Nov 7, 2008

North American Tour 2008 - Part 2

The Canada weekend
Ottawa, Sept 26 2008
Toronto, Sept 27 2008
Montreal, Sept 28 2008

Canada in so many ways is such an amazing country! A country where people from different ethnic backgrounds co-exist in absolute harmony and freedom, a land of extraordinary beauty and charm. As we discovered, people here stand very little on ceremony. Though elections were just round the corner, there was no hype whatsoever about it. Actually the media were focusing more on the impending US elections! There was a very interesting incident that happened in Montreal as we were driving past one of suburbs. We were idly watching the election posters which were stuck here and there, and looking at the photo of the candidate who was contesting for that area. Imagine our surprise, as we saw the candidate himself standing at the traffic lights, giving out pamphlets! He actually came up to our car and offered a pamphlet with a smile on his face to our host who was driving the car!! In our country, traffic would be halted, roads cordoned off, and security personnel and black cats shielding the politician who would wave distantly to the crowds!!

Though the carnatic listening population in Montreal and Ottawa is limited, the enthusiasm and sincerity with which they listen is indeed heartwarming! The sound engineer for the Ottawa concert was, to our surprise, a young lady. Again the total absence of any kind of gender prejudice or concessions is so striking. Here was this young lady, hauling heavy equipment, running up and down between the stage and the sound booth, confidently handling the controls, and eminently capable of more than holding her own in a field that is generally dominated by men!

Boston, Oct 3 2008
Philadelphia, Oct 4 2008
Columbus, Oct 5 2008

These concerts were right in the middle of Navaratri. Generally, Navaratri is a time for people here to invite friends over for golu, and socialize. Especially when concerts happen during the Navaratri weekend, it is a tough balancing act for most people! Despite this, the turnout for these concerts were substantial. The credit for this must go indeed to the organizers and the rasikas themselves, who despite so many other distractions and commitments, make concert attendance a priority.

The Navavarna kritis of Muthuswamy Dikshitar are gems beyond description, and singing them is a blissful and spiritually elevating experience. But as we sang a few of these songs over the Navaratri weekend, we felt all the more emotionally charged. What greater delight and divine grace could there be!

Augusta, Oct 10 2008

Though the bigger centers can boast of bigger numbers and wider membership base, sometimes it is in the smaller centers that we find people who give so much of their time and efforts in bringing carnatic music to their towns. Augusta is one such small town, where a small group of dedicated carnatic music rasikas devote so much of their resources and energies in making concerts happen. In particular, Dr Dharma, a young professor of mathematics and statistics, lets nothing stand in her way of organizing concerts- health, limited financial resources or any other. She is virtually a one-woman powerhouse, powered by nothing other than sheer love and passion for carnatic music! And organizing a concert here is no mean effort. As the concert was on a Friday, the organizers had to arrange for snacks before the concert, dinner after the concert, in addition to all the other standard concert arrangements! When one thinks of the enormous load of work that goes into making every concert happen, you cannot be but touched by the passion and commitment that people such as Dharma, Dr Manjunath, and the rest of this small group of people have. Hats off to them!

Tampa, Oct 11 2008
Raleigh, Oct 12 2008

Stepping into the warm balmy air of Tampa is a homecoming of sorts! The same goes for Raleigh! The warmth of the climate is evenly matched by that of the people! We were particularly touched when a young child of barely four years of age actually sat through our concert in Raleigh, that too in the first row! It is an interesting fact that the average age of the rasika in USA would probably be 35-40! Not to mention the abundant presence of young children, who stay through the concert and listen with attention and enthusiasm. Back home, we often hear people joke that the audience for carnatic music seem to consist mostly of retired, elderly people!

Seattle, Oct 17 2008

One of the most scenic cities in USA, Seattle must be enjoyed during the summer months when the city is at its most beautiful! Most other times, the weather seems to be dominated by drizzly chilly weather, which has a charm of its own! We did a lecture-demonstration the previous day of our concert on the devotional aspect of carnatic music, with special focus on bhajans and abhangs. This was held at the ISKON temple. We were quite thrilled with the turnout for the event. Interaction with the rasikas always is a very exciting experience. Here, there was an interactive session at the end of the lecture demonstration and the audience showed a lot of interest, asking penetrating questions. As requested by the temple priest, we ended the presentation with a thaalattu song (lullaby) for the deity of the temple Lord Krishna, Madhava Mamava in Nilambari. It was indeed a sweet experience that lingered in our minds.

