Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Madras, Music, Madness

I'm currently visiting home after 3.5 long years, and the trip so far has been nothing short of fantastic. The highlight has definitely been attending concerts at the annual December music season in Chennai. Growing up in Bangalore I somehow never managed to attend the season - the first time I did attend was in 2010, but only managed to catch a handful of concerts. This time I was determined to spend at least a whole week and soak in as much of the music as I could, and I'm so glad to report that the plan fructified. A big shout out to amma and appa for all the planning, making the trip happen, and being awesome concert buddies. We heard 27 different concerts in all (not all of them fully, unfortunately) - averaging about 4 a day - and many of them were excellent. I'm still reeling from the whole experience and I thought I should write down a few thoughts on it when it's still fresh in my memory.

First of all, the sheer volume of concerts is mind-boggling. I've of course known about it very well but it's not until you're in the thick of it that you realize the magnitude. Although it was the Madras Music Academy that pioneered it all 90 years ago and has continued to hold sway over the season, the burgeoning of several other sabhas over the decades has quite massively scaled up the season. By a conservative estimate, there are about 25 (prominent-ish) sabhas in the city, and each of them have 3-5 concerts a day, and the primetime of the season lasts about 15 days, from Dec 15th to the 31st - you do the math. The rasika is then faced with the incredibly hard choice each hour everyday, as to where to be. I constantly found myself wishing I could be at multiple venues at the same time. Attending one awesome concert almost always meant missing another, but after the first few days I learned to make peace with this inevitable fact and not be greedy. Talking about misses, a few musicians I was hoping to hear (each for a totally different reason than the other) but sadly wasn't able to were Abhishek Raghuram, Pantula Rama, and T.M. Krishna who sang just one concert. But anyway, no complaints as I got to hear several other great concerts. Here are some highlights of my experience.

When I think back about the season experience this time, probably the one image that comes to mind immediately is that of the young vainika Ramana Balachandran playing for 'Prabhata Sangeetham' early in the morning at 5:30. (It was my first time hearing him live but dad had heard him at Sheshadripuram in Bangalore a while ago and had been praising him since.) Ramana's absolutely wonderful playing in a beautiful ambience created by 40-50 lit oil lamps in a small, intimate setting will be something I will remember for a long time. His Bowli (Karuna nidhiye), Sama (Annapurne), Harikambodhi (Enadhu manam), and Purvikalyani (Meenakshi) were extremely delectable. At times he would sing along as he played and that made it even more enjoyable. In fact throughout the season, the concerts I enjoyed the most happened to be veena concerts. I heard two concerts by Jayanthi (Kumaresh) akka - one with pianist Anil Srinivasan at Spaces in Besant Nagar, and another solo concert at the Music Academy. I loved both - the former was set in a lovely outdoor ambience and the veena and the piano blended quite beautifully. Akka played a very moving Kaapi (Ragam, Tanam, Inta Sowkhyamani), and Anil Srinivasan's playing there brought to mind flashes of immortal film songs based on the raga. Akka's Music Academy concert was probably the best concert I experienced in the entire trip. She played an astounding Charukeshi. (Incidentally she had played a Charukeshi RTP at the Academy in 2010 as well, but each time - if it's even possible - she keeps outdoing herself.) Her sustains and pulling off (pun intended) unbelievably long gamaka-laden phrases without plucking need to be experienced first hand and cannot be described in words. Lastly I also heard Ashwin Anand at Music Academy whose playing also I enjoyed a lot. He played a lovely Dhanyasi (Meenalochani) and Kambodhi (Ragam, Tanam, Sri Subramanyaya). Another instrumentalist I really enjoyed listening to was flautist J.A. Jayanth - he played a very memorable Nandagopala (Yamunakalyani), and elaborated on Kambodhi (O Rangasayee).

Some of the vocal performances I enjoyed were Brinda Manickavasagam's Madhyamavati (Palinchu Kamakshi), Aishwarya Vidya Raghunath's and Ashwath Narayanan's Shankarabharanams (Shankaracharyam and Manasu swadhina respectively), Vidya Kalyanaraman's Saveri (Rama bana), and Bharat Sundar's (extremely complicated and riveting) Thodi RTP - all at the Academy. Oh, and how can I not mention one of my favorite musicians - Ramakrishnan Murthy! I was delighted beyond words that he chose Begada for his main piece, a relatively rare choice. He sang a wonderful ragam, followed by Nadopasana. I also have to mention his exceedingly beautiful renditions of Sripatimiha Nandagopagrihe in Khamas and Sambandar's kaadhalal kasindhu... followed by shuddhamum ashuddhamum in Yamunakalyani and Sindhubhairavi.

