; there was no audience then for such crossover work. Starting from ground zero we have built and sustained audiences through all these years and are continuing to build new audiences. We are training teachers and are currently working on a Shanti Youth choir, to create a number of children’s choirs thereby taking this work to the next generation.

(Shanthi Murali is a television host, emcee, dancer, singer, and a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.)

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Some Sangita Kalanidhi speculations 
The Music Academy of Chennai will soon announce the name of the next Sangita Kalanidhi. Many sabhas will also announce similar awards and honour musicians with comparable ceremony, but the Academy’s title is still considered the highest honour in the world of Carnatic music, even if there have been a few hits and misses in the eight decades and more of the institution’s life. We hear talk of the existence of a rotation policy and quota system, considerations of youth alternating with those of experience, vocal versus instrumental, concessions to demands for inclusiveness, so on and so forth. Because last year’s Kalanidhi was a woman violinist, for instance, we may surmise that the next one will be neither female nor an instrumentalist.

It is of course easier to criticise these so-called errors of omission and commission than to sit down and select a worthy claimant to the title. What is more, during the good times of abundant talent, some excellent artists are bound to miss out, especially those not blessed with longevity. Examples abound from the past, when an artist of such eminence as Lalgudi Jayaraman had to refuse to be considered for the award as a mark of protest, and giants like T.N. Rajarathnam, Palani Subramania Pillai and M.D. Ramanathan were left out. A few living maestros, especially instrumentalists who strode the Carnatic music stage like colossi (yes, that is the dictionary plural of the word), have even expressed anger and unwillingness to accept the award if it comes their way late in their lives. We have also heard that some stalwarts of the past have bullied or lobbied their way to the coveted title. None of this is unique to music awards or the Sangita Kalanidhi in particular; they are true of awards in general, and it is of course impossible to satisfy all constituents of the music world as to the genuineness of the claims to greatness of all the awardees.

Sruti has been advocating the broadbasing of the Sangita Kalanidhi award to offer at least three classifications: vocal, instrumental (wind and string), and percussion. We are convinced such a move will not dilute the award, while taking a step towards recognising the contribution of a greater number of outstanding musicians.

While the actual Sangita Kalanidhi conferment date is months away, another event in the cultural landscape of the state and indeed the country looms much closer ahead: the selection of the new director of Kalakshetra. Will it be an eminent artist or someone with credentials as an arts administrator? The prescribed age limit of 60 (or 65) will keep out a number of distinguished artists and teachers, who might otherwise qualify for the position. The process of calling for applications also rules out some worthy prospective candidates who are not comfortable with the idea of applying for a post.  This can of course be dealt with by the selection committee making a short list and finding out if the shortlisted persons are interested in applying. Regardless of who makes the cut, we hope for a worthy and controversy-free choice to be made to helm this remarkable institution.


Monday, 26 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Bal Gandharva
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Bal Gandharva was a singing star who excelled in feminine roles on the Marathi stage in the first half of the twentieth century. He was hailed as “Nat Samrat” – the king of thespians.

Stamp on Bal Gandharva

The Department of Posts issued a commemorative postage stamp in honour of Bal Gandharva on 22 February 1988. The 60-paise stamp, perf. 13, was printed on indigenous un-watermarked PG Matt coated paper by photogravure process at India Security Press, Nashik.

The First Day Cover and the stamp depict a portrait of Bal Gandharva. The cancellation has a line drawing of one of his feminine roles in his musicals.

His life

Narayan Sripad Rajhans was born in Pune on 26 June 1888 in a middle class brahmin family. As a child he evinced no interest in studies. Endowed with a musical voice, he showed a marked predilection for singing. He was therefore put under a teacher in Jalgaon for training in classical music. During a brief visit to Pune he had the chance to sing before Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak who gave him the title ‘Bal Gandharva’, from which time he became famous by that name.