Los Angeles, Oct 18 2008
San Jose, Oct 19 2008.

The last two concerts of our tour, these were indeed a fitting finale to our North American trip! In fact, the San Jose concert reminded us of the Season concert at The Music Academy, Chennai with the overflowing audience, the hushed atmosphere, and people even sitting on the dais! The only difference was that, here in San Jose and LA, you could sing to your heart's content without having to look at the time, while generally during concerts in Chennai during the Season, one has to be very conscious of sticking to the time limit. Again the profusion of children in the auditorium was such a heartening feature. What better exposure to carnatic music can parents give their children, than getting them to concerts! This only shows the commitment that the parents have. Beyond doubt, there is whole generation of budding musicians in North America who will make a fair bid to change the nucleus of carnatic music from Chennai to America!

Sep 17, 2008

Thoughts on Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer

The earliest memory I (Gayatri) have of Semmangudi Thatha is his concert I attended when I was probably three or four years old! He was singing Deva deva Kalayaami in Mayamalavagowla and the niraval that he sang at Jaatha Roopa is distinctly etched in my memory. Incredible though it is, I can still recall it after so many years!! My father was an avid carnatic music fan and the radio always was tuned into any carnatic music broadcast there was. And whenever Semmangudi Mama's nasal voice filtered in through it, I used to jump in joy. I was too small to appreciate the nuances, the subtleties and understand the greatness of his music. But perhaps the joy I felt was instinctive, there was something about the voice and the music that thrilled me to no end!! In fact, it was a game with my family, to tease me when the radio played his music. Appa, though he was a big fan of Semmangudi mama, jokingly used to tell me," ayyayo, idha paaru, andha thatha mookk-aala paadaraa...nannaave illai!" And watch me in amusement as I cried my protest against his criticism.

Memories of the Jaatha Roopa niraval sustained us during the arduous Sabari mala trip that I took with my father when I was six. My father and a close family friend Rajamani started singing the line, sitting in a sleepy village hamlet in Kerala(Erumeli) . I suppose the memories of Semmangudi Thatha's rendition must have been fresh in my mind, for I joined in the niraval with joy. What a wonderful way to beguile the hours of the day.....

We were not to know how much this legendary musician's style would impact our music until much later. Our guru Sri T.S. Krishnaswami had already instilled in us the importance of the vocal approach, a strong bowing and effective fingering technique and above all, the values and aesthetic sense that strongly anchored our music. Years later, when we shifted to Chennai, we approached Sri P.S.Narayanaswamy and had the privilege of being his disciples. In a sense, looking back, we feel that it was meant to be. When we started learning from PSN Mama, we were established violinists, playing the dual role of accompanying violinists and duet violinists. But in more ways than one, we were absorbed into the wonderful bani of Semmangudi under the tutelage of PSN. Each composition that we learnt was a glimpse into the dynamics of the style, the intricacies of the adukku sangathis, the sense of proportion or alavu as it is said in handling sangathis, above all, the predominant sense of beauty and sophistication in kirtana construction. Gradually, this approach became the bedrock of our musical impulses, and what we gained was a firm foundation and clear-cut approach that would define and strengthen our individual style.

What is amazing about the Semmangudi Bani is the universality of the style. The path can be trodden by anyone and the music will shine. Be it a Chetasri, Marubalga or O Rangasayee, the songs have been polished and structured to such beauty and perfection that they are like ripe mangoes- easy to eat and easy to love!! Perhaps one of the reasons why Semmangudi's music has such beauty is that he had a difficult voice to start with. But to overcome this, he created a style that had such musical depth and beauty that one never notices the voice! Especially when songs like Ksheenamai Thiruga were presented by the great doyen, supported by the sonorous voices of his disciples like Palai Ramachandran and V.Subramaniam, the listeners were transported to another plane. Another quality is the sense of proportion he had in his manodharma. Be it raga, niraval or swara, it was never overdone. I remember a recording of his, the famous recording in which he has sung with M.S.Subhalakshmi. He sings a niraval for the line Paluku palukulaku for Ramanee samaana in Karaharapriya- I must have heard this several hundred times! Every time he stops the niraval and goes to the swara suite, I cry out," Please, don’t stop, some more!" How much we can learn from this sense of alavu that Semmangudi demonstrated so beautifully.

