The Travancore Royal Family traces its ancestry to the ‘Second Chera Empire’ founded by Kulasekhara Varman, circa 800 AD. Venad, a minor principality, separated from the empire and emerged as an independent kingdom in the first half of the 12th century. One of the kings of Venad, the great Martanda Varma, vastly expanded the kingdom and founded Travancore State in 1729. Sri Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma came of this long and illustrious lineage as the twelfth and the last, ruler of Travancore. Like his illustrious ancestors, he too was a great patron of performing arts.
Stamp on Chithira Tirunal
The Department of Posts issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma, Maharaja of Travancore, on 7 November 1991, his 79th birth anniversary. The 2-rupee stamp, colour slate violet, perf 13, was printed on indigenous unwatermarked gravure coated stamp paper by photogravure process at India Security Press, Nasik.
The stamp carries a portrait of the Maharaja. It also depicts the relief which adorns the pedestal of his statue at Sri Chithira Tirunal Park, Tiruvananthapuram.
The First Day Cover has a sketch of the Maharaja. The cancellation has in the centre a line drawing of a conch, the royal insignia. The conch is below the inscription ‘Sree Padmanabha’ (in Devanagari), signifying that the members of the royal family are ‘dasa-s’ or servants of Lord Padmanabha.
Travancore had its own postal system, called Anchal Service, and it issued definitive and commemorative stamps. Two Anchal stamps were issued during Maharaja Chithira Tirunal’s regime. One of them depicts the gopuram of Padmanabhaswamy Temple; in the foreground is the temple tank, Padmateertham.
Chithira Tirunal’s life
Chithira Tirunal was born on 7 November 1912, Deepavali Day, as the first son of Ravi Varma Koil Tampuran of Kilimanoor Palace and Setu Parvati Bayi (younger of the two adopted sisters of the then reigning Maharaja, Moolam Tirunal). He was named Bala Rama Varma. Since he was born in the asterism of Chithira, he came to be known as Chithira Tirunal as per the custom of the royal family. As the elder Rani had no issue till then, Chithira Tirunal became heir to the throne of Travancore. Two more children were born to them, a daughter, Kartika Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi, in 1916, and a son, Utradam Tirunal Martanda Varma, in 1922.
Chithira Tirunal had a broad-based and enlightened private education under eminent teachers, Indian as well as European. His extensive studies covered Malayalam, English and Sanskrit literature besides arts, culture, heritage and puranic lore. He acquired knowledge in practical administration for more than a year at Bangalore under the guidance of Krishna Raja Wodeyar, Maharaja of Mysore.
When Maharaja Moolam Tirunal died in August 1924, Chithira Tirunal became the ruler, following the tradition of matrilineal succession. However, as he was only 12 years old, Setu Lakshmi Bayi, his mother’s elder sister, ruled the state as Regent till he attained majority.
Setu Lakshmi Bayi came to be known as the Regent Maharani, and her sister Setu Parvati Bayi, as Amma Maharani (being the mother of the Maharaja.)
On his attaining the age of 18, the Regency was terminated and Chithira Tirunal ascended the throne of Travancore on 6 November 1931. During his reign, he made many progressive and far-reaching administrative and social reforms. Utradam Tirunal Martanda Varma, Chithira Tirunal’s younger brother and the present Maharaja, has summarised those reforms and measures in one sentence: “The Temple Entry Proclamation, the abolition of capital punishment, adult franchise, free and compulsory primary education, mid-day meals, the establishment of the Travancore University, procuring food grain to prevent famine, nationalisation of road transport, development of an airport, the establishment of the Pallivassal hydro-electric project, the victory of the Mullaperiyar case, the establishment of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy and the Sree Chitra Art Gallery and rapid industrialisation were some of the reforms, measures and projects.”
Paving the way to move towards democracy, Chithira Tirunal constituted India’s first State Legislature, based on universal franchise (1932-33). He established a bicameral legislature, consisting of Sree Moolam Assembly and Sree Chitra State Council. A majority of the members of the two Houses were elected from general constituencies and the others, nominated from specific groups.
As one can observe, these reforms encompassed agriculture, education, industry and commerce, public transport, judiciary, public health, hydro-electric power and water supply. Travancore Radio Station was also opened in his regime. Abolition of capital punishment was the first of its kind in the country.
Most revolutionary of his reforms was the epoch making Temple Entry Proclamation issued on 12 November 1936. It was the Maharaja’s gift to his subjects on his 24th birthday.
Credit for all these far-sighted reforms should go, in a large measure, to his Dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, who ideated and implemented those measures, with the whole-hearted support of Amma Maharani.
