Saturday, 31 October 2020

FROM THE EDITOR

This year, November is the month to celebrate Deepavali – the festival of lights and fireworks, denoting prosperity, peace, and the victory of good over evil. Hopefully, success in finding a vaccine will gradually take the sting out of the Covid-19 pandemic. People from all walks of life are slowly overcoming their fear and emerging out to resume their regular activities. The arts fraternity too is keenly awaiting “better days”. Till then of course, performing artists, organisers and rasikas have learnt to make the best of “the new normal” and online activities tapping the topical are in full swing. Sruti wishes all its readers a “happy and safe” Deepavali.

We present a feature on veteran artist P.C. Ramakrishna who turns 75 this November and has spent over six fruitful decades in theatre as actor, director and also in the ‘voice’ industry. Our focus is also on young achievers: the Akkarai Sisters—Subhalakshmi (born in November) and Sornalatha, as well as Abhishek Raghuram—who have already become stars on the strength of their musical virtuosity an  remarkable talent. Though they were child prodigies, their ‘passion and perseverance’ have been the key to success for every one of them.

Several artists have found time during the lockdown to spend more time with their family and revive artistic memories, to explore and introspect on their music and create afresh. In this issue, Bombay Jayashri shares with us how the pandemic has enabled her to relook and relish the music.

It is over 60 years since the singing ‘super-star’ actor M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar passed away in November 1959. We offer our readers an interesting peep into the past in the form of insightful observations on MKT’s music in films – the ragas, tunes, voice and sruti—by none other than musicologist N. Ramanathan.

We do have our regular roundup of online activities cutting across genres in the News and Notes section. S. Rajam’s depiction of the saptaswara devata ‘Madhyama’ brings us to the middle of the series. Two articles come to their conclusion in this issue. One of them is Rasa in ancient texts which is a comparative analysis of rasa as mentioned in Natya Sastra, Tolkappiam and Koothanool. The other is A triad of Siva temples along the Akhanda Cauvery, wherein we journey to Tiruingoimalai also known as Maragatachalam. Watch out for more such features in the coming months.

In the past few months we have seen several artists being snatched away from our midst by the cruel hands of Death (some have succumbed to Covid). We have also paid tribute to some of them in recent issues. But such news keeps trickling in. The enterprising M. Balasubramoniam, Director of the South Zone Cultural Centre (SZCC) Tanjavur, who was also a mridangist, passed away on 6 September in Tanjavur. More recently, it was shocking to hear about the demise of three stalwarts in quick succession—Sobha Naidu, renowned Kuchipudi dancer and choreographer in Hyderabad; the doyen of Bhagavata Mela S. Natarajan in Melattur, Tanjavur; and the much sought after famous guru and Carnatic musician, octogenarian P.S. Narayanaswamy in Chennai. Sruti has\ written extensively about them and their art in earlier issues. We extend our heartfelt condolences to their family members and to their disciples. Their passing away is a great loss to the field of performing arts.

S. JANAKI

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Demystifying Tamil texts

Prof. S. Raghuraman
Prof. S. Raghuraman

Appreciation of Tamil texts, a novice friendly ten-hour web series by the erudite professor S. Raghuraman, helped to demystify and reintroduce the beauty and relevance of iconic ancient Tamil texts. A thorough overview of 2500 years of Tamil legacy was split into the ages such as Sangam, Epic, Ethics, Medieval or Bhakti and Contemporary age until Subramania Bharati.

A welcome burst of positivity during lockdown led us down the proverbial rabbit hole, organised by Upasana Arts and supported by Arts Council UK. Appreciation of Tamil texts is a part of Upasana’s larger project Ojas, which takes pride in making cultural heritage more accessible along with a focus on reconnecting with your roots through holistic education and an enhanced understanding of Bharatanatyam practice and performance.

