The Penance of Art

I don’t deem it inappropriate to concisely present a collection of my musical experiences over the last sixty to seventy years.

As in the case of so many other disciplines in our lifetime, music too has undergone several changes. Just like the fashion in food and clothing has changed, there has been a change in music. About thirty or forty years ago, Malavalli Sundaramma was singing at a wedding in a friend’s house. The Tyagaraja kriti in Harikambhoji raga, ‘Dinamani vamsha’ was one of the songs she sang. Within half an hour of her finishing the song, a friend of mine came up to me and whispered in my ears, “Make her sing ‘Dinamani vamsha’!” Per my request, she sang the song a second time. About forty-five minutes later, another friend came to me and indicated his interest in listening to ‘Dinamani vamsha.’When I put forward the request to the singer, she said, “Oh! Didn’t I just sing it a second time!”

I said, “When the listeners are not bored of it, why should the singer get bored? Wouldn’t you have sung it in another concert? It’s just like that!”

She laughed and then sang it a third time.

That was the glamour of ‘Dinamani vamsha’ those days. Today it has fallen out of fashion. Who even sings it nowadays!

Similarly, at one point, during wedding processions, it was extremely common to hear the song ‘Shivadiksha’ in the Kurinji raga. Literally every wedding procession would include that song; that was its popularity. Who even remembers that song today!

The need for self-culture

There are many such instances. Fashion keeps changing. People’s tastes keep changing. Their aesthetic sensibilities also keep changing. A listener should have cultivated, over years of experience, the fine ability to grasp the subtleties of the melody of the song or the raga. If the listener lacks such self-culture (Samskara) then all that he cares for is loud sound. If some sound falls on his ears and strikes his eardrums, he feels it is music.

Therefore both groups must have the necessary Samskara and training to be able to appreciate the finer aspects of music. It isn’t enough if only the singer has it. Cultured listeners of the previous generation were found among all classes of common folk. Traders, zamindars, Vedic traditionalists, government servants — all these groups had listeners with the ability to understand the true worth of good music. I feel that in today’s world, the number of such cultured listeners among the common folk has dwindled.

The method of singing

The earlier generation of singers attached great importance to the practice of singing himkara [a humming, nasal sound] and gumkara [a throaty humming sound]. The note should first emanate in the navel region (nabhi), traverse to the heart region (hrdaya), and finally flow out through the door of the throat (kanta). I have seen [Mysore] Vasudevacharya doing the gumkara practice. Without opening the lips, without moving the hands or legs making funny gestures, and seated in great majesty, he would produce notes (svaras) in different octaves — I have seen and heard this myself. Bidaram Krishnappa too practised the same way. During the days those maestros sang, they would take a pallavi

va-da-na ||

In this manner, they sang between each and every syllable in an expansive and relaxed manner. If there was a line with nine syllables, say, — mandahaasanavadana krishna — that was spread over one rhythmic cycle (Avartana), they would take two or three minutes to sing it. That’s the slow tempo (Vilamba gati). The hallmark of an accomplished singer is to sing well in the slow tempo; that indicates one who has attained command over sound.

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