Travancore joins Indian Union
The position of Maharaja ceased to exist in June 1949 when Travancore and Cochin were merged to form Travancore-Cochin State, and Chithira Tirunal became its Raj Pramukh. He held that position till the formation of Kerala State on 1 November 1956 (consequent on the reorganization of states). In 1972, Government of India abolished the Privy Purse and the special privileges of the rulers of the erstwhile princely states, and the Maharaja became an ordinary citizen like anyone else.
He led a life of self-effacement, engaging himself in philanthropic and spiritual pursuits. He founded many trusts which are donating substantial funds for charitable purposes and to numerous poor and needy patients for costly treatments like open heart surgery and kidney transplantation throughout the country. He donated lakhs of rupees to Avittam Tirunal Hospital (from which grew the present medical college and hospital complex), to the Sree Chithira Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology and to Maharani Setu Parvati Bayi Surgical Centre where the most modern and sophisticated treatment is made available even to the poorest patients.
Chithira Tirunal was an ‘epitome of utter gentleness, humility and nobility’. He remained a Padmanabhadasa, strictly observing a severe self-imposed code of conduct. He breathed his last at his Kowdiar Palace, Tiruvananthapuram, on 19 July 1991. He was celibate. Government of Kerala observed three-day mourning on his demise, and declared a holiday for the State.
Patronage to fine arts
The Travancore royal family has a long tradition of patronising the performing arts, as also painting. Some of the rulers were themselves musicians, while some others have authored attakatha-s for Kathakali. Kartika Tirunal Rama Varma, popularly known as Dharma Raja (1758-1798) was the author of Balarama Bharatam, a scholarly treatise in Sanskrit on natya sastra. During the reign of Swati Tirunal (1829-1946) Carnatic music reached the peak of its glory in the State. A versatile composer and generous patron, he established certain musical traditions and practices to perpetuate his compositions. Important among them were the institution of ‘Mullamoodu Bhagavatars’, and music concerts at Navaratri Mandapam during the Navaratri festival. Like his predecessors, Chithira Tirunal too faithfully followed those traditions. Besides, he also opened a music college and an excellent art gallery. He gave substantial donations for founding a music sabha named after Swati Tirunal, and for constructing a theatre for holding performances.
Concerts at Navaratri Mandapam
The tradition of holding music concerts during the Navaratri festival at the Navaratri Mandapam at the Fort Palace in Tiruvananthapuram was started by Swati Tirunal. They are not concerts for entertainment but are in the nature of musical offerings to Goddess Saraswati, whose idol is brought from Padmanabhapuram Palace (now in Tamil Nadu) and installed at the Mandapam during the nine days.
Only Swati Tirunal compositions are rendered in the Mandapam, and his nine Navaratri keertana-s are rendered as the principal songs, one each on the nine days.) (see Sruti 299, August 2009). Many a distinguished musician have performed in the Mandapam during its 170 odd years of existence.
Each day the concert begins with renderings by the Mullamoodu Bhagavatars from 5.30 to 6 p.m. They start with an alapana and tanam in raga Nata and the song Jaya Devaki Kisora, followed by Todaya Mangalam. They next sing Paripahi ganadhipa, the sole Swati kriti on Ganesa in Saveri, and with that they hand over the stage to the musician of the day to continue the concert.
In the days of yore, the Mullamoodu Bhagavatar group used to present the full concert at the Mandapam. The practice of inviting musicians outside of the group appears to have been started by Maharaja Chithira Tirunal some time in the mid-1930, probably at the instance of Amma Maharani. The half-hour singing by Mullamoodu Bhagavatars prior to the concert is a vestige of the old custom followed till Maharaja’s time.
The selection of vidwans for the concerts was made by Amma Maharani in consultation with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who was very close to the Palace – he was an Asthana Vidwan, and Principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy of Music for 17 years.
In 1943 the Maharaja had opened a radio station at Trivandrum, known as Travancore Radio. Prof R Srinivasan was the first station director and held the post till the station was taken over by All India Radio in 1949. (More about Prof Srinivasan in a short while.) Travancore Radio used to broadcast live the Mandapam concerts in full. After it became an AIR station, excerpts of 90 minutes were broadcast, either the in same night or on the next day. AIR still continues this practice, though the duration has now been reduced to one hour.
Both Chithira Tirunal and Amma Maharani scrupulously followed all the customs and traditions laid down by the predecessors in the conduct of concerts in the Mandapam, including, for example, holding of veena concerts on two days, and not scheduling concerts by women artists. But then, all traditions change with the times!
