Arunn's Notebook

2009 Madras Music Season: Manda Sudharani

Arunn Narasimhan

There is a large section of concert going rasikAs - especially youth of my age group (ahem) - who opine carnatic music is that and only that which comes out of the mouths of five or six popular artists of our times. The rest is rust. Such popular subjectivity has been around, perhaps since a kutcheri structure was created for popularizing the art form. Unfortunately, critics, that unbiased creed who could critique (criticise for progress), also take sides. A section of those critics, who write in popular media, propagate what they feel subjectively about carnatic music and promote their favourite musicians, avoiding possible objective evaluation.

Art anyway is subjective and more so, its appreciation. However, enough objective norms exist through which one can evaluate the calibre of a Carnatic musician, vocalist or instrumentalist, male or female, and importantly, popular in a region or not. In a contemporary artist name-list, prepared through such objective evaluation of excellence, those five or six popular artists may still be featured (after all, they should have some basic talent in the art for becoming popular). But the list is bound to include some not so familiar names. Like Manda Sudharani.

Such a saccharine build-up may even make you pragmatic and wonder about my objectivity. Firstly, I am not a paid (either from the artist or form the media) music critic. Secondly, listen to her swara-kalpanai at vArijapathE varadhE tArakamAm thatvapathE for nIrajAkshi kAmAkshi song and judge an aspect of her talent for yourself.

hindhOlam swarams by sudharani - Audio

The violin accompaniment is Dr. M. S. Narmadha, arguably the only female in that age group capable of such speed and reasonable precision of swaras. The mridangam vidwAn is V. V. Ramanamurthy, possibly having a Chennai-based guru for learning the craft. It was the third song in Sudharani's music academy morning concert attended by musicians of the calibre of Chengalpat Renganathan, Rama Ravi, Vijay Siva, several young female musicians who are yet to make a name and a few others who have only a name.

Now, the immediate crib an objective critic will spew on the above swara kalpanai is (as one tried with me), nIrajAkshi is a soothing vilamba kAla (slow tempo) song. Does it allow such fast paced gymnastics? Two counter arguments. Pick the one that suits your mood. (1) As if, every one of those contemporary musicians who get ticketed slots in our sabhas can do what has been done in the above audio clip and ONLY because the moods of the songs they sing in their lifetime are so soothing they avoid such exertions. (2) Manda Sudharani actually finished the entire kirthanA in vilamba kAlam and then, only then, she did a neraval and swara kalpanai, that too, only in vilamba kalam for most parts (not included in the above audio clip). Fireworks began and ended, when it was required.

Manda Sudharani then proposed to sing the well known kunthalavarAli rAgam krithi bOgindra sAyinam with a slight layam variation in the charanams. First listen to those appropriate parts and see if you can spot her variations.

bhOgindra sAyinam - Audio

As she explained at the end, the lyrics of the song in each charanam line allow the first part to be sung in kanda nadai and the later part in chathushra nadai, while maintaining the tAlam same. It was an interesting and acute observation and she had a clever, humble way of pulling it off on a possibly conservative stage, with a note of apology. Such improvisations make her one of the few thinking contemporary musicians who can also deliver on stage.

I have listened to Manda Sudharani five to six times in the past few years. Each time the experience was different. How can I forget the triple rAga RTP set in chathushra ata tAlam, the kAntAmani rAgam elaboration followed by a tyAgarAja krithi, the full version (with 3 charanams) of telisi rAma chinthanathO in pUrnachandrikA and the only time I ventured enough miles out of Chennai city to listen to her singing. Today, her vocal range was limited in the upper octaves due to possible throat problems. Thankfully, innate talent, years of practice and sahithya sensitivity with her Telugu nativity doesn't suffer with the throat (there are exceptions in this, who lose confidence once throat troubles, and bulb a concert). Aware of her limitation, she was still able to deliver a good concert that was breathtaking and tranquil for equal proportions, had enough experimentation couched in competent classical singing and enough sweat that hopefully is not lost on the several vacant chairs.

The main rAgam for the day was bilahari and the song is the well known dorakuna of tyAgarAja. One should listen to these songs delivered only by those who are good in Telugu diction and meaning - like Sudharani - to understand why it is sundara telugu. Aware of the time constraint, the krithi was not elaborated with a neraval and swara kalpanai at the end. The mridangist in anticipation was playing for one more Avarthanam in laghu, until prompted by the vocalist to end.

Next came a pace maker. Just as any other iconoclastic youth, I was of the opinion a Yngwie Malmsteen or John McLaughlin was the fastest in an instrument (guitar) until I listened to the live shows of Mandolin Srinivas. Just as the next recalcitrant youth, I have started with Deep Purple, Led Zep and moved on to Iron Maiden, Metallica, Dream Theater etc. literally brining my house down with the 'energy' those bands generated. I thought head banging rock music was possible only in head banging rock shows. And Lars Ulrich was the fastest drummer this side of my youth. Until I listened to a Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer or G N Balasubramanian performance with an M. S. Gopalakrishnan and Palghat Mani as accompaniment. A Little Richards (only) can do what he can do with his Tuttie Frootie or Hound Dog. But a Manakkal Rengarajan can also electrify you with his thrillers. As the hyperbole of the youth goes, he can also simply blow you away (to his next concert in the next city).

