Is tradition set in stone? Is not change even within a musician’s lifetime in the natural order of things? Does custom or convention in musical practice have to be held sacrosanct at the cost of organic modification or adaptation?
An artiste creates and modifies, subtly or otherwise, his or her style for several reasons – physical, emotional, intellectual, political or aesthetic. A stellar artiste preserves tradition not as a rigid, fossilized keepsake but as an intelligent amalgamation of inherited values as well as current inclinations. […]
Every episode in this series promises a volley of insights into the musical style and technique of the musician being discussed. A treat for students, aspiring musicians, lay as well as experienced listeners.
These conversations are not intended to conclude, merely to present points to ponder. […]
The Museum of Performing Arts (MOPA) Foundation was established in 2017 to document and showcase the history, content, periodic changes and external influences on every aspect of South India’s performing art forms, as also to look at existing trends and the impact on subsequent generations.
Through well-designed and curated exhibitions, documentaries, lectures, concerts and related events, MOPA aims to place South India’s rich cultural legacy on the larger map of world culture.
MOPA also aims to develop a museum in Chennai, for the performing arts of South India. By this, MOPA will serve one more purpose – a complete artistic and cultural orientation under one roof for anybody who wants to get a bird’s eye view or an in-depth understanding of South Indian performing art forms.
STELLA SUBBIAH (Artist Development Lead, Bhavan London)
In conversation with
LUDWIG PESCH (Author of The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music)
VIGNESH ISHWAR (Musician)
Today, as in the remote past, India’s musicians and dancers share a vast and varied repertoire. Apart from facilitating oral transmission, the underlying vocabulary helps to convey feelings underpinned by aesthetic principles and values. So it hardly surprises that the best-loved lyrics are those endowed with scope for reflection and debate among listeners, critics, and the artists themselves.
For this webinar we focus on several key composers whose vision shaped South Indian music and dance as we know it today. We will consider the compositional form of Varnam or Varna, in Karnatic music which can be interpreted as not only colour, praise , or syllable but also as melodic movements. These melodic movements of Arohi, Avarohi, Sthayi, and Sanchari add to its structure and offer various musical possibilities for musical interpretations.
Bharatanatyam Historically, Bharatanatyam was mostly prevalent in Tamil Nadu, though traces of it were found in the 20th century in what are now Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Today it is taught and practised throughout the globe. The term ‘Bharatanatyam’ has been in existence at least from the 15th century but we do not know the compositions the dancers performed in the early years of Bharatanatyam. […] The repertoire added during the time of Tulaja and Serfoji II owes its credit to four brothers of Tanjavur who belonged to a traditional natyacharya family. They were Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, the ‘Tanjavur Quartet’ we know.
Very few people know that Gandhi was extremely fond of Music and arts. Most of us have been all along under the impression that he was against all arts such as music. In fact, he was a great lover of music, though his philosophy of music was different. In his own words ‘Music does not proceed from the throat alone. There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart.’ […]
According to Mahatma ‘In true music there is no place for communal differences and hostility.’ Music was a great example of national integration because only there we see Hindu and Muslim musicians sitting together and partaking in musical concerts. He often said, ‘We shall consider music in a narrow sense to mean the ability to sing and play an instrument well, but, in its wider sense, true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.’
“A historian points out the Mahatma saw morning prayers as a way to inspire discipline and that he used community voices to mobilise people. […] For Gandhi, music — whether it was a bhajan like Vaishnava Janato or a patriotic song like Vande Mataram — was a means of development of the “moral self” which was essential to become a satyagrahi.” – Basav Biradar reviewing ‘Singing Gandhi’s India: Music and Sonic Nationalism’ by Lakshmi Subramanian in The Hindu | Read How Gandhi adopted music on the way to freedom >>
Despite the many alternatives available today, fortunately we still get to see the tambura player on stage. In fact, the first thing many musicians do after accepting a concert date is to book their preferred tambura player. As more musicians show a renewed interest in the instrument, the tambura is experiencing a resurgence. Paradoxically, though, the number of dedicated artistes playing it is declining. […]
[Eminent violinist] RK Shriramkumar laments the fact that one needs to refer to the instrument as an acoustic tambura to distinguish it from its electronic version. “It’s a tragedy that musicians have brought upon themselves by settling for electronic versions. Just as instrumentalists are expected to bring their own instruments to concerts, vocalists must be instructed to bring tamburas. Students should be encouraged to play the tambura for their gurus on stage to experience the constant give and take.”