Two institutions stand testimony to the keen interest taken by Chithira Tirunal in the promotion of performing arts – both were founded during his regime at Tiruvananthapuram. These are: Sree Swati Tirunal College of Music and Sree Swati Tirunal Sangeeta Sabha. It should be recorded here that in these efforts, as in other matters, it was the Amma Maharani who gave inspiration, encouragement and support to Chithira Tirunal. Similarly, the Maharaja had the good fortune to receive unstinted cooperation and guidance from his enlightened Dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer.
Sree Swati Tirunal College of Music
Swati Tirunal College of Music, the first of its kind in the State, was started in 1939. It celebrated its silver jubilee in 1969. On that occasion it brought out a souvenir, which had among others, an article titled My Reminiscences by Prof R. Srinivasan which throws light on the genesis of the College. (For more information on him, see Sruti 128).
Prof. Srinivasan came to Trivandrum in February 1910 on invitation from Travancore Government to join Maharaja’s College as Assistant Professor of Mathematics. During his visits to various schools, he was happy to find that all primary schools in the state had music as a compulsory subject and each school had a music teacher, known as Bhagavatar. However, the teachers had no knowledge of the great compositions of Swati Tirunal.
Years later Prof. Srinivasan had an opportunity to meet Amma Maharani at the Palace when he apprised her of what he observed in the schools. She agreed to Prof. R. Srinivasan’s suggestion to run a summer school of music for the music teachers to learn Swati Tirunal compositions. N.V. Narayana Bhagavatar was appointed for teaching the music teachers. But after running it for some time it was found that training for a few weeks in a year did not meet the purpose. It was therefore decided to run a regular one-year course. Thus came into being Swati Tirunal Academy of Music.
It was inaugurated by Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer on 10 September 1939. On the advice of Prof Srinivasan, Gayakasikhamani Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was invited to take up the post of Principal, and he guided the destiny of the nascent institution till 1942. The institution was renamed Sree Swati Tirunal College of Music in 1962.
To begin with, the College offered a three-year course of ‘Gayaka’ for boys and ‘Gayika’ for girls. Later on the course was substituted by Ganabhooshanam, a four-year course in vocal, veena violin and mridangam. In addition, a two-year advanced course called ‘Vidwan’ was started in 1952 for first class diploma holders of Ganabhooshanam. Another four-year course in dance, called ‘Natanabhooshanam’ was introduced in 1957. The College has since added many new courses of study in music and dance. It is affiliated to Kerala University.
Muthiah Bhagavatar was followed by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1942-1956 and 1960-1963) and N.V. Narayana Bhagavatar (1956-1960). G.N. Balasubramaniam succeeded Semmangudi in 1963; unfortunately, he passed away in April next year. Since then several musicians of note have served the institution as principal.
Swati Tirunal Sangeeta Sabha
Sree Swati Tirunal Sangeeta Sabha was formed in 1942 to perpetuate the memory of Sri Swati Tirunal. Here again the prime mover was Amma Maharani, assisted by Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer. However, it was S. Vaidyanatha Iyer, Private Secretary to His Highness who, with single-minded devotion, brought the institution into being. Chithira Tirunal was its Patron from its inception till his passing away in 1991. Maharaja Utradam Tirunal Martanda Varma is the present Patron. The royal house continues to guide the activities of the Sabha.
The Sabha started conducting its programmes, monthly and annual, in VJT Hall. Vaidyanatha Iyer was the President of the Sabha for a number of years. Many distinguished musicians have performed here, from Ariyakudi downwards. In a very short time of its inception the Sabha established a reputation for offering concerts of a high standard.
VJT Hall continued to be the venue of the concerts till the Kartika Tirunal Theatre was opened in 1970. The Sabha was accommodated in the Theatre premises and, thenceforth, the Sabha has been conducting all its musical concerts in its auditorium.
Every year, the Sabha confers the title ‘Gayakaratnam’ to an eminent musician. Besides the annual festival, the Sabha also hosts the Sri Chithira Tirunal Jayanti series and the Trimurti festival at Natakasala. The Sabha continues to conduct regular programmes.
The Sabha runs Sri Chithira Tirunal School of Music. It conducts classes in Carnatic music – vocal, violin and flute, as also mridangam and tabla. It runs the classes in the morning and in the evening, to enable even office goers to avail of the classes. I understand that the students of the music school are required to attend the music concerts, which are generally held in the evenings, and keep a record of all particulars of the songs they listen. Parents of the students are also encouraged to attend the concerts. The School has a good library.
