A concert of Hindustani vocal music by Sumathi Murthy recently hit all the right notes

Undeniably, there was a refreshing change of pace – and space – at Sumathi Murthy’s concert recently. It was held at the Alliance Francaise, so it wasn’t a piano that greeted visitors, as is usual, but an empty stage, soon to be filled up by Sumathi, an Agra Gharana-trained vocalist, tabla player Gurumurthy Vaidya and harmonium player SR Ramakrishna. The change of pace came because Sumathi brought a relaxed, friendly air to the stage.

Held as part of Alliance Francaise’s new ‘Music Discourse’ series, where a concert is followed by a discussion of music, the performance began a lengthy opening alaap in raga Purvi. The singer especially highlighted the lower notes of the raga, and in a sort of build-up, delayed singing the ‘sa’ – which most vocal singing begins with. This had the effect that when the ‘sa’ was finally hit, listeners experienced a tingle, a release of tension. Through a long, moody alaap section, Sumathi chased after the creature that is raga Purvi, attempting – often succeeding – in taming it.

The nom-tom part of the alaap is a characteristic of the Agra gharana, where the vocalist launches into unaccompanied but rhythmic, progressively-faster sections. Sumathi’s version of this was a treat – to more than just this listener, if Gurumurthy Vaidya’s appreciative smiles were any indication. These were sound paintings of the best kind: an initial relaxed, swaying section moved into frantic, frenzied passages.

There’s a deep, primal strength in Sumathi’s bass notes. When she began the bandish, ‘ghadiya ginata’ (‘I count the hours’), her ‘sa’ was deep – and, somehow, ominous – as a gong. One sees the anguish of the lover who is waiting to meet her beloved, hears the infinitely slow tick of the clock.

And like the best vocalists, her voice morphed, to take on a tender, pleading quality in the higher registers. Happily, she managed not to lose vocal power: especially in the higher registers, her voice was sheer power, filling our ears with sound. Additionally, Sumathi’s vocals are skilled enough that she slid easily up and down a raga as if it were some fine piece of thread. The faster part saw taans rain down like arrows in some epic battle. Subsequent compositions – one in raga Maru Bihag, followed by a thumri – further highlighted these strengths. Sumathi was ably supported throughout by her accompanists.

Admittedly, the change of pace referred to earlier also came because of occasional missteps – intentionally or not, at one point, she hummed the parts of an antara instead of singing the words; once in a while, Vaidya had to be rather overt in his display of the beat. It didn’t matter too much, though: there’s a focus on emotion rather than technical perfection, which is enjoyable – especially at moments when her vocals animated the romance, the erotic charge of the lyrics of several Hindustani compositions.