Thursday, 4 August 2022

Vipranarayana : Vintage vignettes

 “There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them,” Vicki Baum observed rightly. I happen to be one of those fortunate beings who discovered this shortcut at an early age. I had the privilege of being trained by great masters like Vempati Chinna Satyam in Kuchipudi and K.J. Sarasa in Bharatanatyam and started performing on stage in my pre-teens along with my sister Rathna (Papa) Kumar. I stopped dancing after marriage, but my job profile at Doordarshan kept me continuously connected with dance until the day I retired. I continue to engage with dance post-retirement, and whenever I encounter roadblocks due to unforeseen circumstances, I rekindle evergreen vintage vignettes to maintain the happiness quotient.

Fifty-two years ago, I played a small but significant role in the dance-drama, Vipranarayana, choreographed by my revered guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. Eighteen years later, I had an opportunity to direct it for television, and it holds many special memories for me both as a dancer and a broadcaster. Vipranarayana, the story of the Vaishnavaite saint Thondaradipodi Alwar, was initially written as a Telugu musical opera for All India Radio, Vijayawada, by my grand-uncle Devulapalli Krishna Sastri. This was at the behest of renowned theatre actor Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao and Kuchipudi exponent Chinta Krishnamurthy. They were Sangeet Natak Akademi awardees and staunch promoters of Kuchipudi who were instrumental in establishing the Siddhendra Kalakshetram in Kuchipudi in 1957. Krishna Sastri composed extraordinary lyrics in the Yakshagana style, and Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao gave them wings with his outstanding music. My mother, Vinjamuri Anasuya Devi, decided to renew this brilliant piece of work and present it as a Kuchipudi dance drama in Hyderabad. She commissioned Kuchipudi maestro Vempati Chinna Satyam to choreograph it with my sister Rathna (Papa) Kumar as the heroine, Devadevi, and popular cine actor Chandramohan as the protagonist, Vipranarayana. Kothapalli Padma performed the role of Devadevi’s older sister, Madhuravani and Durga was their mother, Vesyamatha. I was Lord Ranganatha Swami, who sets right all the wrongs in the end, and my younger sister Kamala was Vatu, the Lord in the guise of a young boy. It was the first time we three sisters performed together on stage. Chandramohan was a committed artist despite being a highly sought-after film actor. He had to squeeze time for dance practice after his busy shooting schedule. It was a demanding task as a master was an uncompromising disciplinarian. As the rehearsals unfolded, both my master and my mother felt the need for additional lyrics for smoother transitions in the story. My grand-uncle complied, and my mother, who was a top-grade music composer for All India Radio, composed these songs in the same genre as Rajani to blend in seamlessly with his style.

It was a red letter day in the annals of Kuchipudi dance when Vipranarayana was premiered at the Ravindra Bharathi in Hyderabad on 31 December 1969, under the auspices of the Vinodini Sabha. The auditorium was filled with connoisseurs, celebrities and dance enthusiasts who came from far and near. Expectations were high as it was the coming together of three great legends of literature, music and dance. In addition, the vocals were rendered by the incomparable Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna and stalwarts like Mullick, Vinjamuri Lakshmi and B.K. Sumithra. It was for the very first time in his musical career that Balamuralikrishna sang live on stage for a dance programme and we were blessed to have this exemplary singer lend his voice for our dance! Master created magic with his brilliant choreography, and two of the songs from the dance drama, Koluvaithiva Rangasayee and Vedalera Vayyarulu got inducted into the Kuchipudi margam as solo items.

The recording started on a euphoric note, and I managed to complete the opening sequences and the finale in the temple background. The huge temple set had to be dismantled, and a simple hut had to be erected for the romantic interludes between Vipranarayana and Devadevi. By the time the set and lighting were completed, it was 5 pm, and my studio time was up. The recording had to be stopped abruptly due to the paucity of time. It was an awkward situation, and I was close to tears. Chandramohan had been gracious enough to attend all the rehearsals and be at the studio all day along with the other artists, participating for the sheer love of art, as there was not much monetary benefit from dance those days. Imagine my predicament with an unfinished production and everything at a standstill! We were understaffed and had to adhere to strict schedules. But this was an exceptional situation, and I begged my director to provide me with minimum staff to record the remaining sequences with a single camera. He helped me put together a small crew to complete the recording. It was a paradigm shift from the macro to the micro, but all the artists gave their concerted best to make it blend seamlessly.
 
Vipranarayana was a landmark success as a musical opera, a dance drama and a television show because of the confluence of great artists. From the concept to the final presentation, every artist involved gave their 100 per cent. I had a most unusual experience first-hand witnessing this. For the stage show in Hyderabad, Rathna left along with the master and the other dancers two days early for stage rehearsals. My mother and I travelled a day later along with Balamuralikrishna. We ended up missing our train as we got held up in a massive traffic jam due to some protests and diversions en route to the station. My mother moved heaven and earth to get us on a later train up to Warangal, and we had to travel from there by bus. After a trying, long journey, we finally reached Hyderabad and barely an hour later, he enthralled the audience with his mesmerising music. To this day, these vignettes are etched in my mind and I still feel a great sense of gratitude for my involvement with this amazing project.

I was keen on recording Vipranarayana for Doordarshan, but it took me almost eighteen years to revive it. My mother tried to gather the same artists once again, but unfortunately, Balamuralikrishna was not available for the recording. Bhagavathula Seetharama Sarma sang with equal verve along with Vinjamuri Lakshmi and Prakasa Rao. Rathna and Chandramohan did the lead roles, but this time, Sailaja was Madhuravani. Our set designer Venugopal created a magnificent Srirangam temple set and Nandavanam nearby. I could not participate in the programme as I was directing it but the divine vigraham of Ranganathaswami effectively resolved all the issues in the end through visual special effects.

