- A Seshan, Mumbai

April 5, 2005 

The duo Ranjani-Gayatri sang at Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai, on March 12, 2005. The sisters are leading violin vidushi-s too.  That there was a large audience despite the ongoing BEST bus strike was a testimony to their popularity. They had received the Sangeetha Shiromani Award from the Sabha last year. What is more, they are products of the Sabhaís Sangeeta Vidhyalaya. 

The programme started with the ever-green varnam ("Era Naapai") in Todi and Adi of Patnam Subramanya Iyer. Compositions like varnam and Syama Sastri's swarajati are replete with swara-s and it is superfluous to engage in swaraprasthara for any line in them. The artistes eschewed it in a refreshing contrast to the prevailing practice. It was followed by a rarely-heard  kriti ("Paramananda Natana") of Swati Tirunal in Kedaram (Adi). After Papanasam Sivanís Dhanyasi kriti in Rupakam ("Balakrishnan") they rendered "Marubalga" in Sriranjani (Adi) with a lively niraval on "Dari Nerigi" bringing back nostalgic memories of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who had popularised it with his inimitable jazzy presentation perking up  audience attention and producing  a carnival-like atmosphere.   One outstanding aspect of the sisters' music is their ability to establish the identity of the raga even in the opening phrases of the alapana. This was evident in a substantial measure in Ranjani's alapana in Sriranjani, which is close to Abhogi. Diskhitar's "Mamava Meenakshi" in Varali (Triputa) was sedate in vilamba kala. Begada ("Nadopasana" in Adi) in which Gayatri did the alapana was yet another elaborate piece which reminded one of Semmangudi. Then followed a capsule presentation of "Padavini" of Tyagaraja in Salagabhairavi, a Salaga or Chayalaka Raga carrying shades of Bhairavi, in Adi.  This too often had found a place in the Semmangudi repertoire. 

Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi (RTP) in Subhapantuvarali and Adi were given an extensive treatment for about 45 minutes contrary to the tendency of many musicians to rush through them just for the sake of adhering to concert tradition.  Despite their expertise in  the  idiom of Hindustani music, the sisters resisted the tendency to bring in  shades of Miyan-ki-Todi. The line chosen for the Pallavi was "Satya Gnanananda Mayam Sarvam Vishnu Mayam" taken from the pallavi of the Dikshitar kriti "Sri Satyanarayanam". My guru veena maestro Devakottai Narayana Iyengar used to say that the pallavi-s of the kriti-s of Dikshitar lend themselves beautifully for exposition as Pallavi in RTP. I realised once again how true it was after listening to the RTP. It was rounded off with a ragamalikai in swaraprastara in Sri, Ritigaulai, Kalyanavasantam and Sivaranjani. Another ragamalikai in the form of a viruttam ("Nadum Nagaramum") came in succession in which the melodies were in Kharaharapriya, Mohanam and Sindhu Bhairavi. The song of Papanasam Sivan in Sindhu Bhairavi ("Chandrasekhara"), popularised by the late Alathur Brothers in a 78-rpm record, was heard after a long time evocatively rendered. Swati Tirunal's Hamsanandi song ("Sankara Sri Giri") was sung in the Hindustani bhajan style in the equivalent raga Sohini. The sisters showed their mettle in Sant Gyaneshwar's Marathi abhang in Maru Bihag.  The last two songs provided scope to them to indulge in some vigorous taan-s typical of Hindustani music. The concert came to a close with a Tamil song ("Ittarani").

Ranjani's approach to raga delineation is somewhat restrained emphasising bhava. Gayatri is more flamboyant in an aesthetic way. Thus they complement each other well. Briga-s and other gamaka-s were seen in abundance in the major raga-s. Their diction is flawless. There is no question about their technical virtuosity thanks to guru P S Narayanaswamy.   Thus they have all the qualities required of good musicians. However, there are a couple of points, which I would like to bring to their notice as a rasika. The first is that they should engage in karvai (sustained note) much more than what was observed in the concert. If some of the maestros of yesteryears were popular it was one of the reasons. It is typical of the nagaswaram style of vocal music followed by their Paramaguru Semmangudi (guru of their guru). Karvai produces repose (saukhyam). Again it is this element which is dominant in Hindustani vocal music making it attractive to listeners. Secondly, they should avoid the occasional tendency to end certain musical phrases abruptly; instead they should round them off with an appropriate finishing touch.

The influence of Semmangudi on the singers was evident. There is nothing wrong in this. It is desirable that, in the early stages of their professional career, musicians have a popular role model to follow. Once they establish themselves firmly they can spin off into their own bani (style). A couple of successful examples may be cited. After the death of Madurai Mani Iyer rasika-s found solace in the music of his disciple T V Sankaranarayanan complete with the musical mannerisms of his guru. Later, as he blossomed into a leading musician in his own right, he developed his individual  style. Similarly, the following of the MS bani, including the timbre of voice, by C Saroja of the popular Bombay Sisters attracted audiences to their concerts in the beginning.  But now one does not find traces of that influence.

In keeping with the high quality of the vocal music the accompanists acquitted themselves well. H N Bhaskar on the violin matched the sisters phrase for phrase, whether in alapana or swaraprastara, besides showing his manodharma.  The tanam was rendered in a scintillating fashion with spells of sphuritam, reflecting the artiste's current training under M S Gopalakrishnan. The tani avartanam, which followed Begada, was a good opportunity for Neyveli Skandasubramanyan (Mridangam) and  N Guruprasad (Ghatam) to demonstrate their technical competence. If the former's play was marked by fiery flashes of pharan-s and the soft syllables of toppi, the latterís  response  was characterised by the sunadam (sweet sound) of gumki, a gamaka in rhythm. Veteran Raghu provided excellent support on the Tambura. 

To sum up, it was an evening well spent.  One encouraging experience was that there was no mass exodus to the canteen during tani. And, in general, the audience remained seated until the Mangalam was completed. Does it mark a new trend in audience manners sadly lacking in many Carnatic music concerts? One hopes that it will be sustained like karvai!

A Seshan is an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, formerly Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Economic Analysis and Policy in the Reserve Bank of India. He is a music and dance enthusiast and writer