This year, the Music Academy's Sangita Kalanidhi designate is tavil maestro Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam. While the choice has met with uniform approval, the scaling of another peak as far as percussion is concerned has gone unnoticed. This is the first time that the Music Academy has recognised an artist specialising in a percussion instrument other than the mridangam, for its highest award. And such recognition has been a good 82 years coming. The journey from being perceived as an unwanted art to the most honoured one deserves to be told.
In 1927, when the All India Music Conference was held in Madras, several percussion specialists demonstrated their skills. The list includes mridangam, ghatam, gethu vadyam, ganjira, morsing, jalar and konnakol artists. But when, at the end of the Conference, it was decided to found a Music Academy in Madras, it was also decided that Carnatic performances needed no other percussion instrument than the mridangam. An idea gained ground that instruments such as the ganjira, the ghatam and the morsing and the vocal percussive art of konnakkol were all independent of the tonic pitch or sruti and thus had no place on the Carnatic platform.
A resolution was passed stating that the conference was “strongly of the opinion that too many accompaniments mar the effect of musical entertainments and it therefore appeals to the organisers of musical entertainments to limit the number of accompanists to one violin or any other stringed instrument and one mridangam or any other tala instrument capable of being tuned to sruti.”
Thus when the Academy was inaugurated on August 18, 1928, Naina Pillai who gave the first performance under its auspices, had to make do with one violinist - Madras Balakrishna Iyer and one mridangam artist - Ayilur Akhileswara Iyer. It must have been a rather strange concert for Naina, for he was a man used to a full bench of nine accompanists for his performances.
If this was the status of upa-pakkavadyams, the thavil suffered due to the second-hand treatment meted out to nagaswaram artists. A wholly superfluous discussion raged in the early 1930s as to whether the nagaswaram was superior to the veena or vice-versa. This was concluded in favour of the veena and so the nagaswaram lost out and with it went the thavil. This led to A.K. Ramachandra Iyer, the firebrand owner of Midland Theatre to conduct his own festival, exclusively dedicated to nagaswaram artists, in 1935. The Academy finally relented in 1936 and having made T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai a member of its Committee of Experts, hosted his concert the same year.
The ban on upa-pakkavadyams continued well into the 1940s and finally ended when the Academy's ban on M.S. Subbulakshmi was lifted. The singer, who had been dropped from the Academy's list owing to her espousal of the Tamil Isai cause, was welcomed back with open arms in 1947. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who was the Sangita Kalanidhi designate, brokered the peace. By then, the Academy had warmed up to Tamil Isai and also realised that it needed an artist of MS' stature to shore up its bottom-line, what with funds being needed for repaying the loan taken to purchase its present property on Cathedral Road.
MS returned for the Season of 1947 and sang on December 28 that year for the Academy, accompanied by T. Chowdiah on the violin, Kalpathi Ramanathan on the mridangam and Alangudi Ramachandran on the ghatam. The nightingale had also achieved another first. Her concert with an upa-pakkavadyam meant that the Academy had to give up its long standing bias against instruments such as the ghatam, the ganjira and the morsing.
From there on, there was no looking back. Upa-pakkavadyams made it to the evening slot when senior artists performed. Significantly, they are not featured even today in the afternoon slots, perhaps with cost consideration in mind. Thus, we have a piquant situation today where an upa-pakkavadyam artist makes it directly to the evening slot without going through the afternoon slot, a privilege not available to singers, violinists and mridangam artists! Percussionists had to wait till 1966 when Palghat Mani Iyer became the first mridangam artist to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi. Then there was a long wait till 1994 when T.K. Murthy became the next awardee. Since then we have had more percussionists receiving the title.
Last year, the Academy broke new ground when clarionet exponent A.K.C. Natarajan received the Kalanidhi. This was an instrument over which there was a heated debate in the 1950s with one faction demanding an outright ban. Now this year, it is the turn of the thavil. Does this mean that we may hope to have ghatam, morsing and ganjira artists similarly feted in the future?
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