With the hope of spreading positivity to as many as possible, we reached out to the bustling dance fraternity including the networks of ABHAI and Prayathnam and within two days received more than 250 registrations from cities in India, such as Madurai, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Rajkot, and from countries across the globe from the US, UK, Europe, Singapore and Australia. As one can imagine, we had to overcome many initial technical hiccups from malfunctioning laptops to disconnected time zones, until we finally decided that all the recorded sessions would be rigorously edited and uploaded in Upasana Arts’ YouTube channel, to be disseminated to eager rasikas. To accommodate visual learners and support the nuanced teaching style, detailed notes were collated and circulated with questions being regularly clarified. Jayanthi Sivakumar, a participant from the UK observes, “It’s been a pleasure to hear the scholar S. Raghuraman share his expertise on ancient Tamil literature and its relation to dance. His explanation was clear, simple and easy to understand. All thanks to him for bridging the gap and reinstating the pride in our heritage.”

Feedback clearly suggested that given the complexity of the content, it was beneficial that recordings be available to replay multiple times, cross refer and loop back to different sessions. Participants who were keen to have live virtual face time with sir were invited across two different days to accommodate international time zones.

The professor’s innate style managed to simplify and deconstruct the most complicated content with beautifully illustrative examples and relatable citations across various artistic disciplines like music, dance, drama, cinema, and literature along with detailed historical, cultural, social, philosophical and psychological contexts. He patiently covered concepts with his wit as he often repeated himself with the knowing smile of an experienced teacher. Referring to his classes, vidushi S. Sowmya recounts, “Asking Sir a doubt was like asking a veteran to teach Sa Pa Sa!” His own personal academic rigour and eclectic interests helped frame our learning within a wider context, establishing and reiterating that Tamil was not only an ancient and comprehensive language system with technical rigour and maturity in all linguistic aspects like grammar, phonetics, prosody and poetics, but also that Tamil texts were a true fount of knowledge in subjects like literature, politics, geography, commerce, arts, science, sociology and psychology. An understanding of the Sangam texts such as Tolkappiam, Meipattiyal and Silappadikaram, reflects not only Tamil’s antiquity, butalso their relevance to this day.

It is impressive that a text like Tolkappiam from 7th century BC is so scientific, methodical and timeless that its syntax and grammar rules are followed to this day in linguistics. Tolkappiam is not only systematic and comprehensive but also unique in its insightful understanding. It expounds that every Sangam poem is based on the speaker, the listener, and the context, each leading to a nuanced narration and consequent reaction.

It is interesting that for a book on grammar, it even includes a seminal chapter on human emotions and rasa theory, Meipattiyal. Sringaram alone is detailed as an independent chapter with four types and is further segmented as ‘kalaviyal’—love before marriage, and ‘karpial’—love after marriage, with each having a possibility of twelve stages.

The depth of Sangam texts reflects how arts, ideology and society, were far beyond the reaches of present understanding. For instance, the Koothanool by Sattanar (Tolkappiar’s contemporary) uniquely defines emotions based on the gunas—rajas, tamas and satvik. The Panchamarabu from the 5th century CE speaks of: aan kai: male hand (gestures); penn kai: female hand; pothu kai: neutral hand; and alli kai: eunuch hand.

Literatures like Silappadikaram are classic ethnographic records of Tamil Nadu, a window into the wider socio-political-economic context of the first century, along with its flora and fauna. Silappadikaram’s third chapter of Pugar canto, Arangetru Kathai, and Achiar Kuravai from Madurai canto, are seminal texts in the traditional Dravidian dance and music system respectively, and to this day inspire engagement, research and study.

An interesting session on music in Silappadikaram brought together the husband-wife expert duo of Vanathi and S. Raghuraman in exploring vidwan S. Ramanathan’s research. Additionally, the dancers— Anjana Anand shared her firsthand experience of translating the Silappadikaram, and Sreelatha Vinod shared her experience of working with Sir as mentor to perform Silappadikaram for Natyarangam’s Kavya Bharatham festival in 2003 at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai.

Curious about legacy and heritage, even as early as 5th century CE, the bhakti movement established autonomous research institutions called ‘ghatika’ in Kanchipuram with the primary purpose of collating past literature and publishing a commentary to make it accessible. Their rigorous, deep-rooted and advanced research methodology led to the discovery, collection and codification of Sangam texts and a commentary was written for Tolkappiam and Silappadikaram  after 1000 years. This is an artistic legacy to be acknowledged and be proud of.

This project undertaken by Upasana Arts brought together a discerning group and a benevolent teacher to revel in the pure joy of learning.