Narayan’s talent in music came to the notice of the ruling prince of Kolhapur, a patron of music and drama. He arranged for Narayan’s training in the Kirloskar Natak Mandali, then camping at Miraj. Kirloskar was the premier drama troupe of Maharashtra and the founder of the Marathi musical drama. In those days young and handsome men with skill in singing were trained to play female roles as women did not enter the dramatic profession for fear of social ostracism. Bal Gandharva received intensive training in the Mandali from Govind Deval, an eminent playwright and excellent teacher.

To read full story, buy Sruti 346

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Chittoor Subramania Pillai 
A True Legatee Of The Kanchipuram Style
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

The following article was written by Contributing Editor K.S. KALIDAS, with inputs from T. Sankaran, B.M. Sundaram, S. Ramachandran, T. Lokanadha Sarma, E.N. Purushothaman and Hemavathi Sunderraman. 

Sangeeta Kalanidhi, Isai Perarignar, Swara Chakravarti, Laya Brahma, Gaanarnava, Isai Mannar, Gaana Kaladhara and Saptagiri Sangeeta Vidwanmani were some of the titles presented to Chittoor Subramania Pillai during the six decades of his illustrious career as a Carnatic vocalist, at least in three of which he was in the front ranks. He was also a recipient of a Sangeet Natak Akademi award. 

He earned plaudits not only as a leading performer but also as a teacher, especially in institutions. He was a stalwart among stalwarts in the golden era of Carnatic music. The string of awards and titles is but one aspect of his life and career. As his birth centenary is being celebrated, there should be many among the old who can recall his impressive personality and equally impressive accomplishments, but the story of his life and career must be recounted for the benefit of the young, especially those seeking to make a mark as concert musicians.

Early years 

Subramaniam was born on 22 June 1898 at Gollamachannapalli, a village in Chittoor district (now in Andhra Pradesh), into a family of musicians. Perayya, his Telugu brahmin father, was a violinist employed by the Punganur Samasthanam in Chittoor district; his mother Mogileswaramma was a vocalist who belonged to the kalavantulu community. There was a tradition among the Telugu-speaking members of this community to call themselves as Naidu. Thus Subramaniam's younger brother was known as Chittoor Krishnappa Naidu. But Chittoor Subramania Naidu became Chittoor Subramania Pillai when he became a disciple of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. Interestingly, Naina Pillai's real name was Subramania Pillai too, but he came to be called Naina (a term of endearment) by his childless maternal aunt Dhanakoti Ammal who doted on him. 

Subramaniam started learning music and Harikatha from his father at a very young age and began giving Harikatha performances even as a young lad. One such performance took him to Madras (now known as Chennai). The occasion was the annual Ramanavami festival conducted by Jalatarangam Ramaniah Chetty, a great connoisseur and patron of music and musicians. There he was privileged to hear the great Kanchipuram Naina Pillai sing and the experience bowled him over. He wanted to learn at least a few kriti-s from the maestro. He requested Ramaniah Chetty to introduce him to the maestro but was instead taken to Pillai's aunt Dhanakoti Ammal. The latter, who asked the boy to sing, was struck by his fine voice, as well as by his keen interest in learning. Then and there, she taught him a Tyagaraja kriti. She also suggested that the lad should switch from Harikatha to vocal music. "Go back to Punganur and ask for your parents' permission and come to Kanchipuram," she said and added assuringly: "I shall ask Naina to teach you." 

Subramaniam did as he was told and was taken by Naina Pillai under his wings. Eventually he became the maestro's most important disciple and his prime musical legatee.

To read full story, buy Sruti 168

Alangudi Ramachandran
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

If today, ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram is synonymous with the ghatam, there was a time such giants as Tiruvilvamalai Vilvadri Iyer and Umayalpuram Kodandarama Iyer added lustre to the magic mudpot of Carnatic music. Alangudi Ramachandran was one such exponent of the ghatam, someone who made significant changes to its practice.

