Music season 2023 – a review

Music season 2023 – a review


By T T Narendran 

Yet another season of music sets in after the trauma of rains, floods, and waterlogging that wiped off a few concerts scheduled in the early part of the season. The mood in the sabhas looked less gloomy than last year but it was not as cheerful as it was, before the pandemic struck.


Chatting with a few young musicians, I gathered that music, as a profession, is financially sustainable if you have a sufficient number of students abroad, learning online and paying you in foreign currency. Other alternatives for sustainability? Film music? Track singing? Stage programmes of film music? Anything except performing and teaching in India may work!


Such thoughts crossed my mind while listening to Abhilash Venkitachalam at the Music Academy. Equipped with a fine and facile voice, he won first place two years ago in the mid-year series and meritoriously made his way to the season. In the intervening period, he also shot to fame through a reality show (Super Singer) and earned some recognition in film music. However, at the concert, he performed below his potential. The first part of the programme looked well-planned, with a decent alapana of Begada (Gattiganu, Tyagaraja) and a fair essay of Dharmavati (Bhajana seyarada, Mysore Vasudevachar). His rendition of kritis and his swara-singing seemed good. However, when he embarked on Dhanyasi (Dhyaname, Tyagaraja), he did not appear to settle into the alapana. He skipped the niraval, ostensibly owing to the anxiety over time. Shiva Ramamurthy (violin) and S Kavichelvan (mridangam) supported well. His viruttam and his rendition of Baro krishnayya came out well at the closing stage of the concert. 


S Srivatsan is a competent youngster who bestows care on his raga essays. He opened with a less-heard varnam in Nayaki. He sang a good Bilahari (Inta kannanandamemi), a bhava-laden Ahiri (Mayamma, Syama Sastry), a high-speed Vidalajadura (Janaranjani, Tyagaraja) that slowed down a bit, inevitably. His main raga was Bhairavi (Upacharamulanu). Rendition of kritis, niravals and swaras – all went well, but I felt that he did not live up to his potential. Are the big stage and time slot inhibiting the youngsters? Haritha Narayanan (violin) and Sunaada Krishna (mridangam) provided good support.


Over the last few years, the veena has been fortunate to have quite a few competent youngsters to handle it well with all-round competence. The quiet ambience of Ragasudha Hall (Naada Inbam) provided the perfect setting for Ashwin Anand to reaffirm his skills as a vainika. As a student of vidushi R. Vedavalli, his playing has a gayaki style. Contemporary amplification technologies confer continuity of sound on the instrument that had quite a few limitations two generations ago. Melody and traditional phrases marked his raga alapanas. An evocative Kshitijaramanam (Devagandhari, Muthuswami Dikshitar) was followed by an essay of Sreeranjani (Bhuvini dasudane, Tyagaraja), with many good phrases that characterise the raga. His elaboration of Kedaragaula and his rendition of Tyagaraja's Venugana showed his class. His grip over laya is good, and he handled niraval and kalpana swaras impressively. N.C. Bharadwaj (mridangam) and B.S. Purushotham (khanjira) provided high-quality rhythmic support.


The only note of caution to this gifted musician is to guard against his tendency to use the vibrato on stable notes (achala swaras) such as shadjam, panchamam and shudda madhyamam, in the case of Sreeranjani. 


At the mid-afternoon concert of Anirudh Venkatesh, I wondered if Balambikaya param (Kanada) can be authentically attributed to Muthuswami Dikshitar. Blessed with a team of locally-popular accompaniments (Sayee Rakshit - violin, Kishore Ramesh - mridangam and K.R. Sivaramakrishna - khanjira). Anirudh sang an impressive Arabhi (Ongi ulagalanda, Andal's Tiruppavai). Varali (Eti janmamiti, Tyagaraja) followed. There are a few "minority quotas'' that a musician is expected to fill. The minorities include all composers other than Tyagaraja and all talas other than Adi and ragas, which contain the prati madhyama. This one ticked two since it was set to misra Chapu tala. Anirudh embarked on his alapana of Bhairavi (upacharamu jesevaru) in a calm and composed manner. The opening phase was quite engaging. As the alapana progressed, a few scalish phrases appeared, but the overall image of Bhairavi was brought out well. He sang a fairly long niraval, followed by the anticipated swaras and tani avartanam. The accompaniments lived up to their reputation and contributed well to the success of the concert. 


