Friday Review » Music

Updated: June 6, 2013 14:59 IST

Sorting out sruti bheda

Sriram V.
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This singing technique adopted by GNB, become a hot topic of debate at the Music Academy. Find out why…

The year 1944 was when the Carnatic music world was coming to terms with the Tamil Isai Movement, which had held its first Tamil Isai Festival the previous year and was gearing up for the second one that December. The Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society, which were collaborating on certain aspects — common inaugural event and lecture sessions but separate music concerts and dance performances — realised that the impact on ticket sales was not so bad after all even if a third music festival was in progress. And so it was with some comfort that the experts committee of the Music Academy met during the December festival to discuss various matters concerning music.

The decision of GNB to sing for the Tamil Isai Festival the previous year and attract an audience of over a thousand must have rankled many, for almost the first item on the agenda at the Music Academy was ‘graha-sruti bheda', a technique that involved tonic shift while rendering a raga thereby bringing in shades of other non-allied ragas. GNB, the most popular star of the time, was adept at this technique but conservatives were never comfortable with it. The audiences however loved it and waited with bated breath when their idol would display shades of Kharaharapriya in his Kalyani renditions.

The debate

The Music Academy decided to debate on whether the technique was at all worthy of encouragement. It is significant that GNB was not a participant in these deliberations. It was also one of the first debates that Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer participated in. GNB's father, G.V. Narayanaswami Iyer had in an early article for the Music Academy's journal, condemned this technique as an excrescence and this was quoted.

Semmangudi while speaking on it observed that “while it was current practice it should be done with great skill and only by persons of very subtle sruti and swara gnana. It could never be emphasised too much and that it should be used only sparingly.” C.S. Iyer trashed the technique and Palladam Sanjiva Rao was completely against it, but Tiger held that it was an ancient art and he had heard Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai demonstrate it. P.S. Sundaram Iyer felt that it was too minor a matter to debate upon.

The debate lasted for two whole days but when put to vote, however, it was found that most of the scholars were against any formal decision by the Academy. T.V. Subba Rao assessed the mood correctly when he said that this was an intellectual feat and if clever artists could do it, there was no reason for the Academy to condemn it. He also added that it brought an “element of surprise of great artistic value”.

Parupalli Ramakrishnaiah Pantulu, a disciple of the Tyagaraja lineage who is today better known as the guru of M. Balamuralikrishna, quoted Sanskrit and Telugu texts to illustrate that this had Sastraic authority. T.L. Venkatarama Iyer, in his summing up, ruled that the discussion on the entire subject was only educative and therefore no formal proposition need be moved. The Hindu, while reporting on it, noted that “the general sense of the House was that graha bheda had Sastraic sanction but as in actual practice it would change the raga bhava, it should, if at all, be used sparingly as an intellectual feat.”

But the matter was not concluded to the satisfaction of everyone. It was brought up once again on December 29 when Narayanaswami Iyer, veena lecturer at the Annamalai University, demonstrated it and said it ought to be done among ragas with clear individual identities. Semmangudi endorsed this view and added that the new raga that was evoked ought to be but another aspect of the old raga. He felt that artists ought to use this technique only before scholarly audiences and not confuse the average listeners. But T.L. Venkatarama Iyer was firm that the Academy's resolution of the previous day held and would not allow a fresh debate. And thus the day and perhaps GNB too, were saved.

GNB's reaction

The one man who took this decision very seriously was GNB himself! While in a later debate on the same subject, he is said to have demonstrated and proved that Tyagaraja had himself used this technique in his Bhairavam kriti ‘Mariyadagadayya'. Given his college-educated outlook, the Academy and its decisions were sacrosanct to GNB and he began using graha bheda sparingly in his performances, giving very teasing and fleeting instances of it in his raga alapanas. This would only increase audience interest in it, for they would wait eagerly for those few seconds when he would demonstrate it and respond with thunderous applause.

It was left to M.L. Vasanthakumari to boldly bring forth the technique once again.

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