Excerpts from The Hindu Weekly Magazine, January 22, 1978
With his rich experience of Carnatic concert music, Palghat Mani Aiyar, the great mridangam vidwan, in an interview, presents his frank comments on the contemporary standard of classical music. In his opinion, Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar combined in him all the virtues of an ideal gayaka. He is firm in his view that the lowering of the pitch is the basic reason for the poor showing by performing vocalists.
The outlook to classical Carnatic vocal music is bleak with not a single artiste available who can be counted upon as a hopeful asset. In fact, vocal music may soon disappear from the concert scene if the present trend of musicians to sing to extreme low sruthis in complete disregard of the need to acquire compelling virtues of tone and timbre continues. This trend and the pursuit of dubious musical substance are affecting even aspirants gifted with voice and talent and misleading them into frittering away their energies in unproductive channels.
This view is strong and pessimistic, some may feel, but coming as it does from Palghat Mani Aiyar, the mridangam maestro, who has witnessed concert music and played for it for over five decades now, it has to be accepted as a timely warning from a deeply concerned and experienced mahavidwan who knows what he is talking about.
According to him, the mike is the culprit luring classical singers away from the painstaking path into the lethargic comfort of low and lack-lustre pitches. They desperately seek the amplification “rebound” creating a false atmosphere on the concert platform in which it is difficult for clarity to survive. This realisation crystallised into his resolve some years ago to play only in mikeless concerts, Mani Aiyar said in an interview.
The only solution to the problem is for vocalists to train themselves to sing to higher pitches. He would recommend a “two-kattai” sruthi as the minimum. The argument that the size of the audience rendered the mike necessary was unconvincing to one who had seen larger audiences and keener listening in the mikeless era.
Mani Aiyar listed three artistes with outstanding voices: Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar, Chembai Vaidayanatha Bhagavathar and M. S. Subbulakshmi. He had played for the two men singers. They had sung straight to the audience for years.
When the mike came it was inconsequential for they continued to sing as they always did with their customary power, vigour and zest.
These qualities and the artistry that attracts the audience marked violinist Rajamanickkam Pillai's accompaniment too. He surmounted the handicap of a small tone with these assets, Mani Aiyar said and vividly recalled an instance in the mikeless era when Rajamanickkam Piilai won a longer applause from a massive audience than the main performer.
Sampradaya had a built-in resistance to unwanted accretions and a knack of shedding them and surviving only on the best and time-tested. It was a discipline that throve more on bhakthi than on the brain, more on the sanctity gained through repetition (like the Vedas) than on egotistic experiments.
Intelligence had a place, but it had to be regulated by the sense of surrender which bhakthi implies.