A New Home for MS's Piano

Posted on July 18, 2009




MS Subbulakshmi’s baby grand finds a new home. Marking the occasion, a concert celebrates both artist and instrument.

JUL 19, 2009 – A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, AT THE instant of creation, is but a piece of construction – an exoskeleton of wood and metal and skin. And then a flautist blows into it the breath of life or a veena vidwan sends a shiver through its taut spine, and the instrument awakens – like the stone statues brought to existence in the myths of the Greeks, it’s now ready to speak the language of humans, ready to laugh and cry, seduce and cajole, plead and burst into incandescent rage, all at the pliant urging of the artist. Inevitably, then, artist and instrument are inexorably intertwined. No two artists sound the same even when wielding the same instrument – and this is perhaps what Leela Samson alludes to when she paints a picture of Sambasiva Iyer through his veena, which now resides at Kalakshetra.

“It’s huge, much larger than any veena you see today. It just shows that the man was big, his music was big.” MD Ramanathan’s tanpura, similarly, is housed at the venerable institution, and it isn’t surprising when Leela pronounces, “There’s no other tanpura like it on our shelves, and we have 40 tanpuras.” It has to do, she explains, with the memory of him singing. “When you strum those strings, you can hear his voice.” The romantic inference, therefore, is that after years of association, the artist bequeaths to his instrument a bit of his soul. And now, a bit of MS Subbulakshmi’s soul is coming to rest at Kalakshetra. “We were thrilled when, some six months back, the family asked if we would like to have the piano that belonged to her, a very beautiful instrument, a baby grand.”

The initial picture in the mulish mind is one of dissonance – it somehow doesn’t compute that one of the greatest (not to mention busiest and most peripatetic) exponents of the classical music of Southern India would have spent long, luxuriant evenings tickling the ivories over reams of staff notation – but Leela is quick to point out that the piano, at one time, was very much a part of a certain subculture in the subcontinent. It was a fixture in the early films, and it was “very much a part of the scenario in any sophisticated or cultured home. But it’s interesting that MS mami had one and that it was so well maintained right through her life.” It’s only now that it needed repair. “I don’t think the strings were ever changed.”

Leela talked to a few people, all of whom “said the obvious things. They advised me to retain just the shell and put a Japanese set inside. I know what the Japanese sets sound like. I know how expensive they are.” Instinct told Leela that this was “wrong, absolutely wrong. The wires are from the nineteenth century. They’re so beautiful – touch them and you feel a thrill because their resonance is so completely different from these tinny things that you now hear.” And so she enlisted the efforts of Anil Srinivasan, “in the key role of advisor,” and after the pianist overcame his early bouts of (understandably uncontrolled) excitement, he suggested that they write to the original makers for parts. No bills have been presented, but Leela doesn’t appear unduly concerned. She’s just delighted to be enabling the continuum of a cherished history.

“I think the piano even requires a room of its own, where people can come and look at it, come and play it. I’d like people like Anil to come use it and sit around and talk to us about it.” Anil, of course, is going to do more – on July 24, he will become the first person to play the restored piano in front of an audience, in a concert (at Kalakshetra, titled Ebony and Ivory) with vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, accompanied by BS Purushottam on the kanjira. The performance will be in what has come to be known as the “Madhirakshi format,” after the name of the first album to feature the distinctive style created by Anil and Gurucharan, where traditional compositions are freed from rhythmic rigour and set loose on voyages of introspective exploration, so as to seem not so much songs as silent suspirations of a restless spirit.

A future occasion could command a second similar performance – for there exists, at Kalakshetra, a second piano of august lineage, one that belonged to Rukmini Devi Arundale. “It was lying in a kind of godown, neglected and forgotten here in Kalakshetra,” says Leela. “It’s a beautiful standup piano, perhaps not as valuable as the baby grand, but when you open the cover, there are inscriptions of all the friends of Rukmini Devi, who, along with her husband, brought it over in the early 1900s. MS mami’s is the guest piano, so we’re giving it first preference. But I hope to have another occasion where Rukmini Devi’s piano will be unveiled for the public. I hope Anil will oblige us. And I hope that the concert could be a dialogue between these two ladies who greatly admired each other.” The possibilities for an evening of high theatre don’t escape Leela. “You could almost make it a drama.”



Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan discuss their music, within the context of the Kalakshetra concert… and without.

BESIDES THE OBVIOUS HISTORIC AND musical significance, Anil Srinivasan ascribes to the event a “tremendous symbolic importance as well. To be playing at Kalakshetra, which represents all that is best about Madras, on a grand piano (a Steinway) that belonged to a legend, and in a format that both of us have created – it’s an absolute honour, a capstone in a very interesting musical journey we’ve had. When Leela akka showed me the instrument, the first person I called was Charan. And we haven’t performed together in public for about eight months, so it is even more special.” Given the occasion, the duo has chosen to interpret the repertoire MS was known for, compositions like Brahma kadigina paadamu and Ksheerabdhi kanyakaku. “We haven’t performed these in Madras before.”

Or perhaps anywhere. “This is the first time I’m singing Brahma kadigina paadamu,” Gurucharan admits. “I didn’t know the song. I learnt it for this occasion.” And though his padantharam has not changed, the style of the performance, he reveals, will be “different from usual,” and not just because, in the time since they last performed together, “Anil has played with many of the top names in Carnatic music, so it will be interesting to see the changes he’s made to his style of accompaniment.” Without giving too much away, Gurucharan says he will outline an alapana in Mukhari, after which Anil will veer into a ragamalika before the kriti commences. “I haven’t yet heard his arrangement, but the small introduction he gave was beautiful. It’s going to be interesting to see how Mukhari will be developed in this (Madhirakshi) format.”

Anil proposes a delicate analogy, that of nayika and sakhi – rather, nayak and sakha if we were to be punctilious, here, about matters of gender. “Like the lady and her companion in a Kshetrayya padam, the piano is going to be his companion – and not just mute accompaniment. It’s not going to be the typically gentle, meditative Madhirakshi style, with a simple framework of harmonic arrangement that keeps going repetitively. It’s going to respond to him more.” This has been in evidence in the latter albums of the duo like Maya and The Blue Divine, where “my style of playing for Charan has changed. The piano takes on a much more active role. The piano has so many colours vivifying so many emotions, and I’m now trying to bring in all of that.”

Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor, then, would be that of vine and trellis, with voice and piano alternating between meanderer and map. “We don’t know where one ends and the other starts. That’s how we feel as people. That’s how we want to be perceived in our music as well.” And that isn’t the only dualistic aspect of this concert, itself named after the duality of Ebony and Ivory. “The piano itself can be soft or loud, accompaniment or lead, harmonic support or percussion, and all of this is being celebrated.” There is, of course, another facet of percussion. “Charan and I are very fortunate to have BS Purushottam. It’s very difficult to find a classically trained percussionist who can actually keep quiet for large stretches of time, who can punctuate a sentence without puncturing it – and yet, at the right moment, add the quintessential embellishment.”

The presence of a kanjira on stage may impart a Carnatic-concert sensibility to the performances of Anil and Gurucharan, but both are emphatic that they “never had an agenda of wanting to challenge the way Carnatic music is being performed. We just wanted to create a niche platform for ourselves.” The minor-key defensive tone is perhaps a reaction to their music having been criticised, on occasion, as being antithetical to the spirit of Carnatic music – but Leela Samson is far more forthright and forthcoming about her views on stringent, self-erected barriers around the notion of what constitutes classical music. “Of course they’re different. There is no doubt that there is North Indian music and there is South Indian music, but when someone like Kumar Gandharva’s son comes to learn music from MD Ramanathan, there’s a connection. You can’t brush aside this connection.”

“So too East and West. In those days, pianos were played in the homes of these two ladies, MS Subbulakshmi and Rukmini Devi. This music was a part of their lives. Who are we to put our noses up, especially now, when we are in a world culture anyway? My point is, here is Anil now, in 2009, playing the piano beautifully, a man who is sensitive to Carnatic music. It was such an obvious thing that he should bring these two pianos back into public memory and tell us about this aspect of the personalities of these two ladies, which is so wonderful. And if you can do it through keerthanas and javalis and padams, which were such an inextricable part of their lives, then it all connects so comfortably, so easily. Ebony and Ivory is really about that.”

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