Academy Welcomes Ilaiyaraaja!

Nalinakanthi is one of the most mellifluous ragas in Carnatic music. In Carnatic music, there are only a few compositions in this raga, the most prominent one being Thyagaraja’s Manavyalakinchara… In film music though particularly in Tamil and Malayalam, this raga finds wider usage. Further, among avid followers of Tamil film music, Nalinakanthi has been immortalised by none other than Ilaiyaraaja with his use of this raga in the song Enthan nenjil neengaatha… in the film Kalaignan.  Composer Deva’s Manam virumbuthe… and Rahman’s Kandukonden Kandukonden… are the other songs in Tamil films that followed using Nalinakanthi phrases that became hits.

Of late, I notice that even those who probably haven’t learnt Carnatic music, have now started to refer to the usage of ragas in Tamil film songs. This includes me as well.  Watch this clip at 21.57 where a Raaja song is being discussed, for example and the interviewer pops the raga name casually.  I attribute this to the increasing discussion on Raaja’s use of Carnatic ragas in his songs in the media by experts.

It’s not that Raaja started using Carnatic music only of late. In fact, he has been using Carnatic ragas and references right from the 70’s. The song Chinnakannan Azhaikiraan… from the film Kavikuyil of 1977 tuned on Reetigowla raga by Raaja is a testimony to this.  Just like Nalinakanthi, the credit for making Reetigowla very popular in Tamil film music goes to Raaja. It was then taken forward by other music directors like Rahman, Vidyasagar, James Vasanthan and others later with some memorable songs.  But it is only in the last couple of years that Raaja’s effective use of Carnatic ragas in many of his compositions more directly or subtly has started coming out. I would attribute this to what I called in my earlier blog (read here) as the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity-Social Media) Trinity!!!

Thanks to this trinity, we are now exposed to so many Carnatic exponents explaining eloquently on how Raaja has used different ragas in many of his songs. Foremost that comes to my mind is Subhasree Thanikachalam’s QFR (Quarantine From Reality), a YouTube based show that is immensely popular. Though I must say that this program is not just to do with Raaja’s songs, Subhasree talks about the nuances of many of Raaja’s hits including the usage of the ragas in his songs.  In fact, as a tribute for Raaja’s birthday few days ago, Subhasree along with her team of singers and musicians presented a medley of Raaja’s songs interspersed with the Carnatic raga phrases they were based on.

The other thing that comes to my mind next is Do you have a minute series? by the famed Veena Vidwan Rajhesh Vaidhya. In these 1 minute clips, he has been playing many Tamil film songs with the details of the raga mentioned as captions. Again, this series is not just limited to Raaja’s compositions, but a cursory look will tell you that it is Raaja’s songs that are often covered.

The crowning glory in my opinion for popularising phrases of different ragas and their usage by Raaja goes to Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Starting during the Covid induced lockdown in 2020, week after week every Saturday Sanjay, a self-avowed fan of Raaja, in his own inimitable style, releases a clip titled Short Notes where he sings a raga phrase and ends with a hint of a Raaja song in the same raga. Now, this has got its own fan base including yours truly. On Saturday evenings, I eagerly look forward to this clip which is posted on different social media platforms. Guessing the song is one part of the thrill. The other part is of course coming to know of Raaja’s repertoire in Carnatic music week after week. Not to forget the discussions this weekly fix triggers in WhatsApp groups. If this is not a commendable attempt in mainstreaming Carnatic music what else is?

Amidst all this, what the Carnatic duo of Ranjani-Gayatri managed recently is laudable. To coincide with Raaja’s 79th birthday, they did a concert at the hallowed Music Academy last week titled Raaja by RaGa. In a regular kutcheri format, they sang hand picked film songs of Raaja that are based on Carnatic ragas. In the sense, it was a kutcheri exclusively of compositions of Ilaiyaraaja, in a novel attempt to celebrate the genius of Raaja. I didn’t watch it unfortunately though I would have loved to. But I watched this video in which the host Priya Parthasarathy gives a nice recap of the whole concert and needless to say, there are quite a few goosebump moments.

The thing is, Raaja has been using along with other music forms, Carnatic music extensively in his compositions for a long time now. But all these years, as ordinary listeners, without experts explaining the same, we never realised or understood the extent of Raaja’s proficiency over this form.  Therefore, I think that attempts like the one by Sanjay or RaGa sisters do a great job in dispelling the long-standing notion that Carnatic music can be understood and appreciated only by a niche audience.