K. Ramachandran was born on 22 June 1912 at Koduntarapalli, Kerala and passed away on 15 June 1975. Learning the art of percussion and ghatam playing from Kuttalam Kuppuswami Pillai, Kuttalam Sivavadivelu Pillai and Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Ramachandran first ascended the performance stage as an accompanist of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. Even as a child, Ramachandran had unusual interest in music, percussion in particular, and after his father Krishna Iyer settled down at Alangudi, often walked a few miles to listen to radio concerts at Terezhundur town. Fascinated by the tavil prowess of Meenakshisundaram Pillai, he took up a job in a restaurant at Needamangalam to facilitate his joining him as a student. It was Pillai who persuaded him to take to the ghatam. Ramachandran later took lessons from mridanga vidwan Mayavaram Kuppuswami Pillai.

Big-made Ramachandran had the right physique, potbelly and all, for the effective demonstrative style of ghatam playing. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was very fond of him; he would not hesitate to add him as an unscheduled second ghatam artist to his kutcheri ensemble. A believer in meaningful collaboration on stage, he underplayed his role if he thought it necessary for the success of a concert. Known for his precision fingering, “the sound of his fingers would resemble hitting with steel, that too on a Manamadurai ghatam” (Centenarians 2012, Chennai Fine Arts). Even though he used a very heavy ghatam, he invariably tossed it up for dramatic effect in concerts and composed special korvais for the act, according to mridanga vidwan T.V. Gopalakrishnan, a friend, colleague and admirer.

Among Ramachandran’s happy accomplishments was his longish stint as an accompanist of M.S. Subbulakshmi and popular musicians K.B. Sundarambal and M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar. He had the rare blessing of dying in harness, immediately after his tani avartanam for a D.K. Jayaraman concert at Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bombay.

To read full story, buy Sruti 344

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Krishnaveni Lakshmanan (1942 - 2004)
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

The following is by S. SARADA, more famous as Peria Sarada, of Kalakshetra. 

Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School. Rukmini Devi— Athai— called the child inside and asked her: "Would you like to dance?" The child's joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student. She was the daughter of K. Ananthanarayanan, the History teacher in the Besant School. I may mention here that, though she learnt from N.S. Jayalakshmi and myself and other teachers at Kalakshetra, her class teacher throughout Krishnaveni's Diploma course was Chinna Sarada (Hoffman). Years earlier, Sarada had also become a student of Kalakshetra, watching from the window the classes Athai and I were taking in the same cottage! Sarada Hoffman contributed to Kalakshetra by evolving, under Athai's guidance, the style of Bharatanatyam of perfection and grace which became the hallmark of the institution. 

Krishnaveni absorbed everything in the classes— practical dances: Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, dance theory, music and the languages, religion and philosophy at Kalakshetra— like a blotting paper absorbing ink. Innate in her was the craving and talent for fine arts, which made her flower forth as a beautiful artist. Athai wished her dance students to learn Kathakali compulsorily. Why Kathakali? In Kathakali, facial bhava-s or expressions have to be shown in an exaggerated manner for them to be visible through the elaborate make-up. When one mastered this after training or exercises of the facial muscles and eye movements, he or she could express with ease any bhava or emotion. Great masters like Ambu Panicker and Chandu Panicker adorned Kalakshetra as teachers and they were hard taskmasters. 

On the completion of middle school studies, Krishnaveni became a full-time student of Kalakshetra and benefited from the all-round education there. The best talents of the students were brought out naturally by the teachers and nothing was imposed on or imparted to them. 

I recollect the child Krishnaveni coming early on her way to school and sitting beside me observing the classes. She would practise the adavu-s with concentration in an adjacent place before entering the afternoon classes. Thus she could execute these adavu-s with ease in the classes. She had nimble feet in a pliable body and, above all, bright eyes and an attractive smile. She was able to express later on, as a full fledged dancer, all emotions with ease. 