Seetha Ratnakar

Peep into the Past - Vipranarayana

It was one of the most memorable summers I had ever spent at my great uncle Devulapalli Krishna Sastry’s house in Hyderabad. Three visionaries, Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao, credited with breathing new life into Kuchipudi, Kuchipudi maestro Chinta Krishnamurthy, and music composer Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao, had all come together in a creative collaboration. I was fortunate to be privy to witness the unfolding of this magic, but little knew the important role it would play in my future.

Vipranarayana had its unforgettable debut in 1969. Actor Chandramohan was playing the title role at the height of his film career, and rehearsals would start at 10 pm and continue till 1 am or even later. Master garu – Vempati Chinna Satyam, was at his creative best even at that late hour, and revelling in the sheer beauty of the wonderful lyrics and mesmerising music, none of us complained! Chandramohan even learned some Kuchipudi basics from master just for this programme! The choreography turned out to be flawless, master, being a perfectionist, but the icing on the cake was having my favourite singer, the incomparable Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, singing for us, live on stage, for the very first time for a dance performance! What a thrilling experience, and how lucky we were! During my sister Seetha Ratnakar’s tenure as the producer for dance programmes at Chennai Doordarshan, we had the opportunity to present it again with some necessary changes. Needless to say, the passage of almost two decades had in no way mitigated the extraordinary beauty of the Yakshagana nor our happiness in doing it again. Some performances remain etched indelibly in one’s memory, and my role as Devadevi in Vipranarayana was a defining moment for me.

RATHNA KUMAR 

Artistic Director, Anjali Center for Performing Arts, Houston, Tx, USA

Monday, 1 August 2022

Editor's Note

15 August 2022 is a red letter day for India  that is Bharat. The Government of  India has launched the special initiative ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’  to celebrate and commemorate 75 years of the nation’s  Independence and the glorious history of  its people, culture and achievements. The official journey of the Mahotsav commenced on 12 March 2021 beginning a 75-week countdown to our 75th anniversary of independence and will conclude on 15 August 2023. This Mahotsav, dedicated to the people of the country, is a festival of awakening of the nation; festival of fulfilling the dream of good governance; and the festival of global peace and development.

Let us take a look at the interesting themes of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav: (1) the ‘freedom struggle’, (2) ‘Ideas@75’ which focuses on programmes and events inspired by ideas and ideals that have shaped India and will guide us as we navigate through this period of Amrit Kaal (25 years between India@75 and India@100). It covers popular, participatory initiatives that help bring alive India’s unique contribution to the world. (3) ‘Actions@75’  highlights the steps being taken to implement policies and actualise commitments for multi-modal connectivity. (4) ‘Achievements@75’  showcases evolution and progress across different sectors  along the way. It is intended to grow into a public account of our collective achievements as a 75-year-old independent country with a legacy of 5000-plus  years of ancient history. (5) ‘Resolve@75’.

It is heartening to note that ‘Amritam Gamaya’ - the International Festival of Performing Arts, is being conducted in July-August 2022.  The aim of the festival is  “proclaiming association with the past, connecting through art and delving deep into the roots of the rich heritage of India so that succeeding generations can explore, expand and contribute to the cultural and creative economy of our nation.”

It hopes to recreate awareness of the connection between the varied forms of dance and music, both classical and folk, tribal and innovative art present throughout the length and breadth of India and trace the parallels between certain Indian and international art forms through curated presentations in various venues across the country.

 

In this context, Sruti magazine can take pride in playing its role in helping to document, create awareness and propagate the performing arts in India and the world.

In this August issue the focus is on the late sarod maestro, the great Ali Akbar Khan. He was a colossus of a musician whose influence on Hindustani instrumental music was immense, which has been highlighted by our eminent writers as well as his son. Sruti pays tribute to him on the occasion of his centenary. With a sense of fulfillment we are also happy to present the concluding part of the feature on Mysore Vasudevachar -- the ‘grand old man’ of Carnatic music.  A profile-article long due!

 

As 22 August is celebrated as ‘Madras Day’ and the Chennai metropolis gears up to celebrate the occasion in various ways, you may be surprised to know that a Mylapore anthem was composed over a decade ago! Our spotlight this time is on the anthem,  its theme and its composer. 

 

As usual, we have several reports of music and dance events celebrating artists and the art forms in our News & Notes section. Happy reading!

 

To conclude on a patriotic note – as we celebrate 75 years of independence, let us decorate our hearth and homes in our national tricolour for three days beginning 13 August; let us hoist the  national flag on Independence Day; and resolve to celebrate the immortal, invincible, and intangible heritage of Bharat, and  instill pride in our rich culture. Jai Hind!

 S. Janaki

 

 

 


Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Passionate about music and linguistics

When K.G. Vijayakrishnan retired from The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, as a linguistics professor, in 2017, he wanted to devote all his time, attention, and love to music, taking a permanent break from linguistics.

And music truly was the first, and arguably the most serious, love of his life. Right from his childhood, Vijayakrishnan was not drawn to anything as much as he was, to music. He started learning veena from his mother Karpagavalli Gopalakrishnan, a disciple of Rangaramanuja Iyengar -- the notable vainika from the Dhanammal bani. Being an astute learner, Vijayakrishnan grasped the formidable Veena Dhanammal technique and style of veena-playing swiftly and gave his maiden concert when he was barely nine years old. Though he was exposed to the music of the maestros of the 20th century like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and M.S. Subbulakshmi, right from his childhood, his ultimate muse was Veena Dhanammal. She was no different from Goddess Saraswati to him.

