Goodbye Kalyani, Hello Kokilapriya

Goodbye Kalyani, Hello Kokilapriya

BARADWAJ RANGAN takes a look at the popular trend of main pieces in rare raga-s.

Sikkil Gurucharan doesn’t seem to believe me when I say he’s the inspiration behind this story. His email to this effect ends with a semicolon followed by a dash and a closing parenthesis—the universal emoticon for a wink, suggesting that I may be kidding. But then I take him back to his concert at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan earlier this year, when he announced midway, “The main piece I will be singing is a Tyagaraja kriti in the raga Kokilapriya.” In a trice, he wasn’t a singer so much as a scientist in a laboratory holding a strip of litmus paper—for one section of the audience instantly saw red, flinching at the very idea of a main piece in a raga other than a Todi or a Kambhoji or a Bhairavi. This may be the ultimate taste test—the ultimate indicator of belonging to (or, at least, leaning towards the preferences of) a particular generation of music listeners. Likening the main piece of a concert to the main course of a feast, the critic Sulochana Pattabhiraman perhaps speaks for this set of rasika-s when she offers a culinary metaphor: “A dessert can’t become a meal.”

But there are an equal number of rasika-s who are game for experiments—and Bombay Jayashri speaks for this brave new generation when she discloses, “It is very refreshing to sing and hear a rare raga during the main piece. I do it often.” Her contemporary, T.M. Krishna, agrees that “it is very interesting to sing pallavi-s in rare raga-s,” but he mulls over the qualifier ‘rare’. “Are we referring to old raga-s that are no longer common or the newer raga-s that have cropped up? If we are referring to older raga-s not in vogue, I find that many of them—like Narayanagaula—do lend themselves to elaboration. The same cannot be said of the newer ones, which seem to give scope only for permutations and combinations.” He reveals that he is not a fan of raga-s that are mere scales, and that the rare raga-s he has presented “have been mostly older raga-s that may not have been used for pallavi-s before—raga-s that have a swaroopa beyond the arohana-avarohana. Then, as if to restore the balance, he adds, “I still believe that the major raga-s are the kings for pallavi singing.”

The elaboration in these clarifications could prompt you to ask, especially if you have grown up with the old masters, “But why, in the first place?” For many of those stalwarts, a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (RTP) was a time to invoke what Sulochana calls, “the age-old, immortal raga-s—like Sankarabharanam, Kharaharapriya, Bhairavi, Todi, Kalyani.” So today, when Jayashri confesses to delineations of Sucharitra, Hamsavinodini, Sunadavinodini and Pavani—that rustling in your head could well be from an image of the audience frantically thumbing through their Venkatamakhi charts to figure out the identity of these raga-s—it makes you pause. What are the causes behind the shift. Is it the audience? Is it the artist’s desire for experimentation? Is it because there are so many concerts these days that “differentiation” becomes necessary? Jayashri says it’s a bit of everything, along with “the willingness and confidence to try.”

“I think the artist’s desire for experimentation triggers this cycle,” says Gurucharan. He or she presents rare raga-s to provide that element of ‘differentiation’ in the repertoire, and this, in turn, educates the audience and they start asking for more such numbers.” Perhaps befitting the generation he belongs to, he drives home his point with a technological allusion. “Today’s audience is highly educated. They are constantly improving their raga database.” He says that rare raga-s have developed an increasingly loyal following. “In fact, some people even ask me to postpone the announcement of the rare raga’s name to the end (of the piece) so that they can keep on guessing. It is a healthy sign and I feel rare raga-s must occupy a place in concerts in a non-intervening fashion—that is, not necessarily taking it up as the main piece but presenting the raga swaroopa and the song as a welcome change.”

It is tempting to put this young trend before an older rasika—and Sulochana declares that you cannot enjoy something you don’t understand. When I protest about the apparent inflexibility of this pronouncement, she relents. “At the very least, the artist must introduce the raga, specify the arohana-avarohana, tell the audience about the family it belongs to and introduce them to the prayoga-s, the jeeva swara-s.” She quietly adds that Semmangudi had an allergy to vivadi raga-s, and veers off on a slight tangent about her guru. “He used to say, “These days, the papers and the notebooks reach the stage even before the artist does. And now it’s the laptop age. How ridiculous! What is to prevent korvai-s being formulated on the computer? Where is the imagination?” But she does agree that there is a need for introducing vivadi raga-s, “like Rasikapriya, Ganamoorti, Chalanata... There are beautiful kriti-s in these raga-s.” Then the caveat again: “They are needed, but not as  a main piece. ”

Sulochana remembers older singers who did employ the rarer raga-s. “MLV used to sing RTPs in Malavi and Gamanasrama (a raga that is not heard much because her daughter Poorvikalyani is more accessible to the ear) without boring audiences. But you need an artist of her caliber to bring out the colour.” Fellow-critic Gowri Ramnarayan makes the same point, but with the instance of an artist from a newer generation. “When Sanjay [Subrahmanyan] sings a rare melakarta, he endows it with character and an intellectual component. Less gifted artists simply scamper up and down the scale.” Sulochana explains what she means by ‘colour’. “If a raga has to have colour, there must be at least half-a-dozen kriti-s in that raga. With Todi, for instance, there are so many kriti-s, and there are so many different take-off points. One begins at sa, one at ri, one at ga... The singer has so many options.”

