Book Review: Voices Within

Posted on February 11, 2007


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An impressive coffee-table book on Carnatic musicians may leave you quibbling about some of the text – but oh, the photographs!

FEB 11, 2007 – SLENDER FINGERS CARESSING THE BODY of a hollow piece of wood, lips pursed at its one extreme, eyes focused on an infinite beyond, the forearm and the instrument and the upper torso constituting the familiar triangle – the picture could be that of any flautist. Then you see how the photograph is lit, consigning its subject to a netherworld of light and shadow, as if to reflect an all-too-familiar struggle between genius and eccentricity – and you know at once this isn’t any flautist. It’s “Fluteâ€? Mali. Even the angle is off-kilter, giving the impression that the player exists in a dimension that’s just this little bit counterclockwise to our own – and God knows Mali didn’t walk with the rest of us. This is one of those pictures that doesn’t just speak a thousand words; it conjures up the person, his career, his life. Is it any wonder, then, that the accompanying text feels almost redundant?

It’s photographs like this one that make a must-read – or at least a must-see – out of the beautifully-produced Voices Within (Carnatic Music: Passing on an Inheritance), the first coffee-table book (filter coffee-table book, perhaps?) on the classical music of the South, written by Bombay Jayashri and TM Krishna, with Mythili Chandrasekar. Your first instinct may be to run your hands over the velvety black of the cover, and as you flip it over, the back cover is dotted with attributes that elevate a person beyond the level of a mere mortal: To listen to the urge of the inner voice, to recognise the gift within, to go where dreams beckon, to see what others don’t, to dare to change the context, to try to stand for something, this is to have realised The Self. These phrases add up to seven – perhaps a pointer that this number is a theme, for inside lies a tribute to seven wonders of the art form, seven pioneering Carnatic musicians: the singers Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GN Balasubramaniam and MS Subbulakshmi, the nagaswaram vidwan TN Rajarathnam Pillai, the mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, and, of course, TR “Maliâ€? Mahalingam.

Such listing exercises are always interesting, for they always stir up a debate along the lines of, “But why not…â€? But why not… DK Pattammal? But why not… Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer? But why not… someone representing another instrument, say, Chowdiah? And this is good because anything that gets people talking about art is good. The authors’ reasons for sticking with this specific septet are their own – and that’s justification enough. Each musician is discussed in a chapter that breathlessly skims through biographical information and anecdotal quips and highlights of what made the music unique. Perhaps aware of the “what can be said of these geniuses that has not already been said beforeâ€? trap, the authors prepare us: “Voices Within is to be read not for information but for perspectives.â€? And this is just as it should be, for if we wanted mere information about, say, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, we’d pick up the biography by LRV (simply titled Ariyakudi). And it’s the perspectives of these greats – especially through the eyes of two contemporary singers – that would make this exercise worthwhile.

And there are perspectives – in asides labelled “From the heartâ€?, which are quotes from the authors describing the emotional effect these artists have had on them. A particularly evocative instance of this is a description of Palghat Mani Iyer’s playing, “… like a lion on the prowl. It’s almost like he is eating into everybody else’s musical presence.â€? The metaphor is startling – yet strangely right. Only a musician, perhaps, could have made us think about the predatory manner in which the sounds of percussion loom over the other sounds in a concert – but which musician is saying this? TM Krishna? Bombay Jayashri? None of these confessions are attributed to one or the other, leaving you curious about whose heart these from-the-heart revelations are really from. And I know I’m getting greedy here, but I also wish there had been a top-ten for each of the seven artists, compiled by the authors. It would have been a subjective list, of course, but it could have set readers off on their own voyages of exploration into this music.

