Five Songs for the Week — 8

Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan, Jayanthi Kumaresh, C Charulatha, S Ramanathan, Geetha Raja

Vishnu Vasudev
5 min readSep 2, 2023

One: Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan — Raag Gunkali

I am now trying to learn two pieces in the raga Saveri from my music teacher. Saveri has the scale SRMPDS — SNDPMGRS. In the famous Sarusuda varnam, in the initial (mukthayi) swara passage, there a very small descending section without the notes Ni or Ga, so for just that little bit, it sounds like a pentatonic raga with SRMPDS — SDPMRS. And this pentatonic bit reminded me immediately of the Hindustani raga Gunkali, which is of the same scale. Specifically, it reminded me of one of my one-time prized possessions — a Nimbus label recording of Salamat Ali Khan with his two sons Sharafat Ali Khan and Shafqat Ali Khan singing three ragas — Gunkali, Saraswati and Durga. The scale is also apparently the predominent scale of traditional Japanese music.

Salamat Ali Khan was of course part of the famous duo with his elder brother Nazakat Ali Khan. Of the two, Salamat Ali Khan was known for his dazzling virtuosity. I have read of how the young duo dazzled audiences in India in the eary 50s, especially in Calcutta, at the famous Dover Lane festival (The brothers were born in the early 30s). This period from independence to up until the 1965 war was apparently a time of free flow of artistes across the India-Paksitan. This is a recording of the brothers singing Gunkali somewhere in Calcutta, some time in the 1950s. At over 2 hours long, this is the longest recital I have heard of a single raga. The mood the brothers create is that of a slow burn movie, perhaps a Wong Kar Wai classic. The finale, as always with the duo, is a blaze of viruosity, but do take time to savour the atmospheric build up. Salamat Ali Khan has a strong, sharp, sometimes excessively nasal voice, and was, as noted, known for this super-fast virtuosity. A seemingly under-appreciated strength though is his voice modulation, which occurs just as quickly as his traversing of notes, and with the same superb control and mindful intent. Even in the space of a super-fast taan, there are liable to be sudden, stunning switches in the tonality of his voice.

Raag Gunkali. Nazakat and Salamt Ali Khan

Two: Jayanthi Kumaresh — Ekamresha Nayike (Raga [Karnataka] Shuddha Saveri, Muthuswami Dikshitar)

A raga with the same pentatonic scale as Gunkali in Carnatic music is Karnataka Shuddha Saveri (or simply Shudda Saveri in the Muthuswami Dikshitar tradition). Here is the numero uno vainika of our times, Jayanthi Kumaresh, playing Dikshitar’s Ekamresha Nayike in that raga.

Ekamresha Nayike. Jayanthi Kumaresh (veena), JU Jayachachandra Rao (mridangam), Giridhar Udupa (ghatam).

Three: C Charulatha — Toli Janmamu (Raga Bilahari, Thyagaraja)

C Charulatha is surely a future star of the veena. Here is a very assured rendition of Thyagaraja’s Toli Janmamu in the raga Bilahari from a concert last year. I am a recent convert to the raga Bilahari. I have largely found the raga unthinkingly cheerful. But I have changed my mind over time, and sensitively played alapanas like this one by Charulatha certainly help. Charulatha is the grand daughter of the noted vainika and musicologist RS Jayalakshmi. [Note, I am 95% sure the song is Toli Janmamu, but not 100% sure! Forgive me if I am wrong.] The piece starts at 00:24:10. Pranav Swaminathan is on the mridangam and the veteran but still young Chandrasekhara Sharma on the ghatam.

Four: S Ramanathan — Ela Nee Dayaradu? (Raga Atana, Thyagaraja)

The 2022 concert by Charulatha was in memory of Dr. S Ramanathan. There are only two instances of music in my dreams that I recall. In one dream, I had fallen asleep on a hammock in the afternoon at some sort of beach-side cottage, and a recording of Pandit Jasraj singing the raga Madhmad Sarang came wafting through the air and invaded my sleeping mind. This is not so remarkable, as the Music Today recording of him singing the raga was one of my early favourite pieces of Hindustani music.

A second music-in-dream instance was one in which I heard S Ramanathan singing Ela Nee Dayaradu (‘Balakanakamaya’). Now this was really strange because I had never, as far as I knew, listened to him sing this song. So my mind had generated, like ChatGPT, a rendition of the song in the voice and style of S Ramanathan! I often wish my conscious musical ability was even a fraction of my sub-conscious one. Oh well.

Anyway, here is an actual rendition of him singing the song in question, in the raga Atana, with a superb neraval and swara passage. I think of Ramanathan as a musical anatomist, who is precise and skilled in this dissection and documentation of a song or a raga. He has absolutely no qualms adding in micro-pauses or splitting words if that is precisely what is required by the raga, by the musical idea of the phrase, or for the understanding and processing of either. To the extent that in some songs, he will split extended vowel sounds (like aa) absolutely precisely. It takes a little getting used to and you will find it annoying if you tend to be pedantic about lyrics. But I find his unfussy precision and delightful splicing aesthetically unimpeachable. His swara passages also tend to be precisely put together. In some renditions, his first few slow speed swara passages are like the first chitta swara passages of a varnam — with precise and varied spacing between notes and capturing the full essence of the raga in question.

Ela Nee Dayaradu (Balakanakamaya). Starts at 00:26:06. S Ramanathan (vocal). Lalgudi Jayaraman (violin). Vellore Ramabhadran (mridangam).

Five: Geetha Raja — Adi Neepai (Raga Yamuna Kalyani, Dharmapuri Subbaraya Iyer)

Last week, I shared a padam in the raga Sahana, with the deity Murugan in the role of the nayaka, the object of desire. This is a famous javali in the raga Yamuna Kalyani, with Rama as the object of attention. I have always been a little bit surprised by the number of padams and javalis centred on Rama (as opposed to say, Krishna). Rama is not a particularly romantic figure and can even come across as stern and prudish, always doing things by the book. I suppose Rama is a more popular deity in Tamil country, where most of these songs were composed, than is Krishna, but Rama still takes a bit of getting used to as the one to swoon over.

Geetha Raja is an eminent and senior disciple of the legendary T Brinda of the Dhannammal family. The family, more than any other, made the genre of padams and javalis their own while simultaneously sharing their knowledge widely. Here is Raja’s rendition, which does real justice to the sense of longing.



Vishnu Vasudev

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