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[Editor's Note: Regular visitors to this website would notice that a part of this article was published a few months ago. The concluding portions did not get published, thanks to our server migration and the problems it threw up. Here we present Shri. Mahadevan's thoughts in their entirety] 

To many of us, music carries connotations of air-conditioned halls, programmes on satellite channels, jet-setting from continent to continent and of course, CDs and the Internet. But what was it really like in the days of yore? The youngsters of today have often heard their parents, or more likely, their grandparents, talk about walking miles to hear their favourite vidwan sing for 5 hours to an enthralled audience of hundreds and more. To bring back the vintage flavour of the by-gone era, we hit upon a personality who has actually witnessed for over 70 years, the gradual transformation of the music scene. Renowned critic K. S. Mahadevan, has been in the music field for decades, and has experienced the thrill of attending the concerts of several stalwarts of the golden era. More important, he remembers them vividly, and is able to recount his experiences with complete lucidity in a detailed conversation with Varalakshmi Anandkumar.

Having spent my early days in Kerala and Nagercoil, I was for the greater past exposed to Nagaswaram concerts. I had the opportunity of listening to the veterans. My first exposure to organized music concerts was in 1926, within 2 weeks of my landing in Chennai. It was a terrific experience. I was a fairly raw young lad. The concert was none other than that of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. Arranged at the Mylapore Sangeeta Sabha by an organizer named Lala, this concert was held at a small school in Nadu Street. The artiste list was formidable - Naina Pillai (Vocal), Malaikottai Govindaswami Pillai (Violin), Dakshinamurti Pillai (Khanjira), Alaganambi Pillai (Mridangam), Sitaramiah (Morsing), Sundaram Iyer (Ghatam) and the inimitable Kanpur Pakkiri (Konnakkol). An important factor was the priority in the seating arrangement - how well I visualize the scene! Naina Pillai in the centre, Govindaswami Pillai on the left, and on the right, Pakkiriappa Pillai in front, facing the violinist. Just behind him, Dakshinamurti Pillai, behind whom sat Alaganambi Pillai with the Ghatam, and the Morsing further back. The experience was similar to facing a thunderclap with lightning thrown in everywhere. There was no mike (microphones had still not made their entry). The concert, which started at 4.20 pm on a terribly hot Sunday, went on till 10 pm.  It had to be so, because just after an hour, there was a full laya session of singing kalpanaswaras, starting from the Mridangam, till it went on to Pakkiri. Giving at least 5 minutes per round, you will surely understand the long duration of this concert. One could surely call it a ‘Laya concert’ with giants of their fields all playing.

The difference between yesteryears and now is that in those days, not many of us understood the intricacies the percussionists indulged in. But still, none of us left during the Tani. Instead, we tried to absorb it. As for the Konnakkol, many listeners today may not have too clear an idea about it since it is not so common. I can only describe it by saying that when Pakkiriappa Pillai uttered the syllables ‘ta ka di mi ta ka ja nu’, it was so clear, so fast, it could be heard even 80 yards away. Even the mridangam ‘sollus’ did not have that clarity. So, even to a layman, it was interesting, both as a laya display in itself and as exposing the great strength of laya. The synchronization among the artistes during the mohra was unbelievable. Today, the Ghatam artiste finds it difficult to follow even simple avartanams!

It was clear that the dazzling laya display was the exposure of each giant’s treasure-chest and that their respective schools had given them the best education as far as laya was concerned. You would normally feel that a 4-1/2 hour concert would be peppered with a lot of alapana, neraval, etc. But this was not so. Naina Pillai and Govindaswami Pillai had mastered innumerable kritis, and we witnessed this level of expertise at its height of unsullied purity. Govindaswami Pillai could follow any giant like a shadow and yet, in his short ‘solos’ could show what genius was. It was artistry of the highest caliber, yet a type of concealed skill which the layman could perhaps miss but not the connoisseur.