Source: “The tambura is back. But where are the players?” by Lakshmi Anand in The Hindu 2 December 2021
This concise vocal composition (pallavi) by Vidvan TR Sundaresan pays tribute (namaste) two outstanding personalities in this field: Dr. Pia Srinivasan & Prof. SA Srinivasan whose affection (priya) and discerning patronage (rasika) of the language of music (sangīta sāhitya) could hardly be expressed better than through music itself
“Bhani” from “bhanihi” in Sanskrit which is from the root word “bhan” meaning “sound”. “Bhanihi” also has another meaning, “weaving”. Literally it is “weaving with sound”. But when one talks about style, a “bhani” in Carnatic [music], first and foremost is that one recognizes the total personality of the performer speaking through the music performed. The personality encompasses the way in which the performer has lived, the number of years staying with the master, the values held, the music listened to, the aesthetics developed, the right and wrong integrated unto oneself due to lineage or as disciples of the master, and finally the individual limitations and strength. “Bhani” is generally translated as “style” in English.2 […]
Describing a musical style of a parampara3 going back to several generations in the contemporary context becomes even more difficult, especially in an oral tradition such as Indian music.4 The Karaikudi style of veena playing started from Karaikudi veena brothers, Subbarama Iyer, Sambasiva Iyer’s son’s generation veena players in their family.5 No recordings are available of the music of Subbarama Iyer. […]
Karaikudi style is not a family style. It is a veena style. The lecture was presented by live demonstration at the different places to understand the Karaikudi style by Dr K S Subramanian.
“The Karaikudi Bani is characterized by Swaras that stand out, alternating Meetu and firmness with clarity one can feel it only when one listens to it. It is just like saying sugar is sweet. You can understand it only by tasting it.” – Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, quoted in Analytical study of the different banis and techniques of playing the saraswathi veena, PhD thesis by R. Jayanthi, University of Mysore 2006, Ch. 9[↩]
“I was twelve when my parents, Veenai Lakshmi Ammal and Narayana Iyer, decided to give me in adoption to her uncle Sambasiva Iyer, who was concerned about the continuity of our tradition.” – Reminiscences: K Sambasiva Iyer and Mysore Vasudevachar, Narthaki Profiles, March 18, 2008[↩]
The tambura or tanpura is a plucked drone instrument used to accompany instrumental or vocal performances. The four strings are played open rather than being depressed to alter the note. This example is considerably smaller than the typical tambura. A very small version is sometimes known as a tamburi.
This example is so profusely decorated it may have been made for display or for use at court. The front of the sound chamber features images of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Lakshmana, along with peacocks and cows. The neck is decorated with figures of a male musician playing a pipe or horn, a female musician playing a drum, and acrobats, who appear to be climbing a very tall bamboo pole. One of the female acrobats has a number of matkas (earthenware pots) stacked upon her head.
On the back, Krishna appears five times dancing with the gopis (cow-girls) in a circular pattern. They are flanked by four standing figures: the gods Shiva (holding his trident) and Brahma (shown with four heads and holding the vedas or sacred texts), and two rishis or great sages. The one standing below Brahma is Narada, who holds a vina, a musical instrument which he is said to have invented. He also wrote a treatise about music and was the chief of the gandharvas or heavenly musicians.
