Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Delta of Fertile Minds - Thanjavur's Contribution to Music

At different times in history, certain regions become centres of immense creative output: Madurai in the Sangam Age (Tamil literature and music), Vienna in the 17-18th centuries (Western classical music) and Bengal in the 19th century (literature, science, etc.).

Similarly, the Cauvery delta region of Thanjavur seems to have been the happening place in the 18-19th centuries, as far as Carnatic music is concerned.

Ruled successively by Vijayanagara (Nayaka) chiefs of Karnataka/Andhra and Maratha kings of Maharashtra, this Tamil area saw an immigration of Telugu-, Kannada- and Marathi-speaking people. Such diversity resulted in a glorious cross-pollination of culture, one of whose fruits is the Carnatic classical music.

A slew of composers emerged, creating works in different languages (Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Marathi). The important names are Seshaiyengar, hailed as "mArgadarzi" or Pathbreaker; Uthukadu Venkata-kavi, whose Tamil and Sanskrit works include the famous alaippAyudE; the Tamil composers Arunachala-kavi, creator of the rAma nATakam and Gopalakrishna Bharati, whose magnum-opus is the nandanAr caritram. The pinnacle was reached with the Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, who are known too well for me to go into details.

These compositions were created in various formats. In addition to the well-known kRti, is the Natakam (opera), exemplified in the bhAgavata mELA form. It consists of plays in Telugu and Marathi which are performed by an all-male cast of Telugu speakers from Melattur village in Thanjavur.

Of all these works, the ones that deal with Krishna-bhakti are always... erotic! One such is the kRSNa lIlA taraGgiNi, composed by Narayana Teertha (who moved in from Andhra). And Tyagaraja, who was as orthodox as they came, created the zRGgAra-laden opera naukA caritram. Other “madhura-bhakti” formats are the padam and jAvaLi.

Besides the intense composing activity, important strides were made in musicology as well. Venkatamakhin wrote the caturdaNDI prakAzikA, that deals with the 72 melas. This was refined into the Mela-karta raga system as we know it today by his grandson Muddu Venkatamakhin. Some of the kings were scholars themselves: Tulaja wrote the treatise saGgIta sArAmRta.

Furthermore, the bhajana sampradAya took shape here around this time. The primary gurus of this tradition were Bodhendra Saraswati and Sridhara Venkatesa (popularly known as "ayyAvAL"), a local of Telugu ancestry. (The late Swami Haridas Giri was the most visible face of this sampradAya in recent times.) This system was made rich with contributions from the earlier Kannada as well as Marathi (abhang) bhajana movements.

The Marathi settlers (thanks to their rhythm-dominant abhaGgs) also helped develop the mridangam techniques. This is evident from the Carnatic terms, chapu (as in the tala "Khanda Chapu") which is probably from the Marathi "chhaap" छाप; and mora (rhythmic patterns) from "mohra" मोहरा. (In fact, their influence can be seen in other spheres too - the original name of Bharatanatyam "sadir" and the famous "sambar" come from Marathi.) One of the foremost mridangam exponents was a Thanjavur Marathi, Nanasama Rao (aka Narayanaswami Appa).

Thus evolved our music - in a cultural melting-pot that was Thanjavur.
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Other recent blog-posts on Carnatic Music that are great:

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cry "Wolfgang!"

The world celebrates the 250th birth anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the great Western Classical composer, this Friday (27th January). Thousands of people are gathering at Salzburg, Austria, his hometown.

On this occasion, an excellent set of concerts, tributes and other audio programmes are featured on the non-profit radio station NPR. Check them out!

[Link via Yossarian Lives. Pic: Wikipedia.]

More links on Music: http://del.icio.us/srikanths/music

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Harmonium - Sarangi Wars, Redux.

A while ago at a Hindustani concert by Padma Talwalkar, seeing the accompanying harmonium unable to keep up with the fluid voice of the singer made me wonder why this instrument was preferred to the sarangi or the violin. I expressed my thoughts in the article How the Harmonium Came on the Hindustani Stage.

I didn't know it when I first wrote this article, but the harmonium was banned in AIR concerts for 30 years from sometime in the 1940's. This is surprising. Though the instrument can't probably reproduce the high-speed taans or certain types of gamakas, it's got a rich continuous tone that only a very good violinist with impeccable bow control can match. This is a very desirable quality for an accompanying instrument. Banning the harmonium, I feel, was draconian.

In the late 1960's, the Sangeet Natak Akademi invited experts to a seminar to discuss this ban. Excerpts from the seminar proceedings were posted in the rec.music.indian.classical group and make a very interesting reading. V.H. Deshpande, an AIR artiste, while presenting his case for the harmonium, brought up the important topic of the role of an accompanist in a concert:
[W]hat is the role of an accompanying instrument? I submit it is to create a musical atmosphere, and inspire the artiste by bringing him into his best singing mood. Further, the accompanying instrument must keep the continuity of singing to heighten the musicality of the performance and make it more more entertaining and in effect more pleasing. This it is expected to do by following the main artiste closely with or without a little time lag and also at times being played independently in the interludes, generally calculated to excite and inspire the principal to do better than before. I dare say that the Harmonium by its powerful, constant and sustained notes not only abundantly satisfies all these requirements but satisfies them in a far greater degree than any of the stringed instruments...

It is said that Sarangi can reproduce the exact tonal nuances and meends and gamaks. This is alright only if the resonating strings allow it to remain in accurate intonation. But let me ask, whether exact reproduction is at all necessary for an accompanying instrument, whose role is only complementary?
A certain P. V. Subramaniam from Delhi makes an eloquent case for the harmonium as well:
It is not realised that as in the case of other aids to music the Harmonium has undergone great refinement. Today's version of the Harmonium is capable of providing a whole range of tonal excellence unavailable in other musical instruments... Present-day Harmoniums have three-reed-boards joined together with provision for air-release in a zig-zag fashion ensuring softness of tone and melody.

In the far South, before the days of cant and dilettantism, Perur Subramanya Dikshitar, the Harmonium Wizard, used to accompany the great classical vocalists... Dikshitar played on a highly sophisticated Harmonium. There are many gramaphone records testifying to his instrumental excellence while accompanying a maestro of the calibre of Palladam Sanjivi Rao. These records have also been broadcast over the Radio. The heavens have not fallen. They are in one piece.
This gentleman, P. V. Subramaniam, is none other than the much-feared Carnatic critic Subbudu!

Read the whole thing.

More on the Harmonium vs Sarangi debate:
In the For Sarangi team: Kishori Amonkar.
In the For Harmonium team: Rajan Parrikar.

Who doesn't love a good fight?