The singer—or the player of the raga—is what matters, feels Gowri. “Someone like Ravikiran can make Vagadeeswari sound like meditation. Someone less gifted can make it crash around like pebbles in a tin can.” Yet, she says—echoing an argument that finds favour with almost everyone—that with so many concerts packed into a festival, “a rare raga can grab your attention and liven things up.” That’s the reasoning behind Jayashri’s selection of Pavani for her RTP during a December-season concert at Mylapore Fine Arts. “When we look at December, when we do something from 7 to 10 concerts, I am bored with constantly singing Todi or Sankarabharanam. I imagined the audience would be bored too. So I tried to do a pallavi with the word Pavani. It was very challenging and new for me and for my co-artists.”She adds that one can make [listening to rare raga-s] interesting enough to not invite boredom, and “what’s important is that the presentation is remembered for the experience and newness.”

That point about boredom with familiar raga-s is something Krishna wouldn’t exactly agree with. “There is a belief these days that singing rarer raga-s with complicated arohanaavarohana is much harder than going for a Sankarabharanam. I believe that reinventing something that exists is much harder.” He feels that the rarer raga-s can be sung for a change and as a challenge for the artists themselves, “but they cannot become the norm.” Gurucharan talks about one such challenge while performing recently in Australia. “I had to sing a pallavi in most of the concerts. The words were set and I was looking for a suitable raga. I came across an ashtapadi sung by Tanjavur Kalyanaraman in the raga Suddha Sarang. It immediately  struck the right note and the pallavi was set in the same raga. I had already included main raga-s like Latangi and Todi in the concert, so this would be a lighter—but interesting—experiment. Moreover, the raga was extremely catchy. It went well with the lyrics of the pallavi.”

The experience appears to have left Gurucharan with an insight into the employment of rare raga-s. “If you already have a big, elaborate raga as the main piece, it would be ideal to have such rare raga-s for the pallavi. They can be delineated in a crisp and nonrepetitive manner. But if the pallavi is itself going to be the main piece, I would rather choose a popular and rakti raga so that it can be presented in all its grandeur. Nothing can match their beauty.” Krishna has his own—and somewhat overlapping—rules for handling rare raga-s. “Choosing a rare raga for a pallavi is fine as long as the raga itself does have scope for elaboration, especially during tanam singing. If the scope is limited, the pallavi must be kept crisp. A pallavi in a rare raga must be tried only after one practises singing ragam, niraval, tanam and kalpanaswaram in all the major rakti raga-s like Surati, Dhanyasi and so on.”

Gowri points out a problem with rare raga-s. “Few artists know how to handle them. Rare raga-s have their shape and form, mood and feeling, just as familiar raga-s do. Individuating the rare raga-s—especially the rare vivadi raga-s—is an art in itself, since there is so little ‘kelvi gnanam’ of these raga-s. So the artist has to work harder to avoid a monotonous replay of phrases gathered from the one or two compositions in the raga.” This, of course, is never a problem with a Todi or a Kalyani, for not only are there many, many big kriti-s that define and bring out every shade of these raga-s, they have also been handled by seniors in a variety of styles, which serves as reference. And because this isn’t the case with the rare raga-s, Gowri says, “Sometimes, even frontline vidwans tear a limited raga to shreds by overstretching it. Repetition is unavoidable in such raga-s, but the smart singer will know how to hide it through canny modulation, wellpaced glissades, pauses, karvai-s and arresting permutations.”

What she means, in other words, is that these repetitions can be made part of a deliberate design. “One can’t do much emotionally with a Kamalamanohari or a Rishabhapriya, but we can have fun with them. It’s great when such pallavi-s are offered in a concert where the artist has already dealt with a Kambhoji or a Bhairavi as the main piece, throwing in a Sahana or a Kedaragaula as another (earlier) alapana. A fun raga—with sparkling swara-s and exciting rhythms—makes a welcome change in the pallavi.” And somehow, we’re back to discussions of main pieces being delineated in the big raga-s—and Gurucharan reinforces this faith. “They will always remain big as long as there is Carnatic music, simply due to the immense scope they offer for elaboration. Each time you present the raga alapana, you come across a sangati or a sequence which you might not have explored before. And if you want to present the same sequence the very next day in a concert, it might elude you. Such is the dynamic nature of these raga-s.”