Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rhythm & hues

Percussion has the potential to play a role beyond rhythm; it can become a medium for communication. See how...
Akshay Ananthapadmanaban
 Perception of rhythm is an innate skill for humans. There is scientific evidence that infants can sense rhythm even at the age of eleven months. As a percussionist, this got me thinking. Our instinctive qualities must allow us to infer more from percussion as we become mature listeners. To me, this can be explained by the connection between language and percussion.
Diction, accent and intonation are the three dimensions of verbal language that allow for impactful communication. Diction is your choice of words. Accent is the emphasis you place on those words. For example, people from different parts of the world speak English with varying accents. Intonation is the variation of pitch in accordance with diction. It is a subtle yet powerful element, because intonation alone can provide context without words. Sometimes, it can even alter the meaning of a phrase. For example, intoning at certain points within a phrase can alter the tone of a statement to one of sarcasm.
These three elements can also be extended to the language of percussion, especially when using the Mridangam as the medium of communication. Diction is your choice strokes that form a percussive phrase. Accent is the emphasis on certain strokes that gives a recognizable shape to the percussive phrase. The accent alone is sufficient to cause the audience to tap along with rhythmically predictable phrases -- a phenomenon often visible when a Mridangam artiste plays Sarvalaghu (pattern that exemplifies the basic running rhythm of a Thaalam). Intonation is harder to perceive for the listener. Intonation on the Mridangam can be achieved in two ways: by controlling the tension of the bass membrane (Thoppi), or selectively ordering the pitched strokes on the right membrane (Valanthalai).
As you can see, percussion has the potential to play a role beyond rhythm -- it can become a medium for communication. For a novice listener, a lack of familiarity with the language of percussion may seem difficult to overcome. Have you ever watched a foreign movie with subtitles? Think about the instances when you subconsciously ignored the subtitles, because you were able to gather an understanding simply from context. Or think about a time when you travelled to a new country, with little fluency of the native language. You may not have understood the language, but you were able to appreciate the emotions being conveyed through context. In similar light, the language of a particular percussion instrument may not be comprehensive to the audience, yet listeners can appreciate and relate to the musical emotions being conveyed. The rhythmic aspect of percussion, or accent, is often recognized first, though it is just one of the three elements that makes percussive language impactful. As a performer and listener, I have experienced the inspirational conversation that takes place between the performer and audience, when the three elements are applied in proportion with tact.
My primary inspiration for this thought process is my guru Sri T H Subash Chandran. Not only is he revered as a great Ghatam artiste, but also as a living legend of Konnakol (vocal percussion). I have had the very unique experience of learning to mimic his Konnokal on both the Mridangam and Kanjira. Subash Mama’s Konnakol is as fluid as spoken language. The vocabulary he uses while reciting Konnakol is derived from South Indian percussion stroke nomenclature. Although it is said to have no meaning, there is a bhava element in his delivery that makes the listener understand the pallet of emotions he is conveying. That bhava is a natural combination of (1) his choice of words in a defined order, (2) his emphasis on those words, and (3) the tone he associates with those words -- diction, accent and intonation respectively.
 Proof of bhava in a Mridangam performance is evident in audio music recordings of many legends -- vidwans such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramanya Pillai and C S Murugabhoopathy, to name a few. Although I have never had the opportunity to watch them live in concert, listening to their recordings has nonetheless enlivened this concept of bhava for me. ese artistes honed Mridangam techniques and molded their own unique performance styles, several aspects of which have been passed down for generations. ese styles, however, can be classied as dissimilarities in accents. Going beyond styles of performance, these artistes set themselves apart with their uncanny ability to give life to their music. While the Mridangam may have the potential to be a talking drum, the wielder of the instrument alone possesses the ability to paint intonations and shape meaningful tones. In my opinion, the oneness among diction, accent and intonation is nally what inspires -- it is the usage of bhava in tandem with skill that has made music timeless.
The writer is a global percussionist who plays the Mridangam and the Kanjira and collborates with different genres of music

Sync In

No performance in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi or Mohiniyattam can be executed without the Nattuvangam. What makes this instrument so special that a dance recital is never complete without this?