A well-endowed Aditya Madhavan chose to begin his concert for Naada Inbam with the well-known varnam in Saveri and sang at a medium pace that could preserve the gamakas of the raga. He sang the Tiruppavai, Keesu keesu in Bhairavi. He improvised a bit on the line, Nayaga pen pillai Narayanan Murthy. Guru Raghavendra opting for silence on the mridangam during this brief phase was a delight to the ears. The mridangist accompanied sensitively, mixing 'hard', 'soft' and 'silent', appropriate to the context. A good alapana of Surati, with a good response from Delhi Sridhar (violin) was followed by Angarakam, Muthuswami Dikshitar's kriti for Tuesday. There was a brisk niraval at Dina rakshaka. As he proceeded to sing Vanchatonu (Karnaranjani, Muthiah Bhagavathar) and Sree Rama jaya Rama (Yadukula Kambhoji, Tyagaraja), his involvement with his singing and the consequent impact on the audience was evident. A somewhat scalish Pantuvarali (Raghuvara, Tyagaraja) followed. While he reached for the tarastayi, the violinist did not bother to pitch in with appropriate support. Following the alapana, Delhi Sridhar successfully demonstrated how to mask a raga while playing within its notes.


It is to the credit of the Iyer brothers (Ramnath and Gopinath) that they have stayed relevant in the field of Carnatic music for over forty years, although settled in Melbourne, Australia. They began their concert for Nada Inbam with the varnam in Surati and played at a leisurely pace. A brisk Pranamamyaham (Gaula, Mysore Vasudevachar) with swara embellishment livened the proceedings. They provided a sketch of Vagadeeswari as a prelude to Tyagaraja's Paramatmudu. Gopinath essayed the first half of the alapana in Kalyani (Bhajare re chitta, Muthuswami Dikshitar), and Ramnath took over the latter half. Both of them gave a convincing portrayal of Kalyani. They topped the kriti off with a brief niraval, followed by swaras. J Vaidyanathan, who has lived with music since birth, accompanied sensitively on the mridangam; Nerkunam Shankar (khanjira) complimented him well. 


In a quick transition from the traditional to the modern approach to veena-playing, I was at the Music Academy to listen to Rakshita Ramesh, who dazzled on the same stage last year. Begada (Kadaikkann, Ramaswamy Sivan) was the first alapana. Phrases pregnant with raga bhava and brigas appeared in a balanced mix, bearing testimony to her mastery over the veena and understanding of the raga. A few '21st century phrases' can be overlooked, considering her overall accomplishment. She comfortably played swaras for the tricky eduppu. L Sudarsan Srinivas (mridangam) blended well with the veena. While Hari Kishore (khanjira) played his part well, I feel that a ghatam suits the veena better as a second percussion instrument, while the khanjira goes well with the flute. Rakshita again showed absolute control over the instrument in a pacy rendition of GNB's Kamala charane in Amruta Behag, and sparkled while playing the cittaswaram. Todi (Kaddana variki, Tyagaraja) was the main raga. Her alapana, besides its musical merit, demonstrated the constructive use of modern amplification technology. There was a tanam and a ragamalika chain to display her talents. Without a doubt, she is a find for the vainika community.   


Sangeetha Sivakumar has a husky voice that sounds clear in the bass region and is cut out for classicism sans frills. Paripalayamam (Reetigaula, Swati Tirunal) suited her voice eminently and had a soothing effect. She provided some interesting finishes while singing swaras for the line Tamarasayada, with active and competent participation from Alangode V. S. Gokul (violin), B Sivaraman (mridangam) and Udupi Sridhar (ghatam). Sangeetha sang an educative alapana of Sourashtram as described in the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini of Subbarama Dikshitar, followed by Suryamoorthe, per the same text. A medium-paced Makelara vicharamu (Ravichandrika, Tyagaraja) was followed by an alapana of Poorvikalyani (Ninnu vina) that was quite appealing in the lower regions. Alangode Gokul also impressed with his version of the raga.     


