New tunes in Carnatic music

BENGALURU: As a classical art, it is easy to associate Carnatic music with not just tradition and heritage in terms of musical form, presentation, and com position, but with venerable vocalists and instrumentalists who have always represented the best that it has to offer. But as we celebrate the 250th birth anniversary of the greatest of India’s lyricist-composers, Saint Thyagaraja, whose incomparable melodies and bhakti-laden lyrics resonate eternally across the land, there is a new wave of younger artists who are setting such high standards that they are dominating the field.

The established leading vocalists today, TM Krishna, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Ranjani-Gayathri, and instrumentalists like Chitravina N Ravikiran are only a little older than a host of younger stars led by the likes of Abhishek Raghuram and Shashank Subramaniam. Carnatic music is also being presented in new venues to new audiences, and there is active research into its various nuances, while new technology makes the output more accessible to wouldbe-initiates and casual listeners.

Renowned musicologist and secretary of the prestigious Music Academy in Chennai, Dr Pappu Venugopal, believes that while the core of Carnatic music is secure, aesthetic sensibilities will evolve keeping in tune with changing times. “Thirty years ago, the audiences were younger, the artistes were older. Now the audiences are older, the artistes are younger,” he says. While the content of the music remains untouched, audiences for Carnatic music concerts have changed.

Dr Venugopal agrees that 20 years from now, Carnatic musicians will still sing the compositions of Thyagaraja, Mysore Vasudevachar, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and connoisseurs will continue to appreciate them. Fewer people will probably take the effort to come to sabhas, and instead prefer to watch streaming of concerts over the internet from the comfort of their homes. “But Carnatic music will survive and be better. The repertoire will be richer, the performances will be technologically and qualitatively much better,” he says.

“Youngsters also carry with them a repertoire, a quality, a professionalism, that was not there earlier. I wouldn’t like to compare their music, but I would like to compare the essence the quality and the presentation…all that is getting better by the day. They are making what they are singing important to the audience.”

He adds: “Earlier there were ten singers and they were all senior in age. You would respect them for their age, you were awed by them.
Today, there are other singers, the youngsters, you are not awed by their age. You are overwhelmed by their quality and their skills of presentation. And by the technology they are using which allows the audience to receive this in a better way .” An upcoming young Carnatic musician and student of eminent vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan, flautist J Jayanth says the presence of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter enables “the present generation to keep track of concerts happening around the globe, follow art-centric activities in their vicinity and make enhance learning since there’s easy access to tons of music. These forums help in establishing a direct connect with the audience. And the access to sophisticated devices which help in listening to a composition and specific parts in it several times makes learning easy and efficient.”


Take N Ravikiran’s February 15 performance at Chowdiah Hall in Bengaluru, where he once again demonstrated his consummate skill in urging human like melody from a very ancient Indian slide instrument the Chitravina. A child prodigy, he could identify over 325 ragas and 175 talas at the age of two, he is a composer, Chitravina exponent, vocalist and a thinker on his art. Ravikiran’s experiments with combining the two primary systems of the world melody with its notes in succession and harmony with its simultaneous notes, chords and tones, is the basis of a new musical form Melharmony. Ravikiran has conceptualised several festivals where the compositions of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and other Indian composers have been `melharmonically’ performed by western orchestras accompanied by the Chitravina. Nearly 35,000 to 40,000 people typically attend these shows in the US.

Today’s musicians are attempting to take Carnatic music beyond its conventional spaces. Last year’s Magsaysay awardee, vocalist T M Krishna, says his Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha is about “bringing down barriers, equalising spaces and de-classing the arts. The Vizha (festival) exposes artistes to new audiences and audiences to art forms that are new to them.The lead up to the vizha in 2017 has been a great experience for all of us on the volunteer front.This year we saw Silambattam, Paraiattam, music by the Jogappas (from Karnataka) and Gaana Music in a sabha space for the first time. We had concerts in spaces symbolic of day-to-day life such as the 29C MTC bus route and Central Railway Station in Chennai.”

Bengaluru’s art and music scene has always experimented with outdoor venues made famous by the Nrityagram Vasanthahabba, which has sadly been discontinued. On February 14, the Guruskool campus on the outskirts of Bangalore hosted musicians of the East West Music and Dance Encounter of the Bangalore School of Music. “I pinched myself to see if this was real” says a jazz singer from Sweden after she performed her song in the sunken amphitheatre on the banks of the Kumudvathi.

Geetha and Gopal Navale, founders of Guruskool say , “There is something heady about the combination of music and nature that defies description.” The Carnatic stage under the banyan tree was mystical and had the Swedish jazz musicians perfectly keeping the khanda champu tala of the music performed by Mythili Anantharaman, Geetha Navale on the Veena and Rajku mar on the Thavil.(The author is the editor of Saamagaana, The First Melody, a national classical music magazine)

Sudha Ragunathan at the United Nations

Carnatic vocalist Padma Bhushan Sudha Ragunathan continues to be an example to youngsters seeking both artistic excellence and sustained career success. When she was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi by the Music Academy in 2013, at a relatively young age, the Academy itself noted that it marked a transition to the next generation of musicians after all, people expected to be at least in their 60s, if not in their 70s and 80s, to get the coveted recognition.

Raghunathan along with her team of accompanists performed at the General Assembly to mark the 50th year of Bharat Ratna M S Subbulakshmi’s historic performance in the United Nations. “There was a grandeur to the place. There were even one or two people there who had heard MS sing 50 years ago. There were people who really knew music. There were diplomats who probably knew nothing about music or about Carnatic music. The challenge was you had to reach out to all of them.”

Raghunathan says Carnatic music represents a true flavour of what Indian culture is all about. For the occasion, she took some verses from the Mahabharata and tuned it with the help of violinist RK Shriramkumar, to mark the day, which was International Day of Non-violence. “From the south of India you take a genre of music and sing it to an audience that is extremely cosmopolitan somewhere it touched them. Whether they understood the swaras or the ragas, whether they understood what I sang, somewhere it unified all of us in that space of two hours.”

aparna aaparna anilnil | TNN | Feb 18, 2017, 08.01 AM IST
courtesy: Times of INDIA

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