02 December, 2008

Terrors and errors

Though this space was intended more for music related posts, no thinking world citizen will be able to resist placing one’s perspectives on the subject above.

For the last several decades, billions of global citizens have been witness to organised terror. Millions have been touched by it one way or the other and hundreds of thousands have been subjected to it directly.

Contrasting responses: Developed countries such as USA and UK have tightened their act considerably through increased security measures, stricter immigration, rejuvenated intelligence efforts, ruthless clamping down of groups and sectors already inside the country that exhibit even a minute disruptive potential and numerous such measures. Even though some of these have been reactive, several others are proactive and anticipatory in nature.

Other nations such as India have been more content with immediate to not-so-immediate responses after or, as it happened in Mumbai recently, during the crisis. And they have never been able to bring to the books most of the perpetrators because of a host of reasons that include tedious judicial processes, lack of dynamic diplomacy or charismatic international opinion building capabilities which can pressurise countries that form the ‘cradle of terror’.

But the reactions of first world countries, mostly USA, has leaned on the other extreme of blatant aggression calculated to show might.

But is this 'war against terror' the right approach to terror? Questionable.

Two wars: The 'trample-your-face' approach is unlikely to win because there really are two different wars out there, being fought on dissimilar planes. On the one hand we have the all-conquering might of say, the USA (that nevertheless places so much importance on the lives and security of its citizens) vs the subterranean approach of the terrorists who do not value geographical boundaries or even their own lives. So, unless the USA is willing to engage the terrorists in a more subtle manner, how would it hope to win?

A lot of empty rounds are fired against unrelenting mountains, both literally and figuratively. This will be a perpetual battle as the terrorists will always wait out a storm of an army in caves and catacombs while actively plotting their next targets and drawing up time lines. But at least the stronger intelligence networks within and outside of the USA ensure that its anticipatory moves pay off at least to a large extent.

This is a huge minus when it comes to the third world countries. With paltry intelligence and half hearted follow ups, they leave their territories wide open to such attacks.

Optimal solution: The best solution, as discerning observers have probably reiterated often enough, is for first and third world countries to join hands and fine tune their approaches to win this war. In other words, as Robert Kagan of The Washington Post says, “internationalize the response.” Countries proven to turn a blind eye to terror camps definitely need the ‘assistance’ of the entire world community to root out such camps.

It has also been argued that such an action could violate a country’s sovereignty. But the counter to this, as Kagan asserts is: “Nations should not be able to claim sovereign rights when they cannot control territory from which terrorist attacks are launched. If there is such a thing as a "responsibility to protect," which justifies international intervention to prevent humanitarian catastrophe either caused or allowed by a nation's government, there must also be a responsibility to protect one's neighbors from attacks from one's own territory, even when the attacks are carried out by ‘non-state actors’."

For the terrorists, it is India today and USA another day and UK the next and so forth - no national border on the map is sacrosanct. So it should be for the nations when it comes to countering them.

Whether it is a strike on USA/UK/Indian soil, the world should unite and act together to weed out the roots of this menace, the camps themselves. Individual countries where the continuing complicity of the military and intelligence services with terrorist groups are only too well known, shed any claim to sovereign protection.

There is little to be gained by blame-game rhetoric when action is the need of the hour. India should get its proofs in order and get competent people to project the truth effectively and build a convincing case in the international community which will mobilise world opinion and galvanise influential countries into action as well.

Action plan: The Mumbai event has opened the eyes of the world to the reality in the subcontinent as no other event has, so far. World leaders are appreciating the direness of the situation here and the world media is projecting events with perspectives that are more balanced and realistic. This is the best time for the Indian think-tank to make its case.

However, it must be remembered by India that any unilateral, military offensive done prematurely before world opinion is solidly built, could backfire badly and result in fresh catastrophe. So India has to prioritise:

(a) Build irrefutable proof
(b) Make a strong case in the appropriate world forums
(c) Catalyse a joint world offensive against suspect regions – military/economic/political


This is also a time for political parties within the nation to shove internal bickering to the back burner and work together, sending a strong message to our own citizens and to the rest of the world that at least when it comes to defending the country, we are above self-serving, tunnel visioned politics. Will India's politicians rise to the occasion and find the perfect pitch to convince the world?

