Posts Tagged ‘Carnatic’

Innovations in Veena lost to us

February 26, 2010

Sriram Venkatkrishnan writes about Venkataramana Das:

According to Prof. Sambamurthy, the maestro had some rare veenas in his possession including one made of sampangi wood and another, a gift from the Maharajah of Mysore that had a “metallic spring suspended from the under side of the top plank of the bowl. When necessary the instrument was just tilted and the spring gave a ringing melodious series of sounds.” Wonder what happened to these?

A nice piece; it also mentions about the practice of holding veena vertical while playing it:

Venkataramana Das followed the now almost extinct tradition of holding the veena vertically while playing. Today, this practice is followed only in the Srirangam temple during the Ekanta Seva.

Take a look!

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Inequalities, irresponsible behaviour and power games in Carnatic music circles, breaking the rules in art and science, and the materialisation of the mythology of Shiva: Links from the Hindu — Sunday magazine

December 14, 2008

[1] Degradation on and off the stage?

T M Krishna, a performing artist, writes about some of the unsavoury things that he notices (in a piece that is sure going to generate some heat) on and off the Carnatic music stage:

Yes, a concert is team play and the main singer or main performer is like the captain of a ship but does the captain exploit his position? Yes, he does. Right through the years, the main artist (this is an expression many accompanists don’t like) have used their position as the central figure in a concert to undermine the accompanists.

We, as the main performers, can easily prepare what we want to sing and throw it as a surprise to the violinist just to make him/her look incompetent.

This has happened before and is happening even today. We sing a complicated pallavi, a rare raga or extensive mathematical calculations (which can be easily prepared in advance) and sometimes the accompanist does find it difficult to cope, not because they are incapable, but the thought process in the mind takes a while for the transfer to the hand. Some of us make sure a mistake is committed, keep on singing complicated ideas until the point that the accompanist makes the mistake and then, of course, a smile of victory. Most accompanists actually need to be much more equipped than the singers. They must have such a strong grounding that they can respond to various styles, attitudes and requirements, yet we play mind games with them. Sometimes we make mistakes and give the accompanist an angry look as if to infer that the mistake came from them. This is disgraceful. So is this really team play? Are we really partners? I don’t know, but when we display such attitudes I find this whole team play concept a little utopian.

What about external attitudes? Many of us main artists do not pay our accompanists well. We expect the organisers to pay us handsomely but care very little about our accompanists. Why? Is it the arrogance that we are the main attraction in the concert? That people buy tickets to hear us, not the accompanists? May be. How right is this? There must be some balance between what we make and what we give the accompanists. We cannot accept Rs. 50,000 and pay our accompanist Rs. 500! This is nothing but exploitation.

From what we hear from many senior musicians, this was not the case before. The accompanists of yesteryears were paid in reasonable parity to the main performers. So why has it changed today? I think it has because carnatic music today is “main performer centric”.

Many times the hotels that are provided for the main performer are of a higher class than that of the accompanists. Cars of a better class are given to the main performer. This is as discriminatory as it can get and we don’t complain. We are as much party to this as anyone else. Therefore, the main performer is all who matters . This has to change. We cannot produce music alone, it is enhanced and embellished tremendously by our accompanists and we need the humility to accept it. There is also an urgent need for the audience and organisers to educate themselves so that they can understand the dynamics better.

Krishna also has some complaints about the behaviour of accompanying artists and how they undermine the performances with their callous attitude (like the accompanying artists who send sms messages during the concert while the musician is singing alapana!); a must-read (though, not a very pleasant read) for all Carnatic music afficianados!

[2] A book about S Chandrasekhar and the idea of creativity in Science

V R Devika writes about the novel Empire of the stars by the historian of science Arthur Miller:

Empire of the Stars traces the idea of black holes from early notions of “dark stars” to wormholes, quantum foam, and baby universes. In the process it follows the rise of the two great theories — relativity and quantum mechanics — that meet head on in black holes.

The novel provides a unique window into the remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, how they live, and, most portentously, how they die. It is also the moving tale of one man’s struggle against the establishment and exposes the deep-seated prejudices that plague even the most rational minds. Indeed, it took the nuclear arms race to persuade scientists to revisit Chandrashekar’s work from the 1930s. Only then did physicists realise the relevance, truth, and importance of Chandra’s work, which was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Set against the waning days of the British Empire in India and taking us right up to the present, this sweeping history examines the quest to understand one of the most forbidding phenomena in the universe, as well as the passions that fuelled the quest over the course of a century.