Sree Kartika Tirunal Theatre
The Foundation Stone for Sree Kartika Tirunal Theatre was laid by S. Vaidyanatha Aiyer, Secretary to the Maharaja of Travancore, on 1 February 1968. The Theatre was inaugurated by S. Viswanathan, Governor of Kerala, on 19 September 1970.
The Palace gifted the land for the Theatre and donated a substantial sum towards cost of its construction, and the rest was met by donations from the public. The Theatre was given the name of Maharaja’s sister, Kartika Tirunal. The Theatre is a landmark in the busy East Fort area, and is booked almost throughout the year for one performance or the other – music, dance, and dramas – Malayalam as well as Tamil. It is also a favourite venue for Kathakalis.
We conclude the story with a verse on the Maharaja, composed by Kavimoni Desika Vinayakam Pillai (in Tamil). A free translation reads as follows:
“The plant with its flowers, the
Infant with its smile, and the
Parrot with its tongue, extol the
Glories and achievements of the
Reign of the King who is the
Devotee and deputy of Lord Padmanabha”
Leela Samson, who recently resigned as Director, Kalakshetra, Chennai, has been reinstated by the Ministry of Culture.
Leela Samson quits as Kalakshetra director
Leela Samson quits as Kalakshetra director
The dance world has been agog for the last month with news of Leela Samson’s resignation as Kalakshetra director, followed by much speculation in the press about the circumstances leading to it and widespread demands in the community for her return to her position at the head of the institution.
Questions said to have been raised against her crossing the “prescribed” age of 60 and alleged procedural lapses in the decision-making process involving appointments and expenditure have been cited as the background for Leela’s resignation.
Praised for her several initiatives to expand the reach of Kalakshetra, transform its infrastructure and increase and refurbish its performance spaces, Leela has also been criticised for the same deeds. She has spoken of pressures and challenges through her seven-year tenure, and all of it has been written and spoken about extensively in the last month. Artists have expressed the view that she is irreplaceable as the institution’s head, while some have questioned the wisdom of fixing age-limits to such positions, and even scoffed at the idea of an artist being questioned on the basis of “procedural niceties”.
We are awaiting Leela Samson’s reply to our questions emailed to her, while Kalakshetra chairman Gopalkrishna Gandhi replied to our email on the subject as follows:
“… I have been getting shoalfuls of mail from enraged friends and colleagues and rasika-s of Leela. I understand their feelings completely.
I have called a meeting of the Board to discuss the whole matter.
On my part I have felt that her resignation was a right and proper thing.
That does not take away from the fact that she is and will always be respected as a great Director for Kalakshetra to have had, who can be succeeded but never replaced.
I also believe that before long her association with Kalakshetra will revive in capacities appropriate for that time and enriching for the institution in ways we cannot anticipate now.”
As we go to press, the board meeting may be taking place or will take place soon, and by the time this issue reaches you, important developments may have followed.
Sruti carried a major feature on Kalakshetra and Leela Samson in May 2008 (Sruti 283).
The future of Bharatanatyam - Aneal Krishnamurthy - (Reproduced from Sruti 276)
The future of Bharatanatyam
A rasika’s view
The Ranga Mandira Trust organized a day-long programme dedicated to the memory of writer, scholar and arts administrator T.S. Parthasarathy on 24th December 2007 at the Bharatiyar Illam in Triplicane, Chennai. Earlier, articles were invited from dancers and dance lovers on “The future of Bharatanatyam — what you foresee”. ANEAL KRISHNAMURTHY of Alexandria, Virginia, USA, won the first prize in the “article writing challenge”. His article, chosen by a panel of judges, is published below.
A writer contemplating the future of Bharatanatyam less than a century ago would never have anticipated the revolution about to take place over the coming decades. In the same way, it is quite certain that Bharatanatyam, a century from now, is going to look different from what we know today.
The following article is a compilation of some of my observations as a rasika, and not a dancer, of several trends that I see in the Bharatanatyam world. My hope is that the comments and questions in the article will engender discussion and debate by those more knowledgeable than me in these matters. In my view, Bharatanatyam does indeed have a strong future but is currently undergoing certain changes that could have a profound impact on the art form. This article aims to discuss certain trends that I have observed over the past few years and attempts to raise some important questions for dancers and scholars in this field.
Trends in Technique
Bharatanatyam is slowly but surely moving towards more athleticism. Although no one can doubt the strength and endurance required for dancers to competently perform a whole margam, there seems to be a marked emphasis on athleticism by some dancers on stage. The athleticism almost borders on acrobatics and gymnastics. This type of dancing seems to have a certain appeal to audiences and I wonder if more dancers will follow in this path.