I think that the recent concert by Ranjani-Gayatri at the Academy where they did a full-fledged kutcheri with just compositions from films is a first.  The moot question is, following the huge response to this, will we see Carnatic musicians mixing up film songs based on Carnatic ragas in their concerts? I hope they do. I still remember the thunderous applause Sanjay Subramanyam received when he threw the Ilamai itho itho… phrase in between a Carnatic song on the New Year Day concert at Krishna Gana Sabha in 2020 or for that matter the huge appreciation when Sid Sriram sang Maruvaarthai… as a thukkada in a Carnatic concert in Mumbai recently.

Chamber Welcomes Thyagaraja is one of the compositions from Raaja’s fusion album – How To Name It? of 1986. Raaja uses phrases of Kalyani Raga as a metaphor for Thyagaraja and notes from Bach in this fusion piece. This I guess was his way of paying a tribute to both Thyagaraja and Bach and trying to find equivalences in music forms. In the year 2017, the Academy in short for The Music Academy, Chennai welcomed Ilaiyaraaja to be the President for the Annual Conference and concerts during the “Season”.  It’s now time for the Academy to bestow the much-revered Sangeeta Kalanidhi title on Ilaiyaraaja in the coming year. Sangeeta Kalanidhi at 80 may be late but still is great!

The new LCS Trinity in the Carnatic World!

In the Carnatic music world, the Trinity refers of course to the three legendary composers – Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. So, what is this new LCS Trinity I am talking about? Read on.

With the Covid pandemic stretching itself for close to two years now, there is hardly a domain in the world that it would not have disrupted. The world of Carnatic music is not an exception. Concerts typically involve gathering of people and travel – both of which were subjected to restrictions due to Covid.  The result – For the rasikas, no opportunity to sink their heart, mind and soul in some peaceful music in person and for the musicians no opportunity to perform live in front of an audience and revel in their applause.  Suddenly, the musicians found that they had a lot of time in their hands when lockdown happened.

This is not the case however for most of the Carnatic musicians usually. In normal times, their schedules are packed with live concerts throughout the year within and outside India.  The rise of the Indian diaspora, with a substantial chunk of them with origins from the south of the Vindhyas, has set the demand for Carnatic musicians outside of India soaring beyond imagination since the beginning of this millennium.

I would imagine that for most of the Carnatic artists, a typical year would look like this at normal times. Starting from November till Mid-January is when they would be stay put in Chennai, the global epicentre of Carnatic music, to be part of the “December Music Season”.  After this season is over, from Mid-January to end March is the window available for the musicians to perform in other cities in India. In between, you also have the Annual Thyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru which is also now being held simultaneously in other cities where usually the musicians participate. This period is also the season for Temple Ulsavams in Kerala. And Carnatic musicians of all hue make their presence felt in kutcheries as part of the ten day Ulsavam festivities.

Come April, it is the onset of summer in most parts of India and musicians travel to other parts of the world to perform during this window. Again in April during the Easter break, The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, which is touted to be the largest Indian classical music festival outside of India is scheduled, where many leading Carnatic exponents participate year after year.  By September/October with the onset of the festival season in India starting with Ganesh Chaturti and followed by Navarathri, you will find most of the musicians back to their bases to participate in concerts organised around these festivals in different cities. And in November, it is time to prepare for the “Season” ahead.

So, with this type of a crowded calendar, a typical Carnatic musician is so busy that he/she doesn’t have the time to think of anything else apart being in Pack-Travel-Perform-Repeat mode. But this was all before the global disruptor called Covid came and upset the rhythm of this well set routine.

During the pandemic induced lockdown since March last year, with more time and bandwidth at their disposal, Carnatic musicians have tried to re-invent and re-engineer themselves in more ways than one. Just like how the JAM (Jandhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity helped the government to reach social benefits directly to those in need more efficiently, I would say that the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity- Social Media) trinity has come in handy for the artists to stay connected with their audience. Many of the leading musicians lapped up this opportunity with both their hands and became social media savvy in this period.  Though most of them existed in social media before also, they now have started using it to converse with the rasikas and not just use it to put out schedules and other announcements like they did before.