In 1957, Athai presented Usha Parinayam, the Bhagavata Mela dance-drama which she had beautified. Both Krishnaveni and Shanta learnt the main roles of Usha and her sakhi Chitra-lekha. It was only a few days before its premiere, at Sarada Hoffman's insistence, that Athai decided that Krishnaveni should be Usha and Shanta, Chitra-lekha. They won accolades for their portrayals, though they had not yet had their arangetram. Balu Bhagavatar of Melattur who had come to assist in this production was full of praise for them as the girls were able to present on the stage the various situations with embellishment. 

Athai arranged for Krishna-veni's arangetram in 1960 only after awarding her the Kala-kshetra Diploma with distinction the previous year. She was a Government of India scholarship holder for three years from that year. She received the Institution's Post Graduate Diploma, also with distinction, in 1962. 

S. Lakshmanan whom Krishnaveni married in 1965 was initially unable to perceive that she was a dancer with a good future in the field. However, on Athai's persuasion, he came and watched her as Seeta in Sabaii Moksham, which changed his attitude. It was his first experience of dance which was not earthy but divine! He not only encouraged Krishnaveni but became an ardent admirer and supporter of Athai and Kalakshetra!

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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

A. Kanan: Respected Senior Musician
By Basavi Mukerji-Rath
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

A. Kanan is a respected Hindustani vocalist who has had an illustrious music career spanning almost five decades. 

Gifted with a sonorous and powerful yet smooth voice, Kanan would draw crowds as big and as admiring as the luminous musicians of those days, like Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan. His open-throated yet aesthetic gayaki was equally appealing in forms as diverse as thumri, bhajan and of course khayal, which was his mainstay. His voice remained in as much control in the lower and higher octaves and high speed as it did in the middle octave and the slower tempo. The unerring 'sur' (tunefulness) which marks his 'gayaki' even today is perhaps the most striking feature of his music. 

Born in Madras in June 1920, Kanan had his education in Hyderabad since his father was employed in the Nizam's State Railway. Also an accomplished sportsman in his schooldays, it was during a cricket tour in Bombay that he got his voice tested at All India Radio and was instantly offered a programme by its much astonished officials. Later, he himself joined the Railway. When he was sent to Calcutta by it for advance training with Saxby and Farmers (Signalling Engineers), he came in contact with vocalist Girija Shankar Chakraborty who recognised his musical genius and readily accepted him as a disciple. In no time thereafter, he emerged as a fine vocalist and a fine representative of the Bishnupur-Kirana style of gayaki. 

Kanan's melodious and captivating voice also brought him many film playback-singing assignments. Some of the songs rendered by him are still remembered and also heard. 'Dhuli', 'Meghe Dhaka Tara', 'Surer Piyashi' and 'Jadu Bhatta' in Bengali and 'Basant Bahar', 'Humdard' and 'Megh Malhar' in Hindi were some such films. Celebrities like Ustad Amir Khan, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, Pankaj Mullik, Kamal Dasgupta, R.C. Boral and Ritwik Ghatak were some of his ardent admirers and friends. Of this group, only Ghosh is alive today. 

Kanan's phenomenal success at his first All Bengal Music Conference appearance in 1943 and the persistent insistence of his friends and fans, when, after two years of training in Calcutta, it was at last time to bid adieu to the city, succeeded in finally persuading him to stay back and devote himself full time to music. Thus, he resigned from his secure job with the N.S. Railway to devote himself to music. He performed all over the country and sometimes also abroad with great success, and trained many students, often free of cost.

