Saturday, 30 January 2021


Every year, on the eve of Republic Day, the Padma Awards—among the highest civilian awards of the nation, are announced by the Government of India in three categories— Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Shri. Given to eminent personalities who have made a mark in their respective disciplines, we eagerly await the list of artists selected to receive the awards in the field of performing arts. Last year we bemoaned the fact that the awards were conferred on very few classical musicians and dancers. This year it’s no better; the number has shrunk further! Out of the 119 Padma awardees, the selected artists can be counted on your fingers. There is no dearth of highly distinguished top performing artists in the country—one wonders why they are not being considered for these prestigious awards? Classical dancers don’t figure in this year’s list. Moreover, there are several veteran artists like Vyjayantimala Bali, Kalamandala  Gopi, Sudharani Raghupathy, Chitra Visweswaran—to name only a few (there are many more in different genres) who were conferred the Padma Shri decades ago and have continued to enrich the art form, but have not been bestowed the higher awards! All this talk about promoting our rich cultural heritage seems like lip service if the government does not recognize deserving art practitioners in time.

This year, the famous singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam has been selected to receive the coveted Padma Vibhushan. He certainly deserves it, but it is a pity that he is being honoured posthumously. In this month’s issue, musician Anil Srinivasan pays tribute to this singer whose hallmark was ‘versatility with humility’.

It is a matter of some consolation that the Padma Shri is being conferred on a few artists. Two veterans—Carnatic violinist Annavarapu Ramaswamy and Subbu Arumugam who helped revitalise villupaattu, are also being conferred the Padma Shri; they deserve a higher award. Senior mridangist Nidumolu Sumathi and star vocalist Bombay Jayashri are also among the awardees. It is heartening that several folk artists in different parts of the country are also being honoured. British theatre director Peter Brook and musicologist Sanjida Khatun from Bangladesh are among the foreigners chosen for the award. Sruti congratulates all the awardees and hopes the Padma awards list will be more inclusive and extensive next year.

The Sruti cover stories in February focus on three famous exponents who have courageously pursued their passion for the arts. K.J. Yesudas, the man with the “golden voice”, has entered his eighties. Famous in the music field film, devotional and classical music—he has drawn countless music enthusiasts to Carnatic music. Lata Pada’s life is a lesson for many—she immersed herself in dance to overcome shattering personal loss to become an acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and teacher in Toronto. Art has been her solace and healer. She and her Sampradaya Dance Creations are ‘sector leaders’ for Indian dance in Canada. In the passing away of Astad Deboo, India has lost a pioneer in the field of contemporary dance. He ploughed a lone furrow, as his personal dance style defied categorisation; thereby denying him due recognition. Unfazed, he plodded on his adventurous pursuit of his art, using it also to help the less fortunate in society.

We also bring to you the first part of the Chennai season coverage. Concerts were webstreamed from mid-December every day. Of course, this time our reviewers had the luxury of watching them virtually from home. Like the ‘live’ season, this too posed the problem of plenty. Happy reading!


Friday, 29 January 2021

A brief view of the compositions on Tyagaraja


Tyagaraja’s compositions are prevalent thanks to the three distinct schools of music which took forward his legacy to the vast number of students world over. One cannot imagine a concert without a Tyagaraja kriti. Every year, his remembrance day is observed and celebrated across the globe and musicians do perform his compositions with great devotion towards him. There are also few composers who are either his students or belonging to his musical lineage and wrote compositions in praise of him.

Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatharar, composer who was the direct disciple of Tyagaraja. The Walajapet School of music is famous for keeping the original notations of Tyagaraja’s compositions. Venkataramana Bhagavatharar penned a sloka on Tyagaraja, in his Vyaso naigama charchaya sloka, he attributed several great qualities of the great devotees and sages in this world to his master. He also wrote a Guru mangalasthakam in praise of Tyagaraja.  The former sloka is often rendered by musicians, before they begin a Tyagaraja kriti.

Ramanathapuram (Poochi) Srinivasa Iyengar and Mysore Vasudevachar are both disciples of Patnam Subramaniam Iyer - belonging to the musical lineage of Tyagaraja - have composed two great gems on the saint composer. Srinivasa Iyengar praised him as a great devotee who attained salvation by always meditating to Lord Rama and is credited for spreading the hidden truths of the Bhagavad Gita through his compositions; like in the Reetigowla compostion, Sadguru Swamiki. On the other hand, Vasudevachar described him as an entire essence of the music, also as an icon of great fame and great knowledge in his Sanskrit composition, Srimadadi Tyagaraja Guruvaram in Kalyani.

