Carnatic Music has a large number of heroes and heroines. But the list of its unsung stars is even larger. This list is crowded with great musicologists and teachers who are responsible for the success of many performing stars. Such people preserve the greatness of our rich heritage alive by their selfless service. They happily pass on their expertise to others, many of whom go on to become performers of repute. More importantly, many such students go on to emulate their teachers, training more students; thus exponentially increasing the spread and reach of Carnatic Music. Geetha Sundaresan is one such teacher of teachers in the field of Carnatic Music.
Geetha was felicitated by a grateful gathering of her students of all ages, parents of many of these students, and admirers, in a special concert organized to honor her on 22 September 2018. She was accompanied by Sudha Ramasubramanian on the violin, who had been flown in from Chennai for the occasion, and local percussionists Sri Rama Mohan and Sri Nandagopal on mridangam and kanjira respectively.
Geetha started her concert with Saveri Varnam (Sarasuda by Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer) which immediately set the tone for the evening’s program. This was followed by the Purandara Dasa kriti Saranu janakana kanaka rupane In Bilahari after a neat alapana. I have heard this sung by MLV in Latangi, but the Bilahari version sounded equally satisfying, including the chittaswarams in anupallavi and charanam. Later, I found out that the kriti has also been sung in Saurashtram. Wonder what raga the great saint sang it in originally?
Next was a brilliant Suddha Dhanyasi alapana, followed by Dikshitar’s Subramanyena rakshitoham. Geetha’s kalpana swarams were exquisite, yet not excessive. Young Sudha’s responses were equally impressive. At this point, the teacher in Geetha surfaced. She announced the details of the kritis she had sung so far, and prepared the audience for the Tyagaraja composition in the rare raga Manoranjani (Atu karaadani). The raga is a janya of the 5th Melakarta Manavati, although in the Dikshitar School of classification, it is itself designated as the 5th Melakarta.
By now, the audience, already very aware of the singer’s status in the city, were totally hooked. Here was someone who could make the transition from an oft heard composition to a rarely heard one with consummate ease. The stage had been set by Geetha for a scintillating evening of music.
An elaborate alapana in panthuvarali was followed by Sambo Mahadeva of Tyagaraja. Geetha enlightened the audience with details of this kriti: it is one of the Kovur Pancharatna compositions, which sheds light on Tyagaraja’s devotion to Lord Siva. Her interaction with the audience continued with the next piece, Kannan maligaikke marubadi vandeno in Atana where Kuchela, on his way back from visiting his friend Krishna, unaware of the Lord’s graciousness, finds his house replaced by a palatial building, and wonders if he has wandered back to Krishna’s palace again. She informed the audience about Papanasam Sivan composing this song for the movie “Bhakta Kuchela” in 1961. Geetha then launched into her main piece of the evening – Syama Sastri’s “Ni sari evaramma” in Bhairavi, giving it the detailed attention that such a heavy composition deserves. A brilliant thani avarthanam by Sri Rama Mohan and young Nandagopal followed. If the mridangam sounded sweet to the ears, the Kanjeera was no less. Many in the audience declared they had never expected a limited-scope instrument like the Kanjeera to sound so melodious. The local percussion duo once again did all Muscat music lovers proud with their synchronization and laya precision.
Eschewing an RTP, Geetha rounded off her concert with Kuntalavarali (Bhogeendra Sayeenam, Swati Thirunal), a lilting Bageshwari piece (Madhura Madhura Meenakshi by Swami Dayanada Saraswathi – Geetha mentioned about the honour she had of singing this song in the presence of the great Swamiji) and a Behag (muruganin maru peyar azhagu by Swami Surajananda), and a Kilippandu composed by her grandfather A K Mahadeva Iyer in praise of Tyagaraja. It was befitting that she invited all her students in the audience to join her as a chorus.
Geetha’s concert was an enriching experience for students and connoisseurs alike. Though Muscat will be the loser in Geetha’s repatriation to India, it was clear to all present that we rasikas here could not allow our selfishness to interfere with her class – she truly belongs in Chennai, where she will be able to rub shoulders with other artistes of her caliber.
Author: Dr (Col) Koduvayur M Harikrishnan with inputs from Mr. Ravishankar Rajamani.
Prasant Radhakrishnan is a saxophonist identified with both the South Indian Classical (Carnatic) Music and Jazz disciplines. Blessed with a legendary teacher (Kadri Gopalnath) and a strong tonal depth on the saxophone, Prasant caught the attention of audiences worldwide while still in high school. His style has been described as possessing technical fluidity as well as a mature depth of melodic phrasing beyond his years.
