SIFAS Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance 2005, Singapore
Reviews by Balasubramanian Shankar

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[Editor's Note: The event reports and concert reviews on this page were contributed by Sri. Balasubramanian Shankar (S. Bala) of SIFAS. Any views and opinions expressed are entirely his own]

Festival on a roll     

When the curtains went up at the Esplanade on the eve of Good Friday, it was another moment of triumph for the lovers of Indian art. In many ways, the 2005 festival leapfrogged to a higher profile event, not the least of it is the choice of the venue partners, the Esplanade, around which Singapore aspires to build an Asian version of Broadway.

When you brand an event as Indian and further as ‘Indian classical’, amongst an international society, you enter a very narrow zone of reduced universality.  The challenge therefore, is to innovate within this zone and yet play by the rules of the classical game.  A first time feature in Singapore, the festival managed to walk the tightrope dividing the classical line from the  ‘mass’ical one. The nation’s President signaled the art ambitions of this society, with his thoughtful presence.

Jugalbandhi – Chitraveena Ravikiran and Ronu Majumdar (flute)

Esplanade Theatre, Singapore, March 25, 2005

Ravikiran sowed the seeds for a fan club last year with his Chitraveena combo with slide Guitar.  His second appearance on 25th March 2005, this time with an even more novel flute combo, must surely have secured his place in the art corridors.  The flautist, Ronu Majumdar warmed up slowly but surely to the occasion with his opening piece in Jhenjooti.  This raga follows the ‘HariKamboji’ scale and yet the difference in the North and South Indian styles is so much that the presentations cannot be considered even as cousins.  Ravikiran followed up with melodious presentations of traditional Carnatic numbers in raga Sri (Sri Varalakshmi) and Hindolam (Samaja vara Gamana).  The overlap piece was played surprisingly in raga Hamsadvani (the customary song, Vatapi Ganapathim), exported from the South to the North Indian style.

The presence of two master percussionists Guruvayoor Dorai (Mridangam) and Ustad Sabir Khan (Tabla) meant that the last half an hour of the concert pushed the audience to the edge of their seats.  Extempore play, as is the case with most of Indian Classical Music, does permit synchronization, as these two proved.  Though a purist may lament the limited supply of deep creative music in such forms, concerts like this are good bridges between the initiated and the uninitiated, with a long-term potential of drawing more audience to the Indian styles of Music.  The temptation to call this a Ravi-Ronu ‘Masti’ in the quest for mass audience was not given in to and the classical boundaries were not breached.

The mix-and-match format I mentioned earlier brings a new salutary dimension to the development of Singapore talent.  Artistes need benchmarking opportunities on stage and this is what this format achieves.  Talents in Singapore have always suffered from lack of performing opportunities in a formal, professional setting and perhaps also from motivation to scale newer heights.  These handicaps should now be passé, as the festival has nearly a two-third component, numerically, of local and regional talents. 

Bowing with Guns - Mysore Nagaraj and Manjunath, Violin Duet, March 27, 2005

If one expected an evening of serene bowing from the Mysore brothers, Nagaraj and Manjunath, like I did, one would have been disappointed.  The brothers are masters of their instruments, have great control at high speeds, present a studious approach to sangathis and a keen tala sense.  The Sunday evening concert, at times, was like a double barreled machine gun (with an additional barrel once in a while from the Mridangist, Guruvayoor Dorai) and yet had its fine moments in the Ritigowla song ‘Janani Ninnu vina’ of Subbraya sastri and the masterpiece Sankarabharanam song, ‘Saroja Dala netri’ of Dikshitar.  Nagaraj’s Sankarabharanam alapana was built on the ladder-crescendo formula and delineated the contours and possibilities excellently.  Mamavasadha in Kanada and Gnanamosagarada in Purvi Kalyani (the raga was featured several times in the festival) had some brilliant streaks, but suffered a bit from the frenzy. If a skill was to be displayed (in this case, the ati durita kala play), it could have been used as a rare ‘astra’.  Skill is a virtue, overuse has the opposite effect – it kills it, even literally! Gunijanathi nutha Guruguhodaye of Dikshitar in the rare raga Gurjari was a good demonstration of how to tread carefully on vivadi scales and yet present the essence in a continuous stream, with full raga swaroopam (picture).

