Friday, 29 October 2021


Deepavali, the festival of lights, hopefully ushers in better times for the arts; from darkness to light—Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya! Several State governments have  extended the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, but with further relaxations. It is good news for the arts fraternity that “from 1 November 2021, theatres have been allowed to operate with 100 per cent occupancy and full-fledged filming and cultural events have been permitted,” in Tamil Nadu. In Chennai—the cultural capital—many sabhas are busy planning their activities for the ‘December season’ – which could be a judicious mix of live-cum-digital or only online programmes like in 2020. Narada Gana Sabha and  R.R. Sabha have already been conducting some of their monthly programmes while following strict Covid protocols; it is a good sign that the concerts were well attended. Kartik Fine Arts deemed it fit to resume its live programmes in September with the presentation of awards on the occasion of its 46th anniversary, at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan hall.

As for the ‘Chennai Season’, Kartik Fine Arts has decided to conduct its 47th year Arts Festival 2021 via digital platform powered by The sabha has already recorded the concerts and some lecdems which will be premiered from 1 to 12 December; they will be available for viewing up to 31 December 2021. The Madras Music Academy has decided to travel the virtual route this year too. This time there will be lecdems and music concerts over twelve days in December, and a three-day dance festival in January 2022; but no awards. The Federation of Sabhas will also be presenting its Yours Truly Margazhi – second edition online between  15 to 31 December. Narada Gana Sabha is planning to host a live shortened festival  if government regulations permit. A  new outcome of the pandemic is that organisers and artists will have to offer really good fare to draw the audience out of the comfort and security of their homes to which they have got accustomed to over one-and-a-half years!  Many organisations, big and small, are gearing up for the season, and we wish them all the best.

In Sruti, this month, we offer you a varied colourful palette. Veteran Carnatic musician Nirmala Sundararajan, who turned 80 recently, has an amazing repertoire of compositions in sound pathantara, having learnt from excellent gurus. Young musicians can surely enrich their music by learning from musicians like her. Over the years, she has been propagating music and sharing her knowledge without fanfare. On the other hand, there is Anitha Guha – a popular choreographer  and fine teacher who has become a ‘star’ through her hard work with children, and her dedication and passion for Bharatanatyam and nritya-natakams.

We also bring to you an interesting story of a centenarian – versatile dancer Yog Sunder Desai – whose mission it was  to take Indian art and culture to different parts of the globe. He was adventurous but unassuming and did not run after money and fame. Sruti has often featured such personalities and we present a centenary tribute to the veteran on his first death anniversary.

One year has passed since the passing away of violin maestro T.N. Krishnan, and one of his disciples has affectionately
shared his musical memories with us.  We are saddened to hear about the demise of vainika David Reck, who served as professor emeritus of music and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, USA. He was a familiar figure in Chennai – studying music and attending  the season for  decades. He was a long-time subscriber and well-wisher of  Sruti

As usual, we do have some of our regular segments like News & Notes, Analysis and Heritage Sthalams for you. And do visit our social media platforms for  interesting sangatis (happenings)! Happy reading, happy browsing!


Tuesday, 5 October 2021


Sikil Bhaskaran

A veteran violin accompanist                                                                                         Lakshmi Anand

Veteran violinist Sikkil R. Bhaskaran passed away on 20 July 2021. Dedicated exclusively to accompaniment, the artists he shared the stage with straddle generations and read like a who’s who of Carnatic music—from Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, K.B. Sundarambal and M.M. Dandapani Desigar to Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar, N. Vijay Siva and Palghat Ramprasad. He is known, along with his contemporary, Tanjavur Upendran, for bringing to light numerous rising talents, Mandolin U. Shrinivas being particularly noteworthy, and encouraging other stalwarts to play for these youngsters. Bhaskaran had the distinction of having played for as many as three successive generations of multiple musical families and several august lineages.

Bhaskaran was born on 4 May 1936 in the town of Sikkil (located between Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam) to Rajagopalan and Vedavalli, in an Isai Vellalar Pillai family, a community involved in music for generations. Bhaskaran lost his father, a military man, at around age four. His mother, younger brother and he were then financially supported by Bhaskaran’s grandfather, Sikkil Ramasamy Pillai, who was a noted nattuvanar in Bharatanatyam. While watching the natya sevai on a visit to the Sikkil temple, Prof. P. Sambamoorthy developed an acquaintance with Ramasamy Pillai whose teaching style he liked and suggested that Pillai join Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi. In 1960, Ramasamy Pillai did so. He later received the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar in 1972, along with Begum Akhtar and T. Mukta among others.