Due to the nature of his instrument and musicianship, Prasant has transformed several first-time listeners of South Indian music into enthusiasts. His performances have been described as captivating, fresh, soothing, gripping and profound by audiences and critics all over the world. His original compositions have also been featured in premiere concerts in the U.S. and abroad. His first album Swara Sudha, released in 2000, met with critical success both in the U.S. and India. Prasant Radhakrishnan continues to push the limits of the saxophone and improvisational music.
Prasant Radhakrishnan, is the youngest musician to receive the prestigious AIIS (American Institute of India Studies) Senior Performing Arts Fellowship in its history.
Swara Sudha (2000)
Duality (2005) East Facing (2007) VidyA (2008)
Kiravani: A Live Experience (2009)
Meditations: Ragas on Saxophone: Vol. 1 (2011)
Naada Samyama (2013)
Meditations: Ragas on Saxophone Vol. 2 (2015)
Just because December is done and the ensuing months have come doesn’t mean Music Academy is on hibernation till the next December to come. Madras Music Academy is one of the earliest established music academies in South India. Before the concept of infrastructure was introduced to India in the early 1920s, it was a gathering for elite musicians simply called (and is still more commonly referred to as) Music Academy
Lovers of music and other well-wishers wanted to stimulate interest in Carnatic music in the South and develop a rich culture. The academy had sound planning from the start with an expert committee consisting of some of the leading musicians and scholars to advise the academy on all technical matters. The SPIRIT is still sustained in a very visible and commendable way.
Annual music conferences are held every December to collect all information regarding music, maintain the library and publish a journal. They also help to bring to public notice aspiring musicians and scholars by conducting competitions and other presentations and Great Concerts.
Round the year there are positive activities in sustaining this effort and always significantly innovative and productive.
In this streak of activity comes a nice thematic vocal concert by Ms. Shubashree Ramachandran.
Daughter of Padmabushan awardee Trichur Ramachandran and Kalaimamani Charumathi Ramachandran both illustrious Carnatic Vocalists Shubashree is also a solo vocalist in her own right.
Shubashree gave her first concert at age fourteen for YACM. To date she has sung for Madras Music Academy, Indian fine arts, Kartik Fine Arts, Krishna Gana Sabha, Bharat Kalachar, Mylapore Fine Arts, Narada Gana Sabha , Sabhas in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other centers.
She has given vocal support for her mother Charumathi in Australia, USA, and London. Shubashree is a graded artiste of All India Radio and TV. She has sung for Sun TV, Star plus TV, Doordarshan and Bharathi TV.
Shubashree has won many awards and laurels and had performed at the Theatre de la Ville, Paris.
She is a Yuva Kala Bharathi awardee, a Bhavan Excellence and Yagnaraman Excellence awardee. She is also a graded Radio Artist and the student of the world famous vocalist D.K.Pattammal. She has received the Best Junior Musician Award from Music Academy in 2003, from Indian Fine Arts Society in 1998-2000, and from Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha in 2003.
Shubashree had a fair chance of vocal concerts in the just concluded Chennai December Music festival also.
All are welcome to her forthcoming concert at the Music Academy:
“Sundara Narayana” songs about Lord Guruvayurappan
Time: 07:00 PM
Date: 15th February 2018
Venue: Music Academy Hall,
TTK Road, Chennai
The annual Music Festival conducted in December-January in Chennai is a unique phenomenon. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world, with close to 2000 performances of music, dance, drama, spiritual discourses, lecture-demonstrations, discussions and related events.
While the essence of the festival is entertainment through these forms of art, there is an impressive gastronomic delight built in – In the close to 60 odd sabhas or organizations that host the various activities, impromptu canteens spring up, catering mouth-watering dishes relished not only by the rasikas who attend the programmes, but also by the local residents who take full advantage of these temporary canteens. Indeed, many of the performing artistes also join the rasikas in enjoying the menu!
Started in 1927, the Madras Music Festival (the original name from days gone by when Chennai was Madras) has grown to its present gigantic form over the years, thanks to the generous patronage of the corporate world, and the discerning music fans (rasikas) who come from all over the world.
While most enthusiasts coming from abroad (USA, UK, the Middle East and Singapore for the main part) are Indians, there is a growing number of westerners with interest in Carnatic Music who attend these concerts.