Ramana Balachandran confirmed his status as a star vainika while performing at the Music Academy. After a brief traversive sketch of Begada, he played Tyagaraja's Lokavanachatura with high-quality swaraprastara at the end. He exchanged short passages with Burra Sriram (mridangam) and Somnath Roy (ghatam). Both of them collaborated well with Ramana and livened up the proceedings. There was a soporific Kanada (Sri Narada, Tyagaraja) followed by Brova vamma (Nilambari, Syama Sastry). It was helpful that he sang along since an unfamiliar kriti on an instrument tends to puzzle the listener. He chose Purvikalyani for the ragam-tanam-pallavi. It feels redundant to record that he played well, but a noteworthy aspect was that he chose to sing a substantial portion of the pallavi to showcase his prowess over the laya aspects of pallavi singing. The speed variations were sung with tight rhythmic control, the accompaniments lending competent support. 


Seetha Narayanan is among the few octogenarian vocalists who are still active in the concert circuit. She began her concert with a varnam in Hamsadhwani and sang it in three speeds, including tisram. The veteran sang without a second voice for assistance but the violinist, Charulatha Ramanujam, accompanied so effectively that none would have felt the need for it. Sree Ganapati  (Sourashtram, Tyagaraja) was the invocation offered to the elephant-headed god. Her voice nonchalantly raced through the frills (podi sangatis). A dignified alapana of Varali, with the violinist vying for honours, preceded Mamava Meenakshi (Muthuswami Dikshitar). Poongulam Subramanian (mridangam) and Trivandrum Rajagopal (khanjira) merged well with the song. A neat niraval at Syame Sankari with pleasing odukkal was followed by an interesting string of short avartanas of swaras. Other highlights in the programme were a good alapana of Reetigaula, an evocative Janani ninnuvina (Subbaraya Sastry) and an alapana of Kambhoji (O Rangasayee, Tyagaraja) that was built on simple phrases, portraying the raga beautifully. All the accompanying artists deserve praise for the way they enhanced the concert. Excellent teamwork, indeed! 


Charulata Chandrasekar is a teenager winning acclaim for her talent as a vainika. At Naada Inbam, she played a neat Ranjani (Ranjani niranjani), characterised by good ideas, melody and continuity of sound. Her essay of Kannada (Sree Matrubhootam, Muthuswami Dikshitar) bore testimony to her class. She impressed with her swaraprastara, too, at Suvasitanaya, which had a tricky eduppu. She played some interesting finishes to the swaras. Kaushik Sridhar (mridangam) and Trivandrum Rajagopal (kanjira) supported well, though Kaushik's mridangam obstinately refused to stay in tune! Charulata displayed her virtuosity in Manaviyalakinchara (Nalinakanti, Tyagaraja). Her elaboration of Bhairavi (Sari evaramma, Syama Sastry) was satisfactory but was not in the same class as her Kannada. 


Kalyanapuram S Aravind has emerged as one of the foremost torchbearers of T.N. Seshagopalan's style. Eschewing mimicry, he has also absorbed some aspects of other masters and established himself as a musician in his own right. He began with the Ata tala varnam in Reetigaula for his concert at the Music Academy, sung in two tempos, with good participation by the accompaniments, Sruthi Sarathy (violin), B.S. Prashant (mridangam) and Shinu Gopinath (ghatam). The high point of the session was an expansive Kambhoji, mixing the classic and the popular with a sense of proportion. Sruthi Sarathy played her part well in the alapana. Muthuswami Dikshitar's masterpiece, Sree Subramanyaya namaste, was rendered and embellished in a manner reminiscent of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar with niraval and swaras at Vasavadi. It was an absorbing experience for over half an hour, with several high points during his improvisations. Prashant, who had stepped in as a substitute in the last minute, played with gusto. Sruthi contributed her mite to this engaging session, followed by a tani avartanam, shortened with an eye on the clock. In the limited residual time, there was a hurried ragam-tanam-pallavi in Todi. After Aravind sang the raga, Sruthi started with the tanam. While the specialised laya variations for the pallavi were presented, there was hardly any time for niraval on the pallavi. In conclusion, without taking any credit away from the vocalist, I feel that it was overambitious to have packed a two-hour session with two major ragas, Kambhoji and Todi.


