Words of wisdom from Semmangudi

Words of wisdom from Semmangudi


(Semmangudi spoke to Gowri Ramnarayan a few years ago)


Before the 1930s, musicians performed before small groups of 200 to 300 listeners. The microphone brought about a revolution. The singer did not have to develop a voice of full-throated resonance any more. Thousands could hear his murmurs and croons. But amplification has been at the cost of tonal clarity, as also of depth, weight and vocal power. The mridangam is a victim too. Restraint robs it of natural force and lucidity. This new style of music may please the ear, but cannot haunt the mind.


The amplifier’s feedback can be a hindrance on the stage. So it is for listeners assaulted by the gigantic speakers in the hall that convert music into noise. The distortions can be minimised by placing small speakers at regular intervals to project more even sound. The bell-shaped speakers of the early days, placed above the pandal, were far better than the models we have now.


Once Budalur Krishnamurti Sastrigal and I sat on the bridge across the Kaveri in Tiruvaiyaru to see how well we could hear the flute recital of Palladam Sanjiva Rao at the high school venue nearby. Sanjiva Rao’s lengthy mandara phrases were nectar from heaven. Mandara sthayi has gone out of vogue. We have neither the vocal strength nor the taste for it any more.


Carnatic music was nourished by the nagaswaram tradition. As a child I followed the pipers through the four streets around the temple in the procession of the deities. Now and then the pipers stopped and elaborated a raga. The crowds thronged to worship as well as to listen to the music. The brothers Kiranur, Tiruppamburam, Tiruvizhi-mizhalai... Mannargudi Chinnapakkiri, Chidambaram Vaidyanatha Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Viruchami Pillai... they were giants. That kind of expansive, contemplative music has vanished. I can still hear their morning ragas - Kedaram, Bilahari, Saveri, Dhanyasi, Nattakurinji - as the deity was taken to the riverside mandapam for the tirthavari ritual, and the evening strains as he rode the silver chariot back to the sanctum. Today the children of those pipers have exchanged their family art for office jobs.


Present-day singers have developed a better voice culture than in our times. They have also developed better sruti alignment. Of course many of them are inaudible without the mike.

The growth of music depends as much on the listeners as upon the artists. Nowadays people do not have the time or the temperament to savour four- to-five-hour-long concerts. But they know much more theory, which makes them formidable. It is very difficult to satisfy them. What a contrast to the old-timers who often identified Kambhoji not by name but as the ‘Sri Subrahmanyaya namaste raga’! Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar not only gave us the concert format we follow now, but also popularised many ragas and a variety of kritis in them.


The old listeners had patience and discipline. When an organiser found someone gossiping in my concert, he literally dragged him by the ear and threw him out of the hall. Once when I found some Mylapore advocates chatting in the last row I asked them: “Would you let me talk in your courtroom?” At the least sign of inattention my guru, Sakharama Rao, would simply pick up his gottuvadyam and stage a walk-out. He did not tolerate any insult to the art he worshipped.


Today performers not only tolerate indiscipline, they also rely more on the razzle-dazzle of virtuosic skills, which do not permit depth. But listeners have been trained to appreciate ragas sung in ways difficult to identify or understand. This trend is lauded as clever. People have come to believe that real enjoyment comes from what they do not understand. They crave for ragas “new” and “rare”, but so limited that there is no doing anything with them except racing up and down the scale.


A regrettable modern tendency is to burst into applause for every little thing. This creates the illusion that the success of a concert is to be gauged by the volume and frequency of the applause. Determined performers work towards a crescendo of superfast swaras tagged with the “tadinginatom” - in other words, arranging swaras to imitate drumbeats. Laya wizard Dakshinamurti Pillai would exclaim even in those days: “Leave drumming to us! Sing from the soul!” But from Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai to the Alathur Brothers there were those who indulged in fireworks. Today this has become the rule rather than the exception. The music and the applause are equally mechanical. Once in Bangalore, when violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and I traded kalpanaswaras in fast and slow speeds, stimulating each other to plunge more and more into Anandabhairavi, finding poruttams each more beautiful than the one before - there was no need for any climax of calculated rhythms. And the hall was filled with an exhilaration beyond thoughts of applause. My friend and contemporary the late Musiri Subramanya Iyer used to be so lost in bhava that he never thought of evoking any response.





The briga is another dangerous device. Its glamour is often mistaken for grandeur. No attention-getting device has lasting value. Music must not draw attention to skills; it must make performer and listener forget themselves. Sometimes I feel that not having a good voice is an asset to the Carnatic musician. It impels him to Herculean efforts to grasp something beyond his reach - to explore new, original, fascinating territories. Of course, now you think I am talking about myself. Maybe I am.


There are many changes for the better. There are more sabhas, sponsors, government support and more musicians. Artists enjoy financial security, a far cry from the days when parents were afraid to get their daughters married to musicians. Yes, I speak from personal experience.

Another tremendous step forward is the emergence of women as equals of men in this male-dominated field. With the exception of the Dhanammal family, women musicians sang a string of songs exactly as they had been taught. They did not attempt much improvisation of raga and swara, they avoided the challenge of the ragam tanam pallavi. With the advantage of naturally sweet voices, women are now overtaking men in each one of these departments.

Concerts today have team spirit. Instrumentalists have made great strides. The violin has become a solo instrument on par with the veena and the flute. New instruments like the mandolin and the saxophone are crowd-pullers. We have to wait to see if they will endure.

The rasika has greater variety and choice than ever before. But there is less diversity in another area. In my time you could say this boy was trained by Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, this man is the disciple of Ariyakudi, and so on. But today every youngster sounds the same. Their concert pattern, manner of kriti rendition are all the same. They are all one even in refusing to descend from the higher octave until they extract applause.

The reason is that they are no longer merely the sishyas of this or that guru, but of the cassettes that flood the market. Nor has criticism developed as a constructive guide. Critics are more interested in attacking established artists to produce copy that sells.


Our age has seen a proliferation of musical compositions. The less-known kritis of the great masters have been discovered and polished. And each day brings a new composer to light. The old endures because it is steeped in the essence of the ragabhava. And time will decide the fate of the new. I will say that Papanasam Sivan's songs are not skeletal verses; they are filled with life-giving melody.


Staying with the guru for years and absorbing music by listening as well as learning is no longer feasible. Now we have institutions where music is taught to groups of students in one-hour slots - a waste of energy and money. In Thiruvananthapuram, where I was Principal of the Sri Swati Tirunal College of Music, I devoted a whole morning to a class, attended to the needs of each individual student and finally sang the whole piece so that they got the whole picture of what they were learning in parts. I find that those who learn from classes held in the home of vidwans show better results than government college students.

I cannot end without repeating my conviction about teaching methods. You know that children who learn in the Montessori method have a better grasp of the subject than those who are force-fed. They learn spelling and grammar after becoming familiar with the language. Similarly, exercises in the scales like sarali and janta must be taught after the child learns little, simple songs. Then he will learn more, enjoy more.

With all these developments in the art and its sponsorship, why is it that the impact of present-day music is confined to concert time? Why does it not linger in the mind for days after? One reason is that there is too much of it easily available round the year. You do not have to wait for it and seek it as in the past.


Perhaps the problem has to do with a fast lifestyle, one that hankers after novelties and innovations all the time. It lacks the perseverance and discipline on which the creative arts thrive. But Carnatic music will retain its grandeur and depth despite temporary trends. There will always be a group of committed listeners and performers who will refuse to compromise on values. It will remain a small minority. So what? The classical arts have never had mass appeal.


By Gowri Ramnarayan


Posted by Sruti Magazine   January 09, 2012