March 22, 1996

Moving the heart

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

SEMMANGUDI SRINIVASA IYER, the ripe old sangita pitamaha, the ultimate authority on the theory and practice of Carnatic music for three generations of music lovers, is no enemy to the changing trends. He sees them as the inevitable results of socio-economic developments which catapulted a traditional art from its feudal bastions to the modern auditoria of towns and cities.

Naturally, his comments on the evolution of Carnatic music start on a nostalgic note. Though the child Cheenu carried only an impression of the excellence of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, he was old enough to be thrilled by the stalwarts of the golden age—his own guru Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Semmangudi’s heart is still with them.

“Their repertoire was limited to 100-150 songs —mainly those of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. No newfangled ragas or contemporary compositions. They sang precisely those traditional ragas which are shunned today. But those are the ragas which continue to be relished even now. Touch them and they glow with life and energy. The new ragas, what are they but a grid of notes? You can go up and down the scale in several speeds. You can show off ‘crossword puzzle’ skills but they cannot touch the heart.”

Is this not a strange statement from one who has himself popularised rare ragas (Bhavapriya, Chalakabhairavi, Narayanagowla), and new compositions (from Swati Tirunal to Ambujam Krishna)? “But I only sang swara passages in those ragas. Certain ragas lose their lustre and identity in expansion. They lead us into forbidden areas. As for introducing new compositions, all I did was to renovate and reconstruct the old. Some new songs I set to tunes in the old ragas.”

But the modern musicians directed their sharp minds and creative agility to explore ragas like Revati and Kamala Manohari, which were limited and brittle. “Are we to admire these performers because, instead of nectar, they choose to drink neem oil?”

Display of theoretical proficiency had its place. As at the morning demonstrations at the Music Academy, Madras, when the senior vidwans gathered to share their experience and expertise. Tiger Varadachariar would tell you exactly where to place the madhyanta in Begada, S. Ramanathan would discuss music in the Sangam age or Palghat Mani Iyer might explain a sankirna nadai pallavi. (Talks those days were performance-oriented, unlike today’s focus on theory for its own sake.)

Semmangudi had himself learnt the imposing composition which strings the 72 parent scales together. But he left it to M.S. Subbulakshmi to stage it. His disciples, if they were lucky, may have heard him singing a late-night Bhairavam or Malavi in solitude, but he reserved serious melodising for the all-time favourites like Todi and Khambhoji. Asked “Why?” he retorted, “What do you mean why? They are inexhaustible sources of bliss, that’s why!” Semmangudi then mesmerises you with the magnificence of Dhanyasi, Purvikalyani, Bhairavi, Nilambari, Saveri, Mukhari, Ataana.... He dwells their simple phrases with a passion which visibly overwhelms the singer.

“Our music is based on the combination of straight and oscillating notes. A singer must learn the precise degrees of those gamakas from the veena. This phrase is  common to Todi and Dhanyasi. But see how accenting makes them different. Now listen to this Sankarabharanam.... Did you hear the four ways of pitching the same suddha madhyama?”

Semmangudi did not learn these subtleties from manuals but from a wide exposure to good singing. “This generation is interested not in raga-steeped music, but in swara-based feats—fast, full of mathematical calculations and virtuosic displays. They are cold manipulations, without feeling—like an Englishman lisping in Tamil! As in everything, swara-singing must have balance and restraint. It must have precision and meaning, not just grammar and spelling. I know, you will say that metropolitan tastes and lifestyles have impacted on classical music and dictated these developments. People attend concerts, not as they go to temples, but as they would go to the theatre for entertainment. Our artists are compelled to please them.”

Semmangudi notes also that the influence of Hindustani music has brought novel flavours, a highlighting of straight ( suddha) notes. Muthuswami Dikshitar did introduce Jayjayvanti and Hamir, but fitted them into the Carnatic mould. Today plain imitation replaces adaptation.

Semmangudi not only sees the violin as indispensable to Carnatic music but perceives a remarkable stylistic variety in its progress. Among the Western instruments to make a recent entry into the Carnatic world, he accepts only the mandolin because U. Srinivas handles it with such competence. “But without the contact mike, where is the mandolin? I am not against it, I will even agree that the contact mike has made it possible for us to hear the length and vibrations of the veena phrases as never before. But I regret that our youngsters mistake loudness for excellence.”

Semmangudi also deplores the lack of a “mike sense” which makes the singer treat the mike as a contact mike! This distorts the voice and makes it boom without clarity. Amplification has led to a neglect of voice culture. “No depth anymore. Many of them are satisfied to float on the surface. Pleasing no doubt, but can it ever be wholesome?”

In Semmangudi’s youth, a career in music offered no security. Parents looking for grooms said, “A singer? Let us find a sarkari officer, a bank clerk, a civil engineer....” The scene has changed totally. Recently, corporate sponsorship of music has made the art more respectable and lucrative than ever before. The Carnatic musician has become a globetrotter, even a glamour figure. For the NRIs, supporting music means keeping contact with their culture.

Today there are innumerable awards, honours and titles to encourage the artists. “I am not sure that this a good thing. For us, honours were few and far between and we really had to work for them.” Moreover, the aristocratic patrons were astute in assessing the real worth. To be chosen to head the Swati Tirunal Music College in Thiruvananthapuram and to edit the songs of that royal composer was a great mark of distinction for Semmangudi.

Semmangudi believes that modern listeners have become desensitised to music because of its omnipresence and easy accessibility. “In the past you had to seek music and savour it. So every concert lingered as an unforgettable experience. Overexposure develops ‘iron ears’—deaf to nuances and clamouring for excitement. We have no peace in today’s presentations.”

A welcome change of contemporary times is the emergence of women as stage performers. “In our villages womenfolk never dared to hum or show any interest in singing. Just as Rukmini Devi made Bharatanatyam acceptable as a pursuit for women, vocalist D.K. Pattammal made music a respectable career for them. And to tell you the truth, girls are taking the shine out of the boys with their pleasing voices and assured command of all aspects of concert singing.”

Why does Semmangudi hesitate to give advice and make suggestions to the youngsters? Fear of rejection, of controversy?

“Yes,” he admits ruefully. “Very few persons have that commanding stature. When a listener stood up to demand a light number in the middle of Musiri Subramania Iyer’s serious singing, laya maestro Dakshinamurti Pillai roared out, ‘Shut up and sit down. Have you any taste?’ It seems my own uncle violinist Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer too was a martinet.”

“Once when Krishna Iyer accompanied Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer’s bursts of vocal fireworks, he put the bow down to say, ‘Vaitha! Why are you into these circus tricks? You sound like a jungle crow, your voice is ruined.’ Then he outlined a simple but soulful Sankarabharanam ‘Mahima teliya tarama....’ With a lump in his throat, Vaidyanatha Iyer said, ‘Sir, why have I gone so far away from this divine music?’ Krishna Iyer at his last concert with that singer spoke again, ‘Vaitha! You sing with your eyes closed. You have got it!’

“On his deathbed soon after, friends tried to console  Vaidyanatha Iyer. But the singer said to them, ‘I do not weep because I am dying. I wasted all my life in barks and howls. Only now have I realised what music means. If only I could perform two concerts more, I will die in peace.’” Semmangudi is convinced that good music should move the heart, not titillate the mind.

Does this mean a musician must be charged with devotion? “That is precisely what I mean. Not bhakti towards the godhead but towards music itself. The musician must not weep on the stage, but make the listener shed tears as soon as he hears the raga. Do you understand? It is this which sanctifies the art and makes it a matrix of all that is good and noble in the human mind.”

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