Monday, June 30, 2008

Growing up in a rasika household - (4) My first MS concert

It must have been December 1977-78, am not very sure. There was excitement at home that MS was singing in the Academy that weekend. My paternal grandparents usually came down from Calcutta for the music season and because my grandfather was away for a couple of days, I had used his ticket and listened toMDR and TMT the previous year. It was my first experience of an evening concert in the Academy. This year I was keen to go and attend the MS concert. Tickets were already sold out and it was impossible to get one. Meanwhile my mom decided to make things worse by imposing a condition. I could go to the concert if I sat down and played theSankarabharanam varnam a 100 times on the violin. I sat down and did it! I still cannot believe that I did it then but yes, I did play it a 100 times. Unfortunately there were just no tickets and I could not make it to the concert.

My great great grandfather was an employee of the famous Hoe & Co, makers of diaries. Emberumanar Chettiar, the President of the Indian Fine Arts Society and also owner of Hoe & Co used to send my grandfather a couple of complimentary tickets for their annual festival being held at theVani mahal . MS was singing there as well that year! So I was in luck. Though I never heard MS live at the Academy all my life I did get to listen to her in the Indian Fine Arts. I think Kandadevi Azhagiriswamy, Guruvayur Dorai and an upa pakkavadyam I forget, were the accompanists. The only song I remember from that concert was Manavyala in Nalinakanti because I had just learnt it then. Of course the other point of interest was when she brought out the jalra that she used to keep time when singing the lighter pieces.

Later we had gone to meet MS in her house and she recalled an incident that happened in our house in the early seventies. We were living in Calcutta at that time. MS had come for a concert and my grandfather had invited her home for lunch. My mom, the daughter in law of the house was asked to sing a song. As she was singing, she forgot a line and I helped her with words! This was after I had just won the AIR music competition in 1986. MS was the chief guest at the function in the AIR Chennai studios, where she distributed the prizes and heard me sing for the first time!

Interactions with some of the greatest of the greats in carnatic music is always most memorable and awe inspiring for me over the years. More on these soon.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Competition and what it meant to them

Sports is competitive by nature. But the arts are not supposed to be. Competition however has been present in most art forms and carnatic music is no exception. Rivalries were famous and stories of the famed feud between Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and Patnam Subramanya Iyer is well documented especially by someone like my good friend Sriram V. As one grew up one heard elders talking a lot about competition and rivalries between musicians. This was mostly the case when two of them were equally talented and popular and fans decided to take sides and pit one against the other. Musicians also decided to play along and lines were clearly drawn. I am not going to be drawn into putting names into these rivalries but I will just mention some stories I have heard to illustrate this and also show how they handled this competition among themselves.

The earliest stories that I heard were that of the Maharajapuram-Ariyakudi rivalry. Maharajapuram would dismiss this I believe in his casual manner making a joke out of it since he always considered himself as a "Maharaja". The GNB-Semmangudi was even more bitter between the fans more than anything. In fact I never realised that Musiri/Semmangudi were kind of a nexus with GNB at the other end. Once I experienced this when I sang a concert in Kallidaikurichi, a classic battlefield with well defined groups of GNB and Semmangudi followers. I had sung Tiruvadi sharnaam in Kambhoji (a Musiri patent) and a rasika (GNB fan needless to say) came up to me and said "Don't you not know Ivanaaro???" Ivanaaro was I believe GNB's Tamil Kambhoji answer to Tiruvadi sharanam. That was when I first realised that the musicians were fighting their battles with music and nothing else.

My guru once told me that GNB started singing Sarasasama dana in Kapinarayani and gave it up after Madurai Mani Iyer made it famous. Similarly he also sang Saarasamukhi regularly with detailed alapanas of Gaudamalhar. I have heard V Sethuramiah, the violinist, once talk at a GNB day function and say that GNB sang an elaborate alapana at a concert where Muthiah Bhagavatar, the creator of the raga was present. Bhagavatar was amazed at the creativity and depth to which GNB expanded his own creation. Again there are no recordings of Gaudamalhar by GNB, probably because he gave it up after MMI made it famous.

Another example is Semmangudi and GNB beginning concerts with Dikshitar compositions in Chakravakam - Semmangudi sings Gajananayutam and GNB sings Vinayaka vigna nasaka. A few years back I had an interesting conversation with AKC Natarajan. He told me that in the fifties there was a competitive rivalry between him and Karakurichi Arunachalam. The latter had then begun popularising Tamaden swami in Todi. AKC wanted do something and he said that it would not be right for him to play the same song! So he went to MM Dandapani Desigar, who taught him his own composition Tirumagale in Todi with a ton of sangatis! The lesson I learnt from this story is that they had so much musical integrity and honesty and believed in their own worth and skill. They never had to resort to doing the same thing as the rival/peer. It was not like opening another PCO down the road because the first one starts making money!

