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.