Jayanthi Kumaresh tells stories through the veena

An insolent lion roams about in the forest roaring majestically — in Nattai. A peacock dances to the onset of the monsoon in Amritavarshini. A cuckoo tweets a song in Varamu. A grasshopper jumps about on a mound of hay in Kadanakuthuhalam. And Jayanthi Kumaresh tells little children stories, her fingers flitting gracefully over the frets of her veena.

Creativity explodes in different ways. While Carnatic musicians of yesteryear gave room to their creative instincts by letting themselves spontaneously present new phrases of notes in a raga or by evolving their own distinctive style (bani), musicians of the current age don’t seem content with that. They try multiple outlets. For instance, fusion: Carnatic jazz (Madras String Quartet) or Carnatic rock (Harish Sivaramakrishnan’s Agam band). Some simply entwine their traditional music with a ‘non-Carnatic’ instrument, like the piano.

So, there are numerous strings in the lute, and Jayanthi Kumaresh has added her own to them. For some years now, the artiste has been delivering music via Cup O’Carnatic, a sort of a short-form exposition wrapped in pedagogy. And now, she has brought in a kiddie version of the same concept, and that is where you encounter lions, peacocks, cuckoos and grasshoppers.

Jayanthi is an artiste of nearly four decades of standing. She started her journey very early and her learning has been eclectic. Niece of the violin maestro, Lalgudi Jayaraman, she has imbibed music from multiple sources as well as learnt from her guru, Padmavathi Ananthagopalan. Her mentor, Veenai Balachander, another giant of Carnatic music, has also been a source of inspiration. And being married to Kumaresh, the younger of the two violin brothers, the leitmotif of whose style is hyperloop speeds, some amount of osmosis must be taking place at home too. “We always encourage and criticise each other,” she says. Jayanthi’s music is, therefore, anything but staid.

Her eclectic learning smiles at you when you listen to the Cup O’Carnatic Kids’ Series (Season 1, comprising six episodes, has just concluded), where Jayanthi narrates stories and plays the veena to explain.

But, clearly, this is not something only for children but for adults too, just as Tom and Jerry is enjoyed as much by grown-ups.

Take, for instance, the story of the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper.’ It is summer time and the ants are busy stocking up for winter. The grasshopper mocks at their seriousness and keeps dancing around — in Kadanakuthuhalam. The brief play that musically illustrates the mood of the vain insect clearly transmits a sense of happiness, gaiety and nonchalance. The ants are sweating it away — in brisk notes of Pantuvarali.

Then comes winter. The ants sit by the fireside (says Jayanthi), enjoying time together. The grasshopper, hungry and shivering, is at the ants’ doors, begging for food. Now the same Kadanakuthuhalam changes colour. In slow, sliding notes, it throws a cloud of despondency and defeatism. Jayanthi brings out this ‘same raga, two opposite moods’ in all her stories. The peacock dances happily in Amritavarshini, but when it hears the cuckoo and realises it doesn’t have such a sweet voice, it folds its feathers and sulks, again in Amritavarshini. And all through this, you see the artiste’s myriad facial expressions and voice modulations, making the effect quite stunning.

Jayanthi and Kumaresh during a concert

Jayanthi and Kumaresh during a concert   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Jayanthi is no stranger to contrasts. She says that when Kumaresh and she play on the stage, they consciously bring contrasts to the fore. For instance, the veena, being of frets and plucked strings, is best positioned to bring out gamakas — the oscillations around a note, the micro-tonal variations, which is truly the hallmark of Carnatic music. The violin is 180 degrees away; shorter strings and the glide of the bow makes it ideal for speed (although Jayanthi often demonstrates glissando, letting her fingers rapidly glide over the frets.) One is discrete, the other is continuous. Whether the audience discerns this nuance or not, the effect is electrifying.

Jayanthi probably absorbed some of this out-of-the-box thinking from her iconoclastic mentor. In his conservative milieu, Balachander’s antics almost made him an apostate — he would play only a series of ragas or ragas and tanams with no compositions in-between, sometimes having a shaft of light shine on him on an otherwise dark stage. It was this desire to be different that provoked Jayanthi into starting the original Cup O’Carnatic series, meant to prime the lay audience for informed listening, without being pedantically instructive. You learn, for example, how to identify the difference between Janaranjani and Purnachandrika.

Carnatic Fun series

Then came the ‘Cup of Carnatic Fun Series’ with some fun blends. For instance, in ‘Harry Potter meets Carnatic Music,’ the Harry Potter background music segues seamlessly first into Sindhu Bhairavi and then Shanmukhapriya. In that vein, one enjoys her other offerings, such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ meets Carnatic Music’ (One ‘feels’ Clint Eastwood’s nonchalance through the veena notes even as the movie’s background music merges into Ritigowla). ‘Pink Panther meets Carnatic Music’, Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean... they are truly fun, if one wants a refreshing break from hard-core Carnatic.

Her listeners are enchanted. Jayanthi speaks of an instance when an Indian child in Seattle mentioned Nattai when her teacher narrated the story of ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ in class. Adults too are fascinated. For instance, R. Sridhar, former managing director, Shriram Transport Finance Corporation, and a major patron of Krishna Gana Sabha, says, “In the sea of personalised YouTube channels, Jayanthi Kumaresh’s ‘Cup O’Carnatic’ is a whiff of fresh air.”

The chief concern of Carnatic musicians is that their constituency of listeners is not growing enough. And today’s musicians are not willing to accept this with fatalistic resignation. If Harish Sivaramakrishnan showers a Brindavana Saranga in ‘rock’ style, Jayanthi Kumaresh brings in multiple blends in a cuppa. Complementing this inventiveness is the evolution of online delivery channels.

Jayanthi says she has not let the new modes of delivery impact what emanates from her veena. According to her, the absence of a physical audience and the barometer of applause take away distractions and help the musician focus more on the music.

That, in turn, should boost creativity. Carnatic music is quintessentially grammar-centric; the connoisseur frowns at liberties taken with rules. But musicians like Jayanthi Kumaresh are finding ways to liberate their creativity without forsaking grammar.

Moral of the story: If you want to tether a wild mustang, make sure you give it a long rope or else the peg will come off.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 10:49:42 PM |

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