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Friday, 16 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Kamala at seventy five
Blooming in an alien land
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Famed in India as “Kumari Kamala” during her prime as a dancer, the acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponent has dedicated about seven decades of her life to its propagation. Endowed with a rare and uncommon prowess at the art, her name has become synonymous with the dance form. She began performing classical dances in many Indian films in several languages, including Hindi, since the late 1930s at the age of five, till about the mid-1960s. One of her best known films includes, Naam Iruvar in Tamil, based on the patriotic songs of Tamil poet Subramania Bharati. Kamala has given thousands of stage performances in India, and was the country’s unofficial cultural envoy to many different countries. At the Indian government’s behest, she performed before many visiting foreign dignitaries to India, including President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth. Kamala Narayan received the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1968 and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1970. The elderly artist who turned 75 on 14th June this year, has been living in the New York metropolitan area since 1980 and runs a dance school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya.

On the occasion of the 28th anniversary of Kamala’s dance school in New York, UMA DANDAPANI gives us a glimpse into Kamala’s life in the United States.

Kamala Narayan seemed to morph from deities chiselled in graceful stances inside a temple sanctum. Images in black and white from decades ago, of the young and lithe dancer captured in statuesque poses, became vivid and real, as she choreographed for a recent show by the students of her school, at the Yonkers Public Library auditorium in Westchester County, New York. Her school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, is based in Long Island, New York, where she has lived since 1980, but the septuagenarian with an unflagging passion for the art, commutes weekly to Westchester County and New Jersey, to conduct dance lessons for her young students.

On a wintry morning, she was watching a rehearsal by her students, to prerecorded music playing on a stereo deck. The tenderness and ardour of the raga, Brindavana Saranga, in a lilting paean to Krishna composed by Subramania Bharati, lent a tropical balminess to the spacious hall of the India Center of Westchester County, Inc., located in Elmsford, New York. The elderly artist looked petite and trim, wearing a coiffure and dressed in a taupe and maroon salwar kameez. Her chiselled features, accentuated by her soft and pleasantly pitched voice, seemed to conceal a latent energy that sparked into life as she demonstrated dance movements to her young students, her feet maintaining an unerring rhythm as she moved, synchronised by the positions of her arms and hands, while her eyes darted in each of those directions. With her students in Westchester County, ranging in age between five to the twenties, and divided into groups varying from beginners to advanced, the dance guru was generous with praise, using gentle humour to keep them focused on the coordinated moves as they danced. She showed a meticulous approach to the instruction.

“I don’t compromise with my students. Regardless of whether they are strong or weak, I teach them the same lesson so that they can improve themselves,” she said, while explaining that the deep plie posture, or the araimandi, is de rigueur for the dancer. “Your eyes should follow the arm movements,” she said, explaining one more aspect of the dance to her young students, as they were engrossed in the challenge of coordinating the movements of their feet with those of their arms and hands.

Kamala radiated the beauty of Bharatanatyam to an Indian public through her classical dances in scores of Indian films made in several languages. Many of these were choreographed by her dance guru, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. She also gave hundreds of stage performances between the 1940s through the 1970s, exuded a sensuousness and verve that attracted waves of enthusiasts. Bharatanatyam was a redeemed classical art, and Kamala its most luminous exemplar.

One of the many dances that became synonymous with the image of Kamala, both onscreen and in stage performances, was the snake dance choreographed by her guru, the most popular version being, “Naadar mudi mel irukkum naagapaambe”.

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Saraswati Bai
By Sriram V
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Saraswati Bai began her travels within India once again on returning from her tour of Ceylon in 1913. In an interview given later in life she was to recall with considerable pride that she had not "spared a single village and neither had any village spared her". Travel to far off places meant being on the move for several days and journeys by several modes of transport including the bullock cart. Bai, who had been of a sickly constitution as a child, found that she had to put up with the rigours of such travels and also of the strain of standing for six to seven hours each night and perform non stop. 