He took it upon himself as his life’s mission to spread awareness about Dhanammal’s music among the Carnatic fraternity. He gave away CDs containing her records to aficionados of Carnatic music, delivered several lecdems on her musical genius, made a documentary focusing on her style and technique, and was always keen and willing to pass on this tradition to those who expressed regard. His repertoire was colossal. While he played the cherished and time-tested compositions of the Carnatic music trinity, with Amba Kamakshi (Bhairavi / Syama Sastry) being his all-time favourite, he also played several rare compositions of less-known composers like Inta kopamelara (navaragamalika varnam / Veena Kuppier), Radha na meedha (Hameerkalyani / Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar) and Dalachi dalachi (Keeravani / Neyyakarampatti Seshayyar), only to name a few. Even though these pieces in his repertoire were acquired from different sources over the years, they sounded homogenous. This is because he scrutinised every music he came across through the unfaltering lens of the Dhanammal bani.

Unlike most Carnatic musicians, he did not believe in the mechanical repetition of a sangati; he in fact despised it. He noted that this was a unique feature of this school of music. So, there was no rigid separation between the kalpita and the manodharma forms of music. He never merely rendered these songs; he was constantly in the zone of creation. The second iteration of each sangati would contain minor and subtle variations from the previous delineation. This demanded the audience to be on tenterhooks, through the entire length of the performance.

Special mention needs to be made of his pathbreaking book The Grammar of Carnatic Music, which explores the connection between music and language. He seriously started working on this one-of-a-kind endeavour, which resulted from this “collaboration between the musician and the phonologist in a one-man interdisciplinary project”, as the acclaimed linguist Paul Kiparsky cites in 1982 and published it in 2008. In this pivotal work, which holds the distinction as a pioneering document of the field, by proposing mathematical charts and scales for measuring pitch values in various ragas and to see constraints on their manifestations, their permutations, and combinations, Vijayakrishnan aspired Carnatic music to the status of a testable scientific theory, and on a broader level, to hopefully understand the music faculty in humans.

As a teacher, he was simply the best. Extremely generous, patient, and most importantly, democratic. He always put his students first, and as his student, I can wholeheartedly attest to this fact. He believed in and emphasised wholesome learning of music, which included learning to play the veena, singing, reading music from notations, cultivating the expertise to interpret and internalise them, and the skill to write notations encapsulating even the minutest nuances of the musical phrase. He hardly refused to teach anyone who showed interest, but still, he did not have many earnest seekers for this style, which is immensely unfortunate.

He, however, strongly felt that the fate of this musical style was like the mythical river Saraswati, reputed for being invisible to human eyes. She emerges out of nowhere and flourishes, but astonishingly recedes underground, appears again but only scantily, disappears and magically springs up in an unprecedented fashion as she journeys to the mighty ocean. But she is invisible only to those who don’t care to look for her. Her distinct presence can always be felt, and is firm in our memories, and she will always arise when the time is right. That was his strong belief.

It is sad that my guru, vidwan K.G. Vijayakrishnan passed away on 23 March 2022, due to physical illness, at the age of 70.

Lashman

(Carnatic musician and disciple of Ramakrishnan Murthy and the late K.G. Vijayakrishnan)

Friday, 8 July 2022

A Janardhanan 80 – a monumental innings

Interview 

Prof. A. Janardhanan in conversation with Bhavani Ravindran:


I called upon the veteran artist and natyacharya at his home on 14 May 2022. I found Prof. Janardhanan to be very humble despite his achievements. Though he does not boast about it, he has all the productions of Rukmini Devi etched in his memory. He was and still is, able to recall to the minutest detail all that went into the original productions. This is what has helped revive all these phenomenal pieces of dance choreography which were in danger of extinction. We, as the viewing public and rasikas, owe a lot to Prof. A. Janardhanan for even this one great service to his alma mater without which we would not have been able to enjoy the masterpieces created by Rukmini Devi several decades ago. Some excerpts.

On Choreographic Styles

Rukmini Devi ‘Athai’ was a fountain of knowledge and innovation. She could comprehensively visualise all aspects of a dance production -- stage setting, costume designing, musical arrangements, dance movements, and abhinaya. Her vision was all-encompassing and she had truly great artists and teachers to assist her. She drew people to her like a magnet and each was a giant in his or her field. The stage backdrop by Srinivasulu was always breathtaking and suited her way of visualisation. There was no room for compromise and perfection was the only way to complete a sequence.

In contrast, my teaching is very minor in comparison -- to the extent that it is fairly uncomplicated. I teach what I have learnt. I do not have to really worry about the other aspects as they are already there. Athai was created from scratch, whereas my job is to see that it is followed to the letter and not allowed to die away. My contribution to art in Kalakshetra is akin to what the squirrel did to help Sri Rama.

On Selection of Dancers

Athai chose people for a character by her ‘feel’ of the person’s ability. She would say that dance is the fifth Veda and cannot be taught to everyone; if not properly chosen it would be like asking a drunkard to recite verses! I do not know why she chose me for the role of Sri Rama. She used to treat me like her son. Perhaps she had a soft corner for me as my father was also in Kalakshetra at the time! This is only my thought, I really don’t know the true reason. My father, Chandu Panikkar performed on stage at the age of 85, maybe Athai felt that being his son, I too would be able to live up to her expectations! Many people used to feel that Athai was always choosing the same people for prime roles. She would then remark that if you can find someone who can do better than the persons I have chosen, I will gladly keep them! Among us, there was no problem with who got which role, our faith in the judgement of Athai was total, and none of us had any ill feelings towards one another. This was probably due to the discipline with which we were brought up in Kalakshetra.

