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Old as the hills and new as today

Chitti Babu composed evocative themes, departing boldy from traditional ragas and adapting Western harmony and counterpoint. Sadly, cinema and theatre didn't quite exploit his brilliant visual imagination

Chitti Babu
Rs 45

Chitti Babu will be remembered for his stylised veena playing and his very contemporary theme compositions, the best of which feature in this tape.

A disciple of Emani Shankar Shastri's, he was not afraid to blend the traditional sounds of the veena with unconventional gamakas, harmonies, and tunes not strictly raga based. Purists may have frowned upon his explorations, but no one can deny that he was a thinking mind, trying to show that the veena is "old as the hills and new as today".

Chitti Babu was not a vaggeyakara, that is, he wasn't one who could compose and sing his own traditional compositions. Rather, he was the sort who could have been a very good composer in films and theatre, somewhat like Zakir Hussain or L Subramaniam. His music is, in that sense, very visual.

Only perhaps there were no such opportunities for him. Other vainikas still play his pieces towards the end of concerts. The radio plays his pieces as fillers. But all this is not a fitting tribute to a genius who could compose for the veena brilliant, evocative pieces.

The tape starts with a composition at once striking and classy. The Ranjanimala is a string of ragas with the Ranjani name to them -- Ranjani, Shivaranjani, Sriranjani and Janaranjani. The gamakas are gracefully executed. There is no excess ornamentation. While the Ranjani, Shivaranjani and Sriranjani parts are slow paced, Janaranjani is faster. The whole composition is full of exciting movement. Chitti Babu problably used a thinner gauge string to achieve this fluid pace and guitar-like acoustics on the veena.

Bahudari is a little more dramatic with crescendoes and extremely well executed fast phrases. Chitti Babu plays with his disciples who complement and second the main melody in subtle ways, not harmonising heavily in the Western classical mode, but pleasantly altering the sound normally associated with a veena ensemble.

Virahini is more serious, with the various contrapuntal veenas trying to discover their own spaces. For all this innovation, Chitti Babu does not compromise on the depth and weight of gamakas, which remain pure. Ullasini is a more lighthearted, jazzy, syncopated bit in which the ghatam and mrudangam join in. Krishna namam is a bhakti rasa predominant piece.

Side B has the percussion setting a peppy pace with a panned effect in Rhythms Indiana. The veena plays few gamakas and concentrates on short snappy notes to create a rhythmic effect. Well engineered sudden patches of silences catch you by surprise.

Fond memories begins with a single veena straining towards a fading memory. Others join in as it gets stronger. The sense of reaching out is very well captured in the main melody. The pace varies and the wistful nature of the tune changes to chirpy, crisp notes which cascade into strange half notes leading back to the main melody.

Wedding bells starts with chords on the veena and the main melody is peaceful with blessing. This composition reminds you a little of Ananda Shankar tunes. The ghatam occupies prime place in the percussion, lending pace to this beautiful piece.

Reverie too has chords and counters, the pace is fast but does not match the name. The percussion is more strident as is the tone of the veenas themselves.

Of the rocks is really stylish, and encompasses a vast array of notes and has a distinct rock and roll flavour. The tremolo effect on certain long held notes reminds you of Shammi Kapoor's songs.

Jai Bharat has a rousing effect, and is thankfully not in the overused Desh raga. Chitti Babu had more imagination than our present-day composers, film and non-film, who can only think of patriotic tunes in Desh.

Throughout this tape you marvel that for all the experimental music, there is no razzmatazz, no gimmicks, no meaningless running up and down the frets in a vain display of virtuosity. Many so-called classical concerts degenerate with all this and more. But Chitti Babu took his innovations seriously and situated them in the traditional context, where they flourish organically. These are not transplants from strange modes that stand out awkwardly; they gracefully and with dignity merge with the classical temper to which he remains true.

S Suchitra Lata

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