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.

[Dance Review] Cross-Cultural Epic

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Vinayaka

Bhaskar’s Art Academy

16 October 2016

SOTA Drama Theatre

Before the start of the show, an announcement informs the audience that we are about to watch the third iteration of Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA)—Vinayaka 3.0, so to speak.

The choice of the computing term raises an interesting question: With technology being able to create a very realistic Lord Ganesha on screen, why would anyone—especially someone who is not from the culture—want to watch a rendition of how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head told through Bharatanaytam and Javanese dance?

The physical presence of the body.

In fact, the more advanced technology becomes, the more treasured physical virtuosity is. And the physical control and expressiveness displayed by dancers from BAA and Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (SBAT) is absolutely exquisite.

Put together on stage, both dances play off each other really well. Bharatanatyam’s stamps of physical vigour or quiet strength are a counterpoint to the courtly elegance in the fluid tip-toeing or shuffling of the feet in Javanese dance. Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar (BAA) and Santi Dwisaputri (SBAT) bring this to the fore through the interweaving formations as each troupe seems to frame the other at one point or another, especially as the attendants to Parvati (played by Dwisaputri herself).

While dance often suggests movement, stillness is the most difficult to achieve especially when you have to get the depiction of the gods just right. In that respect, the stage presences of Senthun Bhima Nugraha (Shiva) and Santi Dwisputri (Parvati) are unmistakeable.  The former has to keep his body upright to accommodate his costume—which includes two artificial hands that form a mudra—while adopting two soft gestures with his own hands. Yet, when he moves across the stage, he exudes a masculine and regal presence.

While Dwisputri’s gentle and graceful gestures suggest the pure and feminine Parvati, all it takes is for her to turn to the back for the world to be destroyed in sheer anger due to the death of her son, Ganesha.  Her versatility in expressing gracefulness, sorrow, and rage is a sight to behold.

Sarenniya Ramathas and Shruthilaya Ramachandran as Ganesha do not pale in comparison.

Ramathas, as Ganesha before he was beheaded, treats us with a dance of youthful vigour. When Ganesha battles Shiva’s Pancha Ganas to prevent his father from intruding on his mother, Ramathas departs slightly from the traditional Bharatanatyam movements. Her facial expressions and strong movement vocabulary makes the battle exciting to watch. This is complemented by the strong and well-coördinated performances by the dancers portraying the Pancha Ganas (Miroshini Kannathasan, Nishalini Lakchimanathas, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, Tanuja Seran, and Usha Anbalagan).

Ramachandran, as the resurrected Ganesha with the elephant head, is the answer to the question posed at the start of the review. With a gentle swaying of her hand and a very slight movement of  her body, she intimates a lively image of Ganesha and his swaying trunk, as the mind vividly fills in the rest of the details.

The visual intricacies will be hollow without the music from BAA’s own musicians and Singa Nglras Gamelan Ensemble. The contrast between the musical forms mirrors the dances as well.

The carnatic music spans from the meditative to the rhythmic, while the various metals from the gamelan instruments enhance the rhythms and provide a wholesome resonance. A sense of grandeur envelops the whole theatre at the start and end of the show, when both musical forms come together, as we see the gods take the central dais, and are surrounded by the various dancers to form an impressive iconography.

Given the skilfulness of the dancers and musicians, I wish they were more ambitious in their art-making. The sections with Javanese dance with gamelan music, and Bharatanatyam with carnatic music, are a little too clearly delineated. The moments when both art forms intertwine are too few and far between.

The main impetus of BAA’s Traditional Arts in the Region series is to showcase the shared heritage among the traditional dances of Southeast Asia. While the differences between the dances strongly highlight the main characteristics of the respective dances, it would be a wasted opportunity not to see what happens if a dance embodies certain techniques or movements from the other.

All the more reason to look forward to BAA’s next collaboration and, perhaps, Vinayaka 4.0.