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In search of
authentic originals

Chitravina N Ravikiran's first
'model' compositions album is out.
But aren't ideas of 'completeness' and
'correctness' relative, we asked him

What's our music without improvisation? Ah, you'll say, nothing. So when someone claims his interpretation of a Karnatak composition is 'complete' and 'correct', you shake your head disapprovingly. But when this someone happens to have the credentials of Chitravina N Ravikiran, you listen carefully.

"The Art never reveals itself at one go, and I've set certain standards for myself in trying to approach completeness and correctness," says Ravikiran. "The idea is to present recordings of Karnatak compositions that are faithful first to the aesthetics of the raga and then to the composer."

That's the project he's now working on, and the first album in the series is just out. It's called Songs of the Nine Nights, and it's a compilation you'll treasure.

"Original compositions are handed down in broad outline. But the raga is sometimes over-simplified or vulgarised and the essence is lost," he told The Music Magazine in Bangalore.

Compositions are notated, but he feels books mostly end up propagating many musical errors. "I would like to show how even basic lessons can be perfected to express the raga essence," he says.

The first album presents ten compositions related to the Navaratri festival, each distinctly etched but with no neraval or swaraprasthara. Which means almost no ad libbing and no display of virtuoso talent, but lots of meticulous attention to the structure of the compositions. That's something learning musicians will appreciate.

"I called my musicians for rehearsals, and taught them the delicate nuances. They had to sing and play in unison, so we needed to put in a lot of practice. We went in to record only after several sessions," says Ravikiran.

The composers featured are Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Swati Tirunal and Oothukkaada Venkata Kavi, known as the Navaratri Trinity. Ravikiran's Vintage Virtuousos team comprises three singers (Savita Narasimhan, Lata Ganapathy, Salem P Gayathri), a chitravina (P Ganesh), violin (Akkarai Subhalakshmi), veena (Revati Krishna), mrudanga (A S Ranganathan) and a ghatam (S V Ramani).

Why should you want to listen to these compositions with no improvisation? For one, they are chiselled to aesthetic perfection: there isn't a single superfluous oscillation within a gamaka, not a sanchara that is overdone. Secondly, each piece stands out with a subtle but brilliant display of the raga. In the brevity and tautness of these renditions lies the greatness of Ravikiran's art and musical insight.

The group performs as one. "It's a melodic orchestra, not a harmonic one," he explains. The chitravina and the violin are not very audible but blend into the background to add resonance and texture. The emotional involvement of the group is high as it tries to bring out the beauty inherent in these songs.

Nine nights, nine goddesses

Navartri inspires a fascinating wealth of myth and ritual concerning learning and wealth. The nine-night celebration culminates in Vijayadasami, a day devoted to the worship of weapons.

Nataraja, the dancing god, does a different tandava step on each day, and invokes a corresponding goddess for her healing and boon-giving powers.

Dikshitar's Kamalamba inaugurates the tape with tones of intimate auspiciuosness. The Anandabhairavi phrases are unusually delicate, and the lingering stress on pa sounds worshipful.

The other Dikshitar songs are the reposeful Sri Kamalambikaya in Shankarabharanam and Sri Kamalambikayam in Sahana and a most dignified Sri Kamalambike in Sri. The intelligence and emotion that typify Dikshitar are highlighted, and listening to these compositions is a wholesome experience.

Venkata Kavi's Bhajaswa sri tripura sundareem in Nadanamakriya projects an interminable quest. The polished Neela lohita ramani in the rare raga Balahamsa ends Side A. Shankari in Madhaymavati with its shifts in nadais and tempo is the other piece from Venkata Kavi.

Swati Tirunal's Todi composition, Bharati mamava is exquisite, as is the majestic unfolding of the raga. Saroruhasane in Pantuvarali and Pahi parvata nandini in Arabhi are the other compositions from Swati Tirunal. These two are heard in concerts whereas the rest are rare.

"I'll be doing more such tapes, starting from primary exercises like the saralevarisai," says he.

The tape is produced by the International Foundation for Carnatic Music (IFCM). Founded by Ravikiran in 1990, it works to promote Karnatak music all over the world. It also encourages research and grants scholarships and awards.

In Ravikiran's own words:

'Completeness and correctness are
endeavours, not end results'

Would you say you are recording renditions which are close to the original or do you call them your interpretations of what the master composers might have had in mind?

They are close to the originals, but I have heard many versions of some of the songs by great Masters like Ariyakkudi, Semmangudi and Brinda and have taken the best from all of those -- consciously or otherwise. Equally importantly, I have eliminated any minor errors or refined them... But please understand that I hate to change the originals. I will only do the minimal amount of change required musically...

Would you concede that 'correctness' and 'completeness' are relative terms?

Obviously... Moreover, I really think that both of them are only endeavours... not necessarily end results...I have 'corrected' my own versions after a few years. The Art never reveals itself fully to us at one go. Maybe we wouldn't be able to withstand its glory if it did too.

How do you counter the claims of other musicians who may have a different point of view about how the composers meant the Navaratri compositions to be sung?

As I said, I have not changed anything major at all... I am against that. And there are not many huge differences between versions, except in some rare cases. My conviction is that any version has to be close to the core of the raga. Each phrase has to bring out its soul. And then the words have to be projected nicely, with breath-control. The rhythmic phrases, especially in the madhyamakalams of Ootthukkadu should be highlighted too... All these were real challenges because I know that very few people are even aware of these. Please understand that I am addressing issues and not personalities here...

No one's heard the composers, so who's the final judge?

But one has heard the masters. At least a few of the songs... And I firmly believe that they have inspired me. More credit to them. The Art is so great that tomorrow, my versions can be refined even further by someone. It is a living art and man is a progressing creature.

Is this the first time anyone is attempting 'model' renditions?

I'm not saying that I have attempted to particularly 'modelise' anything. I have set some parameters for myself as an artiste -- sruti, laya and sahitya shuddham, gamaka, tone, kalapramanam, contrast, variety, breath control, closeness to the raga ... All these have to be done soulfully... That is a reasonable amount of completeness.

As a musician, my first loyalty is to the raga and next to the great composers... I have to ensure that I project both in the best manner. The rest is left to God.

I have endeavoured towards that, and it is for the listeners to judge how far I've succeeded... if I have!

Are there model renditions of Bach and Beethoven accepted by all musicians? Doesn't each conductor and musician invest the composition with his own reading?

Precisely what I have attempted.

S Suchitra Lata

Songs of the Nine Nights
Vintage Virtuosos
IFCM Foundation
Rs 65
E-mail N Ravikiran

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