On Discipline

Here an incident comes to mind. During one performance of Sabari Moksham, the main spotlight fell down just missing me; I could have been grievously injured had I been one foot in the wrong direction in the path of the falling light.  The stage was plunged into darkness, it was pitch black with only the burning lamp for Nataraja giving some light. No one moved, it must be said that the audience too did not utter a single sound, Kalakshetra audiences are like that! Athai quickly got up, in the darkness she got the debris cleaned and restored the lights. This took three minutes. When the lights came on, all of us were frozen in exactly the same posture and expressions that we were in when the lights went off. The show continued from that point perfectly and smoothly. That is the discipline of Kalakshetra and I am proud to be one of them. 

On Teachers

I am eternally blessed to have been in the midst of a galaxy of great artists who taught us. They taught us like we were their children, not students of an institution where they were employed. They gave their all without holding back. It was an amazing commentary on the noble art of teaching. 

A Janardhanan 80 – a monumental innings

Kalakshetra Foundation celebrated the ‘satabhishekam’ -- 80th birthday of their Professor Emeritus, A. Janardhanan, on 23 April 2022 at the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium in Chennai. It was a glowing tribute to a man of great stature who has been the driving force of the institution, having been associated with it for an extraordinary 65 years and still counting. In an era of constant change and shifts of allegiance propelled by monetary or other considerations, this has indeed been a monumental inning by one person in one institution.

The programme commenced with a brief introduction of the events to unfold, followed by a prayer song by students. A video was screened tracing Janardhanan’s journey at Kalakshetra -- from his arrival at a tender age to his blossoming into a consummate artist, crossing various landmarks, his achievements, till his attaining the status that he has come to occupy in the minds and hearts of his students and contemporaries. There were tributes by Pushpa teacher who taught him, and Preetha Reddy recounting her days at Kalakshetra and her association with the veteran artist. Kalakshetra Chairman, S. Ramadorai, variously touched upon Prof. A. Janardhanan’s life, contribution and dedication to his alma mater.

Following the video clip was the welcome address by Revathi Ramachandran, Director, Kalakshetra Foundation. Besides highlighting the concept of the function and the need she felt for giving recognition to Prof. Janardhanan and his contribution to the growth and splendour of the institution, she also touched upon little-known aspects of Janardhanan Sir -- his help with costumes, make-up, teaching style, even mentioning that the stage curtain was completely designed by him. Welcoming the chief guest Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, Hereditary Trustee, Tanjavur Palace Devasthanam, Revathi mentioned that Tanjavur as a region, with the holy Kaveri river, had seen the fine arts flourish under three royal dynasties, the Chola, the Nayaks, and later the Marathas, and it was therefore apt that the chief guest should be from the region and one who had spent a lifetime in the preservation of culture and tradition. Later, in his speech,  Babaji Bhonsle very beautifully explained his views and feelings on this subject. Revathi acknowledged the presence of all the senior gurus who had made it a point to attend the function as a mark of their affection for A. Janardhanan -- Pushpa teacher, N.S. Jayalakshmi, V.P. Dhananjayan, Sadanam Balakrishnan, Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, Savitri Jagannatha Rao, and Thomas a contemporary of Prof. Janardhanan.

There were two felicitation speeches -- by V.P. Dhananjayan and Sadanam Balakrishnan. Dhananjayan recalled the day Janardhanan arrived in Kalakshetra as a 16-year old boy, and said they have been friends ever since. He remembered the days spent as students of their Kathakali teacher Chandu Panikkar -- Janardhanan’s father who was a strict disciplinarian.  Sadanam Balakrishnan, in spite of his indifferent health,  graced the occasion and spoke about Prof. Janardhanan and his knowledge of Kathakali styles. He also made the profound statement that  Janardhanan was presently the only person fully conversant with the unique Kalladikkotan style which is almost extinct in Kerala but still alive in Kalakshetra. In response to this comment, Revathi Ramachandran confirmed that Kalakshetra had started documenting this unique style with the sole purpose of its preservation. A surprise speaker was a Kathakali dancer who is also an advocate -- Ranjani Suresh, who had interacted with Prof. Janardhanan. She spoke glowingly about the great man and how she had vowed to carry forward the Kalladikkotan style of Kathakali and would not let it die. These speeches were followed by students, past and present, colleagues, and other attendees felicitating  the nayaka of the evening. The concluding felicitation was by Anish Rajan from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. His view of the proceedings was refreshingly different. He aptly commented that rather than Kalakshetra and the assembled people honouring a person of the stature of Prof. Janardhanan it is an honour for us to be in a position to be able to conduct and attend such a function for one of the stalwarts of the artistic world. He, on behalf of his ministry, wished Prof. Janardhanan on this momentous occasion. 

