This line-up was not lacking in either imagination or execution.
Salem Sriram commenced his two-hour vocal concert with guru vandana, through the well-known Sanskrit lines ‘Guru-r Brahmaa, guru-r Vishnu’ (Mayamalavagowla) in a deep, solemn and soothing timbre, at bass, and proceeded softly to Tyagaraja's ‘Tulasi Dala Mulache’. He had an easy informal bearing, with his palms tapping each other to maintain the beat as he sang.
Over ten minutes, Sriram expertly portrayed Sankarabharanam in alapana and exposition of Tyagaraja's ‘Manasusvadheena’ in misra chapu - difficult, well performed. It was exquisite rendering without the frills of manodharma except in the alapana and kriti. Raga Dharmavati was alluring for its treatment by Sriram, with Ambica Prasad faithfully shadowing his movements and later beautifully latching on to the mood created, reaching the upper shadja through a series of mellifluous gamaka sancharas. The sthayi did not make any difference in the dexterity of delivery, which was maintained at a uniformly high level.
The Tamil song 'Ododi Vanden Kanna’ of Ambujam Krishna, laden with pure and sweet bhakti, came out with matching dedication at the end of the alapana. Sriram's delivery facilitated the listener's savouring of every word of this beautiful song, and his niraval at ‘Kodaanu Kodi Tavam Seidu Unaikkana’ at slow and fast speeds, lifted the mind from the mundane.
Sriram appeared to have come to the concert with the mission of demonstrating the power of simple bhakti and commitment through uncomplicated rendition of inspired compositions, even as he turned to ‘Harihara Putram Sastaaram Bhajeham’ (Muthuswami Dikshitar, Vasanta, Misrajati jhampa). Most of the audience would have expected ‘Manavyaalakim’ when the singer took off to paint raga Nalinakaanti with ‘Sa Ga Ri Ga Ma Ga’ at a high pitch, to drop down to ‘sa ga ri ma pa ni Sa’ Extension of the alapana through innumerable variations of clusters of the notes of high aesthetic appeal, strewn over the scene brought home the point that this was the RTP phase. There was total abandon in the singer's style, without loud ostentation.
Inspired violin support
Ambica Prasad was equally inspiring. Plunging down to the anumantra shadjam (ni ri sa ni pa ma ga ri sa), he bestowed more attention and time on gamaka to compensate for the surfeit of briga that the singer had offered. Here again aesthetic appeal predominated rather than virtuosity. In thanam the same standard was maintained by the two. The gentle rhythm provided to this by Kottayam G Santhosh Kumar on his mridangam was a noteworthy adornment.
The pallavi was in a 2-beat Tisrajati Triputa talam at samam (Kaa Vaa Vaa). Thani avartanam lasted for short time following the kalpanaswaras at the second speed with mostly single-avartana korvais, but with enough impression to identify the depth in the playing. The concert concluded with a Sanskrit vrutam in ragas Charukesi, Hamirkalyan and Sama.
That Sandeep Narayanan is an artist well-founded in the elements of Carnatic music was evident from his taking off with Begada varnam in Adi and ‘Chalamelara’ in Marga Hindolam. Singing the varnam in two kaalams, on the base of a madhyama kalam, gave him a good headstart.
Rich imagination and voice to match made the Kanada sketch enjoyable. The selection of the Tamil song for this, ‘Kantimati annai nee gati' could have been bettered by choice of a more lively one.
Tyagaraja's ‘Bhajanaseyave Manasaa’ in Kalyani was rendered fast, with plenty of punch and wake-up sancharas, ending with kalpanaswaras and well-rehearsed korvai which drew instant applause. Saveri alapana was aptly at a slow pace and developed with commitment. The artist's penchant for brigas and durita sancharas precluded dwelling with karvais, and to that extent diminished solemnity. ‘Rajagopaala Baala’ (Muthuswami Dikshitar, Adi) as also the niraval at the anupallavi ‘Dheeraagraha Ganyam’ in a full avartana karuvai with sustained power enriched the performance of this phase. Karuvai at upper madhyama and panchama at ‘Deena Saranyam’ seemed to echo the sense of the appeal from a surrendering devotee.
