Interview: Sikkil Gurucharan

Posted on December 10, 2007


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Sikkil Gurucharan talks about December…

DEC 9, 2007 – AT LEAST ONE FAN OF SIKKIL GURUCHARAN will be paying very careful attention to the singer’s alapanas this month. You know this portion of the concert, of course. It’s when the musician closes his eyes, when he furrows his brow in utmost concentration. It’s when those apparently meaningless syllables pour forth, assuming instant meaning – upon materialisation – in the context of the contour of the raga. And it’s when his hands begin to scramble frantically at the air in front, as if attempting to dislodge his lotus-posed immobility.

These exertions, last year, caused the sleeves of Gurucharan’s kurta to roll back, only to reveal a sturdy wristwatch with an unremarkable strap of dull-brown leather. The fan was dismayed. In that instant, the music ceased to matter. He ran home and poured his anguished heart out in a words-to-this-effect email to his idol: “You should change your watch, because a gold strap will show you in an imposing light when you lift your hand to sing the raga. Oh, and while you’re at it, do go for gold-rimmed spectacles. Better still, switch to contacts.”

Will these fervent entreaties result in a makeover? The fan waits with bated breath – as does Gurucharan’s mother, who has given up trying to convince her young son about the inappropriateness of white kurtas at his age. Her advice: “They make you look older. Why don’t you try new colours?” At least she’s not wondering – as this other fan did – if Gurucharan chooses his kurtas to match the background of the sabha. For the record, he doesn’t – and the question forming shape, at this point, is this: Why is everyone talking about things that would seem to have no bearing on what’s really important – the music?

Oh, but these things are important in December. “All performances lead to the December season,” says Gurucharan. “The year closes in December, and people’s judgment of an artist also comes to a close in December.” Music is everywhere this month, when – at least among a section of the Chennai populace – musicians become as big as movie stars, capable of filling up entire concert halls in advance, capable of inspiring enough dewy-eyed devotion among fans to elicit not only vociferous approvals of sabash and balé, but also fashion-tips e-mails.

“The season is a benchmark,” says Gurucharan, with the hindsight of having made his breakthrough as a junior artist in December 2004. “Even in June or July, if you go to a concert, the rasikas say, ‘Did you hear him last season?’ They want to see how an artist copes with so many concerts, with the different accompanists, with the time constraints.” The media too – heretofore largely silent in matters of this music at the other end of the spectrum from popular – comes alive. “The newspapers say that wherever in the world you are, this is where you have to be for Carnatic music. Radio stations announce who’s going to sing and when and where. TV channels have concerts of their own.”

With such a splendid platform to showcase his wares, it isn’t surprising that Gurucharan begins preparing for the season by taking stock of his inventory. “I’ve started looking at my song lists from last season’s concerts, to avoid repeating the same pieces at the same venues this December,” he says. “You can’t avoid repeating the ragas themselves – you have ten or so big ragas, which are very easy on the ears of the rasikas (when it comes to the main piece of the concert). But the songs must be unique.” The implication is that even with a raga as inevitable as Sankarabharanam, the effort could be to favour the more intricate Dakshinamoorthe over a Mahalakshmi or an Enduku peddala.

“As an artist, people relate to you by the number of new compositions you render. Sometimes, you have to unearth songs of popular composers, so that it amounts to presenting something new – in the sense that even if others have sung it before, rasikas haven’t heard it from you.” Instances of such excavation – which Gurucharan hopes to exhibit this December – include Ramuni maravakave in the raga Pantuvarali, which he chanced upon in a Maharajapuram Santhanam recording, and Ekadantam upasmahe in Begada. And this is only about the rasikas, he insists, not reviews. Most of the rasikas come during the season, “so at that time if you present something new, it gets noticed better.”

This eloquence is, of course, all theory. In practice, Gurucharan readily admits, “It may all change once I look at my audience, once I warm up. I may not feel like going with a new song. Something familiar may work out better.” And if not the audience, the performer from the preceding timeslot may necessitate a hasty change-of-plan – the way things turned out a couple of years ago, when Gurucharan had his heart set on centering his performance on Ennalu urake, in the raga Shubhapantuvarali. “It’s a very nice Thyagaraja kriti. I learnt it. I wanted to inaugurate it during the season.”

And wouldn’t you know it, the performer just vacating the stage had singled out for main-piece elaboration a Shubhapantuvarali kriti that went… Ennalu urake! “Eventually I had to change to a ragam-tanam-pallavi in Keeravani,” says Gurucharan, brushing away with bromides the crushing disappointment he must have felt. He talks about how “improvisation makes music dearer to artists,” about how “you enjoy the challenge, because the audience is not aware of it, but you are.” But his true feelings finally bubble through the enforced restraint. “Depending on Shubhapantuvarali, I had planned the rest of the concert, so everything went haywire.”

