By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Classical Music : Never-ending Nexus Between Tradition And Innovation

A few days ago I had brought to the web-wide world''s attention the mega-marathon Carnatic music festival which dominates the cultural life of Madras in the winter season, when music-lovers from all over India and many parts of the world make an annual pilgrimage to the South Indian city, to bathe and swim in the overflowing currents of classical music. In this dynamic cultural environment I invariably recall some of the deep insights I have gained and written about as an earnest and articulate  observer of ongoing musical trends and traditions during the past 50 years. So let me share with you today some of my reflections in my column Articulations in THE HINDU in 1991, on the intricate and never-ending nexus between artistic tradition and innovation.

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Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --- Classical music systems of South/North India.
Mandolin  --  European string instrument, primarily  developed in
Ramani, Balamurali, Jayaraman, Krishnan  --  Carnatic musicians.
Chaurasia, Jasraj, Amjad Ali  --  Hindsstani musicians.
Pratap Pawar  --  Innnovative Kathak dancer.
Kathak  --  Classical dance of North India, aligned to Hindustani music.
Flammenco  --  Classical music and dance of Spain. 

L. Subramaniam  --  Versatile Indian violinist-composer, with a passion for mixing Indian and Western colors.
Ravi Shankar  --  Iconic Indian sitarist-composer, who passed away in 2012.
Sitar & sarod  --  Major string instrumnents in Hindustani music.
Guru-sishya parampara  --  Rigid tradition of intimate master-disciple discipline, which has for many generations governed the twin classical music systems of India.
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THE HINDU  Friday Review
 9 October 2009
Innovative base of tradition
In the context of ongoing attempts to introduce alien colours in traditional systems of music, I had quoted a substantial portion of an essay I had written in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine in 1991, asserting that the elements of Western music cannot normally enrich Carnatic music. (Musicscan, October 2). Apart from mentioning certain exceptions to this natural law, that article had also discussed some significant aspects which are as relevant today as they were in the scenario prevailing then. So let me quote the rest of it too below:

Revolution time!

... But this axiom too, like most others in this world, is not without an exception. What strikes me as being a true paradox is the astonishing talent of the young mandolin artist U. Shrinivas. I have more or less given up my efforts to find a technical explanation for the mysterious amalgam of his music, which sounds so powerfully Western and yet remains so purely South Indian. It is impossible to understand how, when this boy performs, we are bombarded by a tornado of staccato sounds and yet course along a gentle stream of melody. I can only say that when genius attains the status of magic, perhaps there is no point in looking for logic any more.

The introduction of the mandolin in Carnatic music is itself a revolution, but harnessing it so well to serve the spirit of the tradition is nothing short of a miracle. But this is not without a precedent. Although the Western violin is an indispensable part of the Carnatic music tradition as we know it today, its absorption into the system was also the sequel of a revolution which took place long ago.

Contrasting colors
I must say a word here about the attempts to bridge the gap between Hindustani and Carnatic music in joint recitals known as ‘jugalbandhi’. They do sometimes create scintillating and beautiful music — as in the case of flutemasters N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia or vocalists Jasraj and Balamuralikrishna, or when sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan teams up with an ace violinist like Lalgudi Jayaraman or T.N. Krishnan.

But even their quest for a common idiom has been a long and arduous one, in some cases marked by initial errors of perception which have needed sustained correction. And the disturbing fact remains that the proliferation of such ventures undertaken by musicians of far less sensitivity is producing results of a very damaging kind.

What is true of our classical music in this context is also true of our classical dance. To cite an example, dancer Pratap Pawar’s exploration of the amazing similarity between some elements of the Kathak and Flamenco idioms has true aesthetic merit. Equally intriguing and powerful are Amjad Ali Khan’s efforts to find a concordance between certain features of Hindustani instrumental music and medieval English music. So are Ravi Shankar’s second concerto for sitar and Western orchestra and L. Subramaniam’s double violin concerto.

Artistic evolution
One cannot overlook the fact that today’s traditions are all based on innovations of the past, and that some of today’s innovations might be the foundation for future traditions.
It is necessary for us to reconcile in our minds the apparent contradiction between artistic tradition and innovation and the evolutionary relationship which exists between them. This is a universal phenomenon which is as complex as the evolution of life itself. Art is also a living organism, which needs to renew itself in order to survive. Innovation therefore can never be forbidden. Obviously it would be impossible for anyone to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and say: “Thus far, and no more!”

In the last analysis, it all depends only on who innovates, and how. What should really cause great concern among us all is the snowballing of fruitless and even frivolous activities in the current Indian music scene, undertaken in the name of experiment and progress. The credentials of the concerned artists are often quite unimpressive; but even highly accomplished musicians fall into a trap sometimes. Who is to stop them all, and how?

Custodians of values

The inevitable question which arises in this context is this: who are the true custodians of values in matters relating to classical music? Teachers and critics have traditionally played a primary role in this regard, but professional and social conditions are no longer what they used to be. There are many factors which have undermined and are steadily eliminating the ‘guru-sishya parampara’, thereby diminishing the importance of discipline and the influence of teachers. Some effective alternate systems of handing down the tradition are bound to emerge eventually, but they have not yet crystallized. And although more and more people are writing profusely on music these days, we do not have many mature critics who can offer constructive advice on such fundamental aspects, either to the musicians or to the public...

But the sky is not all cloudy, and it has its bright side. There are still some seasoned musicians who have not allowed this trend to influence them. Some young people who perform our classical music today seem to have an amazing degree of concern for the orthodox norms, though they have not studied the art wholly in the conventional way. It is difficult to trace the source of the divine spark which exists in them. 

 Moreover, the music-loving public has two conflicting faces. At a certain level its taste is diluted by the influence of television, video, cinema and even pop music. But on a higher plane, it is also becoming increasingly respectful towards some of the unassuming elder musicians who never came into the limelight in a big way. On such heartening factors rest our hopes for the future.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Massive Winter Music Season In Mecca Of Carnatic Music

Come December, a  fabulously massive classical music festival spanning several weeks in December/January takes place in Madras, which is the Mecca of Carnatic music.  During the winter season of 2007-08, I had written a set of four seminal essays on this intriguing phenomenon, in my column Musicscan in THE HINDU.   All intricate aspects and subtle nuances of this cultural supershow discussed on that occasion remain  exactly the same today.

I have great pleasure in recalling those thoughts and sharing them with you now, and I hope you will take the trouble of finding the texts with the following links. I am  glad to note that not a single sentence or word I had written then needs a change now.

     Maargazhi --  the spirit is intact  (7 Dec. 2007)

     Source of cultural and spiritual inspiration  (21 Dec. 2007)

     Of volume and value  (4 Jan. 2008)

     Expansion on the cards  (18 Jan. 2008)

If  you hadn't read these essays when they were published, I guarantee that they will give you some deep insights into this recurring annual extravaganza.  And if you had read them, I hope you will find it interesting and useful to refresh your memory!

Glossary and annotations

(in same order as in texts)


Maargazhi --  In South Indian calendar, coldest winter month (Dec./Jan.).
Tamil  --  Ancient/modern language, one of four major languages of South India.
Carnatic music  --  Classical music of South India.
Non-resident Indian (NRI)  --  Legal term  defined in income tax rules to identify Indian citizens living abroad;  short form  NRI is freely used in social circles also, usually in conversations.
Krishna Gana Sabha  --  Cultural institution organizing performing arts, predominantly classical Indian music and dance, as well as contemporary Indian drama.
Hamsadhwani  --  Young, trend-setting Sabha in South Madras.
S. Rangarajan (RJ)  --  Retired diplomat-journalist, now living in America and writing insightfully on art and culture and Russian scenarios --  also figures in the shortest list of my oldest and closest friends.
Rasikas  --  In several Indian languages, lover of art and culture, especially classical Indian music and dance.


