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An impetus to poetry and music

The Kannada bhavageete takes centre-stage again, thanks to a government agency with a poetry lover at its helm. Singers all over the world can compete for the Nityotsava award and win a trip to Bangalore

Vittala Murthy: promoting poetry through music

In 1980, long before it became fashionable for corporate houses to take an interest in culture, Mysore Sales International Limited (MSIL) created and presented a high quality programme of Kannada songs called MSIL Geethegalu. Thursdays became special for Kannada music lovers.

That half-hour slot on Vividh Bharati sparked off great enthusiasm for the Kannada bhavageete, taking even its sponsors by surprise. Hundreds of Kannada poems sprang to musical life on audio cassettes, and a genre found its voice. Sugama sangeeta, the singing of non-film Kannada songs, assumed such momentum that Bangalore studios were busy for a whole decade, recording one bhavageete album or the other. That movement unveiled musicians like C Ashwath and Rathnamala Prakash, who are celebrities today. And composers like Mysore Ananthaswamy became household names.

The mystic poet Shishunala Sharif's songs Taravalla tagi ninna tamboori and Alabeda tangi alabeda were first sung on this programme. These poems had been in circulation in north Karnataka, but they suddenly became popular all over the State after Ashwath made new tunes for them. Sharif's compositions were later recorded in eight cassettes, and set a record in the sale of Kannada cassettes. Ashwath made the music for 72 Sharif songs.

Kannada literary giants of this century -- B M Sri, Kuvempu, D V Gundappa, G P Rajarathnam, K S Narasimhaswamy and others -- became more popular when they were sung by sugama sangeeta artistes, although one school, led by poet Ramachandra Sharma, maintains that sugama sangeeta can ruin the poetic instinct, which doesn't need the "crutches" of music.

After a gap of 20 years, MSIL is renewing its association with Kannada music. Its just-instituted Nityotsava Award will be presented in November to the best male and female singers of the year. "It's our way of discovering sugama sangeeta singers of the future," says I M Vittala Murthy, the poetry-loving IAS officer who heads MSIL.

The awards are named after Nityotsava, the first Kannada bhavageete album, and one of the most remembered tapes to this day. It featured the poems of K S Nissar Ahmed, with music by Mysore Ananthaswamy. Later tapes like Bhavasangama and Mysore Mallige also achieved cult status.
Starting this year, MSIL will hold an annual competition to spot young talent from schools and colleges all over Karnataka. Four young people (a boy and a girl each from the school and college categories) will be given Nityotsava Awards and named 'MSIL singers of the year'.

Kannadiga music lovers living outside Karnataka can also participate in this festival of song. They will have to send a recording of two songs to MSIL, which will then decide on a winner in this category.

The Karnataka contest, in five rounds, will test not only the singing ability of the contestants, but also their knowledge of Kannada literature and music. From the second round, the competitions will be telecast on Doordarshan. The awards ceremony will be covered live by DD.

MSIL plans to follow this up by recording the 100 great Kannada compositions of the century. The award winners will be part of the project, for which tunes will be composed by Ashwath, Hamsalekha and a couple of other stars.

Vittala Murthy, managing director of MSIL, says the contest will draw out promising singers from remote corners of Karnataka and give them a platform. "MSIL manufactures notebooks and stationery for students, and so the contest gives us an opportunity to interact with our prime customers," he explains.

Vittala Murthy is known as the IAS officer who galvanised the Department of Kannada and Culture and the Department of Information and Publicity, government offices which, under unimaginative heads, can remain preoccupied with routine file pushing. In his individual capacity, he recently produced Kanuru Heggadati, a film directed by Girish Karnad and based on a Kuvempu novel.

"The Nityotsava event is no charity venture," he says candidly. "MSIL was set up some 30 years ago to sell Karnataka's goods. A time has now come when we need to sell our culture as well," he says.

Selling culture? Doesn't that sound a bit crass? "I don't mean we are going to package it into a glamorous commodity. But something should be done to make it reach more people," he explains.

Vittal Murthy says MSIL will treat the event responsibly precisely because it is not a charity venture. "It's easy to dole out money once in a way for this event or that. But we are going to make the contest an annual feature. The challenge is in making it an integral part of the company's activities, while ensuring that the company does not lose any money in the process."

He believes it makes good business sense to tie up with a cassette company to bring out the century's best Kannada compositions. And that's wehre Lahari, the Bangalore-based label, has stepped in. It will distribute MSIL songs on cassettes and CDs.

MSIL brought excitement into the Kannada bhavageete world 20 years ago. Looks like it's going to be a good time for bhavageete singers again.

B Gautami

Sing and win a trip to Bangalore: Nityotsava award contest rules

Sharif gives you incredible metaphors: Interview with C Ashwath

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