Another related point is the growing emphasis by some dancers on nritta to the detriment of abhinaya. It is commonplace for jati-s to last for several minutes, tiring both the dancer and the audience. The pace is often fast and furious. Sometimes this pace sacrifices the crisp completion of each adavu. Is this desire for speed being driven by the audience? Are dancers worried that without some spectacular footwork fireworks, the audience will not stay interested? With regard to padam-s and other abhinaya-oriented pieces, are dancers worried that they will not be able to sustain the audience’s attention with a slow-paced piece solely focused on mime?
Another issue is the apparent loss of importance of the araimandi stance. It is very rare to see dancers with proper araimandi. If it is acceptable today for a dancer to have just a slight outward turning of the knees and sitting a few inches lower than his or her height, why even call it a half-sitting position? Review after review will note in a sentence (usually towards the end of the review) that the dancer’s araimandi stance is missing or not consistent. What is surprising to me is the minimal impact that the lack of araimandi has on the overall critique of the dancer. I have observed that dancers are routinely praised for their technique even though there is no araimandi. Perhaps lack of araimandi is a result of dancers increasing the speed of their nritta. Is this only one isolated component of Bharatanatyam that is slowly being lost or are there other components that are suffering a similar fate?
Trends in Performance Content
A highly visible development over the past few years is the move towards more thematic programmes. Within thematic shows, particularly abroad, there is a movement to make Bharatanatyam relevant to non-Indian audiences. Modern social issues are often the themes chosen. Is the traditional margam no longer enough to sustain the attention of the modern audience? Are dancers making efforts to educate rasika-s on the complexities of a margam?
What do dancers think about the future of the margam format? Although this has been the traditional performance structure for several centuries, do dancers find the traditional items limiting in scope? Do dancers feel that, through a margam, they cannot fully express their thoughts? Already, the sabdam has more or less made its exit from the margam. What is next? Javalis? As many Bharatanatyam performers are young (especially at the amateur level), how can they be expected to exhibit the maturity required for performing these more intense items? It is interesting to see the relatively recent incorporation of the pushpanjali into many margam-s. It is quite possible that other items from a margam will be added or deleted as the years go by.
Another trend is the broadening of the music used for Bharatanatyam. Traditional Carnatic music is being supplemented with compositions in other Indian languages. Just as the language of Bharatanatyam music shifted from being predominantly Telugu to encompass Tamil and Kannada compositions over time, it is not beyond the realm of imagination to think of a day where compositions in a non-Indian language like English could become acceptable. Western classical and contemporary music is also being experimented with by some dancers. Obviously, over time and with enough dancers moving in this direction, the music of Bharatanatyam will not stay static.
Fusion of dance styles and music is all the rage in some circles. Can a Bharatanatyam dancer performing choreography interwoven with different dance styles remain uninfluenced by the other styles?
Although group performances are not a new concept, there seems to be a feeling among some that the more Bharatanatyam dancers there are on stage, the better the show. Perhaps it is an economic issue as well. The more dancers you have on stage, the more friends and family that may attend which will result in increased ticket sales. As there are more and more group performances, will there be any negative impact on the scope for a solo artist?
Trends in Teaching and Learning
Bharatanatyam seems to be developing in two parallel tracks — the professional and the amateur. The vast majority of dancers treat the art form as one of their extra curricular activities, not as a profession. The dancer’s arangetram is seen by many as the culmination of training rather than the traditional ascension of the stage and the start of the dance career.
Particularly among Indians settled abroad, Bharatanatyam is viewed as an important tool in teaching Indian culture and values to children being raised away from the cultural influences that shaped their parents.
There appears to be a noticeable trend away from the mastery of the fundamentals. Children who are often not ready for the stage are decked out in beautiful costumes and jewelry for the visual consumption of their families and friends. Praise is lavished a little too freely and the epidemic of standing ovations for mediocrity is spreading. Is it any wonder that audience sizes are dwindling?
It is also very interesting to observe the generational shift among Bharatanatyam dance teachers. The great guru-s of the 20th century were themselves taught by great nattuvanar-s who were keepers of the devadasi tradition. The guru-s of the 21st century will be composed of dancers a generation or two removed from the great guru-s. In the modern age, the strict gurukula pattern of learning dance is almost extinct. As the decades pass by, it is not unreasonable to expect that what is being taught is going to change. As an extreme anecdotal example, a teacher, herself trained rigorously by a great guru, teaches only a set of tattadavu-s and nattadavu-s as the foundation before moving on to teaching items. I fear that this type of teaching is not just an isolated event but is something that is spreading. It is alarming to think that a student receiving this kind of training may someday go on to become a Bharatanatyam teacher.