Tamil Nadu  --  Southernmost State in India, whose capital city is Madras and where Tamil is the ancient and also modern language.
Music Academy  --  Prestigious culturaal institution in Madras, mainly dedicated to  South Indian classical music and dance, which had played a pioneering role in the evolution of the massive winter music festival, and continues to have a unique status in the winter gala.
Bombay, Calcutta  --  Metro cities in West and East India, now officially called Mumbai and Kolkata;  but just like Madras in the South, the British-given names are still informally in vogue.
Delhi  --  Generic name of twin cities of (old) Delhi and New Delhi in North India.  For some mysterious reason, the original name Dilli hasn't been officially restored so far, and the British version still holds good.


Omar Khayyam  --  Ancient Persian philosopher-mathematician-astronomer-poet, best known for his monumental romantic and philosophic verses called Rubaiyat.
Tsunami  --  Japanese expression for powerful tidal wave.
Krishna Gana Sabha  --  Prestigious Sabha in Madras, more than 50 years old and still playing a dynamic role in the city's cultural life.


Greater Madras  --  Not yet a fait accompli, but rapidly evolving in recent years.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, India!

Around this time three years ago, India, on its very first and highly successful lunar mission, had helped America to find conclusive evidence of the existence of water on the Moon.  And now India has just taken off on its maiden mission to Mars!

I am copying below, for instant reference, a couple of relevant reports from today's exciting news, and also some significant comments I had made in Articulations Online in October 2010.  This steady and spectacular scientific progress takes my mind back 30 years to the time when I was having a very close association with India's elite scientific community, and in particular to the following context:

The Prime Minister of India, as the ex-officio Chairman/Chairperson of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, presides over the annual meeting of the CSIR Society, which has many distinguished Indian scientists as members.  This recurring intellectual get-together serves as a useful forum not only for obtaining a wide-angled perception of important specific issues concerning CSIR's affairs, but also for exchanging views on the direction and overall progress of science and technology in a national perspective.

In the Society meeting held in 1983, where I was present as CSIR's Financial Adviser, Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi said she had received a query from a very young child from a foreign country asking her what was India's most remarkable scientific achievement during the preceding year, and she was having some difficulty in giving an immediate and impressive answer.  And she asked:  would the scientific community please do some soul-searching?

I suppose Ms. Gandhi could have taken a far brighter view of things and shot off a confident reply:  "Look, my child, you can't judge the  scientific progress made by a country in one week or one month or even one year!  India has made a lot of progress in many scientific fields in the last 25 years, including space science.  Who knows, 25 years from now we may even be reaching the Moon!"  

Which is precisely what we did in 2008!  I wish I had been curious enough to have found out the identity of that adorably curious child;  for I would love to trace and tell him or her that India is now a member of  the still-exclusive Moon Club  --  and, if all goes well with the ongoing space slingshot, is very likely to be admitted to the still-more-exclusive Mars Club by this time next year.

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THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013    
14-20 Indian Standard Time

India’s spacecraft to Mars has bid adieu to its Earth-bound orbit and is cruising in its sun-centric orbit.  In a remarkably successful execution of a complex manoeuvre, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired the propulsion system on board the spacecraft for a prolonged duration of 23 minutes from 0049 hours on Sunday.


THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013
17-30 Indian Standard Time

India’s maiden mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit early on Sunday and successfully entered the second phase of its 10-month-long voyage to the Red Planet after performing a crucial manoeuvre described as “mother of all slingshots”.

Clearing a critical hurdle to achieve a major milestone in the country’s space history, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft or ‘Mangalyaan’ was placed in the designated Mars Transfer Trajectory in a 22-minute manoeuvre almost an hour past midnight without any hitch to tear itself away from Earth’s gravitational pull.

It marked the first step of the Mars mission’s 680 million-km-long voyage to its destination to put on course the India’s first ever inter-planetary space odyssey.

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Articulations Online
20 October 2010

Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, NASA!

When I started writing this online column last month with an awesome vision of the Internet's apparently infinite dimensions, I knew I would find it necessary to follow it up with some reflections on the impact of modern science and technology on individuals and society.  And I now realize it will have to be a very long series of essays, because the theme is extremely complex and bristles with so many intricate aspects.   But rather than risking mental fatigue by considering the same issue week after week, let us spread out the core series a little, and take up some other lighter topics in the intervals!  

In the context of the steady scientific progress made by India during the 20th century, I had made the following comment in the preceding essay (Psychology Of Turbulence, October 13):  "....  And in the frenzied field of the ongoing information revolution today, India seems to be running a neck-to-neck race with the most advanced countries of  the world".
Well, India today seems to be among the front-runners in other scientific fields also, like space exploration, for instance!   Its very first moon mission, which seemed to have been on the brink of failure last year, actually turned out to be a great success.

Troubles and....

I am, of course, referring to the unmanned lunar vehicle Chandrayaan-1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). which carried some instruments developed in India,  and also some others sponsored by NASA in America, ESA (European Space Agency), and BAA (Bulgarian Aerospace Agency).

Chandrayaan was launched into lunar orbit in October 2008, and was expected to remain there for a couple of years.  But within a few months,  there was serious malfunction of some vital systems (including solar panels and star sensors which were essential for power supply and direction-finding);  and there were no radio signals from August 29, 2009 due to failure of electronic components.   Meanwhile, the vessel had gone round the moon more than 3,000 times, undertaken various useful experiments, and transmitted more than 70,000 images to the earth, some of them with very fine resolution upto five metres.

Back home, in India, there was great disappointment as the mission was declared closed prematurely.  But although there was some resentment that ISRO hadn't fully disclosed the troubles as they arose, by and large there was no hostile criticism of ISRO's efforts, as there was a general awareness of the immensity of the venture and the equal chances of success and failure.
In an editorial rather emotionally titled  Adieu, Chandrayaan-1, India's most responsible newspaper THE HINDU  made a rational assessment on August 31: ".... Yet these problems make what has been achieved all the more remarkble.  It is a tribute to ISRO’s mission management team that they could find ways to keep the spacecraft and its instruments operational for so long....  In the months and years ahead, data from the Indian probe will help scientists better understand the Moon’s origin and evolution, its mineral composition, and whether water might lie trapped in its permanently shadowed polar craters".

.... Triumph!

And sure enough, the prediction came true very soon,  perhaps much sooner than even The Hindu had expected!  For within a few weeks, towards the end of September 2009,  the prestigious international  magazine Science reported that NASA's instrument M3 (moon mineralogy mapper) had discovered the presence of water molecules on the moon.

Moreover, following extensive analysis of the data collected,  it was reported in an international science congress in March 2010 that NASA's Mini-Sar (miniature synthetic aperture radar) had found extensive masses of ice in several huge polar craters with diameters ranging from two to fifteen kilometres.

What this meant, of course, was that there's a precious natural resource on the moon for the benefit of  manned space missions, in the vital forms of drinking water (H2O), breathing air (oxygen), and rocket fuel (hydrogen).  As a delighted Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, declared:  "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible.... The result.... seen in the last few months are totally revolutionizing our view of the Moon."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

OPCW Wins Nobel Prize For Peace : OCPW Bags Nobel Prize For Burocrafts!

