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M D Ramanathan: Kavi hridaya and the importance of saahitya in Carnatic music

 

MDR-for blog

ಎಂ ಡಿ ರಾಮನಾಥನ್ (೧೯೨೩-೧೯೮೪)                                            ಚಿತ್ರಕೃಪೆ: ಮಲ್ಲೇಶ್ವರ ಸಂಗೀತ ಸಭಾ, ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು

GouLa shaareera, the phrase describing the low frequency of a male singing voice, was taken to its lowest heights (if such a thing is possible) by M D Ramanathan (1923-1984).   My mother had listened to several of MDR’s live concerts and she recalls that any MDR concert used to be nothing short of a class room for aspiring musicians.  When I listen to some of the old recordings of MDR, my ears are mesmerised by the soul-stirring tonal quality of the B-pitch chaapu from Palghat Mani Iyer’s mridanga.  Of late, I have also started noticing the beauty of MDR’s singing (not just his reverberating baritone voice).  Hence, leaving my temptation to discuss Mani Iyer’s chaapu for a while, in the following short essay, I wish to touch upon just one among myriad important aspects of MDR’s singing.  MDR used to sing many compositions from anupallavi (the second stanza of a composition).  What is the ouchitya (aptness) and benefit of doing so?  I will just use this question as a reference point to examine aspects of MDR’s singing and discuss the importance of saahitya (lyrics) in Carnatic kritis.

To begin with, we should familiarise ourselves with the structure of a Carnatic musical composition (a typical kriti).  I wish to make my life easier by paraphrasing Prof S R Janakiraman, who has explained the structure of a Carnatic kriti in a comprehensive article (Janakiraman, 1977).  According to Prof SRJ, the divisions of pallavi, anupallavi and charana in kriti (perhaps all other forms of Carnatic composition) could be traced to the structural features of medieval essays or prabhandhas.  He says and I quote “generally the procedure should be that in the pallavi the musical theme must be initiated…developed a little further in the anupallavi and further enlarged in the charana, [which] must be the sum total. The same thing holds good [for] the contents of Saahitya as well. An idea is thrown in the pallavi, a little amplified in the anupallavi and substantiated in the charana”.

Given the above framework, the aptness of rendering a kriti from anupallavi can be analysed in two ways.  Prof SRJ explains one of them and I again quote him “tradition has recognized the taking up of anupallavi first in most of the padaas of Kshetrajna…and some of the kritis of Thyagaraja too has warranted such a treatment. Not only the musical setting but also the theme of saahithya bas favoured such a procedure evidently so designed by the composer himself”.  To rephrase SRJ, it could be that the raising intonation of Thyaagaraja’s anupallavi grabs the attention of the audience more effectively than his more sombre pallavi.  It could also be that the saahitya of pallavi makes better sense when it is sung as a continuation of an anupallavi (not the other way round).  MDR, as learned a musician and teacher he was, certainly was aware of these nuances and hence must have found it apt to sing many kritis beginning from anupallavi.

MDR, in one of his many lectures (recorded), has described the elements going into the perfect rendering of a musical composition and specifically he talks about kritis.  MDR says that an ideal presentation of a kriti needs the support of a perfect voice, a perfect understanding of the real significance and meaning of the kriti, a background knowledge of the composer, rather the heart of the composer, kavi hridaya…and an imagination about how the composer would have conceived the rendering of the kriti.  MDR has also said that the singer [in addition to knowing the raaga bhaava and taaLa] should be familiar with major South Indian languages, be aware of the Indian puraaNaas (mythology), and he or she should have a philosophical approach to singing Carnatic kritis.  MDR tried to follow his own prescription, did so admirably and indeed his singing came close to a hypothetical ideal.  Singers like MDR were conscious of their pronunciation and meaning of saahitya.

You might turn around and ask “what about instrumental music?”.  I see no reason why instrumental music should be oblivious to kriti saahitya.  By being loyal to the original composer, the instrumental rendering is not restricting its scope.  On the contrary, a veena, a flute, or a violin can enhance the composition by exploring the manOdharma (kavi hridaya) of the composer.  The composer’s manOdharma includes both the raaga and the saahitya.  Instrumentalists who ignore the latter do so at their peril.  Some may completely abandon composed music on whatever basis, and it is their loss, not ours.  Some of us may also question the importance of saahitya for a common listener, who most likely does not speak or understand the language (words) of our great composers. However, please remember that it is not important whether a common listener understands the saahitya or its meaning because he also would not be familiar with all the raagaas.  A common Carnatic concert buff often enjoys the concert as a package, and occasionally he may associate aspects of music with certain emotions and often is not bothered about the layered details.  He may enjoy some compositions (in his native tongue) more than he does others.  It is up to the performer to decide what he or she wants to offer.

Beginning a kriti from its anupallavi has three aspects.  The first two are (i) Raaga bhava and a strategy to capture the audience attention, and (ii) Saahitya roopa and a reason to make the rendering more meaningful. The third aspect looks at the kriti holistically.  As Prof SRJ points out, a kriti is a musical essay.  It has its arguments and a broad structure.  Carnatic kritis with a devotional or social reformatory theme often state their main hypothesis in the pallavi and then the anupallavi provides a supporting statement, followed by charana (a collection of stanzas) that provides all the evidence.  Sometimes it makes more sense to begin with a supporting statement or even some evidence. Sometimes it is useful to cite someone with credibility and gradually build a case for your main hypothesis or conclusion For instance, M L Vasantha Kumari or R K Srikantan used to present an independent ugaabhOga or a shlOka before venturing into a full composition of Purandara daasa.