Sounds like fun!

[3] Materialisation of the mythology of Shiva

We had spent quite a lot of time, while we were in Chicago at the Cloud Gate — marvelling at its flawless shape, structure and finish; the photo of the cloud gate on my blog (Thanks Ram!) is also one of the most visited pages; but, I never suspected the “Shaivite iconography” that underlies the sculpture till I read this piece by Meenakshi Thirukode:

However, the definitive embodiment of traditional iconography and philosophy based on the mythology of Shiva materialised into “Cloud Gate” (2004), popularly known as the “Bean” because of its elliptical shape. The 110-ton of stainless steel that has been welded together seamlessly, sits at the AT & T plaza in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A 12-foot high arch encourages the viewer to walk under the sculpture and see their kaleidoscopic reflections on its pristine surface. “Cloud Gate” encompasses a space that is both material and spiritual at a level beyond the immediate comprehension of the viewer. Kapoor talks of this experience as being “a direct attribute of the sublime”, a description he made of another massive work, “Marsyas”, which was constructed at the Tate a year earlier. While it is impossible for the viewer to grasp the entirety of “Marsyas”, he experiences the “modern sublime” as a comprehensive whole when he stands in front of “Cloud Gate”. On its surface the viewer sees the reflection of the phallic skyline, the clouds above and himself; as if the sky, earth and the human soul have been conjoined in a transcendent communion. This experience takes place due to the placement of the sculpture in front of the towering buildings that run across Chicago’s skyline. These attributes associated with “Cloud Gate” make it the most profound manifestation of a highly evolved contemporary icon that Kapoor has created by constantly questioning and discovering the symbolism of traditional Shaivaite iconography throughout his career.

The curved organic form of “Cloud Gate” marks a departure from the rigid stone pieces, giving it the aura of a living breathing creature recalling the forms in his early works from the early eighties such as “1000 Names”. This quality, coupled with an emphasis on its horizontality, makes it a strong reference to the couchant bull, Nandi. Furthermore, its alignment to the skyline evokes the placement of Nandi in relation to the sanctum sanctorum in Shaivaite temples. This is because the skyline is dotted with a number of high rise buildings, which simultaneously recalls the phallic form of the Shiva Lingam, and the myth of the Lord’s ability to manifest multiple times. What makes this work profound is that Kapoor successfully creates a contemporary icon that projects an implicit simplicity, within which lies a complex assimilation of conventional mythology.

Bharathi and Carnatic music

October 3, 2008

In his latest encore piece, Sriram Venkatkrishnan writes about Bharathi, his interest in Carnatic music, his death and the tributes paid to him at that time (with special reference to that paid by T S Satyamurti), and how his songs became part of every Carnatic musicians repertoire:

Bharati himself was passionate about classical music, writing about it and in one memorable tract even chiding musicians for singing without understanding the import of the lyrics.

There is a school of thought that holds the view that Bharati was the first and perhaps best among the long line of Carnatic music critics.

The acknowledgment by the world of his genius however lay in the future. Bharati breathed his last on September 11, 1921, surrounded by his immediate family and a handful of friends, his physical form emaciated with illness and the traumatic incident concerning the elephant in the Sri Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane..

The Hindu on September 12, 1921, devoted part of its editorial to the passing of Bharati and it is worth quoting in full: “We regret to learn of the death of Vara Kavi Subramaniya Bharati at his residence in Triplicane last night. The deceased (sic) was an ardent nationalist, a great thinker, a stirring speaker and a powerful writer. He is the author of a number of Tamil works including “National songs.”

One of the photographs that accompany the piece is that of Bharathi and Chellammal; while Bharathi is standing upright with his head tilted towards her, one can see Chellammal being pulled towards the poet — which makes her stand at an angle to the vertical; and, of course both are looking straight ahead into the camera. A nice piece and a beautiful photo. Take a look!

PS: By the way, the Carnatic criticism pieces of Bharathi are such fun to read! I do not know if English translations of them exist though.

