In this era of rapid change and lingering doubts and confusion about one's own dharma, senior vidvan R.K. Srikanthan inspires as an icon of a steadfast musical ideal. His music carries a certain core dignity inherent in the Carnatic tradition that springs from a fine balance of different elements. A balance that is all too often upset by a performer's temptation towards excesses in some chosen areas. He has also shown that his musical dharma — certainly granting other great personal qualities and possibly fortuitous circumstances —could lead to an astonishing preservation of the vocal chords, thereby enabling a sadhana and a kutcheri style that is sustainable at a uniform level of excellence through a lifetime.
Srikanthan, ably supported vocally by his son R.S. Ramakanth and accompanied on the chitravina by N. Ravikiran, on the mridangam by Srimushnam Raja Rao and on the ghatam by Trichy Murali, performed the inaugural concert on Wednesday at the Chennai Fine Arts.
The overall concert experience carried the characteristic shruti shuddham, raga bhava and perfection in the enunciation of sahitya in all languages, for which Srikanthan is known. The kutcheri began with customary gusto with a rendering of the Todi Ata tala varnam Kanakangi, introduced by a minute's worth of soulful Todi conversation between Srikantan and Ravikiran. This was followed by the Mysore Vasudevachar masterpiece Pranamamyaham in the raga Gowla. The exchange of swaraprasthara between Ramakanth and Ravikiran provided an interesting finale. Then came Tyagaraja's rarely heard Harikambhodhi piece Okamata okabana, followed by Patnam Subramania Iyer's Mandari classic Ninnu cheppa karanamemi. Somewhere in the mix, there was the Tyagaraja masterpiece in Kalanidhi, Chinna nade na, with Srikanthan executing some interesting and unusual variations in the higher octaves that took even Ravikiran by surprise. Shanmukhapriya was taken for elaboration and Srikanthan sang a grand alapana in the middle octave before passing the baton to Ramakanth. Ravikiran followed with a characteristically complete portrait of the raga and then the relatively rare Swati Tirunal kriti Mamava Karunaya was taken up. Neraval elaboration and swaraprasthara were at the charanam phrase arigana vidalana parama patucharita and was followed by the taniavartanam. A Purandaradasa kriti in Mohanam, Smarane onde saalade and then the mangalam completed a thoroughly enjoyable concert.
An ideal vocal support for Srikanthan, Ramakanth, when called for, delivers a comparably high calibre of music on his own. His alapana of Shanmukhapriya, starting at the taara sthayi where Srikanthan usually drops him off to complete the rest, was particularly noteworthy. His neravals and swaraprastharas were always very creatively phrased, sometimes climaxing with elegant korvais, all executed with precision and control.
Chitravina maestro Ravikiran, on a rare occasion as an accompanist, fulfilled the role effortlessly with understated excellence, shadowing with instant reflexes that channelled the best elements of violin legends of yore. This rasika found particularly delightful, his alternating use of the mandra and madhya sthayi-s of the chitravina, especially while following along during the vocalists' alapanas. The tone of the chitravina matched the male voices lending an eerily beautiful quality of being voice-like but with a deep bass timbre.
Veteran mridangam artiste Srimushnam Raja Rao's musical versatility is well known and his playing was marked by good nadam, kriti embellishments and anticipation. The tani in Mishra Chapu was excellent and brief, showcasing tishra nadai. Trichy Murali's subdued ghatam shone throughout but came to the fore in the tani, with his neat and tightly controlled responses.
Although a good concert experience, it was marred by very high volume and poor audio balance. With respect to the latter in particular, the volume of the mridangam was quite high; a small auditorium such as the Gohkale Shastri Hall could have done better with just some minimal amplification for the vocalists and the chitravina and none for mridangam and ghatam. As usual, perhaps the real problem is the absence of monitors.
(Uday Shankar is a biomedical design engineer with a keen interest in the design of acoustic and wind musical instruments. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)