That’s one of the ways Voices Within leaves you asking for more. A more exhaustive timeline of the life of the musicians, perhaps? More captions for the pictures, perhaps? More consistency in style, perhaps? (Even if you get past the mildly florid prose – “…he was the Channel G (NB) of his time, with special reverb effectsâ€? – you may balk at the raga being spelt as “kambhojiâ€? in the GNB section and “kambodiâ€? in the Semmangudi section, or at the fact that within the same sentence, “shankarabaranamâ€? and “shanmukhapriyaâ€? are italicised, while “kalyaniâ€? and “thodiâ€? aren’t. The subjects of this book strived for nothing less than perfection, so surely it’s not all that much to expect that in the authors too.) Besides, in a flip-through volume of this nature, did we really need the information that Ariyakudi was miserly or that TR Mahalingam had an appetite for racing and gambling or that there were psychological underpinnings to the latter’s eccentricities? In an all-out biography, these topics would be pit-stops on the course to greatness, where we’d pause and ponder that they were human too, but when the point of the exercise is primarily an overview – why?

Then again, you can’t miss the ambition in Voices Within – as if it wants to be more than just an overview, more than just a coffee-table book where the text is merely a footnote to the photographs – and this creates its own set of problems. We are told that Rajarathnam Pillai was “the first to tame the suddha madhyama, which had till then eluded the grasp of nagaswara vidwans.â€? A newcomer to Carnatic music may just register this as an accomplishment and move on, but others – who know the music but do not especially know the history – may wonder: Why couldn’t the earlier nagaswara vidwans tame the suddha madhyama? After all, it’s just a note, and if they could play the lower sa and the upper sa, thus encompassing the octave, why did the ma in-between prove a particular problem? Has this got to do with the fact that Rajarathnam Pillai was “the first to play the bari nayanam, a longer pipe?â€? So the earlier players who used the shorter pipe, if they couldn’t get a handle on the suddha madhyama, did that mean they couldn’t get a handle on the first 36 melakarta ragas either, all of which are based on the suddha madhyama? So no nagaswara vidwan before Rajarathnam Pillai could correctly belt out a Thodi or a Mayamalavagaula?

But given the non-academic nature of the book, it’s more useful to dwell on what’s been done well – and more often than not, the basics of the masters are brought out in a clear, concise style. (Of GNB’s raga development, for instance, we are told that his “stair-like approach was in contrast to the free-flowing style that was the norm till then… The insight into a raga shifted to a more note-based approach.â€?) And if it were not for archeological efforts such as these, how many of us from newer generations would know – say – that TR Mahalingam once claimed, “… I believe I am better at violin than what I am on the flute.â€? More such information comes from the pages titled “Those were the days,â€? that appear between the chapters on the seven musicians. These are time capsules of the era these artists lived in, and these unexpected detours into Devadasis and wedding kutcheris and the Tamil Isai movement serve as charming non sequiturs in the midst of a particularly serious conversation.

And then there’s this book’s stunning reason for being – the photographs. A concert at a wedding in movie mogul SS Vasan’s family, featuring an all-star lineup of musicians that could rival anything in the producer’s blockbusters. (Ariyakudi; TN Krishnan on the violin; Palghat Mani Iyer on the mridangam; Palani Subramania Pillai on the kanjira; and the students sitting around, the likes of KV Narayanaswamy, Rajam Iyer and Palghat Raghu.) GNB and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan posing in front of a rock sculpture in Mahabalipuram. TR Mahalingam on the flute, accompanied by Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar on the violin and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer on the mridangam. (And what a rare performance that must have been!) A programme sheet from an Ariyakudi concert in 1943, sponsored by Hamam and Oriental Balm, with a listing that begins with varnam (Vanajakshi in Kalyani) and ends with disclaimer (“subject to alterationâ€?).

But these are merely memories – golden memories, yes, but merely reflections of events, happenings, things past. The real photographic treasures here are the insights into the artists. A sheet of notepaper with Kambodi varnam notations interrupted by the 12-year-old Semmangudi’s attempts to scrawl his signature. A speech written in English, with certain words transliterated in Tamil, indicating MS’ attempts to get the pronunciation just right. A few lines of verse from GNB, the poet, scrawled in his handwriting: “Is light within us or is it without/We are forever torn in doubt.â€? There’s something unbearably touching about being witness to other people’s innermost moments. It’s like running your hands over the armour of a great warrior and suddenly locating a chink – a tiny testimony to the fact that these unbelievably public people had their private selves too. If there’s one lasting legacy of Voices Within, it may be this – that it celebrates its subjects as both gods and men.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Music: Classical