I have observed the fusion of Carnatic music with many things: Hindustani music, Jazz, Bollywood, Pop and Rap, but a few days back I witnessed its foray into an unlikely arena: athletics. I listened, by turns enthralled, excited, puzzled, annoyed, distressed and vexed, as the music went through bouts of wrestling, racing, jumping and gymnastic contortions, a veritable Olympic multi-event that shook the very foundations of Carnatic music and propelled it into a brave new world.
Let me start at the beginning. And lest you think I am a middle-aged grouch, a Luddite who laments the demise of the glorious past, let me first preface everything I am going to write by assuring you that no, I am not a grouch (middle-aged I am, though!), I am no Luddite, and that I like to think that whatever judgements and observations I make are after a good deal of honest thought and reflection. I know there are those who have known me for a long time who will read what I am going to write and gloat, with a gleam in their eyes, “Aha! It has happened! She has turned into a fossil, become one of those people she claimed she never would, the kind who bemoans the passing of the good old days!” To them I say, bah, humbug!
Where was I? Ah, yes, the beginning. I will spare you the very very beginning, and even the very beginning, and content myself with starting at merely the beginning. Which was a warm afternoon a couple of days back, in Madras. There was a Pallavi Durbar being held at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, under the auspices of two organizations, Carnatica and Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, a three day festival of discussions, a competition and performances. The focus of all of these was the Pallavi, which in this context is a highly specialized, complex form in Carnatic music that requires advanced knowledge and training in the music, rock-solid rhythmic abilities, an exhaustive grasp of the ins and outs of ragams, sensitivity to the lyrics and how best to showcase their poetry and meaning, an abundance of imagination, adventurousness and fearlessness, and the ability to package all of this together into something that is contained yet exhilarating, bound by rules yet charged with ebullience and fire. It can be an oasis of calm, a glorious melding of all the elements of Carnatic music that come together in melodic and rhythmic perfection, it can be a raging storm of all sorts of dissonance that eventually resolves itself. It is one of the most challenging forms in Carnatic music, one that is often described in somewhat alarming terms as in, “She tackled the pallavi with a vice-like grip on the talam....”; “He engaged in an invigorating crossfire with the violinist”; “She grappled with the intricacies of the pallavi....”.
For those of you whose fingers are hovering over the little x that will remove you from this baffling barrage of Carnatic music terminology, I entreat you, do hang on a few more minutes, and I will attempt to dispel the mists of incomprehension. A pithy treatise on the pallavi will be your reward for staying on a little longer.
A Pallavi is almost always sung in a concert as the final part of a trio, often referred to in abbreviation-loving Carnatic music circles as the RTP, the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. The Ragam part consists of an alapanai, or improvisatory exploration of a ragam. Imagine a ragam as a palette of paints, each color representing a particular note on the scale. Every ragam has its own unique palette, its own guidelines for how this palette of notes is to be utilized. So in an alapanai of a ragam, the singer or instrumentalist uses that palette, those notes, and paints a musical opus on the spot. The analogies with painting, literature, the other creative arts, are endless, and I will spare you any more of them. An alapanai of a ragam can last for anything from a few minutes to over an hour. When clubbed with the tanam and pallavi, the ragam is explored in great depth and breadth, and in the hands of an accomplished singer, it can be an enchanting journey through the landscape of the ragam.
The tanam, usually the shortest part of the RTP trio, takes the exploration of the ragam into a different direction and dimension, adding a rhythmic element to the purely melodic one. Although there is no strict talam tempo, there is just enough of a pulse, a rising and falling of mridangam syllables, to get feet and hands tapping and moving to the fragmented rhythms.
And then, the glitzy showpiece of the trio, the Pallavi, standing tall on the twin pillars of the ragam and tanam that have built the foundation of what is to follow. The Pallavi starts simply enough. A line of music, most often lasting one talam (rhythmic) cycle, is sung. The pace is calm, there is a minimum of ornamentation and fuss, the percussion accompaniment, which comes alive for this section, consists of simple beat-keeping. The violin is a faithful shadow, an echo of the melody. And then, slowly and steadily, the music bursts into bloom as that simple, single line is taken on a journey of exploration down paths of growing melodic and rhythmic complexity. Once this voyage comes to an end, yet another element takes over, the Kalpana Swaram, or improvisation in singing the swarams, or notes of the ragam. And once that is completed (to the musician’s satisfaction, or to the demands of time constraints), the percussion instruments get their turn under the spotlight with a Thani Avartanam, where just the mridangam and whatever other percussion instrument is present put on an exhilarating show of the rhythmic possibilities, of steadily growing complexity, of the thalam. Think of Mozart and his theme and variations and you will get a partial idea of what a Pallavi involves. Add in the call and response dimension of the accompanists, the rhythmic element that unfolds and entwines itself in and around the melody, and it becomes evident to even the barely-initiated-into-Carnatic music that the musical rhapsody evolving at that moment is something special, an opus of unusual and complex beauty.