Stockholm:  The daunting challenge of ridding the world of chemical weapons got a massive push with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)  --  an international organization that has been working since 1997 to convince countries to give up chemical weapons, besides checking and confirming the destruction of existing chemical weapons --  being awarded the Nobel peace prize 2013. . . .   OPCW is presently overseeing the destruction of Syria's arsenal, and aims to help destroy Syria's chemical weapons production facilities by November 1.  --  Times Of India, 11 Oct. 2013.

 London:  Urging the destruction of an "entire category” of unconventional weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 2013 Peace Prize on Friday to a modest and little-known United-Nations-backed organization (OPCW) that has drawn sudden attention with a mission to ensure that Syria’s stocks of chemical arms are eradicated.  --  New York Times, 11 Oct. 2013.

 The above recent news reports instantly made me recall an institution called OWPC  -- which I had conceptualized in a light-hearted article I had written in the Times Of India, Bombay, a quarter-century before the OPCW was set up in The Hague 16 years ago.  Please do me the favour of reading that article (which I am copying below), before letting me tell you about another intriguing institution called OCPW.

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Glossary & Annotations

Times Of India  --  One of India's leading English lamguage newspapers, originally published in Bombay and New Delhi only, but progressively in several other cities also.

Bill Buro  --   I didn't give a typical Indian-sounding name to this character, for I wanted him to have a universal image.  That's why it isn't clear to which country he belongs.  Obviously, Bill Buro was my own imaginary alter ego, and his adventure was just one of my spicy day-dreams about what I might do if I gave up my job as a civil servant and became a professional journalist.

Parkinson and Peter  --  C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) and Lawrence J. Peter (1919-1990), whose twin concepts Parkinson's Law (1958 : "Work expands to fill the time available") and The Peter Principle  (1969 : "Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence") have dominated worldwide management philosophy for the past several decades.

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Times Of India

18 July 1973


As everybody knows, there has been widespread speculation about the identity of Bill Buro, the author of the sensational newspaper column about the methods of people who push files. The column had mysteriously fizzled out some time ago, but is now vigorously back in circulation.  Bill Buro has captured the public's imagination because his writing is not only very witty, but absolutely authentic,  He has a remarkable insight into the ways of the filemasters.  He has been widely acclaimed as a worthy successor to Parkinson and Peter.  His articles are illustrated with interesting country-wide case histories.

Naturally, people have been wondering who Bill Buro is, how he gets his information, and what accounts for his all-seeing, all-knowing wisdom.

The speculation almost ruined his brilliant career, but not quite.  The trouble began when hundreds of readers started writing to the Editor, congratulating the columnist and praising his uncanny understanding of his subject.  The authorities soon woke up to the fact that they had a formidable critic to reckon with, and they issued instructions to all filemasters forbidding the supply of  any information to Bill Buro.

But the writer merrily continued his awesome commentary, and the authorities referred the matter to a private detective.  After making a painstaking inquiry the detective came to a conclusion, and submitted a report.

After some time Bill Buro's articles began to lose some of their sparkle, and finally they stopped appearing.  Readers started writing strong protests to the Editor, who sent for Bill and asked him what exactly was happening.

"That detective chap who went into my case was a frightfully clever chap,"  Bill said.  "He really found out who I was, and the authorities took immediate action to choke the channels through which I was getting my samples."

"Who are you really, Bill?"  the Editor asked.  "And what are your channels?"

"Well, I guess there's no harm in telling you now!"  Bill Buro said.  "You see, in the beginning, whenever I wanted material I used to go to a contractor lifting waste paper from the local offices, and buy some of the stuff from him.  Later on I started floating my own tenders and began lifting the paper myself  from all local offices.  After that I spread my business to cover units all over the country."

"Go on!  This is interesting!"

"I established a central warehouse and dozens of regional warehouses where I could dump the stuff, and I had all the material I needed."

"What happened then?"

 "When the authorities found out the facts, they set up the Office Waste Paper Corporation, and directed all filemasters to deliver their waste paper to the OWPC.  So you see, I was no longer able to get any authentic material."

"But what about all those warehouses you had set up?  Surely you must be having enough paper to write about for a long time?"

"Not really!  The first thing the OWPC did was to take over all my stocks."

"Do you mean to say your column is really done for, Bill?  What am I going to tell my readers?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that!  I shall be making a spectacular come-back soon."

"But how?"  the Editor asked.  "You said you lost all your material!"

"Well, I'll tell you a secret,"  Bill Buro said.  "Did you notice the  OWPC's recent advertisement about the post of Managing Director?  I applied for it.  I explained to them that I was running the biggest OWP business in the country before the Corporation was set up, and they've given me the job!"


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PostScript : 2013
Of prizes and paper
Fishing out the above article from my old records and reviewing it in the present context, I can't resist the temptation to alert you about the following news report which will materialize in the world's media within the next 24 hours:
Stockholm, 19 Oct. :  Announcing today that this year's Nobel Prize for Burocrafts has been awarded to the Organization for the Control of Paperwork (OCPW) based in Geneva, the Nobel Prize Committee clarifies that "by setting up a vast network of OWPCs (Office Waste Paper Corporations) in many important member-countries of the United Nations, the OCPW is making a significant contribution to the reduction of paperwork, by converting office paper into waste paper, on a global scale."  -- Reuters.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Concept And Dimensions Of My Column Delhiberations

In the PostScript in the preceding blog (August 27, When Music Critic Subbudu Made A Volte Face.....), I had recalled my close association with Mr. G. Kasturi and Mr. N. Ravi, successive Editors of THE HINDU, during the past 50 years.  And digging into my ancient files in a nostalgic mood, I found a letter I had written to Mr. Kasturi in 1976  --  spelling out my vision and perspective as an amateur journalist bound by the severe restrictions imposed by the civil servants' conduct rules. 

Among other things, some paragraphs of this letter  --  which closely followed a conversation we had during one of his short visits to New Delhi  --  clearly defined the scope of my light-hearted column Delhiberations in the Hindustan Times Evening News in the Capital.   Which, of course, figures so prominently in my ongoing recollections of the progressive scenarios of the good old 20th century!

 By the way, 'Raja Vishnu' was the pen-name under which I was signing my column in the Evening News, as I had done in Shankar's Weekly.

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Letter to Mr. G. Kasturi
30 June 1976

Dear Sir,

. . . . . . . . .  I don't know whether you chanced to see the Evening News on Friday;  anyway, I am enclosing a cutting from it.  This piece rounds off the earlier ones I had given you  --  depicting the summer exodus of the Delhi wives, which is a natural consequence of the nationally-integrated character of the Capital's population.

I also enclose a couple of earlier articles. What I am trying to highlight in my column for the present is the idea that New Delhi  --  with its self-contained residential sectors and wide-open spaces  --  is a nice, quiet place to live in, and the average citizen should be content with the environment.

There are other major themes like Historic Delhi, urban development, etc., which I hope to take up as I go along.  I have already commented extensively in the column on New Delhi's beautiful looks.  But the constant and underlying theme of Delhiberations is National Integration, which concept is built into the very structure of the column.

In evaluating the merit of my writing, it would be necessary to remember that I have very severe constraints in regard to the subjects I can deal with.  Nearly all important issues are out of bounds for me, and I can't afford to be too prolific in my output either.

