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

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