Tuesday, 31 August 2021



It is an indisputable fact that over the centuries, in Tamil country, the nattuvanars were the custodians of the art of Sadir-Bharatanatyam, and the devadasis its practitioners. Together they kept the practice of the art alive which flourished under the patronage of the rulers and the wealthy. The nattuvanars were well versed in music and dance, they were intelligent, progressive and smart enough to adapt themselves to changing times to keep the art alive. One such nattuvanar who gained name and fame in the 20th century—as a natyacharya, musician, choreographer, composer and vaggeyakara—was K.N. Dandayudhapani Pillai whose centenary is being celebrated through 2021 to 2022 by his disciples. In the cover story in this issue, Sruti pays tribute to this multifaceted artist who was ahead of his times. Besides the excellent art that he propagated, his major contribution is the corpus of compositions for Bharatanatyam which he has bequeathed to suit the changing times. By the 1950s, more and more children were eagerly enrolling for classical dance classes. Not only were they young, but hailing from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, they  had no clue about the deeper meaning of sringara, bhoga, viraha and such. As Dandayudhapani Pillai too had several such students, he wrote, tuned, published and taught innumerable compositions suitable for  young students to understand and perform. These have stood the test of time and are taught across the globe.

I happened to read a perceptive article by Dandayudhapani Pillai (published in his Natya Kalalayam school souvenir) in which he has put forth his views on Bharatanatyam. He says that the art was once in the hands of devadasis who preserved it as a treasure. But, at a particular period there existed the danger of completely losing this art and its divinity. It was found necessary that unless all sections of the people learnt this art, it would lose its glory. It is really interesting that he goes on to say that children who desire to learn Bharatanatyam are increasing in number, but the number of teachers who can impart the art in its pure form are just a few. As a result the people are baffled because they are unable to appreciate real art and unable to honour true artists. This state of affairs has to change. He wrote this in the early 1970s. Well the situation does not seem to have changed much over the decades! Has it?

The second cover story this month focusses on flautist Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar who turned 58 last month (23 August). Immersed in music since her childhood,  on the one hand, she had the double advantage of being mentored at home by the Sikkil Sisters – her mother Neela and aunt Kunjumani. On the other, she lived in their protective shade for quite awhile and had to prove  her musical mettle as a soloist. Over the years, she has emerged as one of the top Carnatic flautists  of her generation. She is the proud torchbearer of the Sikkil Sisters’ bani – flute playing marked by precision and clarity,  combining fine technique, melody and bhava, steeped in classicism with a flair for nuanced laya wizardry.

Over the past few months, we have been offering our readers interesting facets about Lord Nataraja. From this issue we begin a series on the ‘five sabhas’  where He performed the ‘pancha kritya’ – expounded by scholar Sudha Seshayyan. We also have a thought provoking article on the prosody and origin of javali by veteran critic and writer V.A.K. Ranga Rao.

One wonders whether concert halls will open up in the near future? In the relaxations announced till date by the Tamil Nadu State Government, cinema halls are permitted with 50% occupancy. Does it apply to cultural halls too?  It would be helpful if the authorities clearly include cultural programmes too while announcing the relaxations. Let us wait and watch!


Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Artists on Freedom - What does freedom mean to you?  

Chitra Visweswaran

(Veteran Bharatanatyam exponent and guru)

Numerous thoughts flow through my mind as I mull over the concept of freedom. There are so many shades to it, that countless questions are thrown up. Moreover, the word freedom has several synonyms and antonyms with each one having immediate relevance to a particular situation and to a large extent, a particular stage in one’s life.

The first question that springs to my mind is, ‘Freedom for what and freedom from what?’ And is it as in physical, emotional, intellectual, artistic, creative, political freedom, or is it the freedom of expression or of choice, or the seven freedoms in the Constitution of India, that we so heartily abuse, or is it about being unshackled, un-bound and being absolved of all responsibility? Or is it about liberty, swatantira urimai, aazaadi, moksha or mukti? But whatever it maybe, even as there is a flip side to every coin, all freedoms come with appendages and trappings.

Freedom is like a prism with multi reflective surfaces. It all depends upon which angle/plane one views it from. As one grows up, matures and evolves, one’s perspective of freedom, at every juncture, also changes. I too, like everyone else, desired distinct kinds of freedom at varied stages in my life. But I have come to realise that throughout, it was freedom of expression that was the all important, underlying, unifying factor, at every point of time in my life.