Aadith Seshadri

Nattuvangam (also called as Thaalam)- a pair of metal alloy cymbals with one being flat, hard and base, and the other being small, cupshaped and shrill, is a rhythm instrument which is played, basically, for maintaining the tempo (Kalapramanam) and for executing the rhythmic nuances incorporated in the dance recital. The three major roles of a Nattuvanar (the artiste, generally the guru, who yields the Nattuvangam) in an orchestra is to maintain the time cycle, play and recite rhythmic patterns known as Jathis or Korvais to which the dancer executes pure dance movements (Nritta sequences comprising of Adavus) and conduct the orchestra in harmony. This instrument has always been the forte of the Guru because it is the guru who, also takes the role of the choreographer, knows the nuances of music and dance and thus harmonizes the co-artistes to embellish the dancer’s portrayal. Thus this instrument gives the person yielding it, dignity and stature. In recent times however, dancers themselves choreograph their repertoire, and freelance Nattuvanars, with good rhythmic and time keeping competence, have come to be a part of the orchestra. Yet, it is undeniable that one who yields the cymbals has a great responsibility in knowing all aspects of the performance, such as the music orchestration, dance choreography and not just the rhythmic execution. 

My keen sense of rhythm was observed by my parents during my childhood. I remember, playing the imaginary Guru, and with a pair of Bhajan Jalras conducting an orchestra and correcting an imaginary student. Like all young students, I was trying to imitate my Gurus rehearsing an Arengetram! I am fortunate to have gurus, Koothambalam Sri Aravindan and Smt VasanathaAravindan, from whom I learnt Bharatanatyam, and late guru Dr Vempati Chinna Satyam – The Kuchipudi Arts Academy, where I learnt the art of Kuchipudi, who have inspired, influenced and motivated me in many ways in both my “center” stage and “side” stage performances. 

Learning is a journey. And, this journey can be walked on many paths. One path is learning from a teacher, and the other is learning from experience. I have been blessed to have been identified by Gurus Sri Narasimhachari and Smt Vasanthalakshmi, who, are known for their multifaceted excellence in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Carnatic music, and more popularly known for their prowess in rhythm and its complexities in Natyam, and to accompany them for Nattuvangam in their orchestra. That was when I was introduced to the dance fraternity as a Nattuvanar. What I knew then about rhythm was exiguous and what I was assigned to execute was prodigious. The on-the-job training I had with them initiated me in comprehending the rhythm structures in general, and its artistic incorporation and the complex execution in dance choreographies. Their forte being “cross rhythms” – where the Nattuvanar recites a particular (and generally a complex) rhythmic pattern and plays a totally opposite or even more complicated rhythmic pattern on the cymbal – was indeed a herculean task for me, considering the trivial knowledge I had then. Thus, I walked on the path of experience. 

My learning phase came with the guidance from Gurus Vasanthalakshmi and Narasimhachari to the veteran mridangist and Late Guru Sri Madurai T Srinivasan (Seena Kutty Sir). This phase of learning provided me a holistic understanding of rhythm, patterns, and its execution in Nattuvangam. My one-to-one classes with Sir were always interesting and challenging, as he taught me how rhythm is played in the percussions and made me work on them. I would always try to find ways in executing the rhythmic complexities played in the Mridangam into Nattuvangam. Though I know it is a juvenile imagination of interpreting a rhythmic structure played on an instrument with infinite tonal combinations into another instrument which had just TWO tones, it  helped me  to search for possibilities, and thus enhanced my understanding.

