A First Serious Encounter with Carnatic Music

Swathi Orchestra musicians with their mentors.

Due to my earlier acquaintances with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), I was recently invited to attend Sangeetha Sagaram, a Carnatic concert by BAA’s Swathi Orchestra. While it was not my first time listening to Carnatic music, my previous encounters have always been in the context of a dance performance. As such, it is my first time simply listening to the music and letting it speak for itself.

Established in 2015 with the aim of promoting the growth of Carnatic music in Singapore, the orchestra consists of some music students from BAA’s education arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. It comprises 13 performers: five vocalists (Greeshmah Paramesuaran, Keerthana Babu Gopakumar Nair, Lalitha Rajandran, Sathiyan Sahana, Sreelakshimi Subramaniam), two vainikas (Preetashini Nagarajah and Raja Sankar Vasudha Sankar), two violinists (C Abhilash Mohan and Vismitha Rajeev), two flautists (Kalaiselvam Panesilvam and Logindran Govindarasu), and two percussionists (Arul Kumaran Gun Shekeran and Prashanth TR).

The concert has eight items, and as with tradition, it opens with a Varnam. Composed by Tachur Singarachari, it starts with the violin before the mridangam and kanjira enter with a strong rhythm. Such a counterpoint encapsulates the beauty of Carnatic music—the instruments have a distinct function, and while the different timbres and rhythms played appear to be in conflict, they somehow come together quite beautifully.

In “Sri Sakala Ganadhipa” by Balamuralikhrishna, which is a devotional song that invokes Ganesha, Hanuman, and Sri Krishna, we have a meditative invocation by the flute. That is mirrored by the vocalists in the starting portion, before picking up the pace of what turned out to be a vibrant and delightful song.

Speaking of vocalists, “Paripalayamam” by Swathi Thirunal, a famous Maharajah in the 19th century, best illustrates the difficulties that the vocalists have to deal with. This devotional may appear simple with its repetitions, but the singers have to be absolutely stable in maintaining the tempo, and not be carried away by the intoxicating drumming. Furthermore, the vocal ornamentations, such as the bending and oscillations of the notes, seemed to be subtler in this piece. However, I am happy to report that vocalists managed to meet the demands quite admirably.

My favourite piece of the whole repertoire has to be “Kapali” by Papanasam Sivan as various sections of the ensemble are given a little solo to show off their musicianship. The song starts off with a relatively simple but soulful melody. But the mettle of the musicians was soon tested as there are a few quick passages that required some coordination across the various sections, and they were handled with aplomb.

While it is generally known that musicians are required to improvise within certain constraints, it was impossible to tell which sections were actually improvised as they all seemed so intricate and well-coordinated. Perhaps, that is a testament to the skill of this young orchestra, as the concert leaves any outsider wishing they had more knowledge of what was going on, or the meaning of the words, so that they could appreciate it at a deeper level.

Swathi Orchestra is certainly off to a good start, and one hopes that it will grow and continue to nurture the next generation of local Carnatic musicians.

Sangeetha Sagaram was performed on 18 March 2018 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

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