Traditionally - and I use the word very loosely here - the Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi were all in the same ragam. Any complexity came from melodic twists and gyrations, the mathematical intricacies and elaborations of the rhythm. Decades ago, some time in the 1970s, I remember being mesmerized when Balamurali Krishna sang a two-ragam Pallavi, in Sunadavinodini and Bhairavi, effortlessly weaving the two together, the effect as lovely as a multi-hued Kanjivaram pattu saree with exquisitely blended colors. Oh, what beautiful patterns he braided together that day, the two unlikely bedfellows, Sunadavinodini and Bhairavi, achieving perfect rapport with one another, the fantastic melodic phrases opening the doors to an exciting new universe of musical possibilities. But even while I listened, thinking that music couldn’t get any more sublime than this, shocked and angry mutters scurried about around me. “He was desecrating tradition”, the mutters went, “he was a show-off, experimenting just for the sake of it, this was not how a Pallavi was meant to be.” And I thought to myself, “The fossils, the Luddites, they will never venture out of their stifling little cocoons of tradition and predictability”.
What was new then seems to have become common now, and multi-ragam RTPs are heard fairly often, especially among the top echelon of Carnatic performers. It seems to have become de rigeur to sing the Kalpana Swaram section in ragamalika (a garland of ragams that involves switching deftly from one ragam to another; this is a test of musical skill for the musicians, and of detective skill for the audience that has barely enough time to savor the triumph of having uncovered the ragam being sung, before having to go through the detective process all over again). I have to qualify myself here and state that I have my finger but lightly and intermittently on the pulse of Carnatic music trends. Anything I write about is based strictly on my own experience at concerts.
Anyway, back to the beginning we go. I attended several concerts of the Pallavi Durbar. The first one was by the Malladi Brothers. They picked Bhairavi as the ragam for their RTP and they sang well. Not sublimely, but with pleasant competence, no jarring notes or rhythms, no surprises, good or bad. Since this event commemorated the 100th birth anniversary of Sripada Pinakapani, a doctor-musician from Andhra, their Pallavi paid tribute to him with the words Sadgurum Sadabhajeham, Sangeetha Sripadam Pinakapanim. It was evident from the heartfelt way they sang the lyrics that they had a deep emotional bond with Sripada Pinakapani, and sure enough, a Google search revealed that he was one of their gurus. There were moments when everything gelled together into something approaching beauty, but then they embarked upon a lengthy spell of Gathi Bhedam and the smooth passage of the music was distorted by the chop-chop-chop of the strenuous counting exercise that was the Gathi Bhedam.
Allow me a very brief explanation of Gathi Bhedam. It is a shifting of the rhythmic gait, or gathi, of a song. Every piece of music that is set to a thalam or rhythmic cycle also has, inherent within each beat of that cycle, a particular sub-beat, or gait, or gathi. Most common is a 4-beat or chathusra gathi, a steady walking pace. The other gathis in Carnatic music are the tisra gathi, (3 beat), khanda gathi (5 beat), misra gathi (7 beat) and the wickedly difficult sankeerna gathi (9 beat). Let’s say the original gathi of your song is chathusram, or a 4-beat gait. In a gathi bhedam exercise of this song, the same length of time between each beat that accommodated 4 sub-beats can fit in 3 beats (this slows the song down); or it can squeeze in 7 beats - which speeds things up quite a bit since 7 beats have to now take up the same time that the original 4 beats did. Gathi Bhedam keeps you on your toes, never lets you settle into a rhythm as it moves to a different beat with every gathi change. Done well it can be an electrifying experience in rhythm juggling; done in excess or in a tortured manner it can sound distorted, be an uncomfortable ordeal that can feel like watching a once-graceful creature reduced to jerky limping.
I wish the Malladi Brothers had indulged in less of it. Any notion of serenity was thrown to the winds as they plunged into a vigorously exhaustive (and exhausting) exercise in Gathi Bhedam, slapping the thalam down hard on their thighs, the mathematics of the music trouncing the melody of it. I felt as if I were astride a wildly bucking bronco that was trying its darndest to fling me off its saddle.
Two days later, late in the afternoon, I was back at the Mylapore Fine Arts Sabha for a performance by Carnatic music’s wonder boy, Abhishek Raghuram. Coming from an exalted musical lineage (he is the grandson of the great mridangist Palghat Raghu; I believe there is also a connection to Lalgudi Jayaraman) he has been hailed for his extraordinary musical brilliance. I had heard him once, a few months back, in a setting and as part of an audience that called for a moderately light-weight selection of songs, where substantial and weighty ragams and songs that required a trained ear to appreciate were eschewed for simple, airy and light pieces. Even in that milieu, listening to those songs, I sensed a formidable talent, a musical endowment and intelligence that set him apart in a field that was already crowded with high achieving superstars. So I was quite eager and excited to listen to him.