Every performance and every artiste whom I have accompanied for have given me abundant knowledge in enriching my understanding of this instrument. From day- to-day rehearsal routines to the on-stage performances, I cherish every moment of those invaluable experiences as I accompanied veterans like Smt. Vyjayanthi Mala Bali, Smt. Chitra Visveswaran and other performing gurus.  Being a dancer myself, added the ability in better understanding of the performer’s needs. This provided me a platform to conduct dance recitals with adeptness. I feel fortunate in having the opportunity to interact with these great artistes.

It has been an exhilarating journey for me so far, but as the poet says, “there are miles to go before I sleep’…… I await with humility for more elevating experiences in my artistic journey.

The writer is a Chennai-based dancer and nattuvannar

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

God's Own

The temple, the stage and the street; the sound of Gods and the sound of Man; in a collective ensemble and as a solo instrument, the Chenda straddles diverse worlds with ease. A glimpse into the life- journey of Chenda...

V Kaladharan 

Chenda, the indigenous percussion-instrument of Kerala, is singularly distinctive amongst a plethora of percussions all over the world commonly categorized under the title: Drums. Of the eighteen major musical instruments graded by the great practitioners of yore, Chenda has been treated as the foremost musical instrument in Kerala for depth and volume of the sound produced.

This hollow cylindrical drum is made of Jack-wood both surfaces of which are covered by cow-hides. Cotton ropes run through the leather-surface technically called vattom. The tightening and loosening of the ropes generate necessary tensions on the two faces of the instrument. The left-surface (edanthala) is the space of main discourse on the Chenda while the right-surface (valamthala) is played to add to the rhythm or to invoke moments of auspiciousness in the music of art forms like Kathakali.

Like other traditional musical instruments in vogue, Chenda came into being as part of the Hindu temple-rituals. For the poojas in all the major temples of Kerala, chenda is an inevitable component of a whole ensemble. Outside the sanctum-sanctorum but within the Nalambalam (the outer structure encircling the sanctum), Chenda reverberated probably dating back to 9th or 10th century. In a consistent process of evolution, Chenda progressed to three main genres; Melam, Thayambaka and Kathakali Melam.

For the collective ensemble, Melam, Chenda is the lead instrument heavily supported by the beats on the right-surface of the same instrument, the two wind instruments – Kuzhal (a clarinet-shaped instrument) and the kompu, a mini-trumpet besides pairs of huge cymbals. The helmsman of the Melam is called Pramani under whose direct and suggestive supervision the rest of the players acts and reacts. The key negotiation is between the Chenda and the Kuzhal in a Melam. The collectively blown Kompus signal the shifting of the tempos. Panchari, Pandi and Chembada are the three well-established Melams based on the time-beats of 6, 7 & 8 respectively. Melams performed in front of the caparisoned Elephants and the flames of traditional torches epitomize the grace and grammar of a collective endeavour. Individual artistry is least pronounced in any Melam. The Poorams (festivals) of Peruvanam, Arattupuzha, Thrissur and Kuttanalloor in Thrissur District are hubs of Melams in Kerala.

Thayambaka, the highly sophisticated solo performance on the Chenda, would have evolved as an offshoot of Melam as and when the gifted individual artists ventured to create a new medium which could express their inventiveness and imagination. The pre-eminence of Chenda in the different genres of temple-rituals and performing arts is the contribution of central Kerala comprising of the former Cochin State and the present Palakkad and Malappuram Districts.

Beginning with Mukham in Chembada tala (Aadi in Karnatic Music), the Thayamaka proceeds to the Pathikaalam (slow-tempo) in which the performer plays a couple of set ennams interspersed with lots of manodharam (improvisation). Following the nalamiratti (the crescendo of the Pathikaalam), Kooru, the piece de resistance of the Thayamaka recital starts. While the illustrious players belonging to west Palakkad do the Kooru in Panchari/Chemba (6 & 10 beats respectively), those hail from east Palakkad revel in Adantha ( Mishra chappu - 14 beats). While Malamakkavil Kesava Poduwal, Thiruvegappuram Rama Poduwal and Thrithala Kesava Poduwal championed the west Palakkad baani, those who held aloft the East Palakkad School include Thiruvilwamala Adantha Kontha Swamy, Pallassana Padmanabha Marar, Chethali Rama Marar and Pallavoor Appu Marar in the 20th century. After Kooru, there are three more segments viz. edavattom, edanila and irikita. The last one is in the fastest tempo in eka taala invoking a high amount of passion among the listeners. Nerkol (vertical falling of the stick at the center of the chenda) and urulukai (rotation of the wrists inward and outward) complement each other throughout the performance.