Guruvayoor Dorai brought his seasoned outlook in the Tani avarthanam and was well complemented by the Morsing play of SIFAS teacher, T R Sundaresan.  ‘Wagner's music is better than it sounds’ is a famous quote by Edgar Wilson Nye, who wrote Mark Twain’s autobiography.  One had similar feelings about this concert. It was entertaining without being engaging.


Sanjay Subrahmanyan / B U Ganesh Prasad / Poongulam Subramaniam, Esplanade Concert Hall, April 1, 2005

Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s music can be likened to a classic ‘Sivaji Ganesan’ film – high on emotive and expressive content, creative with sound basics, attention to details and even a marked semblance to the labour of execution.  Sanjay concentrates on bringing out the beauty of Carnatic Music through essentially a base line game.  The 80: 20 audience mix  (20 % evolved listeners) means that his style is a fantastic treat for the 20 % and is sometimes out of bounds for most of the rest. Sanjay’s performance in the SIFAS festival 2005 at the Esplanade had a significant ‘character’ and the poetic aspects of a typical ‘Sivaji’ film – the word film is synonymous with ‘unreal’ but in this analogy, I compare the two only in terms of an artistic presentation.

There were three clear legs to his concert  - a warm-up, a plot builder and a climax.  A less than perfect voice forces him into a long warm-up – he chose a salad of the versatile Kottavasal Venkatrama Iyer varnam, ‘Valachi vachi’ , a brisk Yochana Kamala (Saint Tyagaraja, Durbar), a Dikshitar stamped vilamba kala Thyagaraja Yoga bhaivam (Ananda Bhairavi) and  Emanathi (Saint Tyagaraja, Sahana).  He gave a teaser show of his Bhava repertoire in the Sahana raga alapana.  Todi (Chesinadella, Saint Tyagaraja) appeared early and as a transition to the second phase – Sanjay enjoyed this with a soft style with controlled brigas to depict a different, less expansive picture of this versatile raga.  With this song, he plotted his innovative ‘manodharma’ phase, which culminated in an elaborate Kamboji Pallavi (Ananda Natanam aadinar).

Sanjay is clearly setting new standards for ‘Thanam’ rendition with emphasis on Bhava in a semi-rhythmic format, almost a continuum from the alapana and bringing back memories of the stalwarts.  He was also bitten by the current bug - long convoluted swara phrases in the higher speed, to be meant as a show of laya mastery – very often it moves the body to the edge of the seat and not really the soul!

There were some moving end-pieces with a viruttam (Bagesri, Kapi, Sama) and some interesting lyrics in the Saveri Padam. Sanjay met the expectations of his die-hard fans (as Sivaji always did in the 60 s) and orchestrated well with Ganesh Prasad and Poongulam Subramanian.

Sudha Raghunathan, B U Ganesh Prasad, Poongulam Subramanian, Esplanade Concert Hall, 2nd April 2005

For a while now, I have been curious to understand the iconic exploits of Sudha Raghunathan in the Carnatic Music world.  As she graduated from a simple MLV school prodigy to the super star status in a fairly short span of time, Sudha has carried a massive audience with her and yet not been free of some muted criticism, branding her as a ‘songster machine’ with more glamour than substance.  Sudha’s performance on behalf of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS) at the awesome Esplanade Concert Hall (as she herself described it) was a great chance for me to explore this debate. In my own simple understanding, Sudha has found the right balance between deep creative music and the ability to connect to a vast diverse audience.  She has successfully migrated the traditional style to the new emerging audience, with full fidelity to the character of our Music.  There is no dearth of the craft and art – of finesse in raga alapana or expertise in laya, classicism, intelligent programming or creative swara either – except that these are not treated as ends in themselves (as many other artistes do), but the means to a larger goal of wooing different sections of the audience.  She has moved the ‘line of control’ across art and commerce ever so slightly to fit the changing times and the purists obviously have their view.  As part of this migration, Sudha will need to find ways to evolve this style continuously to keep her flock and take the music to an emotion-kindling level, albeit in the classical realm.  Sudha belongs to the modern genre of musicians, with good education, feel for audience pulse and self introspection skills and is therefore perfectly capable of engineering this transition and keeping her brand value contemporary.