T.M.Krishna, usually active on social media continued to engage with his rasikas during the pandemic period with his singing bits and in fact did a few fund raiser gigs streaming from home to support fellow artists who were deprived of income during the pandemic. The singer duo of Ranjani-Gayatri put out quite a bit of content on social media for listeners to watch and enjoy.  Trichur Brothers – Srikrishna Mohan and Ramkumar Mohan have been very regular in uploading their singing videos on social media.  Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, through a series of webinars answered questions of rasikas on various aspects of Carnatic music in general and his music in particular while explaining the technicalities of the form.  Rajesh Vaidya became an instant hit with his short and sweet “Do you have a minute?” series where he plays bits of hit film songs and puts them out almost every day. Veena exponent Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh is another musician who has been extremely active on social media since the pandemic in engaging with her rasikas.

We could also get a glimpse of the other sides of the artists as well. Famed singer Sudha Raghunathan let us enter into her kitchen with her short videos of singing while cooking.  She also displayed her anchoring skills by doing online interviews with a wide range of interesting personalities.  Singer Unnikrishnan, apart from showcasing the talent of his daughter Uthara through joint singing sessions, also showed that he is a fitness freak by regularly posting his work out videos.

Among the Carnatic musicians, if I have to pick up one musician who stood out in engaging with the rasikas during the last few months, it would be Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanyam.  Using a combination of his own pleasing personality, savvy marketing and smart use of social media, Sanjay constantly upped the ante in terms of rasika engagement. While in the initial few months of the lockdown, he was putting out some of his old recorded videos, he then started investing a lot of time and effort on this with a help of a social media team and started putting out fresh and interesting content which stand out on a regular basis.

In a series of short 2 odd minute videos titled “On That Note”, Sanjay narrates interesting side stories and episodes from his life including some of his interactions with legends like M.S.Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari etc.  Similarly, “Short Notes” – another series of short videos where he takes up a raga and sings few phrases, is now a huge hit among his followers. He typically ends these notes with phrases from Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s hit songs in the same raga. In some of his videos and interviews he has mentioned that he is an unapologetic fan of Ilaiyaraaja and #RajaisGod is his favourite hashtag which he uses often on Twitter.  It is interesting to see Sanjay bringing out such nuances from film music which otherwise is not possible to appreciate for an ordinary music listener who is not trained in Carnatic music.  I can see that this aspect of highlighting the Carnatic influence on film music has become a huge hit among his followers.

In continuing with his rasika engagement efforts, he has started a paid channel – “Sanjay Sabha” where full-fledged professionally recorded concerts are put out regularly for people to pay and watch.  All this has culminated now with a series of live concerts in Chennai as part of “Sanjay Sabha” for the ongoing music season. From the social media conversations on his handles, it is clear that these efforts have generated a lot of interest and chatter among music followers.

One can also see that his web site is regularly updated to the last detail in terms of events, schedules and other press notes. Sanjay also keeps penning his thoughts on a blog and the last one was about the experience of taking the stage for a live concert after two years! Even for a seasoned musician like Sanjay, there is a re-discovery and rebirth, I reckon.  I do recall that in the dotcom boom period in the late 90’s, Sanjay ran the web site on Carnatic music where he answered questions from rasikas and put out some content. But I guess over a period of time, the site met a gradual death. So now in the back of the LCS trinity he is now back with his site with a slew of offerings and content of interest to the rasikas and I am sure that this inning will be longer and permanent.

The pandemic will hopefully end soon but I hope that the engagement kicked off by the musicians will continue even in the post Covid era with the help of the CS (Connectivity-Social Media) duo.  This will go a long way in mainstreaming Carnatic music and further open it up to a newer audiences.

Postscript: It’s not my take that the LCS Trinity is exclusive to Carnatic world or something like that.  It is relevant to many other fields as well. I have just tried to explain how LCS has helped to transform even a very traditional domain like Carnatic music.

Image Courtesy: Outlook India

Chennai Music Season on the Cloud!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 6th Dec, 2020 It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/chennai-s-margazhi-kacheris-be-streamed-online-what-rasikas-will-miss-most-139107

My uncle who lives in Baroda is a much disappointed man these days. As an ardent follower of Carnatic music in general and the Chennai music season in particular, he has been a regular at the kacheri beat in Chennai every December for many years. But sadly, this year he will not be there. Like him, there are so many from all over the world who will maintain physical distancing from Chennai and the music season this year.

COVID-19 has disrupted the harmony of the entire music season in Chennai. Though theatres have opened and performances allowed, albeit with myriad restrictions, carrying on with the music season in business-as-usual mode has been understandably difficult for the organisers. First of all, the weather at this time in Chennai though pleasant is also conducive to spreading viral infections. Second, the chunk of the audience for concerts are senior citizens who fall in the more vulnerable category for COVID-19. Third, the air-conditioned halls, even with physical distancing norms, may not augur well for controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

Yet, in order to keep the music spirit and the tradition alive, the Federation of City Sabhas, a group of the leading sabhas in Chennai, has decided to roll out the music season – online. Branded Yours Truly Margazhi (December 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021), the idea is to take the music online so that people can enjoy it from the comfort of their homes wherever they are, appreciating the Thodi without worrying about COVID-19.