In 1916, Bai and her troupe performed at the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, Bombay in the presence of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and she was awarded the title of 'Gayanapatu' (skilled in singing) by him on the 13th of February. While in Bombay she also performed in aid of the War effort (the First World War or the Great War as it was then known, was in progress). The proceeds from the performance earned for Bai praise from Lady Willingdon, wife of the Governor of Bombay Presidency. On the 13th March, Bai, still in Bombay, gave a performance in aid of the East Indies Station Naval Fund and Rs. 422-8-0 was donated as half the gate collection. Between 1916 and 1920, Bai continued travelling across the country and in 1920 arrived in Poona. There on the 15th April, she performed at the Kirloskar Theatre and among the audience was 'Lokmanya' Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the great patriot. In his own words: "I was present at one of the Harikirtans performed by Mrs. Saraswati Bai, a Madras lady, at the Kirloskar Theatre and had the pleasure of presenting her a 'gold medal' on behalf of the Poona public, for her proficiency in performing a Kirtan as well as for her learning in Tamil and Sanskrit. She addresses the audience in Tamil, but as the songs and texts used are in Sanskrit, one not knowing the Tamil language can easily understand her address and follow her right through. Her voice is melodious and singing very good." It was on this occasion that the second of Bai's two most well known titles, namely 'Kirtanapatu' (skilled in kalakshepam) was conferred on her by Tilak. Hereafter Bai was always referred to as 'Gayanapatu Kirtanapatu C. Saraswati Bai'. The terms became as much associated with her as Sangeeta Ratnakara was with Ariyakudi, Gayaka Sikhamani with Muthiah Bhaga-vatar and Gayana Gandharva with Chembai.

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Sikkil Sisters
Torchbearers of tradition
By Charukesi Viswanathan
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

With flute genius T.R. Mahalingam and his remarkable sishya Sangita Kalanidhi N. Ramani for close relatives (see family tree) on their mother’s side, the sangeeta gnanam of the renowned Sikkil Sisters, flautists, has been no surprise.

Probably the only successful flute duo of their time, certainly the first female pair of instrumentalists in Carnatic music, Sikkil Kunjumani and Neela have continued the vocal style of flute playing that Mali (Sruti 24) launched so memorably during their lifetime, changing the history of the pullankuzhal irreversibly. Before Mali, the Carnatic flute as a concert instrument owed much to the pioneering efforts of Sarabha Sastri (1872-1904) and the maintenance of that tradition by his sishya parampara of the likes of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and H. Ramachandra Sastri (see Sruti 67).

“Azhiyur Narayanaswami Iyer was my guru,” reminisced Sikkil Kunjumani, the older of the Sisters. “He was my uncle, residing in Puliyur, near Azhiyur. I was seven or eight then and we had an idol of Krishna playing the flute at home. I used to imitate that with a stick in place of the flute and humming tunes. My father Azhiyur Natesa Iyer noticed that and felt that I had a natural flair for music. He decided to take me to my guru for initiation. It was a bold step as girls those days were never into artistic pursuits. My Periappa Narayanaswami Iyer was also very supportive of the idea. He gave me a short flute. In just two years, he prepared me for a concert. Our servant Tangavelu escorted me everyday to my guru’s house. I had to walk to cover the distance. It would take an hour or so to reach my master’s place. The class would start by eight in the morning. Periappa was impressed by the nada of the flute and played it as his main instrument, though he taught many students vocal, violin and veena. He gave many solo concerts accompanied by our father on the mridanga.”

Narayanaswami Iyer played the flute so well that it enraptured the listener. “He had a huge passion for the instrument. The sound should always permeate the air without a break, he said. All else should be forgotten, he insisted. ‘It is in your hands to succeed’.”

The age-difference is almost eleven years between Kunjumani and Neela, the younger of the two sisters.

