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Soul-stirring or superficial?

December is a time to gauge trends in the Carnatic music circuit. How good are the singers of today? Do they possess fine voices and craft skills? GOWRI RAMNARAYAN reflects on the concerts that she attended this season in Chennai.

CARNATIC MUSICIANS have never had it so good. Successful performers have an international market even if it is mostly confined to the NRI circuit, while competent artistes are assured of a teaching career — in colleges, or home tutoring. For the instrumentalists, there are alternative avenues in fusion and film. Providing music for Bharatanatyam recitals has become a rewarding option.

Our globetrotting top artistes have tight tour schedules. Their calendars are choc-a-bloc with year-round engagements.

With some 2000 concerts in over 30 venues, the annual music season in Chennai has become the unique showcase for every Carnatic musician to display her wares and establish her brand equity. Though some of the concert sessions face empty halls, it is also true that each year marks a rise in the number of listeners including the floating population of visitors from other parts of India and the world. Not only music lovers, but organisers from outside the city are here to pick and choose export fare for Sydney, Seattle or Singapore.

The festival is also a time for popularity ratings. "Has Aruna Sairam overtaken Sudha Ragunathan and Nithyasree Mahadevan", "Is Mandolin Srinivas still the crowd-puller he used to be" were queries debated this season with as much heat as discussions on the nuances of a vast Khamboji shaped with love by O. S. Thiagarajan, or the subtle sophistications that Tiruchi Sankaran brought off while accompanying Sanjay Subrahmanyam, in one of the most haunting mridangam interludes of the season.

Trends too are gauged in December. There is little doubt that our instrumentalists, particularly percussionists like K. V. Prasad, J. Vaidyanathan, Arun Prakash, B. S. Purushotthaman, S. Karthick and V. Suresh, are proud flag bearers of standards established by such exemplary seniors as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Palghat Raghu, T. K. Murthy, Vellore Ramabhadran, Karaikudi Mani, Tiruchi Sankaran, Vikku Vinayakram et al. There is wizardry in many of our younger violinists — Delhi Sunderrajan, S.Varadarajan, Mysore Nagaraj, R. K. Shriramkumar, M. A. Sundareswaran, M. Narmada, to name just a few. Some concentrate on virtuosity, others strive for poignancy and depth. Many of them can do both, touching your heart one day and assaulting your ears the day after. The veena has few takers now, like Jayanthi Kumaresh who has made a determined niche for herself, while the flute (Shashank, Mala Chandrasekhar, Balasai) and chitraveena (Ravikiran and Ganesh) too have committed practitioners.

However, Carnatic music depends for its survival and strength on its vocal tradition. Unlike a few decades ago when instrumental music dominated the field, both vidwan and rasika have returned to this fountainhead, with some instrumentalists switching to singing. The question is: How good are the singers of today? Do they possess fine voices and craft skills? What is their relationship to the school in which they were trained? Have they succeeded in carving distinct styles for themselves?

This season, with the exception of some memorable vocal concerts — by Sanjay Subrahmanyam at the Academy, possibly the best of the season, O. S. Thiagarajan at Narada Gana Sabha, T. M. Krishna at Krishna Gana Sabha, Vijay Siva at Kalarasana and Kapali Fine Arts, Rama Ravi at Raga Sudha, Ranjani-Gayatri and Gayathri Venkatraghavan at the Academy — in which bhava eclipsed virtuosity, mere entertainment or worse prevailed over most of the concerts heard by this writer.

There is apparently no interest in voice training even among the educated generation — an amazing contradiction in the pursuit of a highly sophisticated, demanding art form. The entry of the microphone is squarely blamed for the crooning that often replaces full-throated singing. Says an oldtimer, "No need to bother with expanding the diaphragm and resonating the chest, it's enough to murmur the song." In the process, music ceases to be a soul-stirring experience. While it is easy to blame poor acoustics and amplification for making the situation worse, the truth is that most of our singers are either oblivious or dismissive of the need for voice training.