Sikkil Bhaskaran accompanying his guru Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, 

along with Kumbakonam Rammurthy (mridangam) and Arupadi Natesa Iyer (khanjira)

Little Bhaskaran was studying in the local primary school in Sikkil, when representatives from the Shakti Nataka Sabha, then a new theatre company based in Pudukkottai, came scouting for indigent but talented children who could dance and sing. Bhaskaran was selected after he sang a song of M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar. Thanks to his grandfather, Bhaskaran was also familiar with dance. Given their financial circumstances, Bhaskaran’s mother allowed the company to take her son, when they promised food, upkeep, training and even a small stipend. Ramasamy Pillai’s affiliation with the sabha, probably made the decision easier. Bhaskaran was barely 9 or 10 then and in 4th or 5th grade. That was the end of formal schooling for him. At Shakti Nataka Sabha, he was taught the Tamil and Sanskrit languages in addition to music, dance (for which Ramasamy Pillai was the instructor) and acting.  Some famous alumni of that sabha were Sivaji Ganesan, M.N. Nambiar, S.V. Subbiah and S.A. Natarajan. Bhaskaran remembered a play named Kaveen Kanavu where Sivaji Ganesan carried him in his arms while delivering the dialogue—Bhaskaran played the part of a child called Sumathi. He  donned many such roles—as young Rama and young Muruga. He reminisced that, on the day India achieved Independence, he, along with others from the sabha, were lodged at Varada Muthiappan Street in Georgetown, and they were all taken in a car to see Chennai city. 

At the sabha, Bhaskaran saw and heard the violin for the first time; he was taught the bare basics and decided that he wanted to take up the violin exclusively. He returned to Sikkil, having been with the troupe for some two years or so. Residing in Sikkil with his family, he began his music training with Tiruvarur Subbaiyer— travelling by bus to Tiruvarur for classes. A couple of years later, he moved to Mayavaram and began traditional gurukulavasam with Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai. How he was introduced to Govindaraja Pillai is not known exactly but the Isai Vellalar community was a close-knit one and it is possible the acquaintance was facilitated by Ramasamy Pillai. It was on a trip back home to Sikkil at the time of this tutelage that Bhaskaran performed his first concert. A person had visited his home and requested Bhaskaran to play in a concert for which he could not find a violinist. Given the organiser’s earnestness and the family’s dire straits, Bhaskaran agreed to do so. By the time he got back to Mayavaram, his guru had got word that Bhaskaran had played very well in the concert. Govindaraja Pillai advised  his disciple to quickly begin playing well while the people felt that he was already doing so!

With ‘Hemambikadasa’ Perur Subramanya Deekshitar,

Upendran and Tanjavur Venkatesan (1950s)

This was a gurukulavasam in a very traditional sense. Bhaskaran would wake up early in the morning at around four, clean and clear the cowshed, wash the cows, milk them and take in the milk to Govindaraja Pillai’s wife. He would then finish his ablutions and sit down for practice. As and when needed, if the cart driver was not available, he would also drive the bullock cart. Later in the day, when Govindaraja Pillai was done with his morning routine, he would ask Bhaskaran to bring the violin and then proceed to make corrections to what the boy had played earlier that morning. Much of the rest of the learning was on the go, by accompanying his guru on concerts and extensive travel.

It was the general practice of well-established artists to have a student or two tag along with them. An unforgettable camaraderie would develop among the students stemming from their travelling together frequently, usually in a railway  compartment different from that of the guru. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, till his last days, always addressed Bhaskaran as “arai ticket” (half ticket), since he had seen him several times as a young boy travelling on half-fare!

When Govindaraja Pillai’s guru, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, visited him in Mayavaram, he heard Bhaskaran practising in another room. After enquiring as to who it was, he told Govindaraja Pillai that he would mentor Bhaskaran himself thenceforth. From then on, until Bhaskaran’s marriage, he underwent gurukulavasam with Rajamanickam Pillai in Kumbakonam. Rajamanickam Pillai was most encouraging of Bhaskaran and would suggest concert opportunities for him.

Bhaskaran was married in 1962 to Vasantha (who hailed from Kumbakonam), in Swamimalai. Rajamanickam Pillai not only attended the wedding but told Bhaskaran that his firstborn would be a boy and suggested he be named Swaminathan—that in fact happened, and Bhaskaran’s eldest son is Swaminathan.

