Margazhi Music Season Reviews 2022

I was a late entrant to the music season. I walked into The Music Academy on the 21st of December around 11 am. The tani avartanam by Shertalai Ananthakrishnan (mridangam) and Udipi Srikanth (khanjira) in misra Chapu tala was in progress. The first thing that struck me was the excellent balancing of sound. Kudos to the tech team of the Academy! Every nuanced syllable on the two percussion instruments was heard clearly. It certainly enhanced the listening pleasure even to members who were not keen on this part of a concert. I enjoyed the tani, at the close of which I gathered that Shertalai Renganatha Sarma must have sung an elaborate Todi, for Syama Sastry’s Ninne namminanu and must have “niravalled” at Kamakshi Kanjadalayatakshi. Sarma has a deep voice in the Voleti mould and makes quite an impact. He announced a pallavi, dedicated to his guru; it sounded interesting, but when he started his alapana in Hamsanandi, the biased me walked out and went to the canteen, hoping for some gossip.

I found a few young musicians there and enquired about the music scene’s revival after the pandemic. There was gloom; there were concerns. People, who are accustomed to listening online are reluctant to leave their homes and commute to the venues of concerts. The audience is noticeably thin for “semi-popular” artists. If this continues, will sponsors evaporate, too? This may be specific to Chennai, and I wonder how other places fare.

As I left the canteen, I ran into a senior musician, explaining “kalai” and “nadai” in talas. Are “gati” and nadai the same? Yes, one is Sanskrit, and the other is Tamil. She put an end to that but, probably, there are other opinions, too, this being an art that is not, and should not be, codified by rigid rules and dry grammar.

I went back to the auditorium to listen to Krishna Ramarathinam (vocal). With a slightly high-pitched voice, he sang Todi varnam in two speeds, a brief-but-impressive sketch of Arabhi (Nadasudharasambilanu). He started his alapana of Reetigaula with a strikingly ambiguous phrase that overlaps with Sriranjani. He settled down after that and sang a good alapana.

I arrived too early for the veena concert by R.S. Jayalakshmi and Charulatha at Nada Inbam. Jyotsna Vivek was in the final phase of swara-singing in Madhyamavati (Adigi sukhamu, Tyagaraja). It was a juniors’ slot, but the vocalist seemed both senior and competent, though unknown to the listening public. The concert that I targeted had a delayed start (15 minutes). Two veenas require 14 strings to be tuned to the sruti, and then technical support has to balance the output from four instruments (Poongulam Subramanian, mridangam and Prasanna, ghatam).

The concert, finally, began with a varnam in Sahana. Charulatha announced each item before its commencement, a welcome practice for instrumental concerts. Fluency and clarity at a good speed was a striking feature noticed right away. As the grandmother-granddaughter duo proceeded with a sketch of Hamsadhwani for Vatapi Ganapatim, they demonstrated that they had the technical strength to handle every element of a concert. They sought no concessions for the veena, generally considered to be limited in appeal to the concert-going public. This occasion was no different: they deserved more audience. Nattakurinji (Budamasrayami) was the first raga taken up for substantial elaboration. However, one was left wondering whether the raga was limited in scope for an elaborate alapana or the artists sounded repetitive. Sambo Mahadeva (Pantuvarali, Tyagaraja) was the next. The duetted alapana was a mix of the aesthetic and the popular shades of the raga. A highlight was the niraval at the charanam, which is not too common in instrumental concerts. Poongulam Subramanian, along with Prasanna, had provided sensitive accompaniment so far. When they chose Bhogeendra sayinam for “pace-maker”, the mridangist turned collaborator! Unobtrusively, he lifted the song and enhanced listening pleasure with his deft accompaniment. The main item was Sankarabharanam (Swararaga sudharasa, Tyagaraja). Jayalakshmi played some phrases, pregnant with raga bhava, while Charulata was pacy. The tanam, as expected, was excellent. Charulata dazzled with some fantastic fast phrases in the higher octave. As I rave about them, I also place a complaint, not on the musicians but on an “arasika” who belted out too many loud “aahaa”s, irritating me sufficiently to quit the venue!

