Ragas, talas and rasikas

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 21, 2011 21:31 hrs

V Anantha Nageswaran reviews the latest edition of Chennai’s December Music Festival.

The relationship that Chennai rasikas, or Carnatic music fans, have with artistes is odd. They appear to take the artistes for granted, yet they thronged the Music Academy auditorium when the veteran Nedanuri Krishnamurthy conducted a lecture-demonstration on the concept of raga.

Nedanuri, in a guru-shishya display with the Malladi Brothers, lamented the dwindling of niraval singing (extempore improvisation) and varnam (long, typically introductory pieces), and the tendency to sing new kirtanas. Ragas, he said, should be elaborated in great detail. He is in his 80s, but his voice is strong and steady. The rasikas accorded the same respect to the father-daughter duo of MS Gopalakrishnan and Narmada, who did a lec-dem on gamaka (or ornamentation) in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. A 20-second fragment of Raga Hindolam played by Gopalakrishnan melted the audience, and they insisted on a 120-second encore.

There was also the first public performance of Ramana Maharishi’s Akshara Mana Mala set to 14 ragas by Vijayalakshmi TV Sankara Narayanan.

The two sisters Ranjini-Gayatri performed for four hours on December 30 at Kalarasana. They are at the top of their craft, and blend entertainment and quality well. Their concert was embellished by violinist HN Bhaskar and percussionist Arun Prakash. Srivalsan Menon’s concert was appreciated. It started off with 50 people in the audience, which dwindled to 30 by 8 pm, but it was lovely — well-planned and well-executed. It is a pity that listeners did not have the patience to separate quality from popularity. A great voice.

Shertalai Ranganatha Sharma also has a good voice, with the personality of a Bhagavatar. Singing in a small concert hall, however, the artiste should coordinate with the sound engineer to make sure the concert does not become too noisy. His percussion and ghatam accompanists were over-enthusiastic.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, performing at Kalakshetra on December 31, enjoyed himself, and so did his audience. Sri Mushnam Raja Rao on the mridangam was too exuberant, but his encouragement for the kanjira artiste was good to see.

V Shankar Narayanan, disciple of TN Seshagopalan, gave a well-organised and compact concert. He stuck to the rulebook and sang well within himself. Seshagopalan's son, TNS Krishna, left one impressed. He seems to have flair and creativity, though on occasion more of these qualities was displayed than is ideal, Notwithstanding the high prices for daily tickets, uncomfortable seating, barely satisfactory acoustics and sound systems, poor toilet facilities for artistes and audience alike, and inadequate parking, the Sabhas excel in one thing that is un-Indian: punctuality. That the artistes are able to co-operate on this, despite juggling different programmes in far-flung parts of a growing city is admirable.

Those who lament the deterioration, the absence of bhakti or bhava, or both, will find support in the views of a popular musician: "Our position can be compared to the ancient mariner who found ‘water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink’. Music, we have in plenty, but it is all of a very cheap quality. This is undoubtedly due to the democratisation of art we see going on all around us, like the surge of a flood, which we are helpless in fighting against. Apart from the mechanical contrivances contributing to this (we are living in an age of gadgets) it is very disheartening to notice that artistes who supply music on the platform and are hence responsible for the growth and development of music culture, also descend to the level of playing to the gallery and thus lower the standards of taste in the art. Whether we are all moving towards an inevitable communism in our political life or not, communism has taken very deep roots in the manner and matter of music propagation — the most dangerous canker that can kill the rise of classical music."

In case this captures your own feeling about the state of Carnatic music, you should know that these are the words of the late, great GN Balasubramanian, uttered in 1951 and published in The Hindu on January 1, 2011. But it’s not that Carnatic music has been killed, as GNB feared — after all, trends and fashions tend to be cyclical. Let us enjoy the music a bit more and lament a bit less.

V Anantha Nageswaran works for Julius Baer and is based in Singapore. The views expressed here are the writer’s

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