The young Rajna Swaminathan gave percussive support in a measure that far surpassed one's expectations, judging from her mien and tender age. Her anticipation during the kriti phase as well as her tani avartanam in Adi taalam was a picture of aesthetic beauty. Her mridangam virtually spoke the sollus or sahityam. A veritable baala vidushi!
All through a concert, the violinist can never rest, except during the tani phase. Chittoor K Vijayaraghavan was an example of a true accompanist, displaying strict adherence to the main artist when playing with him, as well as fine virtuosity and imagination when striking out on his own, whether in alapana, niraval or kalpanaswaras. The concert ended with sweet melodies in a Tamil viruttam, ‘Kaaroli Vannane, Kannane’. Supplemented by a clear and pleasing diction, the artist's singing was a delicious fare all through the 90-minute concert.
Beginning with ‘Naadatanum anisam' (Tyagaraja, Chittaranjani, Adi), Savita Narasimhan (Amritha Murali, violin; Erode Nagarajan, mridangam) took up ‘Inda Paraaka'(Mayamalavagowla, Rupakam), with niraval and svara at the charanam. In her rendering Begada for ‘Tyagarajaya Namaste' (Muthuswami Dikshitar, Rupakam) there was balanced stress on the kaakili and kaisiki nishada prayogams in the style of this raga. ‘Ninnu Cheppa Kaaraname' (Patnam Subramania Iyer, Mandari, Desadi) was brisk and lively, in a voice which stood out more for the sweetness of delivery than power. With the effective build-up of tempo at ‘Kanna Lola Maina' one looked for niraval and kalpanaswara, for good advantage, as Savita closed this section and proceeded to detail raga Thodi. There was evidence of a commendable dedication here, through regulated progress up the scale from gandhara/rishabha, through madhyama, plumbing the passage around panchama, dhaivata and nishada, sometimes in the style of a nagaswaram, to a smooth climb to the upper shadja and surrounding landscape.
In characteristic etiquette, Amritha desisted from crossing even one note beyond what the singer marked. When she broke out into her own interpretation, Amritha displayed not only the richness of her imagination, but also her total control over her instrument. One felt she was restraining herself, when in fact, with her equipment, she can be bold, with heavier bowing; the effect could be transforming her production from exquisite to magnetic, with her charming, well-rounded, smooth and polished sancharas befitting Thodi.
‘Emi Jesite, Emi, Sri Rama.' in misra chapu received solid boost from Nagarajan's pronounced and subdued mridangam. Niraval at ‘Kamamoha Rasathudai' was short but touching. After this and slow and fast kalpanaswaras, the listener was mentally tuned for a tani avartanam. Savita's manodharma came to play again strongly in Nattakurinji and her excellent melodious voice acted faithfully on its dictates. The mridangam came out with vibrant rings in the pallavi (‘Nattakurinji Enbaar - Siranda Engaladu') This kind of pallavi, with its simplicity, allows the singer to work calmly on her creativity and improvisation, without being tied to stifling, taut arithmetic constraints. With Behag (‘Sarasmaina Maatalantu,' Rupakam) and Sindubhairavi (‘Venkataachala Nilayam, Vaikuntha Vasam'), the concert came to a close.
Amruta Venkatesh was patently not for aggressive concert singing with explosive melodramatic flourishes, but obviously rejoiced in establishing an air of tranquillity through her pleasant voice gliding through the notes of the scale. Supported by Akkarai Sornalatha (violin) and N.C. Bharadwaj (mridangam), she commenced her voice recital with Tyagaraja's ‘Manasu Nilpa' (Abhogi); the Varali was taken up for alapana. Amruta took the raga through a steady and smooth development to the higher pitches, sans bombast, and the violin followed suit in the same suave style with rich vibrancy, employing mostly conventional sancharas, without sounding banal. Muthuswami Dikshitar's samashti charana kriti ‘Maamava Meenakshi' might have retarded the speed so vital at the starting phase but for some brisk niraval and swara exposition at the words ‘Shyaama Sankari Digvijaya.'
