The Big 6 Ragas as friends, and in the voice of MS Subbulakshmi
In a few days from now, on 23 February, 2021, I will have the pleasure of speaking with Keshav Desiraju on the music and life MS Subbulakshmi, in the context of his wonderful new biography of her. The online event is being organized by the Bangalore International Centre. You can register for the event here. To mark the event, I am resurrecting a blog post first published in 2013 on the ‘Big 6’ carnatic ragas, and embellishing it with offerings in the voice of MS Subbulakshmi.
When we think of the Big 6 ragas of Carnatic music, invariably the first two that come to mind are Shankarabharanam and Kalyani. The rest are Kambhoji, Kharaharapriya, Bhairavi and Todi.
If you think of ragas as your friends as I tend to do, Kharaharapriya is the long lost friend, perhaps even a distant cousin — the bond exists, but is not evident until you meet him — you give him credit, because credit is due and the meeting is pleasant enough. [My view of changed somewhat since I wrote this, after I listened to a brilliant alapana by Vijay Siva at the Parthasarathy Swami Sabha some years ago].
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Pakkala Nilabadi, by Thyagaraja during her 1967 Music Academy concert. The piece starts at the 43:38 mark.
Kambhoji is the somewhat emotional one and slightly needy — you don’t think of him until he comes to you. When he is in your face, you cannot escape him, and neither do you want to. He could become a she and become your lover — you have a lovely fling — afterward what you remember are not the specific attributes of Kambhoji, but what what you felt when when you were with Kambhoji.
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing O Rangasayee, by Thyagaraja during her 1970 Music Academy concert. The piece starts at the 1:01:00 mark.
Todi is an acquired taste. And yet, even after all the hard work of acquisition, he is not one to be summoned at will. He summons you, usually at odd times, and when there is a certain something in the air — not quite the mood of unease, but of not quite knowing. Todi is magnetic — not much preparation is required, either you resonate with the Ma-Ri oscillation, or you do not. The conversation may fizzle out — both of you shrug your shoulders and move on.
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Shri Krishnam Bhaja Manasa, by Muthuswami Dikshitar.
Bhairavi is professorial — you make an appointment, visit during office hours, you maintain a respectful distance unless it’s Happy Hour, in which case you make a geeky joke, just to show that you can be clever if you want to, just to get him to notice you. Mostly you are just glad to be there and imbibe as much as you can through osmosis — the thrill is in knowing that this is good for you, that if you can engage Bhairavi for as long as you have, you’re all set — you’ve arrived, you can speak your mind, you’re not a pretender.
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Koluvaiyunnade, by Thyagaraja during a concert in the 1950s at Thiruvayyaru. The piece starts at the 18.39 mark.
But the two who remain with you wherever you go, who reside in your heart, whether you want to acknowledge them or not, are Kalyani and Shankabharanam. You can summon them at any time and they do not mind. They can call you at any time, and you do not mind. You hang out. Kalyani is the cad of the pack — flashy, often cliched. He knows he’s the King of the Prati Madhyama Ragas — Commander of 36, in a population of 72. He is swagger. He announces himself with a dramatic entry and expects everyone to notice. He can be erratic. He can arrive sloshed, he can come in jet-lagged, but he will still command the room, because he is so recognizable, so flash, so whatever he is. He puts himself out there — in the higher octaves, lower octaves — he tries, he may fail, but so what? He puts himself out there. He is Sehwag, Mickleson, Ali, Guga and Maradona rolled in one — so familiar but so unpredictable on some days, and oh so predictable on others. You love him mainly because he remembers you, acknowledges you, cares what you think of him, but that’s not what you admit to yourself. You think he’s the shallow poser that you can just about tolerate. But in your heart, you know you’ll miss him terribly if and when he moves on — he’s one of the few people you can actually rely on to be themselves, and by extension, he’s one of the few people around which you can be yourself.
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Birana Brova Ide, by Tarangapadi Panchanada Iyer during a 1973 concert at the Rama Seva Mandali, Bangalore. The song begins at about 32:01.
And then there’s Shankarabharanam. The Almighty Listener that you don’t even notice until you realize that you’ve been talking to yourself for an hour, and somehow everything is now magically clear and straightforward, magically simple and positive, if only you would stop waffling about and take the next small step, in the right direction.
Listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Sadasivam Upasmahe, by Muthuswami Dikshitar during her 1968 Music Academy concert. The song begins at 52:46.
Thank you for reading and listening.