In the Pallavi, which was invariably in the most intricate of Talas, there would follow another Tani. This would be a kind of exhibition of skills, with a determination to score over the other! One may find it stage-managed, but one felt that each one was trying to outdo the other. That kind of gladiatorial atmosphere kept up the excitement, even if the Rasika did not follow the intricacies. Since there had to be at least 6 rounds, the Tani continued for at least 1 hour after the Pallavi. Let me affirm once again that people did not leave midway. After the Tani, if they had the patience and curiosity, they would get the finest Kavadi Chindus and Thukkadas. Many were in praise of Muruga and Devi. There would be a Padam too and finally, the Thillana.

So this is the kind of stuff the audience got those days. As far as the science of music went, the audience may not have been giants. But there would be among them, a Sesha Iyengar or a 'Tiger'. All these vidwans would turn up with the greatest curiosity to hear what Naina Pillai was going to select that day. Naina Pillai was known to make it a point to reveal as many Tyagaraja kritis as possible since there was only a limited repertoire of them during that period. He made it a mission; in fact, he would say that he had taken a vow. Back to the audience, many of you will wonder whether the listening public did really sit through this whole show of expertise. Indeed they did! Yes even today I am surprised that people could listen in patience, with a modicum of understanding of what was going on. It was because the public had an overwhelming desire to absorb. Of course, the vidwans of those days were really of that category too.

Hence, right from the varnam till the end; the concert became a magnificent edifice in which each stone was a jewel. How the yesteryear greats could maintain the super-level thoughout, with each piece thoroughly polished, beats me. I can only ascribe it to their utter sincerity - to the job in hand, to the art and complete fidelity to the Gurus. It would be a prescription for any successful performer to adopt that line of approach, where correct rendering, keeping the voice in as good condition as possible, were bywords. The choice of pieces was also well balanced, with respect to laya, but also with the swaras, so that prathi madhyama, suddha madhyama, the two gandharas, etc. were all duly represented. Hence, the audience could experience the full gamut of emotions. Heaven alone could take care of that member of this ensemble who failed in his tracks; no mercy would be shown at all. The motto was alertness and accuracy. Everyone was on their toes - the audience included. When I say all this, it may seem that I am exaggerating the impact of the music of yester years. But, that is not so. I am just telling these things to demonstrate where the past Vidwans led and scored over our present day musicians. 

How was an artist made? Mainly by reputation. Of course, reputations were not easily gained. The musician made his name, not from the audience, but from the select Vidwans and enlightened listeners who gave a “certification” of the musicians. This was the guiding principle for the sabhas those days. Of course, there were not too many sabhas. Musicians relied largely on concerts held in temples and on special occasions like the Tyagaraja utsavam. In fact, to have made it to the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyyaru was a kind of triumph. I heard the following incident from Lalgudi Gopala Iyer, father of Lalgudi Jayaraman. As a teenaged boy, Jayaraman was once participating in a Ramanavami music festival somewhere in Chettinad. At the end of the first day Gopala Iyer accompanied Tiger Varadachariar home. Just before Tiger entered the house, Gopala Iyer politely asked him his opinion of his son’s performance to which no reply was forthcoming. Two days later, Gopala Iyer did the same as before and repeated his question just as Tiger was getting into his house. To which Tiger gave a short reply, full of meaning “why the hurry?” Such were the mysterious yet meaningful comments by veterans about upcoming talent. No doubt, what Tiger meant by that laconic comment was that, though a prodigy, Lalgudi Jayaraman’s career should not be rushed. Emphasis was laid on accumulation of experience, of musical wisdom by way of mastering more krithis, ragas and pallavis. In those days, no musician would get far if he was not fully equipped, unlike in the present where so little emphasis is placed on the acquisition of maturity. 

One can sum up by saying that the difference between the olden days (say 40-50 years ago) and now is: unless a musician was completely matured, had got the necessary training in all direction, and had acquired the poise to cope with any possible situation during the concert, he was not considered fit to ascend the platform, whereas today, too many musicians are trying to come up without adequate training and knowledge. The old method of dealing with new talent may have been restrictive and could have inhibited bright musicians. May be this was in the ultimate interest of the youngster’s career as well as the development of the art itself.