It is true that even within their rigid boundaries, Delhiberations have acquired considerable depth.  But the most significant thing about this column is not just that it is good, but that:  (a)  even as a freelancer (burning midnight oil on office work, mostly research of my own innovation), I have been able to achieve a tour de force in popular journalism;  and (b) I have developed a technique of writing which isn't easy to imitate and which can, in the proper milieu, serve as a powerful instrument for moulding public opinion.

Perhaps what makes my portrayal of the pastoral atmosphere of the Capital's residential sectors interesting is the fact that the people who figure in the column are so human.  They have no doubt come to terms with their environment, but they aren't really immune to the attractions of the West or of the affluent lifestyle.  They do feel a constant yearning for the Western world and its material comforts, and a nagging desire for a more dynamic life.

These conflicting pulls of the soul and the simultaneous hankering after peace as well as adventure  --  which characterizes the intelligent person's reconciliation with realities  --  are a universal phenomenon.  There would be ways of dramatizing this aspect in the context of any place in the world;  my own focus is on New Delhi only because I happen to be living in New Delhi for the time being. . . . . . . . . .

With regards, 

Yours sincerely,

M.V. Ramakrishan
  alias Raja Vishnu

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When Music Critic Subbudu Made A Volte Face Vis-a-vis Veteran Carnatic Musician Semmangudi!

In the preceding two posts (July 30 and August 4), I had told the story of how the caustic criticism of the redoubtable Carnatic music critic Subbudu of The Statesman in New Delhi against the marble-voiced maestro M.D. Ramanathan in the 1970s was completely neutralized.
Now here's the story of how Subbudu's toxic campaign against the venerable vocalist Semmangudi was terminated in the Capital in 1978, as told by me in THE HINDU's Friday Review in Chennai 30 year later.

Glossary & Annotations
(in same order as in text)

Semmangudi centenary  -- Throughout 2008, many cultural institutions in Carnatic music circles everywhere organized special events to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of the legendary vocalist Semmangudi (1908-2003). 

Evening News  --  Hindustan Times Evening News was the only English evening newspaper  in New Delhi till the mid-1980s when Midday materialized.  Therefore EN could reach out to many readers of all the leading morning English papers those days  --  Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Statesman.  (When the New Delhi edition of THE HINDU, South India's leading newspaper, was launched in 1986, I was invited to write a composite column on Carnatic and Western music, and I gradually gave up writing in the evening paper). 

M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004)  --   Legendary prima donna of Carnatic music.

Jawaharlal Nehru  (1889-1964)   --   Legendary freedom fighter and first Prime Minister of India.

M.D. Ramanathan (1923-1984)  --  Legendary Carnatic vocalist, mentioned in the two preceding posts.

Ashok Kumar  (1911-2001) --  Legendary actor in Indian cinema.

Rasikas  --  Lovers of art and culture  --  in the given context, lovers of Carnatic music.

Lalgudi Jayaraman (1930 - 2013)  --  Legendary Carnatic violinist.

Vellore Ramabadran  (1929-2012)  --  Modest and dependable percussionist, with a steady touch on the mridangam, prime drum in Carnatic music.

Swara improvisations  --  improvised sequences of musical notes, following and adding colorful flourishes to a song.

Morning paper  --  New Delhi edition of The Statesman, Calcutta's leading English newspaper.  Although this had a much smaller circulation than the Capital's leading morning papers, Subbudu's caustic comments on certain senior musicians' performances in the Capital used to be widely quoted in Carnatic music circles all over India. 

Hamsadhwani  --  A unique cultural institution in Chennai.

Sherlock Holmes  --  Legendary detective in modern English literature.


Friday Review, Chennai
8 August 2008

In a miraculous way Semmangudi’s  morale was completely restored during his visit to New Delhi in October, 1978. 

Back from the brink

Witnessing the exuberant flow of the ongoing Semmangudi centenary celebrations in Chennai, I can’t help recalling how discouraged the veteran vocalist had become in the 1970s on account of the insistent demand of the redoubtable Delhi-based music critic Subbudu that it was high time he retired as a performing artist. In fact, so despondent had Semmangudi become that in the late 70s he was literally on the brink of retirement, and had even started being extremely detached and rather superficial in his recitals — particularly when he performed in the Capital, where he was expecting to attract yet another hostile and highly damaging review in the Press. Truly, it was a very vicious circle!

Nor can I ever forget the miraculous way his morale was completely restored during his visit to the Capital in October, 1978, thanks to the great adoration of his true admirers there, whose spokesman I had the privilege to be, as the music critic of the Evening News.

Warm welcome

A couple of days before the concert, the evening paper warmly welcomed him in the following terms:

“Who is the doyen of Carnatic music today? It is difficult to answer that question. It would seem that there’s a triumvirate ruling. The most widely-known Carnatic musician, of course, is M.S. Subbulakshmi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s protégé and Magsaysay award winner.

“If solidity is the criterion for one’s judgment, the greatest living Carnatic musician must be considered to be M.D. Ramanathan, the marble-voiced master of meditation. But if age, seniority and musical vigour are the norms we adopt, then undoubtedly the doyen of Carnatic music today is Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer... Though in his seventies, he is still active, and continues to be the idol of more than one generation of music-lovers.

“His voice has a certain nasal intonation for which you have to develop a taste, as for the bitter and yeasty flavour of beer. But once you’ve adjusted your ears and mind-set to it, Semmangudi will take you on a rare adventure of music. When he gets going on his swara improvisations, it’s like riding a boat along a tumultuous river... True, Semmangudi is no longer at his best, but even so he does have tremendous appeal for his faithful fans.

“For several years now he has been dogged by severely adverse criticism in the Capital’s Press, which has not only offended his admirers... but even threatened to deprive them of his music. The maestro has become so sensitive that he had threatened to retire a couple of years ago, though luckily he didn’t.

“Do critics expect that performing artists should have perpetual youth? Would they expect Ashok Kumar to retire from films just because he can no longer play the young hero’s role?”

Glowing performance

And on the day of the concert I met the maestro in the afternoon and explained that five or six hundred rasikas would be eagerly attending the event, and he had no right to ignore their earnest collective wish to hear him perform in whatever manner he could. I pleaded that he shouldn’t let frustration and anger dilute his music further, and asked: “Lalgudi Jayaraman and Vellore Ramabhadran are there to convert your suggestions into statements... what more do we need to hear echoes of your best music?”  Semmangudi seemed to be greatly touched by the argument, and promised to do his best in the evening. And so well did he keep his word that he almost regained his original touch, and gave a rousing performance which glowed and glowed all the way.

And the review in the Evening News said: “His sensitive reaction to adverse criticism apart, Semmangudi seems to feel that since his music today lacks some of its characteristic vigour, he should phase out his performances, making room for younger artists.

“But lovers of Semmangudi’s music wouldn’t agree with him. What they now expect from the maestro is no longer his music at its very best, but only some glimpses of his glorious art. These he provided in abundant measure in the recital under review. Ably assisted by ace violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and the ever-green mridangam-player Vellore Ramabhadran, Semmangudi re-created in his swara improvisations some memorable passages reminiscent of his vintage days.”

But quite sensationally, those remarks were overtaken by a rave review by Subbudu himself in the morning paper, with a loud headline which screamed:  Semmangudi back in form!

Still living on

Of course, the maestro did retire as a performing artist a few years later, after giving many more wonderful concerts. But even then he couldn’t resist the clamour of his adamant admirers, and made a spectacular comeback in 1996 when he was 88 years old, with a memorable concert in Hamsadhwani. Which inevitably makes us think of Sherlock Holmes, who just couldn’t be killed by his own creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but staged a comeback to live permanently in English literature — just as Semmangudi is bound to live on in Indian music!


