O.S. Thiagarajan has been criticised in the past as being un-innovative and stereotyped. Listening to the vocalist’s concert at Nungambakkam Cultural Academy, one felt that Carnatic rasikas will be well served if the singer continues to be stereotyped. The concert featured no adventurous forays into the unexplored space, offered no acrobatic thrills. But it was Carnatic music as pure and simple as could be with every note in its place.

It was like watching a 20-over match. Beginning with Tyagaraja’s Hamsadhwani kriti ‘Sri Raghukula’ and up till ‘Eppo Varuvaaro’ (Jaunpuri) the concert was a sprint, and ironically the only slow number was the post-tani piece in Atana, a raga that one rarely hears sung slowly. The Hamsadhwani piece was buoyant, replete with niraval and swaras (at ‘Parama Bhagavatha) and set the tone for the rest of the concert.

Although the chief raga was a delectable Kharaharapriya that OST sang with obvious relish, prefacing Tyagaraja’s immortal ‘Chakkani Raja Margamu’ with a 20-minute alapana, the highlight of the concert was the splendid Vijayanagari. The alapana started at the upper notes and shot all the way like a high speed train. As it is not a common raga, it had the audience flummoxed for a while. At the pa-da-sa phrases, it smelt of Saraswathi, but the ‘ga’ note meant it was not. Finally, when the singer took up Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar’s ‘Vijayambike’, a titter ran around the hall as the audience savored the familiarity. That there were no swaras tailing the song was the only disappointment of the concert.

Delhi Sundararajan on the violin was a fraction of his usual self and offered only perfunctory support which was a pity and a surprise because the violinist is capable of a lot more. Umayalpuram Sivaraman played to the point and it was not until the tani that his brilliance showed up. T.V. Vasan on the ghatam was almost not there and gave an impression that he was happy to give the senior percussionist occupy the centre stage.

A tame show

Neyveli Santhanagopalan has lost either interest in singing or confidence in his abilities. These days he doesn't swerve off the beaten track, is content to present his 'regulars' - the same ragas, compositions and notes. That is a pity, because Santhanagopalan is truly a great artist who has the rare ability to undertake daring expeditions into the depths of a raga without sacrificing the meditative or aesthetic aspect of music. If any proof was needed that Santhanagopalan is not the artist he used to be, it was amply provided in his concert for Nungambakkam Cultural Academy. He could even be forgiven him for the fact that every single number of the concert was so very Santhanagopalan-ish, rendered staid by repetition. There was ‘Giriraja Sutha’ (Bangla, Tyagaraja) which is an old Santhanagopalan-favourite, ‘Teliyaleru Rama’ (Dhenuka, Tyagaraja) which the vocalist had sung in another concert just a few days ago, ‘Heccharikkaga rara’ (Yadukulakhambodi), ‘Natajana’ (Nalinakanti, Thanjavur Sankara Iyer) and ‘Koluva’ (Bhairavi, Tyagaraja).

But it is difficult to countenance his approach to the concert. Until well over an hour into the concert, there was no alapana. The artist would pause long after completing a number, raising hopes that something big was about to be presented, but tame would follow. The central piece (Bhairavi) lacked elaboration, had no niraval, and in swara singing, the customary successive halving of tala cycle (koraippu) was absent-the 'main piece feel' was absent. All this is surprising because the vocalist's once-recalcitrant voice was good and co-operative. He could have done a lot better.

Above all, there was too much talking from the stage with the vocalist and the accompanists indulging in garrulous mutual admiration and banter. Santhanagopalan and mridangam vidwan Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam morphed the concert stage into a club-room, shaking hands and throwing effusive praise on each other. After V.V. Ravi played a straight Bhairavi, Santhanagopalan said that the violinist ought to be rewarded for such a Bhairavi by giving him further opportunities to accompany. Such commercials are completely out of place in a concert hall and a seasoned artist like Santhanagopalan should know that.

True, both Nalinakanti and Bhairavi were good, but Santhanagopalan must have sung Nalinakanti a million times in the last decade. He has milked the raga, laid bare its entrails and explored every inch of its scope so much that he ought to be banned from singing it ever again. The Bhairavi was neat, but unremarkable. Surely rasikas are justified in expecting better from an artiste of Santhanagopalan's caliber.

The only positive feature of the concert was the superb swaras for Dhenuka, reminiscent of Santhanagopalan of yesteryear. Those of us who became die-hard fans of Santhanagopalan's music after being mesmerised by it in the 1990s are still waiting for the artist to make a comeback. We have still not lost hope. Santhanagopalan should take care not to disappoint us.