In 2017, most sabhas are reported to have had between 50 and 100 people of non-Indian origin every day, especially for the music and dance events. The Season provides a platform for established artistes as well as budding ones to showcase their talent.
My wife and I attended this year’s season. While we regularly travel to Chennai during the Season from wherever we are, we would rarely get more than 3 or 4 days of quality music. We decided long back that this year would be different. And it was. We stayed put for 18 days in all, soaking in the grand art in all its glory. And we found that the Season has evolved over the years, in more ways than one. Here is how:
The first, and perhaps the most satisfying aspect was the quality of the performances. There has always been this lament of doomsday pessimists that Carnatic music is on the decline, that a few years down the line, it would be relegated to history books. Even the wackiest pessimist would have had a change of heart had they, like us, attended the festival this year.
A vast majority of performances were by talented youngsters in their 20s and thirties. And they performed like stalwarts! There was no sign of undue nervousness, no stage fear. Instead, all of them exuded supreme confidence in the way they went about displaying their understanding and even mastery of the complex art form that Carnatic music is.
The selection of kritis, the pace of delivery, an occasional remark about some significant aspect of a raga or composition – this was, for us, a pleasant change from bygone years when artistes came on stage, belted out their fare, and left. Today’s performers do not seem shy of communicating with the audience – and every time this happened, I saw the audience love it. Without exception.
A few years ago, one of the magazines lamented the “death” of the Ragam Tanam Pallavi, the ultimate jewel of the Carnatic music platform. This year, the audience was treated to a veritable feast of RTPs! Indeed, a new term has emerged – the RTK – Ragam Tanam followed by a weighty composition (called Kriti) to underpin the beauty of the chosen raga.
The quality of accompanists: A missed or misplaced note (referred to as abhaswaram) played by the accompanist can stick out like a sore thumb, disturbing the flow of the main singer and audience satisfaction. It is a tribute to the teachers and trainers of today’s young accompanists that the cynic in me could not identify a single instance of abhaswaram in the 40 odd concerts I heard this season. On the contrary, some of the violin accompanists were superlative, matching the main artiste note for note, unfazed by the stature of the senior they were accompanying.
Never shy of going back stage and talking to artistes, I had the pleasure of conveying my sentiments to many of these youngsters. Many of the new (to me, not the regular concert goer in Chennai) violinists I met were all students of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Smt Kanyakumari. I mention this because the Parur and Lalgudi schools are known to produce violinists who strictly adhere to sruti suddham or purity of notes. Here is another set of high level performers being trained by one of the top violinists of today – what can be more reassuring about the future of our heritage than this?
As for the percussionists, no amount of praise is enough. Every single mridangam, ghatam or kanjeera player seems to a master of mathematics, so sure is their grasp of laya. Sure some of the less experienced ones need to mature, but they don’t lack talent, they merely need on-stage experience. Which, thankfully, is abundantly available. Which could well be the reason for yet another significant change noticed this year – far few people walk out during the solo by the percussionists, and this in turn motivates the artistes to perform better.
The ubiquitous internet and its ally, the sophistication of present day smart phones, have made a huge difference too, unlike in the preceding years. It is possible to find out details of the song being sung by looking it up instantly on the internet – knowing about the composer, the raga in which it is being sung, and especially the ability to follow the lyrics as the kriti unfolds on stage, has made a huge difference to the overall enjoyment of the concert. That’s technology aided entertainment in the truest sense!
Time keeping: An extremely satisfying aspect noticed this time around was the clockwork precision with which the major sabhas conduct their programmes. The Music Academy has always been very strict with schedules, but other sabhas are catching on quickly. My wife and I experienced only one instance of a programme not starting on time. I may be unaware of other lapses in this, but the general consensus is that most places the programmes start and end on time.
Themed events: Finally, a whole new range of themed events are adding value to the festival. Ranjani and Gayatri, arguably the top vocalists in the circuit, did an RTP in each of their concerts, paying tribute to various composers. They did this by choosing one popular kriti of each composer and doing an RTP in the raga of that composition, using the first line of the composition as the lyrics for the pallavi. I was amazed at their innovative sense, as were most others.
There were some restaurants that combined meals with music – by having artistes present in their premises. This gave the rasikas a chance to see their favorites close – up, and interact with them. Most sabhas distributed daily leaflets – absolutely free of charge – carrying tid bits and anecdotes from around the city’s sabhas – al this by a bunch of enthusiasts giving of their time and effort voluntarily.