PostScript, 2013

A question of credentials and credibility

It was a matter of great regret for me that when I told this 30-years-old true story in my column Musicscan in THE HINDU in 2008  --  as it is today, when I recall the whole scenario all over again  --  that both Semmangudi and Subbudu were/are no longer  alive, to either confirm or deny the facts as declared by me.  To that extent, I can see, there is enough scope for anyone to raise doubts about my credibility.

My credentials, however, have a very strong foundation.  Throughout my past 50 years' association with THE HINDU  --  which is well known as a newspaper with the highest ethical standards in the world  --  the Editors (Mr. G. Kasturi and Mr. N. Ravi) had reposed complete faith in my integrity and given me almost unlimited freedom of expression and style.  The mere fact that my essay on the Semmangudi episode was published by THE HINDU without calling for any evidence other than my own recollection of the facts is surely an adequate testimonial for  my bona fides.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

MDR Saga : When God Was More Merciful Than Mere Earthbound Music Critics!

The trouble with the severely adverse criticism which the legendary Carnatic vocalist M.D. Ramanathan (alias MDR) used to attract from time to time from some hard-hitting music critics was that there was a small grain of truth in it, which was often either grossly exaggerated or was viewed in a flawed perspctive without considering all relevant aspects.  And MDR's own provocative way of responding to harsh criticism was to make an exaggerated display of the disputed feature now and then.
As an articulate layman and self-appointed advocate, I found that one of the convincing ways of defending MDR against severe opposition was to concede the basic element of truth in the adverse criticism.  So I was very happy whenever he made a real faux pas which attracted my own unpleasant comments  --  for it gave me an excellent opportunity to prove my credentials as an unbiassed observer, which enabled my high praise for MDR's music to carry absolute conviction.

The following review in the Hindustan Times Evening News in 1976 firmly established MDR's iconic status in New Delhi, which could never again be diminished by any amount of adverse criticism in the Capital's Press.


Glossary/Annotations(in same order as in text)

Vaathapi Ganapathim Bhajay  --  A well-entrenched initial song in Carnatic music recitals, in the tune Hamsadhwani, composed by Dikshitar, one of the three most venerable classical composers known as The Trinity.

Basic tonic  --  Deep droning sound of subsidary string nstrument in background, anchoring the chosen pitch. 

Lord Ganapathi  --  Benevolent Hindu God, in human form with majestic elephant's head, whose blessings are invoked in the beginning of many religious proceedings and cultural events, including (and especially) Carnatic music recitals.

Krithi  --  Song. the predominant (but not excluusive) form of compositions in Carnatic music.

Hindolam  --  A major raga, or codified melody.

St. Thyagaraja  --  One of The Trinity.

Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu  -- The last of a set of five famous recitative songs composed by St. Thyagaraja, known as the 'Pancharatna Krithis', (meaning 'Five Gem Songs'), which are rendered as a chorus by whole congregations on ceremonial occasions, mainly on the Saint's birth anniversary. 

Long pauses  --  MDR's slow and stately style had many silent stretches, which needed to be filled by a delicate touch on the percussion instruments. 

Limpid pool  --  Dipping in the holy waters of a sacred river, lake, seashore or temple tank, is a standard Hindu ritual of meditative worship or worshipful meditation.


Evening News, New Delhi
October, 1976

A Tale Of Two Concerts

I have repeatedly written in these columns telling the public what musical treats to expect from M.D. Ramanathan.  But his recital for the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha at the Patel Auditorium on October 10 surpassed even my own hopes and predictions.

What would you legitimately expecxt in the best Carnatic music concert you can imagine?  Form?  Content?  Soulfulness?  Spiritual joy?  Excitement?  Repose?  Mystic Vision?  Fulfilmemt? . . . .   Mention what you will, and it was there in this recital.

Nothing in this wretched world is so perfect that it doesn't have a flaw.  And so perhaps it was inevitable that in the first half hour (most of which was taken up by the invocative prayer Vaathaapi Ganapathim Bhajay) the recital should have tended to drag badly.

I am constantly urging others to recognize that MDR's anbormally slow tempo (like his extremely low basic tonic) is a vital root of his serene style.  Yet I found it difficult to appreciate the way he stretched this song, as if every phrase and syllable of it was a piece of rubber whose elastic properties he was determined to test to the limit. 

But Lord Ganapathi is apparently more merciful than mere earthbound music critics!  MDR's extended prayer must have moved Him greatly, for in the next three hours He bestowed on the singer the kind of inspiration which can only be the product of a devotee's communion with the Almighty.

After singing a krithi in Hindolam in a fast tempo which quickly restored the balance, MDR rendered a few substantial, reposeful and beautifully constructed pieces, each one of which stood out like a Roman pillar.  The imposing dome of the edifice was St. Thyagaraja's Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu in the raga Sree.  The maestro spent a whole hour on the raga and the composition, but his spellbound audience had already lost its sense of time.

Though MDR had been down with flu recently, he was in full command of his powers.  His rich, forceful voice and calm, recitative style produced a majestic pattern of sound, which was at the same time a tidal wave which carried you away and a limpid pool in which you dipped and meditated.

The masterful but unobtrusive accompaniment provided by Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam blended well with the vocalist's style.  Sivaraman's admirable way of filling in the long pauses which characterize the unhurried progression of MDR's music enhanced the reposeful tenor of the recital.

There was a large and adoring audience, whose concentration was absolute.  I am happy to note that music-lovers in the Capital also have come under this musician's magic spell at last  And the organizers deserve many kudos for recognizing this trend (or should I say for making it possible?). . . . .

     (The rest of the article concerned a different event, featuring a brilliant young vocalist)


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Carrying Conviction Against Caustic Criticism

In the 1975 article in New Delhi's evening paper, which I had recalled in the preceding Articulations (July 27), I had mentioned that the reluctance of organizers to invite vocal maestro M.D.  Ramanathan to perform in the Capital was caused by the adverse criticism he had attracted in the Madras and Bombay newspapers in the 1960s. 

But that was only partly true.  The main reason was the extremely hostile attitude of the Carnatic music critic of The Statesman in New Delhi, who had a formidable reputation as a knowledgeable, witty and merciless music and dance critic.  Such was his sparkling sense of humor that even if you were offended by his caustic comments, you couldn't help admiring his lively style.  His influence over the mind-set of most music-lovers was hypnotic.   

But I was only an articulate layman, and stood no chance at all of winning any argument with him in any direct confrontation.  So I simply ignored his criticism in my article preceding the concert.  Somehow the powerful preview did carry conviction, causing a lot of earnest soul-searching, and ensured the presence of an adoring audience in a full house.

But the critic was not amused, and he wrote a very adverse review in The Statesman on the day following the concert, which did cause a flutter and much confusion in the Capital's Carnatic music circles.  So there I stood, frail David, facing the mighty Goliath!

And quite miraculously, with the grace and benediction of God, my sling shot settled the issue once and for ever, so far as New Delhi was concerned!  Thereafter, nothing Subbudu ever wrote (for that was the popular and now-legendary name of the critic) could turn the New Delhi rasikas against MDR, whose name also is a legend today. 

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Glossary/Annotations(In same order as in text)

South Indians  --  Carnatic music is by and large popular only among South Indians.  Even when it is performed in North India or anywhere else in the world, the audience normally consists mostly of South Indians.  There are rare exceptions to this rule, of course! 