Reetigaula varnam again took the opening slot at the Academy in the recital of S Adityanarayanan, who trained for many years under Suguna Varadachari and shifted to T.M. Krishna later. His skill and fluency with niraval-singing were evident at Nee pada pankajamu in Birana brovahite (Kalyani, Tarangampadi Panchanatha Iyer). Ambur Padmanabhan (mridangam) accompanied well in this phase despite a tendency to accelerate the tempo. The highlight of this concert was Adityanarayanan's alapana of Manji, which by 'evolution' has become a close cousin of the well-known Bhairavi. I have heard, in the past, that the two had distinct identities in the nineteenth century, but in the next hundred years, Bhairavi usurped Manji by misappropriating some of her phrases!



Notwithstanding all these, Adityanarayanan presented a thorough and careful portrayal of the raga. It was a valiant effort that succeeded in keeping Bhairavi away. The alapana would have done a senior artist proud. It was doubly pleasing to listen to V Deepika (violin), who took the challenge head-on and played a convincing alapana.


An evocative rendition of Brovavamma (Syama Sastry) followed. Special credit to Ambur Padmanabhan for his sensitive playing for this kriti. When a concert peaks to stunning heights in the first half, it becomes a challenge to maintain the concert at the same height for the latter part. This was evident in the programmes of both Kalyanapuram Aravind and Adityanarayanan. An impressive elaboration of Begada (lokavana chatura, Tyagaraja), with the violinist also pitching in well and a niraval sans swara at saketa, led to the tani avartanam. More than an hour of air conditioning had an effect on the pitch of the mridangam. The sruti and the speed were both higher than warranted, the former an uncontrollable variable while the latter was controllable.


Amritha Murali is among the few musicians who stick to orthodoxy while exercising the choice of what to sing in a concert. At Nada Inbam, she opened with a short sloka in Hamsadhwani and Mayamalavagowla and embarked on Syama Sastry’s swarajati in Todi. With R.K. Shriramkumar (violin) and Arun Prakash (mridangam), it was an ideal team for showcasing such a classic. S. Krishna (ghatam) merged smoothly with the proceedings. Amritha sprang a surprise by singing a brief alapana of Chittaranjani (Nadatanumanisam, Tyagaraja) and niraval for the line beginning Vimala hrudaya, with swaras and kuraippu. It needs talent, understanding and guts to embellish a song set in a raga with a narrow range. The next alapana was of Sama (Guruguhaya, Muthuswami Dikshitar). For those who care to look inwards to Carnatic music, there are quite a few ancient ragas that are not overworked in concerts and offer scope to provide variety without going after scalar or 'imported' ragas. Kudos to Amritha for sticking to the old ones! She showed that one does not need flashy, high energy, fast and "lightened music" to draw a full house to a concert. The accompanying artists showed how functioning as a team can enhance a concert. 


By way of notes about the season, there are positive aspects that I wish to place on record. More musicians seem aware of the lyrics; technical knowledge of the amplification systems seems to be growing; the bowing technique for the violin appears to be much better. I did not hear a single scratch from any bow, a far cry from the 1960s. Accompaniment by percussion instruments, particularly the mridangam, seems more balanced.


There are concerns, too. Excess supply of music, low demand. Attendance was thin at many of the concerts. I refrain from any analysis or from offering solutions. Air-conditioned halls have helped cut off extraneous noises, though there is no guarantee of good acoustics. They do affect the tuning of the instruments. During the festival, when multi-tier concerts of shorter periods happen, there simply isn't enough time to retune a mridangam whose pitch is continuously rising.