In those days without the advantage of digital communication artistes knew so much about their peers and kept working hard to refresh and renew themselves. Today it is the opposite. Many musicians find it very easy to download a peer's hit song and re-present it and the result, the original guy loses his pioneer status because now there two people who have done the same thing you see! Copying is quick and blatant in the modern age. The successful ones will not be the ones who innovated first, but the ones who don't stop innovating! There was so much respect for effort among peers in those days. It is another matter when someone like GNB or Semmangudi acknowledge a senior like Ariyakudi as a mentor and then copy or get 'inspired.' But today such 'inspiration' is only plagiarising because it is never acknowledged.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Growing up in a rasika household - (3) The Radio

The best part of growing up at home was listening to the radio. I don't think I would have known so much as early on as I did if my Dad had not turned on the radio whenever he was at home. My dad was a compulsive radio listener. My mom told me that early on their in their marriage, the Vividh Bharati channel was always on at home. After his 3-4 year stint in Calcutta and return to Chennai, I have never heard him listen to film music at home. Vividh Bharati was like a 'blocked' channel on our radio in the mid-late seventies and early eighties. But from 1975 till I got married in 1993, I have listened to an unbelievable amount of carnatic music on the radio.

The first carnatic music program was 'Isai amudham' at 7.00 to 7.15 am. They regularly played recordings of the great masters. But some of the special off beat records that I had enjoyed was NC Vasanatakokilam and Mysor Raja Iyengar singing Jagadoddharana. Then the 8.00 - 9.00 am 'Arangisai' was always on. Interestingly the radio would be switched off at 7.15, while my father read the paper and we got ready to go to school. Just as we sat down to eat breakfast, dad would saunter in and switch on Madras A again for arangisai. Of course some days he may have read in advance that it was someone he did not want to listen, and so the radio would be silent! My school bus was only at around 8.30 and so I heard the first 3 songs definitely before running off to school. More than the music, the announcements were the main source of information. Names of songs could be easily connected to raga names, composer names etc. Names like V Thiagarajan, Coimbatore B Dakshinamoorthy, Madras A Kannan, Ramanathapuram MN Kandaswamy, Palghat Sundaram and V Nagarajan all made as much sense as Dennis Lillee, Andy Roberts or Sunil Gavaskar.

Then FM was introduced in the early eighties and I had a friend who was a crazy Hindustani Music freak. He would record all the programs of people like Paluskar, Jitendra Abisheki, Mallikarjun Mansoor, Basavaj Rajguru, Siyaram Tiwari etc etc. He also liked the RTPs broadcast once a month in the carnatic music section. That was also the time my dad had got a cassette player from England and I remember recording my first concert - an Arangisai concert of Dr BMK singing Kamalambam bhajare and Ganamalichi (his own composition in Kalyanavasatam). It was a C90 TDK cassette that my mom had got from a friend in malaysia. So after the one hour program there was still space left. So the next day there was a broadcast of a Trichur Ramachandran concert and I recorded the last half hour with Bhairavi - Balagopala and a slokam. FM was a great channel and regularly played all the records and LPs. Once a week the National programme of Music and the special arangisai were also broadcast on FM, the station offering stereo for the first time.

Many years later I was just leaving home for a radio programme and my Dad asked me where I was going. I told him I had a live programme. He said "This morning? At 8.30? Arangisai? After listening to GNB & MLV and Semmangudi I have to listen to you now????!!!!"

Monday, June 23, 2008

Concert at Ayyappa Temple and Shri MSG

Yesterday was a concert at the Ayyappa temple in Anna Nagar, Chennai. The organisers had decided to honour Shri MSG, with a title and it was my good fortune because he stayed on to listen to about half an hour of the concert. Shri MSG was one of my childhood heros. Almost every student of the violin cannot ignore or not be affected by MSG and his extraordinary technique and playing. He is one of the most revolutionaryy violinists in Carnatic music ever and has taken violin playing to completely new heights with his clean bowing and crisply starched fingering.

If there is one regret in my life it is that I never shared the stage with Shri MSG and this was partly fulfilled yesterday when I sat with him on stage during the felicitation function! In August 1993, my grand aunt Rukmini Rajagopalan, who was also a student of Parur Sundaram Iyer MSG's father) wanted me to sing with MSG. So she took me to his house and requested. For my grand aunt's sake he agreed to play for me in a family wedding concert with Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mrudangam. I even have the wedding invitation with me, but he could not make it to the concert and his daughter Narmada played instead.