Trends in Societal Acceptance
It seems to me that some of the primary obstacles for choosing Bharatanatyam (or any art form generally) as a profession are societal and the monetary costs associated with being a performer. It is quite rare to see Bharatanatyam dancers who do not have another profession to rely on for their livelihood. It is even more rare to see dancers with parents who encourage their children to pursue Bharatanatyam over academics. Bharatanatyam is encouraged by many families so long as it does not ultimately interfere with other more “professional” ambitions. Even if a dancer is encouraged by her parents, when she gets married, she has to hope that her husband and in-laws are supportive of her choice. Perhaps, her new family will only be accepting of her teaching dance and discourage a professional dance career. The path becomes even more difficult if a dancer becomes a mother. As with any profession, juggling motherhood and professional aspirations is no easy task. A serious pursuit of Bharatanatyam requires a lot of time practicing, rehearsing, choreographing, performing and travelling. For a young mother, time away from her child can be very difficult emotionally and cause feelings of guilt. As she gets older, can she maintain her beauty and graceful figure? If she succumbs to the ageing process, can she develop a thick skin to not get affected by comments that she is too old or too fat?
Young men equally have difficult challenges ahead of them if they choose to pursue Bharatanatyam as a profession. Men are generally not encouraged to follow careers in dance and face many uphill battles with society to gain the recognition that they seek. The very small number of men pursuing Bharatanatyam either as amateurs or professionals is testament to the difficulty of getting more male involvement in the art form.
Trend in Expenses
Even if societal obstacles can be overcome, another development is the exponential increase in the cost of performing. Factoring in the cost of a live orchestra, costumes, jewellery, travelling etc., Bharatanatyam is a pricey profession. It is also very likely a self-financed profession. With so many dancers vying for attention, most sabha-s feel no pressure to compensate the artists. It really is a business and those dancers that can draw ticket-paying audiences can reap some reward. The lucky few who perform abroad on tours on a regular basis have the chance to supplement their income. The rest have to rely on income earned from other professions or their families to fund their Bharatanatyam careers.
Another trend is a vast increase in the number of performances and a corresponding dwindling of the audiences. With the exception of certain of the established veterans, do most Bharatanatyam dancers have an established fan base? Not just family and friends who attend a programme but rasika-s who are excited to see the dancer perform? Are most dancers prepared for the years of toil that it may take to gain the support of rasika-s?
With so many competing societal influences, I wonder if enough is being done to educate the young of today to grow into the rasika-s of tomorrow. After all, it is the young who will financially sustain the art in the future.
I hope that by laying out some of my own personal observations of trends that I see in Bharatanatyam and raising many questions, this article will get people talking about the future of Bharatanatyam. At this point in time, Bharatanatyam at the amateur level is exploding in popularity. Bharatanatyam at the professional level, however, is a big question mark. With so many obstacles to overcome, will talented dancers have the perseverance and resources to achieve their goals? Finally, upon achieving these goals, will they be greeted by an auditorium full of adoring fans or by a vast sea of empty seats?
As a rasika, I believe that if Bharatanatyam (either at the amateur or professional level) is to continue to flourish, dancers must present the best. There are far too many mediocre programmes these days, and when we in the audience see performers whose technique hasn’t been perfected and whose expressions are lifeless, our desire to support this beautiful art form will surely fade.
(Reproduced from Sruti 276)
A CENTENARY TRIBUTE - PALGHAT MANI IYER (1912 – 1981)
A CENTENARY TRIBUTE
PALGHAT MANI IYER (1912 – 1981)
A Vocalist’s Perspective
This year marks the birth centenary of Palghat Mani Iyer (12 June 1912 to 30 May 1981), the all-time-great mridanga maestro who strode the Carnatic music scene like a colossus through most of the 20th century. He was a child prodigy who matured into a one-of-a-kind genius. Even so, he was never undependable or whimsical as a performer. He developed a unique style of his own; it represented a drastic, epoch-making departure from the prevailing role of the mridanga in music concerts in form, content and arresting presentation. He was a source of inspiration and role model to the great mridanga vidwans who came after him. To me and ever so many rasika-s, he was the most charismatic personality in the world of Carnatic music. He was held in awe not only by the next generation of musicians but even by his peers. Sample this: Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer said of him in a felicitation speech in 1973: “The equal of the ocean is the ocean alone; the equal of the sky is the sky alone; the equal of Mani Iyer is Mani Iyer alone”. Rangaramanuja Iyengar, vainika and musicologist, had this to say of him: “It were madness to paint the lily, count the stars, sweeten honey or to fathom Mani’s colossal genius”. He embellished, enriched and enhanced to great heights the concerts of three generations of the finest musicians of his times.
