During the lockdown, when All India Radio (AIR) uploaded a series of recordings of Vadya Vrinda— also known as the National Orchestra — from the 1990s, it made a compelling case for the revival of this important initiative in the Indian classical music legacy.
The present context could not have been more opportune. First, rejuvenating it would be a fitting tribute to the late sitar maestro Pt. Ravi Shankar, whose birth centenary was in April this year. Vadya Vrinda was a pioneering initiative of this musician, who took charge as composer/conductor of the orchestra in AIR Delhi in 1952.
Pt. Ravi Shankar’s idea was to establish Indian orchestral music as a genre in its own right. He felt that the unique use of a single key or sruti, and scale or raga, would represent an oriental counterpoint to the formidable status occupied by instrumental symphonies in the Western classical arena. The novel format would, Pt. Ravi Shankar believed, also ensure the continued relevance of the vast array of Indian instruments, which were in danger of being forgotten amidst the growing influence of modern technology and commercial music.
There was another, more pragmatic rationale behind the idea in the heady years after Independence. There was a need to create employment for the country’s rich pool of instrumental musicians at a time when conventional forms of patronage for the fine arts were in decline. It could be argued that the pronounced economic impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the performing arts has been such that it calls for a similar urgent approach to find mitigating measures.
Akashvani Hyderabad’s recent offering includes some 18 productions from the Chennai division of Vadya Vrinda, recorded over a five-year period in the 1990s. That was the time when the multifaceted musician, P. Purnachander, who straddled India’s diverse music traditions with aplomb, held the position of conductor for the Carnatic music segment of this project. For the better informed among music lovers, the Akashvani compilation offers a wide assortment of Carnatic ragas, from Begada to Jayantasri. More casual listeners will find the many tracks that stretch to nearly three hours affording them a continuous stream of companionable tunes; no small comfort in today’s relative isolation.
Looking back to his years as a conductor, Purnachander expresses mild dismay over the predominance of mostly three instruments in the Carnatic repertoire — the veena, venu and violin. There appears to be far more variety in Hindustani ensembles, he says. Only the saxophone made a rare appearance, as in the piece in Denuka ragam in the Vadya Vrinda collection, when M.S.V. Raja, or Sax Raja as he was known in film circles, grasped the nuances of the ninth Melakarta scale perfectly, recalls Purnachander.
A strong votary of Vadya Vrinda, Purnachander says that the concept was, by definition, what he describes as “absolute music.” That is to say, the score written for Vadya Vrinda serves its own purpose and is thus an end in itself, says the veteran. It is distinct from “applied music,” where compositions are written for specifically preset lyrics, or to embellish particular situations, as in a movie or play. Such music is valuable as a means to realise given ends and is, therefore, applied music, Purnachander clarifies. This distinction does not amount to passing judgement on the quality of music, as much as recognising the difference of purpose and context in each case, he explains.
Another distinguishing mark of orchestral music, says Purnachander, relates to its structure and character. The symphony is, in essence, a balanced blend of a high degree of co-ordination, sequencing, order and teamwork among participating artistes. Musicians who handle the bowing, blowing, strumming and percussive instruments are each required to diligently adhere to a specified script to the last letter. Rather than showcase their individual prowess, they submit to the creative foment as conceived by the conductor. Purnachander recalls with nostalgia the charged atmosphere that prevailed at the annual Akashvani awards function, when scores of artistes, cutting across the traditional divides, would perform orchestral compositions to hugely appreciative audiences. These were preceded by intensive rehearsals that were both emotive and instructive.
A milestone in Vadya Vrinda’s journey was the exclusive Carnatic music division set up in Chennai in the mid-1970s, under veena maestro Emani Sankara Sastri. But Pt. Ravi Shankar’s innovative venture became history by the turn of the century, with Purnachander as the last conductor of the Chennai Vadya Vrinda. Akashvani Delhi’s Hindustani segment suffers from a similar lack of manpower and motivation.
While the curtains have not been formally lowered on Vadya Vrinda yet, it has lain dormant for far too long. The nation must honour Pt. Ravi Shankar’s legacy by more than mere words in his centenary year.