Some musicians express their views on the concert style formulated by the legendary musician.

Not so long ago, when a musician began his recital with a javali, the resulting furore was more fascinating than the offbeat choice. Similarly, when another sang a varnam as one of the main pieces, he provoked vociferous criticism. Iconoclastic? Breaking sampradaya?

Righteous listeners often forget that the concert format followed by Carnatic musicians was formulated in the modern era, not to uphold the old, but to accommodate new needs in new times.

“He made the path. We followed it,” said an admiring Semmangudi. But what was fluid enough to be so easily changed by Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar has now ossified into iron walls, though a niche-happy M.D. Ramanathan or an eccentric T.R. Mahalingam chose to stray.

Do today's musicians believe that this 60-year-old kutcheri model is sacrosanct? Does it work best -- or is it merely the easier option? Do they ever feel the urge to break out of its stronghold?

The answer is simple for Ranjani and Gayatri. “No other mode has captured the imagination of the public and artists or got closer to the essence of our music, values in tact, without losing out on popularity.”

The essence of music

“Starting with a javali seems more rebellion than creativity,” laughs Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam who believes that the Ariyakkudi format is more relevant now with concerts shrinking to two hours or less. Channel surfing listeners have little patience with anything that fails to grip them instantaneously. “I know that classical music cannot be rushed through. However, chowka kalam and manodharma flow must be balanced with pace and variety.”

While she hugely enjoyed Sanjay Subrahmanyam spreading only three ragas with niraval-swara strung kritis across an entire concert, Sangeetha Sivakumar reflects, “I haven't… I may never do that.”

Shashikiran mentions other sources of inspiration -- MDR singing the 7th swaram in ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu' eight times; Semmangudi beginning with ‘Merusamana'; T. Brinda's restraint with pallavis on the stage but not in the classroom; GNB's four-phase alapanas.

Shashikiran has experimented with the kutcheri format at serious venues. He has also served a series of tukkadas from the start at wedding kutcheris. “What I love about Ariyakkudi is his stamina, the energy level even in his late years. No slackening in tempo, no dragging of kritis.”

Gayathri Venkatraghavan refers to a recent recital where the platform was lit by a circle of kuthuvilakkus. “I dropped my varnam and plunged into Dikshitar's pensive ‘Saravanabhava' (Revagupti). Certainly not possible in sabha kutcheris and that too during the December Season where rasikas reach saturation point only too quickly. Your first few pieces are crucial; they must grip before you slide into chowkam. Listeners also crave for rare and vivadi ragas, but it's hard to spin them out as a major piece. No way Kantamani is going to replace Kalyani.”

“I'm talking like a saleswoman but I have to please listeners from the first row to the last one. My guru M.L.Vasanthakumari insisted, ‘Don't cram everything into first half',” says Sudha Ragunathan. “The Ariyakkudi format helps to maintain proportion. It helps the audience to enter the world of music easily, move to a climax and taper off to a relaxing finale.”

Neyveli Santhanagopalan chuckles, “Ariyakkudi understood south Indian psychology. Don't we go more for the wide than the deep?”

Brevity is not inimical to freedom. They didn't break the mould, but didn't K.V. Narayanaswamy and Ramnad Krishnan set their own rules based on their personalities?”

He sums up: “Ariyakkudi maintained the flow and continuity of harikatha. Subtleties, Ghananayam, bigusugu came more in the way Papa and T.N. Krishnan interpreted his raga phrases on the violin.” Shashikiran interpolates, “Nor did he care so much about raga contrasts.”

Santhanagopalan observes that today it is virtually impossible to begin with a ‘Koniyadi' or ‘Akshayalinga vibho' as robustness and madhyamakala have been established as the hallmark of Carnatic music.

“Nor do I want to start with ‘Mayamma.' But I do wonder if silence and pause do not have an important place in classical music, and whether we have lost them wholly in the flurry to keep it going. Have we forgotten that less can be more in all this restless variety?” How much is the reluctance to step out of the Ariyakkudi format due to fears of audience rejection? Says Vijayalakshmi, “This format gives artists enough scope to explore, innovate. How you blend intellect, manodharma and sampradaya as you take the audience with you is your look out.”

Listeners' choice

“You can ask why should I bend, why can't I do what I want,” Sudha smiles. “Listeners expect a certain package from me and I must satisfy the lay and the informed. No harm in transgressing, but my mind will not allow me to stray from the Ariyakkudi format.”

Will a kutcheri lose its appeal without Ariyakkudi's easy take off, smooth flight and careful landing?

“Audiences text their reviews in mid-concert today. There are instant reports on the Internet. So used are they to this format that they may not digest anything else,” says Gayathri Venkatraghavan, adding, “Why go for change for its own sake? It is not as if we can't accommodate a dwi-nadai pallavi or a lilting tukkada into what we have.”

Sangeetha concludes with a query so simple that it is easy to miss its significance. “Isn't it our responsibility as musicians to offer the best to listeners? Enrich ourselves as artists in the process? Today I think the content is the problem, not the format.”

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Carnatic music idealsDecember 14, 2011