The New Zealand Indian Fine Arts Society put this fine concert on, in collaboration the the New Zealand School of Music, on the 11 August, 2006. The concert was held at Wellington’s Adam Concert Chamber, at Victoria University.
I have been on the look out for recordings of Indian Classical music in the Carnatic tradition for many years. But this was the first time that I had had the opportunity to attend an Indian Classical concert, to hear and see the music being played live.
This is basically a rewrite of a journal entry I made of the concert. As Music School undergraduates, we were entitled to attend this concert free, which was a real privilege. Sadly, I was the only one out of the music classes I was attending, to come to this concert. I think that the advertising for it had been put in a rather obscure place at the University, which I was fortunate enough to see just days before the concert took place. But what a concert. This was a mind blower: Carnatic music is very intellectual, fast moving, rhythmically dynamic, and exhiliarating on the senses. It is music which totally absorbs your whole being, entrancing, quickly capable of moving your concsious planes of existence to other, higher levels.
You can’t learn to play Indian Classical music in the Carnatic tradition just like that. Nor can you really appreciate its intricacies, or understand it in great depth if you are a westerner who has just recently discovered the music. Carnatic Indian music has a tradition which is centuries, if not thousands of years old. Children become acquainted with the patterns of the Ragas at a very young age. The Ragas are the unique rhythmic patterns which are played by the drum. There are hundreds of different Raga patterns to be learned, even before you get onto becoming a vocalist, or an instrumentalist, if you wish to become a performer of Indian Carnatic music. This tradition is passed down in families from one generation to another. which endows a great privilege on the children from these families, who have the opportunity to learn what cannot really be learned anywhere else.
At Victoria University in August 2006, we heard the well known Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanian, who was accompanied by Mannargudi Easwaran on Mridangam, a type of drum, and Nagai Muralidharan who played violin.
A recorded drone was sustained throughout most of the performance – This is not strictly in the Carnatic tradition, of course. However, this did not detract at all from the beauty of the music. The group also made use of electronic equipment including microphone and a speaker system, with a technician to control the mixing, probably with the added purpose of recording the performance.
Mannargudi Easwaran was obviously a practicing Hindu, and might have been a priest of the religion, as he had the distinctive markings on his forehead and wore an orange-coloured tunic such as Krishna devotees in Auckland are seen to wear when they sing their music down Queen Street.
Sanjay Subramanian stood out visually as the main attraction, being larger in stature and younger than his two companions. He wore white robes, very traditional-looking, except for a modern, blonded effect to his hair. He sat upright at the centre of the trio.
The violinist Nagai Muralidharan wore a tunic and sat alongside Sanjay, close to his left. He held his violin with the body under the chin, but with the neck resting down on his feet.
The physical closeness of the trio seemed to heighten their sensitivity one to another, and establish a unity of performance. This was displayed in their improvisations which often bounded from one musician to another in quick response. The close proximity to each other enabled eye contact, and sensitivity to each player’s impluses, which was imperative to a flawless performance, since the music moves along so fast. No room for error with Indian Classical Carnatic music.
These artists are all emminent musicians in the field of Carnatic music, and their rigorous training over a long period of time, as well as being well practiced in the art of concert performing, was apparent at the very outset of the performance.
The programme lists the Raagam performed as the “Bilahari”, and the composition was “Ra ra venu”.
They were extremely inspiring. The tremendous energy shown by, especially the vocalist Sanjay Subramanian and the Mridangam player Mannargudi Easwaran was unrelenting. They showed no signs of flagging or of lessening the intensity, even after an hour of non-stop playing. Their physical skill was matched by their intellectual skills: It was truly remarkable to my western ear, the way they kept to the intricate beats of the Raga, and still ending up together at precisely the same moment, time and time again, after a complicated and long improvisation had taken place by the Mridangam player, or the Vocalist or the Violinist.
Sanjay Subramanian beat the time with his right hand, palm down, palm down, palm up, according to the number of sections in the raga, which kept the pulses visible for the mridangam player, who played very complicated ‘tintal’.
It was fascinating to see how the audience, almost all Indian and the the women dressed beautifully in their Saris, responded to much of the programme. At times, a new melody would begin afresh from what had previously gone on, and the audience would respond with a nod, a smile, an “ah, yes”, and start beating out the raga and humming the fi8rst parts of it before it became too complicated to sing any more. They knew this composition well.
At one part, about half-way through, a slow, melancholic Alap was sung by Sanjay Subramanian, with the most beautiful melodic pairing by Nagai Muralidharan on violin. They produced such wonderful harmonics working together in this way, holding them on, and blending sounds which created such beauty in tone, I was moved to tears, along with the older Indian lady who sat beside me.
Then, after this incredibly moving performanbce, the Mridangam came in with a ripple and a “hello, I’m still here”, and changed the mood completely to one of relief, and joy, and vibrancy, and dynamism again. This change of mood was accompanied by smiles on all three players, and on the people who sat beside me.
I was extremely lucky to have been given a seat at the very front. I had purposely not taken this seat originally, leaving it for the elders of the Indian community, and had taken the seat behind. Then, a whole family turned up together. They were about to divide themselves up around me, so I offered to move. They were so pleased about this, I was almost forced to take a front row seat at their behest. So, up the front I sat, with a mother and daughter with whom I had spoken outside, before the performance. They were impressed that I had just handed in an essay on Carnatic music that very day.
This, I think, is the most memorable of any concert I have ever been to. It was simplyso overwhelmingly beautiful, transforming, and inspirational, that my own words cannot do it justice. I can only say that I look forward very much to attending more Carnatic concerts, as I loved this one so much.