The hallmarks of Mani Iyer’s artistry
The hallmarks, to name a few, of Mani Iyer’s artistry, were consistent alignment of the instrument with the tambura sruti; a versatility of tonality achieved through extraordinary care (expense no object) which ensured that the mridanga could roar, croon, hum or even sing, as the mood of the music demanded; an unmatched, ambidextrous mastery over the instrument that he could deploy at will, on the spur of the moment, to excite, electrify, mesmerise or soothe; and uncanny anticipation of the intent of the singer. Barring the sudden and spectacular bursts of inspiration, he maintained a simplicity of idiom which is characteristic of genius steeped in the classical ideal of “how” a thing is done in preference to “what” is done. His fine balance of technical intricacies and lilting sunada generated in equal measure the awestruck admiration of the learned and the lusty cheers of the laity. His deep awareness of and involvement in the music, drove his laya manodharma. The range of his excellences was so sweeping and so comprehensive that it is difficult to make an exhaustive enumeration of the various elements which went into proclaiming him the tallest titan of percussion wizardry.
The shaping of his style
After early lessons from Chathapuram Subba Iyer and L.S. Viswanatha Iyer of Palghat, Mani was placed under the gurukulavasam tutelage of Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer who taught him an elegant fingering technique and a rich repertoire of rhythmic compositions as well as the methodology of accompaniment. But there were other influences. An early influence was the rhythmic idiom of other percussion instruments of Kerala (for example, Suddha maddalam Venkichan). Narayanaswamy Appa was well before his time, but as a boy, having heard that Narayanaswamy Appa could strike a chord in every listener with a single stroke (“He could fill the sadas with a chaapu”) Mani Iyer often marvelled at this ability to “say much in a few words” through the mridanga. We know the result of all that marvelling and daydreaming – we have, of course, heard Mani Iyer fill many a sadas with his chaapu. For his saukhyam and sunaadam, his role models were Azhagunambia Pillai and Ramadasa Rao. For his tapas, thought-force, ability to sway the audience and his imposing stage presence, he drew inspiration from those historic concerts in which he was featured alongside the redoubtable Dakshinamurthy Pillai on the khanjira. The two started out as adversaries on stage and ended up as mutual admirers. By all accounts, Pillai came to evince a paternal affection for Mani Iyer. I have heard from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer that Pillai used to speak of him as “divinely gifted”. In his conversations with me, Mani Iyer spoke of Pillai in nostalgic admiration. He let all these influences flow into the crucible of his own fertile imagination; the outcome of it all, the Palghat Mani Iyer style, was authentically his own and unlike anything heard before or since.
Mani Iyer was truly peerless. He was the cherished and most sought after mridanga vidwan for the front ranking singers of his day, while the second line musicians looked forward (with a mixture of hope, fear and awe) to the day they might have a chance to perform in his leonine company. He had the ability to adapt himself to suit the very different styles of his contemporary singers. In this process, he struck the finest synergy with my guru, Ariyakudi. The two of them had tremendous mutual admiration and respect, the age difference of 22 years notwithstanding.
Mani Iyer’s illustrious contemporary, Palani Subramania Pillai, who also accompanied my guru in many concerts, used to say, “for Ariyakudi’s music, Ayya is the ideal accompanist”. (There was a similar, renowned synergy between Madurai Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai). My guru and Mani Iyer had a frequent exchange of ideas on matters musical. For instance, it was Mani Iyer who suggested Aravindapatranayanam to my guru as the ideal line for niraval and swara-s in Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Seshachala nayakam (Varali).
Similarly, Mani Iyer was so enchanted hearing my guru singing Amba nannu brovave (Todi) in Desadi (4-kalai) on the morning of their concert for Shanmukhananda Sabha, Mumbai that he called for no less than five encores and practised the song with my guru. They jointly created a sensation that evening. On the special chemistry of the Ariyakudi - Mani Iyer combination, I wrote a piece for Sruti in the Ariyakudi centenary issue (Sruti 42) in 1988. It is also available at alepeyvenkatesan.com.