I again walked in during a tani avartanam, in Adi tala, by DSR Murthy (mridangam) and Madipakkam Murali(ghatam) at The Music Academy. Murthy is, perhaps, among the numerous non-Chennai artists who are annually featured at the Academy’s annual festival. Thanks to the high-quality acoustics, Murali could show the stuff he is made of. Often skipped as an “also ran” upapakkavadya, it was a revelation to me that he had so much offer! The main artist was Malladi Suri Babu, with a ‘Voleti-an’ style and voice. He is among the classical Telugu musicians who blend sahitya and sangita seamlessly to the enjoyment of all the south Indian listeners of Carnatic music. When the tani ended, I listened to the last parts of Tyagaraja’s Koluvamaregada, enough to realise the class of the vocalist. A classic rendition of a padam in Surati followed. A sloka was sung in a chain of four light ragas, Maand, Mohanam, Behag and Sindhubhairavi. Suri Babu is a musician who blends scholarship with sensitivity, classicism and bhava. To me, he bears the calibre of a Sangita Kalanidhi, the coveted title conferred annually by The Music Academy. One must also place on record the melodious and unobtrusive support provided by V V Ravi on the violin.

“Should Aditya Narayanan sing Kshitija Ramanam (Devagandhari, Dikshitar) to acknowledge his accompaniments, Sai Rakshit (violin) and Puttur Nikshit (mridangam)?” I wondered, at the auditorium of The Music Academy. Obviously, the youngster did not hear my mind voice! As he sang the Todi varnam in Adi tala, one could notice his maturing as a musician with a pliant voice and creative flourishes. Sensitive alapanas of Athana (E Papamu, Tyagaraja) and Khamboji (Tiruvadi charanam, Gopalakrishna Bharati) were the highlights of this concert. He showcased his niraval-singing skills, singing Aduthu vanda ennai for the kriti in Khamboji. Puttur Nikshit supported well; Sai Rakshit played well, too, barring a couple of avoidable phrases in his essay of Khamboji. Another concert by the same artist at Naada Inbam with Sandeep Ramachandran (violin), B Sivaraman (mridangam) and Sai Subramanian (morsing) reinforced the impression he had created earlier. Surati, Dhanyasi and Natakurinji provided some serious classical stuff. Both Sandeep and Sai Subramanian chose to play subdued roles, while B. Sivaraman combined well with the vocalist. The highlight for me was Rama Rama (Ramakali, Dikshitar) sung with a dhrupad feel like his teacher, T.M. Krishna.

Kalyanapuram Aravind has emerged as a strong ambassador of T.N. Seshagopalan’s style. Singing for Chennai Fine arts at the Gokhale Sastri hall in Mylapore, he sprinkled his singing with a liberal dose of impromptu improvisations, akin to his guru. In a hall with echoing acoustics that took a toll on the talented mridangist, N.C. Bharadwaj, Aravind essayed Kanada (Kamalambana, Garbapurivasa) well amidst annoying and distracting loud appreciation from a member of the audience. So did Raghul on the violin. Brisk niraval and swaras embellished Ne pokada kunte (Varali, Tyagaraja). A measured alapana of Sree (Sree Varalakshmi, Dikshitar) and a populist essay of Sankarabharanam were the other highlights. Aravind seems to have assimilated the music from his guru and has chosen to follow the Ariyakudi style of planning that offers all the aspects of a concert in an encapsulated form. He reinforced this impression while singing at The Music Academy on a later day. However, the intent to be crisp came in the way of presenting Subbaraya Sastri’s Janani ninnuvina in Reetigaula evocatively. A measured alapana of Todi (Dasarati neerunamu, Tyagaraja) with a crisp niraval and well-finished swaras made a good impact. Sindhu Suchetan (violin) responded well to the swara-prastara and presented a good essay of Todi. B.S. Prashanth (mridangam) enjoyed playing along for the calculated swara patterns and provided good rhythmic support. The tani avartanam with Vishnu Kammath (khanjira) was engaging. Aravind chose Surati for his ragam-tanam-pallavi and presented the raga with dignity, a good tanam in the style of his guru T.N. Seshagopalan and a neat pallavi.

