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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 26, may 1-15, 2009
Awards for rasika-s
(By J.S. Raghavan)

Music sabha-s in Chennai honour performing artistes during the Margazhi season with prestigious and coveted titles. Isn’t it a pity that rasika-s who excel in special disciplines of listenership are not recognised and patted on their backs? A knowledgeable rasika who has warmed sabha seats for more than fifty years has recommended the following titles – with inputs that can be utilised in wording the citations:

Coughing Kalaimani: This rasika, whose throat purrs silkily like a well-oiled Rolls Royce engine in the car park, canteen or ticket counter, undergoes radical change once he enters the auditorium. While the fast-paced varnam that serves as the artiste’s tongue-loosener begins, this rasika’s bouts of coughing will do a dry run, giving representative samples of the pitch and timbre to be expected as the concert and the cough progress. Though such measured throaty-beats will emanate in short bouts, credit should be given to this rasika’s musical bent of mind (rather, throat!) in synchronising the laya of his cough with that of the composition’s tala under rendition, be it Adi, Roopakam or Khanda Chapu. While such sterling performance in the case of a male rasika may be a simple laryngeal aberration, that of a woman rasika could be a call-attention notice to the newly acquired piece of glittering jewellery adorning her neck.

Tukkada Bhooshana: A rare species, this rasika will opt to give a wide berth to the main course of a kutcheri, however eminent or crowd-pulling the performing artiste may be. His favourites are the short and sweet tukkada-s like Tiruppugazh, viruttam, bhajan or abhang the artiste renders after an elaborate ragam-tanam-pallavi, when he or she is at his or her peak. His shrewd logic would be that convenient seats will be available at that time to choose from. This clever move of his underscores a double benefit, as he would be present in the not-so-crowded canteen, polishing off a tukkada piece like javvarisi vadai or Mysore bonda just out from the frying pan piping-hot, in anticipation of the exodus from the auditorium after the concert.

Rip Van Uncle: Music and sleep, it is said, cure many maladies. A votary of the Goddess of Sleep, this gentleman will nestle into the pillowy arms of Morpheus the moment the musician begins to hum sa-pa-sa, invoking the blessings of the musical goddess. Irrespective of the time slot, be it morning, afternoon or evening, he sits transfixed in his seat like a saint in a state of nirvikalpa samadhi or a practitioner of transcendental meditation, eyes gently closed and jaw now and then dropping to the chest. Whether the raga rendered is a vibrant Kadanakutoohalam or Dhanyasi the raga of supplication, the effect is that of the soporific Neelambari his doting mother crooned to him in her mellifluous voice during his cradle-days. The seasoned sabha-sleeper that he is, he sees to it that (1) he does not park his head on his neighbour’s shoulder, and, more important, (2) his is not the ‘sound’ sleep – no rumbling snores from a half-open mouth.

Shifting Sagara: Mobility is his taraka mantra. He is not found glued to one place beyond a specific length of time. Having beaten every other civilised patron queuing up to enter the hall, he makes a beeline for the centre seat in the semi-circular row that is diametrically opposite the performing artiste seated centrestage. Within a nano-second of taking his seat, he jumps up like a piece of toast from a pop-up toaster and walks past 17 other patrons of different dimensions on his right without a nod of word of apology. This trip may be to the washroom, to meet his brother-in-law in the foyer or to borrow the season ticket of another sabha from a friend in the canteen! While the concert is in progress, he cranes his neck at improbable degrees and tries to mentally mark the attendance of the regulars known to him, never mind the musician in the midst of a gem of an Athana alapana. Around six, he again ventures out, stepping on the toes of men or women like a first-time fire-walking devotee, only to return within a few minutes stamping once more on the shoes and toes in reverse order, but this time clutching a tabloid with concert tid-bits, with the proud air of Vikrama Senan, the valiant prince in an Ambulimama story returning with the gem captured from one-eyed monsters and serpents all residing in a cave beyond seven seas, eight mountains, nine valleys and ten deserts from his kingdom.

Gourmet Kesari: Among the select few who view the auditorium as an appendage to the canteen and not vice versa during the music seasons, this rasika – of items like Asoka halwa, Keerai vadai, and Malli dosai – begins to plan his sabha sojourn weeks before the commencement of kutcheri-s. His enquiring mind seeks to know not this year’s Sangita Kalanidhi, Sangeeta Kalasarathy, Nadhabrahmam or Nritya Choodamani, but the jarini-wielding Nala-s who will cater to the needs of hungry rasika-s in different sabha-s. It is rumoured that during the music season the kitchen fire of such rasika-s remains doused, the family cat languorously taking shelter in the oven. His dove grey Ambassador, a familiar sight at different sabha-s will ferry the hungry family members from sun up to sun down to the different eateries. Anyone wishing to know what the dessert is going to be at a Mylapore sabha canteen the next day can do well to contact him, for he is privy to such authentic advance information. Club reporters behind the deadline on a feature on sabha canteens, would do well to accost him (in one of the canteens, no doubt) for invaluable inputs on variety, purity, quality and quantity. He may not know the basic difference between veena and tambura, tabla and mridanga; that morsing is a musical instrument and not the name of a Sardarji. He may not know what is Latangi but will certainly tell you with gusto how to prepare an almost defunct dish called Rasavangi! (Courtesy: Sruti)


Bharata Natyam in Bolshoi Land
(By Sasha-Alexandra Denissova)

Two decades ago, I started witnessing a blend of two cultures, Russian and Indian.

The first to teach Bharata Natyam to Muscovites, my guru Nirmala Ramachandran founded a school there called “Nirmala” in 1987. The school works under the leadership and guidance of a truly dedicated dancer, Irina Borisovna Latenseva, the seniormost disciple of Nirmala Ramachandran. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007. Now called the Nirmala School of Theatre & Dance, it was the first to be recognised by the Russian Government. Its students not only perform in different parts of Russia, but also undertake dance tours in other countries.

Nirmala Ramachandran visited Moscow again in 1997 to conduct workshops which in turn helped the students to stage the first Indo-Russian dance-drama, Kuravanji. Later the students took up the challenging job of applying the technique and style of Bharata Natyam to the Sleeping Beauty. This was staged in Moscow in 2005.

My official name is Alexandra but I am Sasha to my family and friends. I joined the Nirmala School in Moscow in 1987 and I underwent rigorous, traditional training, first in adavu-s and later on its items.

Since my childhood I had been nurturing dreams of being a Bharata Natyam dancer. After rigorous training for a decade, I became a regular stage artiste. In June 1998, the Embassy of India in Moscow conducted a competition in Bharata Natyam and I was awarded the first prize as the ‘best performing artiste’.

When Nirmala agreed to take me under her tutelage in Madras in 1998 I was overjoyed. I realised a new chapter in my life was about to unfold when I landed in Madras. It opened a new window through which I saw and learnt Bharata Natyam, music, culture and life in this part of India. The people of Madras helped me to learn and imbibe the details and nuances of music, culture, architecture, history and customs of Tamil Nadu.

The only snag I faced was the language barrier. This too was overcome by Nirmala Ramachandran introducing me to Janaki Krishnan who taught me English through Russian! Janaki is a teacher of the Russian language, so it was an easy task for me to improve my English.

Nirmala Ramachandran insisted that I learn classical music and nattuvangam from Seetarama Sarma. She also introduced me to the eminent Professor C.V. Chandrasekhar, his wife Jaya and daughter Manjari who run a dance school Nrityashri. I am blessed to be a student of this school.

The Chandrasekhars participated in the cultural festivals of 1987-88 in India and Russia. They have many pleasant memories of their stay in Russia, their performances and the friends they met there. The festival of 1987-88 paved the way for the two countries to understand each other better, to exchange their knowledge of dance and music. The interest in Russia to learn all about India too was the outcome of this festival.

I have given dance performances in many places in South India in 2008, “year of Russia in India” – and I have plans to present some innovative programmes in Madras.

My voyage to India can be compared to that of Afanasy Nikitin who came to the shores of India back in the 15th Century to ‘discover’ India. I take great pride in continuing this ‘voyage’ of mine not only to ‘discover’ this great country of an ancient culture but also to play a part in strengthening Indo-Russian friendship. (Courtesy: Sruti)


Cellphone mania
(By Savitha Narasimhan)

The Cell. As the name sug- gests, a trap, a prison. Only, the cell phone is a subtle trap that ensnares the user without his even realising it. Technological development, while largely for the benefit of mankind, can cause great harm if used indiscreetly. The onset of the age of computers saw the disappearance of outdoor activity and playtime for children. Similarly, the cell phone, meant ostensibly for staying in touch and emergencies, is being put to indiscriminate use.

What prompted me to pen this article are a few observations over the last year, culminating in the December Festival. I write with particular reference to the attitude and behaviour of people in the context of the performing arts. Music appreciation is a sensitive and refined art, where the demands on the listener are manifold. An absorbed and attentive listener can enjoy the music more and in turn spur the artiste to better performance. If the French and German audiences are acclaimed as the best worldwide, they have rightly earned the praise. Total silence, the first and basic requisite for any art form being performed on a stage, in itself indicates the respect and attention a listener gives to the performer.

But in Madras, almost every member of the audience carries a cell phone to the concert hall nowadays. Many conscientiously put their phones on the silent mode, but, sadly, many others do not. It is so common to hear a loud and most unmusical ring in the middle of a concert. Again, the reactions of the owners of the cell are interesting. Some hastily switch off their cells, others pretend they do not own one, and yet others even take the call. How common is it to hear your neighbour have an animated conversation in the midst of an absorbing concert? I even heard a man (in a concert at the Music Academy) give his persistent spouse a report every ten minutes about the concert. I wonder about the mental make-up of a person who calls so frequently, knowing fully well that the other is listening to a concert. And of the person who allows such unpardonable intrusion. Is it idiocy, insensitivity, callousness or all of these? If you can make the time and effort to attend a concert, can’t you go a little further and give it your undivided attention for the duration? Otherwise, why come to the concert at all? To say the least, it reflects a deplorable and callous disregard towards others in the audience, the artiste and, worse, the art itself.

A more disturbing trend can be observed among young students of music. It is a common sight to see many of this lot in the back rows blissfully ‘sms-ing’ their friends or others during the concert. As potential aspirants to serious performing, can they be so unaware of the unspoken rules that govern a listener? As up-and-coming performers themselves, how would they feel towards an audience that is more involved with its mobile messages than with the music on stage? Would they not resent it, or be affected by it? Would they not expect total participation from their audiences? And if so, is it not their responsibility to give the same too?

I need to mention another altogether alarming incident in this context. Right in the middle of the concert, the young mridanga vidwan on the stage gets a call/sms. He removes the cell from his pocket, places it on the side not visible to the audience, and continues to attend to the phone (all the while continuing to play with one hand)!! The vocalist, in her closed-eye absorption in the kriti, thankfully remains unaware of her accompanist’s little tryst. But many in the audience make a note and comment on it. Is the young vidwan doing his primary duty of an accompanist, following the rules of performance, and being true to his art? Is he setting the right example for the younger students of mridangam who may look up to him?

In a lecdem by a very senior vidwan, the mike-technician’s cell rang intermittently throughout the programme. A foreign listener in the front row threw up his hands in despair.

How is an ‘educated’ public to be educated on values like social conscience? Is it enough for a student of music to learn the rudiments of the art alone and be careless about the broader issues affecting the art? Does an accompanist’s duty end with just lending his physical presence on stage?

What measures do we take to rectify this situation? Or is this one more issue we will learn to ‘accept’ with our usual defeatist ‘nothing can be done about it’ attitude? (Courtesy: Sruti)


On the Bookshelves
(By Savitha Gautam)

Personalities, The Arts & The Naxalites

Why I supported The Emergency
Khushwant Singh (Penguin, Rs. 450)

A collection of essays and profiles put together painstakingly by journalist Sheela Reddy, this is not just about the Emergency alone. It’s also about people who made a difference in nation-building, be they savants such as Kabir and Mahaveer, or industrialists J. R. D. Tata and G. D. Birla, writers Mulk Raj Anand, Nirala or Amrita Pritam, or some of South India’s luminaries like R.K. Narayan, C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar and former President Abdul Kalam. But the Gandhi family, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and, curiously, General Dyer have the strongest presence. Let’s stick to some of Chennai’s heroes who have caught the attention of Singh. In the chapter on the novelist Narayan, Singh remembers a loveable man, “but whose humility was deceptive.” That the two of them watched a pornographic film together is amusing.

The chapter titled ‘The Master Builder’ pays tribute to Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar. Writes Singh, “… the name of one who deserves first place on the list of men who changed the face of India in more ways than one: he was Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar… the dewan of Travancore…” Of Kalam, Singh says he “is a dreamer”. That Singh has high regard for the former President comes across clearly in the essay ‘On Kalam: On The Eve Of Becoming President.’ This bold and thought-provoking collection also includes essays on the Nanavati Commission’s report on the 1984 riots and the riots themselves, as well as captivating pieces on the art of kissing and the importance of bathing. This is Khushwant Singh at his notorious and ‘iconoclastic’ best.

* * *

The Immortals
Amit Chaudhari (Picador, Rs. 495)

I remember, when Amit Chaudhari was in Chennai a few years ago to launch one of his books, he spoke passionately about his Hindustani music classes. Not surprising then that his novels have a strong musical flavour. For his fifth novel, which comes after a gap of almost nine years, Amit Chaudhari chooses to write about his first love, music. What role does music play in our lives? Is it just an art form? What is its
place when pitched against money and commerce? The book is about relationships, growing up and about three people with a classical musical
heritage. Much of the book is concerned with the three central characters – Nirmalya Sengupta, his mother Mallika, and Shyam Lal – and their art, “with questions of commitment, commercialism and the relationship of the individual to tradition.”