I was brought up to be well-disciplined, deeply immersed in ‘Bharatiya samskriti’, to study various art forms and languages in depth, to read widely and deeply, encouraged to question, search, re-search and discover beyond our shores, an inspiring fund of knowledge. While being deeply anchored in this rich foundation, which was further strengthened by a value system, I was, in addition, constantly motivated to think out-of-the-box. At home, it was almost a dictum, "If there are five ways of doing something, find the sixth!” So, pushing the envelope became second nature to me. And to do that you need to be free of fear, free of weak will power and free of the desire to please everyone. Harking back today, I realise that I was never forced into any of this. At every instance, I was given freedom of choice for which I am deeply appreciative. But it is not as though I did not ever come up against dissent or criticism, but when I did, at every stage in my life, because of my upbringing, I had the conviction to stand up for my values and convince others to my way of thinking. My parents often used to say, “You should have taken up law, you put forth your case so convincingly!” ...a sentiment later echoed by my husband too!!!

To me, freedom of choice is the birthright of every human being. The choice could be deliberately thought out or could be impulsive and inspired.  But given that right, or for that matter any other freedom, it is not for us to either abuse it or encroach upon the freedom of others. Respect other’s choices as much as you would cherish your own.

We all are social animals. We live in a society. We have certain social and familial responsibilities. And when the time comes for me to shoulder them, I do not believe in sacrificing these responsibilities at the altar of my desire for freedom. Such decisions could, at times have restricted my freedom, but every one of those decisions was propelled by the freedom of choice.

So now, in my twilight years, what does freedom mean to me? To be deeply rooted, yet to soar to giddy heights, like ‘the bird of the forest’Tagore’s… ‘Boner paakhi’….
Artists on Freedom 

What does freedom mean to you? As we step into the 75th year of India’s Independence, the concept of “freedom” changes over time and space, and varies from individual to individual. On this august occasion, Sruti reached out to a few personalities – two veteran artists-achievers, a musician-scholar-writer, two senior Bharatanatyam exponents and two senior Carnatic musicians, in an effort to understand what freedom means to them. 

This is what each one had to say. 

Aruna Sairam (Veteran Carnatic musician and Sangita Kalanidhi)
In all these years since our country attained freedom, the transformation it has undergone is phenomenal, and we need to be not just happy about it, but indeed ecstatic! I would like to quote Bharatiyar here, in his Bharata desamendru peyarsolluvaar: Kasi nagar pulavar pesum uraithaan Kanchiyil ketpatharkke oru karuvi seivom Today you and I are communicating exactly as he predicted! With all the complaints about the condition in our country today, the strides we have made in making use of technological advances are phenomenal. And not just the elite or rich, but also the vegetable vendor on the street, who is savvy enough to accept payment through Google Pay! I would say this is the great freedom that we have achieved -- empowering the common man! Freedom is actually a state of mind. With freedom your mind opens up. Personally, I found my own musical identity and artistic freedom through a lot of introspection. I had the best of gurus – Brindamma (Sangita Kalanidhi T. Brinda) -- who kindled the student’s mind to explore the facets of manodharma sangeetam. Mind you, she was a taskmaster when it came to kalpita sangeetam, but where an alapana was concerned, she did not ‘sing and show, asking me to repeat’. By making me practice a kriti or a varnam in a particular raga, she enabled me to understand the contours of that raga by my own effort. This grooming was what made me develop my own style of raga singing. The seeds of artistic freedom were sown there. Brindamma would often say “Medayile namma thaan raaja, keezhe iranginaal namma kaaja” meaning “on stage we should be brimming with confidence that we are the masters of our craft”. This confidence gives us the freedom to excel, which in turn gives more confidence -- like a chain reaction. My parents also believed in experimentation, and taught me to appreciate various aspects of the art, while discerning what was classy and of good quality. Well, with all this, as long as I was singing only what I had learnt, I still did not find that freedom. Even though I was singing right, with all the components intact, what was missing? Why did it not attract the audience? I realised that I was not expressing myself fully -- I was uni-dimensional. There was more to me. Should I take the freedom to experiment and express my other parts? That was my challenge. Hard core purists would see it as a breach. But I took that call to break out -- Brindamma had implicitly as well as explicitly given me the freedom -- she did not want me to be her clone. I discovered that balance even in singing niraval -- between adhering to conventional rules and expressing emotional content by taking some liberties within the structure. This is finding freedom in expression. In kalpanaswara singing, I found the path to sarvalaghu swaras, always spontaneous, rather than pre-meditated swara patterns. This was due to the thinking process that A.S. Mani put me through. As they say, the ‘true guru’ is one who liberates rather than shackles the disciple. I have been extremely fortunate in that aspect. This freedom has helped me find a good balance, presenting the heavy classical, interspersed with contemporary composers during the first half of a concert, with the abhangs and other pan-Indian forms during the second half. In the 1990s, using my own mike and mixer was not looked at favourably. But I felt the need for better sound quality, and took a stand taking care not to offend the organisers. This was a significant step in artistic freedom. Today, this has thankfully become the norm. The eternal play between balance and freedom is the hallmark of life, whether personal or in any artistic pursuit. As a mother, as a daughter, wife, sister -- we play so many roles -- how do we balance these? In the name of balancing, we cannot let ourselves suffocate. We have to have freedom of expression. On the other hand, unbridled freedom is the other extreme. In the name of freedom we cannot create shock waves. Every step in my musical journey has been towards finding this delicate mid- point between freedom and balance. When I sit to do a concert, there are no cobwebs in my mind that I have to achieve this or that. I am able to let myself flow with the music. This for me is ‘Freedom’.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Manam – An inspiration


