Thursday, May 28, 2015

Carnatic music jazzes up

Travelling light: a journey in Carnatic music

By V Ramnarayan

Chapter 6

Both Krishnan and Guru completed their degree that year. Expectedly, Guru exerted just enough to pass the examination, actually walking out of the hall as soon as he knew he had answered the bare minimum of questions to ensure that, such was his indifference to academic achievements. He was also impatient to leave the exam hall, go to his hostel room and start practising tabla for an important concert a week later at Hyderabad. Krishnan, in fact, missed the exam coming down just the day before with a virulent attack of typhoid. He took the exam in September and did very creditably.

Guru never returned to Chennai from the Hyderabad concert. There, his tabla career took off, as it was the home town of his guru Shaik Dawood.  As he was keen to expand his Hindustani music horizons, Guru looked for a job that would allow him time for talim and riyaz. He got selected as a clerk in State Bank of Hyderabad. The work was child's play for someone of Guru's intelligence, orderly mind, and calm temperament. His boss and colleagues soon became admirers of his music, even demanded impromptu demonstrations of his percussive skills on the office desk and huge ledgers. Enjoying a light workload--somewhat in the manner of the heroes of PG Wodehouse novels--he spent at least as much time in the staff canteen as at his work table.

But Guru's Hyderabad saga will have to wait for now. Back in Madras, Krishnan's music education was proceeding rather erratically, by fits and starts. By now, college and cricket were taking up much of his time. He was also becoming a huge reader, discovering so many new authors. Again, with the advent of 70mm and stereophonic sound, watching movies in well appointed theatres like Safire and Anand was proving to be a pleasant pastime. Still, Krishnan did not neglect music. He regularly listened to radio broadcasts of both Carnatic and Hindustani music. When MS Subbulakshmi became in 1968 the first woman to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi title from the Music Academy, he started following the list of awardees. Palghat Mani Iyer had won it in 1966, and there had been no award in 1967. DK Pattammal followed soon, receiving the ultimate accolade in 1970.

It was around this time that instrumental music really came to the fore in Carnatic music, with three violinists belonging to three different, but distinguished, schools of music, hitting the headlines regularly--Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan. One of the greatest legends of Carnatic music, Mali, was still around, but his concerts in India were rare. Mali's disciple N Ramani was a star in his own right, and a charismatic young veena vidwan Chittibabu emerged on the scene. Lalgudi Jayaraman and his sister Srimathi made a brilliant duo of violinists, while Jayaraman also collaborated with Ramani and veena vidwan Venkataraman in a novel trio. The violin-venu-veena combination was a riotous success. This was also the time Jayaraman began to withdraw gradually from his role as violin accompanist to the stalwart vocalists of the cutcheri scene. From Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, GN Balsubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to later stars M Balamuralikrishna, KV Narayanaswamy and MD Ramanathan, he had accompanied the best in the business with distinction, but now it was time to move on, striking a solo path. He did play second fiddle to the new generation of singers of the likes of TN Seshagopalan and TV Sankaranarayanan, but not for long. Of course, like the mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, he refused to accompany female artists (the subject of a later chapter).

A sensation in the cutcheri circuit around this time was the arrival of Higgins Bhagavatar, from the USA. A trained vocalist in Western classical music and a researcher with a PhD in ethnomusicology, Higgins Bhagavatar as he came to be known first learnt Indian music from T Ranganathan, a brother of the Bharatanatyam dancer Balasaraswati, at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, came to Madras for advanced learning from flautist T Viswanathan, another brother of Bala. Higgins had a rich baritone voice which helped him capture the imagination of south Indian audiences when he started giving concerts like a seasoned bhagavatar.  More than just a novelty as an American vocalist in the Carnatic music tradition, he impressed the sternest purists, who naturally pointed out his occasional shortcomings in pronunciation and raga alapana.  He did achieve a rare proficiency in his field through dedicated practice and reverence for the Dhanammal school of music, including the padams and javalis the bani was famous for in his repertoire, as well as the great kritis of the tradition.

Krishnan had  a few encounters with Higgins Bhagavatar--one of which was personal--that he would not easily forget. The first was an AIR broadcast advertised as a concert by Jon Higgins, to listen to which he sat along with his stern eldest uncle and other family members. The programme was a huge success with the family, with everyone marvelling at Higgins's extraordinary mastery of an alien music system, his excellent diction and his amazing raga sense.  The eldest uncle was as enthusiastic a listener as the rest of the audience. Unfortunately, there had been a last-minute change of programme, and the voice they had heard belonged to M Balamuralikrishna, not Higgins. A disgusted uncle, no fan of Balamurali, was quick to dismiss the performance as mediocre. 

The second incident gave Krishnan a chance to meet Higgins personally at a wedding which the bhagavatar was filming on his movie camera. It was a brief meeting, but gave Krishnan a glimpse of Higgins's very pleasant personality. He spoke of his great admiration for the members of Dhanammal's family, the wonderful legacy of Brinda-Muktha's music, the superb teaching methods of Viswa, and the generosity with which the family embraced an American student. This was an eye-opener for Krishnan, who had hitherto been completely unaware of this parallel universe of Carnatic music.

Concert music in Madras was changing rapidly, though it continued to adhere to the format pioneered by Ariyakudi. New kritis were becoming de rigueur in concert after concert, though  they were not really new songs but songs recently rediscovered after long disuse from the traditional repertoire. The epic ragamalika composition Bhavayami Raghuramam by Swati Tirunal that had been tuned by Semmangudi was quite the rage in cutcheri big and small, and an intrinsic part, especially wedding concerts. Ragas of the lighter variety with inadequate scope for manodharma were competing with the grand major ragas for listener preference. The lilting Raghuvamsasudha in Kathanakutoohalam was another hit, especially when a popular instrumentalist like Chittibabu displayed his variegated gifts playing it.

Artists like Chittibabu and Balamuralikrishna forayed into film music, the former as music director of such movies as Kalai Kovil and the latter as a singer in the film Tiruvilaiyadal with his exciting swara singing in the song Oru naal poduma. The film industry sheltered many talented musicians, especially instrumentalists, who found it a more lucrative avenue than the concert platform. Vocalist Madurai GS Mani as an assistant music director, violinist VS Narasimhan and sitarist Janardan Mitta were examples of accomplished classical musicians making a livelihood in cinema. MB Srinivasan was a talented music director, too, with his knowledge and adaptation of Western music.

Krishnan was to leave Madras in December 1970 to pursue a banking career in Hyderabad, where he rejoined Guru, who had migrated there three years earlier. It was there that his informal education in Hindustani music took root and grew. 

No comments: