This article has not been written by me as a musician. It has been written by me as a girl sitting in the last row of sabhas (where my father had purchased a season ticket) trying to analyse the ragam and the different styles of various musicians and dancers who performed there. Some of you may have been listening to carnatic music for years, some of you may be professionals and some of you may have stumbled into this art and decided to see if it holds your interest. I have covered rudimentary aspects of carnatic music, some of which may seem elementary for those of you involved in this field for a long while. The intention behind this article is not to show you all how much I know (which is very little in this immense ocean of music) or tell you all what you need to know. I only want to let you into my thought process on why I believe it is more important to be appreciate music than to perform it.
My journey as a musician began as a Rasika (keen listener) and I will be a Rasika above everything else. When it comes to performance in the arts, be it music or dance, the performer has a number of responsibilities. The years of learning, hours of daily Sadakam (practise) and the strenuous routine of preparation in learning new compositions and making it concert-worthy are all part of an artist’s endless search in the journey of perfecting the art. The art in itself is an endless learning experience, so permit me to say that no artist has ever mastered the art.
The immense energy invested in learning the art can elevate the artist to a new level of spirituality and lead to an aesthetically enhanced way of life. The joy derived from the long hours of practise and the ultimate moment when it is delivered in a concert is hard to explain. However every artist has a great deal of stress to handle when it comes to presenting the same before an audience.
I have heard many an artist say that it is like an examination. Great stalwarts like Semmangudi Mama called each concert a Parikshai (an examination). Each concert shows us that an unseen hand guides the artists and their presentation. This is also partly because in Indian music be it Hindustani or Carnatic, manodharmam is the predominant feature. Manodharmam is a creation of the artist’s imagination at that moment. An artist trains in various ragas and thalas over the years. We also extensively practise these ragas over and over again, as we also keep adding new songs and ragas to the existing library in our heads. However each time we perform, the raga takes a different shape. The devatas (Goddesses)who rule these ragas have to be pleased and we are at a constant endeavour to make the raga smile to bless the listener and the performer.
There is a story of a great artist who was performing at a wedding. He was singing the raga Kalyani. There was some flutter in the audience and some disturbance.The artist promptly stopped singing. He said, “I had bought the Raga Devata of Kalyani with so much patience and diligence to bless the couple and you have made her vanish in a second. I don’t think I can sing further.” It may sound rude to the Rasika but that was the passion with which the artist had tried to invoke the raga. Such is the bhakthi (devotion) with which the ragas need to be handled.
Now coming to Kritis (compositions) that is the part that is learnt and pre-set. This is what has been taught to us by our gurus and consists of the innumerable compositions by great saints in our land. India is veritably the land of great saints and yogis. It is their benevolence that has led to the creation of all these compositions, replete with deep philosophy and spiritual content. The power with which these Kritis come packed cannot be described. They have and will stand the test of time and be guiding forces for generations to come. Thyagaraja Swami has an answer to almost every problem in life, be it simple distractions to management issues. It is truly amazing when we start examining the content and it never ceases to surprise us that each time the Kriti is rendered, we can see different shades in the raga, the content and the deep philosophy that connects to our soul. So long as we have our internal antennas up and are receptive we learn each time. This being the content and the message from these works, our art can never be populist. It is a niche art and is too deep perhaps for mean entertainment.
Having said that, I also believe that this art can be enjoyed and used for great relaxation of the mind. It has curative properties and it has been proved that there are various ragas which heal all kinds of ailments from blood pressure to Insomnia. It can be very meditative and can calm the mind a great deal. At the same time it can excite and make you aware of its infinite possibilities to stun and amaze the listener. In short the art can elevate and entertain at the same time.
The Guru(master who teaches the art), Sisya(the disciple who emerges as the performer), the Kutcheri organiser (who very often is a very serious Rasika) and the artists on stage are all connected by the rasika. The rasika is the reasons that public concerts happen.
Some are serious listeners who have perhaps learnt the art at some stage and listen with rapt attention as they are aware of the nuances that are being executed on stage. Some of them can retain the list of songs performed in concerts in their memory for years.
There are those who love to listen because they find music very entertaining and relaxing.
Then we have those rasikas who are very spiritually motivated and look for the philosophical content they can take back from the performance. As listeners, many of us unknowingly fall into this category. How many times have we been moved by MSS’s rendition of Rangapura Vihara or O Rangasayee and felt transported to Srirangam. Easy isn’t it? There are no tickets to be purchased or hotels to be booked. All you have to do is to lose yourself in the music and go on a virtual trip.