Manam Artwork - Bhavya Kumar

Vibha Krishnakumar

A story of racism and casteism, a story of sorrow and hope, a story of freedom and peace. Manam is an album curated by musician Asha Ramesh and her son Rohith Jayaraman, keeping in mind a variety of societal cancers. A performing musician in the Bay Area and having sung for dance as well, Asha Ramesh is a much sought out teacher for vocal music. Her son, Rohith Jayaraman, a vocalist and composer, is a frequent collaborator with musicians from different cultures and countries. With haunting melodies and an inspirational story behind their album, Manam makes an impact on every listener. I personally was intrigued to hear ragas such as Sama being associated with casteism, and was very curious on the journey to create and release this album.

In an interview with Sruti, the multi-faceted mother-son duo based out of San Jose, California, talk about their inspiration, their creative process and their collaboration with artists from all around the globe for Manam during this pandemic. 

What or who inspired you to curate your album, Manam?

Rohith: The seed for Manam was planted when George Floyd was murdered, and the whole world watched. Amma was shaken by this. She was unable to focus and teach for days afterward. For personal expression and processing more than anything else, she sat down and wrote a few lines of poetry in Tamil. She called me, to talk about what she’d written. One of the lines struck a chord with me: Pirakkum podhu niram, jaadhi, madham thervu seiyvadhaar? (When we are born, who decides our color, caste, or religion?).

When my work shifted to a completely virtual setup because of the pandemic, I came to my parents’ house, where Amma and I spent almost every evening writing and composing. There was never a plan to create an album or even release any of this music. It was a personal project. It was Amma’s and my desire to have more contemporary, original, and secular Carnatic music in the repertoire. A few months later, when there were four complete songs inspired by these social issues, we realised that we had an album on our hands. It was a full year to finish - Amma wrote the first words on 3 June, 2020, and the album released exactly a year later on 4 June 4 2021.

Has the fact that the two of you are a mother - son duo altered the process of this collaboration?

Asha: For me it was quite new and I learned a lot. Rohith and I had only sung together as teacher and student, or as individual singers. We had never collaborated as partners. It was very important that we both saw each other as individuals and musicians, rather than as teacher and student. Otherwise, it may have been more difficult to express thoughts and opinions, give feedback, and work harmoniously. 

Rohith: This album has been a bit of a home coming for me, both literally and figuratively. Getting to work with Amma in a collaborative way has been incredible. It felt like a big point of validation for me. Luckily, our family has never been a  traditional parent-child or teacher-student power dynamic. That allowed us to approach this album with a truly collaborative spirit. 

  • How did you go about converting your script to music? And why were a few tuned, while one remained in prose?

 Rohith: The writing process itself was very interesting. Amma wrote the tillana and Saloni on her own, but for the others, we had much more back and forth. For example, with Vidudhalai, after she had written the opening lines, I wrote the rest of it in English first. Then, we sat together every night for several weeks and re-wrote each line in Tamil.

Asha: Rohith and I had thought of splitting our piece Vidudhalai into two interludes, but my husband Ramesh suggested that we keep it as one message. We kept the lyrical content minimal and focused on improvisation because this song, in some ways, is about thoughts developing. 

Rohith: With Vidudhalai it was most important for us to complete the lyrics first. The song wasn’t written with any melody, raga, or tala in mind. In fact, after we finished writing, we had a big struggle choosing the tala. We tried Adi (both chatusram and tisram), Roopakam, and even Khanda Chapu before we settled on Misra Chapu. Right off the bat, it felt like it needed to be a ragamalika because each verse elicited such different feelings. Both Amma and I connected to the lyrics and music differently. So it felt right to have two different versions: one where Amma rendered it in a purely Carnatic context with a violin and mridangam; and one where I called upon a frequent collaborator Aleif Hamdan, to arrange the piece in a more contemporary style which reflects the kind of music I make.

Asha: I had already written the tillana when we began work on Manam. When Rohith came back home we finished the composition and took it as a chance to play around a little bit with the rhythmic structure and kanakku.  I finished Saloni in a single afternoon and when I read it to Rohith, I told him it didn’t feel right to set to a melody and that it should be recited.