The shape of classical concerts: must read of the day!

September 12, 2008

Alex Ross, writing on the format of modern Western classical concerts, begins his piece with a description of the concerts themselves:

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. The music usually begins a few minutes after eight, listeners having taken their seats beforehand to peruse program notes or chat with neighbors. The evening falls into two halves, each lasting around forty-five or fifty minutes. An orchestral concert often proceeds from overture or short tone poem to solo concerto, and then to a symphony or some other major statement; a solo recital builds up to a big sonata or a virtuoso showpiece. The audience is expected to remain quiet for the duration of each work, and those who applaud between movements may face embarrassment. Around ten o’clock, the audience claps for two or three minutes, the performers bow two or three times, and all go home. Opera has a slightly looser code—the length of the evening depends on the composer’s whims, and the audience makes its feelings known with sporadic applause and very occasional boos—but there, too, an atmosphere of high seriousness prevails.

The piece, which is a review of two books that trace the history of how the current format and playing/listening styles emerged has plenty of interesting things to say — like this one about listening to an opera in Paris in the years before the French Revolution:

Here is Johnson’s evocation of a night at the Paris Opéra in the years before the French Revolution:

While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.

In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé. Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, “There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat.”

There are a couple of things that caught my attention: one is that in earlier times the audience seldom sat down or quieted down; the other is that Franz Liszt introduced a routine by which audience might ask for their favourites by writing them down on slips of paper. Both these are true of modern Carnatic concerts!

There is also some anthropology, of course:

With the aristocracy declining in the wake of the French Revolution and subsequent upheavals, the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold: programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, program notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided. To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. “The bourgeoisie isn’t a class, it’s a position,” the Journal des Débats advised. “You acquire it, you lose it.” Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

The piece also suggests how the hushed down audience helped/encouraged the composition of some of the modern pieces and discusses how the genius of Beethoven anticipated some of these developments of the concert scene.

Ross ends his piece with a suggestion as to why the current concert format also needs modifications:

The problem isn’t that the modern way of giving concerts has grown hopelessly decrepit, as some say; it’s that music has for too long been restricted to a single, almost universally duplicated format. If the idea is to treat composers as serious artists, then concerts must become significantly more flexible, in order to accommodate the myriad shapes of music of the past thousand years. Superbly polished as today’s performances are, I sometimes get the feeling that the classics are a force more contained than unleashed, and that new works might still produce the tremendous effect that Beethoven had on Berlioz’s old music master at a concert in Paris: “When I came out of the box and tried to put on my hat, I could not find my own head.”

A must-read piece!

While we are on the topic, some of you might also be interested in listening to what Ariyakudi, the doyen of Carnatic music and the pioneer of modern Carnatic concert, has to say about Carnatic concert tradition (or kutcheri paddhathi, as he called it).

Kunnakudi: RIP

September 9, 2008

Hindu reports on the passing away of the renowned violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan:

Born on March 2, 1935, he trained under his father Ramaswamy Sastry. As a youngster, he accompanied stalwarts, including Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Maharajapuram Santhanam and Chittoor Subramanya Pillai. He also performed with legendary nagaswara vidwans such as T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai and Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai.

He made a mark in classical music as well as film music, and made conscious attempts to make music more accessible to the common man.

I remember a Kumudam edition for which he was the editor, in which he recounted the story of his becoming a violinist and also the extraordinary training he underwent. Unfortunately, I had never heard him live 😦

Here is Music India Online page of Kunnakudi. He will be missed!

The many comebacks of Semmangudi

August 8, 2008

M V Ramakrishnan writes about Semmangudi’s many comebacks on the concert scene:

Of course, the maestro did retire as a performing artist a few years later, after giving many more wonderful concerts. But even then he couldn’t resist the clamour of his adamant admirers, and made a spectacular comeback in 1996 when he was 88 years old, with a memorable concert in Hamsadhwani. Which inevitably makes us think of Sherlock Holmes, who just couldn’t be killed by his own creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but staged a comeback to live permanently in English literature — just as Semmangudi is bound to live on in Indian music!

A nice piece!