Bhaskaran (violin), G.N. Balasubramaniam (vocal) and Tiruvarur Nagarajan (mridangam)

A relatively early concert that Bhaskaran would often mention was accompanying T. Brinda and T. Mukta for All India Radio’s (AIR) National Programme of Music, aired from Tiruvaiyaru. It was notable for two aspects—he was yet to receive any grading from All India Radio, and secondly, the opportunity arose because many other violinists had declined to play for the sisters since they were female.By this time, Bhaskaran was in high demand, and the couple decided to settle down in Kumbakonam as it had better train connectivity than Sikkil. Bhaskaran, mridangist Tanjavur Upendran and flautist N. Ramani were all compatriots from Tanjavur district and the best of friends from their teens and remained so for life. Given that needs were minimal, all were sufficiently provided for by performing in  the several villages within the district itself for the various festivals conducted there. The visiting artists would usually be put up on the front porticos of the large houses. Travelling outside of the district was a bonus rather than an abject necessity for these artists then.

Bhaskaran’s son recalls his father telling him that it was the local bullock cart drivers who, those days, would provide them information as to which artist performed in which village, as well as the audience response. The cart drivers would add their own opinions in good measure, explaining what facet of each artist they liked. This throws light on the fact that temples probably served as the most prolific place of patronage, and classical music had a popular reach and also an impact on the general public. It brings to mind posters of old movies that featured well-known singing stars and the number of songs in them—it was a huge selling point. Most of these songs had a strong Carnatic base.

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Sunday, 3 October 2021


 Interview with Aditya Prakash

A South Indian living in Los Angeles, singing Carnatic music in the western world defined who Aditya Prakash was, over a decade ago. A disciple of gurus from multiple banis, Aditya has grown over the years and now, has created a niche for himself in the world of Carnatic fusion. Collaborating with artists of various genres, from Bharatanatyam dancers, to jazz instrumentalists, he has released many albums and singles on various digital platforms. 

In 2010, Aditya Prakash founded the ‘Aditya Prakash Ensemble’ consisting of artists from different genres, who have performed together in many prestigious venues around the globe. Diaspora Kid, released in 2020, is the latest album from this team.

In an interview with Vibha Krishnakumar for Sruti, the multipotentialite artist, talks about his guru, his experiences while collaborating with artists, as well as his inspirations to create his unique music.

How was the ‘Aditya Prakash Ensemble’ formed? What was the idea behind it?

The Aditya Prakash Ensemble was formed from the experience of college friends living together, conversing and being curious to explore a space where our different musical languages met. We all met at UCLA and were undergraduates in the Ethnomusicology program. It was not formed with the intention of creating a ‘band’ - that happened later. The hunger to learn, share and just be around each other first and foremost as friends, and then musicians, is what makes this group very special to me. The act of actually making music happened in my second year of college. During a ‘jam session’ party, I was called up to the mic to sing along with a keyboardist, bassist, drummer and guitarist. I was hesitant at first, I didn’t know what I could do or how I could keep up with them; but something special happened that night. Not only did the music click between us musicians, but the audience in attendance stopped all side conversations, perked up to listen and got involved with the music they were hearing. From then on, I was confident that we needed to do more than just ‘jam’.

What or who inspired you to collaborate with artists of various genres?

My mother, Viji Prakash, a prolific Bharatanatyam dancer and guru in North America, used to regularly collaborate with a variety of artists from the traditions of Kathak, jazz tap, break dancing, belly dancing, beat boxing, gospel singing, and flamenco to name a few. Thus, my upbringing at home was a huge influence on my collaborative and experimental nature. 

You went on a tour with Pt. Ravi Shankar when you were a teenager. Did that alter the way you looked at music henceforth? If yes, has it withstood the test of time?

Being around Pt. Ravi Shankar was an eye-opening experience for me. It was a blessing to be around someone of his stature who was so humble, curious, and excited to share his knowledge. It opened me up to the world of Hindustani music and I fell in love with it. I was also introduced to jazz and Western classical musicians through Raviji and his daughter, Anoushka Shankar. Before that moment, I had no exposure to cross-genre collaboration and hence kept the idea of “fusion” at a distance from me – the only setting I saw myself performing music in was in the Carnatic kutcheri essentially.  