Concert manners  --  Easy-going concert manners are an inherent feature of the whole Carnatic music culture.  There are rare exceptions again!

Rasikas  --  Means 'lover of art' in several Indian languages, most commonly used for referring to lovers of Carnatic music,

Spiritual emotion  --   All songs and lyrics in Carnatic music have a spiritual orientation, and there are no exceptions.

Muthuswami Dikshitar  (1775-1835)  --  A towering composer in the Carnatic music tradition, with nearly 500 songs to his credit, mostly in the classical language Sanskrit.

Ragas  --  Codified melodic patterns.

Swara-prastharam  --  Improvised sequences of notes, following a song.

Sruthi  --  Basic tonic:   a monotonous drone (deep humming sound), produced by a string instrument, which serves as a background sonar setting and thus anchors the pitch  --  an indispensable element of Indian classical music, whether Southern (Carnatic) or Northern (Hindustani).

Lionel Salter (1914-2000)  --  Versatile British musician, broadcaster, and author of several books popularizing Western classical music.  Highly respected for his constructively critical opinions.

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Evening News, New Delhi
19 December 1975

The high priest of Carnatic music

SOUTH Indians are heirs to a great classical system of music  --  Carnatic music  --  and yet their concert manners are possibly the worst in the world.

Not only in the South but wherever Carnatic music is performed, South Indians usually arrive late;  go out frequently for coffee, snacks. cool drinks, chewing leaves or a smoke;  chat incessantly in the auditorium;  hum loudly and out of tune;  measure the rhythm erratically with flapping hands and stamping feet;  and start dispersing long before the end of a concert.

It is very rarely that you see a gathering of Carnatic music-lovers maintain absolute decorum in the concert hall and concentrate on the music from beginning to end.  Maestro M.D. Ramanathan's vocal recital at the Sapru House on December 7 was such an exceptional occasion.

 A friend of mine thought that the rasikas probably stuck to their seats because it was too cold outside and the air within the auditorium was warm and comfortable.  But that didn't explain why they failed to indulge in the other disturbing activities so characteristic of Carnatic culture.

My own reading of the situation is that MDR's popular appeal has now reached a level where he casts a mystic spell on the whole audience, and not merely on a few faithful followers.  Considering that MDR's style of singing is highly meditative, and is unrelieved by any musical extravaganza, I should say this is a remarkable achievement.

Only the deep spiritual emotion he evokes in the concert hall can explain the compelling manner in which he holds the attention of a usually restless audience.

Organizers of Carnatic music in the Capital often tell me that one reason why they don't frequently invite MDR to perform here is that his music is too heavy for the public's liking.  I am afraid this presumption is not valid at all.  The public has always loved MDR's music, though from time to time it has allowed itself to be swayed by adverse criticism in the Press.

After this concert at least, the organizers owe it to the public to reconsider their opinion.


FACING such an adoring audience, it was inevitable that MDR should be in his elements.  And he was.

The concert was organized by the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha in association with the Sangeet Natak Akademi, to celebrate the bicentenary of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Trinity of classical composers who dominate Carnatic music.  Quite fittingly, there was a heavy accent on Dikshitar's compositions. 

With his leisurely and expansive style of singing, MDR rendered only about half a dozen numbers, each one standing out like a tower in a temple.  All the hallmarks of MDR's music were evident in this recital  --  the weight and power of his voice, the colorful outlining of the ragas, the soulful rendering of the songs, the brief but unutterably beautiful improvisations in the swara-prastharams.

Lalgudi Jayaraman, who accompanied MDR, can be counted among the world's finest violinists.  Over the years he has infused his violin with a tone of great sophistication.

Jayaraman is a  mature artist who reserves his dazzling displays for his solo recitals.  A an accompanist he is always subdued, faithfully reflecting the spirit of the vocalist and carefully preserving the mood which the latter creates.

But the rich tone of the violin invariably comes through.  I am yet to witness an occasion when Jayaraman wasn't at his best;  and I believe he is himself carried away by the music of M.D. Ramanathan.

Vellore Ramabadhran, like many other mridangam-players, is undoubtedly handicapped when he accompanies MDR, because of the basement-level sruthi fancied by the singer.  But in a recital which is an exposition rather than a demonstration, one doesn't necessarily look for tonal brilliance in the percussion accompaniment.  Ramabadhran provided a neat backdrop of rhythm which was adequate for the occasion.


A LEADING music critic in the Capital, whose writings in English and Tamil are widely discussed by lovers of Carnatic music all over India, has described MDR's Sapru House recital as "a strange mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous". 

I know better than to dispute the technical accuracy of his statement, but I would like to point out that in a concert which lasted well over three hours, there were perhaps a few minutes during which MDR made some faux pas or other.  In a musical system which places such a great stress on improvisation, isn't there some legitimate room for a few mistakes, a few excesses  --  or even call them a few aberrations, if you like  --  which wouldn't really reduce the merits of a monumental recital?

The same critic also says that MDR 'mangled' the lyrics of the compositions so much that the recital wasn't a fitting tribute to the memory of Dikshitar, who was a lyrical composer.  It is true that MDR has a way of muffling some phrases;  but he has such great powers of suggestion that it hardly seems to matter.

Moreover, if we value MDR's stately style of singing, which greatly depends on his magnificent low-keyed voice, we shouldn't forget the fact that bass voices all over the world have problems of pronunciation.

In his book Going to the Opera (Penguin, London, 1955, page 22), Lionel Salter observes:  "The heavier and fuller tone of the bass voice prevents it being quite so agile as the others (and, as a matter of purely technical interest, it has greater difficulty in making its words clear);  but for powerful characters . . . .  high priests, kings and noblemen, its weight is a great asset."

Now, what would we rather have from M.D. Ramanathan, the high priest of Carnatic music?  Powerful singing in a rich bass voice with some margin for muffling, or perfectly pronounced texts sung in a weak, high-pitched voice?

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PostScript, 2013
Sound and style

Let  me conclude these recollections with a fine sample of MDR's leisurely style  --  a devotional song titled Mokshamu Galada, in the South Indian language Telugu:

If you are a stranger to Carnatic music,  I shall translate the lyrics and tell you about the composer some other time.  Meanwhile, just let the Maestro stir your imagination with the mere sound of his massive voice!


Saturday, July 27, 2013

How The Maestro Gave Me A Glimpse Of God And Converted Me To Carnatic Music!

In the preceding Articulations (July 21) I had mentioned the legendary Indian musician M.D. Ramanathan, alias MDR.  Here's the story of how I discovered his glorious music, exactly 50 years ago:

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Glossary/Annotations(in same order as in text)

Carnatic music --  Classical music of South India.

Capital  --  New Delhi, in the North.

Madras/Bombay  --  South-East/West coast cities, now named Chennai/Mumbai, but still called Madras/Bombay by hard-core citizens.  Madras is known as the Mecca of Carnatic music.

Sangeet Natak Akademi  --  One of the three National Academies in New Delhi, meant for preserving and promoting Indian music, dance and drama (Sangeet-Natak). fine arts (Lalit Kala) and literature (Sahitya).  When I had mentioned these important custodians of Indian culture in several articles in the 1970s and '80s, I had no idea that eventually I would be a member (and also the secretary) of an important cultural panel which would  review their performance in 1988-90. 