Vidwan M.D. Ramanathan, a versatile vocalist and a composer, who also belongs to the musical lineage of Tyagaraja, described him as the basis for a musical composition and praised him as a garland, in which the gems are ragas, Tyagraja Gurum ashraye (Kedaram).

Vidwan M Balamuralikrishna, another well-known composer and a multifaceted personality, also belongs to the musical lineage of Tyagaraja, composed two kritis in praise of the saint composer. In his Todi composition, Tyagaraja gurum bhajeham, he describes Tyagaraja as a person who provides the righteous path through his compositions and also someone having supreme qualities. He also describes Tyagaraja as a source of livelihood and salvation, and as a reformer of Indian music in his Nattai composition, Gaana Sudharasa paana niratam. Almost all the compositions have stressed a common point regarding the saint composer; and they all praise him as an incarnation of sage Narada.


Sree Tyagarajaya mangalam                                                                  T.R. Aravind

The term ‘mangalam’ indicates auspiciousness amongst the many other denotations that it conveys. Mangalam is usually rendered at the end of a nama sankeertanam, Seeta kalyanam, or at the end of a concert to be propitious to both the listener and the reciter. Mangalam can be compared with the ‘phalasruti’ recited at the end of any sloka and usually eulogises a deity. Though not many mangalams are now in vogue, in the past, many families inherited their own repertoire of mangalams. The family deity or a deity enshrined in a town to which the family belongs would be extolled in the mangalam. I have had the good fortune of listening to my grandmother singing a mangalam in Kamavardhani raga, addressing Lord Devanatha of Tiruvahindrapuram. Age-old mangalams too run in the family through generations. Sree Ramachandranukku, a common mangalam appended to Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam and often sung in Madhyamavati, is sung in Asaveri in our family. Interestingly, the oldest book which mentions the raga for this kriti mentions it as Asaveri.

Occasionally, mangalams were also composed on saints and mortals. Though their sahitya might superficially appear inconsequential, they provide a lot of biographical details, especially if composed by individuals closely associated with the nayaka of the mangalam.

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Sahrdaya Sound Studio

Anjana Anand

Sahrdaya Creative Spaces launched its new venture, Sahrdaya Sound Studio in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai on 1 January, 2021. A dream project of dancer – nattuvunar and choreographer Sheejith Krishna, the studio follows closely on the heels of the 70-seat Black Box which was inaugurated a year ago. The Kalakshetra alumnus envisions a space where artists can create and record work with quality infrastructure. The idea of this recording studio is more than just a space to record new work. It offers artists the choice to use in - house consulting and musicians in their artistic endeavors. The artistic team comprises of Sheejith Krishna, Jyothishmathi Sheejith and Akhila Ramnarayan who offer their expertise in helping artists create unique work.  Sheejith, who has to his credit many original productions like Marthyan, Masquerade, Pravaha, Ram Katha and Don Quixote has decades of experience putting together ensemble work from scratch -including musical score, instrumentation and dance choreography. Jyothishmathi Sheejith, also a Kalakshetra alumnus trained in Carnatic music has honed skills as a singer in Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas and later as a vocalist for leading Bharatanatyam dancers. She has composed music for many of her husband’s productions. Akhila Ramnarayan is a writer and has been part of the creative work at Sahrdaya since 2011.

The studio also has experienced recordists who are themselves musicians- Deepu K Nair (vocalist), Rakesh Pazhedam (mridangam) and Sheejith himself. The studio has two sound booths, one for live and the other for vocals. The console is equipped with state-of-the-art recording equipment and technology. A unique feature of the studio is a rehearsal space in the same premises where the composer or choreographer can practice and compose while recording happens simultaneously. This allows artists to meet, brainstorm and create while the recording is in progress. Future plans include a library and archival centre open to all, where dance compositions of legendary musicians are preserved. Sheejith Krishna shares his vision with Sruti.

Music plays a large role in your understanding of natyam. Please share your experiences.

I experience music as a series of patterns which is sometimes interrupted by a cross rhythm or just silence. That interplay between repetition and interruption in pattern creates different soundscapes. The idea of the coming together of sound, silence and melody has always fascinated me. My exposure to music in Kalakshetra has laid this foundation for me. The beautiful compositions of Rukmini Devi’s dance drama productions instilled a deep sense of aesthetics in me. Dance is just an extension of my musical understanding.

Sahrdaya Creative Spaces includes the Black Box and a recording studio. Was this part of the plan from the beginning?

This has always been a dream project of mine - to have a space where all artists can experiment and create work. This fuels my own creativity and love for art. I have always been enamored by technology. I am very sensitive to sound and enjoy dabbling with different equipment. This is the reason I did not want to compromise on the quality of my equipment.