DEEPA GANESH

(Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher and Artistic

Director of Upasana Arts)

A virtually exciting musiCarnival


The lockdown has exposed music lovers to several online events—live performances, conversations with artists and personalities, cook-out with artists, listening sessions and more. But what we did not expect but did experience was a ‘carnival’ online! Packed with many interesting activities, what really led to its success was that every lockdown-performancefatigued rasika found something to do for those three days—cerebral and fun!

Sukrtam Foundation, brainchild of musician S. Sowmya, hosted the second version of the music carnival in August this year, titled musiCarnival’20. Sowmya was ably supported by a bunch of talented musicians consisting of K. Bharat Sundar, L. Ramakrishnan, Vidya Kalyanaraman, Ashwath Narayanan and Gayatri Kamakoti. A creative personality on and off stage, Sowmya’s innovative and fun ideas were executed skillfully by her and the team.

The power of social media was unleashed to the fullest. The lockdown was definitely a blessing in disguise for Sukrtam. The threeday carnival reached more than 1.6 lakh people from across the world— definitely more than what a physical carnival in Chennai would have seen! Plus, a wider audience base, which otherwise would have been restricted to only rasikas from namma Chennai!

The events in the carnival included a mix of online hosted events, which were streamed or premiered live on Facebook, and games that were hosted over their website www.sukrtamcarnival.com for everyone to access and play. The sprightly group of musicians, prominent stars in the field today, surprised all of us with their techy skills as well. The Sukrtam website, for example, was designed and developed end-to-end by the talented violinist L. Ramakrishnan. When asked him how he went about this, he says, “In many ways, putting together an online event proved to be a difficult task than organising a physical event. An online festival of this scale entails participation from across the globe and hence, availability of games, media and information 24x7 was the need of the day. And to host online games for the carnival, we needed a one-stop launch pad, and with that in mind, the Sukrtam website was designed. The website was tested on multiple devices including mobile phones and tablets to ensure a seamless experience for the end user. We had around 3000 unique visitors to the website during the carnival from all over the world.”

Vocalist K. Bharat Sundar edited all the promotional videos that were aired drumming up to the event. And Vidya Kalyanaraman managed the entire coordination between events—hosts and participants—and management of the schedules.

The carnival was inaugurated on 7 August 2020 by N. Murali, President of The Music Academy, Madras, and art patron and organiser Cleveland V.V. Sundaram.

Some of the events which stood out and garnered excellent participation and interaction were the quiz on Carnatic music and its history by historian Sriram V; and Dumb Charades, based on Carnatic compositions, ragas and composers, hosted by musician Saketharaman along with his daughter Bhageshri.

The popular card game Meld, was given a Carnatic twist and the goal of this multiplayer game was to combine a composition, raga and tala and score points by melding them as sets. Kudos to the young engineers Abhishek, Arjun, and Sai Prasanth for developing this game from scratch for this carnival. Rasikas can still play this game which has themes around Kollywood and Western music too, on the Sukrtam website.

What emerged as a hot favourite among the virtual audience was the musicians’ Antakshari, hosted by the celebrated Carnatic duo Ranjani-Gayatri. Following the basic rules of antakshari, each round was built with a lot of variety, where the participants had to ideate and come up with kritis based on ragas, anupallavi, swarasthanam, and compositions in Todi and Kalyani. The participants included top ranking musicians Gayathri Girish, Gayathri Venkataraghavan, Nisha Rajagopalan, Amritha Murali, Vignesh Ishwar, Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, Rithvik Raja, and Bharathi Ramasubban. The event was ably and calmly moderated by singer K. Gayatri and supervised by S. Sowmya. The event, apart from scoring 100 percent on the entertainment quotient, showcased the exhaustive repertoire of the participants and almost all of them reeled out kritis in less than 30 seconds!

Some of the other interesting and innovatively thought out games were a completely virtual ‘Treasure Hunt’ through different kshetrams, which provided automated certificates once the participant crossed the finish line. A Google classroom was setup to handle more than 100 live participants playing simultaneously with a monitored helpdesk (through private comments). aMAZE, a raga maze game designed to recognise ragas with some novelty was a creation of the violinists Rajeev, Sayee Rakshith and Vittal Rangan. Heritage enthusiast and conservationist Madhusudanan Kalaichelvan hosted a quiz on music, art and architecture. Violinist Vishvesh Chandrasekhar, drew inspiration from the popular game, Bingo and adapted it to include musicians and instruments. Wheel of Fortune, a game that tested luck and knowledge, was hosted by Deepika and Nandika.

The talented vocalist Aishwarya Vidya Raghunath hosted an interesting session of Pictionary. Beautiful images on Carnatic music were sketched live to the participants, inspiring them to guess the answers within seconds. Vocalist Ashwath Narayanan hosted Scattergories, a multiplayer game. Violinist Vittal Rangan presented the unique concept of Make Your Own Music, with a totally different dimension to the concept ofcreating music virtually.

Apart from the games, some unique shows were also hosted on Sukrtam’s YouTube channel. A leather puppet show was put together by kids just five years of age! The puppets were animals about which lyrics were written in the tune of the sarali varisais by vocalist K. Gayatri and the beautiful leather puppets where handmade by the talented vidushi S. Sowmya. The background music and videography were done by the young music couple Shreya Devnath and  Praveen Sparsh.

Varisaiyai Paduvom, was a musical presentation by kids, based on the various varisais in Carnatic music, sung in different ragas. To make it informative and interesting for children, the songs were written on various themes like numbers, shapes, colour, gratitude towards fellow human beings, and even on the recipe of Idli! Sayee Raksith and Ravishankar had composed the music.

The skit Jeevan, was enacted by several musicians from their own homes! Written and directed by S. Sowmya, it was an adaptation of a real story from the 20th century. The video editing was done by K. Bharat Sundar and the cast included Vidya Kalayanaraman, K. Gayatri, Delhi Sairam, Chandrasekhara Sharma, Brinda Manickavasagam, Ranjani Sidhareddy, Sankrith Sowmya, and Bhavya Hari.

The grand finale of the carnival was hosted by Sowmya, inspired by the famous television game, Jeopardy. The participants in this game were all the musicians and volunteers who had worked tirelessly to execute musiCarnival’20—it was a novel way of thanksgiving to all the contributors.

The curtains to musiCarnival’20 were drawn on 9 August 2020 with a valedictory function, presided by eminent musicians Sudha Ragunathan and Nithyasree Mahadevan, who were part of the events in the last year’s edition as well.

The success of musiCarnival’20 can undoubtedly be attributed to the ingenious efforts of Sowmya and her team. We have often seen these musicians on stage, quietly delivering what we ‘thought’ they knew best. But here they were in a completely different avatar, executing the entire carnival online with finesse. Lockdown or not, Sukrtam perhaps should continue to conduct this carnival every year online; it was definitely more satisfying than a physical event in terms of participation!

The website www.sukrtamcarnival.com still hosts several videos, quizzes, and games for interested rasikas to participate.

SUKANYA SANKAR

Friday, 9 October 2020

Masterclass with TM Krishna

 

Nurturing Fearless and Serious Engagement  with Karnatik Music




“I want you to stop when you are dead with the ideas of a pattern,” TM Krishna reminds his students. As the students sing kalpanaswaram for Deva Deva Kalayamithe, Krishna puts down hurdles in their paths. “That is banned.. you can’t sing that.” Some of them toy with new phrases, while the others stumble over a note. He encourages the latter, “It is only when you sing something wrong can you twist it and discover something.”    The intensity and the gay abandon of this musical improv makes an otherwise high-spirited participants of the 12-days masterclass dumbstruck. The intensive online module on Carnatic music offered by TM Krishna in two batches in August 2020, not only stressed on his radical ideas on manodharma, but also explored the politics and aesthetics of the art form. 