How often have we been moved to tears by KVN mama’s Varugalaamo Ayyaa and felt the pangs of Nandanar who wanted to have one darshan (opportunity to view the inner sanctum) of the Dancing Lord of Chidambaram.
We also have rasikas who don’t comprehend what happens on stage. They come because some unknown power moves them and they experience joy they can’t explain.
I salute this rasika. It takes bravery to venture into a hall where something you do not truly understand is being performed. It is this rasika I would like to cultivate. This rasika has no expectation, comes with an open mind and goes back with an experience that has no precedent. “I know nothing about this music, in fact I do not even know the ragas you performed but something moves me, I have experienced joy” is what they say.
I write this so that I can address this rasika, to build our audience and share the bliss that our Sangeetham can give us.
I tell people to come to concerts with an open mind. “Just relax and let the music take over, make it an experience and take home the feeling and come back for more”
One of my friend says that her enjoyment in a concert enhances because she watches others around her appreciating and she gets pulled into it.
I also hear some Rasikas feel just the other way round-“I feel lost sometimes, so many around me keeping the thala and nodding their heads knowingly makes me feel out of place”.
But then everything has a beginning. Do we understand each and every nuance of photography, camera angle or lighting when we see a movie? Do we know every ingredient that goes into a dish we eat for the first time?
My advice would be to just enjoy the experience but silently equip yourselves. Here’s how you can do that to some extent.
- Listen with intent. Maybe you can write down the song list for a small bit of research later. We live in the Google era and much of the content can be accessible online. So you can actually check on the name of the raga and the kriti content after the concert.
- List out some ragas that are bound to appear in concerts and make referral songs for each of them. A few examples are:
Raga Index Song
Kambhoji O rangasayee .
Kalyani Nidhichala sukama, Unnaiallal vere gati illai
Mohanam Ninnukori (also made famous by a movie)
Giridhara Gopala from Meera MSS
Thodi Thaye Yasodha
Hamsadwani The ever popular Vaatapi Ganpathim
Keeravani Devineeye Thunai
Karaharapriya Rama Nee Samana mevaru
Bhairavi Yaaro ivar Yaaro, Upacharamu
Listing this out and listening multiple times to these songs will help identifying a raga very easily when it is being performed.
Any knowledgeable Rasika has the responsibility of inducting a few others into this art of listening. Without being overwhelming she or he can help the Rasika who wants to learn as they get into serious listening. Just have a pen and paper in the concert and write down your doubts. If you are unable to place the raga, write the question on a chit and ask a fellow Rasika during breaks between songs or Google it. Also the seasoned Rasikas can make out listening lists for the newly inducted member to learn more.
- Thalas that we actually employ in concerts are very few.
The basic Adi thala – 8 beats with a laghu (4 counts) and two drithams (tapping once and turning once)… This can be in two kalais – One kalai that is count each beat once or two kalai means each of these counts is done twice.
The basic Roopaga Thala- Tapping twice and turning hand once – Three counts in all
The basic Misra chapu – 7 counts – split into three and four.
Kanda Chapu – Five counts split into two and three.
Kanda Jathi Triputa – Employed in Ragam thanam Pallavi section very often- Count of 5 and then two dritams. (similar to Adi Thalam)
It should be sufficient to know that these are the basic thalas. Just practising them quietly while listening will help the Rasika learn it along the way.
Generally Carnatic concerts comprise of the following:
Varnam – This means colour and it is taught to students to teach them the different shades of a raga and to train the voice. At the performance level, it is used to give a bright start to the performance and helps the team on stage gel instantly.
Ganapathi Kriti – (or any other Kriti) in ragas like Hamsadwani, Naatai and Kedaram.
A short raga Alap – This is spontaneous and gives the sketch of the raga. Followed by a Kriti in that raga. There may be a round of Swara Kalpana (Singing the notes from the raga as an appendix to the song) . This part can be very exciting.
This may be followed by a swift Kriti maybe with Chittaswaras (they are Swaras that have been set to be an appendix to part of the Kriti)
The main part of the concert is generally an elaborate raga alapana. The Raga Alapana is where the alap is done elaborating the raga in different stages and bringing the ragas different shades, moods or Rasas, decorating the raga with flashy phrases and calm meditative phrase. I hear from the uninitiated audience that they find this segment boring at times. My suggestion would be to just totally succumb to the raga and enjoy it. The Alap is perhaps the part of the concert with utmost benefits to the listener. Many ragas have meditative healing properties. Listening calmly to an Alapana can bring down your tension and reduce your worries, calm your mind and make it more receptive.