The reason this did not happen much earlier was because I was worried about the finances of the whole project. During the lockdown, I decided that I would somehow raise the funds to kickstart my long term dream.

What would you say are the unique features of Sahrdaya Sound Studio?

As I mentioned, artists can expect a high quality out of recordings because we have both the equipment and the team to run it. I was lucky to have the goodwill of experienced sound engineer/designer Madhu Viswanathan to advise me on the studio set up along with my good friend Deepu K. Nair. The studio acoustic design was handled by Jaishankar Iyer. The success of a studio lies largely with good sound engineers, and all three of us, Deepu, Rakesh and I have enough experience in this area along with musical training to take care of our artists’ needs.

Our rehearsal area in the premises is available for artists to work with musicians and our creative team during the recording process. I would like to help budding dancers and choreographers to record work with inputs from our consulting team. I want to make their recording experience a stress-free and creative one.

I spent a lot of time on the interior designing of the studio, choosing fabrics, woodwork and colours myself. I believe strongly that the aesthetics of a space creates a positive vibration, which will allow an artist’s creativity to unfold naturally. 

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Warrier Foundation’s mentorship

Pratibha Jagannathan

Indian Classical Dances have always been an elaborate affair, with prime venues being sought after by artists. The behind the scenes process of any production or project is rarely known to anyone other than the artists involved in the production. But with the current limitations on social gatherings, dance performances have been confined to personal spaces such as living rooms or in case of a lucky few, studios. Innovating in these times of limited space and resources, is Divya Warier, a mohiniyattam artist and one of the trustees of the Warrier Foundation, an NGO dedicated to service of the underprivileged members of society.

Divya launched the Pratiroop mentorship program, a novel project, aiming at getting senior performing artists, of various classical dance styles, mentored by legendary gurus from a completely different classical dance style, than their own.

Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher Rama Vaidyanathan mentored Kuchipudi dancer Prateeksha Kashi, Kuchipudi expoenent Vyjayanthi Kashi mentored Kathak dancer Nishtha Budhlakoti, Kathak guru Prerana Shrimali mentored Bharatanatyam dancer Keerthana Ravi, Odissi guru Sharmila Biswas mentored Mohiniyattam dancer Divya Warier, Mohiniyattam dancer and teacher Neena Prasad mentored Odissi dancer Rohini Banerjee.

Spearheaded under the leadership of Divya Warier, this unique project was successful only because of the team work of Pratiroop which included Pratibha Jagannathan, Ramesh Vasu, Vidya Pradeep, Keerthana Ravi, and KeerthiKumar.

Dancer Rohini Banerjee, has been performing under her guru Sharmila Biswas for many years now and she calls Pratiroop, “ a challenging project which pushed her out of her comfort zone, and the journey was equally beautiful and unique. Rohini, who was mentored by Mohiniyattam guru Neena Prasad is enamored by her mentor’s netra abhinaya, and is looking forward to being able to learn more of it.

Not all mentees had a smooth run though, especially since everything was virtual and getting artists for the music was an ordeal. Nishtha Budhlakoti, disciple of guru Prerana Shrimali, had challenges in not only recording the music but also had to reshoot her video to align to the vision of her mentor Vyjayanthi Kashi. She says, “This experience has been new for me and different from what I have been doing so far. Though it was very challenging for me initially, with help from my mentor, I was able to implement her vision finally.

Kabir had always been on the mind of Keerthana Ravi, a Bharatanatyam dancer. When she was placed under the mentorship of guru Prerana Shrimali, everything clicked. Keerthana was able to jump right into the poetry of Kabir with the help of her mentor who had already done a lot of work on Kabir. Keerthana shares “ Preranaji gave me the full liberty to explore the piece the way I wanted to and she willingly shared with me her experiences with Kabir’s compositions, that helped me give life to my piece.”

It was a dream come true for Prateeksha Kashi, a Kuchipudi dancer, daughter and disciple Vyjayanthi Kashi. She was ecstatic to be mentored by guru Rama Vaidyanathan who she says, helped her understand how Kuchipudi can depict an abstract theme, elaborated by metaphors rather than mythological stories. She enjoyed this approach to choreography which was totally new to her.

Why I choose Hidimbi? I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. The character Hidimbi provided that opportunity. As my mentor explained Hidimbi as a single mother, a woman who has gone against her community and married Bhima, a kshatriya prince. Yet she brought up her son with the basic knowledge and ethics of her community.” says Divya Warier, a Mohiniyattam artist and disciple of dancer Neena Prasad.

Sharmila biswas says, We were dealing with a kind of motherhood we have never seen. We were dealing with a cannibal, and trying to justify it from her perspective. We were dealing with a woman with simple but strong likes and dislikes.” Divya has put in endless hours of research, thanks to the analytical approach of her mentor and has not shied away from incorporating elements that are not traditionally used in Mohiniyattam performances.