A tribute to two musicians

May 30, 2008

Lakshmi Devnath profiles Tanjore Kalyanaraman:

He tuned the ashtapadis of Jayadeva only in Hindustani ragas, incorporating his unique touch. After all, wasn’t Jayadeva from Orissa? Kalyanaraman’s recitals of these included fast-pace taans too. Listening to his disciple sing Suddhananda Bharati’s ‘Nilayam Onru Enukku Arulvaai,’ GNB walked up to him and demanded, “Teach me this and give me the notation.” And that, one supposes, is the final word.

Sriram Venkatkrishnan, in his Encore piece, profiles a musicians’ musician  of the bygone era, Sabhesa Iyer. As usual, Sriram’s piece contains some hard to come by nuggets of information — like this one, for example:

Padinaindu Mandapam, or the street of fifteen pavilions, is in Tiruvaiyaru. At the instance of King Tulaja II of Thanjavur, Rama Brahmam, Tyagaraja’s father, was entrusted the responsibility of distributing the houses on this street to learned Brahmins who specialised in Varuna Japam, the chant that induced rain. One of the families that benefited from this munificence was that of Nayam Venkatasubba Iyer, a vainika in the Thanjavur Court. His grandson was ‘Pallavi’ Doraiswami Iyer. He was a vaggeyakkara also, composing songs with the mudra ‘Subramania.’ He was also a talented painter and did watercolours for the themes of his songs. Some of these have survived and are with his descendants.

Take a look!

A chat with Vijay Shiva

December 27, 2007

I am a great fan of Vijay Shiva; his Swatantra Geethangal (a two cassette set, released for the fifty years of Indian Independence) was one that I used to play every day (for several years); I wore out at least two sets; though, unfortunately, I do not know any place online where you can listen to Swatantra Geethangal, you can listen to Vijay Shiva at the Music India Online site. Vijay Shiva (along with T M Krishna, I think) is also one of the authors of Learning to appreciate carnatic music series (which you can listen to online).

In the Friday Review edition of the Hindu, V Balasubramanian reports on his recent chat with Shiva. Shiva has some interesting things to say, like this one about nature versus nurture, for example:

I firmly believe that more than the genes, it is the atmosphere you grow in that shapes you. To cite a couple of examples, D.K.Pattammal is the first musician in her family and so is P.Unnikrishnan.

Shiva also has nice things to say about DKP:

Once, knowing that I was going to sing on Shyama Sastri Day, she summoned me over phone to come and learn the rare ‘Mangalam’ composed by him! Until then I never knew of its existence! DKP amma keeps track of my development. As she is aging there are no regular classes now, but it is Divine guidance I get from her.

Take a look!

Too many strings in a violin?

December 13, 2007

Here is a must-read piece in the Hindu: Sriram Venkatkrishnan’s Encore piece on Chowdiah, the violinist who introduced seven-stringed violin:

Violin maestro T. Chowdiah was the originator of the seven-stringed violin. In the initial years, he faced stiff resistance from the music fraternity about its usage. His Guru, Bidaram Krishnappa himself led the protest, but was later reconciled to i t.

When Chowdiah used it for accompanying Ariyakkudi, the maestro asked the violinist as to how many more strings he had in his violin-case.

Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer derisively remarked that singing to the seven-stringed violin accompaniment was like singing in a smithy. The violin was so loud that it was only Chembai who was not bothered about it. After all, had he not once sung with the nagaswaram as his accompaniment? Madurai Mani Iyer too, did not have a problem, for in his concerts there was only one mike and so the violin was rather muted.

GNB simply called him ‘Sound-iah’. The Dhanammal family, with their sardonic humour, punned on his name and called him ‘Sevu’diah, hinting that the sound would make ears deaf. But Chowdiah chose to fight on and such was his loveable nature and mastery over the instrument that musicians and audiences were soon won over.

I think, if only internet was there in those days, and if only Dhanammal family maintained a blog, it would have been the blog on music!

Sriram Venkatkrishnan goes on to give more infromation on clashes during conferences and resulting adjournments:

A few die-hards were not, and the chief among them was C.S.Iyer, brother of Nobel laureate Sir C.V.Raman and a former Accountant General. Iyer, an expert violinist, wrote a book titled, ‘The Art and Technique of Violin Play and Other Essays on Music’ in 1941. In this, he argued that the cramped position in which the South Indian violinist holds his instrument has ensured that he does not use more than half the length of the string, with the “mediocres” using only “2/5ths of the string from the neck.”

