ARIYAKUDI 125 Pathfinder of Carnatic music A Jan 1967) was the doyen of Carnatic music and the leading page 1
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  • 27 l SRUTI June 2015

    Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (19 May 1890 - 23 Jan 1967) was the doyen of Carnatic music and the leading vocalist of the 20th century whose 125th birth anniversary was celebrated on 19 May 2015. He developed a unique style of his own; it represented a drastic, epoch-making departure from the prevailing concert in both form and content. The architect of the modern concert format, he was a source of inspiration and a role model to great musicians after him. His concerts used to great advantage the skills of three generations of the greatest accompanists.

    His music was a compendium of diverse but quintessential features of sound, tradition-based Carnatic music. These included a rich and choiceful repertoire of the compositions of a wide array of composers, with central importance accorded in the concert to the inspired creations of the Trinity; the central role of the madhyama kala; the primacy of gamakas, the lifeblood of Carnatic music; an intelligent voice culture which kept the voice consistently musical; facile modulations of the voice (thick gliding seamlessly to thin without making a laboured point of it) facilitating blending with the sruti without the shouting effect, especially in the tara sthayi; the scrupulous avoidance of all ugly and unseemly mannerisms; the importance of finesse in enunciation with just the right amount of stress so as to be intelligible but never so harsh as to degenerate into speech and mar the musical continuity; the vital role of laya, not as mere finger-counting arithmetic but as the very sheet anchor on which to mount the lilt and majesty of the melodies; the knack of drawing the best out of the accompanists, be they stalwarts or beginners; the antenna for assessing the expectations and absorption level of the audience almost like a mind reader; and last but not the least, the hallmark of true mastery – the fine art of making the difficult seem deceptively simple.

    When Ariyakudi became a disciple of Ramanathapuram “Poochi” Srinivasa Iyengar, he acquired the privilege of belonging to the sishya parampara of saint Tyagaraja. Poochi Iyengar’s guru was Patnam Subramania Iyer, whose

    guru Manambuchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer was a disciple of Tyagaraja.

    Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar was often accompanied by Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer on the violin. Young Ramanujam playing the tambura at these concerts was greatly attracted by Krishna Iyer’s style, which was one of the profound influences in shaping the Ariyakudi bani. Other important influences were Veena Dhanammal, Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai, Sarabha Sastri and Sakharama Rao among others. From Dhanammal he learnt not only

    padams and javalis, but the sense of visranti and an awareness of gamakas with which he tempered the racy style of Poochi Iyengar to fashion the Ariyakudi style. Such close association with the great masters of his time, helped evolve a unique, distinct style of his own, judiciously synthesising the aesthetic graces in the music of his gurus and other inspiring role models.

    The concert scenario In the early years of the 20th century, music sabhas and other institutions featuring Carnatic music concerts were few and far between. Carnatic music thrived mainly on the patronage of the kings of the princely States, notably Mysore and

    Travancore, as well as the zamindars of various principalities of south India. Concerts were infrequent, audiences small and general level of awareness of nuances low. The gurukula system was exploitative of disciples and generally frowned upon youthful enthusiasm and aspirations as presumptuous and upstartish. Even at age 20, one was not considered concert material.

    Such was the music scene that Ariyakudi took by storm in the second decade of the 20th century. It is noteworthy that he started performing only in 1909.

    The pre-Ariyakudi format Typically, the concert lasted rarely less than four hours, often stretching to 5 or 5-1/2 hours. Strangely, this format accommodated only a varnam, 4 or 5 kritis and a ragam- tanam-pallavi. The reasons were twofold. In the first

    Pathfinder of Carnatic music Alepey Venkatesan ARIYAKUDI 125


  • 28 l SRUTI June 2015

    place, raga alapana, niraval and kalpana swara tended to be lengthy, repetitive, sometimes boring and monotonous. Secondly, there were at least two percussion interludes, each taking up 30 to 45 minutes. Such was the concert format which Ariyakudi revolutionised and transformed into the “modern concert format”, which has stood the test of time and is still going strong, with minor modifications dictated by the march of time and changing lifestyles of the rasikas.