The process of mentorship was shared with the viewers through Warrier Foundation’s YouTube channel, as were the final performances thus reaching across a global viewership and rave reviews pertaining to each artist's solo presentation . The project, which was powered by Indian Raga was also a fundraiser for enabling remote education of Warrier Foundation’s underprivileged children and generates more than one lakh rupees through their crowd funding platform on GiveIndia.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Revel in Glory with SIFF Young Artiste

India has been home to some of the finest artists in the fields of music, dance and theatre since time immemorial. With a rich heritage in the arts, it is no surprise that India is nothing short of a gold mine of exceptional talent. The Singhal Iyer family foundation (SIFF), a Bangalore based philanthropic organization that was set up with the singular purpose of providing young talents in India, a safe and healthy environment to hone their skills and evolve into the best versions of themselves. It seeks to bring about a common love and respect for the arts and cultivate it with the necessary resources to facilitate a seamless journey.

The seed for Young Artiste was sown decades ago, as the founders Kavita Iyer and Sandeep Singhal realised the significance of cultivating these art forms in children. The arts often tend to take a back seat often as per the academic curriculum. Even in institutes where the arts are taught, students are unable to pursue it further due to the lack of a structured training program. SIFF Young Artiste is a platform that was birthed to fill this gap, with emphasis on both classical and contemporary art forms.

SIFF Young Artiste 2020 is a national level talent hunt, providing scholarships to students between the ages of 11-18, to showcase their skills in the multiple genres of music and dance, ranging from classical to contemporary forms. Receiving over 12,000 entries, the talent hunt has proven to all that there is always a time and place for the arts to flourish, even in the middle of a pandemic! The finals for YA 2020 are set to take place in Summer 2021.

Dr. L Subramaniam, Violin Maestro and YA jury member and mentor says, “I am very happy to be a part of Young Artiste 2020, and to know that they have organised workshops in order to provide advanced facilities and educational opportunities to some of the most talented students whom they have selected. By undergoing this mentorship program, the students can learn several complex techniques, compositional forms, and interpretation, which are the building blocks of music. I wish all the students great luck!”

After several months of a rigorous selection process, SIFF Young Artiste 2020 announced 100 finalists and scholarship recipients who are currently undergoing the Young Artiste Advanced Mentorship Program (YAMP), a series of masterclasses, workshops, and collaborations among fellow young artists. The purpose of the mentorship program is to expose students to world-class maestros in their respective fields and provide them with the rigour and structure of any academic program. The students will be enabled to recognise and build on their strengths, learn advanced techniques and practice methodologies, while also addressing their shortcomings. At the end of the program, these students will come out with a deeper understanding of the discipline and focus required to pursue a career in the arts. The mentorship program, for a duration of nearly six months, will culminate in a grand finale performance in the summer of 2021.

An esteemed panel of judges for SIFF Young Artiste have been involved with YA 2020 from the very beginning and are currently leading the mentorship program for all 20 categories. Music and dance virtuosos such as L Subramaniam, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and Madhavi Mudgal have consented to mentor the participants. Additionally, experts in the field such as Rukmini Vijayakumar (Bharatanatyam), Anupama Bhagwat (Sitar/Sarod), Nikhita Gandhi (Indian & Western Vocal), Sagar Bora (Hip-Hop), among others, will be driving the category specific sessions. The finale, which will be a showcase of the exceptional talent recognized, will be hosted in accordance with the evolving COVID-19 situation and government guidelines issued at the time.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the landscape of performing arts and art education. Owing to the digital lifestyle, it is bound to have ramifications on how the arts are taught and absorbed by teachers and students alike. This holds particularly true for complex forms such as dance and instrumental music, as it is best served when the student and teacher share a physical space. According to the organizers, the mentorship program has been challenging to execute and yet the overwhelming response to this initiative has been extremely encouraging.

The arts play a vital role in shaping young minds. Whether or not a student of the arts goes on to becoming a performing or career artist, the exposure and discipline of learning the arts manifests itself in everything that one endeavours to do. Taking an institutionalised and rigorous approach to art education in India is still at its nascent stages. Often, the art is passed on from generation to generation within large artist families. While that makes India stand apart from the rest of the world, it also often means that many don’t get to discover their talent and channel it in a productive manner. With that in mind, SIFF is also poised to set up an online learning institution in 2021, which aims to provide young aspirants with a structured and focussed curriculum over seven to eight levels of proficiency. It hopes to be a haven for all aspiring young talents to discover, cultivate and give wings to their passion. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2021


 A life in nada

Rithvik Raja

Visiting Krishnan Mama was always a wonderful experience. Conversations at his home were laid back, with him recollecting many old memories and sharing invaluable stories from his travel and concerts. He took immense pride in how the past masters lived through music. He was constantly filled with nostalgia, and once shared a vivid and detailed account of how every station master would know when they were travelling in the first class compartment, and special hot water arrangements would be made for their bath followed by meals that were freshly prepared and served on banana leaves, all immaculately coordinated bet een stations. While he shared these poignant stories, they always had an important lesson in them, from which we could all learn.