Through Raviji, I saw that a serious, and rigorously trained classical musician can also branch out beyond the “traditional” format of presenting music and can attract a diverse audience and be relevant beyond a very specific community of Indians. There was a feeling and confidence that he gave me, that I could be a Carnatic musician, but I could also step into other musical settings with ease and open this music out to a wider audience base. Raviji always advised me that first and foremost, my Carnatic training and involvement should never waver or lose its depth in the pursuit of a career of exciting collaborations. I hear this urgent reminder in my head quite often!

How do you find the process of integrating Carnatic music with other forms of music?

The process of finding new spaces of expression is so fulfilling as an artist. Whether it happens in a Carnatic concert or in a collaborative experiment matters not. The process of integration of many different cultures and genres can really come to fruition only when there is a deep engagement in the styles involved. This engagement is a long and thorough process, through an extended collaboration with other artists entrenched in that tradition and/or living and imbibing the culture of the music style you seek to understand and dialogue with. To be honest, I think time, care and an intuitive understanding and internalization of the forms of music must take place; there is no other short-cut. 

After listening to a few of your tracks, I realized, many of them were a mix of Jazz and Carnatic music. Do you think they have more in common than what a layman understands?

 Jazz and Carnatic share a heavy importance on improvisation and give value to reacting to the moment by listening to your co-artists on stage. This listening can move the music in a direction that can be unexpected. I really connected with the rigor and virtuosity that went into their craft as jazz musicians. Improvisation was the most obvious link between both jazz and Carnatic music. Apart from that, the jazz modal approach fit nicely with the melakarta raga system. Although looking at raga as a scale is a skeletal and very basic approach, it gives us the language to connect and develop ideas melodically. Other than that, there is not much of a technical overlap, in jazz and Carnatic music, but I think any music can be influenced from another style if there is engagement and an honest approach as to why you are combining and integrating other styles.

Did your ensemble take inspiration from yesteryear jazz artists like Miles Davis and bands like Spyro Gyra for the tracks in your album ‘Diaspora Kid’?

 I was definitely inspired by artists like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, as they are genius artists in their craft. Another huge influence on the album Diaspora Kid, is Tigran Hamasyan, who has found a way to re-imagine his Armenian folk tradition and his jazz tradition into a space that is uniquely his own. I seek to do that with my music as well. 

Not only have you had collaborations with musicians of other genres, but you have also collaborated with Carnatic musicians, as well as Bharatanatyam dancers. Has the learning process been the same in all the cases?

 I have primarily worked with my sister, and Bharatanatyam dancer, Mythili Prakash. Working with dance has given me the ability to better react to the moment and step out of the world of my own mind. In singing for dance, the singer’s ego must be curbed to a certain extent. This happens because I do not have all the control that I think I do as a ‘main artist’ in a kutcheri, where I am calling all the shots and deciding the direction of the music.  I have also gained immense growth from working with the brilliant Akram Khan who deepened my knowledge on these matters.

Over the years, how have your various gurus supported your endeavours?

 My initial vocal lessons began with Debur Shrivathsa, a well-known vocalist for Bharatanatyam, whose encouragement was a big reason I trudged through the tough early morning practices. Then I began learning from Rose Muralikrishnan, a music teacher in LA, who continued to foster my learning and encouraged me greatly. In 1999, my parents thought it would be good for me to get a further push in my training and took me to Chennai to study under vidushi Sugandha Kalamegham who instilled in me the importance of listening to the yesteryear masters. Under her guidance I started gaining the skills needed for manodharma. I also learnt mridangam under Neyveli Narayanan Sir in Chennai, whose guidance in laya and mridangam technique have helped me immensely.

 I delved more into my love for Carnatic music and there began an obsession with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s music. My father saw this and took me to learn in the Semmangudi bani under the guidance of senior disciples of Semmangudi, gurus Palai Ramachandran and P.S. Narayanaswami. Both gurus took a deep interest in me and helped shape me and mould me into who I am today.  As I tried to balance a career in the USA, I felt a drift from Carnatic music as I found it harder to spend concentrated time in Chennai. It was at this point that I began mentorship under vidwan R.K Shriramkumar (RKS) and T.M Krishna (TMK).

Both RKS and TMK brought back the spark in Carnatic music for me – a similar obsession I had when I popped in my first Semmangudi cassette as a kid. They expounded on the detail and nuance of the movement of the gamakas, and the way they articulated this was astounding. They expanded my understanding of the phraseology of ragas like Begada, Kannadagowla and Todi, to name a few. I learned about the erasure of prayogams in certain ragas, the alteration in compositions that have taken place over generations. It is true when people say learning is a never ending journey; I feel extremely grateful to have such magnificent guides on my journey. 

