How crucial is the role of a supporting artiste

M.S. Subbulakshmi with Radha Viswanathan.

M.S. Subbulakshmi with Radha Viswanathan. | Photo Credit: PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Unnamed at concerts, they occupy the space behind the main artiste, sometimes with a tambura in hand. Though the backing vocalist is not expected to draw the attention of the audience, providing vocal support is an art by itself. It demands not just commitment and perfection but reverence to the guru. The latter quality ensures that back up is not used merely as buffer; it echoes the main artiste’s thought process, style and approach.

A supporting artiste may not steal the show, but can enhance or mar a concert. The challenge for such artistes is to take their job seriously. They should learn to adapt and blend with the lead artiste’s voice, be aware of his/her improvisational skills, know the lyrics and sangathis by heart, understand the emotion and nuances of a composition, fill in the gaps during swara segments, gauge the mood of the audience, and build a rapport with the co-artistes on stage.

Crucial aspects

In classical music, imbibing the technical aspects of a raga or kriti is as crucial as internalising its aesthetic nuances. For instance, ‘Chakkani raja’ in raga Karaharapriya is a beautiful composition with lots of sangathis and sequential raga contours. This can be one of the most demanding pieces in a concert. Learning such kritis can help boost the knowledge and confidence of a vocal support artiste. ‘Dharini telusu konti’ in Suddha Saveri, and ‘Koluvamare gada’ in Thodi are mammoth kritis with back-to-back sangathis that beautify the raga and also help to comprehend it.

A vocal support artiste should also ensure a seamless flow of musical ideas that heighten the aural pleasure. ‘Sruthi mata and layam pita’ should be the guiding principle. Palai C.K. Ramachandran, while providing vocal support to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, was referred to as ‘sruthi bhagvatar’ because of his fidelity to sruthi.

Accompanying the guru

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer accompanied by V. Subrahmaniam.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer accompanied by V. Subrahmaniam. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Most of the past masters had a strong ‘vocal support system’ in place. This was more like an internship for their formidable line up of sishyas to make them performance-ready. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who is said to have put the modern concert pattern into practise, had B. Rajam Iyer and K. V. Narayanaswamy to name a few. V. Subrahmaniam and Palai Ramachandran served Semmangudi for the longest time. V.R. Krishnan, K.R. Kedaranathan, T.M. Thiagarajan, P.S. Narayanaswamy, and Kumara Kerala Varma have also assisted the maestro. The list is pretty long, but it’s not possible to mention all the names. D.K. Pattammal had her brother D.K. Jayaraman sing with her.

D.K. Pattammal with D.K. Jayaraman

D.K. Pattammal with D.K. Jayaraman

Men sing in lower sruthi while women singers prefer higher sruthi. Yet Jayaraman sang in unison, and rasikas who have heard them are, indeed blessed. Melody queen M.S. had daughter Radha Viswanathan and Vijaya Rajendran accompany her. MLV had an array of sishyas accompanying her, Sudha Ragunathan being the most prominent. Sisters Brinda and Muktha sang together, complementing and supplementing each other’s music.

Occasionally, in a concert the sishya may be asked to sing a part of the alapana or swara repartees to provide a breather to the main artiste. The supporting artiste should maintain the flow of the raga sung, and follow the swara pattern as the case may be. The most cherished moments, however, are when they are able to match the master’s expectation and musical standard and get a round of applause from the audience.

The supporting artiste should be unobtrusive and not overpower the lead voice. V. Subrahmaniam used to say he learnt a lot when sharing the stage with Semmangudi. This learning is crucial to make one a complete and successful artiste. Many musicians of repute began as vocal support artistes for their gurus. Their life and journey are an inspiration to young learners.

The Chennai-based writer is a music connoisseur.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 4:56:26 am |