In the 17th century when Ramanattam came into being as a dance-theater tradition in south Kerala, Maddalam alone was its percussion-instrument. The provincial king of Vettathunadu (currently in the Malappuram District) introduced chenda in Ramanattam as the accompaniment of male-characters. When Ramanattam developed into Kathakali and afterwards, chenda grew into prominence as its aural signpost. Chenda supported by Maddalam commendably translates the navarasas on the Kathakali stage .Thiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy, Moothamana Kesavan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval were the top icons of Kathakali Melam in the 20th century.

Before the beginning of the story per se in Kathakali, there is Melappadam in which the singers and the drummers (chenda & maddalam players) come together to create an aural feast. Manjuthara from Jayadeva’s Gitagovind, is a delicious treat by the Kathakali vocalists who employ their entire musical prowess to impress the audience. The two/four instrumentalists are also given tremendous opportunities in Melappadam to display their creativity. As soon the play begins, the instrumentalists are ‘sidelined’ for providing functional music.

In the decades subsequent to 1970, Chenda started seeking fresh spaces in the cultural landscape of Kerala. The seeds for the same lie in Keli, a combined performance of Chenda, maddalam, gongs and cymbals that preceded an overnight Kathakali recital in the traditional temples. Keli till the last decades of the last century was an effective medium of announcement of a Kathakali performance. The political and cultural institutions as well as the large and medium business-houses in Kerala are now widely employing small groups of percussionists for greeting VIPs/VVIPs and for the opening of Malls/Textile shops in the urban centres. Commercial films sometimes portray the sentimental conflicts surrounding a Chenda player caught up in family life. Film music has widely made use of the swaras of this musical instrument with fabulous effect. One of the erstwhile Movie Directors, A. Vincent even directed a film in Malayalam titled “Chenda”.

A revolutionary transition in the history of Chenda was heralded by the genre, Singari Melam. Barely a quarter century old innovation by one or more populist Chenda players, Singari Melam cuts across caste, community and religion in its practical applications. It is a non-liturgical branch of percussion-music carrying a secular image. Although Panchari is the taala used by the players, the drumming-pattern is irresistibly indigenous in nature and the players are dancers too. There is a near perfect synchronization between their footsteps/torso movements and the sounds generated on the Chendas. Equal number of men and women do Singari Melam. In the festivals held in the Catholic churches of Kottayam District, Singari Melam is an indispensable component. Ms. Katherine Morehouse, an ethno-musicologist from the US has done an interesting research on the democratic dimensions of this genre of music.

Mattannoor Sankarankutty, one of the few outstanding percussionists of the day, has successfully incorporated Chenda in the performance-structure of eastern and western percussion-instruments. With Mridangam, Tabla and Drums, Chenda is in harmony. As an independent solo instrument and as a powerful facilitator of aural emotions in performing arts like Kathakali, Chenda enjoys a rare privilege among scores of traditional musical instruments in India.

