Carnatic and Hindustani musicians often come together but do they always strike a balance?
The concluding event in The Hindu Friday Review November Fest (Sunday, November 19) is a Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandhi between Ravi Kiran playing the chitraveena (originally known as gottuvadhyam) and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing the mohan veena (an instrument designed and developed by himself), accompanied by Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam and Ramkumar Mishra on the tabla. It is worth recalling that 35 years ago, Sivaraman became one of the pioneers in the history of Carnatic-Hindustani joint ventures, when he played the mridangam in a novel encounter between flute masters N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia, with Kashinath Misra playing the tabla, in Chennai (then called Madras).
That concert was a memorable landmark because it ushered in a new concept in the interaction between the twin music systems, which was bound to be explored further in due course. But it was also a disaster because it was extremely lop-sided, letting the Hindustani musicians dominate the scene and completely overshadow the Carnatic musicians.Which was rather ironical, because the Southern flute has a much wider range than the Northern long-and-short set of flutes, and the mridangam has a far more powerful and imposing sound than the tabla, and both Ramani and Sivaraman were highly accomplished masters of their art. What actually happened was that since many subtle nuances of Hindustani music have traditionally been assimilated by Carnatic music, the Southerners found it quite easy to adapt their style to the Hindustani mode; but the Northerners found it extremely difficult to make any concessions to the other side and as a result, the combined efforts turned out to be mainly a session of Hindustani music enriched by the excellent accompaniment provided by Carnatic instruments. After the concert Sivaraman agreed that the whole exercise had been quite lop-sided. His defence was that it was only an early experiment, after all, and would have to be followed by many more similar attempts before a proper balance could be achieved. Fair enough! Ramani and Chaurasia repeated the experiment a few years later in New Delhi, accompanied by other percussionists — and the results were even more disastrous, the Carnatic flute master being totally eclipsed in spite of his far more sophisticated instrument and his own more versatile artistry.So when Chaurasia teamed up with T.N.Krishnan a little later in New Delhi, the violinist who knew what exactly had gone wrong with Ramani's role, and why, took some precautions to avoid being dominated by the Northern flute master. But his approach was so aggressive that Chaurasia was taken by surprise and let himself be completely overpowered. In the event, what actually materialised was a Carnatic music concert enriched by skilful accompaniment provided by Northern instruments.After the concert, Krishnan confessed that he had made a miscalculation. Echoing Sivaraman's plea almost word for word, he said the North-South jugalbandhis were still at the experimental stage, and much more experience and mutual understanding were required before a proper balance could be achieved.It was sarod master Amjad Ali Khan and violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman who first managed to blend Hindustani and Carnatic music in a balanced way in a New Delhi concert, around 1985 (I forget the precise date). And in 1988 Amjad Ali Khan and T.N.Krishnan teamed up in New Delhi and achieved a miraculously balanced concert.
In the dynamic and resounding climax on that occasion, it was very difficult to recognise the dividing line between overlapping spells of Carnatic and Hindustani music, both of which sounded absolutely authentic.And it must be said to the credit of flute masters Ramani and Chaurasia that in 1987, sixteen years after their first encounter in Madras, they joined forces again in New Delhi to give a perfectly blended jugalbandhi. ``There was a constant exchange of musical ideas and phrases in the two distinct modes," said The Hindu, ``which miraculously fused into a continuous stream of music full of brilliant contrasts and colours. In this concert the masters showed that the true merits of a Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandhi do not lie in merely mixing up the two systems, but in juxtaposing them adroitly in a pleasing manner." Bravo, bravo!And now, 35 years after taking part in that first tentative experiment in 1971, Umayalpuram Sivaraman is taking part in a North-South ensemble in Madras. How balanced are things going to be in Sunday's encounter?