ANALYSIS Geetha Raja's greatest strength is the extremely fluent flow of swara improvisations.
Improvisation being one of the fundamental principles governing Carnatic music, the excellence achieved by Carnatic musicians depends to a large extent on their skills to improvise. Within the boundaries laid down by the grammar and compositions of the music, the performing artists are not only free to improvise, but are actually required and expected to do so. And the quality of the improvisation naturally depends on the imagination and musical vision of the artists.
The concept of improvisation pervades all stages in the performance of a given number, which are generally the elaboration of a tune (raga alapana), depiction of a song (kriti), variations of a selected phrase (niraval), and exploration with articulated notes (swaraprastharam). Of these, the most intricate and elusive feature is the last one.
Luckily there are standard patterns and procedures of improvising swaras, which can be mastered with intense practice and adopted skilfully by a talented artist. In fact, that's precisely what gets done by most musicians, including many highly accomplished ones. Of course, such exercises can be quite brilliant and attractive, though lacking in originality. But uniquely colourful swara sequences spring from instinctive resources and inspiring influences rather than from any conscious acts of learning. A vidushi who is apparently endowed with this rare gift is Geetha Raja.
I had attended several concerts given by Geetha in Chennai during the recent winter season, just to hear her perform on successive occasions in different settings. The venues were the Dakshinamurthy Hall (for Nadopasana), Kunnakkudi Hall (Raga Research Centre), Narada Gana Sabha, Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Srinivasa Sastri Hall (Kapali Fine Arts), and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Ganamukundapriya).
And my consistent impression was that while she does excel on all fronts with her rich voice and clear vision, perhaps her greatest strength is the extremely fluent flow of swara improvisations. These get into a cruising mode quickly after take-off, keep flying smoothly for quite some time, and glide back to the ground gently without following any jerky and mechanical landing procedures as prescribed for less imaginative artists. An important point worth noting is that this is true not only of the swara-prastharams she sings in major ragas and main numbers, but also in other cases. Thus, in the concerts mentioned above we heard some splendid spells of improvised swaras not only in weighty ragas such as Kalyani, Khambodi, Bhairavi and Sankarabharanam, but also in lighter ones such as Bahudhari, Denuka, Ranjani and Hamsanandi.
Apart from these fascinating spells, Geetha Raja made a forceful impression on the listeners with her raga alapanas and depiction of songs also. Particularly beautiful and memorable were her versions of the frequently-heard Bhairavi and the rarely-heard Simhendra Madhyamam (and the kritis ‘Balagopala' and ‘Ninne Nammitinayya' of Dikshitar and Mysore Vasudevachar), which she took up as the main numbers in the Nadopasana and Narada Gana Sabha concerts respectively.
Accompanists who extended excellent support to the vocalist on some of the above occasions were Usha Rajagopal, Kalyani Shankar and Melakkaveri Thyagarajan (violin); R. Mohana Krishnan and Kallidaikkurichi Sivakumar (mridangam); and Papanasam Sethuraman (kanjira).
In a conventional sense, such a fine flair for improvisation is normally handed down directly by eminent gurus to their sishyas, as in the case of the cascading Niagara-like swara-prastharams which vocal maestro T.V. Sankaranarayanan has inherited from his uncle and master Madurai Mani Iyer and has already passed on effectively to his son and disciple Mahadevan. What is the source of Geetha Raja's proficiency in this regard?
My own impression is that while she had learnt the basic elements of Carnatic music from her original master (and tough taskmaster!)
Bombay Ramachandran, and had acquired sound technique and extensive knowledge from the distinguished diva and teacher Brindamma, her perception of swaras has been enriched by her subsequent apprenticeship with the effervescent violinist Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan, behind whose humorous facade there was highly refined craftsmanship.
I must add a proviso that Geetha still has some vistas to explore for realising her full potential. But I do believe she's capable of creating a brand image for herself as an improviser in due course.