This tambura belongs to a small and fascinating group of similar tamburas, of which there are examples in museums around the world. However, most of these lack secure attribution records and the origins of the V&A instrument are something of a puzzle. The Museum’s records from 1922, when the object was acquired, state separately that it was from Pune, Maharashtra, and, slightly later, that it was probably made in Sipri (now Shivpuri), near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, although these places are very distant from each other. However, the fact that the sound chamber of the instrument is made of wood [?], rather than of gourd, suggests that it was made in the south of India as do other aspects of the shape of the instrument, and it has been suggested that the painting style can be linked with Mysore in the south. […]
Decorated instruments are also found in German, Austrian and Italian collections. According to Klaus-Peter Brenner, a similar instrument in the musical instrument collection of Goettingen University may have been manufactured on behalf of Raja Sir Sourindro Mohan Tagore (1840-1914). If this is indeed the case (even if hard to ascertain), the pioneering musicologist may have gifted it to a visiting dignitary (Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinands von Österreich), as he did with numerous other instruments. This particular one is now being described as Göttinger Tagore-Tambura.
Die derzeit bekannten Parallelstücke lassen eine Provenienz entweder aus den Instrumentenschenkungen des bengalischen Musikwissenschaftlers Raja Sir Sourindro Mohan Tagore (1840-1914) an europäische Museen und Privatleute oder vom Indienaufenthalt Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinands von Österreich-Este im Jahre 1893 (briefl. Mitteilung vom 26. 9. 1986 von Dr. Alfred Janata zur Herkunft des Wiener Exemplars) vermuten, was jedoch ebenfalls auf eine Verbindung zu Tagore hindeutet, da Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinand während seiner Reise bei diesem zu Gast war (cf. HÖFER 2010: 51).
NEW FORTUNE TELLER (PUDIYA KONANGI)* by Mahakavi Bharati
Gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu Happy days ahead for the people! Caste feelings are no more. No more are there any conflicts. Shakti ! Maha Kali! Speak up. Predict good times for the people of Vedapura !
Poverty is gone. Prosperity is in. Knowledge is ushered in. Sins have vanished in the thin air. If the educated try to deceive the simple men, they will be ruined in no time.
Commerce and industry are being learnt. Workers flourish. Shastras and skills are being learnt. Fear is gone. Justice prevails. The hour of awakening is come. The magic of incantations is working all around us.
Source: Full text of “Poems Subramania Bharati” (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 1982), pp. 147-151 in the text version provided by Archive.org; and from p. 160 in the embedded version displayed above.
* The fortune teller is traditionally depicted as shaking a small hourglass-shaped drum called kudukuduppai in Tamil, and as damaru across India. Two beads attached to it by strings produce the characteristic rattling “kudu kudu” sound evoked in this poem as harbinger of a bright future for all.
More about the poet Subramanya Bhaaratiyaar (1882-1921)
Bharati was determined to abolish the caste system in India. He selected an untouchable boy, to prove his principle of “equality” to the society.
When Bharati’s vision as a poet went to work upon the sober knowledge of national and world affairs derived from his journalistic labors, the result was compelling political poetry of a kind that is rarely found in twentieth-century literature – with, fittingly enough, Russian literature being a notable exception.
Subramanya Bharathiyar is a renowned poet from Southern India. … His poetry is known for its appeal to the liberty and strength of the people. … His national integration songs earned him the title “DEsiya Kavi” (National Poet). He composed Tamil keertanais on love, devotion, fearlessness, mysticism. | Learn more on karnatik.com >>
Classical musicians have many concerns. A major one is having a perfectly tuned tambura — when practising and performing. Naturally. The tambura aka tanpura, is the keeper of the pitch. It is the guardian of the right note. The tambura is the drone instrument which keeps the sruti. And sruti is the mother of music. […]
This writer has often wondered why the tambura player’s name is not regularly mentioned in concert invitations along with that of the other accompanying artistes. Maybe, sabhas, organisers and artistes should think on these lines.
Teachers and performers consider playing the traditional tambura early in the morning both calming and even therapeutic and must be part of a student’s training. Pantula Rama believes that a musician’s personal tambura is invaluable and irreplaceable as it comes to life during the long years of sadhana. “Musicians should maintain old tamburas — either their own or inherited — as an extension of the body itself. Sabhas should maintain tamburas of different srutis, make it a point to have traditional tambura for each concert, and have a panel of music students and artistes well trained in this art,” she says and adds that good remuneration and respect on a par with other accompanists will encourage tambura players. […]
Is it time to start tambura academies? Or at least special certificate course only on tambura tuning? Or should tambura artistes have an association of their own to ensure good remuneration?