Babaji Bhonsle, who became a trustee at the age of 16, and is actively involved in the upkeep of 88 temples in the Tanjavur region, spoke glowingly about the cultural crucible that is Tanjavur. He traced the ups and downs of the cultural ethos that took place after each dynasty that ruled Tanjavur. He credited Rukmini Devi, Kalakshetra, and teachers like Prof. Janardhanan for the safe custody of this great art; he thanked each and every teacher present in the auditorium for being instrumental in this effort. He confessed a tinge of envy that Kalakshetra was situated in Chennai instead of Tanjavur. He said that when he was invited to the function and heard about the achievements of Prof. Janardhanan he wondered how does one felicitate such a man? Here too the great King Raja Raja Chozhan came to his aid. He narrated a story about the king who had so much respect for the sculptors who built his Big Temple that he even went to the extent of holding a ‘tamboolam’ as the artist worked!  Prof. Janardhanan deserves such respect for his dedication and achievements, said Babaji Rajah. It was a touching tribute from one achiever to another.


Finally, it was natyacharya Janardhanan’s turn to say his piece. He recollected his journey through Kalakshetra, his association with Athai Rukmini Devi, his promise not to leave her -- a promise that he kept in spite of offers from other sources. He is still keeping that promise and is proud of the 65 years that he has spent there and aims to continue as long as he can – truly a phenomenal inning.

The evening concluded with a dance drama, Karna Sapatham, which was choreographed by Prof. Janardhanan. It was first staged in 1991 and is still as fresh as ever; the dancers have changed but the choreography has stood the test of time and was a visual treat for the audience.

- Bhavani Ravindran

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Rasaabhinaya – a transformative experience

‘Rasa abhinaya’ is a key terminology that dancers are exposed to over the years. It emphasises aesthetic communication with a creative interpretation of the lyrics and music. This idea of the art of communication employed by the artist to provide an artistic experience to the audience in blissful settings, sans percussion, was what I experienced during Raasaabhinya 2022. It was organised by Samskruthi - Temple of Art, headed by Sathyanarayana Raju in association with the Bengaluru shaakha of the Association of Bharatanatyam Artists of India (Abhai), at Vyoma Art Space in Bengaluru in the first week of May.

It is indeed a challenge to present only abhinaya compositions in performance. Sometimes the repertoire gets limited to a few compositions, but what stood out in this festival was how each artist used his/her life experiences, knowledge of the world, individual understanding of classical literature and sastras, as well as other allied arts – all of which enriched the content of the whole festival thus giving us a taste of true ‘rasaanubhava’.

Having closely watched and been associated with Padmini Ravi over the years, I have been in awe of her work, though she sometimes experiments with dance and music in a ‘neo’ way. This time, even though the music sounded neo, her approach to the pasurams, which related to advaita, Vedanta saguna and nirguna was profound. The way she conveyed abstract points like looking beyond the outer surface wherein we all live and the infinite truth that the almighty resides within us, set an ambient opening tone to the festival. It specifically created a calm atmosphere captivating the sahridayas and taking them along with her.

Deepak Mazumdar has this quality of transforming from a coy love-struck heroine to a playful child Krishna, thereon to a devotee who immerses himself as he watches his Lord. Quickly and easily he brought alive the characters in front of you in a moment that made you wonder how easily he glides into a gender fluidity as he transcends from one character to another. Though he had woven together a few passages from different songs, it was quite a revelation how just a few lines if well done, can create rasa symbiotically as if it were one-story unfolding slowly.

It is said that the life of a Kuchipudi dancer is incomplete if he/she does not play Satyabhama’s role. The haughtiness and stylish gait, contrasting with the subtle and coy way she utters the names of Krishna—were all beautifully brought out by Veena Murthy Vijay. Kuchipudi is known for its usage of vachika during the performance and she spiritedly used the narratives by juxtaposing with current trends—thus bringing in humour, leaving the audience in splits of laughter. Another interesting aspect of Satyabhama’s character is the description of the unique jewellery that she wears from head to toe—which the artist herself describes; this was very interesting to watch. What is common between the popular song Pyar kiya tho darna kya from the movie Mughal-e-Azam and the traditional padam Yarikagilum bhayama? Well, both the songs express the feelings of a nayika who was bold enough to express her love in public. When we closely observe the lyrics of these songs, the intent and the content are similar, but each of them was composed at different times for a different journo. Only a dancer with a vast experience in performance and intellect in creating works can come up with such a unique concept—and it was none other than celebrated artist Prathibha Prahalad. If a sakhi went pleading to Krishna to go to Radha in the ashtapadi Natha harey, the counterpart showed the heroine’s condition through another film song which was classical based Neela aasman. The bridge between traditional culture and popular culture was beautifully juxtaposed giving new artistic resourceful initiatives for all the dancers who had arrived there to witness art at its best. The artist informed in the beginning that she was paying a tribute to Lata Mangeshkar via these compositions.


When you watch a senior guru perform it is not the accolades and number of performances she has given that matters, but the art in her that speaks. This was evident as one watched Chitra Visweswaran dance. The poise, the delineation and the satvika aspect kept the audience rapt in silence and stillness even after she finished her presentation. Nobody was in a mood to wind up, it was a moment of tranquillity, which transported me to the world of the unknown as tears rolled down. Every eye in the intimate space was moist. We understood the sahitya, but it was the inward journey of the artist which came across and took us all along. The hymns of Siva, Devi and Vishnu were soaked in quietude where even Sathyanarayana Raju’s detailed aesthetics which had set the stage with bright colours and fragrant accessories melted into the background.

All the musicians who accompanied these artists contributed equally in giving us the rasa. As dancer Lakshmi Gopalaswamy said “The festival was very special, an experience not had in years. It was a magical amalgamation of exemplary artists sharing their vast and personal experiences in art and life, willingly received by a kind, supportive and enthusiastic dance community. The compact studio Vyoma and aesthetic setting helped blur the boundaries between the artists and the rasika, allowing for a collective experience that was moving and transformative”.