Even as the pandemic situation eases, do you think you will continue with virtual collaborations?

I think virtual collaborations are a nice place holder for now. Nothing can ever replace the human connection we get from sharing music. I realized I had taken that connection for granted before the pandemic. However, now when the rare opportunity arises to do a live concert, or to have a live music creation session with another person I am filled with such a different sense of gratitude, excitement, joy and transcendence. I do think the virtual space is important to fill in the blanks or the gaps of time in which we ca not make in-person music, but it cannot be the full-time replacement. 

Interviewed by Vibha Krishnakumar for Sruti 

Friday, 1 October 2021

Music and the Mahatma

The Mahatma and his followers sang bhajans during the Dandi Salt March

Mahatma Gandhi may not have been a great connoisseur of music and arts, but he liked music, was moved by its emotion and was aware of the different genres. He felt that music was a unifying force to bind hearts and minds. Singing bhajans was a part of his weekly discourses. “If there was no music and no laughter in me, I would have died of this crushing burden of my work!” said Gandhiji when someone asked him if he had no liking for music.

When Gandhi was in South Africa he started evening prayers in the Ashram. The collection of bhajans they sang was published under the name of Nitivam Kavyo.

With Rabindranath Tagore (COURTESY: THE HINDU)

In his speech at the second Gujarat Educational Conference at Broach, on 20 October 1917, he said, “At times, we find restlessness in a large gathering. This can be arrested and calmed if all sing a national song. We have an example of the power of music in the fact that the boatman and other labourers raise, in unison, the cry of “Harahar” and “Allebeli” that helps them in their work. Music must get a place in our efforts at popular awakening. Music means rhythm, order; and its effect is electrical yet soothing. But unfortunately, we have neglected music. It has never become nationalised in the modern sense.” Gandhi felt that the group singing of national songs should be made compulsory and that great musicians should be invited to political conventions to teach mass music.

His idea of music was also connected to spirituality. In this context, he wrote a letter to Narayan Moreshwar Khare (music teacher at the Satyagraha Ashram in Sabarmati) on 7 October 1924. “I have gradually come to look upon music as a means of spiritual development. Please try your best to see that all of us sing our bhajans with a correct understanding of the sense. I cannot describe the joy I feel: music is a constructive activity, which uplifts the soul.”

M.S. Subbulakshmi at Gandhi’s prayer meeting

At Ahmedabad, in his address to Young India, on 15 April 1926 he stated, “If we use a broad interpretation on music; if we mean by it union, concord, mutual help, it may be said that in no department of life we can dispense with it. So if many more people send their children to the music class it will be part of their contribution to national uplift.”

When Mahatma Gandhi visited Chennai in 1946, Leela Sekar, who was then a young volunteer at the Hindi Prachar Sabha in T. Nagar, sang Mamava Pattabhi Rama— Muthuswami Dikshitar’s kriti in Manirangu. The Mahatma was mighty pleased. He asked her to sing the same song when she visited Sevagram in Wardha. He said he loved the slow pace of the song and the raga that dripped sweetness.

In a letter to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi is said to have suggested that Hindustani music as well as Western music be given their due place at Shantiniketan along with Bengali music.

In 1947, just a few months after India’s Independence, M.S. Subbulakshmi received a message that it was Gandhi’s wish that she record his favourite bhajan Hari tum haro and send it to Delhi. Her husband T. Sadasivam sent word that as she was not familiar with the bhajan, she may not be able to do justice, and the Mahatma could perhaps get another singer to render it. Prompt came the response from Gandhi that he would rather have Subbulakshmi speak the bhajan than have anyone else sing it! So overnight, MS recorded Hari tum haro and sent it to him. A few months after that, in January, while listening to All India Radio, she heard the announcement of Gandhiji’s assassination, after which she heard her own voice singing Hari tum haro! She was distraught and fainted. It is said she would always choke and cry whenever she narrated this even years later.

According to Gandhi, in true music there is no place for communal differences and hostility. Music is a great example of national integration because we can see Hindus and Muslims sitting together and partaking in musical concerts. He often said, “We consider music in a narrow sens  to mean the ability to sing and play an instrument well, but, in its wider sense, true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single timebeat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.” For Mahatma Gandhi true music was implicit in the warp and weft of khadi and in the sound and rhythm of the spinning wheel.

(The author is a Gandhian scholar, cultural activist, critic, and managing trustee, Aseema Trust)


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