His music was a culmination of all these experiences. Having played for so many great musicians, he followed intently and assimilated the best from all of them. He always mentioned Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, and called him the ideal musician. Having shared the stage with him from a very young age, he firmly believed that his principles are important and relevant even today to maintain the core classical values and learn the nuances of concert presentation and proportion. He instructed me to go listen to a specific recording of Ariyakudi effortlessly singing Ongi ulagalanda at an unusual gait, to understand how deceptively simple his music was, but how difficult it I  to sing like that. Needless to say, the kalpanaswaras that followed were a   lesson in Arabhi, with Krishnan Mama flowing along breezily.

Semmangudi Mama was held in highest regard, and Krishnan Mama considered it his blessing that he could learn under such a stalwart. He emphasised how much importance Semmangudi gave to pathantara, and how he instilled that discipline in all his disciples. Bhava laden raga delineations were the forte of both, and it is no wonder that they performed so many enthralling concerts together. I can recall, many years ago, when he began playing Surati during a concert, he stopped after a few initial phrases and explained where the Surati nishada should ideally be and how Semmangudi Mama taught him that. He even conceded how he didn’t quite get it right at the beginning. A few seconds later, he quipped “Ah, that’s where it is!” Such was his honesty and humility towards the art, which he always placed  above himself.

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 His heart commanded the fingers

Charumathi Raghuraman

Violin maestro Trippunithura Narayana Iyer Krishnan wasborn on 

6 October 1928 and passed away on 2 November 2020 in Chennai. 

It was providence that brought me into the wondrous and most cherished orbit of violin maestro T.N. Krishnan Sir. It happened exactly 25 years ago. I was a young girl, a novice violin student in Mumbai. At the suggestion of a close family friend, my mother and I proceeded to meet TNK Sir at NCPA, where he had a visiting professorship. I was too young and clueless to realise that, at that very moment, I had found the purpose in my life as a violinist.

Upon entering NCPA’s campus, we were taken to Sir’s workshop where I walked into a room brimming with eager eyes and ears, all tuned to a welcoming soft face and a distinguished aura. I was one among many, but his charisma was disarming and personalised to every single person. The violin sat on him like the perfect head jewel of a crown.

Then, like a true Zen master, he wielded the instrument that served his every command and musical gesture. There was no microphone or any other artificial enhancement, just the simple acoustic violin which filled the room at the NCPA and my heart. The sound was complete as its own entity. The richness of the tone, the purity of the bowing, the sway and lilt of the melody and many more magical qualities I was unqualified to know at that time, became imprinted in my mind on that very first encounter with Sir and the violin.

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Monday, 11 January 2021

The Voice of Our Heart: Tribute to S.P. Balasubrahmanyam

It was some years ago that I received a call asking me to be a part of a special concert. I was being asked to play with the legendary ‘SPB’, and I was further told that he wanted these segments to be just with me and no other accompanist on stage.  I grew up in an era where SPB was perhaps the only singer on every song I loved (with maestro Ilayaraaja being the composer of nearly all of them).  For the years that followed, I became a part of his ‘posse’, a dedicated fan group of the person that he was, in addition to the superlative vocalist and performer that he was.  And I will say that to know SPB is to become a part of this privileged group that knows of his extraordinary kindness, sense of humour and ability to inspire joy wherever he went. To be a good musician is to be a keen listener to life, he was to remark on many an occasion. And I saw him living it. He was generous to a fault, and an avid participant in the business of life – negotiating tumult and greatness with grace and agility.

In being asked to write about his musical legacy, it is difficult to know where to begin. I find analysis very tough when it comes to singers as prolific as he was (he has recorded nearly 43,000 songs across languages and genres!) as adjectives do not do justice, language often struggling to encompass what can only be transmitted musically. A turn of phrase, a tremor especially affected for a phrase,  a bass quiver – and you know that your life is changed forever due to that particular rendition, the gravity and depth he confers that particular moment in a narrative. In India, we tend to turn any retrospective into a hagiography, and I know I am already in that zone.