Also, he said, since violinists are largely accompanists playing to a male voice, they play at low pitches leading to further loss of tone. It is this handicap, said Iyer, which had “forced an artiste to devise the seven-stringed violin with Banjo strings so that he may not have to play above a third of the violin from its neck. As if all his attempts to damp the full violin tone are not sufficient, the violinist occasionally rubs fine oil on his left finger tips while playing, to secure easy movement or slipping of fingers! What a mockery of violin play!”

The write-up was not taken kindly to by Chowdiah and the two clashed bitterly during the Academy Conference of 1942 leading to the adjournment of a day’s proceedings. They were to meet again in 1947 when Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer presided over the conference.

So what happened in 1947?

It could have led to a repeat of 1942 had it not been for the diplomacy of Semmangudi. He immediately intervened and appealed for “adopting the golden mean between purity and orthodoxy on the one hand and innovation and progress on the other. While he said he had his own regard for the good work which C.S.Aiyar was doing on the academic side, he would add his own testimony to the fact of the excellence of the accompaniment of vidwan T. Chowdiah on his seven-stringed violin.” That diffused matters and the presentation ended.

Apparently, Chowdiah went on to experiment with a 19 string violin.

Oh! If only somebody like Sheila Dhar took up the task of writing a comprehnsive history of Hindustani and Carnatic music in the 20th century!

Tributes to two instrumentalists

December 7, 2007

Sriram Venkatkrishnan’s latest Encore piece in the Hindu is about the passing away of Carnatic musician and nadaswaram vidwan T N Rajarathnam Pillai (in 1956); the piece is a must-read, at least for some of the rare insights that it gives into Pillai’s musical training and lineage:

The Hindu’s tribute, titled “Memoir,” recorded that “even if Rajarathnam Pillai had not taken to nagaswaram, it is quite possible he would have shone as an outstanding vocal vidwan.” TNR’s singing prowess was known to many and though he did not choose to advertise it he did give at least one vocal concert over the radio.The diarist N.D.Varadachariar wrote warmly about it in the 1940s. He had at a very early age been trained in vocal music by Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer. He had even performed vocal duets with his sister Dayalu. It was only on the suggestion of the pontiff of the Tiruvavaduturai Mutt that he was trained on the nagaswaram and what a farsighted suggestion it was. But then, given that TNR was nagaswaram wizard Tirumarugal Natesa Pillais nephew and adopted son, the pontiff perhaps had an intuition. In fact it was Natesa Pillai who gave TNR the name Rajarathnam. He had been christened Balasubramaniam at birth.

The uncle however died early and it was under Ammachatram Kannusami Pillai that he learnt the basics of nagaswaram. The Hindu gives his Guru’s name as Markandam Pillai, a name not found in other articles on the maestro.

TNR was, however, largely self-taught, like two other geniuses in the field, Flute Mali and Veena S. Balachander. The instrument was really his Guru and also his devoted slave.

In two pieces, Deepa Ganesh and Ravindra Yavagal remember and pay their tributes to Ustad Bale Khan, a sitar maestero, who passed away a few days ago:

Khansaheb belonged to the league of great artistes. If he sat with his sitar, there were times when he would stay put all night. Such was the rigour of his sadhana. For all those who grew up listening to his meditative-scholarly playing, it was difficult to listen to anyone else play the sitar. Music existed for its own sake for Khansaheb. His engagement with his music was so deep that he never felt the need to chase money, name or fame. He was happy and contented with whatever he had. Khansaheb was so unlike other artistes, and not once have I seen him making a bitter remark.

I haven’t seen anyone gentler, more mild than Khansaheb. He spoke very little, but was extremely democratic in nature. His students could confide in him anything, he was a willing listener. Young or old, beginner or advanced learner, Khansaheb’s treatment to all of them was with equal commitment. I remember how he would start his lessons as early as 6 a.m. in the morning and it would only end at 11 p.m. Apart from a quick tea or lunch break, he wouldn’t take any breaks. His patience was something that left me constantly surprised! Khansaheb was incapable of having enemies. Whoever came in contact with him loved him deeply and had great respect for him.

Take a look!