Rohith: I suggested that we try to find five different women from different stages of life to recite the different couplets of Saloni. We asked Kolkata-born producer, sound designer, and vocalist Vasundhara Gupta to produce this piece. It gave us an opportunity to explore new avenues - we had never explored the spoken word space before. It was a big learning experience for us.

How did you associate the chosen ragas Sama, Nata with societal imperfections? 

Asha: This is an interesting question! For Vetri Nadai, Kalyani felt the most open, expressive, and relatable. With the improvisation in the song, we hoped people would connect with it more easily. Kalyani is very simple, but also has a lot of depth, and it felt most apt for this song.

Rohith: For Vidudhalai, we chose the ragas very carefully. Kapi managed to reflect shades of both light and dark, while also capturing that curiosity we wanted for the opening verse. It allows one to feel moments of hope and sadness at once.

Asha: I suggested Sama immediately when we were composing because of the word shyaam, which means dark or dusky. The wordplay with the name of the raga worked nicely with the theme of the verse: niram (skin color).

Rohith: Keeravani was the last option we settled on for the jaadi (caste) verse. We tried so many different ragas, and even got through almost half of the verse in Kharaharapriya. When we sang the first couple lines to my father, he said he wasn’t hearing the same intensity in the melody that he felt in the lyrics. After lots of trial and error, we discovered the melody of the first line in Keeravani and it just clicked.

Asha: Pantuvarali is dark, but very spirited. And we wanted to have a raga that felt very Carnatic, but could draw a little inspiration from Hindustani music as well, borrowing some phrases from Puriya Dhanashree. Panthuvaralli was the first prati madhyama ragam we used in the album, and this allowed the song to have a sort of a climax.

Rohith: It was also a bit of a reflection of the core of the verse. Pantuvarali has this beautiful, dynamic, full-spirited shape, but also an underlying darkness. Religion has often been distorted in the same way - it’s meant to inspire morality, love, compassion, and yet there are those who twist its message to serve their own violent and malicious personal intent. Desh was the clear choice to end the piece because not only did it  bring feelings of patriotism, freedom and nostalgia but it was also more hopeful and uplifting.

Asha: With the tillana, choosing Nata was less about the social concept and more about the music itself. It’s a raga that is always relegated to the beginning of every concert or musical production. It is almost never used in the middle or end of a traditional concert. I have always wanted to compose a tillana in this raga, and the response has been great.

How was collaborating with artists from different countries? Were there any difficulties in doing so?

Rohith: The process of putting this album together was full of joy and frustration. Musicians in a room playing together and feeding off one another is how the recording process is usually done. But, because of the pandemic, almost everyone had to record individually in their rooms. It’s difficult to capture the unified and coordinated energy when each musician is isolated, with no context from their fellow players. Nothing will be the same as playing live in a room together, but we’re truly proud of what we’ve been able to do over Zoom and on WhatsApp calls.

Despite the struggle of recording virtually, one  thing came out of this pandemic production - we were not at the mercy of geography. I wouldn’t have been able to have artists like Layth Sidiq (who is based out of Spain) on the album if it was being recorded live. The same goes for the incredible Carnatic artists who graciously agreed to play on this album: Praveen Sparsh, Apoorva Krishna, N. Guruprasad Anna, Mylai Karthikeyan and many more. So, in some ways, this has been the opportunity of a lifetime to work with some of our favorite musicians. It was a mammoth undertaking and I’m so glad we were able to pull it off.

There has been overwhelming support from eminent artists regarding your newest album. How does that feel?

Asha: Seeing and hearing the response has been very overwhelming. Family, friends, strangers, and stalwarts have responded so positively. I was especially happy to hear from Anita Ratnam Akka, who was so enthusiastic about the themes and the music. She felt so inspired and told me that she wants to choreograph based on the music, and even recorded a beautiful message for us about her thoughts on the album.

Rohith: For me, the biggest honor is that I got the chance to share this music with artists who I look up to. Getting feedback from an artist like T.M. Krishna was really special. Krishna Anna listened to the album with so much care and attention, and connected with both the music and the lyrics. And we’ve gotten such encouraging and thoughtful feedback from artists like Shankar Mahadevan, John McLaughlin, Chandana Bala Kalyan, Shubha Mudgal, and Viveick Rajagopalan, to name a few. We always try to stay true to the music and not to seek external validation, but after the music is finished and when artists we admire respond positively, it really feels good and feels like we did something right.

Are there any future plans for collaboration between the two of you?

Asha: This has been such a wonderful experience for both of us. We don’t have any plans as of yet for a new project. In fact, there are still many things left for Manam! In the next few months, we will be releasing more videos for songs from Manam.

Rohith: Working with Amma has been such a blast! Nothing concrete is in the pipeline for now, but I think we will always continue to write together.There is definitely much more art to be made and I think it’s safe to say that we will make many more things together.