For Carnatic music lovers, this is a small consolation that they can still catch up with the kacheris during the season. But everyone without exception will admit that the whole experience of being in Chennai during the season is different and that will be thoroughly missed. Because it’s not just about the music.

First up, for rasikas young and old alike the music buzz in Chennai during the season is palpable. I’ve seen youngsters discussing the new kriti sung by a particular artist or an innovative tweak to a raga or a new technique adopted by an instrumentalist and so on after the concerts. There are also comparisons with the previous year’s selection of ragas/kritis, the differences, the repetitions, and so on. All that will be sorely missed this year.

Secondly, talk to anyone and they’ll tell you that during the season, the caterer and the menu at the sabha canteen is as important as the artist and the kacheri. It’s difficult to say which is more music to the ears. The excitement of opting for a Sanjay Subramanyam concert with Pattappa’s full meals at the Music Academy or a Priya sisters programme at Parthsarthyswamsabha (of stand-up comedian Alex fame) with Mountbatten Mani’s Carrot kheer after running a complex algorithm of Artist-Sabha-Caterer-Menu will be deeply missed this year. And my sympathies are with those for whom the season is the only chance in the whole year to savour Vazhapoo vadai or Elaneer Payasam and other such exotic stuff. So, while rasikas can log in and enjoy their favourite kacheris online, they’ll have to make do with homemade molaga bajjis or rava kesari this time.

Even for officegoers, the season usually is a godsend. I know of many who take a break from bringing lunch from home during the season. Instead, they just hop to one of the nearest sabha canteens during lunch break, have their fill and then get back to work. This year, since most are still working from home, there will be no canteen hopping.

For folks in Chennai though, I understand that some of the caterers are making arrangements for continuing with food and catering arrangements as usual with limited dine-in facility and of course home delivery. But people who would secretly gorge on tasty fried kuzhi paniyarams and ghee dripping kasi halwa at the sabha canteens during kacheri breaks, concealing it from their concerned family members, have to settle for safer options like steamed idlis, sevai, etc. even if they decide to order home delivery. On the positive side though, at home one can continue to munch on snacks and drink endless cups of filter coffee while the kacheri is in progress unlike live concerts where you can only do so during breaks.

Another aspect of the Chennai music season experience that will be missed this year is the opportunity to show off one’s musical knowledge. During kacheris, it is habitual for knowledgeable rasikas to guess the raga the moment the singer commences a raga alapana or during the Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi rendition and get brownie points from fellow rasikas. In the confines of your home, you can guess the raga and impress only your spouse/family, which of course has limited appeal.

‘Chennai has two seasons – summer season and music season’ is a beaten to death cliché now. But it is also a fact. So the music season is the only time Chennaivaasis get to take out their winter wear (read as mufflers, shawls and monkey caps!). However, one will have to wait another year to pop out the winter wear as it’ll be funny to wear mufflers and monkey caps while sitting in front of your screens watching the concerts online inside the house. Same is the situation for the collection of silk sarees that women normally flaunt during the season.

One solution for both of the above is to arrange small get-togethers at home for those interested in Carnatic music and watch kacheris together. Like how people in the US get together during Super Bowl matches. Live streaming on big screens at home, the company of likeminded friends, tasty homemade food or food ordered from outside, and discussions about music and related topics while watching concerts together may not be a bad alternative this year.

Lastly, one other thing ardent sabha hoppers will miss this year is posting selfies and pictures on social media from different sabhas and canteens. Insta posts of selfies from the same couch every day may be a tad boring even if you use different hashtags.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) season this year was also different. With no spectators at matches, the only audience was those watching from their homes. Yet, the tournament was a huge hit. Likewise, one hopes that the Chennai music season in spite of being not live this year will go on to be a huge success with the online streaming experience.

Similar to IPL where they played pre-recorded crowd cheers for every boundary or wicket, can they also pre-record and play “Besh, besh, Bale, Bale and applause of the rasikas during the streaming to maintain the kacheri effect?

This season, music is going to pour literally from the “cloud”. Hopefully the experience will leave the fans in Cloud Nine.