A royal feast of fine music
The Swathi Sangeethothsavam 2002, exclusively featuring the compositions of Swathi Thirunal, saw performances of a very high order. A first person account from the palace
Swathi Sangeethotsavam 2002
27 Jan to 2 Feb 2002
What makes the Swathi Sangeethothsavam so special and different from most other music festivals in the country? One really doesn't know where to start, as there are so many factors that make it so wonderful.
The audience itself is unique in so many ways. Such a big, responsive, encouraging, well-behaved crowd is normally to be found only outside India. The same Thiruvananthapuram audience who normally go out for tea during the thani aaavarthanam or go home to catch the 9 o'clock TV serial remain rooted to the spot till the mangalam is sung, as long as the music is good. The musicians have the luxury of singing with the accompanists of their choice and without a time limit... a situation virtually unheard of in any other part of the country, or for that matter, the world. Only Maharaja Swathi Thirunal's compositions are sung. Instead of limiting the musicians, this seems to bring out the best in them, at least in the imaginative ones. For the Maharaja has composed dozens of pada varnams, thaana varnams, keerthanams, shlokams, thillanas, bhajans, padams, javalis and even Hindustani compositions like dhrupads, khayals, horis, tappas and taranas. The range of his compositions is formidable, to say the least.
This year the series opened with a violin solo by the eminent and infrequently heard Prof V V Subramaniam, supported by Prof T V Gopalakrishnan on the mridangam. Prince Rama Varma, a direct descendant of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, introduced the artistes in his own enchanting way, saying that VVS is a magical amalgam of the sweetness of Dwaram Venkataswaamy Naidu, the lilt of Prof T N Krishnan, the competence of Lalgudi Jayaraman and the precision of M S Gopalakrishnan, combined with a magic touch all his own. And TVG was introduced as the gentleman with the singing mridangam. The prince added that while many singers these days were overdosing their music with mathematical calculations, thereby sounding like mridangams themselves, here was a man who was doing the opposite.
Many people in the audience who found the introduction a bit too complimentary were more than convinced of the veracity of his observations before the anupallavi of the Kamboji ata tala varnam was over. Saturated with delicate embellishments and impeccable aesthetics, the varnam poured out on to the audience like a much awaited shower in the desert. VVS and TVG played as one and in all my 60 years of listening I am yet to witness a more beautiful interpretation of this very popular varnam sung or played by anyone else.
This was followed by Deva deva kalayaami in raga Maayaa Maalava Gowla where one could pick out each syllable in the literature including the fact that it is "They charanaambuja sevanam" which comes after "Deva deva kalayaami" and not "Deva deva kalayaami they" as most vocalists erroneously sing. A charming and highly competent Bhooshaavali followed in the form of Gopanandana. The concert was studded with other jewels like Maamava sadaa janani in Kaanada, Smara sadaa maanasa in Bilahari, Parama purusham in Lalitha Panchamam (an invention of the Maharaja whereby a panchamam is inserted into the avarohanam of Lalitha, a raga which normally has the sa re ga ma dha ni sa of Maayaa Maalava Gowla), Maamava karunaya in Shanmukhapriya, a miniscule pallavi on Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in Shahaana and two Hindustani bhajans in Yaman and Charchari (a very close relative, almost a twin, of Sindhu Bhairavi), and the mangalam in Yadukula Kamboji.
I am yet to witness another concert where during the entire three hours the two artistes constantly maintained intense eye contact and did not even glance at the audience occassionally; they truly functioned as a single unit. This was music making at its best where mere sound got transformed to the sublime level of naadam.
The second day, Prince Rama Varma, accompanied by Prof V V Subramaniam on the violin, B Hari Kumar on the mridangam and Udupi Sridhar on the ghatam, proved yet again that he was a worthy descendant of a worthy ancestor. Opening with the amazing pada varnam "Saa vaa maa rusha" in Kamaas (replete with staggerringly imaginative and brilliant swaraaksharams in the literature), the prince moved on to a composition in Bhoopaalam (as opposed to Revagupthi), Raama Raama, tuned by his guru Dr Balamurali Krishna, as I later found out. By this time the prince, VVS, Hari Kumar and Sridhar had blended into one, probably inpired not a little by the previous evening's magic woven by VVS himself and TVG, now in the audience. Simple manodharma swarams more or less in the Madurai Mani Iyer style, tinted ever so alluringly with a dash of Murali and M D Ramanathan, burst forth, followed by an equally rare and beatiful composition on Devi (Saadhu Thadaa) in Vakulaabharanam.
This was followed by Pari Paahi in Mohanam with a fascinating display of swara bhedams in various raagams, and then by Parama purusha (Vasantha), Maamava Padmanaabha Sada (Varaali), Naama Sudhaa Rasa (Kapi, from Kuchelopaakhyaanam) and a Bhajan in Mishra Pahaadi. Peace, adherence to sruthi, clarity in pronunciation and a deep rooted vainika sense of aesthetics are the elements in Prince Varma's music that I so adore. VVS followed him like a shadow as did Hari Kumar. One wishes he would sell himself a bit more in the commercial scene, but then that may change the very nature of his ethereal music, I suppose.