Sapru House  --Prestigious building in New Delhi, Headquarters of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), with a library and conference facilities, and a fine auditorium selectively available for cultural events.  Named after ICWA's first President Tej Bahadur Sapru, an eminent pro-British lawyer in the colonial regime.

Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha  --  One of  the major cultural institutions in New Delhi, disseminating South Indian classical music and dance.  

Tamil Nadu  --  A Southern State.

9 p.m. English news  --  For several decades in British and independent India, All-India Radio (AIR) was broadcasting its evening English news at 9 p.m.  This was the only news broadcast which was heard all over the country (even the Hindi news in the national language not being universally popular) --  and thus, it was  a hallmark of India's amazing 'unity in diversity'.  I've no idea whether AIR still continues this feature or not:  --  it's a long time since I last heard the radio!


Bach  --  When I heard MDR for the first time, I was familiar only with Bach's instrumental music, and not his oratorios.  When I heard the St. John Passion on LP records later on, I was certainly impressed by the mystic power of some of the arias and choral spells.

Mridangam  --  Main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, played with the palms and fingers of both hands  --  capable of creating extremely sophisticated patterns of percussive sound.

..... ..... ..... 


Evening News, New Delhi
5 December 1975

I travelled 200 miles to hear M.D. Ramanathan

I am really happy that I am living in the Capital, which is a cross-section of India itself.  But there are moments when I regret that I am not living in Madras.

Not because Madras happens to be my home town.  Not just because I miss the beautiful beach.  But because I can't hear all the Carnatic music which is flowing so profusely there, especially the music of the great master, M.D. Ramanathan. 

MDR gives not fewer  than a dozen recitals every year in Madras.  Even in Bombay he sings once in six months.  But New Delhi doesn't invite him even once a year!  His last major performance here was in March, 1974.  He did give a recital for the Sangeet Natak Akademi early this year;  but it was a formal and insubstantial affair, and didn't count as a concert.

I am therefore really glad that MDR will be here for a concert on December 7 at Sapru House.  The Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha are organizing this event.

I don't know why most of the organizers of Carnatic music in the Capital go on resisting M.D. Ramanathan.  Perhaps they are still remembering the furious controversies which used to rage round his music way back in the Sixties, when some music critics in Bombay and Madras condemned his slow tempo, gesticulations and facial expressions.

But it is a long time since music-lovers in Bombay and Madras learnt to ignore unfair criticism and to appreciate MDR's music without any reservations.  It is high time people in the Capital also found out the answer to the question:  "What is so great about MDR ?"

The answer is very simple:  his rich voice an meditative spirit.  Everything else about his music is determined by these twin factors.  Let me tell you about his voice first.


I wasn't a lover of Carnatic music to start with.  Till I was nearly 30 I was only fond of Western music.  I loved Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Tchaikovsky.  I loved New Orleans jazz, and I admired Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  I was thrilled by the powerful voices of Mario Lanza, Benjamino Gigli and Paul Robson.

I never liked Indian music, classical or otherwise, because all voices in Indian music seemed high-pitched and too weak.  Because of this I never heard much of it, and of course I must have been missing a great deal.

I was living in a Tamil Nadu town in 1963.  Late one evening I switched on the radio for the 9 p.m. English news.  There were still a few minutes to go, and someone was singing Carnatic music.  Though I tried not to listen, my attention was compelled, because there was something unusually powerful about the singer's voice.

It was a full, deep-throated bass, something I had never associated with Indian music.  And the music was progressing in a stately, unhurried manner so uncharacteristic of Carnatic music, unmindful of the fact that the English news was only a few minutes away!  I was fascinated, and waited breathlessly for the announcer to tell me the name of the singer:  it was M.D. Ramanathan.

A few weeks later I travelled 200 miles by train to Madras to hear a full-length recital by MDR.  And what I heard taught me something more:  that MDR's music wasn't just Voice, but also Spirit.

I sat transfixed for three hours as he sang in his characteristic slow tempo, meditating rather than entertaining.  Suddenly sound acquired a kind of mystic beauty which I hadn't found even in Bach or Beethoven.  If this was Carnatic music, I thought, then I was already converted!  And since Carnatic music rests wholly on a religious foundation, my agnostic mind at once began to see spiritual light.  My life has never been the same again.


Since then I have attended hundreds of Indian music concerts. I have made friends with many great musicians. I have learnt a little bit of Carnatic music myself, and have even become a music critic.  But I can never forget the fact that it is through MDR that I discovered the beauties of Carnatic music  --  and, on a larger plane, the whole mystique of Indian music.

And yet here I am, living in New Delhi all the year round, not being able to hear MDR sing more than once in 18 months at best, unless I travel a thousand miles or more to hear him somewhere in South India! It often occurs to me that at this rate I may not be able to hear many more of his recitals in this lifetime, and it's a shocking idea.

But meanwhile, what a happy thought that MDR will be singing next Sunday evening at Sapru House, accompanied by the mature and dazzling violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and the subtle, sober mridangam-player Vellore Ramabadran!  I wouldn't just like to praise the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha for organizing this event:  I would like to thank them for it.

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PostScript, 2013
Volte face!

This article was one of the landmarks in my track record as a journalist, and also marked a dramatic turning point in MDR's New Delhi connection.  The large auditorium overflowed with wildly enthusiastic music-lovers, heralding a period when the maestro's image in the  capital would soar sky-high.  But that was only a repetition of what had happened in Bombay seven years earlier!  Let me tell that story some other time.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Legend Of Lord Rama Condensed In A Capsule!

Here's the second and concluding part of my 1987 essay about the Benedictine monk Abbot Angelo Grillo's thrilling experience of seeing some of his sacred lyrics set to glorious music by leading Italian composers of the Renaissance era, and hearing them performed by distinguished singers of devotional music.  (I postd the first part a few days ago).

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as in text)

Pallavi  --  In Carnatic music (classical music of South India), 'Pallavi' means either the first brief stanza of a song, visualized as a prelude, or a self-contained couplet which tightly packs a whole idea or theme in a tiny capsule. 

Tamil  --  One of the four major languages of South India, with very ancient roots and culture, but -- unlike Sanskrit or Latin --  well adapted to suit the modern world.

Raga  -- Pronomced 'Raaga', it means a structured and codified melody in Indian classical  music, both in the Southern (Carnatic) and Northern (Hindustani) systems and traditions.

Poorvikalyani  --  A major and frequently rendered melody.

Ramayana  --  Predominant epic of India, depicting the life and mission of Lord Rama (or Raam), a divine incarnation in human  form as a noble prince for conquering a near-immortal demon king.  Exiled frivolously by his royal father for 14 years, Raam spent 14 years wandering in the forest with his faithful wife and younger brother, eventually accomplishing his mission and returning home triumphantly to be crowned.

Padinaangu (14) - Varuda  (year/s) -  Vana (forest) - Vaasam (life, living) - Pirahu (then) - Pattaabhishekam (Coronation).

Neraval  --  Repetitive recitation of a selected phrase in a song, building up an intensely devotional mood.

Himalayan --  like the Himalayas, the vast and formidable mountain range bordering North India, where Mount Everest, the highest spot in the world, is situated.

MDR  --  Popular initials of M. D. Ramanathan (1923-1984), legendary vocal maestro in Carnatic music. 

..... ..... ..... 