I think the most important of all the qualities listed by MDR, has to be the ability of a singer to interpret kavi hridaya (the heart of the composer) that makes the difference between a mere rendering and a real musical experience.  Without the composer, there would be no composition.  Most experts recognize kalpita (composed and structured) and manOdharma (spontaneous and exploratory) as two integral parts of Carnatic music.  However, the distinction between the two is blurred if we go back to the composer himself.  The original composers, be it Purandara daasa or Thyaagaraja, did not conceive their compositions without a manOdharma (kavi hridaya).  A singer or an instrumentalist has the responsibility to blend the manOdharma of the composer with the free-flowing spirit of his/her own imagination.  Some singers like MDR, were able to understand kavi hridaya better than others.  MDR was a refined composer himself.  The composer would certainly know how to build his case but the singer (who is separated in time) needs to understand the mind of the composer when he tries to recreate the same experience.  There is of course tremendous individual freedom in Carnatic music.  But, of what use is talent which has no regard for its past trajectory?

  1. Janakiraman S R (1977) The Significance of the Division of Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charana in Musical Compositions, The Journal of the Madras Music Academy, Vol 48.

 

About CanTHeeRava

I am CanTHeeRava (ಶ್ರೀಕಣ್ಠ ದಾನಪ್ಪಯ್ಯ) from Bangalore (ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು), INDIA. Areas of my training and interests include Sciences, Indian Classical (Carnatic) Music, Languages, Poetry (Kannada and English), Test Cricket, and Educational & Political Reform

Discussion

9 thoughts on “M D Ramanathan: Kavi hridaya and the importance of saahitya in Carnatic music

  1. Nice he was one my favorite singer too and he renderings of all gowlas, be it reethi gowla or kedharagowla ,were a treat to the discerning ears of connaisseurs of depths of raga lakshna

    Posted by balayogi | May 5, 2016, 16:12
  2. A genuine thanks for sharing this. Really loved reading this.

    Posted by M V Devraj | May 6, 2016, 06:47
  3. Very thoughtful of you. What a man? Had the good fortune of associating with him. His last concert at MFAC, Chennai in the company of Lalgudi and TVG is still fresh in my memory. When one looks back at what happened to him for SK award at MA, one feels sorry. The Sangita ‎Pitamaha’s unseen hand played it’s role. No time for politics though. Amazing musician, modern in his music and extremely humorous. His music would have been relevant in today’s time too.

    Posted by Krishnan | May 6, 2016, 06:49
  4. We from IIT , a group of students used to meet MDR Sir , in1967 on Thursdays ,in Central College of Carnatic Music , where he was the head of the Vocal section. He used to give us the dates on which Madurai Mani Iyer was scheduled to sing and most of them were cancelled because of his ill health. He used to say that Mani Iyer’s music was divine and no one was competent to comment on it.

    Posted by Natarajan Balasubramanian | May 6, 2016, 07:37
  5. Some of us rasikas were having a chat about the Music Academy and the Snageetha Kalanidhi awards the other day. There was a unanimous desire to see some of the bygone days’ mistakes righted – Greats like MD Ramanathan, S Kalyanaraman, and Lalgudi do not feature in the list of the Kalanidhis. Lalgudi at least was offered, rather belatedly, and he politely declined. The others were denied. Isn’t it time for a movement to restore the prestige of the Academy by honouring deserving people of yesteryears who are no more? Can there not be a posthumous award to such great artistes? Is there a monetary implication? If so, it can be easily overcome by contributions from willing rasikas. If not, why the delay? The three years – 1946,67 and 75, when the award were not offered at all, could be used appropriately for this purpose. Many thanks, Sri Srikanta Dani, for sharing this piece on one of our times’ wholesome musicians.

    Posted by Harikrishnan | May 7, 2016, 07:47
  6. MDR was a humorous person and he will easily bring the mood of happiness and laughter around him.
    Once while chitchatting in our house with my parents and grand mother, some one asked “what is the progress of your house construction?”
    In a very humorous way he replied,”what aunty, I’m only MDR and not MGR”. All enjoyed the humour but still he replied aptly his position.

    Posted by PARAMESH | May 7, 2016, 07:50
  7. Sri.MDR is one of my favourites. . In a nutshell if you want to appreciate him in two words, I will say “SCIENTIFIC SANGEETHAM”. I have not forgotten his elaborate Bhavayami. Koti koti panama to him.

    Posted by Radhakrishnan | May 7, 2016, 07:52
  8. MDR is my all time favourite. He was called musician’s musician. During one concert at Nadopasana years back, many stated calling out their choice of songs. He said humorously “PLEASE ORDER ME WITHOUT DISORDER” and the order was restored.

    Posted by SUNDARAM MANI | May 8, 2016, 05:42
  9. Dear All, I am moved to see the comments and your affection for MDR, thank you for sharing your views.
    The disappointment due to honours that did not come MDR’s way is understandable. However, MDR had a different take on awards. There are at least a couple of instances where MDR was honoured by fellow musicians and fans in Bombay (1973) and Delhi (much later). He spoke on both occasions. Expressing his gratitude for the warmth shown by his audience in Delhi, MDR says “Real musicians should follow Purandara Dasaa’s [advice when he says] eesabEku [iddu jayisabEku]… Usually I speak only in music circles on music and allied subjects. I am far away from politics and I do not know law or anything..I know only a little bit of music…When something good comes to us on its own accord, let us accept it…a natural man, when things done are in a sensitive fashion, feels elated…I am thankful”.

    Posted by CanTHeeRava | May 12, 2016, 10:26

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