The writer is a bi-lingual writer, arts’ commentator and Assistant Registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Anga Sutra

The dancer’s body is the canvas on which the choreographer paints her picture. The rigour, the discipline, the restraint and the passion, described by one of the doyennes of dance

Anita Ratnam

The production Pushed
Drenched in sweat, she completed her routine and walked to the side of the rehearsal room to take a sip of water and wipe her face with a towel that was already soaked with the previous two hours of rigorous practice. Two more soiled towels lay tossed on the floor. The guests applauded warmly, rose from the straw mats and walked silently towards the other end of the dance studio where a simple meal was waiting. The dancer did not follow. She was already into her next routine - stretching, jumping in place and twisting her torso to stay warm and keep her muscles pliant for another round of rehearsal. She was now into her third hour of intense dancing and her slim body was as energetic as when she first began. Her energy was unflagging. By the time she had finished, the dinner and dessert – a large bowl of fruits and ice cream- had disappeared. The dancer once again wiped her face and arms and gracefully approached the dining table. The single thought with all the admiring guests was “What will she eat to sustain such an amazing body? She plucked a small bunch of grapes, a piece of jackfruit and nibbled on them, still lost in thought. I turned to her aunt who whispered, while still gazing admiringly at her niece, “She lives on air, water, fruit, very little food and her passion for dance”. 

The production Pushed
The above scene was from my recent visit to Sri Lanka to watch preparations for the annual Chitrasena Dance Company’s performance season, this time dedicated to the 82 year old matriarch Vajira, principal dancer and wife of the late dance icon Chitrasena. The ensemble of dancers were universally slim and fit.  Thaji and Mithilani, the two women who are also part of the brilliant Nrityagram ensemble performance SAMHARA, were distinctly superior to their colleagues. In private conversation with Thaji’s aunt Upeka, I learned of the rigorous routine that all dancers at Nrityagram are submitted to. For three years these two young women, accompanied by their choreographer Heshma, did early morning runs through the countryside followed by sessions of  yoga, pilates, pranayam, Odissi adavus, stretching before and after rehearsals, simple food and 14 to 16 hour days immersed in nothing but caring and working the body to its limits. And the results showed on stage with high octane vigour, stamina and stellar performance energy.

The late American dance diva Martha Graham said so rightly, “ Dancers are atheletes of the soul”. The sentence is telling. Like sportspeople, dancers have to train. But unlike their colleagues who grunt, yell, slide, shout, shriek, grimace and pant, dancers have to practice the art of camouflage while still exerting their bodies with the same pitch of hyperactivity and containing all pain beneath a smile or a calm visage. To dance is to share one’s entire being – body and soul – with the audience. A most generous and vulnerable act that not everybody recognises. And to perform at a supremely effortless level of sublime finesse takes hours, days, weeks and years of taxing, exhausting work. On and off the stage.

To tune ones body to the demands of today’s performance spaces and the cynical unforgiving eyes of distracted audiences, is calling for a lifetime of total surrender. Look at the many systems of cross training that has emerged in health studios around India and elsewhere. Gyrotonics, Soul Cycle, Zumba, Kick Boxing, Spinning, Mixed Martial Arts, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Running, Cycling….. the list goes on. Yoga has now assumed many avatars and so has becoming vegetarian, vegan ( no dairy foods) and fasting. Dancers are taking all methods of cross training to keep their bodies and muscles alert and alive in order to express anything and everything their minds conceive.  In Indian dance, the torso remains static and the legs mostly in a demi-plie, araimandi, semi squat position which demands that the lower body and the core become very strong to support the back and the spine area. The arms and feet are those that are moved and exerted while the extremities and the facial muscles are trained to “speak the stories”. As a contrast, western dance forms, especially modern and contemporary dance training demands a shift of the centre of gravity where the torso can turn and the centre of gravity can be thrown any way it chooses. That, combined with extensive floor movements and upside down tumbles demands a different system of training. Indian dancers are getting introduced to these newer systems of sustained hyper physicality in order to quieten the facial communication and transfer the energies to the entire body. 

Aditi Mangaldas
This calls for extreme discipline and a 24/7 lifestyle of abstinence. Dancers in the west take to smoking in order to cut their appetite and remain thin. A slim Indian dancer was not the norm until about 15 years ago, when the large scale of international theatres called for a hyperkinetic level of dance excitement from the performer. To succeed in leaping, jumping, stretching, turning while retaining compusure is not what the traditional gurus taught. After all, classical dance schools did not have mirrors or sprung wooden floors. Indian dancers trained on stone and concrete surfaces and in mostly small rooms.