 

Past and present merged seamlessly in these sessions. Along with Krishna, we went centuries back in time to study the evolution of the kirtana as a dominating compositional structure, the journey of the veena, violin and nagaswaram into the Carnatic fold, and the emergence of bhakti as a favored literary theme in the Carnatic canon. We looked at historical figures like Subbarama Dikshitar, the man behind the iconic work, Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (SSP), and attempted to place their creative interventions in their historical specificity. A major portion of the work included in the SSP is that of Muthuswami Dikshitar. “Any renowned scholar and artist like him would have had to negotiate through multiple contexts. How he negotiated with this illustrious lineage symbolises the conflicts we have to deal with as artists in the 21st century; we are constantly trying to reconcile what we have learnt vs what we do to evolve this art form. He was also trying to make sense of things and he did it in his own way,” observes G Ravi Kiran, student of TM Krishna who anchored this session with him. 

 

Some of the participants were so fired up after this session that they pored over SSP to sing new kirtanas after the session ended, says Anand Murthy, a veena and vocal music student from Gurgaon. It gave him a huge conviction in what he was learning. “Another striking thing about a few Carnatic music performers is that they can be pretty secretive; they do not readily divulge their approach to explore a raga or to develop an idea from a kirtana or explore tanam.  And, TMK literally gave it to us on a silver platter. I found the generosity of spirit quite disarming. I would make notes at the end of each class. There were ready references on how to approach a particular raga. These are clearly core processes that I should follow in my ability to weave a swarakalpana.”

 

T Brinda’s rendition of a Sringara laden padam contrasted with MS Subbulakshmi’s voice dripping with bhakti, the session on gender contextualised the female musicians’ aesthetic negotiations in their respective socio-cultural backgrounds. Listening to these women of yesteryears and hearing their stories were inspiring, says Vidhya Raghavan, another student of Krishna. “They look so unattainable when you hear their music. But, when we humanise them and look at them as real people, you realise the struggles they faced. They were feminists in their own right.” 

 

Patriarchal mindsets ruled these concert spaces, Vidhya and Bhargavi Venkatram, who anchored the session on gender with Krishna, echoed.  The female artist must take care to follow dress codes, body language and a socially acceptable personal life to be welcomed into the fold, apart from being a good singer. These disclosures led to a vibrant discussion in the masterclass that overshot its time way past the expected limits. 

 


Participants were a vibrant lot consisting of a global diaspora from different fields bonded by their love for the form. The chat box always buzzed with messages. Krishna had to juggle his thoughts and the cascade of questions that would throw open a new stream of conversation altogether. The lively audience interaction led to some fascinating finds; like the music of a Carnatic musician who is a trans-person. “The 12-days opened up the immense problems of hierarchy and patriarchy that exist in this field. I personally will not be able to listen to the music of the artist, whose politics I actively disagree with the art cannot be separated from the artist. As connoisseurs, it is our responsibility to look at both sides,” says Anusha Dhasarathy, a consulting professional based in Chicago.  

 Separating the art from the artist has been a tightrope walk for many. Talking about his favourite musicians endorsing religious fascism, Rahul Gandhi, a physician in New Zealand, says: "I feel conflicted on those occasions because these are artists I have admired for their astonishing musical prowess; they are often epitomes of excellence in performance."

 Power hierarchy existed clearly in the way the concert format is structured, says Anand reflecting on the main artist session. “If we stop seeing the ghatam player as an upapakkavadyam and instead as an equal contributor, what different possibilities open up? These questions come from a deep interest. That’s how the art form lives, by examining the possibilities of sound. Otherwise, it is dead.” There were no conclusions being reached. "Through these masterclasses, the point was not to provide black and white answers for anyone, but to burn down what we knew, and build a framework around which to address these issues for ourselves more robustly," says Rahul. 

The idea for a masterclass in Carnatic music arose from the students themselves. Krishna and his students worked quite intensively, by having at least three rounds of one-on-one video calls and general sittings, before each session. And, from the very inception of the idea, the musician was clear that he will address both the aesthetic and the socio-political side of Carnatic music. That is the only way forward for conversations on his art practice, he says. “My politics comes from my art. The two cannot be disassociated for me. We need to have more conversations that do not have these boundaries. In India unfortunately, aesthetics is either treated in an esoteric fashion or just put down to taste and preference. We largely see art as a producer of emotional experiences and the socio-political as its scaffolding. We need to understand them as intertwined beings and engage with both realities with equal intensity.”

 Parshathy J Nath

The author is a writer, theatre practitioner and a Carnatic music trainee