By M.V.Ramakrishnan

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)