The late Ranjabati Sircar recognised this shift in dance viewing and called for a new system and method of training dancers, both in the classical and contemporary fields. Classical dancers were more likely to rest on the weight of the great tradition and allow the music and poetry combined with the cultural memory of eyes accustomed to seeing voluptuous temple friezes transferred onto mature bodies on stage. The focus towards fitness and the articulate body began when the contemporary dancer in India recognised the dire need for new ways of training the body as a machine. Western dance styles offered the tried and tested methods and so began the ideas of “warm ups” and “cool downs”.

Kalpana Ranjana Raghuraman
Today when we watch Bijoyini and Surupa of Nrityagram , Padmini Chettur, Preethi Athreya, Mavin Khoo, Kalpana Raghuraman and Aditi Mangaldas perform, we can recognise the hours of cross training those classical dance bodies have undergone to make smooth transitions from one level or pose to another. Rehearsing Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Kathak steps cannot create THAT level of precision and perfection. The seeing eye is often forgiving while the camera’s eye shows every imperfection. The new age dancer of today recognises that every moment is a “Kodak moment”. That every muscle and tissue should be in perfect simpatico at every moment to communicate whatever the soundscape is saying.

To dance with the entire body does not always mean to create fast, breathless nonstop movement. It also means that slowing down a particular moment or a movement to near stillness calls for extreme control of muscle and breath. That too is not taught in classical dance systems. These are neo-classical interventions of the here and now. To extend one arms in longing and to make the entire body stretch in anticipation calls for strength and flexibility. To stretch on the ground as Vishnu in regal respose atop serpent Adisesha needs balance, Krishna twirling on Kaliya’s hood needs focus, Nataraja dancing in the heavens demands the extremes of every asset the body can call upon.

Kalpana Ranjana Raghuraman
In contrast, the ideas of nightmares, changing moods, tornados, feminism, dislocating geographies and personal memoirs also mandates another kind of  fitness for non narrative presentations. Watching the dancers of Pina Baush, Nederlands Dance Theatre, Marie Chouinard of Montreal and Lee Hwa Min of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Theatre makes me realise the kind of observation, improvisation and out of studio experiences that these dancers have. Observing birds and animals and translating those into choreography, making calligraphy into body art, social behaviour into performance – all these inputs from imaginative creators needs an empty but pliant canvas to work on. The dancer’s body is that empty canvas. Unless it is ready, primed and toned it cannot become the site for the choreographer’s imaginative paintbrush. 

The writer is a Chennai-based dancer, choreographer, curator and arts’ activist

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Rank holder

The life-story of the Veena, an instrument that is considered the soul of Carnatic music and how different shades and nuances of it are expressed in the hands of different artistes…

T T Narendran

S. Balachander on the veena
Among the numerous musical instruments that owe their lineage to India, the Veena occupies a high position. Known by a generic name like yazhin in Tamil (that was used for several stringed instruments of historic times) and the modern version, known as the Saraswati Veena in North India, is now a few centuries old.

Every system of music has a few instruments that are designed to articulate the accent of the system to which it belongs. One could think of the piano for western music, the sitar and the shehnai for Hindustani Music; for Carnatic Music, the nadaswaram and the Veena are, perhaps, the brand ambassadors. The subtleties/nuances of some of the hard-core Carnatic ragas such as Bhairavi, Anandabhairavi or Sankarabharanam, emerge most effectively from these instruments, when handled by a competent and sensitive musician.

The Veena was seen as a versatile instrument that lent itself to different ways of handling. Traditionally, Andhra Pradesh was home to an orchestral style, the Tanjavur style from Tamil Nadu was said to follow a gayaki (vocal-based) approach while Karnataka was said to be a hybrid of the two. The divisions must have collapsed gradually with the advent of technology that increased mobility and communication.