It is interesting that each great musician Palghat Mani Iyer accompanied drew out and capitalised on a different facet of his multi-faceted skill set. With GNB (they were both Ariyakudi fans and close friends in their youth), we heard Mani Iyer’s spectacular brilliance and fluency, when he matched the galloping voice with flying fingers. The Alathur Brothers (with their penchant for rhythmically valuable pallavi-s and kalpana swara-s as well as tantalising kalapramana for kriti-s (as in Entundi, E papamu, Truppugazh-s in rare tala-s) never passed up an opportunity to draw out the cerebral, intellectual facet of Mani Iyer. In the company of Semmangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer and most important, Ariyakudi, we heard the Palghat Mani Iyer aesthetics steeped in sangeeta gyana, which made the mridanga’s sound melt into the melody of the song.
At one time or another, he had played all the seven notes on the toppi (the left side of the mridanga). What GNB said of my guru applies with equal force to Palghat Mani Iyer: “What anyone else did, he could do it and more, in a better way”.
In the celebrated concerts of Flute Mali, it was a case of the erratic, temperamental artistry of Mali being inspired and goaded by the supportive and responsible artistry of Mani Iyer to conjure up a joint treat for their eager audiences. The fire of genius was plainly visible in both pairs of eyes; such was the intensity of their visual communication on stage that the buzz among rasika-s was, that if you kept a piece of paper in between, it would surely burn. I was so fascinated by this tale that I went with T.N. Krishnan to a concert in Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, so that I could sit on the dais and watch this rarest of rare phenomenon at close quarters.
I consider myself twice blessed. The first of these was the great Ariyakudi grooming me as his disciple. The second, most cherishable experience of my musical career was Palghat Mani Iyer, finding in me the last disciple and votary of his most admired Ariyakudi, taking it upon himself to mentor me. I had the privilege of a close association with the maestro during the years 1972 to 1981. It was founded on appreciation of my musical credentials and a paternal solicitude on his part; a fervent admiration and filial regard and affection on my part. When I came to his notice, he had reached the ripe and mellow stage of his life and hence was far more approachable. than he had been in his halcyon days ( I could actually tell him not to hold his steaming cup of morning coffee with his towel and drink it boiling hot and get away with it, too! That would have been unthinkable in the days when he was the fiery, awe-inspiring patriarch).
The first time I sang for him at his home, I had been warned by some young mridanga artists who thought they knew his preferences that he would tick me off if I tried to sing like Ariyakudi. I said I was going to do just that; I was willing to take the risk, but I would sing only the way I most believed in. I sang Poorvikalyani and Ninnuvina. Contrary to the dire predictions, he was so happy he had found a young Ariyakudi votary that he made it his mission to give me his unstinting guidance and encouragement. Almost every concert he played for me was at his own initiative. At my first concert with him in January 1974, the first thing that struck me was the sheer accuracy with which he defined the kalapramana in which I had started the Kalyani Ata tala varnam.
During the innumerable evenings I spent at his home in Chennai and later in Rishi Valley, when he asked me to play my guru’s tapes, he discussed the nuances of his music with me and asked me to practise right then and there, with him listening or playing, it came as a revelation to me that for all his titanic prowess in laya, he did not expect the vocalist, indeed, did not favour the idea of the vocalist trying to ape the percussionists and indulge in arithmetical acrobatics. While he wanted us to have a sound knowledge of the technical aspects of music and be able to communicate our intelligence, he would not countenance the vocalist sacrificing or compromising raga bhava while singing kalpana swara-s. He expected all swara singing to be rooted in raga gyana, while maintaining the kalapramana.
I have fond memories of attending on the two giants – my guru and my mentor – whenever they stayed with us in our home for their concerts at temple festivals in and around Alleppey. It was a privilege to have watched them at close quarters and listened to their conversations on matters musical, as well as their lighter exchanges laced with genial humour.
The man behind the maestro
So many knew what a maestro he was; so few knew what a good heart he had. This was natural because he had a serious deportment on stage, was a man of very few words off stage and his electrifying presence kept people at a distance. It was given to me to be one in the inner circle, so I could see how simple and childlike he was in matters other than his area of expertise. Just before the start of my concert with him at Alathur Srinivasa Iyer’s son’s wedding, he asked me to make sure I sang Entani ne and went downstairs to the concert venue. I ran after him and asked in a whisper, “Is it okay to sing Mukhari at a wedding?” He said, “Oh! that didn’t strike me. You take care of those aspects”.
He was very fond of Entani ne because my guru used to call him Sabari as a tribute to his sense of discrimination in musical values. When he was in hospital, hardly a week before he passed into history, he suddenly asked me to sing something. I sang Entani ne. That remains my last cherished memory of the maestro and the man. No eulogy, however descriptive, can bring back the charged atmosphere he created, the sound of his silences, the electricity in the air when he broke those silences with musical-rhythmic eloquence, as only he could.