Folk, Carnatic and Hindustani came together to celebrate the varied facets of Krishna on Day Two of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest.
Chennai has seen fusions galore, jugal and tigalbandis. But Carnatic flute, Hindustani sitar and Rajasthani folk? The ensemble on Day Two of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest had Chennai's own prodigy Shashank Subramanyam and Pandit Ravi Shankar's disciple Shubhendra Rao, accompanied by mridangam (Parupalli Phalguni) and tabla (Chandrajit). On stage, the Manganiyar trio — Anwar Khan (vocals), Feroz Khan (dholak) and Ghewar Khan (kamaicha) — looked magnificent in rainbow pagdis, striped shawls and striking mustachios.
Folk and classical make uneasy partners, but this show had strong artistes on both sides, determined to make it go. Neither the Manganiyars nor the sitar could do anything more than present their own genres, while Shashank varied his strains to bridge the different streams. He used his judgment to contrast and complement the other styles, without losing track of his hardcore Carnatic roots. His flutes long and short, bass and treble, could sustain a single note or spray a sharp downpour. He also managed to keep the vocal component going on the Carnatic side, by singing preludes for each section, starting with the opening lines of the familiar Krishnashtakam (Vasudevasutam devam).
‘The Evening with Krishna' began with celebrations of his birth — brilliantly evoked by the charged voice of Anwar Khan, launched with a perfectly sruti-aligned, long drawn shadja, followed by phrases steeped in Ahir Bhairav (Chakravakam in the south), crisscrossed with weighty and sprightly enunciations. The dhrupad shaili's influence was unmistakable, making the style not alien to the Carnatic. Here, as through the recital, Anwar Khan unfurled a wide-ranging array of gamaks — singular glides to intricate ornamentations, racy to reposeful, testifying to the sophistication of the genre and personal skills.
The repetitions of the name Yasoda Ma were enough to make listeners feel her thrill on their pulses. The sitar and flute made the piece even more jubilant and the movement ended with everyone joining the nadhindhindha race, ending with a companionable flourish.
Predictably Raag Desh appeared, riding on light romance. Shashank had Narayana Tirtha's Nanda nandana prophesying victory to Gopala, with the vigour it demanded, while the Manganiyars painted Krishna playing the flute, driving cows and dancing with the gopis under the trees in Brindavan(Bansi bajaavat, dhenu charaavat). The masculine style came into its own here in sangatis that came surging up and down like monsoon floods, the kamaicha and dholak ringing in the pastoral revels.
The following piece announced as Bhimpalasi, but ranging across everything with Philu strains standing out for plaintiveness, offered unmixed Manganiyar lok sangeet. The verbal reciting of the lines of Holi khele Nandalal set the mood for the dancing bhajan, as the kamaicha gliding and glissading, now tender, then robust, with the dholak for a merry mishra beat partner.
The group undertook to present something of ragam-tanam-pallavi as well, in Kalyani/Yaman — not as taut structure, but more as a free-flowing medley of differing techniques and sounds. All too often, Carnatic musicians change styles in such essays, but Shashank exploited contrast possibilities by maintaining a sharp Carnatic identity. His tanam, though in brief snatches — was nothing short of exhilarating.
Krishna was present here not in a look-at-me call, but in a look-at-the raga wonder. The Manganiyar's vocals did not fit in, while the sitar-flute tandem was weakly balanced, including the ragamalika frills casually thrown in. The rhythm interlude was unremarkable, with the inadequately meshed sollu-sollukattu recital by Phalguni ending in a predictable speed-track finale. The riveting moments were reserved for the varied and verve-packed dholak.The piece ended in a Dvijavanti of changing nadais.
The finale of three pieces stretched for over 20 minutes, with Enna tavam seidanai (Kapi), Mira's Govind liyo mol, and Kalyana gopalam (Sindhubhairavi), a mangalam melodiously enunciated by Anwar Khan Manganiyar. It had its moments, but on the whole, could not rise above the pleasant and the tuneful.
In fact, pleasant is probably the best description of the evening. No distinct identity of Krishna emerged in the music itself, except for the obvious fact that the songs were on him. Nor did the ensemble integrate the different styles in a way that created some organic identity for itself. What lingered in the mind was the spontaneous brilliance of Shashank's imagery and technique, as also the vocal splendour of Anwar Khan.