Inheriting a strong paddathi from the late MLV is only one of Sudha’s strong suits.  Complementing this are a strong resonant voice that holds itself for a full 3 hours or more, from the word go, great stage presence and a powerful repertoire.  The GNB-MLV tradition of brisk kalapramanam is another virtue which she fully uses. After a staple start with Viribhoni (Bhairavi) and Vatapi Ganapathim with the usual swara climax, Sudha launched the more expansive part of the concert with the soft ‘Renuka Devi’ of Dikshitar in Kannada Bangala followed by the poignant ‘Janani Ninnuvina’ of Subbrarya sastri in Ritigowlai.  Sudha used the native opportunities in the raga to pack melody in the alapana and in the powerful Pallavi and Anupallavi, keeping the tempo on a leash.  Karaharapriya (Chakkani Raja) was a trademark Sudha effort, with the clarity of brighas and a fine kalapramanam of the kriti.  The rich tone of her voice ascended in this song, which had the crescendo of swara korvais, a mandatory feature in today’s concerts. 

The novelty of the evening was the tri-raga Pallavi based on the ‘K’ sisters – Kalavathi, Keeravani and Kalyani – built with a challenging Khanda Triputa, Khanda nadai structure with ‘oru eduppu’ – this complex piece sat lightly on her shoulders.  The raga alapanas were imaginative with seamless transitions, and Ganesh Prasad on the violin fully used the opportunity to play a good foil.  Tamil songs Arul seyya Vendum (Koteeswara Iyer, Rasika priya), Malmaruga (Sivan, Vasantha). Thaye yasoda (ragamalika), Kurai onrum illai (Rajaji’s lyric immortalised by MS) completed the social responsibility segment of the concert. Ganesh Prasad with soft fingers, a caressing bow and soothing tone, shone in his debut concert in Singapore as did Poongulam Subramaniam oscillating between ‘theatrics’ and crafty crawls as the songs demanded.

Urmila Satyanarayanan, Esplanade Theatre, April 3, 2005

Today’s Bharathanatyam dance field poses several challenges for an artiste. There is an oversupply with very little difference in the quality, especially at the mass end.  Further, the artistes have to contend with the cynical view of the self-promotion practices.  In this clutter and milieu, a dancer needs to find a strong point of difference to sustain her following.  Urmila Satyanarayanan belongs to the top line-up of dancers who have chosen a combination of lively choreography, brilliant execution and a heavy leaning towards powerful lyrics and music, to sharpen the ‘uniqueness’ of style.   It seems as a departure from the traditional margam format and yet stays within the contours, without spilling into a full dance drama concept.

Abhinaya and nimble movements are clearly her strengths and she chose the epic ‘Panchali Sabatham’ to bring a full panorama of expressions to the audience at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore on behalf of the SIFAS festival 2005. She almost brought Panchali to life on stage with her internalization of the powerful story, the facile lyrics and the musical touches of Maestro Padmashri Lalgudi Jayaraman.  Urmila has a natural poise on stage besides strong footwork (jathis) and oscillates creatively between vigorous movements and slow impactful postures, with graceful ‘Hastas’ as decorations.  One saw a perfect blend of intellect, skills and emotions in her armoury.  Her performance at the grand Esplanade theatre mesmerised the 700 strong audience for a full 2-½ hours. 

The Varnam brought her another opportunity to live the role of Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai, with a choreography depicting succinctly the ‘nava rasas’ (nine emotions) around the legendary love story of how Meenakshi charmed the Lord Shiva. That Urmila chose a heavy menu despite the international nature of the recital, in her maiden show at Singapore, is a testimony to her professionalism and a strong commitment and endeavour to stay ahead of the clutter – at a time when Bharathanatyam has reached mass production levels, mostly self produced, self-promoted and self-financed!

Urmila had a favourable crew supporting her, with well-aligned music (an aspect sometimes not cared for enough) especially the pleasing voice of Swamimalai Suresh.  Grand auditoriums are a boon to any show, however, Indian dances with a strong expression content do not reach the farther corners of the audience.  A closer span of eye-reach is ideal and this could mean a move towards smaller auditorium.

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