It takes quite a few pages of wading through before the story of Nirmalya Sengupta, the protagonist of this book, unfolds. Unable to be part of his parents’ social circle, he tries to find his own space in Bombay, a city which “is about different smells, the invisible sea and the breeze. This city in the book is part of Nirmalya’s invented world.” Nirmalya discovers music and, in the process, discovers life. His relationship with his mother and his music teacher takes a different turn.

That Chaudhari is happiest when he is writing about raags and taans is quite evident after reading The Immortals.

* * *

Vatsala; translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan (Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 300)

The Naxalite movement in Kerala had a deep impact on the State’s social and political history. The disillusionment which set in widened the already existing gap between the upper castes and classes. The Naxalite movement plays a prominent role in Vatsala’s Malayalam classic written in the early 1970s, which has been translated by Vasanthi.

The revolutionary theme is set in a rustic backdrop. The protagonist is Nangema, a Brahmin widow, who rebels in her own silent way and, in
time, builds a small agricultural empire. She educates her son and gets her daughter married. Strong and independent, yet at the same time still vulnerable and emotional, Nangema battles odds but is blinded by her love for her son. This proves to be her downfall.

Vasanthi, in her note, says that she was impressed by Vatsala’s language. “It has many moods, many textures, many curves and hidden corners…. The structure is epic.” The English translation is lucid and the language simple.

What I liked best from the point of view of a reader was the one line spacing between the lines, making reading a joy.

Here’s a book that paints a picture of changing Kerala in the context of its politics as well as its social ethos.


Tracing T'Nagar
(By Sriram V)

Today it may be among the busiest shopping areas of the city, with just a few stately homes remaining in it to narrate its past glory as a well-planned district. And what little history there is in the place is rapidly vanishing. It is at a time like this that the book, Thyagaraya Nagar, Andrum Indrum, written by well-known businessman and long-term resident of T’Nagar, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty, has come out. And it makes for a very interesting read.

Did you know that many Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, including M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa, were once residents of this area? M.G. Ramachandran had his office on Arcot Road and K. Kamaraj and Rajaji both resided here. If this be the track record, it may not be surprising if, soon, all aspirants to the CM’s post decide to acquire a home in T’Nagar believing it to be the harbinger of good luck.

If J. Venkatanarayana Naidu, who was once Commissioner of the Madras Corporation, gave his name to a thoroughfare in this area, who were Govindu and Nathamuni after whom also streets are named? They were labourers who died in a landslide while digging in T’Nagar for the construction of drains over 80 years ago. The Corporation decided to honour them this way. Besides, the area has roads named after several members of the Justice Party. Indeed, the T in T’Nagar stands for Thyagaraya, in memory of Sir Pitti Thyagaraya Chetty, one of the Justice Party founders.

T’Nagar was once known as East Mambalam, which is why, rather like West Bengal, we have a West Mambalam with no sign of an East Mambalam. In earlier days when land was cheap, the entire area was owned by one Subramania Iyer, who was a station master. A hundred acres was in his possession. What he did not own was a large lake where Valluvar Kottam stands today. Worried over poor returns on his land, the station master sold it all off at throwaway prices! And today land is impossible to get in the area.

Why Pondy Bazaar? The first shopping complex in the area had ten shops in it. This building was put up on Sir Thyagaraya Chetty Road close to Geetha Café. This was done by Chokkalinga Mudaliar, a realtor from Pondicherry, which is why the area became Pondy Bazaar.

This and several other fascinating details dot the book. Besides this, there are brief life sketches of famous actors, doctors, publishers, businessmen and writers who lived in
T’ Nagar. The histories of famous schools, music sabhas, business establishments, eateries and shops are given.

It is apt that Nalli has written this book. The famed business began in this area in 1928 when Nalli Chinnaswami Chetty set up shop here. Later his son Narayanaswami Chetty and grandson Kuppuswami Chetty have run the business. Kuppuswami Chetty or simply Nalli as he is known has of course made a larger name for himself than merely as a businessman. He is also a patron of arts and culture. The Nalli residence above the shop on Nageswaran Road, facing Panagal Park, has remained unchanged. Its art deco façade, always gleaming white, is a landmark and has been witness to the changes in T’Nagar, among the most dynamic areas of the city.


In this issue

Going slow on saving...
Protests gather over...
Making Neyveli Lignite...
Tamil studies in Germany
Historic residences...
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