SPB was transcendental in a way few singers were, but knowing him was also loving his approach to music. He saw it as a part of a whole, as his ‘karma’ towards a greater ‘seva’ to humanity, retreating behind his composers and his music directors rather than enjoy the shine.  I feel that it is this quality that endeared him to most of us. We would be discussing Nanda en nila and he would sit like a schoolboy, his face in a reverential trance as he transformed into a young Balu singing for the late, legendary Dakshinamoorthy Sir. He would discuss Kamban emandhan and get palpably excited when discussing MSV and that odd note (the end of the second line is on a different gandharam). He was least aware of the effect he was having on all of us around him, listening in rapt attention as also his vocal acrobatics in providing, on the spot, three or four different sangatis on the same line, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

So in deciding to write this, I thought I would use five songs of his (I am thrilled to say that I have played these songs with him on stage and on television), as it helps me with the framework for analysis.  Each of these songs also varies by genre, stories they fit into and different stages of his musical trajectory. Each of these selections also reflects a different use for the voice, and I believe there is much to be gleaned from observing them carefully.

For instance, in Teertha Karaiyinile (1980, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, MS Viswanathan) It is the gentle and melancholic ballad that is given prime importance. Bharatiyar’s immortal poetry is used to reflect a protagonist pining for a love that is now irredeemably lost, a song of nostalgic pain and hurt. MSV chooses to characterise this with just the voice and a gentle guitar backing, leaving the former to do most of the heavy lifting. And it does with SPB’s muted and controlled emotion, laying emphasis on the words, their enunciation and that tremendous irony in the lyric. In fact, when the song reaches its end the line Nanoruvan mattilum pirivenbadhor naraga tuzhaluvadho (“When it is only me suffering this separation, it is like being tossed into hell”), the ‘holding back’ that he has done in the previous lines suddenly suffuses into a free-flow of emotional release, and he lingers, mid-phrase – to let the listener empathise with the narrative. It breaks the heart, and makes Bharatiyar’s own tribulations well up and coax the tears out of each of us.  

In Enakku oru kadhali (1976, Muthaana Muthallavo) we see the serenade, beautifully essayed on screen by Vijayakumar and ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan. With a piano and a violin to keep them company, MSV and SPB (a rare combination for singing) take us through a sweet paean to romance. SPB masters this form once again, and the use of his voice to sculpt the beautiful end-phrase of the pallavi is among the masterpieces in film music literature. The violin mimics the voice, and the voice the violin in a pas-de-deux between these two melodic strains, and SPB offers up sangatis that are as evocative as they are wondrous.

I had asked SPB about that turn of phrase and how he decided to craft it that particular way, to which he retreated, in his characteristic style, to the superlative vision of MSV. He went on to remark that MSV made him practice that phrase multiple times, and was quite strict about it. We shall now never know what actually transpired, but we have this delightful melody to savour.

In rendering the classical, such as in Manasa sancharare, Sankarabharanamu or Dorakkuna, I have often been told by purists that this would not pass muster in a classical concert. The heaviness of SPB’s bass notes, and the relative lightness in the uccha sthayis are not desirable, I would be told. But we must remember that these were rendered for film. Indeed, in Naa jeevadhara in Thyagayya (1981, Telugu, KV Mahadevan), the architectonics of the first and second sangatis of the pallavi line are so redolent of the Lalgudi style of rendition. When I referred to this in conversation, he replied that the Lalgudi rendition was his gold standard to practice this, and he ended the comment by his usual self-effacing apology when it comes to the classical. “Unlike you all, I am not classically trained”, he would often remark.  I often wonder if humility is the true hallmark of greatness, because if so, SPB was a great testament to that notion. Purists’ opinion aside, SPB displayed tremendous reverence for the classical, often referring to the late M. Balamuralikrishna and often his ‘Anna’, K J Yesudas as his exemplars and teachers.  

The narrative is important, as is the narrator, he once said: The story is paramount, and all craftspeople in service of that story, he would add. He would become the ‘voice’ of the protagonist, and his rendition the storyline. It was a different era to grow up in music, and he took his cues from the innumerable music directors he worked for across the country. These were times when as a highly sought after performer, he would record four to five songs in a day! To think that he would still take the time to sit down and listen to the story, to the implicit directions of his composers, and become the character is tough to believe in a digital era where singer-celebrities often eclipse the context they represent.

And yet the SPB I knew was not a man who placed undue emphasis on ‘voice management’ or ‘silences before concerts’.  He would be joking in the greenroom, regaling us with some story or the other, and be a perfect marvel minutes later when curtains opened. And he would be able to hold the stage for hours afterwards, getting better with the passing hours!  He loved his food, his indulgences and his life, it would always seem.