As I was walking towards the exit I heard a rasika eagerly asking: “When is Rasaabhinaya season two?”

P. PRAVEEN KUMAR

(Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Impressive tributes to Rabindranath Tagore - Jyotirgamaya

Soon after his return from England, Rabindranath Tagore and his brother Jyotirindranath, plunged into musical composition. Rabindranath, with his direct experience and influence of Western music and opera, immediately composed his opera Valmiki Pratibha (The genius of Valmiki) which quickly took its place in the repertoire. The composition, where melody and words had equal importance, had its roots in the special genius of Bengali music -- the keertans, and like a master, jeweller studded it with the gems of classical Hindustani raga-based music (ragasrayi) embellishing it with their own ideas and beautiful poetry. In addition, tunes of two English songs were borrowed for the drinking songs of the dacoit band and an Irish melody for the lament of the banadevis (wood nymphs).

Widely performed as a dance-theatre, dance-drama, to that effect drama, it remains as one of the few dramas  of Tagore that has immediate and authentic appeal outside  Bengal for its grandeur, vivacity, variety, vigour and wonderful  gamut of styles and emotions missing from his later dramas.

Till date, Valmiki Pratibha remains as one of the most popular, most loved performance piece for dancers and for actors with a panoramic scope of choreographic and theatrical possibilities and spectacular collage of forms.

26 February 1881 was a special day in the life of Rabindranath Tagore. On this day was the first public performance of his opera Valmiki Pratibha in Jorasako (ancestral home of the Tagore’s) with Rabindranath Tagore in the role of Valmiki  and his niece Pratibha, as Saraswati. So good was Pratibha’s performance that Tagore changed his opera’s title from Valmiki to Valmiki Pratibha. And so remains Valmiki Pratibha as the most sought after opera-drama-dance piece.

To commemorate this date, the internationally reputed singer-actor, documentary film-maker, director, culture historian and teacher of Tagore’s music and drama,  Debasish Raychaudhuri as Valmiki, presented a unique solo act  Jyotirgamaya, based on Valmiki Pratibha. Conceived and directed by him and  produced by Jyotirindra Moitra Memorial Trust, this master-piece was released by Bhavna Records (specialising in Tagore’s work) as a short film. It traces the path of transcendence of the notorious and greedy dacoit leader Ratnakar to the sage-like epic poet Valmiki said to be the author of the Ramayana.

Moved to pity by the grief of one of a pair of cranes (krauncha birds) after it had been shot by a hunter, Valmiki broke into the divine Sanskrit verse Ma nishada pratishtam twamagama saswati samaha and thereafter composed the epic.

In Tagore’s version, Valmiki was moved by the piteous cry of a little girl caught by his fellowmen to offer her as a sacrifice to Goddess Kali, their very own deity (mother). He protests their decision, disbands the gang and wanders in the forests in search of a vocation. He suddenly sees the hunters aiming at the two birds and breaks into the verse.

Goddess Lakshmi appears to him, offers wealth and tries to convince him of its importance, but Valmiki by then a transformed person, embraces the enlightenment of knowledge. It was Goddess Saraswati who had taken the guise of the girl. Saraswati reveals herself to Ratnakar and as a boon in reward of his awakened sense of humanity, gives Valmiki the gift of song which would resound from land to land and echo in the voice of poets and singers.

Debashish naturally followed the bard’s version and echoed it for the first time as a unique mono-act with innovative directorial brilliance and his powerful performance energy, fully unleashed. The echo of the song Daya koro anatarey, pleading for mercy by the girl in Rohini Raychaudhuri’s voice and the cruel smile on Debashish’s face was a memorable display of intense desperation amalgamated with torment, realisation and the final surrender to kindness with shifting changes of expressions.

An intuitively intelligent sensitively interpretive film, it excels in three zones. The theatrical and dramatic executions by the actor at no point allow any shallowness due to the physical absence of the multicast with an unmatched set of eye movements, facial expressions and his dramatic persona.

Cinematographic excellence and camerawork exploring light and shade creating subtle stereotypically different ambience like the use of small earthenware oil-lamps, a shining ‘kripan’(sharp large knife) and the dark background of varying intensity with an interesting use of streaks and volumes of diffused light,  and the sudden burst of full-screen illumination at the point of transcendence were some of the stunning visual treats.

Furthermore, casting in opera goes more by larynxes than by physical attributes. A highly acclaimed singer and a distinguished actor, Debashish carried the piece on his shoulders with a confluence of melody, words, rhythm, poems and theatre with highly realistic proficiency. Portraying shifting moods and challenges of different characterisation with the confrontation of different performances and styles of singing and use of light and shade, he was successful in advocating a rarely seen combination of co-relation of acting and singing, poetry and music in a spectacular manner.

The songs of Valmiki were by Debashish. The playback singers were his daughter Rohini Raychaudhuri -- an acclaimed singer who sang for Balika (the girl) Lakshmi and banadevis,  and Hindol Nandi  for the  dacoits and hunter.

There was a group of young minds behind the production. The soulful music design was by Surajit Das, DoP Arjun, assisted by Tathagata, and edited by Sayantan Mukherjee. English subtitles Ritojit Mondal, production Rohini Raychaudhuri, artwork courtesy Swarup Swapan Chatterjee.

Jyotirgamaya has the distinction of personal style of the director Debashish Raychaudhuri who conceived it. The work, first of its kind, is refreshing and every minute becomes a memorable moment for the viewers by the stunning performance of an artist of a very high calibre.

Jyotirgamaya was indeed a transcendence from darkness to light.