If you are new to Carnatic music or even averse of it, with doubts about my above opinions, listen to the next piece by Sudharani (with seeming throat problems). Fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your chairs. Here is saravanabava in rAgam pasupathipriyA, a creation of harikEsanallur muthiah bAgavathar.

pasupathipriyA - Audio

Speed in melody is possible in our own backyard.

That is just a contemporary sample, with Sudharani not at her best vocals and breath. If I say I have listened to a speedier rendition with swara-kalpanai of the above song by T. N. Seshagopalan two decades back, you may even believe me.

All right, that is for speed, what about sowkiyam? Adding to her earlier bilahari rendition in this regard, Sudharani next delivered an RTP in four rAgams: shankarAbharanam, kalyAni, valaji and kAnadA. Listen to her brief AlApanai of shankarAbharanam.

sankarAbharanam - Audio

Short and hence didn't explore more possibilities of the rAgam. Then, it is a prelude to an RTP with four rAgams. Not the best ever, but certainly one of the better shankarAbharanam AlApanais this season.

Should digress here briefly. Few concerts back, a popular artist sang shankarAbharanam with similar, if not worsened, throat conditions as that of Sudharani. I received SMS about how the popular artist climbed over voice problems to provide a shankarAbharanam that was a triumph of will and vidwat over sore throat. If I say the above Sudharani AlApanai is better in content and ideas even with voice limitations than that of the popular artist, it is an understated evaluation of both the versions. Read the first paragraph of this article, in this context. Such is popularity. I can only direct the SMSers - who are anyway absent in Sudharani's concert - to archival records of stellar shankarAbharanam AlApanais.

The subsequent thAnam section of Sudharani's concert was well structured, rendered in reverse order of the rAgams, so that kAnadA continued from AlApanai to thAnam without a mood swing for the listener. Here is a sample of the thAnam section that ends kAnadA, continues with valaji and ends with the beginning phrases of kalyAni.

RTp thanam - Audio

Every Carnatic music enthusiast worth her salt would have listened to the Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar's Tamil masterpiece pallavi shankarAbharananai azhaithOdi vAdi kalyAni, darbArukku. I deliberately leave out the translation, not to spoil the beauty and craftiness of the pallavi embedding the four rAgams with alternate meanings. Tough luck, if you don't know Tamil.

Sudharani's pallavi attempt is similar in style, if not in the classic stature. The pallavi she had composed in Telugu was shankarAbharanavEni, kamalanayani kalyAni, valaji vachina ramani, kAnadA rasikamani and was set in Adi tAlam but two full Avarthanams (2 rAgams per Avarthanam).

Here is a short audio clip of the pallavi delivery.

RTP Pallavi - Audio

[Disclaimer: These short audio clips are provided here only in the hope of enticing more audience for Carnatic music. From earlier interactions, I know Manda Sudharani wouldn't mind. No copyright infringement or personal commercial gain is intended.]

Dr. Narmadha excelled herself in most of the rAgams (except perhaps for ordinary passages of hindhOlam and kalyAni AlApanais) and was brilliant in her support in neraval and swara kalpanais throughout the concert. Only, her bowing remains harsher and in fast brikkAs, the swarasthAna punches slide more often on the surface. I hasten to add, playing such speeds is difficult and requires enormous training and practice, which she has. Only, we keep expecting her to match the speed-with-sweetness of MSG every time (As my friend mused in good faith: Parur Sundaram Iyer seems to have been a harsher taskmaster than MSG). Good show Dr. Narmadha.

Apart from a gamut of Tamil Nadu musicians who performed at the music academy this year, sample this: R. K. Srikantan, Rudrappattnam Brothers, Dr. Omanakutty (although she couldn't come), Srivalson Menon, Nedanuri Krishnamurthy, Dr. Pantula Rama and now Sudharani. One must certainly thank the present organizers of the Music Academy for showcasing the talents from various parts of Southern India subsuming the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. A region of different languages and even culture, and which originally nurtured Carnatic music in all its kaleidoscopic glory.

To dovetail with the above appreciation, I should also add my concern. Subjectivity - as in, I like certain musicians and music for no apparent reason and don't have to justify - is perhaps our birthright as a listener. But as an objective critic or a seasoned open-minded music listener, one needs to elevate above subjective biases to appreciate any art-form for what it is. Only then one would be able to appreciate excellence without any pedestrian (like not-invented-here syndrome) personal bias.

In such an Utopia, even possibly Madras, artists like Manda Sudharani will get their due popularity.

© Arunn Narasimhan | Original version written ~ Dec 2009 | Last revision on Apr 01, 2012

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