This is no overstatement, if you take into careful account what Gurucharan means by “planning.” He explains, “Shubhapantuvarali is a prati-madhyamam raga, so if it is to be the main piece, the first half of the concert could have – for variety – a Mohanam, which does not have a madhyamam. You can’t sing a closer raga and then come to Shubhapantuvarali. The ideas may clash. But with Mohanam or a Mohanakalyani, the treatment is entirely different,” and this helps the audience as well as the artist. “The audience will get the difference between the two ragas. And you can project both ragas without beating around the bush to get the right flavour.”

So if the main piece is in a prati-madhyamam raga, Gurucharan tries to incorporate a suddha-madhyamam raga – or, as in his instance of Mohanam, a raga entirely devoid of the madhyamam – in the first half. “Based on that, there’s a varnam. The second piece may be an invocation to Vinayaka, or a medium-paced song that allows scope for swaram or neraval.” And then there could be a piece in a raga like Pantuvarali or (its suddha-madhyamam counterpart) Mayamalavagowla, for “these are ragas that have an immediate effect on the audience. They help you gain control over a concert. After that, it’s up to you to sustain the momentum.”

When it comes to the main piece, Gurucharan admits he finds it “safe and comfortable to sing a very popular raga,” but a little before or after, he may try out a new raga or experiment with a new song. This planning isn’t specific to December, but it is more conscious during the season, “because each concert lasts only two or two-and-a-half hours. You have to get warmed up and get the audience pulse within the first 20-25 minutes. Then you have to launch into a small raga alapana. And around the one-hour mark, you have to get to the main piece.”

Then comes the tail section – the variegated procession of smaller, lighter, instantly catchy pieces, which Gurucharan says, “are gaining immensely in popularity.” In a non-season concert, a typical finish would consist of a Bharathiyar song, a virutham, a bhajan, a thillana (or a Thiruppugazh), and the mangalam. “But you don’t have time for all this during the season. I usually try to include a thillana in my concerts, and it won’t look nice if you launch into a thillana straightaway after the main piece. So after the percussionists wind up their thani avarthanam, I would like to sing a virutham or a Bharathiyar song, then a thillana, and a mangalam.”

If there are other performers doing things differently, Gurucharan wouldn’t be able to find out for himself. “Personally, if I have a concert on a day, I would not like to go out. But after the concert, if there is an artist I like, I may go and listen. Listening is learning, according to me.” But Gurucharan does accept that musicians are rarely seen at the concerts of other musicians, “because of the very tight schedule, and because the concerts are all so far off, and because there’s so much traffic.” And also, he adds, because of the weather – this slightest of nips that makes Chennai dig out its mufflers and monkey caps, much to the vast amusement of the northern parts of the country.

But at least one fraternity of musicians sees December as the season when the sun shines, and that’s the army of accompanists scurrying forth from sabha to sabha, concert to concert, fulfilling appointment obligations earmarked as far back as September, when their diaries still had a semblance of scribbling space. (For that matter, Gurucharan was booked for a concert this year as early as February, though he says it’s usually mid-year that the sabhas begin drawing up schedules.) “One difference between December and the rest of the year,” says Gurucharan, “is that the sabha secretaries insist on not repeating the same accompanists.” Sometimes, they appoint accompanists on their own. “At the same time, we feel comfortable with our ‘set,’ our team – so if we insist otherwise, they agree. After all, they want the concert to be a success.”

Of course, the definition of success has changed somewhat over the years. It has taken into account the decreasing attention spans – or, perhaps, the increasing need for rasikas to have their fill of music in an à la carte fashion, sampling an appetiser from this performer here, then moving on to the main course from that performer there. Of this curious phenomenon – referred to as “concert hopping,” which brings to mind nothing so much as a Chennai filled with musically-inclined rabbits – Gurucharan says, “At whatever point they come, you should give a sense of satisfaction – not that we’re going to change what we are presenting.”

And he isn’t about to change how he presents it either. The audience profile in December runs the gamut from the let’s-see-what-the-fuss-is-about first-timer to the autumnal addict whose reason for existence owes at least as much to this music as to filter coffee – and Gurucharan doesn’t even begin thinking about what kind of rasika to cater to. “Some people think that if you sing more ghana ragas, with more alapana, swaram and neraval, then it’s a ‘serious’ concert. And if, after one hour, you sing tukkadas, they may label it a light concert. But if you have a heavy raga in a tukkada – say, in a virutham, you launch into a Yadukulakhamboji – I’d still say it’s a hard-core Carnatic concert. Popular concerts should also be there, but you should ideally have a mix of everything.”

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Posted in: Music: Classical