The inside of the sabha was stifling, and the fans only served to move the hot air around and ensure that everybody got their fair share of the heavy, humid air, that the suffering was evenly distributed. This, while outside, Madras was enjoying one of its most pleasant Augusts. A Pallavi Contest was in progress, nearing its end, and the contestants, all youngsters, were being asked to slice and dice a line of music and ram the bits and pieces into some complicated gathi pattern. I was most impressed with the kids. Bright, engaged and confident, they tackled the challenge with gusto, unfazed by failed attempts, determined to get it right. But, I was saddened to see that here again the mathematical was stressed over the musical. Rhythmic convulsions and paroxysms seemed to upstage fluid melodic movement.
A short break when everyone rushed outside for gulps of fresh air, and then Abhishek Raghuram came onstage, accompanied by another dynamic young musician, Akkarai Subhalakshmi on the violin, and Neyveli Narayanan on the mridangam.
Abhishek is diminutive, and can easily pass off for a school boy. So it was surprising to hear his voice, big, deep and rich, where a squeak might have been more expected. He got into his concert right away, with a beautiful alapanai in Kanada. He had excellent voice control, a wonderful imagination, and a superb accompanist in Akkarai Subhalakshmi. Subhalakshmi is, how can I put it, glamorous, hep ( A "hep" woman in Madras is one with short hair; this assumes that she is also “modern” in other areas. That’s Madras-think for you!). Fresh-faced, young, and lively, the antithesis of the dowdy maami image that unfortunately - and inaccurately - beclouds the Carnatic musician. These are the faces of Carnatic music’s future, and they make my heart sing! After Abhishek probed the lower, middle and upper registers of Kanada, he switched abruptly to Varali, that dark ragam that comes with the threat of an epic fight between guru and shishya. However and whoever he learned it from, he has learned it well, and his relationship with his guru seems none the worse for it.
And then it was an abrupt switch over to Khamas. This was followed by a thanam in all three ragams, and I really loved this part. How effortlessly he knitted together the ragams, how nimbly he fused soul-melting melody with sprightly rhythm! Akkarai Subhalakshmi was up for any challenge that came her way and the swells of beautiful music floated through the hall and put everybody into a spell, the stale, stuffy air all forgotten.
Then, the Pallavi. And right away, I was puzzled and lost as I tried to figure out just what tricks he was playing with the thalam. From what I could make out the first half of the (Adi - 8 beat) thalam moved at a different pace and gait to the second half. But was this allowed? I sent a text message to a musician-friend who is a terrific teacher and performer himself. Pat came the reply: “Not normally”. Ahh, but this was clearly not “normal”. There were baffled faces all around. The Pallavi shifted into high gear, and I was disoriented, adrift on an ocean of sound that was beautiful yet strange as melodic caper followed rhythmic stunt. The three ragams swirled in and around each other, each appearing to employ its own gathi, the shifts and switches happening faster and faster, the thalams taking on a crazed, splintered life of their own. A man in the front row yelled out comments to Abhishek; momentarily perplexed, he then chose to ignore him. A bunch of whiz kids who were in front of me were on the edge of their seats, furiously beating the thalam, their foreheads creased as they tried to crack this mystifying new code. Maamis and Maamas around me slumped back in their seats, their efforts at keeping the thalam defeated.
On the stage, the three artists were having the time of their lives. The thalams and ragams kept veering this way and that; it was like a runaway train that teetered on a precipice but never - didn’t ever come close - got derailed. Listening to Abhishek, I felt as if I was witnessing the evolution of Carnatic music in fast motion, as if in the course of one concert I heard how the flawless music of Mozart morphed into the fractured beauty of Schonberg.
All this is no doubt good for Carnatic music, this deluge of talent and fresh ideas washing away the tired and faded. Just like Michael Jordan in basketball and Roger Federer in tennis lifted the level of their games and forced everybody else to follow or fall, people like Abhishek will steer Carnatic music into fresh new lands.
And yet.....after a point, it all got to be a bit too much. And I found myself wondering why I felt this way, why I had embraced Balamurali’s innovations so wholly and so delightedly all those decades ago while this music left me with such muddled feelings. Was I succumbing to the Curse of Middle Age: clinging to the tried and tested, happy to sit in the shade of the familiar rather than be scorched by the blaze of innovation, slashed by the cutting edge? But isn’t music supposed to wash over you in a wave of beauty, not crash into you, uproot you, leave you quivering at the edge of an abyss? Yes, literature and art can do that to you, but, music? Maybe I am more old-fashioned than I think, after all.
Perhaps the music of Abhishek and his like is an apt reaction to this modern age of distraction and multi-tasking, the plethora of ragams and thalam shifts an echo of how daily life plays out.
Is this a giant leap for Carnatic music? Or a small step? Only time will tell, but I might not be around to find out.