Despite a rich performative tradition, writings and books on fine arts, especially performing arts and music, is a rarity in Malayalam. Whatever is written often ends up either as technical guides or as hagiography of one artiste or another. Analytical writing that throws light on the nuances of the art and puts the performance styles and artistes in their historical perspective are very rare. Ramesh Gopalakrishnan’s book on Carnatic musicians – Karnataka Sangeethakaranmar – is an exception in this regard. It is a collection of essays on 24 legendary vocalists of Carnatic music, who have made significant contributions to music in their own ways.
The list includes singers of the first generation who played a foundational role in making the kutcheri what it is today such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subrahmania Iyer and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and the legends who followed them like Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, M.D. Ramanathan, and M.Balamuralikrishna, to the next generation stalwarts like Neyyattinkara Vasudevan, Trichur V. Ramachandran, T.V. Sankaranarayan and Madurai T.N.Seshagopal.
Though these are introductory essays on the artistes, what makes Ramesh’s writing interesting is his ability to delineate and articulate the distinct personality of each singer, their historical context, relationship with their peers, the guru parampara to which they belong, and the various stages in the evolution of their bani and style etc. For this, he has been able to develop a vocabulary of his own to describe the distinct tonal qualities of the voice of each singer, their rendering styles, favourite ragas and kritis, all peppered with interesting details about their personal likes, lives and manners, and also about synergistic partnerships and egoistic rivalries. Sometimes it consists of certain quotes of celebrated musicians about others that sum up their persona and genius, expressing their adulation as well as critical appreciation: for instance, GNB described Ariyakudi as the ‘Bhagavad Gita of Carnatic Music’, while Ariyakudi called D.K. Pattammal ‘Padu petta Ammal’ (‘The Ammal who toiled’), referring to her relentless efforts to hone her skills.
Ramesh’s observations on the dynamic relationship between bhakti and music are also insightful. For instance, his insights about how bhakti features in Ariyakudi’s music as a purely aesthetic factor, while in Chembai’s music it surges forth as a river flowing in spate or as a rousing fireworks, and about how female singers like Pattammal, M.L. Vasanthakumari, and Subbulakshmi redefined and rediscovered bhakti through music in their own distinct and individual ways etc are fascinating. So also are his comments about the various stages through which certain singer’s oeuvre matures over time, and the varying change of stress in each phase on laya, bhava etc.
Ramesh’s writing combines the passion/love for music with rigorous research/knowledge about technical and historical aspects, that too, without cluttering the text with too many jargons and adjectives. Apart from music lovers and students, for the common reader, this book will be a fascinating introduction to the world of Carnatic music and musicians. Focussing on the variety of banis, improvisatory richness and traditional rigour of these legendary singers who defined the tone, tenor and temper of what Carnatic music today is, Ramesh also constantly interrogates the state of contemporary music where rigor often gives way to lightness and easy entertainment. The book, at various points, also appeals to the need for a serious and discerning audience with ears to listen between the notes, and for a vibrant discourse on music that engages with enduring the strength of this long and complex tradition we are heir to.