Sydney Music Festival attracts star performers

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Swara Laya’s annual Carnatic music feast brings the big names to our shores yet again

Mysore Nagaraj and Manjunath (violin), SV Ramani (ghatam), Murugabhupathi (mridangam)

A towering Ganesha is the backdrop, and garlands around the photo frames of the trinity of Carnatic Music adorn the stage as Vandana Dixit, the widely heralded Master of ceremonies introduces the festival programme. Geoff Lee, Member for Parramatta, is invited to start off the proceedings.
The Sydney Music Festival, organised by the Swara Laya Fine Arts Society for some 10 years, is now well entrenched as the major yearly event in the Southern hemisphere for aficionados and ‘rasikas’ of Carnatic music. Described as the ‘ultimate experience of music’, the event showcased an impressive array of top level musicians from India this year. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta was thronged by an audience made up of those who ensured their tickets well in advance. Needless to say, several music lovers had to be disappointed due to their tardy response as it was a ‘full house’ on all three days of the Queen’s Birthday weekend.
Performances by the vocalists, violinists, percussionists and the participants in the Musical Ramayana Ballet could be classified as riveting or ripsnorting depending on whether members in the audience applauded resoundingly or were clamouring for an encore. There were rarely heard ‘ragas’, ‘ragamalikas’, ‘taanamalikas’ , ‘alapanas’, ‘kalpana swarams’, ‘neravals’, ‘varnams’, ‘pallavis’ and ‘virutthams’ on offer by the celebrities to cater to the varied tastes of the audience. There was a fair sprinkling of compositions by Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri (the trinity), and some others by Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Oothukadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Muthiah Bagavathar and Purandaradasa.
Aruna Sairam, RK Sriramkumar (violin), SV Ramani (ghatam), J Vaidyanathan (mridangam)

The scope of this report is confined to covering the highlights of various performances by artistes, due to space constraints. The team of accompanists, violin by RK Sriramkumar, HN Bhaskar and Mysore Nagaraj performed admirably conforming to the needs of the occasion. Mridangists J.Vaidyanathan, K. Murugabhoopathi, R. Anandakrishnan and Trichur Mohan, and SV Ramani on the Ghatam were always in their element and never compromising in their rhythmic patterns.
Sangeetha Sivakumar came with a reputation of her own as a quality performer, (being the spouse of the celebrated T.M Krishna) and was given the first slot on Day 1. Her rendering of Thyagaraja’s Vinata Sutavahana in the rarely sung ‘jayantasena’ raga stood out, as did her ‘ragam, taanam pallavi’ in ‘raga ritigowla’ which went like this: Rama ratnadala netri, thyagaraja mitri. Other items with lots of melody and powerful swarams were Thiruvadi charanam in raga ‘kaamboji’, Mamava meenakshi in raga ‘varali’ and Mayamma yani in raga ‘ahiri’.
A violin duet by Mysore Nagaraj and Majunath followed. The highlight was their frequent recourse to playing with breakneck speed which was matched by accompanying mridangam and ghatam, although at no time did the music become a cacophony. They excelled in Brova baarama in raga ‘bahudari’, Anandaamrita karshini in raga ‘amritavarshini’ but their ‘ragam taanam pallavi’ in raga ‘karaharapriya’ was a treat to behold as the pallavi Paalinchu kamakshi is normally a well-known ‘krithi’ by Syama Sastri in raga ‘madhyamavati’.
P. Unnikrishnan has performed often in Sydney and audiences warm to his style with the passage of his ‘kutcheri’. It was no different this time as he delivered one of the best performances with a ‘ragam taanam pallavi’ in raga ‘charukesi’ with the pallavi Ka va va velava. There was an elaborate raga alapana, a crisp taanam and a ragamalika as he switched from ‘charukesi’ to ‘hamsanandi’, ‘begada’, ‘bahudari’ and ‘varali’ with consummate ease.
Vijay Siva (vocalist), RK Sriramkumar (violin), J Vaidyanathan (mridangam), SV Ramani (ghatam)

Aruna Sairam was the last performer on Day 1. She is a seasoned veteran and is well known for her audience rapport. Her selection was unsurprisingly leaning towards krithis and poems in praise of Lord Muruga, the family deity of Tamils all over. Stellar rendering of Oothukadu V. Kavi’s Baagaiya naiya in raga ‘chandrajyoti’, Sada saaranga nayanane in raga ‘ranjani’ and Chakkani raja in raga ‘karaharapriya’, followed by audience involvement in her abhang Ganapathi bappa climaxed the evening on a music filled day.
Classical dance and Carnatic music are ‘hand and glove’, always complementing each other. Day 2 of the festival had a resounding start with a dance-drama based on poet Kambar’s Ramayana. Characterisation and choreography was beautiful. Muralitharan as Hanuman, Kavya Muralitharan as Seetha and Govind Pillai as Rama were way above par, as were the students of Hamsa Venkat and Api Kumaran. Though the drama must have been compacted somewhat, it seemed too long and some song sequences were cinematic. Overall a good production from Madurai Muralidaran involving local artistes.
Guhan Boatman transporting Rama, Lakshmana, Sita

