Five songs for the week — 6

Doreswamy Iyengar, Amritha Murali, JA Jayanth, Palladam Sanjiva Rao, Kesarbai Kerkar

Vishnu Vasudev
6 min readAug 21, 2023

One: Doreswamy Iyengar — Naama Kusuma (Raga Shri, Thyagaraja)

The first week of August was when the communal clashes in Haryana originating in Nuh were on. It had spread to Sohna and Gurgaon, where I live. Things were a bit tense and the pall depressing. Further, I was in the midst of a really busy time at work. I was driving to work, listening to music and this piece played. As soon as it came on, it enveloped me like a balm, Shri raga doing its magic. I have taken solace in Thyagaraja’s music before. The effect on me is immediate but subtle — the underlying condition of being disturbed or worried or helpless does not go away with the music, but there is a momentary calm, a touch of escape, a settling of thoughts, and a micro-dose of fortitude that replenishes my faith in the future.

Naama Kusuma (Starts at 00:30:02). Doreswamy Iyengar (veena); D Balakrishna (veena support); Palghat Raghu (mrindangam), Manjunath (ghatam)

When I was listening to this concert, I assumed Vellore Ramabhadran was the mridangam player, and was a little pleased with myself for being able to identify the artiste by recognizing their playing style. I was surprised to learn that the mridangam player was Palghat Raghu. It sounded very much like Ramabhadran’s mridangam, with its softness of tone, hallmark unobtrusiveness with neat, proportionate and uncannily perfect embellishments. Not necessarily what I expected from the mridangam of Palghat Raghu. This was another reminder to me that pre-conceived notions are seldom useful.

There is a tendency in Carnatic music to exalt the ‘gayaki’ style of playing instruments. Gayaki ang or style means the ability to mimic the voice or vocal style. Many instrumentalists have in the past vaunted their ability to play in gayaki ang and have claimed to be pioneers in this respect. To my mind, these claims are over-extended and somewhat meaningless in the context of Carnatic music (versus, say, the context of Hindustani music, from where the idea has been borrowed). It could even be argued that playing an instrument in a 100% vocal style does disservice to the capabilities of the instrument. This thought struck home again, when listening to this rendition by Doreswami Iyengar. When I was listening to it, I was listening to Naama Kusuma is Sri raga, by Thyagaraja. It was an immersive experience. And yet, if I were to pay close attention and dissect each note and slides or skips between notes to understand how each phrase was produced, it is clear that it was not played in a ‘gayaki’ ang. There was no mimicking of voice, but it was indisputably an authentic rendition of a Carnatic krithi, and an excellent one at that.

Two: Amritha Murali — Rama Bhakti Samrajyam (Raga Shuddha Bangala, Thyagaraja)

Perhaps because of the similarity of scales of the two ragas Shri and Shuddha Bangala, and the opening notes of Naama Kusuma and Rama Bhakti, for a split second, I confused the two when listening to Doreswamy Iyengar’s rendition. Here is Amritha Murali’s rendition of Rama Bhakti Samrajyam.

Rama Bhakti Samrajyam. Amritha Murali (vocal). HK Venkatram (violin). Arun Prakash (mridangam). Dr. S Karthick (ghatam).

Three: JA Jayanth — O Rangasayi (Raga Kambhoji, Thyagaraja)

The one Carnatic instrument to which the distinction between gayaki and tantrakari (instrumental) modes may be valid is the flute. The holes in a flute are akin to keys — each one a discrete ‘on-off’ button. Sound production is therefore fairly discontinuous, much like in the case of a piano. It is therefore technically challenging to to create smooth, sustained glides between notes, or have quick but fluid changes in tones and microtones. [This is as opposed to a violin with its fretless finger board and the ability to create long sustain with long strokes of the bow. The challenge in moving from tantrakari to gayaki ang in violin-playing is more a mindset shift than a technical challenge].

Indisputably, TR Mahalingam had the greatest ever influence in defining the modern sound of the Carnatic flute, with a radically new fingering technique and an emphasis on breath control that allowed for continuous and subtle changes in tone (making the gayaki ang possible).

Here is an extensive and energetic piece in the raga Kambhoji by JA Jayanth, one of the current stars of the Carnatic flute. His grandfather, TS Sankaran was a prominent disciple of Mahalingam.

O Rangasayi (starts at 00:36:00). JA Jayanth (flute). K Sai Giridhar (mridangam). L Ramakrishnan (violin). Dr. S Karthick (ghatam)

Four: Palladam Sanjiva Rao — Kshirasagara Shayana (Raga Devagandhari, Thyagaraja)

I have included this piece for contrast, for you to get a sense of the old style of flute playing, pre-Mahalingam. Palladam Sanjiva Rao was a celebrated flautist of the early-mid 20th century, and was conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title by the Music Academy in 1943. But once Mahalingam was on the scene, the appetite for Rao’s old style of flute playing quickly died away. His style, characteristic of the time, was characterized by quick fingering, really using the holes of the flute as ‘on-off’ keys, though not devoid of short glides. There is nothing wrong with that style per se, it is just a different aesthetic. I have deliberately chosen, perhaps unfairly, a piece in the raga Devagandhari, a raga that relies on smooth and expansive note transitions for its identity, to illustrate the perceived shortcomings of the old style.

Kshirasagara Shayana. Palladam Sanjiva Rao (flute).

I find his music quite pleasing, and the dexterity of his play is brilliant, but after all this conditioning, I don’t think I could listen to it for any length of time. It sounds a bit like ‘band music’. Another factor that hinders my ability to appreciate Rao’s music is his reported petulance when a young Mahalingam went to him to seek his blessings and approval. Upon listening to the young Mahalingam, Rao was apparently extremely rude and dismissive, behaviour no doubt fuelled by the dawning realisation that the baton had decisively passed. This is unfortunate, as this one act has tarnished his reputation irredeemably in the Carnatic world. Personally, I find myself increasingly unable to divorce my appreciation of music from the character, behaviour or views of its creator. I am not sure whether this is the right way to go about things or a self-inflicted handicap, or both.

Five: Kesarbai Kerkar — Jaat Kahaan Ho (Raag Bhairavi)

August 5th brought this brilliant bit of news from NASA:

How simple was that? Asking an object almost 20 billion kilometres away to simply point its antenna in a new direction, and voila! This bit of news reminded me of the golden record that are on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. It contains a sampling of sounds, greetings, music and images from Earth, circa 1977. Indian music is represented on the disc by a thumri in the raag Bhairavi by Kesarbai Kerkar of the Agra gharana. And what a poignantly apt choice! Here are the lyrics and translation:

First is the question:

Jaat kahan ho, akeli gori, jaane na paiyyon
Where do you go alone, girl, do your feet not know?

And the response, that could very well be that of lonely, unmoored, but committed Voyager herself:

Kesar rang ke maath bhaye hoy, Hori khelat Kanha re
The fields are colored saffron, Krishna plays Holi (there I go.)

Here, the shimmering rendition of Kesarbai Kerkar:

Kesarbai Kerkar passed away in September 1977 at the age of 85, within a month of the launch of Voyager 2, on August 20.

Incidentally, the selection of ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ for the golden record was apparently that of Robert E Brown, known as the person who coined the phrase ‘World Music’ and one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology in Western academia. He was particularly interested in Balinese music and Carnatic music. He set up the famous ethnomusicology program at Wesleyan University that nurtured the likes of Jon Higgins and provided visiting fellowships / professorships to a host of Carnatic musicians like T. Viswanathan, T. Ranganathan, S. Ramanathan, Ramnad Krishnan and K.V. Narayanaswami.



Vishnu Vasudev

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