NITA VIDYARTHI

Monday, 4 July 2022

Hemavathi – Remembering Parassala Ponnammal

Hemavathi -- a musical biography of Parassala B. Ponnammal -- jointly authored by G. Harisundar and C. Ramakrishnan -- was released at a well-attended function at Ragasudha Hall, Mylapore, Chennai on 22 April 2022. Hemavathi is a rough translation into Sanskrit of Ponnammal -- the celebrated vidushi from Kerala -- who was born on 29 Nov 1924 at Parassala, south of Tiruvananthapuram. She lived a simple life, soaked in chaste Carnatic music, till June 2021 when she shed her mortal coils.

The event in Chennai was jointly organised by the department of music, Kannur University, Nada Inbam, Chennai and Hemavathi Music Chamber, Tiruvananthapuram.

The book release function heralded a three-day music festival from 22 to 24 April with concerts in the evening.

The function started with a prayer by young Sri Lakshmi and Madhavan trained by Sudha Easwaran, who rendered Ananthapadmanabham asraye -- the traditional invocation song of the erstwhile Travancore State composed by Sangita Kalanidhi L. Muthiah Bhagavatar (in Arabhi raga) -- bringing nostalgic memories of a bygone era.

G. Harisundar, author of the book, welcomed the guests Guruji Kasi Viswanathar of Sri Vedavyasar Tapovanam, Chennai, Cleveland V.V. Sundaram, and vidwan R.K. Shriramkumar. A management professional, Harisundar detailed the background of writing the biography, and how he managed to obtain Ponnammal’s consent while she was alive, for the noble venture.

Harisundar mentioned that the attention of the music world was drawn to the grand old lady when Aswathi Tirunal Rama Varma, scion of the Travancore Royal family and himself a musician of repute got her to sing at the haloed Navaratri Mandapam in Tiruvananthapuram. Eventually Parassala Ponnammal was credited with the status of the first woman to sing at the Mandapam in its history of 177 years when she performed a fine recital on the first day of the Navaratri series on 23 Sep 2006 at the ripe age of 82. ‘The golden pride of Anantapuri’ sang at the Mandapam till 2019.

Parassala Ponnammal was one of the fond disciples of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and other stalwarts who taught at the Swati Tirunal College of Music (then known as Music Academy, Trivandrum) in its initial years. Credited with many firsts, she was the first woman to head a Government music institution in Kerala when she retired as the principal of the RLV College of Music, Tripunithura. She was the first woman singer from Kerala to receive the Padma Shri award. A Top grade performer, she broadcast from All India Radio for many years. She was a repository of Swati Tirunal kritis, compositions of the music trinity and other vaaggeyakaras as well as many devotional compositions.

The Malayalam edition of the biography Hemavathi authored by Harisundar was released at a solemn function at Kaudiar Palace, in Tiruvananthapuram, by Princess Pooyam Tirunal Gouri Parvati Bayi in January 2022. It was also released at Kannur University the same month by Vjay Neelakantan, Founder, Perunchalloor Sangeetha Sabha.

The present English version of Hemavathi is the result of a joint effort by Harisundar and C. Ramakrishnan, Sruti Correspondent, who too has a close association with the Ponnammal family.

Cleveland V.V. Sundaram, in his felicitation address, recalled that it was K.N. Shashikiran of Carnatica who arranged a concert of the doyen (soon after the Mandapam event) in Chennai, leaving the rasikas wondering how they had missed Parassala Ponnammal's music all these years though she was familiar to the senior professionals. She sang many concerts later in the metro. V.V. Sundaram also spoke about his experience of inviting Ponnammal Mami to the U.S.A. for the Cleveland festival and the warmth she exuded during the entire trip and performances at various venues. She was such a noble person, grace personified. He further remarked that a house-full audience for a book release function stood to prove the respect the rasikas had for Ponnammal and her music.

Cleveland Sundaram released and handed over the first copy of the book Hemavathi to vidwan R.K. Shriramkumar. (The 241-page finely designed book is priced at Rs. 320.)

Guruji Kasi Viswanathar of Sri Vedavyasa Tapovanam, Chennai, in his anugraha bhashan, recalled the special regard and relationship Ponnammal had with the ashram where she used to sing a concert on the first day of January every year. The Swamiji spoke on the values held by the vidushi and the purity she maintained in her music.

C. Ramakrishnan, co-author of the book, proposed the vote of thanks. He also acknowledged the warmth and hospitality extended by Parassala Ponnammal and family members during his visits to their house in Tiruvananthapuram.

The concert on the first day was by Amritha Murali who had won the fond appreciation of Parassala Ponnammal and who had earlier accompanied her on the violin at the Navaratri Mandapam. In this concert Amritha was accompanied on the violin by R.K. Shriramkumar, Mavelikara Rajesh (grandson of Mavelikara Krishnankutty Nair, legendary mridangam vidwan of Kerala), N. Guruprasad (ghatam) and Anirudh Athreya (khanjira). Amritha Murali presented a fine concert consisting mostly of Ponnammal’s favourite choices -- Merusamana, Narasimhamamava, Dvaitamu sukhama and Amba Kamakshi rendered as the main kriti of the evening.

Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma, who was instrumental in Ponnammal singing at the Navaratri Mandapam, graced with his august presence, the concert of Lalitha and Lakshmi (granddaughters and disciples of Ponnammal) who presented a recital on the evening of the second day of the festival. It was an honour for the artists as well the organisers and rasikas that the descendant of Maharaja Swati Tirunal was present on the occasion to appreciate the music of the sisters.

