Accompanying artistes, often sidelined, are only aspiring for acceptance

The Carnatic music stage has traditionally given significant prominence to accompanists. Chembai-Chowdiah-Mani, GNB-TNK-Pazhani or BMK-MSG-TVG, specific combinations of artistes evoked strong responses from rasika-s. They were larger than life — Lalgudi Jayaraman, T.N. Krishnan, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palghat Raghu, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Trichy Sankaran, to name just a few. As one goes through this illustrious accompanists’ list, it stops abruptly at the 60-s with names such as V.V. Subramaniam and Karaikudi Mani Iyer. When was the last time an accompanist drew rasika-s to a concert?

Did good violinists and mridangists just stop emerging? Any keen observer of Carnatic music would say that the opposite is actually true. The music scene is brimming with highly talented violin, mridangam, ghatam and kanjira artistes now, more than ever. What then precludes the emergence of a Lalgudi Jayaraman or Palghat Raghu from among the successive generations?

In the interviews leading up to this article, it was clear that there was a lot boiling under the surface. Some artistes were willing to make a few points on the record and some points off it. Some artistes preferred to voice their views strictly off the record. Most of the top vocalists begged to be excused from expressing their views. Those who were willing did not wish to be identified. But the angst, belligerence and insecurity among accompanying artistes clearly came through.

More than one vocalist felt that a lot of accompanists had stopped growing after showing a lot of initial promise. This invited a quick and sharp response from a violinist, “When we are paid a pittance and have to average 15 to 20 engagements a month to keep the home fires burning, where is the room to grow?” It is said that Madurai Mani Iyer operated on the principle of distributing 40 to 50% of his fees to his accompanists. This percentage has come down significantly over the last few years.

When a sense of despondence emerges even from the very young and vivacious violinist, Akkarai Subbalakshmi, we must be seriously concerned. “Even though I enjoy giving violin and vocal duet concerts with my sister, violin accompaniment was most important for me. But the scene is very depressing. It is so rare to find a main artiste who is happy when I play to my full potential. I have played for so many emerging vocalists in the early stages of their career because they are eager to have the best accompanists at that point. Once they establish themselves, the situation reverses completely.” She feels that accompanists, on their part, are bending over too easily and not standing up to preserve their dignity. Limiting her possibilities are also archaic gender issues.

Embar Kannan is very conscious of this situation. He feels that he is one of the few fortunate ones that are able to choose their main artistes. He nevertheless points out that there are a few main artistes who do play fair. “I realise that there are exceptions, so I keep my options open. I continue to be involved with film music and instrumental ensembles. Music is primarily my passion. It just happens to also be my profession.”

M.A. Sundareswaran says, “Sabha-s have long given up their role in deciding on accompanists. Like the trend of the angavastram being joined to the veshti or the blouse piece being joined to the sari, the main artiste also comes with a set of accompanists. If a sabha suggests an accompanist outside the familiar set, the main artiste is likely to contradict the suggestion saying that the combination may not work out. You decide whether this is the truth or blackmail.” With such a trend, interesting new combinations of artistes on stage may never be discovered.

‘Accompanying not challenging enough’

When Sriram Parasuram is asked why he is not seen as a violin accompanist any more on stage, he says, “If I have to enjoy my role as an accompanist, I have to be challenged adequately or I must have something substantial to learn. The challenges are rare and I do accompany a few very senior artistes, from whom I have a lot to learn. I can afford to be choosy because I have other musical options.” Kumaresh, of the duo Ganesh-Kumaresh, is more aggressive in his response. “Why should I accompany? Is there a vocalist out there who is alright with me presenting my full capability as a violinist on stage?”

Sriram attributes the current scenario to a blurring of the line between popular art and classical art. “Media and sponsors have very little interest in the art and look for the best image or the best story and create celebrities in the process. The more popular main artistes intelligently exploit this opportunity by carefully nurturing their persona, whether it is their appearance, their PR skills or artificial idiosyncrasies. The accompanying artiste is a non-entity in this picture.”

R.K. Shriramkumar had a different point of view. “We must understand pakavadya dharma. Our duty is to enhance the music of the main artiste. We play a supporting role.” Kumaresh does not like the label of accompanist and says that “supporting” has become “subservient”. “As a violinist, I have worked as hard to become a musician of merit. Let there be vocal-violin jugalbandi-s and let the full possibility of voice and instrument be explored on the same stage.”

The saddest picture emerging from these conversations is that accompanying artistes are only aspiring for acceptance and the aspiration for greatness is dying. No violinist is expecting to become the next Lalgudi Jayaraman or M.S. Gopalakrishnan or T.N. Krishnan. This must trouble all who care for Carnatic music.

The concluding part of this article, to be run on December 30, will include the voices of Carnatic percussionists.

(Viswanath Parasuram is an educator, musician and co-founder of Karadi Tales; email: vish1962@gmail.com.)

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