Let me now pass on to the later generation, say from the 50s onwards. This was the brilliant period, which produced a dazzling clutch of musicians. It was my privilege and good fortune to choose the best of talents for major concerts. I refer to my stint as secretary of Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha in which, for 6-7 months a year, programmes featuring the likes of Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers and T R Mahalingam would be held. I was on such good terms with them that I would fix concerts for many without evening mentioning the remuneration. Of course, the growing stature of the Sabha enabled me to ensure that they ultimately got the remuneration that far exceeded their expectations. And thus they were encouraged to go better and better. Indeed they were worth the high level of payment paid to them with their dazzling kutcheris that lasted not less than 3 ½ to 4 hours. I would call the period from 1945 to 1975 the golden age of Carnatic music.

One unique factor about all the great maestros was that each had his own set of krithis of the Trinity and other great composers and pallavis. When you heard all of them perform at a festival you got a compendium of the best Tyagaraja Krithis and the best of Muthuswamy Dikshithar or Shyama Shastri. It is a great pity that recording facilities then were very poor and many artists were against being recorded. Thanks to this misguided policy, most of that brilliant music has vanished to the vivid memories of octogenarians like me. It should be noted that the artist never pampered the listeners; they always gave the cream of their talent. The common man has an instinctive ability to appreciate the best in music. That instinct is what keeps Carnatic music going.

Take for example, Shyama Shastri’s Swarajathis. It was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who started the practice of singing the Swarajathis at concerts. Some people even used to scoff at the idea - there was a common notion that Swarajathis were for beginners, as a training round. What a colossal delusion! Can anything match, for sheer musical power and intensity, the 3 Swarajathis? Even today, audience sway, and get mesmerized by the music of a "Rave Himagirikumari" or "Amba Kamakshi". Shyama Shastri, whether he intended it or not, has packed the three with the essence of the respective ragas and has managed to pour a content of religious passion as also other musical parameters of the highest order. We only have to wonder why Shyama Shastri chose to give both sahitya and swara and incidentally give swaras preference in the order of rendering. Thanks to the advent of broadcast techniques, hundreds of people could now listen to concerts. At one of the big festivals of the Shanmukananda Sabha, Ariyakudi, who invariably sang at least one Pancharatna Krithi was somehow impelled to sing two more, and rendered the pieces in Varali and Nattai also. Listeners, I would ask you to visualize the scene, a 5000 strong crowd listening for 4 hours to a maestro in the Everest heights of musical prowess, giving out the best of Carnatic music.

The progress of music can be conditioned only by the quality of output of the artist, their variety and way of handling ragas. This age had the best and purest of the art’s phases. There was such rich diversity in approach - GNB who evolved his own briga-oriented technique, the simplicity of Madurai Mani Iyer, the harmonic, passionately rendered music of Semmangudi, the highly laya-perfumed concert of the Alathur Brothers... Even those who scoffed at the more complex exhibitions of laya stayed back and appreciated when maestro Palani Subramania Pillai played the Kanjira with Palghat Mani Iyer on the Mridangam. It seemed like a battle of wits. Though beyond the comprehension of laymen, the audience relished the excitement of this spirited ‘competition’. I feel that today’s handling of laya is more mechanical. Besides, the shorter duration of concerts gives the Mridangist very little scope to enlarge the scale of his operations. Let me conclude with this anecdote - S G Kittapa was organizing one of his famed annual sessions at Sengottai, with a cream of musicians participating in a concert of Naina Pillai with a full complement of Laya artists. The concert that commenced at 9.30 pm was going on in such full swing that it could not be terminated even at 1.30 am. And at the end, what adulation, what praise & admiration! Yet Naina Pillai, the great musician that he was, could say “such praise might be detrimental to the future of artists, lest it  make them lose their humility”. That was the attitude in general of musicians of the incredible calibre of Pushpavanam Iyer, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer and Dakshinamurthy Pillai. Are present day musicians listening?

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