By M.V.Ramakrishnan

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!


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