    Ariyakudi’s concert format The most challenging part of the task, which he executed with consummate skill, consisted in drastically reducing the length of raga alapanas. The raga essay had to be brief, but without leaving the rasika dissatisfied or with a sense of incompleteness. Ariyakudi was the very man for this mission; for, he had both the fecundity of ideas and the fluency of voice to take us through a major raga like Sankarabharanam or Todi in a matter of four minutes, and amazingly, give the listener a sense of wholesome experience of the raga.

    Having done that, he successfully prevailed upon his violinists never to exceed his own duration of raga alapana, even if the violinist happened to be a senior artist like Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai. Too, he did not countenance the persussionists hogging a disproportionate part of the concert time. He quietly asserted the primacy of the singer and his prerogative as to time management for the success of the concert. His charisma and leadership were such that even senior accompanists had to fall in line.

    When he reduced the length of the alapana, his innate sense of proportion led him to suitably prune the time spent on niraval and kalpana swara. For example, if he sang a raga for 3 minutes and the violinist would play for 2- ½ minutes, the kriti was rendered in 4 minutes, he would sing kalpana swara for no more than about 4 minutes. If niraval was sung, that might take another 4 minutes or so. Contrast this with what we often find even in 2-1/2 hour concerts. The musician goes on with a single suite (raga, kriti, niraval and swaras) for almost an hour, and as a result, is forced to make short shrift of the ragam-tanam-pallavi in under 15 minutes. Such intelligent apportionment of concert time as he practised is more relevant today, since the concert duration has shrunk to less than half.

    Though he sang many scholarly, complicated pallavis, he also composed an array of short, entertaining pallavis, to be deployed according to the time available for the pallavi in a particular concert. This usually happened in concerts in which he had not planned to sing a pallavi but a belated request cropped up. As a policy, he would not turn down rasika’s requests, even if the timing was not too good. Once

    such a request came, the concert time would automatically get extended, enough to do justice to a small pallavi.

    All these measures freed up a substantial chunk of time. He utilised it in two ways. In the first place, he could present many more ragas and kritis in each concert than would have been feasible under the previous dispensation. Secondly, he made the tail-end miscellany longer, far more varied and interesting.

    The first and most obvious effect of his format was that there was no ennui in an Ariyakudi concert. With one stroke, he transformed desultory, bored, yawns into joyous enthusiasm, keen interest and edge-of-the-seat anticipation. The listeners were delighted to be treated to a wide variety of songs of different composers in many more ragas than had been in vogue in concerts. It also helped that he sang in Sanskrit and in all the south Indian languages as well as a few bhajans in Hindi and Gujarati.

    Secondly, he brought a striking novelty, variety and popular appeal to the post-pallavi miscellany segment of the concert. His famed concerts at Gokhale Hall, Madras in the 1920s and 1930s used to start at 4.15 pm on Sundays. At 8 pm, he would launch the miscellaneous fare, by which time the hall was overflowing with college students, ready to raucously shout for an encore on every item. He used to present javalis, Tiruppavai, Tiruvembavai, Tiruppugazh, Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam, (he was the tunesmith for most of these), nationalist/patriotic songs inspired by the Freedom Movement in different languages. The young men who came in droves to listen to this light fare later came to the earlier part of his concerts and learnt to appreciate his ragas, kritis, niraval, swaras and even ragam-tanam-pallavi. In this manner, Ariyakudi educated at least two generations of music lovers, by gradually raising their awareness and levels of appreciation.

    But the most significant consequence of the concert format Ariyakudi created and perfected was this. But for such a format which accommodated several songs even in a 2-1/2 hour concert, many great and precious compositions of the Trinity and other great vaggeyakaras might have gone out of currency and been lost to us.

    Salient features of his music Ariyakudi was a past master of gamakas. Even so, he rightly rejected the notion that gamaka richness implies indiscriminate oscillation of every note to the point of distortion. He recognised that certain ragas, if deprived of the plain note or two required for their sustenance, sound withered. Aesthetic discrimination was the keynote of his artistry.

    Even as the bowing/blowing/f