In their breezy one-hour recital the young duo sang Gajananayutam, Sambho Mahadeva, Dayapayonidhe -- a composition of Meesu Krishna Iyer in raga Jaganmohini, one of Mami’s favourites and Bhavaye sarasanabham in Keeravani as the main song. The sisters have raised high hopes among serious rasikas of chaste music. Sree Lakshmi Bhat (violin) and Karukurichi Govindarajan (mridangam) provided supportive pakkavadyam.

The main concert of the second day was by Parassala Ponnammal’s disciple Gitakrishnan from Tiruvananthapuram, accompanied by Chidambaram Badrinath (violin) and Guru Raghavendra (mridangam). Gitakrishnan initially learnt from his father Raghunathan Nair who was a student of Ponnammal teacher. He included the Yadukulakambhoji swarajati, the navavarana kriti in Sankarabharanam and Devadeva in Todi -- a composition of Swati Tirunal popularised by Semmangudi and Ponnammal. A brief ragam-tanam-pallavi in Hemavati (on Ponnammal) was imaginative. He also included a kriti by Harisundar. The accompanists offered fine musical support.

The third and final day started with a listening session of Parassala Ponnammal's national programme radio concerts – this was presented by E.N. Sajith, Regional

Director, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Thrissur, who also learnt from Ponnammal. Merusamana, Marivere (Latangi) and Todi raga for Sree Venkatesam varam of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar were the highlights. It was a good recording and one of the best of Parassala Ponnammal's radio recitals. The speaker also touched upon the teaching techniques of the guru.

The concert of the final day was by Palghat Ramprasad accompanied by L. Ramakrishnan (violin), Thrissur Narendran (mridangam) and K.V. Gopalakrishnan (khanjira). The sprightly concert that started with Seetamma mayamma included Rave Himagirikumari, and a ragam-tanam-pallavi in Kanada among other compositions. The ace accompanists embellished the recital with excellent support. Ramprasad is another young vidwan who had earned the special appreciation of Ponnammal.

It was a happy coincidence that the main concerts of the festival covered all the three swarajatis of Syama Sastry without any repetition. These musical gems were very dear to Ponnammal teacher.

At the end of the festival, one felt immersed in the legacy of Parassala Ponnammal and her pure music. Good attendance by rasikas on all three days was sufficient proof of her noble achievements in the field of music and her admirable qualities.

S. SIVARAMAKRISHNAN

Friday, 1 July 2022

FROM THE EDITOR


Some things happen only when they are destined to happen in spite of the effort you put in to try to make them happen! Of course, this does not deter us from trying our best to make things happen. Sounds like a jolly tongue twister, but it is only a general observation. We have experienced this in Sruti off  and on, but two instances stand out – when we started putting together material on Madurai Somasundaram and Mysore Vasudevachar. For years we were trying to bring out  comprehensive stories on these two giants, but things did not fall in place till recently. Last year, in July 2021 we finally succeeded in publishing a cover  story on Madurai Somu.  And in this July issue, we present to you the cover story on the great vaggeyakara Mysore Vasudevachar.  Difficult to believe, but Sruti began  collecting and sifting through the material on this scholarly musician almost thirty years ago! Some years later, scholar-musician S. Rajaram offered to write about his famous grandfather, but he was unable to devote enough time to this after he took on the mantle of directorship of Kalakshetra. Finally, our efforts have borne fruit after several years,  when arts activist and writer V.R. Devika (who too has her roots in Mysore) offered to write for Sruti about the ‘grand old man’ soon after she played the narrator for Vasudeva Gana Sudha presented by the Dhananjayans recently. She has done extensive research on Vasudevachar for the purpose and visited the places associated with him. You will certainly relish the two part feature on the master composer. Vasudevachar adorns Sruti this time, with images of Mysore, his house and Kalakshetra in the background. Another article with a Mysore connection is about a CD titled Nrithya Sangeetha, featuring   compositions of the musician-king Jayachamaraja Wodeyar which lend themselves to dance.

The spotlight this time is on veteran artist Prof. A. Janardhanan who celebrated his  80th birthday this April. Deeply loyal to his alma mater, he has spent his lifetime serving in Kalakshetra as a student, academician, guru and a performer par excellence. Sruti is privileged to have published a cover story on this unassuming artist a few years ago. On the occasion of this recent milestone, we join in the felicitations and share with you his insights on ‘dance matters’.

Mannarkoil Balaji is another artist, who without much fanfare, has made a mark in the field of percussion as a versatile senior mridangist and a well versed teacher and writer. In an interesting interview he provides insights into his life-rhythm.

This year Guru Poornima falls on 13 July 2022 – it is a day for disciples to pay respect to their gurus. The ‘Gu-ru’ is much
more than a teacher, he/she is one who leads the disciple from darkness to light, from ignorance to awakening and towards the light of true knowledge.

In the stories about Mysore Vasudevachar and natyacharya V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai you can peep into the past, and get an interesting glimpse into the guru-sishya relationship in the gurukulams of yore.

Sruti mourns the passing away of veteran Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher M.K. Saroja. She, her late husband Mohan Khokar and son Ashish Khokar have all along been well wishers of Sruti. Our condolences to the bereaved family.

There is no doubt that art is entertaining, but whenever possible, art should also play the role of a catalyst in society—like Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore did through his numerous poems, songs and dance-dramas (read in the News & Notes section). Art can be an effective  vehicle to sensitise the audience against evils and to uphold values. Art that is elevating is what lingers on – and it is the responsibility of the artists to play their chosen roles to perfection.

S. JANAKI