Carnatic Music with the Piano

Posted on March 4, 2007


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A western classical instrument backs our classical music in a wonderfully introspective album.

MAR 4, 2007 – HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT YOU’D HEAR if Chopin structured a nocturne around a lyric of Subrahmanya Bharathi? I’m guessing not – because unless you stumble upon Sikkil Gurucharan giving voice to Aasai mugam, enveloped by the murmuring ripples from Anil Srinivasan’s piano, how could you even imagine this marriage? The effect of listening to this familiar song in this unfamiliar style is that it acquires the qualities you’d associate with a nocturne. It’s melancholic, dreamlike, quiet, reflective, and – most of all – evocative of the stillness of the night, and shorn of the distractions of daytime, you hear the words of the great Tamil poet like you’ve never heard them before (at least on a concert stage, where this composition is almost always performed in mid-tempo, in madhyamakala). Individual syllables seem to span entire beat cycles, and their being elongated over time has apparently imbued these words with elastic meanings. You think this lament reflects the poet’s grief upon forgetting the Lord’s face – especially given the line, Kannan mugam marandhu ponaal – but it’s almost as likely what Srinivasan tells you, that Bharathi’s grief is really about the loss of his mother’s photograph.

Meaning, clearly, is what mattered to classical vocalist Gurucharan and classical pianist Srinivasan in their album Madhirakshi, where six traditional compositions are sung to the accompaniment of a decidedly non-traditional piano. When you ask them why all the songs play out in slow-time, they say, “Because it emphasises the lyrics.” Srinivasan continues, “It’s been a dream of mine to present Carnatic music in its pristine form, but taking it slightly away from traditional accompaniment. I’ve been working with a lot of people, but it’s either been pure classical or fusion. I was looking at the middle – a contemporised classical form.” And things came together when he heard Gurucharan sing. “He was my junior in Vidya Mandir (Chennai). After a long time, I met him as a grown-up, while he was recording a project for our school’s golden jubilee celebrations. There’s a certain vulnerability about his voice that I found very appealing.” After that project, Srinivasan approached Gurucharan about Madhirakshi – though it wasn’t yet named then – and he saw that the excitement was mutual.

Madhirakshi is Srinivasan’s first conceptual effort, and he offers contemplation as another reason for the album’s unhurried tempi. “Our music is about trying to get in touch with that emotional space. There is a structured part of music and there is an unstructured part, just as there is a structured process in the brain – which is very rational – and there is an emotional process.” In Madhirakshi, Srinivasan and Gurucharan take the structure for granted – because the blueprints of Pirava varam (the Papanasam Sivan composition), for instance, have already been designed. “It is an existing song. But there is a certain emotion about it that we are trying to bring out by reflecting on the lyric. You need to give people time to keep up with what is going on in the piece, so that they think about it.”

This raises an inevitable chicken-and-egg question. Did the fact that all the compositions are rich in bhava, emotion, dictate the slow-time, or did the decision to create an album in slow-time necessitate the selection of these compositions rich in bhava? “Both,” says Srinivasan. “Because our theme was longing, yearning, desire.” Aasai mugam is the yearning for a lost memory. The Kshetragna padam Payyada is the yearning for a lost beloved. And there’s another kind of yearning – that of the listener for a lost familiarity. “They may expect chords and showmanship, and that’s also a desire – for something that’s not going to happen. Because if I take it fast on the piano, it becomes fireworks. I wanted to lay out a bed of sound [for Gurucharan’s vocals] and systematically develop the texture over which he sings. So I kept it slow.”

And Gurucharan kept getting irritated. The singer points to his senior and remembers, “He kept saying, ‘Slower, slower, slower…’, and it was a bit frustrating at first. It was difficult for me to sing, especially the padam, because I had to elongate notes for five or six seconds at a stretch.” But he soon got used to it. “I started Payyada with the thaalam in my mind, but by the time I came to the charanam which begins with Madhirakshi – the one with intoxicating eyes; this is where the album title comes from – something within me said that the thaalam had to stop.” Gurucharan admits to having other apprehensions. He is an established Carnatic singer, and he knew that people aren’t used to listening to Carnatic music along with the piano – even if Srinivasan counters that the violin isn’t exactly an Indian instrument either. “But when I let go of the thaalam as I began on Madhirakshi, that’s when I realised the intensity this album has.”

Srinivasan feels this intensity is inevitable. “It’s a very difficult padam, not just in terms of musical structure, but also in the intent. It’s a very deep viraha. Somehow, I’ve never heard satisfactory renderings of it.” And then he heard Gurucharan’s recording of Payyada in another album, and “I was blown away for two reasons. I was amazed that someone so young had got the viraha quality out of it so beautifully. And his rendering was so authentically the padam style. There’s a certain longing, a very profound sense of frustration in letting go. He had that quality.” And we return to the slow-time. “I felt this should not have percussion because it’s a lament. The nayika is saying, ‘He used to call me the woman with intoxicated eyes and yet he’s left me and gone away.’ Laments should not follow strict time. And secondly, the minute rhythmic percussion comes in, we start paying attention to the beat. It gives you an additional level of consciousness that you don’t need.”

That’s why this padam fit in so well with the overall concept, and the rest of the pieces were similarly chosen – based on the familiarity with the lyric. “They also had certain musical structures that are pleasing and can be presented in this format,” says Srinivasan. “Taking compositions of the Trinity, for instance, wasn’t an option. Because each kriti has a certain truth to it that has to be presented the right way. We’ve taken pieces that are classical, yet can be framed differently and still sound authentic.” During the recording, Srinivasan says they were in different rooms. “I was listening to him on my earphones and I just let myself play. Only for Omana thingal – Iraiyamman Thampi’s lullaby for his star pupil, Swati Tirunal – did we have a planned harmonic structure. Otherwise, a lot of it was improvised on the spot. And in some places, I’ve just kept quiet. It’s the rasanubhuti of silence.”

At first, Gurucharan kept insisting on “at least one fast number. But he said no because it would spoil the effect.” And at the end of the Hamsanandi viruttam (Sediyaga, Kulasekhara Alwar), Gurucharan was all set to launch into a kriti Srinivasa thiruvenkata – the way singers typically do after a viruttam, “but he axed that as well.” Anil explains why he axed that as well. “The lyrics are as if you are ascending steps and reaching a certain place in terms of your spiritual journey. There’s nothing more that needs to be said. After that, if you bring it down to a composition, the whole buildup is lost.” And Gurucharan later learnt from a percussionist that “this is how viruttams were sung once. The practice of singing a piece after a viruttam is recent. Earlier, viruttams would be a solo item by themselves.”

With all these deviations from the purist perspective, Gurucharan and Srinivasan understandably felt Madhirakshi would go over better with “people who hadn’t heard Carnatic music before,” as Srinivasan labels his target audience. (He is, after all, a marketing consultant in his day job.) “The lyrics are accessible, the emotions are universal – we thought it would appeal to those with a rasa. They may not know much about music, but they may have appreciated that one Rahman number that was slow and moving.” But they ended up covering the Carnatic audience too. “We thought they’d get very puritanical. Because in Payyada, for instance, I’m not always playing (the raga) Nadanamakriya. In order to highlight a change in the inflection of his singing at one point, I went from a major scale to a minor scale, with Simhendramadhyamam. The harmonies, even if they violate the raga, still make overall musical sense.” And that’s Madhirakshi, really. “In our mind’s eye, this is how we see these compositions. This is the way they make the most sense to us.”

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Music: Classical