Every aspect of his style and music has something that we can learn from. The swaras are so aesthetically presented, his kalpanaswaras are like raga explorations in their melodic sweep, free flowing and filled with raga bhava . And what variety he brought to bear in his raga expositions! Each time, he would explore a different facet, it was never a formulaic pattern of starting from the lower register and working upto the tara sthayi and winding up in the usual fashion, Depending on the song and his mood, the raga pattern varied.... sometimes dwelling in the middle register and just skimming the tara sthayi, sometimes taking off in the upper reaches. Each time was a different experience.

One of his greatest qualities as a musician was his total dedication and commitment. He had the spirit of a true seeker and saadhaka- never content to rest on his laurels and achievements. He worked on his music constantly, constantly re-inventing it; which is why his music always had that rare quality of freshness. Till the very last, he was always notating songs, reworking compositions, singing.

Words are inadequate to express the depth of the joy that we have experienced from listening to his concerts and the many things that we have imbibed in the process. We prostrate before him and pay homage to him.

North America Tour , Fall 2008 - Part 1

Sept 4 2008- Satya Sai Center at Tustin:

We started our North American Fall Tour of 2008 on a very special note, with a concert for the Satya Sai Center. This was not the usual carnatic concert, formatted in the usual pattern of starting with varnam and going on to the classical pieces and ending with tukkadas. Rather, it was a celebration- of melody and pure bhakti, the spirit of devotion. Starting with Shri Mahaganapatim Bhajeham in Atana, we went on to Rangapuravihara and weaving in bhajans, a tamil virutham, and also one or two heavy compositions of the Trinity.

The atmosphere was truly magical- charged with positive vibrations, lit with the lamp that was placed near the portrait of Swami Sri Satya Sai and alive with the shared emotions of the musicians and the audience. As we sang the concluding pieces- a Marathi Abhang in Rag Bhatiyar and a bhajan by Khalas, we could feel the divine presence and a bliss that comes with the blending of melody and bhakti. The feeling is all the more heightened when the music is received by the listener in the same spirit that it issues forth from the musician. It was truly an extraordinarily beautiful experience.

What a lovely way to start our concert tour!

Sept 5 2008 – Fine Arts Association of Arizona, Phoenix

We frequently talk of how carnatic music halls are filled with senior citizens, and that there are hardly any young people listening to carnatic music. Well, welcome to Phoenix! Here is an organization which keeps bringing in young people in droves. With every subsequent visit, we see new faces, young people full of energy and fresh ideas. We are so happy to see young people in charge of organising the events to the finest details. It was a rejuvenating experience to sing before this audience.

An interesting part of the concert was an short interactive session that we had with the audience, where the listener could pose any music-related question to the musicians on stage. The questions ranged from technical questions on Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi to questions on concert planning and voice culture. But the best and sweetest question came from a seven year old child who asked us earnestly, “ How many hours should I practise?!!”As always, Kalyan and Chitra, our hosts made our Phoenix stay so comfortable and memorable with their warmth, care and affection.

Sept 6 2008- Bharathi Kalai Manram, Houston, Texas.

The concert was held in a newly built hall at Baptist University. It was a very unique auditorium encircled by huge transparent glass doors letting the sunshine stream in, giving the place a very sunny bright look. The acoustics were superb and made our concert experience all the more special.

On request, we sang a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in Nalinakanthi. A few years back, we would dismiss Nalinakanthi as a minor raga with not too much possibility. But when we decided to sing a RTP in that raga for the first time at our concert for Narada Gana Sabha during the last December music Season in Chennai, we were struck by the possibilities that the raga had. Just makes you realize that any raga is beautiful in its own way- it is just a question of discovering its innate and special charm. Somehow we actually rediscovered Nalinakanthi when we sang it in Houston. The raga has such a lilting charm and delightful grace. The ragam and thanam suite lasted for over twenty minutes.