Stalwarts of the early 20th century would include the legendary Veena Dhanammal, Karaikkudi brothers (Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer), Sehanna, Subbana and Venkataramana Das (of Vijayanagaram). Archival recordings of some of these artists (For example, Dhanammal and of Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer) do exist, providing a clue to the intent rasika on how the Veena was played in those days. Dhanammal was reputed for ability to bring subtle nuances of a raga out on the Veena. Karaikkudi brothers were reputed for a fair degree of audibility to a reasonable crowd even in the mike less days; their grip over laya was evident in their execution of difficult pallavis while their overall orientation was towards a gayaki style. Seshanna’s rich tone helped him connect with the lay listeners with ease.  The glorious traditions were carried forth by the next generation of vainikas that included M K Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar, Devakottai Narayana  Iyengar, M A Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar, K S Narayanaswamy, Mysore V Doreswamy Iyengar and Emani Sankara Sastry. Narayana Iyengar was a bold innovator within the tradition; on the Veena, he accompanied the stalwart Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar for a concert at Perambur Sangeetha Sabha, move that did not quite endure him to his guru, Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer. He also paired up with M A Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar for performances at prestigious sabhas such as the Music Academy, the venue at which he played an unforgettable aalaapana of Dhanyasi in a morning concert. Of the two bhagavathars with the same name, I have heard that M K Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar had mastered the instrument to play at incredible speed, while M A Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar, who was also an accomplished vocalist, had melody as his forte. K S Narayanaswamy, a Sangita Bhushanam from Annamalai University during pre-war times when the university had star-studded faculty on its rolls, showed concern for grammar as much as he did for aesthetics. His handling of ragas such as Bhairavi drew high praise from connoisseurs. One memorable occasion was at the Music Academy in 1968, when he had M S Subbulakshmi accompanying him with the second Veena. A soulful saveri and an evocative O jagadamba (Anandabhairavi, Syama Sastry), which M S sang along, remain etched in the memory of this rasika. Doreswamy Iyengar had an amazing nadam and was adept at handling ragas familiar and obscure. A fabulous Hamirkalyani, an abheri with Shuddhadhaivata, Salakabhairavi and Narayanagoula (with tanam) are among the unforgettable experiences that he provided. Emani Sankara Sastry was melody personified. Archives will bear testimony to his felicity with a raga as obscure as Ganamoorti while he was equally effective in his rendition of as classical a piece as the inimitable Atatalavarnamin Bhairavi.

Meanwhile, there emerged another set of vainikas, partly overlapping in their careers with the earlier set. There was S Balachander, the self-taught wizard on the Veena. There could not have been another like him earlier and there may not be one more like him after his times, either. Exploiting the instrument to its fullest potential, Balachander was creativity and innovation personified. He coaxed melody out of the instrument to portray the richness of the Rakthi ragas, to show how even the most obscure Vivadimela raga can sound pleasing. He could also play a popular Raghuvamsa at break-neck speed. Parallely, there was another popular artist in Chitti Babu, a disciple of Emani Sankara Sastry. He took the Veena to the masses. Hugely popular in his hay days, he won audiences over with his sweet tonal quality. He could play with a slant towards western music, towards folk music and so on. His cuckoo song was hugely popular.

Two sensitive vainikas who left us in the last decade were Kalpakam Swaminathan and Trivandrum R Venkataraman. Kalpakam was a vainika with an exceptional repertoire, particularly of Dikshitarkritis, while Venkataraman, who had learned from K S Narayanaswamy, had a keen analytical mind and had acquired extraordinary felicity with the instrument. Both were essentially based on the vocal tradition and were well-versed in all aspects of improvisation.

There are talented vainikas at present, too, showcasing different styles and demonstrating the capabilities of the instrument in their respective individual styles. The only concern, before signing off, is the lament from the teachers about the dwindling enrollment of students for Veena classes and an echo from the vendors of this instrument that the off-take is falling. One fervently hopes that this will only be a passing phenomenon.

The writer is a professor at IIT, Madras and a veena player