After that on a couple of occasions he did take the trouble to come and listen to my concert and bless me. Especially moving was the year he got the Sangeetha Kalanidhi. He had a concert that evening but he specifically told the Academy that he wanted to listen to me, came in, sat for an hour, and then left. Yesterday also he called me aside and told me that he has been listening to me and was very happy with the progress I have been making. What more do I want? Blessings from one of the modern greats of Carnatic music. Just the positive energy he generated as he sat listening to the yesterday was enough for me. Thank you MSG sir!

The other thing about yesterday's concert was the stage arrangements. They had decided to be very creative and made separate islands for all of us to sit. Each was a small squarish platform the size of a large cushion. This cushion would have been the best advertisement for "U foam,' a company that makes soft mattresses, and it was so soft that it was very difficult to sit in a balanced manner. I had to ask them to remove the cushion and below was just a plywood sheet! These squarish islands made us feel like parties in a political coalition! And each of these island stages were also decked with jasmine flowers like the cots in a film 'first night' scene!!

Organisers sometime do not understand our comforts or needs and in their enthusiasm cause all this! Personally though I do manage with what is there but now a blog is a good forum to rant rather than 'specify' what I want on stage.

Anna Nagar had a great audience yesterday. It would be nice if they can develop a bigger and nicer auditorium and organise regular concerts there. But for the annual Kartik Fine Arts festival in December nothing much is happening there. It is great that the organizers like yesterday's YACD who have been doing this same series of concerts in Mylapore have shifted base. Suburbs need better facilities and more organised activity because there is a huge audience that is willing to support carnatic music.

Download this concert

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Sanjay Subrahmanyan Show - Episode 1 - Introduction & Tanjavur S Kalyanaraman

Introducing from today is the new Sanjay Subrahmanyan show - A podcast. It is a digital audio show that can be downloaded or listened to be clicking on the link.

Click below to listen to

The Sanjay Subrahmanyan Show - Episode 1 - Introduction & Tanjavur S Kalyanaraman

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why I chose vocal over violin?

The wonderful thing about blogging and the comments is that the audience keeps throwing up ideas to include and write about. So thanks to Anupama for asking me the above question that makes me answer the same through a post.

I originally started learning violin because of an interesting incident. My parents were avid concert goers in the early seventies. Once during a Lalgudi concert at Krishna Gana Sabha, when I was barely 2 years old it seems I told my mom "I want to play the violin like Lalgudi!" My mom took it very seriously and put me in violin promptly when I was 7 yers old. It was a typical twice a week class. Around 1982 my teacher had just started me on the manodharma aspects, but he decided to migrate to the states. I continued with a couple of teachers including Shri TS Seshadri, a disciple of MS Anantharaman and two classes with Kanyakumari. Then my mom asked me if I was willing to commit to 2 hours of violin practice every day. Otherwise she was not willing to spend money on my music lessons! I just refused flatly. I still nurtured cricketing ambitions then! Around the same time I also broke my hand twice and literally could not play the violin for long periods of time.

Meanwhile during this period of confusion my grand aunt Smt Rukmini Rajagopalan asked me to just come and sing as I had a good foundation and it was not nice to waste it. So I just started singing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Growing up in a 'rasika' household - 2 (More on Thyagu)

Am just in the mood to reminisce a little more on my grandfather Thyagu and his musical influence on me. I started my musical training on the violin under Shri V Lakshminarayana. My grandfather was completely against this as he felt I should be in vocal music only. Fortunately for me my violin teacher used to insist on me singing every song that I had learnt on the violin and so it was easier when I later switched to vocal. My grandfather was most happy when I started singing. Everytime I sat down to practice he would just wander in and listen. He hated me singing krits and always wanted me to sing alapanas. I had just started singing alapanas and hardly had any idea of developing a raga. He would make me sing the heavy ragams like Todi, Bhairavi and Kambhoji all the time and keep telling me the choice phrases that he liked.

He would ask me to sing Kedaragowla and the moment I went up the ocatave, (Kedaragowla was mostly an upper octave raga with slokams and viruttams being started there, and easy for me to just follow) he will stop me and say (Keezha paadu! - Sing in the lower octave) Of course he could not do that as well you see so he wanted me to get acquainted with the ragam in the lower octave also! He would then ask me to sing Yadukulakambhoji and then do the opposite - "Mela paadu! - Sing in the upper octave" Again a not so frequently emplyed technique! These things gave me an early insight into several ragams much before I had even started singing concerts.

