Guru Vandanam






The backbone of the Indian classical music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, is the Raga. Through years of evolution, refinement and development, tunes have been conceived as ragas of high melodic values with definite swara structures and technical boundaries. An age old definition of raga says:

Yo Asou Dhvani Viseshastu Swaravarna Vibhooshitaha
Ranjako Janachittanam Sacha Raga Udakritaha

Thus, the raga should not only be a sound adorned by swaras but also be satisfying and pleasing to the human mind. Any combination of swaras technically perfect and intellectually conceived, but devoid of aesthetic appeal cannot be considered a raga. Many ragas have been conceived by the Trinity and other composers, and have come to us through their kritis. Looking at the wide range of ragas brimming with melody, it would now be well near impossible to create any new raga so full of aesthetic contours and emotional appeal, even with the aid of the modern gadgetry.

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Raga essay or alapana is a unique aspect of the Indian system of music, where the performing artiste is afforded ample scope for showing the depth of his musical insight through his imagination. In other systems of music, the place for the artiste’s individual imagination is limited, as it is exhibited only in the presentation of compositions by great masters through orchestration. In spite of the strict technical boundaries that rule our raga system, we have plenty of them, which can be handled comfortably in alapana. At the same time, there are a number of ragas that are highly appealing when the compositions are rendered but evoke no aesthetic appeal when raga alapana is attempted. Sri Srinivasa Iyer is very particular in the choice of ragas that he takes up for alapana. He generally only handles those that have scope for alapana. Being a person endowed with a great sense of proportion, he handles smaller ragas with short crisp essays and the bigger ones with appropriately long alapanas. While describing ragas Sri Semmangudi would say that each raga is an entity with a distinctive character and personality, the swara structure thereof, being only a skeletal framework.

In handling the alapana of a raga, artistes are guided by two aspects:

1.The intention or aim, i.e., lakshya, and
2.Grammar, viz., lakshana.

When a child learns to speak, it imbibes words spoken by the elders around, making sentences and communicating thoughts effectively, unmindful or even ignorant of the rules of the grammar of the language. The child's only intention is to convey his / her thoughts in the language it has learnt through constant exposure. Similarly, in handling a raga alapana, the first driving force of the artiste is the lakshya or the aim to convey the concept of that particular raga, absorbed by him through auditory perception i.e. listening to his guru or other eminent artistes as well as the compositions in the same. The raga thus rendered proves most effective. Therefore lakshya can certainly be designated the more powerful of the two. In due course, the artiste becomes well versed in the lakshana too and the raga renditions become a blend of both lakshya and lakshana. Sri Srinivasa Iyer always emphasises the predominant role of lakshya gnana in raga alapana, as he believes that only this would allow the uninhibited flow of imagination. Over-dependence on lakshana would prove counterproductive in this respect, as it inhibits the singer from attempting new raga phrasings. This does not play down the importance of lakshana gnana and it is highly essential for the artiste to acquire it too. Sri Semmangudi always advises a correct blend of both lakshya and lakshana.

Sri Semmangudi’s music, especially his raga alapana, is imagination-oriented. In the first half of the 20th century, outstanding Nagaswara vidwans adorned the music field. In those days, temples had festivals during which the deity used to be taken out in procession through the streets around the temple at night. On these occasions, the Nagaswaram maestros would lead the procession and play for as long as six hours, embarking on lengthy raga alapanas with lofty, sweeping phrasings. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Nagaswara vidwans were the one who expanded the vista of imagination in raga alapana. Tiruvadudurai Rajaratnam Pillai, the genius, was the reigning king of Nagaswaram, stunning listeners with his expansive and highly imaginative raga expositions. He was a disciple of Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, a leading violin maestro of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sri Krishna Iyer was Sri Semmangudi's maternal uncle. Sri Semmangudi has indicated that he has heard a number of these Nagaswara performances in his early years. In fact, his approach to raga alapana would clearly reveal that he has moulded his style in the Nagaswara pattern.

His knowledge of raga lakshanas is of no mean order. He would always view the lakshana aspect from the practical angle. His expositions have the correct lakshana, although it wouldn’t come in the way of a lakshya-oriented manodharma (imagination). Conversely, even when his alapanas are sung with gay abandon, there wouldn't be a single phrase going against the lakshana of the raga. In other words, lakshana would be intricately woven into the lakshya. Sri Srinivasa Iyer utilized the early years of his tenure, as the Principal of the Sri Swati Tirunal Music Academy, to sharpen his lakshya gnana in ragas. He had in the faculty, knowledgeable vidwans such as Vina vidwan Sri K S Narayanaswamy, Prof C S Krishna Iyer etc. with whom he used to have lengthy discussions on raga lakshanas. Vina is the best musical instrument through which it is possible to understand the gamakas and oscillations of Carnatic ragas. Sri Srinivasa Iyer learnt to play the Vina and used it to enhance his knowledge on raga lakshanas.

When he commenced a raga alapana the first phrase would clearly indicate the raga. Right through the alapana, long or short, there wouldn’t be even a single phrase suggesting, even remotely, another allied raga. He would always say that when handling a raga alapana the artiste should keep the concept of the raga in his mind and not structure each phrasing on swara combinations, as this approach creates artificiality in the presentation. He would compare a major raga alapana to building an edifice (Gopuram). He would say that the raga should be built up from the base and rise up to the top, with ornamentations at every level.

The most wonderful time his Gurukula students have are after his concerts. During the concerts his imagination would get triggered off so much that after getting back home he would take up a raga he had sung at the concert and indulge in lengthy alapana, going on for hours into the night sitting in his easy chair. Ideas would flow out as though the floodgates of a reservoir have been opened. Such are the incomparable musical feasts his students have enjoyed and that is when they have got exposed to this musical treasure from which they could absorb the knowledge of ragas. Srinivasa Iyer is against teaching raga alapana to students by singing phrase after phrase and asking them to repeat the same, almost learning them by heart. According to him, the students should listen to raga alapanas by the guru and the other stalwarts at concerts and absorb the concepts, which they should later assimilate and bring out on their own. The more kritis a student learns in a raga, the wider his perspective, as each piece projects a different facet of the raga. A comparative study of kritis would reveal this clearly. For instance, if we take three Tyagaraja kritis in Todi, we find that Kaddanuvariki starts at Madhyama, Koluvamaregada in the Tara sthayi Shadja and Dachukovalena in the Madhya sthayi Dhaivata, all giving a different perspective of the same raga.

The lofty and brilliant raga alapanas of Sri Semmangudi have been haunting his rasikas for over seven decades and they still look forward to hearing them from him. Even at the advanced age of ninety-three, flashes of ragas, which he brilliantly renders, have no parallel and this is another very important aspect of his music, which keeps him aloft like a sun.

V Subramanyam

Note: The author is one of the premier disciples of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
Semmangudi - His Musical Prowess - Part 1
Semmangudi's concerts - Part 2
Semmangudi's handling of Tanam and Pallavi - Part 4

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