Abhishek Raghuram has an audience that likes the roller coaster ride that the singer is known for. He started with Dikshitar’s Renuka devi in raga ‘kannada bangala’. Short ragams, ‘natabhairavi’ and ‘janaranjani’ with swarams looked innovative due to the complexities of the ragas. A detailed alapana in raga ‘purvi kalyani’ as part of the ‘ragam tanam pallavi’ came with a lot of ‘vaadhi samvaadhi’ phrases as it is entailed in a ‘vakra ragam’. Some individual notes made it look like raga ‘panthuvarali’ but Abhishek cleverly employed ‘melsthai sangathis’ as only he could. The singer and the accompanist negotiated all three octaves in the ‘taanam’ with a deft touch. The pallavi Meenakshi memudam and the line Madhura puri nilaye mani valaye was beautifully constructed. The ragamalika swarams in ragas ‘hindolam’, ‘ranjani’, ‘atana’, ‘ananda bhairavi’, ‘saranga’ and ‘rasikapriya’ were uniquely appealing as was the ‘thani avarthinam’ by Anandakrishnan.
Chitraveena Ravikiran was next in line, with violin accompaniment by Mysore Nagaraj. He began with a fast paced Chinthitava in raga ‘nattai’. Kalpana swarams were innovative. The highlight of his ‘kutcheri’ was Seshachalanayakam in raga ‘varali’ by Dikshitar. His neraval line was Aravinda paatra nayanam, which was well appreciated. His ragam tanam pallavi in raga ‘keeravani’ was played expertly with lots of ‘bhava’. His pallavi neraval started with his singing a few lines before executing it on Chitraveena to perfection. SV Ramani on the ghatam and Muruga Bhoopathy on the mridangam were a perfect foil for him.
The final concert on Day 2 was performed by Nityasree Mahadevan. She rose above the initial problems with her voice when she sang Balakrishna padamalar in raga ‘Dhanyasi’. She was at her melodious best when she sang Papanasam Sivan’s Kaapaali in raga ‘mohanam’. Her ‘kutcheri’ was notable for her Neelothpalamba in raga ‘Ritigowla’, Naan oru vilaiyaatu bommaiya in raga ‘navarasa kannada’ and Kaana ayiram kann vendum in raga ‘abheri’.
Trichur Bros (vocalists), HN Bhaskar (violin), Trichur Mohan (mridangam)

Day 3 of the festival started with two highly promising young artistes known as the Trichur Brothers. They have carved a niche for themselves on the big stage at a relatively early stage of their career. They sang the ‘Daaru Varnam’ Maate malaya dhwaja in raga ‘khamas’
And followed it up with Syama Sastri’s swarajati Kaamakshi Amba in raga ‘bhairavi’ which is best when sung in slow tempo. The highlight of their concert was their ragam taanam pallavi in raga ‘brindavana saranga’. The raga alapana was brilliant as they blended the Hindustani ‘brindavani’ in the higher octaves which doubled the enjoyment. Their singing of Omana thingal in raga ‘kurinji’ was soothing to the ears as it was soft and their mellifluous synchronisation was pleasing.
Pantula Rama is another star on the rise. Her singing of Akilaandeswari in raga ‘dwijavanti’ was followed by Subramanyena rakshithoham in raga ‘suddha dhanyasi’, both of which were par excellence. Her ragam taanam pallavi was her own composition and a tribute to the Trinity in raga ‘Kalyani’. The lyrics went Ramanugraha paatra thyaga brahma, Kamakshi paalithe Syama, Shanmugartha Muthukumara namaste, which enveloped the names of the trinity. It was a difficult pallavi to sing, as she chose the ragamalika ragas ‘chintamani’, ‘chandrajyoti’ and ‘kumudakriya’.
Ranjani and Gayatri (vocalists), HN Bhaskar (violin), Murugabhupathi (mridangam), SV Ramani (ghatam)

The penultimate concert was by the celebrated pair of Ranjani and Gayatri, who are known for musical quality. They started with raga ‘hamsadhwani’ followed by a krithi in raga ‘siddharanjani’. Their singing of Pirava varam tharum in raga ‘lathangi’ and their neraval in the ragam was beautiful. Maragatha Valli and raga alapana in ‘kaamboji” by Gayatri was exceptional as was their ragam taanam pallavi that combined raga ‘aarabhi’ and raga ‘ananda bhairavi’. Their alternating in these ragas and frequent switching was matched in every way by HN Bhaskar on the violin. Their ‘kutcheri’ is never complete without an ‘abhang’ and they sang a Sant Tukaram creation in raga ‘bairagi’ at the request of the audience.
Last but not least, Vijay Siva performed the concluding concert. His style of singing is somewhat orthodox and suited to the tastes of the old school. There was a calm composure in his rendering of Rama nannu brovara in raga ‘harikamboji’ and Maragatha manimaya chela in ‘aarabhi’. It was interesting to listen to the contrasting style of singing of ragas ‘aarabhi’ and ‘ananda bhairavi’ by comparison to the singing duo before him. Vijay Siva’s tonal quality came to the forefront in Brova baarama in raga ‘bahudari’ and the very detailed alapana in raga ‘todi’ in the number Kartikeya gangeya Gauri thanaya.
Mention must be made of the excellent sound quality, catering arrangements and the professional organisation of the festival, with a special credit to Sri Jayendran who is the central figure in putting this musical feast together.
With reports by Sanjay Ramaswami, Sriranjini Thirumalai and Shantha Sampath
Photos: Raj Rajendran

Malli Iyer
Malli Iyer
Malli has over 25 years experience in creative writing and has been a contributor to Indian Link for over 10 years. He is also an accredited cricket umpire for Cricket Australia.

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