'Music of Madras Through the Ages' brought alive an interesting mix of songs, cartoon and history

Pianist Anil Srinivasan came to present Music of Madras Through the Ages at President Hotel with a list of “things to do”. He would talk the audience through musical traditions of Madras, illustrate it with his own playing and vocal renderings by Anusha Chakravaty and Vedanth Bharadwaj, he would prove that playing Carnatic music on the piano has always been part of Madras culture, and in honour of the cartoonscape created by Biswajit Balasubramanian, would keep the evening light and frothy. “This is not a serious concert. This is art and music, factual tale with an artistic twist,” he said as a caricature of him flashed on a large screen. When Anusha sang Papanasam Sivan’s ‘Karpagame Kadaikkan Paraai’ (madyamavathi raga) to round off the event, he had gathered a whole new set of converts to the idea of piano as a Carnatic music instrument.

“There is a lot to be proud of in the music of Madras — there is Classical, street, folk, movie music,” he said. “It is now walking the globe — in New York and London as much as in the remotest villages of Tamil Nadu.” Madras is an idea framed by music, he quoted a British soldier. Now with a year-long season, “we are probably over-kutcherified and over-amplified”.

He played the smooth notes of ‘Malarndhum Malaraadha’ from Paasa Malar and at once had the audience humming and nodding. Choosing songs to represent history as well as variety, he got Anusha to sing a paasuram, a regular chant in the Triplicane temple. On cue, a cartoon of a street bhajan singers with the gopuram as the background lit up the screen. His next, a thillana by Lalgudi Jayaraman, in raga desh, would represent a contemporary Chennai composer. “It is being worked by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the next Commonwealth Games, an example of Madras music going global in different forms,” he said.

This was his opening to prove piano sounds are not alien to Carnatic raga renderings. “When I started playing Carnatic music on the piano, people said, ‘Iyaiyo! What are you doing?’” but combining Carnatic music with international instruments was a legacy of Tamil cinema. Music composers such as MSV and TG Lingappa made it a tradition, he said. He played the tunes of ‘Ayyasamy, Aavojisami’ and ‘Oru Maaligai’ and asked the audience to identify them.

With pictures of composers looking down the screen, Anil played on. Jazz, blues, samba and rock-and-roll were tried successfully by conventional Indian orchestra, he said, striking the notes of ‘Paartha Gnabagam Illayo’. “Odd notes not in the chosen raga were added to the composition.” Who can forget the Western piece in Thillana Mohanambal on the nadaswaram? The intelligently crafted ‘Chithiram Pesuthadi’ (Sabhaash Meena) by Lingappa with its piano accompaniment is so popular that it has been mixed, re-mixed and three-mixed.

A touch of dance

For dance music, a repertoire of songs came from Veenai Danammal school, he said. As Anusha sang ‘Saki Prana’, a delightful jJavali, the screen turned magical: first there were pictures on a wall, a window with people peeping in got added, then came a writer scribbling notes and the veena artiste appeared in the middle.

“The city’s most successful import from Madurai,” said Anil, “MS, I’ll just play.” She materialised on the canvas, with a blue Krishna and a microphone from which waves moved out forming the words ‘Katrinile Varum Geetham’. Vedanth sang DK Pattammal’s ‘Poonkuyil Koovum Pooncholayil’, and followed it with Muthuswami Dikshitar’s note-swarams, the piano chords lilting along. A band of musicians got formed on the screen in bits and pieces — in perfect accompaniment to the music.

Ilaiyaraaja is a genius, said Anil. “Absolutely the last of the true composers before they all became compositors.” A ‘cartooned’ Ilaiyaraaja could be seen playing on a piano with ‘Orampo Rukmini Vandi Varudhu’ spiralling out above and then there was A.R. Rahman, with his halo of hair and ‘Chaiya Chaiya’. And of course, the slum dog with the words ‘Jai Ho’.

Pointing to the cartoon with Aruna Sairam, T.M. Krishna, M.K.T. Bhagavathar, Bombay Jayashri — the lot — and a pink Ganesha looming behind, he said, “It’s me in the corner playing at the very, very Fine Arts Club. I was told, ‘Anil, just remove the piano stool and you can be part of the concert’.”

(The artworks are on view at Forum Art Gallery till September 20)