I must place on record an appreciation for The Music Academy, which features so many artists who do not live in Chennai. Especially the number of talented accompanying artists who bring a different flavour to the proceedings is a revelation to the local audience.

“Did S. Maalavika (@ Music Academy) have to sing every line of the Sree raga varnam twice in a 90-minute concert?” I wondered as I recollected the impression she made in the super singer contest a few years ago. She lit up the proceedings with a brisk Vadera (Pantuvarali, Tyagaraja) with crisp niraval and swaras. Her alapana of Bilahari (Narasimha nannu, Tyagaraja) had many good phrases mixed with her efforts to impress with her virtuosity. She straddled her concert with the right mix of evocative and tempo-accelerating pieces and settled for an elaborate Bhairavi (Bala Gopala, Dikshitar), which again revealed her capability to sing phrases soaked in raga bhava and her inclination to throw in some populist glides. V Deepika (violin) played a pleasing Bhairavi while Kishore Ramesh impressed whenever he blended with the singing.

While the veena is reportedly declining in popularity as a concert-worthy instrument in Chennai, exponents of the instrument seem to be arising, probably, from places other than the “capital of Carnatic music”! There was Rakshita Ramesh (from Bengaluru) at The Music Academy, displaying a high level of all-round proficiency. There was fluency, felicity of movement of the fingers, speed with control, and a good grasp of raga bhava and laya. Of course, this generation is happy to exploit the advances made in the technology of amplification to knock out some of the alleged limitations of the instrument. She used the sustaining effect of the attachments of her veena to present a neat essay of Kalyani (Eesa pahimam, Tyagaraja). She handled the tricky eduppu of this song in misra Chapu tala and played swaras with ease, ably assisted by Ambur Padmanabhan (mridangam). It was heartening to see her strum the tala strings confidently and appropriately in the traditional style. A melodious rendition of Kanakasaila viharini (Punnagavarali, Syama Sastry) to the soft and sensitive accompaniment on percussion, which included Hari Kishore on the khanjira, too.

Khamboji (Kalilasanathena, Dikshitar) was chosen for elaboration. There was an impressive spell of tanam, in multiple ragas following Khamboji; Saranga, Bhairavi, Kedaram and Huseni were interesting choices. Niraval and swara embellishments showcased her high level of competence. She is a vainika to watch out for.

A musician who had little to “show off” but could score with simplicity and bhavam, was Girijashankar Sundaresan at The Music Academy. An unhurried essay of Todi (Ninne namminanu, Syama Sastry) was the highlight. Embellishment with niraval and swara completed the concert experience. For his approach, the grahabedham during his Todi alapana was quite unnecessary. Vishvesh Chandrasekhar (violin) evoked mixed reactions with his Todi which had a few good phrases. Girijashankar may consider checking his enunciation in which the dheerga syllables sound unclear. For example, in MakElarA vichAramu (Ravichandrika, Tyagaraja), the second word sounded like vicharamu while, in the charanam, nAtaka sounded nataka.

A much-talked-about prodigiously talented, Ramana Balachandran appeared in the sub-senior slot of the music academy this year. In my sixty years of listening experience, rarely have I come across a vainika with this sort of felicity, virtuosity, speed and control over the instrument, combined with prowess in laya. His strengths were evident right in the first song (Palayamam parvateesha, Kannada, Dikshitar). His display of skills in the swaraprastara won a generous round of applause. He essayed Darbar (Endundi vedalitivo, Tyagaraja) convincingly. A nagging question was whether the dazzle was more than the substance. There were good phrases, continuity of sound, a tendency to keep racing across the octaves and a conspicuous absence of karvai at any point of the alapana. It was nice to hear him sing the kriti which may not have been familiar to the listeners.  A two-raga essay for pallavi followed. It took him a while to show the shades of Saveri. A few simple phrases to show the raga would have sufficed, but his problem seemed to be that he cannot keep anything simple! Result? What if Shashi Tharoor tried to teach English to kids in the first standard? What if a wrist-spinner could emulate Shane Warne but not bowl a good length? Or a speedster, in the Shoaib Akhtar mould, who could not get his direction right? These thoughts crossed my mind as I watched him labour over Saveri. However, whenever he switched to the second raga, Mohana Kalyani, he was completely at home! The triumph of intellect over insight was evident as he straddled between the ancient-but-elusive Saveri and a challenging-but-mincemeat Mohana Kalyani. The writing on the wall is clear: Ramana has exceptional talent, but what he chooses to do with it will decide the type of audience he will draw to his concert. Akshay Ram (mridangam) blended well with the proceedings, keeping up with Ramana’s proficiency in laya, while Nerkunam S Manikantan (morsing) played a subdued and unobtrusive role.