Radha Bhaskar has some good news: “We, at Mudhra, are thinking of organising a workshop on tambura tuning and playing. Madurai G.S. Mani has offered to conduct it,” she says.
Ravikiran says that AIR should restore the importance of a separate category for the tambura player.
The number of music festivals at various government and private academic institutions has grown over the years. Students of these institutions should be compulsorily trained in this art and encouraged to provide tambura accompaniment. It would give them a great opportunity to be with senior artistes and also provide valuable stage experience too.
Bridge to the past
For Bombay Jayashri, it is a unique relationship with the tambura. Her association goes back to her childhood. “The house would be filled with Omkara naadam as my father sat with his tambura in perfect sruti alignment. That left a deep impression in my mind. My grandfather and mother were also tambura lovers,” says Jayashri, who even wrote a poem, ‘Tambura My Sakhi.’
Naturally, it led to a collection of her favourite instrument — Miraj, Thanjavur, Trivandrum… she has them all. “I buy them in pairs,” she laughs. […]
Jayashri believes that it is the tambura, which inspires the musical phrases when she sings. “As I hold it close to my ear, I find myself completely cut off from the world. The raga draws me in. May be I’m imagining it but my music is an extension of my tambura.” Jayashri has names for her collection. “They are so close to my heart, I thought it was rude to identify them as the light brown, dark brown, white cedar, etc. So they have names — Mithra, Kamakshi, Kathyayini and so on.”
Does she not find them unwieldy especially when travelling?
“They are delicate. So I don’t carry the antique ones. I have compact ones, which I can carry as hand luggage. But I would never travel without one,” she explains. “Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.”
The Tambura is considered a queen amongst the Suri vadhyas such as Ektar, Dotar, Tuntina, Ottu and Donai. Although tamburas are traditionally made at certain places, the Thanjavur Tambura has a special charm, which makes it a favourite. They are beautifully ornamented like the Thanjavur Veena. Veena Asaris are the Tambura makers too but not all are experts the reason being it requires a special skill to make the convex ‘Meppalagai’ or the plate covering the ‘Kudam’ or ‘Paanai.’ The making and fixing of the Meppalagai must be done with utmost care.
There are two ways of holding a Tambura. One is the “Urdhva” — upright posture, as in in concerts. Placing the Tambura on the right thigh is the general practice. The other is to place it on the floor in front of the person who is strumming it. While practising or singing casually, it can be placed horizontally on the lap, the Kudam on the right side.
The middle finger and index finger are used to strum the Tambura. Of the four strings, the ‘Panchamam,’ which is at the farther end is plucked by the middle finger followed by the successive plucking of ‘Sārani’, ‘Anusārani’ and ‘Mandara’ strings one after the other by the index finger. This exercise is repeated in a loop resulting in the sruti resonating entirely and creating a wholesome musical atmosphere. Playing the Tambura also needs special skill since the plucking should give a sustained sruti guide to the main performer.
The Tambura which gives the sa-pa-sa Sruti notes is pure therapy to the mind and soul. Sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and listen to the notes of a perfectly tuned Tambura — the effect is therapeutic.
Tambura makers rarely get orders. If they did, the preference is for instruments 50 years old since the wood used then was well seasoned and of great quality.
Except a few, the current generation is for electronic sruti accompaniment, including Bluetooth. Portability is the obvious reason for the choice. Besides few music students are taught to tune and play the tambura. Beyond all this what seems to swing the vote is that the electronic sruti equipment with its heavy tonal quality can cover up when the sruti goes astray.
During the middle of the last century, Miraj Tamburas (next only to the vintage Thanajvur) were a rage amongst music students, who were captivated by its tonal quality with high precision and the beautiful, natural gourd resonators.
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