My wife and I came away more than satisfied after this season, convinced that the face of Madras Music Season is changing, and changing for the better. I am convinced that far from fading away, Carnatic music is poised to reach a whole new dimension in the capable hands of today’s generation of performers.
Akshara – In Time (Blue Skinned God Records, 2017)
In Time is the debut album by Akshara, a world fusion ensemble rooted in Carnatic music led by percussionist, vocalist and composer Bala Skandan.
Akshara is based in New York City and brings together musicians from various traditions, including Indian classical music, jazz and western classical.
Bala Skandan’s main instruments are the mridangam (South Indian barrel drum) and his voice used as a percussion instrument (konakkol). The ensemble includes two violinists, a cello player and hammered dulcimer performer, who deliver a fascinating mix of string sounds from diverse traditions.
Throughout In Time you’ll find a mix of highly complex rhythmic pieces featuring drums and vocal percussion, along with laid back moments focused on the strings and bansuri (Indian flute) melodies. These performances are new arrangements of classic ragas.
Personnel: Bala Skandan on mridangam and konnakkol; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Trina Basu-Ramamurthy on violin; Nitin Mitta on tabla; Jay Gandhi on bansuri; Max ZT on hammered dulcimer; Dave Eggar on cello; Thejeswini Raj on konnakkol; Beenakumari Viju on konnakkol; Kabilan Jeganathan on kanjira; and Shrinath Viswanathan on konnakkol.
In Time features masterful genre-defying performances rooted in Carnatic music.
Roopa Mahadevan is a Carnatic vocalist. Born and raised in San Josem Californiam Roopa underwent her formative training under Smt. Asha Ramesh disciple of the late Sangeetha Kalanidhi D.K. Jayaraman and Sri Nanganallur Ramanathan.
In 2007 Roopa was awarded the highly-regarded Fulbright Scholarship by the U.S. State Department to receive advanced training in Chennai India under Smt. Suguna Varadachari, a senior vidushi and respected teacher of the Musiri Subramania Iyer tradition.
Roopa has been a regular performer in the major sabhas during Chennai December season for the past years and has received praise from the Carnatic music fraternity and notable press including The Hindu Indian Express Times of India The Week and more.
She has performed full-length concerts in several venues in India and North America including the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana where she has been awarded the first prize for raga alapana and krithi rendition in their annual competition in years past.
In 2010 Roopa was honored with the title “Kala Ratna” by the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana for her commitment to the pursuit of Carnatic music as a young American. Roopa is also an accomplished Bharathanatyam dancer who has done her arangetram and performed in India and Europe under the training of Smt. Indumathy Ganesh disciple of Padmashri Smt. Chitra Visweswaran.
Roopa is additionally adept at singing for Bharathanatyam productions; she has sung for such dance artists as Bragha Bessel Mythili Prakash Abhinaya Dance Company and Shakti Dance Company among others.
Roopa also enjoys performing R&B/soul music and has lent her voice to several contemporary art projects such as an Indian folk ensemble curated by Chennai’s Prakriti Foundation the Guadalajara International Book Fair and two urban/R&B music albums “Lovespeak” and “Bring Back the Nyte.”
She provided lead female vocals for the track “Sukle Krsna” on the album Calling All Dawns that won a Grammy for “Best Classical Crossover Album.”
Roopa received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Stanford University and currently works in the public health policy field while simultaneously pursuing her artistic career.
Rajna Swaminathan, disciple of mrudangam maestro Sri Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman accompanies Carnatic musicians. She started learning Mrudangam from her father Dr. P. K. Swaminathan at the age of 5 and came under the direct tutelage of Sri Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman at the age of 8. She is 14 years old and is studying in Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Maryland. Rajna is only one of a handful of female mrudangam artists and one of a very few female percussionists in the world.
She has performed at many local Thyagaraja utsavams and other programs. Along with her father Dr. P. K. Swaminathan she has accompanied high caliber artists such as Dr. N. Ramani Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar Rudrapatnam Brothers Charumathi Ramachandran etc. and won their praise.
During Fall 2004 Rajna toured the USA along with her illustrious Guru and performed for one piece on Mrudangam with Sri Sivaraman accompanying on Kanjira and encouraging her. Sri Sivaraman presented her to the Maryland audience for a full two hour concert debut at the auspices of the Chinmaya Mission Maryland on October 9th 24 with Sri Somayajulu on Jalatharangam Sri Nagai Sriram on Violin and Sri E. M. Subramaniam on Ghatam.