In rambunctious melodies such as Ram bam bam (Singaravelan, 1992, Ilayaraaja) or Margo Margo (1990, Vetri Vizha, Ilayaraaja) we see an SPB who is having a whale of a time, imbibing the verve and pizzazz of the great Western pop ballad and swingtime singers, inflecting little phrases of excitement (the ‘ha’s’ and ‘hoo’s’ make those songs!), and he somehow made even these genres his own. To misquote the famous song, “it got that swing so it does mean a thing”). He manages steady doo-wop style passages (one a clock, two a clock three o clock kan muzhichu) with steady energy. He has often mentioned Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong in conversations and speeches, and it is easy to see how listening to these masters would have influenced his oeuvre.

But it is perhaps in the lyrical nocturne that SPB becomes an indelible part of our lives. In Nilave Vaa and Kanmaniye kadhal enbadhu and countless others, SPB carries the romance in his phrasing, imbuing phrases with so much tenderness that the listener picturises themselves in the narrative.

The relegation to the self towards serving others, reverence to one’s teachers and colleagues, taking it ‘easy’ and taking things in one’s stride, to be an avid listener and above all, to be compassionate – my list can go on. These are lessons for all of us.

These are the songs of our lives, and these are the melodies of our own youth and romances. In his passing, I do not believe that we have lost a great singer. I believe we have lost the soundtracks to our lives.

ANIL SRINIVASAN is a well-known pianist and respected music educator. He has also worked closely with the late SPB.

Friday, 8 January 2021

NISHA AND VASUNDHRA RAJAGOPALAN Musicians and multipotentialities

 By Lavanya Narayanan

Vocalist Nisha Rajagopalan stands in her kitchen over a pot of simmering Akkaravadisal. It’s her paati’s signature recipe, and amidst the screams and laughs of her children, six-year-old Vidyuth and 16-month-old Kavya, she calls mother Vasundhra in a frenzy to verify that this is actually what it’s supposed to look (and taste) like.

They are adding to the cooking blog, A Pinch of Turmeric, that began as Vasundhra’s aid to daughter Nisha and her two sisters, Deepa and Divya, as they attempted to recreate podis, masalas for their own households. A passion project that took roots as early as May 2019, it became a full-time venture during the lockdown, in light of the Corona virus pandemic that seems to have usurped 2020 and the Margazhi season as well.

Now, Nisha is what mom Vasundhra jokingly calls “tech support”.

“I don’t understand technology at all, so since the beginning, Nisha has been in charge of the website, the formatting, everything. And now, we’ve begun a YouTube channel for it, which she is taking charge of. So a huge thank you to her,” she chuckles. Ask Nisha, and she’s just grateful for the abundance of recipes that have come to her aid and satiated her taste buds.

The blog is just the tip of the iceberg for the mother-daughter duo that share much more than a love of indigenous cooking. Both Carnatic vocalists, an unexpected and rather-delayed love for the arts took hold in the 1960s when, at the age of 16, mother Vasundhra began learning vocal music from Delhi-based vidwan Gopal Iyer. A dream that seemed short-lived at the time, marriage whisked her away to Toronto, Canada, a mere six years later and, occupied with a full-time corporate job, her passion transformed into classes, annual Tyagaraja festivals, and the one-off concert in a city barren of Indian classical arts at the time. 

To read full story

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Remembering MSG

Today, 3 January 2020 marks the eighth death anniversary of of vidwan M.S.Gopalakrishnan, popularly known as MSG. It has been my good luck to have known him for a long time.

I was taken by my uncle (husband of my mother’s younger sister) to meet Parur Sundaram Iyer about whom and his two sons M. S. Anantharaman and M. S. Gopalakrishnan, I had already heard a lot. In fact, I had attended a few concerts in which MSG was featured as the violin accompanist.

I paid respects to Sundaram Iyer and we indulged in some small talk. At some stage, he said that contrary to general perception, there was no basic difference between Carnatic and Hindustani music systems. Both had the same basic notes: sa, ri, ga, ma pa, dha, ni. The difference, such as it was, lay in the manner of treatment of these notes and the importance given to lyrics in the Carnatic system and the overwhelming importance given to melody and less importance to words in the Hindustani system; there was a lot more of gamakas in the former.

I also learnt that the Parur residence, a non-descript, two-storied house in Appar Swami Koil Street in Mylapore, had been hallowed by a succession of musicians of both systems. It had reverberated to the tunes of Ravi Shankar and to snippets by leading Hindustani vocalists. It had also hosted Yehudi Menuhin.

Iyer and MSG had accompanied the redoubtable Omkarnath Thakur and D.V.Paluskar. It is said that when Omkarnath visited Chennai for a concert, he was asked who he would prefer to accompany him on strings. He responded, “When my son, Gopalakrishnan, is here, there is no need to look further.”