For Neela, the journey was more strenuous. “I learnt with difficulty, I must confess,” Neela said. “You know, a girl child normally begins to speak when she is less than a year. I started to speak only when I was four or so. There was an idol of Krishna in our house which I adored. When I wanted someone to fetch it for me, so I could play with it, no one understood my prattle. I then sang “uttani begene baa o.” Even if the words were not clear, my audience recognised the song Krishna nee beganey as I got the tune right. I already loved the flute.” Neela recalls, “I was seven years old when my sister Kunjumani initiated me into the flute. I took a good year and a half just to learn the sarali varisai. Since my fingers were very small, I had a problem holding the flute. I had no grip. The guru would prod me, ‘Play, you can easily do it’. Luckily for me, I could effortlessly remember my everyday lessons without having to write them down all the time.”

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Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar (1932-2013)
By Meena Banerjee
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

The small but distinguished dhrupad clan of India lost its legendary ‘Chhote Ustad’ (younger guru) when Zia Fariduddin Dagar left for his heavenly abode, on 8 May 2013, to be with his elder brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (1929-1990). Both belonged to the famous Dagar family that traces its lineage to Swami Haridas, the guru of Tansen. The members of this illustrious family were scattered in different pockets of India – sheltered by music-loving maharajas of states like Indore, Jaipur, Udaipur and Bengal.

Maharana Bhupal Singh was the ruler of Udaipur when Ziauddin Khan Dagar became his court musician. He groomed his sons as proficient musicians – Mohiuddin as a rudra veena player and the younger Fariduddin as a vocalist. In the wake of modernity, however, the Privy Purses were withdrawn to pave way for a sovereign democratic nation. The social upheaval, with new value systems, found the traditional arts as a very soft target. Under the circumstances, the family had no choice but to shift base to greener pastures. They moved to Mumbai for better opportunities to make a living.

The family remained dedicated and immersed in the ageless art of dhrupad and fearlessly went ahead to introduce its next generation to carry the mantle. Ironically, by the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of its deep spiritual appeal, dhrupad found a firm footing in the West. Concerts and teaching assignments started pouring in from countries like France, Austria, Germany, even from the U.S.A. The brothers almost decided to again shift base – this time to Europe. Realising the gravity of the situation, a few sensitive bureaucrats put their thinking caps on. In 1981 Ashok Vajpeyi, former secretary in the Department of Culture, State government of Madhya Pradesh, made a bold move and launched the Dhrupad Kendra under the Ustad Alauddin Khan Music Academy, Bhopal, with brothers Mohiuddin and Fariduddin as gurus.

The first batch had five students hailing from families which had little or no musical background. This did not bother the brothers at all. They were ready to accept the challenge and were willing to accept learners from outside their close-knit clan which looked at music as its sacred religion.

A typical day began early at around 4 am. The students, following in the footsteps of their Bade Ustad (Mohiuddin) and Chhote Ustad (Fariduddin) would rise early and sing. Ashok Vajpeyi often referred to this ethereal, empirical experience he had during his morning walks. The whole area surrounding the Dhrupad Kendra reverberated with the deep, resonant voices!

Bade Ustad was more of a philosopher and thinker, while Chhote Ustad assumed the role of a taskmaster. Bade Ustad helped the vocalists to gain deep insights into tantrakari (instrumentalism), while Chhote Ustad taught the gayaki ang (vocalism) to instrumentalists like Bahauddin Dagar (rudra-veena), and Pushparaj Koshthi (surbahar). Strictly adhering to their music, they exposed the students to other art forms as well – including literature, dance and visual arts. All this broadened the students’ horizon. Inspired by the ustads, a culture-starved region became the role-model – a haven for the traditional arts of India.

The rest is history. The very first batch produced world renowned dhrupad exponents like Ramakant Gundecha, Umakant Gundecha and Uday Bhawalkar. Rudra veena exponent Bahauddin Dagar – son of Mohiuddin and nephew of Fariduddin – is a sparkling example of the family’s strong resolve to introduce its next generation to carry on the mantle. The list of the disciples includes names like vocalists Ritwik Sanyal (Varanasi), and Nirmalya Dey (Delhi). Dhrupad will forever remain indebted to the brothers for this great contribution.

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