Spotlight | Music

Meet Layavinyas, a Kolkata-based percussion ensemble that blends Carnatic beats with Hindustani

Layavinyas’ concerts are a lively rendezvous of Carnatic and Hindustani idioms.   | Photo Credit: E. Padmakumar

Midsummer in Kerala meant advanced mridangam classes for N. Shankar. Barely out of his teens, the Kolkata-based Shankar made it a point to take lessons from maestro Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair (1926–2012) whenever he went home to Kerala for the holidays. This continued over four summers from 1979. Nair had been a disciple of the iconic drummer Palakkad Mani Iyer (1912-81), as had Shankar’s first guru, L.V. Vaidyanathan in Kolkata. For the young man, it was very important to continue his training in the style of Palakkad Iyer.

Bengalis are no strangers to Carnatic music; you can even hear it in a couple of Satyajit Ray’s films where he composed the background score himself. Decades before that, Rabindra Sangeet had incorporated Dravidian ragas, while pre-Independence Kolkata was already home to a thriving population of Tamils, the community to which Shankar basically belongs. All the same, Shankar sensed that Carnatic music — and its sophisticated rhythms in particular — had the scope and need for greater exposure beyond its cradle south of the Vindhyas.

Mission possible

In 1990, thus, he launched Layavinyas, an ensemble that has since charted a steadily successful profile. Its concerts soon turned out to be a lively rendezvous of Carnatic and Hindustani idioms. Did that not dilute the original mission to popularise Carnatic? “Not at all,” says Shankar, 59. “Such a collaborative effort ensures that we draw people who are more familiar with Hindustani or have some constraints in appreciating Carnatic.”

Today, the group, with its emphasis on the rich rhythms of both classical idioms, tours widely across the country. “Initially, we were just three percussionists, playing the mridangam, tabla and ghatam. Plus a violin that would work as a filler of sorts,” recalls Shankar. “The programmes were also much shorter.” ‘Laya Tarang’ today spans more than two hours.

Layavinyas chose to celebrate its first anniversary by ushering in a major Hindustani instrument into the ensemble. This was the sitar, which marked the beginning of the north-meets-south spirit in the collective; they also picked up a vocalist later on. But none of this has detracted from the group’s focus on talas and their myriad patterns.

“That will always be the case, notwithstanding certain additions and subtractions,” smiles Shankar. “Much like ragas are largely common to both Carnatic and Hindustani, the two idioms also share rhythms that are the same, though known by different names. Within the talas we have different gaits (nada in Carnatic) that magically alter each one’s swing,” he notes. “That’s why a piece may have a curious change of mood midway through its course, courtesy of a change of nada. It can sound more pronounced than even a change of raga. Also, there’s a strong difference in percussion playing styles between the south and the north. That’s how a Kalavati or Hamsadhwani may sound much the same when our Carnatic violin takes its cue from the Hindustani bansuri (flute), but it’s never so when the tabla and ghatam play the same tala.”

Aesthete Vipin Chandran K.P. agrees, and adds a valid point: despite the lineup totalling no less than a dozen artists, not for a moment does Layavinyas stray into cacophony. “The combo of two string and one wind instrument alongside three types of drums works joyfully to achieve a tuneful deployment of both ragas and talas,” says Chandran, who is associated with an arts movement in Ernakulam.

Dance and drums

During the late 1990s, Layavinyas almost regularly featured Western instruments such as the drums, bass guitar and keyboard in its works. And for eight years from 2002, it showcased Indian classical dances as well.

“Be it Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam or Kathakali, their varied footwork added to the vibrancy of our tala systems,” says Shankar, whose mother Lakshmi Narayanaswamy used to sing for dance. “It’s another matter that our music also accorded vitality to the facial abhinaya and body language of these forms. We even had the navarasas (nine emotions) portrayed through them.”

If the induction of the sitar in the early 1990s gave Hindustani a place on the team, the mandola too has joined in today. Joy Guha, who plays the Western-origin fretted string instrument, points out, “See, its bass sound lends our concerts the gravitas of the veena.” Adds Shankar: “Its music has the joviality of the sitar, minus the shrillness at the top registers.”

Renowned masters

Shankar’s counterpart on the tabla is Arindam Chakravarty, a disciple of the late Shankar Ghosh of the illustrious Farukhabad gharana. Indeed, all the troupe’s artists are students of renowned masters; flautist Rupak Mukherjee’s guru, for instance, is Hariprasad Chaurasia.

As the monsoon crisscrosses India, sometimes briskly and sometimes reluctantly, the rain raga Brindavani has become a regular at Layavinyas shows. “But then, it’s not just the tune,” says Shankar. “We bring out the splendour of the rains. The rhythms with their pulsating momentum effectively symbolise thunder amid lightning.”

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s traditional performing arts.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:57:01 PM |

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