MSG and his brother were put through a punishing schedule of lessons and practice, practice and yet more practice. That accounted for the tonal purity and impeccable fingering techniques of the brothers. In fact, this style of playing is popularly known as the Parur bani.

I have been a very keen fan of MSG since his and my  younger days. The first time I heard him play was in Tiruvanantapuram in 1945 or thereabouts. He was the violin accompanist to yesteryear titan, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.

Chembai elaborated a raga for some time. It was the turn of MSG to do so on the violin. Remember he was only 15 or so and was perhaps hesitant or looking for a green signal from Chembai who said into the mike for the audience to hear: “vasi, vasi. ennai kekkava ivaal ellam vantirukka? unnai kekka thaan” (“Do you think these people have come to listen to me? They have come to listen to you!”) Look at the strongly encouraging words of the great man! His heart was as large as his undoubtedly large corps.

Chembai, more than any other musician of his times, was responsible for encouraging and pushing up many promising youngsters.

Thereafter, I do not think I have missed any concert of MSG as soloist or accompanist in the places where I was posted.

In Delhi, my wife and I had hosted MSG for about five days. He had concerts on all these days. He stayed with us but his presence was hardly felt. He did not make any demands on us, quite unlike many others.

Before he left, I requested him to play tanam in ghana raga panchakam. He agreed. He also played Brindaavana Saranga and Revati. I had recorded the event. Alas, now the cassette player is dead as the dodo and I am unable to play his music any longer.

As far as I could gather, MSG was not one to run after or fawn over sabha secretaries, as many in the music world do, to have ‘chances’. He took concerts as they came his way. He was also one among the very few violinists in his times to accompany women singers; many would not. From reports, I gather that he had accompanied MSS and K. B. Sundarambal. I have attended a few MLV concerts where he was the accompanist. And they were marked by a kind of friendly rivalry that brought out the best in both. But all this ended after a while for reasons I could not fathom.

MSG was not given to being interviewed. In a rare interview, he was asked a question that should not have been asked: how did the play of the then top violinists – the violin trio - compare? His answer was as truthful as it was diplomatic. He said that T.N.Krishnan’s violin concerts were replete with soukhyam, and Lalgudi was the undoubted master of layam. As for his own style, he said he was trying to carry forward the ‘Parur bani’, so assiduously inculcated in him by his father.

MSG had provided violin accompaniment to all leading stalwarts of the Carnatic music world. In my view, KV Narayanaswamy, Voleti Venkateswaralu, S. Ramanathan and Balamuralikrishna and MSG performed, complementing each other so well as though they were made for each other.

I would like to briefly touch upon a few memorable concerts wherein MSG excelled himself. One was a solo recital in AIR. His swaraprastaram for Nalinakanthi (Manavyalakim) still remains etched in my memory though the concert was in 1966. In it you could discern-apart from violin sounds- the sounds of sitar, shehanai and the fluteIf I remember right, the previous day, he had accompanied the incomparable flautist, Mali. Two pieces stood out: one was in Kalyani, the other in Kapi. The noted connoisseur, ‘Aeolus”, wrote in Shankar’s Weekly that it was hard to say who was leading whom in the concert.

The other concert was in Chowdiah Hall, Bangalore. Emani Sankara Sastry, a titan of a vainika on the veena and MSG on the violin. The concert was truly a memorable one but I would note two pieces that stood apart: simply out of this world. One was a kriti in Khamas and the other was Naadaloludai in Kalyanavasantam.  The second was verily a friendly clash of two titans. It was a veritable deep dive by both into melody and rhythm. And rise to ecstatic heights.

MSG was equally adept in playing Hindustani music. He learnt the ropes from Krishnanand, a veteran teacher settled in Madras. I had on my tapes a piece by MSG playing a Fritz Kreisler composition. Alas, there is no way of listening to the tape now.

Before I close this piece, I would like to narrate an incident that shows the man. Narmada, MSG’s daughter and disciple was playing solo violin in Sastri Hall, Mylapore. It was one of her early concerts as a soloist. After some time, MSG came to the hall and the secretary rushed to greet him and ask him to take a front seat. MSG politely declined and a little later, left.

I think the explanation for this rather peculiar behaviour was that it was occasioned by MSG’s natural anxiety how Narmada was faring. More importantly, he not want to stay on which would have put pressure, and cramped her flow.

MSG passed away on 3 January, 2013, leaving behind a void that is hard to fill.  The New Indian Express reported the event thus: ‘The Bow Has Fallen Silent’.

G. Sankaran

(The author was the former President ,Customs, Excise and Gold (Control) Appellate Tribunal, and a Carnatic music rasika)