THE HINDU, New Delhi
17 July 1987

Poems and unsung pallavi  (continued)

Inspired Pallavi

I claim no proficiency in Carnatic music, and I have no credentials whatsoever as a poet.  Yet on a memorable day a few years ago, I was suddenly caught in a whirlpool of inspiration, and I composed two simple lines in Tamil, which acquired the shape and substance of a Pallavi when rendered in the raga Poorvikalyani.  The text, miraculously, summarized a whole section of the Ramayana:

Padinaangu varuda vanavaasam,
Pirahu Pattaabhishekam

(Fourteen years in the forest,
Then Coronation)

Surely this was the result of some unusual spark, and not of any poetic skills of mine!  Surely it had to be sung by a master musician, and subjected to a 'neraval' (melodic elaboration) of Himalayan proportions!  Whose vocal splendor could give it grander shape than that of MDR?  Which passionate devotee of Lord Rama was more competent to sing this piece than MDR?

It took me, however, all of two years to muster enough confidence to submit my song to him.  The maestro was favourably impressed.  He said it had tremendous possibilities, and he would consider singing it some time or other. I was greatly thrilled by his response, but unfortunately that rewarding occasion was never to come.

How could we have imagined ever that M.D. Ramanathan would cast his mortal frame away and leave this world so prematurely?  My unsung Pallavi was nothing but a drop of water in the ocean which was drained at a single stroke.  How many wonderful concerts, how many marvellous songs, how many spellbinding sessions of music have his countless admirers missed since, and continue to miss!  Can this loss ever be made good?

Such were the thoughts which flooded my mind as I read the good Abbot Angelo Grillo's adoring letters to the great musicians of his times.  I could well visualize the supreme excitement he must have felt every time he heard one of his sacred poems transformed into a glorious piece of music!

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PostScript, 2013
MDR and I :  marvellous memories

It's now exactly 50 years after I heard MDR's massive voice for the first time in 1963, and discovered the meditative and sculptureque quality of his music.  I have many wonderful memories of his concerts, and many close insights into his musical vision.

As a music critic of leading newspapers in Bombay, Madras and New Delhi, I had many opportunities to record my impressions in rave reviews from time to time.  You can be sure I shall share some of those memorable experiences with you in due course!

MDR's repertoire was heavily weighted in favour of songs in praise of Lord Rama, of whom he was a passionate devotee. To get a glimpse of his majestic style, please see (from beginning to end) on YouTube :  MDR-Purvikalyani-Meenakshi-Dikshitar.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Monk, The Maestros, And The Magic Of Their Music

The extremely hot weather during the summer season in most parts of India (including the Capital, New Delhi) is not very conducive to cultural activities.  If you write a culture column in a newspaper, this near-vacuum creates an ideal opportunity for reading and reflecting on cultural concepts, trends and issues  --  and sometimes it results in a monumental piece of writing, like the following essay.

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as the text)

Pallavi  --  In Carnatic music (classical music of South India), the first stanza of a traditional song   --  which is invariably very brief  --  serves as a prelude, and is called 'Pallavi'.  In a different sense, Pallavi also means a self-contained lyric of just two lines, which resembles such preludes but encapsules a whole theme, and is rendered in a repetitive mode with gradually increasing intensity. 

Max Müller Bhavan  --  Name by which the units of the Goethe Institut (a world-wide German cultural organization) functioning in Indian cities are known.  Max Müller (1823-1900) was a dedicated German scholar and Indologist, and 'Bhavan' means 'institution' in Hindi and other Indian languages.

Bucephalus  --  The famous horse of Alexander the Great (4th century BC).

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THE HINDU, New Delhi
17 July 1987
Poems and unsung pallavi

This smouldering summer in the Capital has been a sabbatical season for the culture correspondent, because there are no worthwhile events to attend and write about, week after week.  If you are not lucky enough to have gone away somewhere else on vacation and are also reluctant to get away from your subject even for a short while, you spend much of your free time either catching up on cultural education, or indulging in introspective reflections on your past experiences and old memories. 

So far as I am concerned, I am neither on furlough, nor can overcome my preoccupation with music;  so I try to improve my knowledge by reading scholarly books on the subject and listening to recorded music.  In this frame of mind, I naturally tend to recollect  the highlights of my own musical experiences and savour the marvellous memories they evoke. 

The other day I borrowed from the Max Müller Bhavan library a delightful volume entitled Essays on Music, by the eminent German musical scholar Albert Einstein (1881-1952).  He not only revised certain famous musical lexicons and edited a distinguished German journal of musicology, but also wrote with insight on many aspects of Western music.  One of Einstein's most valuable contributions to the history of music was his authentic research on the Italian madrigals of the Renaissance period.

Humble poet

The book I've mentioned contains an interesting chapter on the lives and works of the Italian poet, Abbot Don Angelo Grillo, a Benedictine monk who lived in various monasteries  in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Grillo revelled in writing madrigals which were set to music by several contemporary composers including Claudio Monteverdi.  He seemed to have been greatly impressed by the distinguished musicians who honoured his poetry with their compositions;  and the admiration and humility with which he approached them are clearly visible in some of his letters which are reproduced in Einstein's book.

For example, here's an extract of a letter written by him to the composer Massimiano Gabbiani, who was also a monk of the Benedictine order:

"The steel which pierced San Placido had, as I read last night of his martyrdom, also penetrated my heart.  Soon afterwards from my eyes, and soon also from my pen, fell this little tear-drop. . .  May your Reverence receive it as a pledge of my piety, if not as the text for a composition. . . ."

Later on Grillo followed this up tactfully:

"I sent your Reverence a few months ago little madrigal about the martyrdom of San Placido, so that you might honour it with your music, but I fear it was lost, for you have written me nothing about it.  I am sending it to you once again.  Signor Lelio Bertanti used to say to me that a capable musician who composed to a foolish text was like a brave knight riding a sorry jade.  Though your Reverence in this case is not exactly riding Bucephalus, nonetheless I think you are not altogether badly mounted. . . ."

To the composer Giulio Caccini, who was a good friend, Abbbot Grillo once wrote as follows:

"To give to you is more valuable than to receive from others, as you crown one's gift with the glory of your music, and make the giver famous. . . . I know how far that madrigal of mine has flown on the wings of the song with which you provided it, and what sweet power it has when it is sung with the right expression. . . ."

Heavenly harmony

And finally, I would like you to consider the following passage from the monk's letter to Monteverdi:

"How well your divine music corresponds to the divine subject of my sacred madrigal, and how completely heavenly it has become through your harmony!. . . .  I wish I had the tongue to praise it according to its  merits, as I have the ear to appreciate it as it deserves, especially when it is sung by Campagnola, or a comparable singer.  For only a perfect singer with a heavenly voice, such as the Signora Adriana , should dare to approach such a composition.

"When Signora Adriana unites her voice with the instrument, and gives the strings life and speech with her direction, she wins our hearts with her sweet enchantment;  we are carried to Heaven although our bodies remain on earth.  And this rose of mine, blossoming from the bloody tears of Jesus Christ's body, will, because of the gentle emphasis of your music, bring from the eyes of the listeners real tears of compassion  --  and from their mouths a thousand blessings for you, who do not merely add notes to the text in your creations, but form magic wands directing the heart and the intellect through your art, to say nothing of darts which inflict wounds of joy and astonishment. . . ."

(to be continued)

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PostScript, 2013
The Abbot and I : parallel dreams

This was a rather long article which projected two very different scenarios, in different countries, cultures and centuries, both governed by very similar sentiments.  I shall separately post the concluding part of the essay, which concerns my own day-dreams about a couplet I had composed for Carnatic music  as it calls for some detailed explanations to make it truly ww-ww (worldwide-webworthy).