‘Bhogeendra Saayinam' (Swati Tirunal, Kuntalavarali, Khanda chapu) came quickly upon this. Excellent diction was pleasing to the ear, and the few swara korvais at the pallavi were refreshing. Sankarabharanam was introduced at this point to mark the transition from appetisers to the main menu aptly. Felicity of rendition of alapana, first by the voice and then in the violin made the presentations charming. Amruta sustained long karvais at the upper levels, greatly augmenting the essay.
‘Swara Raga Sudhaarasa' lived up to the sahityam, in the delivery of this song, suggesting as it did that the path to eternal bliss is to be sought only through blending of musical notes and phrases with dedication to god. The niraval at ‘Moolaadhaaraja Naadamerugude' was exquisite, focussing on the chakras of the body from moola up and eschewing loud sounding of drums. In the pursuit of placidity, however, one felt concert priorities had been ignored in the absence of any fast-moving spicy numbers. After kalpanaswaras, slow and fast, and kuraippu, there was thani avartanam by Bharadwaj, who had to go at once into brisk- phrased deliveries, to finish his bit.
From varnam in Kedaragowla through ‘Swaminatha Paripaalaya' (Muthuswami Dikshitar, Nattai, Adi) and ‘Chalamelara' (Tyagaraja, Marga Hindolam, Desadi), Saketharaman appeared to face some problem with his throat, foiling his attempt to latch on to a note with purity, although there was nothing wanting in the way he carried the proceedings through, with the co-operation of Charumathi Raghuraman with the violin and Trivandrum V Balaji on the mridangam. The singer prefaced his Khambodi kriti with a sketch of the raga (‘ni,dha pa,, ma ga pa dha Sa') sloping up to the shadja, bypassing the middle range, where his voice cruised better. There were long and clear karuvais in the upper gandhara and madhyama ranges, depicting the raga in proper relief, over some 10 minutes.
Charumathi presented a tasteful version on her own without any reserve, unnecessary pauses, backtracking, cliches or repetitions, characterised by clear planning and precise execution, without even a trace of harshness at any point, whether the pattern was slow or fast. ‘Evarimata' (Tyagaraja, double-beat Adi, slow to medium pace) was treated with deliberation and taken to the niraval phase at ‘Bhakta Paraadheenu' and some stirring swara-korvais.
Thani avartanam at this stage, with just 45 minutes passed, appeared premature, but Balaji was invited to go on with it, and he put up a fine conventional one. Subhapantuvarali, figuring fifth in order, was the choice for RTP. After just four minutes of alapana, the singer passed the floor to Charumathi, who started at the upper shadjam where the singer had left it, and scaled down an octave below. Her playing was soothing, and produced a therapeutic effect.
After taking up alapana again for a further five minutes, Saketharaman proceeded with thanam, starting at mantra sthayi. His style of singing ‘thom, thom' at different discrete notes, particularly in bass, generated the novel illusion of a mridangam being sounded at the corresponding notes. The violin did not have the same edge as it had on ragam, swaram and sahityam. Charumathi's Thanam sounded more like a string of swaras in akaram, bereft of the discrete syllables which characterise thanam; better work with the bow was perhaps called for.
The pallavi in chatusra-jati Jhampa taalam in khanda gati, took off after 2 aksharas, with ‘Muraleedhara Manohara Sreedhara,' and had ragas Sindubhairavi and Brindaavana-Saaranga in the ragamalika kalpanaswaras. ‘Kaana Vendaamo, Aiyanai,' (Sriranjini), ‘Rama, Rama, Rama, Seeta Rama' in Tilang and Tillana in Maand formed the dessert.