Later when began learning from my grand aunt Smt Rumini Rajagopalan, she was emphasising on the exact same phrases and landing points as my grandfather used to do. She was his elder sister and he had grown up listening to her sing so much!!! Thyagu also hated some ragams. Like he never could get Harikambhoji - said he got confused with Khamas and Kambhoji! Similarly he never liked Pantuvarali/Poorvikalyani because they were too confusing for him. BUt he could sing Andolika and Devamanohari! He was a great GNB fan you see.

Many years after I had started singing concerts he would come and listen. after the concert he would just go to one of my accompanists and say "He sang horribly today! Tell your friend to not rush so much with phrases!" Of course when I got home he would say the same thing to me also and all the applause and the kind words of the rasikas at concert would vanish in a second. But at the same time if he was happy he never hesitated to complimet. Later in concerts I had learnt to predict the kind of things he liked and the ones he didn't! That's when one can get cocky and the old man would surprise you with a comment you never expected! Like on the instance I sang a long Sama alapana as well as a Reetigowla. The latter is his favorite and I normally sing some of his own patented phrases and thought he would have liked it. But that was not to be. He cam up and said "I really liked your Sama today." I later realised that he never sang Sama and found that he could do it now easily. He asked me for the tape and started singing some of the sangathis to get a hang of it. That too at the age of 81!!!!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Post Sangeetham was an exciting experience for me personally. It really helped to understand the Internet in a big way. I started out actually trying my hand at web design, scripting, coding etc etc. If I had actually continued on that I might have got a job at Satyam or the hundreds of other software companies! But I guess we were thinking far too much ahead and we had entered at a stage when web 1.0 was actually bombing big time. So it became increasingly impossible to continue as it did not make financial sense. That in a nutshell is what happened.

But today is different. I am fascinated by what web 2.0 is offering. I can sense a very similar kind of buzz among many startups. I even met a startup a couple of days back that is developing a social network here in Chennai and they made a statement that once they get eyeballs funding will come in! Ee actually spoke the same language 7 or 8 years back! Personally though I am looking at a richer experience online today. This is one of the reasons I have begun blogging and getting myself active on the net. I remember back in 1996 I was the first professional carnatic musician to have my own personal home page. Some of the features that I tried out then are still being continued by other professional musicians till this day! They are probably waiting for me to do something else so that they can get 'inspired' and do the same :)

Personally though I just enjoy the 'Shiny new object syndrome' that the internet keeps offering.

Growing up in a 'rasika' household - 1 (Thyagu)

I grew up in a very typical rasika household. Many have asked me if my family was a musical family. Yes it was but then it was not a musician family! My parents were crazy carnatic music buffs. I was born on 21st of January and my mother attended every concert during the Music academy's festival that December. The joke going around the family was that my mom would deliver in the lobby of the academy!

As a kid my exposure to music was terrific to say the least. My grandfather Thyagu (maternal grandfather S Thiagarajan 1918-2006) was always singing ragas. Never formally trained he could just sing Todi for half an hour! Many of my colleagues in the music field have heard him sing and can testify to his ability. There is a story that once my grandfather went to meet GNB after his concert the previous day. He told GNB that the Todi he sang was very different and special to the ones he had heard in the past. So GNB quietly queried "What was so special yesterday?" My grandfather immediately sang a few phrases that GNB had sung in the concert. A beaming GNB remarked to a nearby disciple "See! This is the difference between my fans and the fans of others!"

Another story was told by a distant uncle of mine called Ramudu. This uncle was an aggressive personality who ran a tempo service. He hardly had exposure to music except for his personal friendship with TT Vasu and his own admiration for my grandfather's singing. Once they boarded a bus/train and found GNB sitting there. After some courtesies and small talk, discussion turned to music and my grandfather is supposed to have sung an elaborate Todi. GNB congratulated him and said "Andha 'curve' yenakku varalai!" (I am not able get that 'curve') My uncle in his inimitable style exclaimed "Namba Thyagu todi kitte GNBiye vizhunduttaan!) (Even GNB fell for our Thyagu's Todi)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A musically charged environment

A musically charged environment is one of the main sources of inspiration for many musicians who has made it big. A classic example is that of GNB, who was and still continues to be my no 1 favorite. I have read in several places about how GNB grew up in such a musically charged environment. His house in Triplicane was a hub for musical activity. His father was a big connoisseur and a number of musicians like Tiger, Madurai Subramaniya Iyer and a host of others congregated visited his house and held musical durbars. GNB himself is said to have defined creativity as just a fusion of things he has heard in the past coming out in a new form. His example would be how he could combine a Tiger sangathi with that of Sabesa Iyer's and the phrase would seem completely new and revolutionary when heard in a concert. Of course GNB himself would have known how he had conceived that phrase but to the listener this was innovation!

