Notwithstanding the Srirangam nativity she shares with me, ever since I listened to her husEni AlApanai two years back at the Madras Music Academy, my respect for her music was immediate and permanent. Endowed with pliable voice, classical singing sans festivity, kIrthana (song) rendition with good diction, neraval without flashiness, extemporaneous swara prasthArAs with just enough kanakkus, verve without vice and variety without wastage, Vasundhra provides a rich musical experience.
Starting from well rendered rAga AlApanais (elaborations) of chArukEsi, mandhAri, husEni, dEvagAndhari, sAmA, sudha sAvEri, vAchaspathi to self-tuned songs from the arunAchala kavi’s rAma nAtakam to AzwAr’s pAsurams, her concert repertoire is always refreshing. Her concerts are dependable to be different but well tempered by the established musical foundations of South Indian classical music. One wonders the reason is her two decade long sojourn in Canada until her return to Chennai in 1995. Absence is one sure way to evade the corroding influence and stitled effect of the Mylapore music mafia. The other way is assertive arrogance – supported by confidence in craft – as practiced by Sanjay or TM Krishna.
The rAgam manirangU if not handled deftly, would sound like a madhyamAvathi or srI. It was a standard fare some decades back. Scintillating performances of this rAgam – including those of Alathur Brothers – are available in mp3 bootlegs, some of which can be downloaded from Sangeethapriya. Early in the season, we were discussing about why, like others, this rAgam has become a rarity in today’s concert platforms. And the talk dissipated into rubbishing the present for the hoary past, where I wasn’t even born. At the 2 pm concert in Naradha Gana Sabha on Dec 16, 2008, Vasundhra Rajagopal presented manirangU as the main item.
The kIrthanai was eNaiyum varacHonArO raghunAyakA from arunAchala kavirayar’s rAma nAtakam (Vasundhra has set the rAma nAtakam to Carnatic music tunes, giving thematic concerts at many places including the Tirumalai Tirupathi Devasthanam in Venkatnarayana road in Chennai and the IIT Madras Music Club). The manirangU AlApanai was excellent but I felt the kIrthanai was rendered in a speedy kAlapramAnam to enjoy manirangU (my comparison is with, say, the version of mAmava paTAbirAma by Balamuralikrishna).
Other highlights of the concert include the sEnApathE of muthuswAmy dIkshitar in gowlai at the start instead of the varnam and the swarams in dhEnukA for theliyalEru rAmA of tyAgarAjA. On that day, her varAli AlApanai was bettered by Vijay Siva at the Music Academy. Also, the mohrsing accompaniment ill-suited her prominently base voice. The discordance was evident in the (slow) moving dEvi brOva samayamidhE in chinthAmani by syAmA sAstri.
The rAgam thAnam pallavi – RTP in short – section of a concert, as the item is named, must contain a section of rAgam(s) elaboration, a thAnam section again detailing the rAgam using the words thAnam, Anandham etc. and a pallavi section that has a unique pallavi (few lines of lyrics). It then goes on to elaborate the pallavi set in the rAgam with the regular elements of neravals, if not shadkAlams (including anulOmam, prathilOmam, vilOmam) atleast trikalams (three tempos), kalpana swarams (exploration of the rAgam through melodic permutations and combinations of the notes of the rAgam) and a rAgamAlika section at the end where the pallavi is sung in different rAgams.
Vasundhra takes divyaprabhandha pAsurams as pallavi lines while delivering the RTP. Taking the first two lines of a pAsuram (depending on the length of it) and setting them to kanda triputai is probably the easy part. The interesting part is the rest of the pAsurams (or more pAsurams depending on the length), follows in the rAgamAlika section – few lines as separate pallavis associated with each rAgam. Her Naradha Gana Sabha concert had an RTP in Sudha sAvEri with the first two lines of the thirupAvai mArgazhi thingAl as its pallavi. The rAgamAlikA section with madhuvanthi, kAnadA and shudhadhanyAsi completed the remaining lines as their respective pallavis. In effect, a rasika gets to listen to a thiruppAvai in RTP.
That structure for the RTP was to be expected in her adhoc Music Academy concert on Dec 30, 2008, substituting for the sore throaty TVS. This time the RTP was in sAvEri, taking up thiruppallAndu (paLAndu, paLAndu, paLAyirathAndu…) as the pallavis. The rAgamAlikA section had valaji, kAnadA and rEvathi and completed the remaining lines as their respective pallavis.
The Academy concert also had a delectable rendition of rAmA niNE naMinAnu of tyAgarAjA in husEni with all the trademark sangathis of yore (the versions of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and an AIR recording of Pudukkodu Krishnamurthy are my references). In retrospect, I wished an AlApanai of husEni.
Highlights included anupamagunAmbudhi in atAnA (ages since I listen to this in the concerts), eNAduni kripagalgunA in vAchaspathi (with AlApanai) and a self-tuned kulam tharum pAsuram in rAgam sivaranjani. The main item was enthudAgEnAdu srirAmudu in tOdi, which I didn’t follow. Nothing should have been wrong with the main-item. Towards the end of a well attended music season such auto-shut-off to certain rAgams is inevitable. Seasoned rasikAs would sympathize. This season, with ten instances, pUrvi kalyAni was the other rAgam that suffered this fate with me.
Having listened for many years to the pAsurams and AzwAr’s works as traditional recitations (which has its own beauty spurring the spiritual) at the Srirangam temple, it is refreshing for me to listen to them set to music and that too as an RTP. An immediate comparison I could think of is the equally creative effort of composer Ilayaraja for thiruvAchagam (shaivaite hymns set to tune as a Western Opera). Both Ilayaraja’s and Vasundhra’s effort may not appeal to those who are soaked full of the OdhuvAr and araiyar recited versions respectively of thiruvAchagam and the prabhandham. But such commendable ventures are agreeable deviations into the unknown from the known, stretching the borders of (Carnatic) music and its scope. They also offer a chance to get introduced to the rich Tamil in the poetry and associated Shaivaite and Vaishnavite philosophies if the rasikA delves beyond the music.
With so much talent, creativity and classicism to go for her it is cynical justice that Vasundhra Rajagopal draws only a select following in her concerts. Her thematic nAlAyiramum nAmum concert at the Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha on Dec 28, 2008 was a better draw but I suspect that is partly contributed by the popularity of Velukkudi Krishnan. Both her NGS and MA music concerts I attended were represented by only about 30 rasikAs (including the security and valet at the Academy doors).
I guess Vasundhra’s concerts are for only rasikAs with years of honed Carnatic music taste, rasikAs who still retain that certain peace of mind after having subjected their musical ears to persistent musical violence in the name of creativity, enthusiasm and energy from popular contemporary Carnatic music performers.
After all, why should one expect a crowd in a diamond shop.
- In case you are interested, her next thematic concert on pAsurappadi rAmAyanam (by periyavAchAn pillai) with commentaries by Velukkudi Krishnan is on Jan 11, 2008 Sunday at P. S. High School, R. K. Mutt Rd.
- DVDs and mp3 of her pAsurappadi rAmAyanam concert has been released by Swathi Soft Solutions. Contact: Tel – 4231 6060; Email: solutions AT swathigroup DOT com; Web: http://www.kalakendra.com