A Mellifluous Ode to Devi by Sikkil Gurucharan & Anil Srinivasan

Concert Review by Kamakshi Mallikarjun

For the past several years, SRUTI has had at least one concert that helps us expand our aesthetic boundaries and I am particularly grateful for that. This wonderful concert accomplished that in multi-faceted ways. An aligned collaboration with CrossRoads Music, Philadelphia whose mission is “Concerts in West Philadelphia. Music from all over the world”; an ideal venue — the majestic St Mary’s Episcopal Church in the heart of U Penn campus. Excellent acoustics, quintessential to be enveloped by the reverberating nadam of the piano. And initial incredulity from connoisseurs of Western Classical and Carnatic music about Indian classical music on the 

Many decades ago, in one of the first lecdems arranged by SRUTI, Chitravina Ravikiran said that as our listening repertoire grows, it helps us broaden initial perceptions — for example, our long held viewpoint of Subapantuvarali is that it is a raga full of pathos; but, are we aware that Muthiah Bhagavatar has composed a joyous song in the same raga? As we learn more about Anil’s musical journey, we realize there are similar eye-opening discoveries. Guess who was one of Anil’s earliest piano teachers? Meena Radhakrishnan (Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s daughter-in-law)!

In an interview with Rediff, Anil shares:

Perhaps I am the only person in the history of music to have gone to Semmangudi’s house to learn western classical music. I still remember the swing in front of Semmangudi’s house and the easy-chair in the portico. After I finished my class, I used to see him sitting there with his coffee tumbler. The moment he saw me he would ask, “What did you learn today?” Whatever I said, he would say, “Very good”. When I was 12 years old I met Lalgudi Jayaraman in Kodaikanal where his family and my family were on vacation. He taught me how to play three thillanas on the piano. He took me on as a student. The greatest thing about these two legends is that never once did they say, don’t play the piano. They have been open and encouraging.”

The deep collaboration by Anil Srinivasan (piano) and Sikkil Gurucharan(voice) results in a fusion genre that is indeed ‘devastatingly beautiful’ as John McLaughlin (Shakti) termed it. My own partiality for listening to Indian classical music on the piano is because my mother Thangam used to play ragas like Poorya Dhanasri (Hindustani variant of Pantuvarali), Sohini (Hamsanandi) so melodiously on the piano; and where was this mini grand piano that she frequently played? In Ammupatti’s (M S Subbulakshmi’s) music room at Kalki Gardens. And decades later, Anil Srinivasan helped Leela Samson restore this very same piano which currently sits next to Rukmini Devi’s piano in Kalakshetra!

Anil said that the evening’s performance was devoted to Devi — celebration of the feminine divine. He acknowledged that it was perhaps not the happiest start to begin with Naan Oru Vilaiyattu Bommaiyaa which is about the lament of being helplessly caught in the endless cycles of rebirth and its associated travails and torments. The next composition featured was more reflective — Piravaa Varum Tarum in Raga Lathangi prefaced with the verses Thayum Thanthaiyum Sadgurunadanum nee. After the song, Anil explained that there were five variations on the line Padara Vindum(lotus feet) ; Gurucharan’s improvisations seemed more on the lighter side of Latangi; instead, retaining the raga gamakas would perhaps have been more impactful, including providing a more distinct contrast to the harmonic notes emanating from the piano.

Anil provided additional context after each composition. On one hand, it greatly helps the audience get a better understanding, especially of a new genre, but on the other hand, it also breaks the flow of the music (especially when the explanations are verbose). Anil joked he was the upperclassman on stage that evening. Anil, Gurucharan and Aditya Srinivasan who accompanied them on the tabla, all went to the same school Vidya Mandir in Chennai.

Next composition was the padam Theruvil Varano in Khamas which describes the nayika eagerly waiting for a glimpse of her Lord, with a mix of happiness, joy, anticipation and angst. This composition was one of my Aunt Anandhi Ramachandran’s absolute favorites. During the Bharatanatyam performances of Radha- Anandhi, MS would sing this padam to Anandhi’s abhinaya. Most of the songs began with a piano prelude. The improvisations to this song included free form swara patterns, sargam for the line Theruvil Varano.

Audience members listening intently to the concert.

The main RTP beautifully showcased the germane aspects of this unique fusion genre and the imagination, collaboration and creativity of the artists. Definitely a highlight of the evening’s performance! Raga volleys went back and forth seamlessly between the piano (Anil) and voice (Gurucharan). It was a ragamalika elaboration — multiple ragas (Nasikabhooshani, Mohanam, Kalyani, Mohana Kalyani, Saramati, Charukeshi, Sankarabaranam) as part of the ragam, the tanam and swara based pallavi (variations of G M P D N S — N D P M G M — Pa M Ma G N R Ga) were in the major scale (Sankarabaranam scale) ; garland of ragas for the swaras (Malkauns, Madhukauns, Jogkauns, Chandrakauns) and a final reversing of all the ragams followed by the tabla rhythmic solo. Anil’s improvisation of the ragamalika swarams was spell-binding.

I only realized later that there was so much more to the ragas that were so thoughtfully selected (or perhaps it was a spur of the moment foray).

Malkauns (equivalent to Hindolam) has the Small or Komal Ni: S g M d n
Chandrakauns, starts like Malkauns but has the big or Shudh Ni: S g M d

Googling yielded these additional insights from Rajan Parrikar’s Music Archive,

Madhukauns: “A graha-bheda on the madhyam of the modern Chandrakauns yields the five swaras of this raga: S g m P n.”
Jogkauns has both Ni’s. Rajan Parrikar says “Komal(small) nishad comes along occasionally, bringing a frisson of delight, in a phrase of the type: P d n d (P)M

Isn’t that so cool ? Hats off to their creativity and mastery!

Anil Srinivasan has founded Rhapsody with ‘a mission to take music into the curriculum of schools serving all strata of society. Rhapsody Music Foundation now reaches nearly 80,000 children across South India.’ The next piece Kamalasana Vandita Padbje, one of Dikshithar’s nottu swaras and the whimsical analogy of a cat and mouse game with the mouse finally running away (cat vocal, piano mouse) gave us a glimpse of the outreach to young students.

The piano accompaniment to Chinnanchiru Kiliye emphasized more of the main melody and not just harmony. (Melody and Harmony explained in Quora: “Melody is the main series of notes that stand out enabling you to remember the particular song or the section of the song. Harmony arises where there are extra notes alongside the melody of a song. In a way it is said to complement the melody of a song.”)

It was back to pathos with Asai Mugham; at first glance this song can be mistaken for a nayika forgetting her beloved’s face; but it is not. The only photo that the poet Bharati had of his mother, whom he lost when he was just a child, got destroyed in a fire and that is the anguish the poet poignantly expresses in this song. A very moving song that Gurucharan sang with a lot of feeling.

Lalgudi’s Mand thillana was lively and lovely. The recital culminated with meditative Madurashtakam verses Adharam Maduram (same tune sung by MS) followed by multiple verses from Pasuram.

Kamakshi Mallikarjun is a classical music and dance enthusiast based in Exton, Pennsylvania. She is a member and a longtime supporter of Sruti.

L to R: Srinivas Rao Donthineni, Shankar Muthuswami, Balaji Raghothaman, Aditya Srinivasan, Anil Srinivasan, Sikkil Gurucharan, Srinivasan Raghavan , Nari Narayanan, Lakshmi Radhakrishnan, Santi Kanumalla, Srikant Raghavachari, Uma Sivakumar
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