Today’s artistes feel the need to innovate to catalyse their ascent

An interesting title indeed. I was very fascinated by this title which was used by the late N.M. Narayanan two to three decades ago for his article analysing the Carnatic music scene. NMN, as he was known, was a knowledgeable and interesting music critic of The Hindu. I make bold to borrow this title from him as I feel that it would not be incongruous to the analysis of the Carnatic music scene of the present day.

Almost three-fourths of the last century could well be portrayed as the ‘Golden Period’ of the concert circuit of Carnatic music. This era comprised the immediate post-Trinity years. Concert star-musicians of high calibre, brilliance and musical insight were beacons of light to the fraternity. Concerts as a form of entertainment took root in the early 1900s and the credit of establishing the concert format (in vogue to this day) goes to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Alathur Brothers, among the men, and, Brinda-Mukta, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, M.L. Vasanthakumari, among the women, were the star artistes of the musical firmament then. Each of these artistes had an individual style of singing which came to be known after their names such as the Ariyakudi bani, or the Semmangudi bani, the Musiri bani, GNB bani, and so forth.

The aspiring students of music of the following generation either became direct disciples of these masters or accepted them as their maanasika gurus to ascend greater heights in their musical careers. GNB’s entry into the concert arena in the 1930s took the younger generation of that period by storm so much so that almost 90% of the students of music were imitating his style. It was a craze which diminished in intensity subsequently. His fast brikas and unique approach to kutcheri presentation, combined with his handsome personality, were certainly reasons for this phenomenon. His music, however, did not transgress traditions. The stalwarts were highly dedicated and devoted musicians and this is the reason their music lingers on. Their exploration of musical imagination was deep and sweeping and left little for future generations to wonder about. The phrasings the present artistes render could be traced to one of the stalwarts and we often refer to them as Semmangudi’s sangati, Ariyakudi’s sangati or GNB’s sangati and so on, without which the music of today would be bereft of depth and sheen.

The art of singing an effective kutcheri with excellent audience rapport was perfected by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Blessed with longevity, he lived 93 years (1908-2003) and had a long musical career spread over 75 years. He could mesmerise audiences even close to the end of his life. His last kutcheri — an unforgettable one — was given when he was 90-plus. Although he struggled with a recalcitrant voice, he worked untiringly during his younger days to tame it to obey his musical commands. He was, however, endowed with a very deep musical insight.

His ascendency to the acme on the concert scene was swift and he remained there till the end. His kutcheris were full of energy and had large audiences glued to their seats. The verve with which he performed permeated the audience and kept them alert and attentive. There was not a dull moment in his concerts. Sharp enough to perceive the slightest dip in the energy level during his concert, he would immediately give it a boost by singing a fast-paced piece or sparkling kalpana swaras. Adept at the kutcheri craft, Semmangudi was a meticulous planner and ensured that all pieces were accommodated without compromising on the liveliness. As mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer once remarked to this scribe, “Srinivasa Iyer’s kutcheris have always been successful; never do they fail.” His renditions were packed with tonal continuity, each variation smoothly dove-tailing into the next, and were, importantly, served in the right measure.

A class apart

His kutcheris boasted an excellent sense of proportion with the raga prefixes, neraval and kalpana swaras in consonance with the position of the piece in the concert. The first raga essay would be a short one and progressively lengthen as the performance built up to the main piece. The complexity of improvisation in his essays, however short, were a class apart. His slow and fast tempo kalpana swara-s were soaked in raga bhava.

Semmangudi trained many disciples who became musical luminaries in their own right. M.S. Subbulakshmi came under his wing from the 1950s and the positive impact Semmangudi’s music had on hers was palpable. T.N. Krishnan and the late T.M. Thiagarajan have been recipients of the Sangita Kalanidhi awards, P.S. Narayanaswamy, Seetha Rajan and this writer have been conferred the Sangita Kala Acharya by the Music Academy.

The next generation witnessed the emergence of K.V. Narayanaswamy, D.K. Jayaraman — disciples of Ariyakudi and D.K. Pattammal respectively — Ramanathapuram Krishnan of the Brinda-Mukta school, Maharajapuram Santhanam, son and disciple of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, to name a few, shone in the concert arena. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, having known the erudition of Brinda-Mukta in padam-sand javali-s, was humble enough to learn quite a few pieces from them. This action speaks volumes about Brinda-Mukta’s depth of knowledge in this sphere.

In the last quarter of the 20 century, when musical buffs were turning sceptical about the future of the Carnatic music concert platform becoming starved of a fresh crop of artistes, it was heartening to find a set of both men and women taking it up as a professional career. They were freshers adhering to traditional musical values, exhibiting great potential and promise. This group had the attention of the rasika-s, who looked to them to fill the void left behind by senior musicians. They were groomed by the direct disciples of doyens, thus establishing their link with the great masters. Fortunately, concert recordings of great masters were available. While listening these recordings was not the same as the live experience, budding artistes had to make do with it. The only unfortunate impact has been on padam- and javali-singing after the passing of Brinda and Mukta.

These young stars, for some reason, felt that they should innovate rather than follow ‘sampradaya’, and thereby ascend the ladder of fame faster and maintain their position at the top. A feeling of insecurity was at play, perhaps? It is especially now that they need to be reassured that the path they have been treading is indeed the royal route (raja margamu) to absolute success.

They are already at the top and must not lose confidence in themselves. This tradition has withstood the test of time. The reason I am still able to write about the great musicians of yesteryear is because their music lives on. Trials and experiments may be initial crowd-pullers but will the music haunt the hearts of listeners?

This scribe, for one, would feel that our current young musicians should boldly march on with courage and faith in tradition. What ails Carnatic music today, in this scribe’s opinion, is the absence of a guiding force and the consequential feeling of insecurity.

(The writer is a musician and a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.)


Time that’s timelessApril 4, 2013