Technical expertise fares better, but only in some departments. Much of the raga improvisation is really kalpanaswara masquerading as alapana. Few can consistently sing an alapana that testifies to sound tradition and spirited originality. However, virtuosity can dumbfound — as did Sudha Ragunathan's Narayani (Music Academy) where she zoomed up and down the scale in flare paths, while the Kalyani, hooked to a sharp madhyama in the upper and lower octaves, shone with a thousand unfamilar lights. With the frenetic programming, even our leading musicians struggle to maintain a uniform quality through the season.

Much of the swara singing consists of recitative explosions of syllables. Glamour replaces depth. The singer, and the instrumentalist, gets stuck in razzmatazz.

The composed (rachita) part is perhaps the worst casualty. Rarely do elaborate kritis with tiered sangatis get an airing — as when Suguna Varadachari sang an imposing "Koniyadi", Khamboji. Mispronunciation of the lyric is the rule rather than the exception. `Reading' the song is not a surreptitious activity anymore. In a range, including doyen Nedunuri Krishnamurti and the Hyderabad brothers, singers openly display books onstage. In the race to present new compositions for newer occasions, the song gets cursory treatment and raga/artha bhava is sacrificed. This means that the song is neither internalised to acquire sheen, nor honed to fit into the pathantara style, paradoxical in an era in which young musicians obviously have respect for the past (exemplified by the considerable efforts made by YACM, and Carnatica to bring the old masters to today's youth). The downside is that, in a single concert, you could successively hear the D. K. Jayaraman, GNB, Ariyakudi and Madurai Mani banis, no doubt learnt from recorded music.

On the positive side, many of our singers have returned to the highway of major ragas, confining the limited scales of Nasikabhushanis and Niroshthas to shorter treatment. However, except in the hands of a few, even the richer ragas suffer from shallow projection. A Ritigowlai or an Anandabhairavi can go haywire in superficial structures.

The sabhas do allot slots for juniors. However, whether in Freedom Hall or Rasika Ranjani Sabha, only the top performers (each with over 20 festival concerts) draw crowds. You are better off listening to them at the start, as partway through the season they develop sore throats and tired vocal chords, unable to sustain quality over the entire festival. The resultant lack of precision in swara sthana and sruti alignment can be shocking.

Sudha Ragunathan, Nithyasree Mahadevan and Aruna Sairam continue to be bestsellers. Trained in the vintage Dhanammal school, over the years, Sairam appears to have developed voice and style for populist appeal. Nithyasree has the most sensational voice among Carnatic musicians today, with the best range and malleability. Her laya control is astounding. In her performances this season at Narada Gana Sabha and Krishna Gana Sabha, these assets produced trite rather than ripe music. Ragunathan's style was variable; she could strike a distinct original note under the MLV banner, or merely entertain. She did both during the season. Neyveli Santhanagopalan continues to be an oddball — unable to overcome his throat problem, and yet, at unpredictable moments, reaching heights denied to others.

Asked by a listener how he would audit his own performance, former chartered accountant Sanjay Subrahmanyam quipped: "My assets are equal to my liabilities." This statement would be applicable to most of Carnatic music today.

It may seem a pipedream to expect profundity in our consumerist times. But doesn't that very fact make the goal more challenging for our musicians?

A living example of uncompromising grandeur came at the season's end when a group of mainly young people heard T. Mukta, 85, render Kalyani ("Kantimatim"), Ataana ("Vachamagochara") and Bhairavi ("Raksha bettare"), brevity no bar to the actualisation of rasa. Yadukulakhamboji ("Ninnusevinchana") took your breath away, while the Sahana padam ("Mora topu") had you in tears. Every swara, every phrase and every line refracted radiance gained through centuries of immersion.

You realised then that, to whichever school it belongs, this art demands steel in voice and mind, not sentimentality. And a soul that rises above trends, as shallow as they are fleeting.

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