Citizens role: The citizens of India have exhibited quite a bit of anger and discontent over the way the politicians have let things precipitate to these levels. Several high-flying politicians have been openly snubbed by the people and slammed by the media as well. Even within the music community, a few people have tried to campaign against receiving awards from politicians.

However justifiable these actions, they are at best knee jerk reactions and are not the real solutions. A bit of soul searching will reveal that numerous ordinary citizens contribute to violence in one way or the other. Even an apparently innocuous act such as gifting a toy gun to a child can sow the seeds of violence in a future citizen. Same goes for software games that project violence. As to movies that portray violence graphically, the less said the better. To summarise, we all collude everyday to make violence fashionable and exciting at some level or the other.

It could be argued that only the smallest percentage of the millions who are exposed to the above actually become destructive in real life. But it is quite possible for us to make life exciting without turning brainless violence into an 'in' thing.

Civilians can at least start off by boycotting violence-oriented toys and software as gift articles. It may be a small drop but every drop counts.

18 November, 2008

MSS – The one and only…

There is not a tinge of doubt that M S Subbulakshmi was one of the most beautiful artistes to ever adorn the world music scene. Beautiful in all senses of the term…

It is often said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but she was an artiste whose beauty transcended relativity. Because it was a beauty that she was not merely born with, nor was it solely dependant on resplendent jewellery or attire.

This was beauty she enhanced every day, every hour and minute that she lived, through her thoughts, words and deeds.

And of course, through her music – impeccable and inimitable.

One can analyse and micro-analyse her music and career for years but still not find all the reasons for her stupendous success that others can only dream of.

She certainly was endowed with a voice that had most qualities required for weighty, classical Carnatic music. It was also a voice that could do her bidding when it came to light classical, devotional and film music. Her voice also possessed what I term as the ‘ring of auspiciousness’, a bell like quality that could make even a Kshetragna padam seem like Suprabhatam… But it was not merely this.

She was meticulous beyond measure to ensure that her music was not just attractive but also acceptable from any standpoint – be it the grammar of the raga, accuracy of tala, pronunciation and more importantly, the correct accent as dictated by the language. But again, this does not complete the picture.

She was a model of assiduousness when it came to concert planning. A lot of us plan but never execute because we dream of the results without ever putting in the necessary effort. Today’s busy professionals often end up with a glow about their scrupulous preparation if they have glanced at a completely new song in an unfamiliar raga and odd tala just hours before rendering it in a concert or recording! MSS never worried about the results but put in days of practise after learning a song, which is what made her sing absolutely unfamiliar songs with such silken sheen that one could be forgiven for believing that these songs were part of the Carnatic repertoire for ages and had been polished by numerous maestros in the past. But again, this is not all.

People talk about the bhakti element in her singing and it was unquestionably a major factor in influencing millions of listeners. Not only did she possess true devotion but she could make her listeners experience what true bhakti was. Her bhakti was born from an outlook where simple faith ruled as opposed to intellectual cynicism.

Ever the perfectionist, she was not even conscious of stardom, let alone covet it. She possessed one of the greatest qualities required for growth – the attitude of a perpetual seeker. Even at her zenith, she constantly learned from maestros such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Brinda-Mukta to make sure that her repertoire had the stamp of authenticity.

In terms of consistency, she was almost Bradmanesque. One would hardly hear of about a concert by MSS that was less than excellent.

In terms of stage presence, few could match her. Off stage too, she was just as beautiful.

However great each of these attributes are, they still create a whole greater than the sum of its parts…

The truth is there was some invisible magic in her persona which has made her invincible. That is God’s grace – not just given but earned…

This, in my opinion, is the biggest thing we can all learn from her. Without eve spelling it out, she has shown that if one possesses the other qualities she had, God’s grace will naturally follow.

On a personal note, I have had a privileged relationship with her even before my ‘conscious’ years. My parents have always remembered with fondness the incredible reception for me that she hosted at her house soon after my debut as a two-year old, in 1969.

My first memory is when I gave a vocal concert at a wedding in Trichy when I was 5 or 6. MS amma was to sing the following day at the same wedding but she made it a point to come a day ahead and sat through the whole concert - even though I distinctly remember that I sang well below my standards and incurred the wrath of my father at the end of the day!

