The two fundamental aspects of music, shruti and laya, play a vital role in a Carnatic music concert. This is clearly exhibited in the modern-day kutcheri — structured in the format formulated by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the early 20 Century — with the vocalist as the focus and the violin, mridangam, ghatam, morsing and kanjira, the satellites.
If the concert featured both the main pakkavadyam-s (violin and mridangam) and the upapakkavadyam-s (ghatam, kanjira and morsing), it was considered a full-bench kutcheri. Each of the pakkavadyam-s has a specific role to play in a concert. The violinist follows the vocalist’s phrases during the alapana and the swarakalpana and all the pakkavadyam-s come into play during the kriti. When the violinist plays the swara-s, the upapakkavadyam-s accompany him. Sometimes these upapakka vadyam-s alternately accompany the violinist and vocalist. Their mandate is to match the main artiste’s exposition faultlessly shadowing his/her style and yet retain their individuality and originality.
The rapport between the violinist and vocalist is crucial. Both should weave in like the warp and weft of a cloth without any one-upmanship, but a healthy exchange of ideas. When the vocalist sings a raga for ten minutes, the violinist should take care to keep his to the same length and play, literally, second fiddle.
The violinist should also be adept enough to accompany various styles of singing raga-s, kriti-s and swara-s. He needs to adjust and his repartees in consonance with the vocalist. The violinist may exhibit his virtuosity during solo concerts but, when accompanying, should merge with the vocalist’s style and underplay his individuality.
The concert structure
The traditional concert opens with a varnam and is followed by a couple of light kriti-s. At the mid-concert stage, the piece de resistance is rendered — usually a pallavi (a string of meaningful words conceived and set to an intricate beat cycle), during which all accompaniments are given scope to come into focus. The pallavi is rendered in different speeds and tempos.
During the tani avartanam (wherein the percussionists take centre-stage) all the pakkavadyam-s besides the violinist take turns to exhibit their expertise. This usually culminates in a high-octane crescendo.
Palghat Mani Iyer is renowned for his dexterity of strokes and soft touches during these expositions. A mridangam artiste should also know when to accompany, when to pause, how to follow suit and to what extent. Palghat Mani Iyer was a master at this. This is born out of not merely “kanakku” (arithmetic) but an innate sangeeta gnanam (musical acumen) to enhance the beauty of the song.
The shishya-s (disciples) of the singer may, on occasion, give vocal support by singing along. The shishya-s, who would have spent some years in training with the guru, must follow unerringly. The shishya should be thorough with all the songs since most of the great gurus never stuck to any set of kriti-s to be sung for the concert. Great vocalists mastered the art of presenting their concerts according to their ability to sing that day, the condition of their voice, their mood and the audience. When the singer improvises, the shishya would do well to either keep quiet or anticipate the phrase and follow unobtrusively. When the shishya gives skilled support, there is a continuity in the performance.
Pakkavadyam playing is an art in itself. In the figurative sense, laya is present in the entire universe, gives structure and keeps chaos at bay. It is the undercurrent that pervades immanently — as the Bhagavad Gita says — “sutre mani ganaa eva” (as pearls are strung on a thread).
(Kripa Subramaniam is a critic and a music connoisseur.)