One vocal concert I was quite bowled over by was Sriranjani Santhanagopalan's at Bharat Kalachar. What a sweet and also extremely pliable voice she has! She sang a fantastic Vagadeeshwari. I felt her ragam delineation was quite out of the box and extremely well done. There were glimpses of Jog-like finishes and in general quite a few Hindustani-type touches that I really enjoyed. She sang Paramatmudu Velige and her kanakku and pattern-rich neraval and swarams in multiple nadais were so deftly and effortlessly done. She has an abundance of creativity and the ability (and voice) to pull off whatever her mind can conceive, and her music is as aesthetic as it is cerebral.

And of course, there were the superstars Ranjani and Gayathri whom I heard at the Academy. How, how, how do they do it every single time? Such perfection with such consistency! In one word, superb (yet again). The highpoint for me was when Gayathri did a gruhabhedam with Abhogi and Valaji in the (Reethigowla) RTP ragamalika swaram section. It was amazing how she could so nonchalantly switch back and forth. I'd love to see a brain scan of hers while she's at it! (Here's a recording of her doing that very same thing in a different concert: https://soundcloud.com/ranjani-gayatri/abhogivalachi_grahabhedamp3)

This post wouldn't be complete without talking about the veteran Seetha Narayanan mami. Hers was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable concerts and more than that, it was a rich learning experience. What a lovely Bhairavi (Janani Mamava) and Kaapi (Inta Sowkhyamani) she sang! Hers is the kind of music that a music student should go to, if they are ever in doubt about anything. Such perfection and clarity of sangathis and such bhava-rich singing, without any fuss on stage. And if you thought she'd just stick to the "traditionally traditional" fare, you're mistaken - she topped off the already wonderful concert with a fantastic RTP in Nasikabhushani. A truly memorable concert. (See here for a detailed write up about this concert in Tamil by Lalitharam: https://carnaticmusicreview.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/seetha-narayanan/)

Among the younger folk, I very much enjoyed Kruthi Bhat whom I heard at Kalarasana. I loved her Mohanam (Rajagopalam). She also sang a very good Sahana ragam followed by Nijamukha (main piece). She finished with a really wonderful rendition of Lalgudi's Pahadi thillana. What really impressed me was the effort she took to reach quite far into the mandara sthayi, a rarity for female singers. Especially given her age, that was commendable. I hope she continues doing this - her voice is quite lovely at the base range. I also heard Sai Sisters at Narada Gana Sabha mini hall, who sang an impressive Thodi with very well done poruttham swarams for 'soumitri thyagarajuni' in Dacukovalena. It's a pleasure to hear the twins' perfectly in-sync voices.

Another small regret I have is that I couldn't attend as many lec-dems as I'd have liked to. But I did manage to attend one very good one, on 'The Structure of Padams' by Vid. Nirmala Sundararajan at the Academy. A direct disciple of T. Mukta - one of the revered torch bearers of padams in Carnatic music - she gave an enlightening lec-dem. She pointed out that contrary to say, krithis and varnams, no book to her knowledge talks about how padams should be composed. But by and large, padams have a pallavi, anupallavi, and multiple charanams. She then underlined that padams involve a lot of dhatu repetitions and are so rich in raga bhavam that they give you the feeling of singing/ listening to a ragam elaboration. She demonstrated this by singing portions of several padams - what's common to most of them are the long, winding lines replete with the characteristic features of the ragam, with layam in fact taking a back seat. Mostly themed on exchanges between a Nayaka and Nayika, padams cover a wide range of emotions from longing to anger. My favorite rendition of hers was the Sahana padam Morathopu.

Overall the season experience was wonderful. I wish I could write more elaborately about each of the concerts I enjoyed but that unfortunately will be a humongous task for which I don't have the time at the moment. One thing that could be better is acoustics and sound: apart from a handful of places like the Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, and Kalarasana, auditoriums have miles to go in terms of sound quality.

As with probably any institution in the world, the season isn't without its muck - I've come to learn there's quite a rigid hierarchy and a mad race to the top, there are prestige issues, there's pedigree politics, and oodles of factionalism and parochialism. There's lots that can change for the better. But as an outsider, my takeaway is that good talent (although perhaps not without the help of other resources) doesn't go unrecognized, and that if you want to listen to good music, the season has plenty to offer. There is no dearth of talent for sure. (Also, on any given day except for one or two of the evening concerts that are ticketed, all concerts are free!) Yes, there are artists not getting the attention they deserve, but setting aside those politics, as a rasika if you seek them out, you will find them. And if you're invested enough, get your hands dirty and "be the change".

Thank you, Chennai!