My mother – to whom MSS was like a goddess – told me how fondly she had talked about my grandfather Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar and how she was convinced that I was his re-incarnation. A true blessing indeed. However, I was too young to be aware of the significance of all this.

I had several interactions subsequently with her that I cherish very much. I will only share one here.

I had a disagreement with All India Radio and Doordarshan (about the name change of my instrument from gotuvadyam to chitravina) and had stopped performing for them for a couple of years. During this time, when I once went to MS amma’s house, she gently chided me saying, “Yours was one of the few concerts I have always looked forward to on the Radio as I rarely venture out. If you stop this, where is the tonic for people like me in my old age?” Needless to say, I felt extremely humbled and resolved that I would resume playing for AIR again (who coincidentally agreed to my stipulation around the same time).

When I received an SMS from a friend about her demise around 4.30 am, I rushed to her house right away. There was absolutely no one there at that time except her family and I did indeed feel as much a part of the family as one could ever be. For, it is absolutely true that to me that this loss amounted to a shrinking of my own family…

05 November, 2008

Brindamma...

Today (it still is Nov 5 here in the USA) happens to be Sangeeta Kalanidhi Smt T Brinda's 96th birthday. As someone who was fortunate to learn from her for nearly a decade, I cannot help but feel a huge sense of loss that she is no longer with us. However, on the other hand, I also feel that she is always with me - that is the depth and extent of her impact on my music. More importantly, my appraoch to music.

I first fell in love with Brindamma’s music when I heard her render a beautiful phrase in Tyagaraja’s krti in Balahamsa, ‘Parulanu vedanu’. She was singing the anupallavi of this song and this phrase lasted all of one second. But she sang it with such clarity and sophistication that it was as though a new world had opened up in front of me. I must have been around 14 or 15 years old then. That one second of music had tonal purity, depth, voice modulation, note spacing, emotive appeal and a host of other intangible features that represented the very best of Carnatic music.

From my childhood, I had always had a healthy regard for Brindamma because of the awe with which other musicians and connoisseurs used to speak of her. After that superb radio concert, I spoke to my father about learning a few masterpieces from her. He had no hesitation in agreeing to it. He told me that he had himself learnt from her when he was studying in the Central Music College.

I knew that Brindamma generally lived in the stratosphere - those who had learnt from her included legends such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ramnad Krishnan and M S Subbulakshmi. She had turned down numerous eminent artistes for one reason or the other.

Luckily for me, she agreed to teach me and the next 10 years were among the most precious of my life. She showed what microscopic music was - and gave me a high powered microscope to appreciate it.

I realised over a period of time that she was not merely a gifted artiste to whom music was as natural as breathing. She possessed one of the sharpest intellects I have seen. She could be keenly analytical when discussing subtle points.

Her music was awe-inspiring, to say the least. She had a captivating voice that possessed almost all aspects ideal for Carnatic music. It had clarity, sweetness, depth and majesty. She was in control whether she sang soft or loud, super slow or super-fast, plain or oscillated notes.

She was probably the first vocalist to employ voice modulation as a major aspect of music and it made a tremendous difference to the class of the music. Recordings of many of her contemporaries – both male and female musicians - testify to the fact that they believed in singing mostly in their natural voices.

Brindamma started modulating her voice to make it sharper when she sang subtle, fast phrases in higher regions which imparted a laser beam precision and intensity to the notes. She made her voice deeper and more powerful when she sang in the lower octaves or sustained notes.

This was a marked contrast to many artistes singing louder as they approached the high notes and loudest in the pauses in notes like the high pa. Recordings will again show that several of these artistes were not comfortable in the lower octaves.

Brindamma believed that screaming in the higher octaves prevented clarity in the lower octaves and moreover, was ruinous to the vocal cords in the long run. How right her judgement and technique was, was evidenced in her concerts in early 1990-s when she performed with no range or clarity loss even when past 80.