The third day featured Trivandrum (Now Madras) Baby Sriram, accompanied by Hemalatha, B Ganapathi Raman and Adichchanalloor Anil Kumar. Though all the artists were young in age the music was anything but junior. Baby has a low husky voice which is not always very cooperative. But this evening she was in full form, opening with the Shankaraabharanam ata tala varnam with aplomb. She continued with Paahi saarasa naabha in Saveri which made a welcome change from the usual opening songs that one has come to expect over the years. (Does a musician HAVE to start with Hamsadhwani or Naatai always, one wonders.)
She continued with Maamava sada janani in Kaanada, an exquisite rendition of Paalaya Maadhava Maam Anisham in Asaaveri, which was the best piece in her concert as far as I was concerned, Kalaye deva deva in Ranjani, Vande sada Padmanaabham in Paras, Jaya jaya Raghurama in Shahana, Saarasa sama mridu pada in Gowri Manohari, Saaramaina in Behag, Aliveni in Kurinji, and Gopala in Bageshree.
The only low point in the concert was the Shahana keerthanam which she had not really prepared well apparently. For instance, "naaka naayaka" became "naaka naashana", which is less than complimentary to Shri Rama.... in fact it means virtually the opposite of what was intended by the composer! But all in all, a wonderful concert by a phenomenally talented young lady who is not heard as much as she deserves to be. Hemalatha seemed to be a female version of VVS himself in her sound production and fidelity to the main artiste, not even once glancing at the more than appreciative audience. Ganapathiraman was a little more aggressive than when I have heard him in the past and did not give much of an opportunity to the eminently melodious Anil Kumar.
V Shankaranarayanan, with his usual team of Delhi (now Chennai) P Sundararajan, Thiruvaaroor Bhakthavalsalam and T V Vasan, blasted his way into the heart of his listeners with his all-time favourites like Pari paalayamaam in Reethi Gowla, Saarasaaksha in Kaamavardhini, Maamava sadaa varade in Naattaikkurinji, Padmanaabha in Hindolam, Smara sadaa maanasa in Bilahari, Pankaja lochana in Kalyani, Jaya jaya Padmanaabha in Sarasaangi, Jaya jagadeesha in Yamuna Kalyaani and Vishveshvar in Sindhu Bhairavi.
Sarasaangi became the main raaga for the evening in honour of the Laksha Deepam at the Padmanaabhaswaami temple this year, a reference to which event is there in the lyrics of the said piece. Sundararajan on the violin was competent and pleasant as usual. But Bhakthavalsalam, who is always brilliant, seems to be becoming more and more aggressive as the days go by, which is really a pity as I myself have heard him play ever so sensitively even in the past four or five years. Vasan was in his elements too.
The surprise entrant in this year's festival was young Kaushiki Chakrabarty, prodigious daughter of Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty from Kolkatta. She elaborated a vilambit khayal and a dhrut composition in Behag, followed by a piece in Bhimplasi, a thumri in Kamaj (Miliye Shaam), Jai jai devi in Hamsadhwani and Raama Chandra Prabhu in Sindhu Bhairavi. She has an amazing voice which covered almost three octaves, which has perfect control even over dazzlingly intricate taans.
The fact that she is still very very young does show, but it was a remarkable debut in the South, for one who will surely end up right at the very top in Hindustani music sooner than later. One of the most unforgettable evenings I have ever had in all my years of music listening was the next day, featuring Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty's concert. Like his daughter, he also sang only the Hindusthani compositions of Maharajah Swathi Thirunal.
He started with Karunaakar in Amrithavarshini which made it rain even more than it already had that grey evening. Then piece after piece, raga after raga of breathtaking beauty followed in gradual succession... Vishveshvar in Jaijaiwanti, Sumaran kar in the same raaga, Bansiwaale in Kalavathi, a composition in Hamir, Baajath Murali Muraari in Gowri, Aaj aaye in Hamsadhwani, Gori math maaro baan in Mishr Kaalingda and Naache Raghunaath in Mishr Pilu. I have never heard a piece of music more sublime than the Gowri... a raga I confess I have never come across before. Panditji's voice is his slave and his intelligence and wit mind boggling. I look forward to the day when South India will produce a vocalist of his calibre, other than his own Guru Dr Balamurali Krishna of course.
The final day featured a concert by Malladi Sriram and Ravi, accompanied by M A Sundareswaran, K V Prasad and Thripoonithura Radhakrishnan. This concert brought back extremely pleasant memories of the concert last year by their father Malladi Suri Babu, which in turn evoked magical memories of his guru Voletti Venkateshwarulu. They gave one of the longest and most colourful concerts of the series, opening with the Shankaraabharanam ata tala varnam. This was followed by Paramapurusham in Vasantha, Rama Rama in Devagandhari, Vasundhara thanaya in Bhairavi, Karunaakara in Begada suffixed by the most imaginative swaraprasthaara, Deva deva in Poorvi Kalyani, Sarasijanaabha in Thodi, Itu saahasamulu in Saindhavi, Saraseeruha naabha in Deshaakshi, a thillana in Bhoopaalam and Kalaya shri Kamalanayana charane in Shenchurutti. The brothers have a lot going for them -- strong voices, good pronunciation, raaga bhaavam, good manodharmam and a very strong and classical "vazhi". The accompanists did their work commendably as usual.
All in all a most satisfactory festival, with only three or four compositions repeated altogether. The audiences were better than ever before and one looks forward already to Swathi Sangeethothsavam 2003, starting January 6th and continuing till the 12th.
Published on 24 February
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