Dallas, Sept 12 2008

Though we have been to Dallas thrice before, this time around, it felt so different, and so heartwarming! Here, there is a big community of people who are passionately interested in Carnatic music. They meet, listen to recordings, discuss, sing and exchange musical ideas to create a wonderful atmosphere of music-filled camaraderie. From budding music enthusiasts to accomplished artistes- they are all here- all filled with a uniform love for music. It reminded us of our childhood, when we had impromptu musical sessions with our friends – Sanjay Subramaniam, Ashok Ramani, Arunprakash, Narayan Rangaraj to name a few with whom we have spent many a happy hour exploring different ragas, songs…..

When the screen went up in the Plaza Theatre, we were greeted with a houseful, nay, overflowing auditorium. The concert lasted for over three and a half hours, and nearly all the audience stayed till the mangalam was sung, even those with young children. Considering that the concert lasted till 11 PM, this was indeed amazing. Young children must indeed be encouraged to attend carnatic music concerts, never mind the little noises or sounds they may make in the course of the concert. When we were young ourselves, our father used to escort us to most concerts, though we must admit we weren’t on our best behavior exactly! Is not listening the best way to imbibe music and its subtle nuances?

Detroit, Sept 13 2008

Concert tours of USA can get really exhausting. It is not the back-to-back singing that is difficult; rather it is the travel that can get really tiring. Getting up at 4 am in the morning after retiring at 1.30 AM after a late Friday evening concert, standing in queue at the airport check-in, not to mention the elaborate security checks at every point…by the time one reaches the final destination, it is time just to change and leave for the concert venue.

Well, to cut a long story short, when we finally made it to the concert hall, we were tired out. But, somehow all that vanished into nothingness when we started singing. That day, it was RTP in Kapi- Kanna vaa manivanna vaa, kamala padam vaitthu viraindhodi”. From then on, it was Lord Krishna all the way- though we certainly did not plan it, it just happened! With a virutham on Krishna, a Devarnama, Bhaavayaami Gopalabalam and a Marathi abhang- it recalled the Janmashtami mood!

Siva Vishnu Temple, Lanham, Maryland, Sept 14 2008

Another wonderful venue to sing in! It was the fourth time we were performing at SSVT, and performing in front of the audience here is more like a homecoming! The rasikas here are no different than the Chennai rasikas- informed, knowledgable and inspirational. May their tribe increase!

Shruti Laya, New York, Sept 19 2008
Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam, Sept 20 2008
CMANA& IACRF Inc, New Jersey, Sept 21 2008

This was the big weekend- New York, Chicago and NJ all in a row.Audiences like the ones at Chicago and New Jersey remind me of Orwell's famous line " All things are equal, some are more equal"! All audiences are special- but audiences like these are indeed more special! When you have rasikas so receptive, so finely tuned, performing becomes such a joy!

Our concert at New York was organized by “Sruthi Laya”, an organization which has been recently formed by a sincere, committed group of carnatic music enthusiasts. The sound system here deserves special mention. We wish them all the very best and several years of great concerts ahead!

At the Rama Temple Auditorium, where the CTU (Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam) generally organize the concerts, the atmosphere was so wonderful- the festival feel was in the air, the anticipation building up nicely, people exchanging notes and so on... The music competitions that were held in the earlier part of the day added to the color and bustling activity. As always, Mr.Raghavan and other members of the organization did an exemplary job of organizing the concert, taking care of every detail to perfection.

Coming to New Jersey, ah, what can one say! We felt much like, say, Sachin Tendulkar would feel after hitting a century in the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai!! Here you can just sing to your heart’s content, soak in the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience, which indeed takes the music and the experience to a new high! From the pacy Entharanee in Harikamboji to the sedate, majestic Raksha Bettare in Bhairavi and the feisty Ragam Thanam Pallavi in Ranjani, it was an exciting three and half hours. Kudos to CMANA and IACRF Inc. who jointly organized this concert. Singing here and interacting with all the people here, makes one feel truly rejuvenated.