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Tuning into Excellence: The Art of Learning from Carnatic Music Legends

Carnatic music students are often advised to immerse themselves in the recordings of yesteryear masters to refine and elevate their musical skills. For those who are truly dedicated, this practice becomes a cornerstone of their education. But what is the underlying principle of this age-old recommendation? With many students privileged to learn directly from today’s stalwarts, the directive to “listen” can seem overwhelming, given the rich diversity of styles and extensive repertoire of numerous legendary artists.

Step into a parallel world to understand this teaching approach better. Remember the days when preparing for the IIT JEE exam involved studying from a select few quality books on various subjects, rather than an industry that it has become today? Books like Resnick & Halliday’s physics volumes, Sarin & Sarin’s chemistry manuals, and S. L. Loney’s geometry texts were considered essential but not exclusive sources of knowledge. They were augmented by additional recommended readings for those with the fortitude to delve deeper. Similarly, in the realm of Carnatic music, the masterful performances of past greats were not created with the intention of serving as educational material. They were born out of a desire to push the boundaries of musical expression and understanding, granting the performers iconic status.

However, there is an important caveat. Despite their universal acclaim, each of these maestros was particularly renowned for certain aspects of their art. For instance, G.N. Balasubramaniam is celebrated for his raga alapana construction and innovative phrases. His renditions in ragas like Andolika and Amirtha Varshnini are studies in creative exploration. Similarly, Nagaswara expert T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai made a mark with his proprietary style in many alapanas. The Alathur Brothers were known for their complex pallavi nadais and niravals, and their spirited renditions of Tyagaraja kritis added an extra sparkle to these compositions.

Manodharma, the creative expression in Carnatic music, was a forte for many, but some stood out more than others. Artists like Ramnad Krishnan and M.D. Ramanathan were known for their moments of brilliance, providing those ‘aha’ experiences for keen listeners. Our music emphasizes both Kalpita (pre-composed) and Kalpana (improvised) aspects of performance. Renditions by Semmangudi and M.S. Subbulakshmi exemplify effective krithi delivery, characterized by measured kalapramanam (tempo), well-articulated sangathis (musical phrases), and unalloyed beauty.

Other artists like the DKP (D.K.

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. Pattammal) and DKJ (D.K. Jayaraman) brand brought an optimal beauty to kriti renditions. For a dose of experimental flair, one might turn to Flute Mali, M.L. Vasanthakumari, or S. Kalyanaraman. Madurai Mani Iyer’s music, noted for its elegant sarvalagu swarams (a type of improvisation), is akin to watching a cricketer whose effortless batting is easy on the eye – deceptively simple yet highly refined.

Laya, or rhythmic complexity, plays an integral role in Carnatic music. The Alathur Brothers, Lalgudi Jayaraman, and later artists like T.N. Seshagopalan, have set gold standards in this domain. The Dhanammal school is particularly revered for its exacting grammar, which even delineates what constitutes permissible phrases.

Viruttam singing, a type of raga improvisation, achieved its unique status in the voices of legends like Semmangudi and Ramnad Krishnan. Certain schools and artists became synonymous with particular ragas; for instance, the Maharajapuram school with Arabhi and Mukhari, Semmangudi with Varali and Neelambari, and Ramnad Krishnan with Sahana and Begada. These associations reflect the performers’ pioneering work in ornamenting and exploring these ragas.

The sheer bhavam (emotional expression) that could be wrought by K.V. Narayanaswamy, D.K. Jayaraman, or M.S. Subbulakshmi is particularly awe-inspiring. Although one might argue that such depth of feeling cannot be fully learned through mere listening, it presents the greatest challenge for many aspiring musicians — to transcend beyond mere mechanical presentation.

In essence, the advice to listen to the legends is akin to the recommendation of essential texts for different subjects. There are specialized lessons embedded in the music of stalwarts, revealing their genius. Today’s musicians are continuing this legacy, developing unique styles and imparting new lessons. The ability to carve out niches in style and substance remains a cherished secret in Carnatic music. The term ‘bani’ may not sufficiently capture the deep essence of this musical tradition. Hence, learners are encouraged to assimilate these performance guides through dedicated listening and integrate them into their own styles, guided by their unique vocal capabilities.