Coming back to a musically charged environment, it can take different forms. Frequent get togethers of musicians and exposure to this is one such as in the case of GNB. Growing up with everyone in the family being musicians as in the case of the Dhanammal family is another. Look at the exposure Brinda, Muktha, Viswa and Ranga got in their formative years. Music all day long. Visitors thronging every weekend to hear grandmother play. A brilliant dancer in Bala who had some terrific singing from Jayammal. What more can you ask for?

Another type of a musically charged environment is the 'Rasika household.' Typically this has a family of crazy music fans. The radio/tape recorder would have been continuously playing music. People in the house discuss their favorite artistes all the time. a few in the family have learnt a lot of music but no performers here. Some families have a few musicians as personal friends. These musicians add value to the ambience with their own brand of music, talk and stories. The family typically is a regular attender of concerts at a local sabha or temple and children grow up being exposed to a lot of music.

The last is the kind of family I grew up in. But at the same time I did get to experience a lot of the other types as well. More soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I am on Facebook now

So yesterday I jumped on to Facebook finally. I had seen this a few months back and somehow never wanted to get in. I though it was too childish and immature and not my cup of tea. Anyway with my own increased interest in social media and my experience with Twitter and Friendfeed and I really wanted to give Facebook a go as well. So here I am.

Initial reactions have been interesting. A couple of friends actually asked me "What took you so long?" On the other hand the 18 year old son of my friend called me up to find out if I though I was getting younger because I sent him a friend request!! So two interesting responses to my joining Facebook. Anyway so far I am enjoying this little distraction and let us see where it takes me from here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Musings on S Kalyanaraman

Yesterday was the birth anniversary of Tanjore S Kalyanarman. The disciples of this great man had got together a function on the occasion and also released an 85 minute documentary on him. I was fortunate to be invited to be a part of this documentary and I had enjoyed the whole experience of talking about one of the finest artistes of carnatic music.

SKR was a fascinating musician who's fame and popularity seem to be increasing even more after his death in 1994. His tapes today are some of the most sought after much like those of Ramnad Krishnan in the late eighties when I was going around trying to source music for listening. Personally I had the satisfaction of spending a terrific morning with him in his house discussing and talking music. Even though I could have heard a lot of his concerts live, and I did hear about 10-15 concerts, I must confess that I was too young, immature and uninterested in his music until much later when I joined my Guru Shri KSK.

A lot of my personal musings are found in the documentary and I am not penning them down today except to say, that if you like SKR then this documentary is a must. They did show a 23 minute teaser and it has some fascinating interviews and the most honest and surprising one for me was by Dr Balamuralikrishna who expressed his admiration for SKR in an unabashed and true fashion. Another great artiste who recognized a true peer!

In the function yesterday I was sitting next to Shri Chingleput Ranganathan and as they were playing the documentary he told me "Kalyanaraman and me used to get up early in the morning and go to the Marina beach every morning to practice together. We always got back home before sunrise!" And we did this for almost 3 years regularly." I remember almost 20 years back when Shri Ranganathan was still employed in the AIR. I had gone to submit my contract for a program I was due to give the next week. I was also having an argument with the programme executive about how I did not want to give a list of songs in advance. Shri Ranganathan was listening to this and quietly came up to me and thundered, " Do you know that even such great artistes like S Kalyanaraman give their song lists in advance? What about you?"!!!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Concert at TTD

I had a concert at the Tirumala Tirupati Devstanam in Chennai yesterday. Pretty good crowd. As I walked in someone requested Maanamuleda in Hamirkalyani. I think I sang this in the same venue some years back and the gentleman remembered, though I can't be very sure about it. Anyway I decided to oblige the song as a filler. Also sung a varnam in Chakravakam by Patnam Subramanya Iyer for the first time in a concert. Don't recall listening to it before by anyone else. TTD has a nice compact ambience that I quite enjoy. It used to be crowded and stuffy but after recent air conditioning and modernisation and some restriction in the number of people that can be accommadated I think a full hall creates a great atmosphere for performance.

The most interesting part of the concert yesterday was the organiser during his thanks giving speech blessing me to be born an Iyengar in my next birth!

Click to download this concert