The concept of single-mike concerts seems good if I were to go by the experience of listening to Sidharth Prakash (vocal) with Sandeep Ramachandran (violin) and Sunaada Krishna (mridangam) at the Arkay Convention Centre, Mylapore. Initially, it takes a few minutes to be accustomed to a lower level of sound, but thereafter, it is blissful. This sishya of Neyveli Santhanagopalan displays his admiration for his “paramaguru”, T.N. Seshagopalan. A bright Varanamukha (Hamsadhwani, Koteeswara Iyer) lit up the proceedings, and his alapana of Varali (Seshachala Nayakam, Dikshitar) confirmed who inspires him. His niraval and swaras were impressive. He gave a profound start to Kharaharapriya (Pakkala nilapadi, Tyagaraja) and strayed for a while into “pattern-making”, a tendency often observed in contemporary music. Sandeep, constrained by time, poured out the “essence” of Kharaharapriya in his brief spell. The niraval and swaras at Manasuna, with a tricky take-off, were sung enthusiastically. An occasional fumble at landing could be overlooked. Sunaada Krishna exploited the bass side of the mridangam well, provided good support and played a brief-yet-impressive tani.  

Among contemporary musicians, Amritha Murali (at Naada Inbam) seems to stick to an orthodox style. She started a leisurely pace, singing Veena pustaka dharini, (Vegavahini, khanda Ekam, Dikshitar) with the concurring support of R.K. Shriramkumar (violin), Arun Prakash (mridangam) and N. Guruprasad (ghatam). She sang all three charanams of Tyagaraja’s Bale balendu (Reetigowla) with sensitive support from her percussionists, who played according to the context of her music. Her alapana of Mohanam (Narasimha aagacha, Dikshitar) was sumptuous, complemented well by Shriramkumar, a known champion of orthodoxy. During the swaraprastara, the combination of violin with ghatam sounded particularly appealing. Talachina varu (Dhanyasi, Subbaraya Sastry) and Karunananda (Neelambari, Kumara Ettendra) contributed to the rich, melodic and peace-filled experience. The entire troupe on stage was cut out for slow tempo and relaxing music. 

The Iyer brothers (Ramnath Iyer and Gopinath Iyer) from Melbourne, Australia, have been annual visitors and participants in the music season. They were featured at The Music Academy on the morning of the last day of the music festival. With a pleasing tone, they kept the proceedings bright with Surati varnam and Varanamukha (Hamsadhwani, Koteeswara Iyer). Practicing together as twins for over three decades helped them come up with a stellar rendition of Dikshitar’s mammoth ragamalika, Sree viswanatham. Gopinath’s alapana of Poorvikalyani (Ninnuvina, Syama Sastry) had touches of their later guru, Trivandrum R Venkataraman. Ramnath played a classy alapana of Khamboji (O Rangasayee, Tyagaraja). Following the swaras, came an unending spell of tani avartanam with the lion’s share taken by Melakaveri Balaji, mridangam). It was unfair to poor K Ranganathan (ghatam), who had to play a subdued role, even during the swara exchanges, and to the audience, who would have preferred a shorter tani avartanam. There was also a ragam-tanam-pallavi in Dharmavati. Ramnath’s essay of the raga was somewhat scale-based and ambiguous during certain phases. Tanam and pallavi in khanda jathi Triputa tala were good. The brothers provided a wholesome melodic experience without attempting anything adventurous.  

T.T. Narendran