Rajna also performs mrudangam for dance programs, most notably the grand Kuchipudi dance ballet Bharata Sambhavam held at Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
In addition to mrudangam, Rajna plays piano and has learned Bharathanatyam for some years.
In the notification in these columns about Ranjani-Gayatri’s upcoming concert in Muscat, I had predicted it would be a grand affair. An easy way to score a point as a clairvoyant, since their concerts are always grand! More than 800 people had a sublime experience, not one of them choosing to go – even after the concert! The organizers had to practically hustle the sisters away from the hall for some much needed dinner!
I have made a another prediction about Ranjani and Gayatri (R-G): that they will be the torch bearers for the restructuring of the Carnatic Music concert pattern – something their illustrious predecessor, Sri Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, did many decades ago. At a time where incredibly silly things are being tried in the name of innovation, R-G sisters are sticking to a format that all at once respects the basic tenets of the grandest of India’s music traditions, yet gives them ample room for experimentation. It is their ability to exercise freedom with a sense of discipline and reverence to our divine musical heritage that gives me the courage to say that their pattern will be the one in vogue in the coming decades.
They stuck to their formula yesterday – a crisp Abhogi varnam (although I must confess I was hoping to hear some kalpana swarams a-la the great GNB, another master innovator within traditions), a crisp Kedaram (Swati Tirunal’s Paramananda Natana) then a Rangapura Vihara in Brindavana Saranga (a special treat for the Indian Ambassador, as the composition is in Sanskrit, and the raga is common to both Hindustani and Carnatic systems); a detailed Todi (Tyagaraja’s Raju vedala) was followed by a composition in Dwijavanti (payorasi bhale). This kriti is by Smt Kalyani Varadarajan, whose wonderful compositions are gaining popularity amongst the top performers because of their intellectual appeal.
Then came an elaborate alapana in Mohanam as a preface to the ever popular “kapaali” by Papanasam Sivan. This was followed by a scintillating thani avarthanam by Manoj Siva, who drew a massive applause for his efforts. By now, the audience was totally mesmerized.
In keeping with their charming ability to connect with the audience, they announced the details of the compositions they sang. After a melodious Nasikabhushani (Tyagaraja’s Maravairi ramani) they took up the main item of the concert: a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (RTP for short), a unique feature of Carnatic music. Ranjani and Gayatri, known for their sensitive handling of both heavy and off beat ragas, chose to treat the audience to an RTP in beautiful Hamsanandi. Every shade, every hue of this pleasant raga was brought out in consummate detail by both sisters – the transition from one to the other in mid phrase was so aesthetic, it drew repeated applause.
But this was nothing compared to the garland of ragas they weaved at the end – the ragamalika – composed of Nattai, Reethigaula, Hamir Kalyani and Sindhubhiaravi. Ranjani’s handling of Hamir kalyani once again underscored the in-depth knowledge of ragas derived from the north. The last, most deservingly referred to as the queen of ragas, was handled brilliantly by Gayatri – she was so engrossed, she could have gone on for an hour elaborating the raga. Sampath’s violin was sweet and soothing to the ears, and his repartee to each of the sisters’ volleys was remarkable. The audience’s joy was boundless at the end of the piece – no one seemed in any hurry to stop clapping! Then followed the “thukkadas”. The term may be translated to mean tidbits, but in their melodic intent, they were as weighty as the major kritis preceding them. There was a viruttam in karaharapriya, saveri and a delectable Maand, then Purandara dasa’s Narayana nine in Suddha dhanyasi, and a lilting bhajan in Khamaj (payoji meine ram rattan dhan payo). The finale was the much awaited abhang that the sisters are especially well known for – they chose Bhoota mothe in Chandrakauns, made extremely enjoyable by Gayatri’s explanation of the lyrics up front.
The true hallmark of a great artiste is their ability to deliver in the presence of adversity. A Tendulkar or a Roger Federer doesn’t get perturbed by the dryness of the pitch or the slippery court. They give of their best to the fans. In what could be mildly put as audio adversity, Ranjani and Gayatri delivered ace after ace, cover drive after cover drive, each one more pleasing to the senses than the other. Within minutes of the concert being over, accolades galore were clogging the whatsapp messages of all the organizers. This was Nadopasana’s 4th concert of the year, but quite easily the concert of a lifetime.