Excellence in accompanists must be actively encouraged so that giants can emerge once again

The quintessential supporting musicians or accompanists have been the players in an orchestra. But there is an emerging crisis among orchestras in Europe. They are struggling to find instrumentalists who meet their traditionally high standards and are being compelled to compromise.

This is apparently not due to a scarcity of good instrumentalists. The better artistes seem to prefer other musical options that offer them a higher sense of identity even if these options offer lower economic security. One of the reasons attributed to this trend is the personality cult surrounding soloists and conductors that has developed over the last few decades. Who the soloist was or who the conductor was became more important than which orchestra was playing.

“When did the Carnatic concert go from being “our” kutcheri to “my” kutcheri? Why is a concert announced as XYZ and party?” A mridangam artiste who has been accompanying for over 25 years now says: “I am one of the busiest percussionists on the Carnatic music scene today. But I am hardly recognised as an individual artiste. I am in competition with 70-year-old veterans, talented 20-year-old youngsters and everyone in between. Maybe when I am 70, I will be recognised and honoured.

“What do I tell my students who learn mridangam with such great enthusiasm? That I will be hogging the limelight when the time should rightfully be theirs? Whether it is from the rasika-s or sabha-s or main artistes, as percussionists we get very little space.”

K.V. Prasad, who has been playing for almost 40 years now and has accompanied everybody from M.S. Subbulakshmi to current-day musicians, agrees. But he says that the mridangam artistes do have it better than violinists. “At least the vocalist needs us to create a build up to an applause at the climax of a long neraval or kalpanaswara section. The vocalist also does not mind the applause we get after the tani. But if a violinist should play a raga alapana better than the main artiste, that may not be appreciated.”

B. Ganapathiraman talks about how he grew up being inspired by artistes like Mannargudi Easwaran, Srimushnam Rajarao and Trichur Narendran. Now he plays in the same slot as them and feels that they have just not received the recognition they deserved. Ganapathiraman says, “I am baffled by the struggle to establish an identity. Only rasika-s can answer this question. In a Carnatic music concert, the main artiste is always at centre-stage and we support the main artiste to make the best music. But the spotlight should cast a glow on the accompanists as well.”

Tiruvarur Bhakthavatsalam has a different take on the matter. He says that rasika-s do recognise his individuality and appreciate his playing. However, it is the way it plays out in the media that diminishes their importance. “For every ten rasika-s who are there at the kutcheri, ten thousand people read about it in the newspaper. The accompanist hardly features prominently in the reporting. We are now cut out from the photographs as well.”

Across the board, accompanists felt that sabha-s had distanced themselves from fixing accompanists themselves and this had severely compromised their standing. The sabhas’ refrain is that if they offer a total budget of Rs. 50,000, the main artiste would gladly bring a suitable set of accompanists, but if they try to fix the accompanist, the main artiste asks for Rs. 40,000 for themselves and the sabha cannot manage all accompanists’ costs with the balance.

Refreshingly, the scene for the upapakkavadyam-s (ghatam, kanjira and morsing) is different. Both Karthick (ghatam) and B.S. Purushotham (kanjira) agree that times have never been better. A much larger percentage of concerts feature upapakkavadyam-s and their performance opportunities have grown manifold. The mridangam artiste's attitude towards upapakkavadyam artistes has also improved significantly and they do get his respect on stage. This combination of opportunities and respect has resulted in a substantial jump in the quality and number of ghatam and kanjira artistes today. “There are a number of very talented youngsters playing ghatam and kanjira. I am being pushed to work hard to stay on top.”

Purushotham does point out that he plays over 200 concerts every year.

“For economic reasons, I cannot reduce the number of concerts I play. The disparity in fees between the main and accompanying artistes is too high. I have never seen an accompanist say I have done enough concerts.”

The contrasting pictures of the European orchestras and the Carnatic upapakkavadyam scene hold a lesson. If Carnatic music wishes to continue to foster excellence in violin and mridangam and not drive talented musicians away from taking up accompaniment as a serious vocation, we must think of attitudinal changes. Rasika-s could pay more attention to the concert team as a whole and demand the best from each of them. Sabha-s could revert to the old system and play a selector’s role in determining good team compositions.

Main artistes could show more courage and graciousness in getting the best accompanists to give their best on stage and be happy to share the spotlight.

Nobody doubts that there is talent aplenty in Carnatic music. But if we would like to see the continued evolution of Carnatic music, excellence in accompanists must be actively encouraged so that giant musicians as accompanists will once again be a celebrated part of the Carnatic music stage.

This concludes the two-part series by the author (see the first part, 'Where are the giants', December 25) on the role of accompanists in a Carnatic music concert.

(Viswanath Parasuram is an educator, musician and co-founder of Karadi Tales. He can be reached at vish1962@gmail.com.)

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Where are the giants?December 25, 2012