Then comes the Kriti, the composition of the day. It generally is a very Kriti mostly composed by Saints like Purandaradasar, or the Music Trinity Thayagarajar, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Shyama Sastri or Swathi Tirunal. It could also be a big Tamil Composition by Papanasam Sivan, Muthuthandavar, Gopalakrishna Bharathi and other such great composers. I say this because these Kritis are replete with great spiritual and philosophical messages. These saints have tried to imagine a common man’s dilemma when composing these Kritis. They are meant for us and give us solutions to various problems and show us the path to true devotion.
The Main Composition generally has a Neraval segment (Neraval is a taking a line from the composition and singing it in the set raga with as many variations keeping the raga and the meaning in mind). Neraval is followed by a round of swaras and finally the thaniavartanam. So the Alapana, Neraval, Swaras and Taniavartanam are all spontaneous improvisations – Manodharmam
The Thaniavartana – this is the part where the percussionists display their prowess. This is a little complicated as it involves maths of a high order. There will be portions which are played with only the rhythm in mind which is very pleasant to hear but also has portions which involve maths. Just relax and let the rhythm take over.
Next comes various compositions in very pleasant ragas and maybe a raga malika song with a garland of ragas. These are the tail end compositions and they often convey a great philosophical message couched in pleasant easy on the ear ragas. We do sing Virutams and Slokas which involve Manodharmam in this part of the concert.
The concert normally comes to an end with a Thillana and a Mangalam.
How can parents help their children become good Rasikas, which is the first step towards becoming a better performer?
Smt. M.S.Subbulakshmi has said in her acceptance speech at The Music Academy on receiving Sangeetha Kalnidhi
“Keep the lamp of music burning bright in your homes – I implore to each and every parent to give your child the gift of music”
This is a very beautiful wish that the Queen of Music has made for each kid. Music can indeed change the child’s life for ever. Art can veritably enhance every other faculty of a child. Music is one of the rare occasions when the left and the right brain work in tandem.
Along with the teacher, please play a part in the learning process of your child. The first few lessons the child learn are the ones that are used by all artists as Sadaka (Practise) methods throughout their career. So we cannot understate the importance of these swara varisais. Learn along with them if you are uninitiated. Once the Geetams are taught go through the meaning and help them understand the meaning. Tell them stories from our mythology. For instance Gajendra moksham keeps making an appearance in many songs. Stories will help inculcate bhakthi and encourage the child to think of the Gods and Goddess and the Bhavam (feeling) that the composer has tried to convey, when they sing.
Also ask them to imagine the mood of ragas when they listen. Vasantha can make you think of spring colours and flowers, while Atana can make you think of positive bright colours as it is a raga used for authoritative statements. Mohana is again full of pleasant shades, happy and filled with joy.
Please, please make it a point to attend concerts. Never miss a live concert happening in your vicinity especially if you are living out of India. I sincerely think that music schools should plan classes and their programmes in tandem with concerts happening in the area. The children should be made to compulsorily attend concerts and make notes and discuss them in class with the teacher and other students.
Children who are trained as keen Rasikas will emerge as successful performers. The training to sing begins as they listen and understand the art, the artist, the Rasikas and the art of presentation.
Again listening at home is very important. Make them listen to the doyens of music, Ariyakudy Ramanujam Iyengar, GNB, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyengar, MLV, MSS, KVN, Ramnad Krishnan, Brindama, DKP, DKJ, Lalgudi Jayaraman, and other stalwarts. Guide them to the world of these maestros as it will guide them and uplift their intellect.
As for artists, it is our duty to enrich the experience of the listener and take them along with us in this journey, entertaining the mind and uplifting the soul. It is a veritable journey towards, perfection, beauty, aesthetic pleasure and a soul searching experience.
Mata Maragatha Shyama Mathangi Mathashalini……. Jaya Matanga Thanaye….. Jaya Sangeetha Rasike… says Poet Kalidasa where He calls the divine mother a Sangeetha Rasika.
You cannot perform without appreciating. You cannot appreciate without listening. You cannot listen without enjoying the music. Your first step in the journey of Carnatic Music is becoming a Rasika. From this point, the destination does not matter, because you will have music to keep you company.
Credits – I want to thank Priya Srinivasan for prompting me into writing this and Chethana Venkataraghavan who helped edit this article and all the innumerable rasikas who have shared their thoughts with me about concert listening.