I had, in my early years, developed an image of Brindamma’s comfort zone being limited to slow music and was most pleasantly surprised when I heard her effortless handling of fast or medium fast kritis like Manasa etulo (Malayamarutam), Nee muddu momu (Kamalamanohari), Vinave O Manasa (Vivardhini), Janakiramana (Shuddhaseemantini), or Chinnanadena (Kalanidhi). She sang even pieces like Pakkala nilabadi (Kharaharapriya) or Epapamu (Atana) at speeds above average and laced with demanding variations.

Even though she was a specialist in Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri, Veena Kuppaier, Dharmapuri Subba Rao and a host of other composers' works, most listeners almost associated her with padams.

Her rendition of pieces like Moratopu (Sahana), Ninnu joochi (Punnagavarali), Rama rama (Bhairavi), Ososi (Mukhari), Tamarasaksha (Yadukulakambodhi) and Yalapadare (Begada) were beyond words. As Semmangudi sir declared in the Music Academy once, 'We would all consider our life somewhat successful only if we could render even one padam the way Brinda can.'

One important misconception is that Brindamma’s style, especially in padams, is all about oscillated notes. Actually, Brindamma’s greatest asset was her ability to create silence in sound through long, plain notes with her tranquil voice and intersperse them with gems of microscopic phrases with oscillations - an incredible combination of two extremes that is so difficult to even conceptualise, leave alone accomplish.

More amazing than all these was the fact that she was a person with an incredible amount of conviction and the strength of will to stick to values she believed in for nearly 75 years. To me, this is what the word character means.

On a personal note, she was most affectionate towards me and treated me as a member of her 'family' (which in her dictionary meant relationship through music rather than one born out of blood!). She had a fantastic sense of humour and would have my siblings and me in splits with her sophisticated wit. We all had a great time when she would spend a few weeks at our place on occasions.

I was abroad on a concert tour when I received news of her demise in August 1996. Needless to say, it still ranks as one of the saddest days in my life.

In my mind, she is forever etched as a rare human being to whom a great style of music was merely the only way of life.

31 October, 2008

What is Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch means different things to different people.

In several systems of music in the West, perfect pitch is usually used to refer to someone who has an ability to identify and recognise the exact pitch of a note rendered (a gift apparently given only to a rare few).

In Indian music, one finds the term being used in the context of alignment to the source of pitch (such as a tanpura/shruti box).

Specifically in Carnatic, this goes a step even further. When we say someone is pitch-perfect, we refer to their ability to distinguish the micro-tonal shruti values of the same note from raga to raga (say the Da and Ri in Anandabhairavi vs the Da and Ri in Reetigowla) as well as the values of the same note from context to context within each raga (like the Ma or Ni in Shankarabharanam in different contexts).

A perfect pitch in cricket could mean quite a different thing to a batsman than what it could for a pace or spin bowler, or to various spectators.

To a salesman or marketing executive, it could again represent something else altogether!

However, the one common thing to all of us is that perfect pitch has always been (and will forever remain) a quest... The term perfection is itself a very deep word and not to be used lightly. Perfection is more a journey than a destination...

Even going by my earliest memories, I can recall how my father and guru, Shri Chitravina Narasimhan, inculcated an awareness of the concept of perfection and placed me on that never-ending-perpetually-challenging-but-perennially-rewarding path. And it was not merely about just singing or playing a note or phrase attractively. It was more about visualising it and conceptualising it the right way first and then attempting to execute it. Needless to say, this approach was extrapolated to rhythm and lyrics as well.

And my father's greatest ability as a guru was to make me enjoy this quest from day one... To me, this was as valuable as him teaching me hundreds of ragas and talas by age two and around half a thousand compositions by age five...

I firmly believe that these are perhaps the two greatest responsibilities of a guru - (a) instill the awareness and relentless pursuit of perfection in an aspirant and (b) create a sense of self-enjoyment from the very first step.

Thanks to my father and another early guru of mine, Shri A Narayana Iyer (to whom I will dedicate another post soon), I also realized very early on that any talk of perfection would only be lip service without an emphasis on correctness first. In other words, there is little to be gained by perfecting things incorrectly and even more to be lost by perfecting incorrect things... This is another story altogether and I will share it with you all sometime soon...

17 October, 2008

Hi there

I am thinking of penning my thoughts and sharing my experiences as and when time permits. I do hope that you all enjoy these ramblings and also find them useful...

More later,

Ravikiran