To say the least, I was intrigued by the controversy over the rendering of Syama Sastri's kriti-s (Sruti 57/58). I have the greatest of respect for both the people who have propounded opposing views on the subject, Vidya Shankar and Sulochana Pattabhi Raman, because their commitment to Carnatic music is total and unquestionable.
I confess I am no pundit, either of the theory or the practice of music. And academically, I have absolutely no right to question or support either of the view-points.
But I have been listening to the music on gramophone records (mostly 78 rpm) for five decades and would like to offer some observations from this perspective.
As a child I was inveigled into this exacting world by the magic of just two songs ; Madhura nagarilo (Anandabhairavi), the perennial plaint (boast too) of the gopi to the wonder that is Krishna, and Rama neepai tanaku (Kedaram), a devotee's oblique comment about Seeta's continuing love for Rama (despite the woe he caused her). They are on the two sides of a Broadcast record by Chittoor Subramania Pillai, attractively labelled in red, blue and gold.
Since then, the mid-thirties, I have been an avid listener of all kinds of music off records and now cassettes.
For anyone who has done such a thing, one fact is inescapable. Even in the strictly ordained world of Carnatic music, where the raga-s are rigidly structured and the texts unchanging, the mode of rendering keeps changing constantly.
Let me cite one set of examples. I have gramophone discs of the Tyagaraja kriti Nagumomu (Abheri), spread over the first six decades of this century (I am ignoring the instrumental and film versions where I feel certain liberties might have been taken).
- Miss Bhavani, Tiruvidaimarudur, two 10" single-sided disc, by Gramophone & Typewriter Co. Before 1910.
- Venkataram Pillai, Kumbakonam, one 10" single-sided disc by Beka-Grand. Before 1910.
- B.S. Raja Iyengar, Mysore. Double-sided 10" disc, by Odeon. Early thirties.
- M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madura. Double-sided 12" disc, by Broadcast. Mid-thirties.
- Musiri Subrahmania Iyer. Double-sided 10" disc, by Columbia. Mid-thirties.
- M. Balamuralikrishna. Doublesided 7" extended play disc, by HMV. Early sixties.
A careful hearing of these six versions by singers of different periods will establish beyond doubt that the mode of rendering can never remain the same. On the basic structure which remains constant, each singer builds up the mode as determined by his taste, ability and what he perceives as innovation and the current needs of the listener. Bhavani's recording was a bestseller in its time, requiring the record company to put out a double-sided record within a few years, but surely her type of rendering can neither be appreciated nor even tolerated today.
My listening daze was concurrent with the popularity of the last four records. Against the standard of Raja Iyengar's, M.S. Subbulakshmi's version was found wanting and did not sell well. Even we, unlettered musically but well aware of BSR's Nagumomu, found her version plodding through 10 or 11 minutes. It was left to Musiri to create a special watershed for this song. With the irreverence characteristic of children we found his pronunciation of 'Nagu' as 'Nagi' quite funny. But that did not stop us from hearing his recording over and over again.
The next to set a trend—and become a raging seller—was Balamuralikrishna's. We heard our elders, some of them at least, say that this was no Abheri but Bhimplas. When pressed for the difference, they couldn't explain it and took cowardly shelter by accusing Balamurali of being too light. We loved it, light or heavy, crooning or singing. It sounded like what Telugu should be and we could follow every word without recourse to a book.
Incidentally, one point has to be made here. It was not Balamuralikrishna who was the first to sing Telugu as it should be. Even a person like the great Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (whose spoken word could have had all sorts of anomalies) took exceptional care in his recorded versions to sing true. He never slurred or dragged a word over the matra-s. Which is so depressingly frequent nowadays especially when the slow-gaited pada-s are sung. Any composition of a 'vak-geya' kara (word-music smith) in rendering has to pay absolutely equal attention to the word and the note. Elementary, but how many realise this and put it into practice?
To get back to the main track. At any given time, there is an accepted standard. All new versions do not dislodge it. But in time, a version, which is but an imperceptibly changing/ changed one of the preceding, emerges and all before that is swept away. It also happens that two versions of a song may be current at the same time, given the diversity of audience taste and multiplicity of singing styles.
One other thing. Does anyone, can anyone pretend that we are singing a Tyagaraja kriti the way, the exact way in which he sang? Can something as evanescent as a melody be unmodified through decades, and hundreds of singers? To start with, musicians today sing to entertain and to earn a livelihood. If you take Tyagaraja's unchavritti (soliciting alms while chanting the name of whom he believed to be God) as eking out a livelihood, fine. But he did not, indeed, refused to sing for entertainment. This important difference is itself a reason, for the divergence of our versions from his.
How many can logically affirm that the order of sangati-s we hear today, for Tyagaraja's or Syama Sastri's kriti-s for example, are the exact reproductions of what they sang, in that very order ?
Again I must go off at a tangent I have versions of Manasuloni marmamulu (Hindolam) both by mother Lalithangi and daughter M.L. Vasanthakumari, sung with a different dhaivatam. I posed this question to Chittoor Subramania Pillai, who had an exceeding affection for me and indulged me my questions : How can MLV claim to be her mother's disciple and sing the same song with a different note ? His reply excluded this motherdaughter/ guru-sishya angle totally. He said that the intent of the author was more important. He cited two songs in the same Hindolam (alas, I forget the titles), one of which he sang with one dhaivatam, and the other, with a different one. He explained that the raga-s too change with time but that this wasn't the point here. He believed that different vaggeyakara-s employed different dhaivata-s in accordance with their own concept of the raga.
I have been told by a musician that he uses one dhaivatam mosdy, but also conscripts the other as a visiting rakti note.
Finally, it seems to boil down to one thing : taste. Of the singer and none else. If Vidya Shankar feels, after years of learning, playing, teaching, studying and mulling over various. aspects of music, that sangati-s should not be employed in certain kriti-s of Syama Sastri, she has the privilege to hold her opinion. She cannot be unaware of the instance when a later composer appended chittaswaram to another's song (and this might have been frowned upon as sacrilege, or at least unwarranted intrusion or interpolation at that time) and which became the standard practice subsequently.
If Sulochana Pattabhi Raman feels that it is right to add sangati-s, she has that hard-earned privilege too. Immersion in music, single-minded devotion to teaching, an awareness of the theory and practice, a pursuit of mode and melody as different as marriage songs and tillana-s, have given her the right. And in any case, for how long can a song, in this instance, a Syama Sastri kriti as notated by Vidya Shankar in her book be sung, without adding further elaborations? Three minutes? Is that enough to give a proper impression of that piece?
Yes. It is good that this controversy has been aired. The question why the authenticity of authorship was not questioned when Vidya Shankar's book was published, and when she lec-demmed, but only now after Sulochana Pattabhi Raman's programme, is something that will not be answered. But it is never too late. Didn't Balachander the Bhageeratha do it to another sacred king?