Five Songs for the Week — 11

Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, MS Subbulakshmi, Doreswami Iyengar, Karukurichi P Arunachalam (with Nachiyarkovil Raghavan Pillai and Nidamangalam Shanamukhavadivel)

Vishnu Vasudev
5 min readMay 26, 2024

One: Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer — Nrityati, Nrityati (Raga Shankarabharanam, Swati Tirunal)

Last week, I spoke of my discovery of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer’s music. Here is a second rendition of his that you must listen to. I have often thought of tanam music on the veena as an ultimate form of Carnatic music, an animated distillation of raga-ness. This rendition is a perfect example. Sambasiva Iyer seems to have loved playing tanam, with most of of his kriti renditions preceded by one. There is a sense of an insistent, barely contained exuberance that is beautifully expressed. The kriti itself is one that I have not heard before and seems like a simple one with repeating refrains and tempo changes. It describes Shiva’s dance. The piece starts at the 25-minute mark.

Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer (veena); Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (veena + voice), Karaikudi Muthu Iyer (mridangam)

Two: Ranganayaki Rajagopalan — Vinayakuni (Raga Madhyamavati, Thyagaraja)

If I particularly appreciate the tanam of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, I find myself drawn to the swara-kalpana improvisation of his disciple Ranganayaki Rajagopalan. She creates a sort of enveloping world, a note-filled miasma out of which one is reluctant to emerge. Her playing, on the whole, is calm, controlled and emphatic, and invariably her kriti rendition is at a slightly slower tempo than expected. Here is a fine rendition of one of my favourite compositions in the raga Madhyamavati. The piece begins at 00:49:49.

Three: MS Subbulakshmi — Sarasaksha (Raga Pantuvarali, Swati Tirunal)

Pantuvarali is a raga that has grown on me over time. I have selected this piece from a 1956 concert largely for MS Subbulakshmi’s soaring, brisk, masterly alapana in the raga. The alapana does not seem ‘packaged’ at all and she is evidently completely immersed in it, as one might imagine a general on the battlefield, commanding her soldiers forth, to maximise the impact of their seminal and daring charge. I am not always a fan of Swati Tirunal’s compositions — at times it feels like he tries too hard, with too many seemingly unnecessary changes in tempo, and sometimes it feels like he hasn’t tried enough, with the song fairly monotonous. This piece is an exception, its quick syllabic succession perfectly matched with the zeitgeist of the raga. The piece begins at the 18:44 mark.

MS Subbulakshmi (voice); Radha Sadasivam (voice); RK Venkatarama Sastri (violin); Mavelikkara Krishnankutty Nair (mridangam); Umayalapuram Kodhandarama Iyer (ghatam)

Four: Doreswami Iyengar — Kaddanuvaariki (Raga Todi, Thyagaraja)

It is easy to associate the Mysore style of veena playing with a certain lilting, light, softness (to use three carnatic cliches in succession). Given the relatively low reliance on the strong ‘pulling’ of strings to create depth in gamakas, it is reasonable to presume that the presentation of relatively ‘heavy’ ragas like Todi by Mysore-school vainikas would lack heft and conviction. As if precisely to dispel such notions, Doreswami Iyengar played the raga Todi quite often, and Kaddanuvaariki, in particular. If Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer’s Shankarabharanam tanam embodied insistent joy, this kriti embodies insistence itself, from the stress on kaddanu in the very first syllable, and on to each extending sangati throughout the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. Here is a rendition by Iyengar from the famous Parvati House in Mysore, from the year of his passing (1997). The song begins at the 01:30:41 mark.

Doreswami Iyengar (veena); D. Balakrishna (veena); Cheluvaraj (mridangam); MA Krishnamurthy (ghatam)

Five: Karukurichi P Arunachalam [with Nachiyarkovil Raghavan Pillai and Nidamangalam Shanmukhavadivel on Tavil)]— Ela Nee Dayaradu (Raga Atana, Thyagaraja) [with a Tavil duet]

I recently came into possession of several LPs from my late maternal grandfather’s collection. There were several discs of vocal music, especially of the trio of MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari and DK Pattammal, some of Balamuralikrishna, MD Ramanathan and Madurai Mani Iyer, a lot of veena (though surprisingly, given his antecedents, none from the Mysore school) and a few discs of Flute Mali and his disciple N Ramani. I was surprised to note several records of nadaswaram, and of one artiste in particular — Karukurichi P Arunachalam.

I was intrigued by this predilection, and at about the same time an alert popped up on Youtube for a concert of his. Do listen to this rendition of Ela Nee Dayaradu (Balakanagamaya) in Atana. I have not listened to nadaswaram (or thavil) music enough to be able to know and appreciate the finer points of the tradition or of sound production from the instruments. But even to a lay person like me, as soon as I head the thavil tani-avarthanam that follows the piece, I knew I was listening to something quite special. What blew me away, especially was the ‘gumki’ tones being produced by the first thavil player in particular. I do not know the sequence of thavils — whether it was Raghavan Pillai or Shanmukhavadivel who was producing these ‘gumkis’.

Gumki’ is a technique in percussion in which a bass stroke is elongated, and while being elongated, varied in pitch. On the mridangam, for a right-hander, this is produced on the left drum surface, using the base of the palm to vary the tension of the membrane as it reverbraates. Pazhani Subramania Pillai was the acknowledged master of the gumki on the mridangam. (To my mind, his disciple Guruvayur Dorai comes an under-appreciated second). But the membranes of the the thavil are much tougher, tighter and far less elastic than the surfaces of the mridangam. The ‘left’ equivalent on a thavil is struck with a stick, and is very small. Also the rims of a thavil protrude terrifically, reducing the effective playing surface of a thavil. Given all of this, I have no idea how a ‘gumki’ can be produced on a thavil, let alone be played with such great frequency and elan. Going by the comments on the video, it is apparent that both Nachiyarkovil Raghavan Pillai and Nidamangalam Shanmukhavadivel were considered legends of the instrument, and no wonder!

The rendition of the kriti itself is wonderful, with Arunachalam doing justice to both the composition and the raga. A small illustration of this is how he manages to keep the notes for ‘Ra Ra’ in the charananam line ‘Ra ra devadidava…’ short, plain and emphatic before embellishing them ever so slightly. It shows complete ease of conception and mastery over his instrument. The piece starts at 46:10.

Karukurichi P Arunachalam (nadaswaram); Nachiyarkovil Raghavan Pillai (tavil); Nidamangalam Shanmukhavadivel (tavil)



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.