Readers Write In #219: Excuse me for singing a rare raga

Posted on July 6, 2020


(by Jayram Satluri)

“What a wonderful time I’ve having tonight!” I whisper to myself as I am watching greatness on the dais. The main vocalist has just mesmerized the audience with a terrific sub-main for 50 mins.His youthful enthusiasm and his beautiful voice have completely touched my heart and soul.He has just started the next piece with an alapana.

Suddenly during his alapana, he pauses and announces, “Excuse me for singing a rare raga.” My ears perk up along the audience’s. “Wait, what’s happening here? Did I hear what he just said?” a man sitting behind me whispers to his wife.

The beginning of the raga is a madhyama sthayi (middle octave) panchama. Then in that same octave, he sings Anthara Gaandhaara (G3) and Chatsruthi Dhaivata (D2) alongside Panchama. To my diagonal right, I see young students of South Indian Classical Music whispering to each other, “it’s Mohanam”. Then he goes to tara (high octave) shadja and the kids nod their heads vigorously, saying “I told you so.”

Wait, not so fast! He suddenly sings atara sthayi (high octave)Shatsruthi Rishabha (R3). The violinist, used to such challenges from the main artist plays along with glee. Everyone sitting in my row are suddenly jolted and all are sitting up straight. “Mohanam with a R3?” the bewildered audience member to my left asks. I’m unable to reply because I’m flummoxed as well.

Then the vocalist and the violinist hover between R3 and G3, bringing a microtone no one has ever heard. Is it Western? Is it Middle Eastern? Regardless, it doesn’t sound off tune; rather, it enhances this “rare” ragam. My eyes widen in amazement as the duo traverse up and down the raga with ease. Then a suddha dhaivata (D1) comes out of the blue. I can’t even think clearly. How is this even possible? I look around me; everyone in my row is mind blown. The jaws of the kids are literally on the floor.

After 3 minutes of alapana, the vocalist announces, “The name of the raga is Mohanangi”. By this time, I’m itching to hear more. And from that point onwards, I’m being lifted to another plane.

The krithi is in Telugu and it is simply beautiful. It describes Goddess Lakshmi as the savior of the vaggeyakkara (one who does both the music and sahitya). Every part of Her is the essence of the vaggeyakkara’s life purpose. When the vocalist and violinist hit the madhyama sthayi Rishabha (R3), it is sublime. Then an octave jump from madhyama sthayi shadja to tara sthayi shadja just takes my breath away. It is so tender like a child’s love for his/her mother.

The anupallavi is even more amazing. Every note is emphasized as if the vaggeyakkara is pleading to the Goddess to save him. I am in bliss and I start smiling widely. The violin has switched to a lower sruti and it complements the vocalist during the higher notes. The mridangam and kanjira artistes play their instruments in a very delicate manner. The dhim and chapu from the treble side of the mridangam is delightful without being intrusive. The vocalist is a pensive mood as he repeats the second half of the anupallavi line and we in the audience are so taken in by it.

The charanam line is equally gorgeous. It starts from the madhyama sthayi shadja and highlights it along with its rishabha. A fleeting gandhara can be spotted too. The vocalist goes to the panchama and dhaivata (D2) and I feel the profound emotion from the vocalist’s voice. Then he goes in the tara shadja and it is really a cry for help. By this time, I am trying so hard to prevent myself from hitting the tara shadja to sing along as I don’t want to spoil the rendition. The violinist once switches to the lower sruti and he plays so soulfully that I can see the audience member to my right tearing up and dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief. The vocalist and violinist repeat the second half of the charanam and the impact is even more powerful. Towards the end of the charanam, the violinist switches back to the normal sruti and it doesn’t feel out of place. The pallavi line is rendered once and the krithi finishes with a madhyama sthayi shadja with the percussion department playing soft yet clear strokes.

The audience is still pretty astonished after the krithi rendition, so I am the first one to applaud. The clapping unfreezes my row and they join in applause and so do the rest. The kids are clapping even louder than the adults. The artists do namaskaram for 15 seconds. And after that they proceed with the rest of the concert which lasts for at least 2 hours. After the concert, most of us get to talk with and congratulate the main artist and the team for a fantastic and captivating concert. They simply say thanks. After prostrating myself towards the vocalist, he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Next time, please sing along.”

And then I wake up from my dream and am back in the present world.

You might be wondering if the above moment did happen in real life and except for the dream elements from my end, it did. And it took place in the 1960s.

It is no surprise that the main artist is Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna (BMK) whose 90th birthday falls on July 6th and the violinist is no other than the grand virtuoso MS Gopalakrishnan (MSG) whose play combined the best of all styles especially North Indian which he easily mastered. And the third member in the group is TV Gopalakrishnan, the multifaceted and always jubilant vocalist/mridangam vidwan.

Although I never got to see them live, the dynamic combination of BMK-MSG-TVG remains my favorite and the most everlasting trio I have heard in my life. Their styles synchronized perfectly as they both innovated, experimented and brought out the best of each other. For example, when BMK did a swaraprastara in a particular ragam, MSG would recreate whatever BMK did but with some embellishing. TVG would play something extraordinary which complemented BMK-MSG. Then they would explore the same particular ragam until all possibilities and permutations were exhausted and they would combine for a rousing finish as equals. They would also experiment with different ragams, some of them from North India, sometimes from the West and sometimes entirely new ragams. I never consider MSG and TVG as accompaniments to BMK; theyare co-leads and equal collaborators. Whenever I listen to their concerts, I can clearly see them in my mind and can enjoy them as if it’s being performed live right now.

BMK-MSG-TVG were a household name through the country and the trio blew away audience’s minds whenever they performed together. They did things nobody could even fathom and they always gave the audience more than their money’s worth. Also, they brought a different dimension to every composition they would render; they never rendered a certain composition the same way in another concert. Such was their confidence in themselves and in each other.

This Mohanangi was a staple of their concerts throughout the 60s. Mohanangi is a creation of BMK himself. He has used the arohana of Mohanam as a starting point and used R3 instead of the usual R2. In the avarohana (S D2 P G3 P D1 P G3 R3 S), there are 2 daivathas (D1 & D2). This is my most favorite ragam out of the ragams he created as it gives me peace and hope that good things will come around the corner. And whenever I listen to BMK’s rendition with MSG andTVG, the purity will always remain.

And here’s the track: