Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for January, 2013

‘Les Miserables’: A musical film with a difference


(Above): Anne Hathaway in ‘Les Miserables’

AFTER watching and enjoying Tom Hooper’s mega-musical ‘Les Miserables’, and then checking out its eight Oscar nominations, one was initially surprised that the film wasn’t in the shortlist for best musical score. After all, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s outstanding music and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics form the backbone of the film.

‘Les Miserables’, which has an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, is one of the most unusual film musicals ever released. But the reason for not making the nomination list is actually simple, and even justified from the Academy Award committee’s viewpoint. The award is for Best Music (Original Score), and the ‘Les Miserables’ score is not original, as the same songs were used in the hugely successful stage musical by Alain Boublil and Schonberg.

The Best Music (Original Score) category will thus be a toss-up between ‘Anna Karenina’ (music by Dario Marianelli), ‘Argo’ (Alexandre Desplat), ‘Life of Pi’ (Mychael Danna), ‘Lincoln’ (the great John Williams) and ‘Skyfall’ (Thomas Newman). Here again, one is surprised Hans Zimmer didn’t get a nomination for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and Fernando Velazquez wasn’t considered for ‘The Impossible’, with both movies having strikingly powerful soundtracks.

To come back to ‘Les Miserables’, Schonberg did make it to the list for Best Music (Original Song). This was for ‘Suddenly’, a new song specially created for the film, and picturised on Hugh Jackman. But here, the competition is rather tough, the other nominees being Adele for the ‘Skyfall’ title song, composer Mychael Danna and singer Bombay Jayashri for ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ from ‘Life of Pi’, Walter Murphy and Norah Jones for ‘Everybody Needs A Best Friend’ from ‘Ted’ and J Ralph, Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell for ‘Before My Time’ from ‘Chasing Ice’.

On the technical side, the ‘Les Miserables’ team of Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes has been nominated in the Best Sound Mixing category, along with ‘Lincoln’, ‘Argo’, ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Skyfall’.

Oscar or no Oscar, there are many things that make Schonberg’s music special, and for that director Hooper deserves equal credit. To begin with, barring the odd exception here and there, all the dialogues are sung. The composer and lyricist make intelligent use of rhyming couplets, using simple phrases that build the story magnificently.

On the one hand, the film contains the hit songs from the stage musical, like ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, ‘One Day More’, ‘Master of the House’ ‘Look Down’ and ‘On My Own’. On the other, the fact that the dialogues are sung give it a unique quality.

To be sure, this experiment may not please everybody. Those who aren’t in favour of excess music in a film may feel it would have been much better had the dialogues been spoken naturally, instead of being sung everywhere. But then, the words have been used very simply, and if one accepts this concept on its face value and pays close attention to the lines, one should really enjoy.

The second quality of this film is that the actors sing the songs themselves. This is, of course, not new, as numerous films have done that in the past, and it’s now become a regular trend, especially in music-related biopics and film musicals.

Among the biopics, Sissy Spacek sang songs of Loretta Lynn in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, Jamie Foxx sang Ray Charles tunes in ‘Ray’ and Joaquin Phoenix sang Johnny Cash numbers in ‘Walk The Line’. Of the other films, we’ve had Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried singing in ‘Mamma Mia’, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in ‘Moulin Rouge’, Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in ‘Chicago’, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and Tom Cruise in ‘Rock of Ages’. There are many more examples.

But what makes ‘Les Miserables’ unique is the risky decision of director Hooper to avoid pre-recording the songs and make the actors lip-sync. Instead, the songs are sung live and recorded even as the camera is moving, lending a certain authenticity to the way they have been picturised. In that sense, the movie follows all the rules of opera music in its execution.

This technique of recording songs live was common in the 1930s, but the last time it was used was in the disastrous 1975 film ‘At Long Last Love’, starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Coming for the first time in 37 years in an English film, Hooper does rather well, getting the actors to blend the right facial expression with vocal ability. There may be times when one feels professional singers may have sung the songs more perfectly, but that may have looked a bit unnatural here.

Keeping the acting quotient in mind, the cast does a great job with the vocals. Anne Hathaway sounds simply soulful in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and newcomer Samantha Barks is just perfect for ‘On My Own’. Hugh Jackman has many songs including ‘Look Down’ and ‘Suddenly’, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lend a nice comic touch to ‘Master of the House’. But the real surprise is Russell Crowe, who underwent special training for this singing role, and proved that he has a wonderful texture and range on the songs ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’. Besides these, some of the group songs have been choreographed perfectly.

In some ways, ‘Les Miserables has the makings of a ‘cult musical’.  If one goes by common definition, a ‘cult film’ or a ‘cult classic’ has a limited but really diehard set of admirers, who would totally swear by the film, and watch it again and again. However, at the same time, there would be a sizeable section which would either detest it, not understand it or wonder what the fuss was all about. Moreover, a cult film sets new trends, as many others try to make similar movies later.

Both these kinds of audiences may happen with ‘Les Miserables’. There will be one section which may totally love the movie, for its scale, performances and music. And there will be another which may get instantly turned off after seeing everyone just rattle off into song, and feel the 158-minute length is a bit much for such a venture.

The reviews in the British and American media have been largely positive, and the film did good commercial business too, being the largest opening weekend for a musical film in the UK. Keeping this in mind, it’s likely that other filmmakers will go in for similar projects. But going by the divided reactions, the film may never gain the mass following of ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

The trick in watching such a film is to accept the concept for what it is, and listen to each and every singaloque patiently. And if you’ve loved it the first time, chances are that you’ll enjoy it even more on second viewing. Though they may be quite different in treatment, one may tend to compare ‘Les Miserables’ with musicals like ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ or ‘Oliver!’, going mainly by their setting, and the fact that they were adaptations of stage musicals.

As for a music Oscar, it doesn’t really matter. Here was a film that dared to change the way film musicals are made. And for that Hooper, Schonberg and Kretzmer will depend more on the public’s reaction to their musical treatment than on awards.


Journalistic encounters with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

bhim naren

(In picture); Pandit Bhimsen Joshi at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, in 1997 for the launch of the six-cassette series to mark his 75th birthday. That’s me in the centre, holding a notebook and pen, not a plate and spoon as some might think!


Today, January 24 2013, is the second death anniversary of Kirana gharana doyen Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, one of the greatest voices the world has ever heard. As a tribute, I look back at the three times I met him as a journalist. Each meeting had a different setting and result, but was memorable in its own way.

Meeting No 1

January 1995

I still remember that morning when I suddenly bumped into Bhimsen-ji at a hotel in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. I had just joined Mid Day newspaper as chief sub editor on the business desk. I didn’t write articles those days, and was yet to enter the totally exciting domain of music journalism.

Bhimsen-ji was staying in the next room. He stood in the corridor outside, humming a tune. I didn’t want to disturb him, but his eyes met mine, and I nodded my head in respect. He smiled, and not knowing how to begin the conversation, I asked him in Kannada: “Bhimsen Joshi avaru?

As that would literally translate to “Are you Bhimsen Joshi?”, I felt rather embarrassed the moment I completed my question. He replied, “Houdu.” Which means ‘Yes”. There was a pause, after which he asked: “Yaav ooru?” Which city? I said, Dharwad. The north Karnataka connection was made. The ice was broken.

Bhimsen-ji was in Indore for a concert. When I told him my surname, he recalled meeting my grandfather when he was still young, much before I was born. And when I told him my profession, he invited me to his room to do an article on him.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to do, as I wasn’t ready to interview such a legend. I didn’t have the guts, or even that writer’s instinct. The thought didn’t excite me much. I wanted to escape. And so, I lied to him. Through my teeth.

I told him I had to rush to catch a flight (which was actually much later in the evening), and would definitely meet him some other time. We exchanged telephone numbers. We spoke for a few minutes about Dharwad, its weather and its pedhas. We bid each other goodbye, and he returned to the tune he was humming.

Later, while returning to Mumbai, I kept wondering why I had shunned that golden chance. I had known a fair bit about Indian classical music, because my mother was a student, and we used to go to Pandit Jasraj’s house from the time I was eight or nine years old.

I knew the basic things about Bhimsen-ji too, and had even attended his concerts and listened to his recordings. I admired his ragas Puriya, Maru Bihag and Marwa, not because I understood them, but because my uncles played them so often, and I found them aesthetically appealing. ‘Jamuna ke Teer’, ‘Jo Bhaje Hari ko Sada’, ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi Baaramma’ and ‘Teerth Vithal’ were songs I personally loved. They moved me each time.

I knew that Bhimsen-ji hailed from north Karnataka, and he was now settled in Pune. I knew a bit about his life and how he found his guru Sawai Gandharva nearer home after searching for a teacher in various places across India. I had heard stories of his drinking days too, and that he had given up the habit. His senior disciple Madhav Gudi was even known closely to our family.

I could have easily done that interview, but I didn’t. And I didn’t even follow the classical music etiquette of touching his feet before leaving. The thought never struck me.

For a few days, I tried to console myself. How could a struggler like me interview such a famous personality? That too without any proper preparation? At such short notice? What if I showed my ignorance about certain things he might talk of? Details of ragas and names of other musicians? At the same time, if I had bumped into my favourite rock musicians Ian Anderson and Eric Clapton, wouldn’t I have gone any length to interview them?

I mentioned this meeting to my father a few days later, but otherwise, kept it to myself. I didn’t dare tell my seniors at Mid Day. I don’t remember where I kept Bhimsen-ji’s telephone number. And I gradually forgot about the incident, though somewhere deep inside, I regretted my action. I still do.

Meeting No 2

January 1997

THE Gateway Room of Mumbai’s luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel was filled with mediapersons. There were quite a few TV channels hungry for their bytes, newspaper journalists looking for interviews and seasoned classical music critics who had been personally invited by the label Music Today for the launch of the six-cassette ‘Bhimsen Joshi Series’.

By this time, I had spent a year and a half in music journalism. I normally covered jazz, rock, ghazals and Indipop, but had also written about a few younger classical musicians. I loved classical music, but my knowledge of the subject was very basic. I was yet to interview any of the senior artistes, but through a few concert visits and press conferences, had begun to gain an understanding of how the classical world functioned. Of the difference between ‘tameez’ and ‘tauheen’.

The series was being launched on the eve of Bhimsen-ji’s 75th birthday, which was to fall on February 4. In the crowd, I did manage to meet him for a minute. Instantly, I touched his feet, and spoke in Kannada about our earlier meeting, which he had obviously forgotten.

I was hoping to get a few minutes of exclusive time with him, but the organisers didn’t permit that. So I was grouped with two channels and two other newspapers, and wasn’t allowed to speak because it would disturb the TV footage.

I had done my homework this time, and prepared a few questions, including seemingly-technical ones. But the TV channels grabbed all the attention, naturally. I just jotted down whatever he told the camera, and based on those notes and my own background work, wrote an article which appeared like he had spoken exclusively to me. Boss was happy. I too was convinced I could now cover classical music.

The good thing, of course, was that Music Today presented each journalist with the entire six-cassette set. It contained some of Bhimsen-ji’s older recordings ― ragas Multani, Puriya Dhanashree, Yaman Kalyan, Brindabani Sarang, Asavari Todi and Chhaya Malhar, besides thumris in Bhairavi and Khamaj, and Marathi natya sangeet.

Over the next few days, I heard all those tapes, and discovered a wealth of music. I also went back to some of Bhimsen-ji’s ragas and bhajans I had heard while growing up. It was the beginning of a phase, which continues today.

Soon, I converted myself from someone fond of Hindustani classical music to someone passionate about it. I attended as many concerts and music festivals as possible, and read books by Mohan Nadkarni and Raghava R Menon. I heard the familiar recordings of Jasraj and Kumar Gandharva, and the unfamiliar ones of Kishori Amonkar and Ustad Amir Khan. I tried to follow Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Amjad Ali Khan with greater interest. I wanted to learn as many new things as I could.

If any inhibitions still existed about interviewing legendary musicians, they were smashed a couple of weeks later during my first meeting with Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar maestro had been so warm and friendly, that never for once had I thought I was speaking to such a senior and admired artiste. I was captivated and hooked.

Meeting No 3

October 2001

IT was meant to be a historic concert, appropriately named ‘Tapasya’. On Gandhi Jayanti, 2001, three of the country’s finest vocalists were scheduled to appear at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall. Pandit Jasraj, Pandit CR Vyas and Bhimsen-ji were to sing in that order, the seniormost always appearing last.

The previous day, I had met Bhimsen-ji for an interview. All the fears about meeting great classical musicians had disappeared long ago, and I had myself requested the organisers to fix up the interview. By this time, I was heavily into classical music, though my colleague Amit Karmarkar, a sports reporter at Mid-Day, invariably gave me a complex with his extensive knowledge of ragas and bandishes.

Bhimsen-ji’s son Shrinivas was with him that time, and was initially trying to answer on his father’s behalf. English newspaper, English translation. But seeing me ask a few questions in Kannada, he backed out.

It took a while for Bhimsen-ji to open up, but once he did, there was no stopping him. In every way, the conversation was like the unfolding of a raga, starting at a slow, leisurely pace like the alaap, and then picking up tempo gradually, before culminating in a volley of words. He expressed himself so naturally and effortlessly that I felt he was actually singing boltaans, taans and gamaks.

The conversation lasted well over an hour. Bhimsen-ji talked about many things, beginning with the early days of classical music when there were baithaks and all-night concerts. He described how he was influenced by Kirana gharana legend Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. He talked of his guru Sawai Gandharva, gurubahen Gangubai Hangal, gurubhai Pandit Firoz Dastur, the Kirana gharana in specific and the other gharanas in general. He spoke of the importance of guru shishya parampara – GSP in my notes.

He talked of singers like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar, even Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. He praised the harmonium greats Appa Jalgaonkar, Purushottam Walawalkar and Tulsidas Borkar, and tabla maestros Shaik Dawood and Nana Mulay. He mentioned the challenges faced by the genre, and also expressed hope that there was a lot of young talent around. He was in a mood, and he was in his element.

Sadly, because of heavy advertisements and a fewer number of pages in next day’s holiday newspaper, a lot of points made in the interview had to be cut. The published version was only about 400 words, and though I did try my best to get the entire interview published later, it didn’t materialise. Unfortunately, I didn’t even keep the book in which I had taken down my notes, just in case I needed them later. And I never recorded interviews.

On October 2, Shanmukhananda Hall witnessed a memorable concert. Jasraj first sang raga Purvi and the famous bhajan ‘Om Namoh Bhagwate Vasudevaya’. CR Vyas then rendered Shuddha Kalyan and Bihag. And Bhimsen-ji completed the proceedings with Puriya Kalyan, a thumri in Kirwani and the famous Bhairavi bhajan ‘Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada’.

After that, I saw Bhimsen-ji only once in concert, singing Puriya Dhanashree at the Nehru Centre a couple of years later. He sang well, but not for too long, and definitely not in the same range. Healthwise, he had been having ups and downs, and his visits to Mumbai decreased.

I too shifted jobs and career, and never met him after that. But I kept exploring his music. Besides the ragas and popular devotional songs, I got into his Kannada bhajans and Marathi abhangs. My new favourites were ‘Sada Enna Hrudayadalli’ and ‘Maajhe Maaher Pandhari’.

The end

January 24, 2011

I was in Chennai for a fortnight to conduct a training programme. As my guest house was just behind the famous Music Academy, I attended a lot of Carnatic concerts after work. On January 23, I was at a fusion show featuring flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, saxophonist George Brooks and Gwyneth Wentinck on harp.

I was still reeling under the magic of that event, and recalling my short meeting with Chaurasia, when I casually put on the TV the next morning. The headlines read, ‘Bhimsen Joshi Dead’. I was stunned. Not knowing what to do next, I informed my colleagues that I would start the training a couple of hours later. Soon, tributes began flowing from everywhere ― on TV channels, on SMS, on Facebook. I joined the nation in its sorrow.

Though I was in for a hectic day and knew it would be practically difficult to meet deadlines, I just hoped some newspaper would request me to write an obituary. Nobody called, and I let it pass. Since I wasn’t carrying any of his music on that tour, I picked up a few of his CDs and spent the next few days listening to ragas Kaunsi Kanada, Puriya, Ahir Bhairav and Shuddha Sarang.

The memories of those three meetings came back to me, as they do again today. Each had a different outcome. In the first encounter, he had requested me to write about him, and I foolishly ran away. In the second, I had prepared myself, but didn’t get a chance to ask what I wanted to. And in the third, he had spoken at great length, but because of space constraints, I could publish only a fraction of it. Three interactions, three outcomes.

Whatever the fate of those meetings, the fact is that Bhimsen-ji’s gayaki has moved me as much as it has millions of other rasikas. His voice, undoubtedly, has been one of God’s biggest gifts to the art of creative expression. He had his own style, his own approach. He symbolised the golden era of Hindustani classical music, and he shall enchant our hearts and minds forever.

Instruments from India – 5/ The veena

IN September, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The first four parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bamboo flute and sarangi, respectively. This month, we feature different instruments that go under the name ‘veena’.

WHEN one mentions the word ‘veena’, listeners of south Indian Carnatic music will think of an instrument quite different from what followers of north Indian Hindustani music will imagine.

Both north and south have more than one type of veena. And though all of them are stringed instruments and even look more or less similar, the tone and playing techniques are quite different.

In Carnatic music, the most common type is the Saraswati veena. However, the chitraveena, or gotuvadyam as it is also known, also has a following. In Hindustani music, the Rudra veena was played a lot in the past in the dhrupad form of music. The vichitra veena, though similar to the chitraveena, is also used.

While all these are traditional forms of the veena, the name Mohan veena is also heard often in Hindustani music today, thanks to its exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who essentially adapted the Archtop guitar. While the guitar was played in Hindustani style by Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the Mohan veena was evolved through additional improvisations and sympathetic strings developed by Bhatt. We shall talk of the Mohan veena in a subsequent blog which will focus on how certain western instruments have been adapted for Indian music.

In this column, we shall focus on the traditional veena, beginning with Carnatic music and then talking of Hindustani.

chitti babu

Above: Chitti Babu on Saraswati veena

Carnatic music – Saraswati veena: After the violin, the Saraswati veena is the most popular melody instrument in Carnatic music. The name is derived from the fact that Goddess Saraswati is often depicted playing or holding the instrument.

Dating from the Vedic period, the Saraswati veena is one of the oldest instruments of the region. It is mentioned in many pieces of ancient literature, and well-known practitioners from that era include the Hindu sage Narada and Ravana, the antagonist in the Ramayana.

Around four feet in length, the Saraswati veena has a large resonator and a small gourd, while the main neck has frets. The gourd is placed on the player’s left thigh while the resonator is placed on the floor. The performance is often accompanied by percussion instruments like the mridangam and ghatam.

Some of the earliest greats in veena playing included the doyenne Veenai Dhanammal and Veene Sheshanna, both well-known in the 19th century. Veene Venkatagiriappa was also among the early players.

In the 20th century, many legends popularised the instrument, and the best known were Doraiswamy Iyengar, Chitti Babu, S Balachander and Emani Sankara Sastry. Others included Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, Rugmini Gopalakrishnan, Prince Rama Varma and Mangalam Muthuswamy.

The contemporary players include the extremely popular E Gayathri, Jayanthi Kumaresh, Jaysrri-Jeyraaj, Narayan Mani and Nirmala Rajashekar.

An interesting bit of trivia is that renowned jazz guitarist John McLaughlin got attracted to Indian music after hearing S Balachander play the Saraswati veena over the radio. He was so mesmerised by its beauty that he decided to explore more and more of Indian music.

And yes, many would have also known that APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, also played the saraswati veena as a hobby.


Above: N Ravikiran on chitravena

Carnatic music – Chitraveena: Compared to the Saraswati veena, the chitraveena or gotuvadyam has had a much fewer number of exponents. Today, of course, the major star is N Ravikiran, who has not only done some fantastic Carnatic concerts and recordings, but has also experimented by collaborating with western orchestras.

Though its use can be traced to north Indian dance music, the chitraveena is today exclusively used in Carnatic music, and has also been played in duets with Hindustani musicians. It has no frets, and 20 or 21 strings, and is played with a slide like the Hawaiian guitar or like the north Indian vichitra veena.

The chitraveena was first popularised by Sakharam Rao, but it was Narayan Iyengar of the Mysore palace who really expanded its fame. N Ravikiran is his grandson. And besides the traditional chitraveena, he has developed a modern version called navachitraveena.

Among the other exponents, Seetha Doraiswamy is better known for playing the jal tarang (a melodic percussion instrument using bowls of water), but also plays the chitraveena and a variant called the balakokila.


Above: Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on Rudra veena

Hindustani music – Rudra veena: Rarely played today, the Rudra veena is the only melody instrument used prominently in the dhrupad style, one of the earlier forms of Hindustani music. The instrument became less popular after more people took to the surbahar and later the sitar.

The term Rudra veena is derived from Rudra, another name for Lord Shiva. Its length ranges from 54 to 62 inches, and it has two large resonators connected by a fretted surface. In a concert, the earlier generation normally played with the backdrop of only the tanpura, the stringed drone instrument, whereas later ‘beenkars’ were accompanied by the percussion instrument pakhawaj in the latter part of their performances.

The Rudra veena has been played for generations, and even the Sufi saint and multi-instrumentalist Baba Inayat Khan practised it. But of all players, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar was primarily responsible for reviving the instrument as a solo instrument.

Though his father Ziauddin Khan Dagar discouraged him from experimenting with its basic form, Mohiuddin made certain innovations later. After his death in 1990, his son Bahauddin Dagar carried his tradition forward.

Among later players, Asad Ali Khan of the Jaipur beenkar gharana took the instrument to further levels, and even popularised it abroad on regular tours. In fact, he had many foreign students and was unhappy that many Indians didn’t take to the instrument.

Other well-known Rudra veena exponents include Shamsuddin Faridi Desai, Suvir Misra, Bande Ali Khan and Bindu Madhav Pathak, whose son Shrikant Pathak represents the younger generation. Very few women play the Rudra veena, and Jyoti Hegde is the best-known among them.

A modification of the instrument, called the Shruti veena, was created by musician and researcher Lalmani Misra, though it has been used more in demonstrations than in actual concerts. As for the Rudra veena, it is barely played today, despite the phenomenal efforts by some of its practitioners.


Above: Radhika Umdekar Budhkar on vichitra veena

Hindustani music – Vichitra veena: This instrument is quite similar to the chitraveena in that it has no frets and is played with a slide. It was often used to accompany the dhrupad style of singing, and had almost become extinct till it was revived by Lalmani Misra.

Despite its wonderful tone and the pakhawaj accompaniment, the players are by and large not well known even among hardcore classical audiences. Some of them include Gopal Krishan, Shri Krishan Sharma, Brahm Sarup Singh, Anurag Singh and Lalmani Misra’s son Gopal Shankar Misra.

The first woman to play this instrument is Radhika Umdekar Budhkar. The instrument has quite a few players in Pakistan and this week, one read of Gianni Ricchizzi of Italy playing a concert in Mumbai.


(Above) Balachander on Chandra veena

Innovations: Chandra veena: Chandra Veena is an attempt to bring out the best of Rudra Veena and Saraswati Veena in a single instrument. Its known practioner if Balachander, disciple of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and vocalist Zia Fariduddin Dagar. This instrument has been based on Saraswati Veena but designed by him, based on the needs of dhrupad. This involves more sustain and resonance, better bass response and wider frets for deflecting more notes in a phrase.

Overall, though their importance has decreased in Hindustani music, there is quite a following for the Carnatic veenas. And the best thing about any of the instruments mentioned above is their tonal quality, and the ability to relax listeners through their sheer melody.

How to write a superhit Bollywood item song


MEET Lekh Tezkalam, an enthusiastic 24-year-old who walks up to a film production house with heaps of self-written songs and a bagful of dreams. Though he’s been helping in his father’s business after finishing college, his ambition is to become a lyricist in Hindi cinema.

Lekh is escorted to a swanky room and introduced to Shotcall Singh, an upcoming film director, and Dhun Churanewala, a music composer who also goes by the name of Gadget Guru.  Pakodas and tea are ordered, and soon, the three-way conversation goes like this:

Director: Yes, young man, you want to become a lyricist. Can we have a brief background about you?

Lyricist: Sure sir. I am Lekh Tezkalam. I have been following good poetry and lyrics since I was a kid, and I write songs too. I’ve always wanted to become a well-known lyricist. My biggest influences are Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Urdu poetry, and Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni and Anand Bakshi in films.

Director: Good for you. I haven’t heard the names you mention, except Bakshi.

Composer: My grandfather used to mention some of them after two pegs of whisky. Anyway, how will you be able to help us?

Lyricist: As I said, I write songs. So far, it was a hobby, but I want to make it a profession. I want to write meaningful and memorable songs, whether on romance, sadness, happiness, tragedy, any subject. I have with me 27 songs with the word ‘Chaand’ as the theme, 34 on ‘Tanhaai’, 22 on ‘Zindagi’, 18 on ‘Bewafaai’, 26 on…

Director: These words are very old-fashioned. Give us something new. I am making an action film with loads of comedy and romance and drama. I need some masala songs. Peppy tunes.

Lyricist: My personal favourites are “Main aaina dekhta hoon toh teri hi soorat nazar aati hai” and “Teri zulfon ke saaye mein mera…”

Composer: Dude, we are in the year 2013. All these thoughts of yours were used 50 or 60 years ago. And if we want such songs, we have two legendary lyricists who have been writing since the 70s. Gulzar-saab and Javed-bhai. We can ask them. Why have you on board? If we want a song on ‘Tanhaai’ or ‘Chaand’, we can approach Prasoon Joshi, Swanand Kirkire or Irshad Kamil.

Lyricist: Dhun-bhai, I have some Sufi and Punjabi songs too. They are the current craze.

Director: We already have such songs for our film. We have taken a Japanese song and added the words ‘Maula’ and ‘Khwaja’. Everybody will think it is a Sufi song. Similarly, we have a Tamil song to which we have added ‘shaava shaava’, ‘maahiya’ and ‘raanjhna’. People will be convinced it is Punjabi.

Composer: Actually, why are we wasting our time? What we are looking for is two songs which you can write for us. The first will be one of the biggest hits Bollywood has ever heard, the kind of song that will instantly make you a superstar.

Lyricist: Really? I can’t wait. What’s it about?

Composer: It’s inspired by the ‘Delhi Belly’ song ‘Bhaag DK Bose’. The song is called ‘Tard Bas’, and we have already written the main line, which is “Abhi bas abhi bas abhi bas tard tard tard, abhi bas tard tard tard.”

Director: It’s a great song. Dhun has even copied an unknown tune from Madagascar which nobody else in India would have heard. The main line is a guaranteed success.  You have to write the other lines, and you can use your ‘Tanhaai’ and ‘Bewafaai’ and whatever. We will give you full credit. I will tell our public relations team to instigate social organisations and politicians, who will then unfairly accuse us of using bad language and scream for a ban. The song will get free publicity. We will say it was your idea and pay you for that. We will also claim ‘Tard Bas’ is a very deep and philosophical term in Hindi which is used when a person has had enough. Are you ready?

Lyricist: Sir, let me think over it. I mean the song seems okay, but I will have to consider what other lines I can write. What’s the other song you want me to write?

Director: How can you be so naïve? Our film has to have an item song. Something that beats all the ‘Munni badnaams’ and ‘Sheila ki jawaanis’ and ‘Character dheelas’ and ‘Anarkali disco chalis’.

Lyricist: But sir, I have never written an item song. I can’t relate to them.

Composer: Listen, rock star. If you want to make it big today, you have to learn how to write item songs. They are very simple, but only geniuses can write them. Even your Ghalibs and Zafars never had the brilliance to write songs like ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Chammak challo’ and ‘Halkat jawani’.

Lyricist: Dhun-bhai, I don’t know about that. But how do I begin?

Director: Simple. We had a song on ‘Zandu Balm’ and one on ‘Fevicol’. You could choose another brand. Not such a big headache.

Composer:  Shotcall-ji, now that you mention headache, why not do a song based on Saridon?

Director: Excellent idea. Dhun, you are a genius. Lekh, why don’t you write an item song based on Saridon?

Lyricist: Let me try, sir. Can it be as simple as ‘Sar dard se phata jaaye, toh lijiye Saridon’?

Director: Is that an item song? Ha. You’re funny. Sounds more like an advertisement. Dhun, do you have any ideas?

Composer: We need to think of words that rhyme with Saridon. Just like ‘Fevicol’ was made to rhyme with ‘alcohol’, ‘petrol’, ‘missed call’ and ‘marriage hall’. What say, Lekh?

Lyricist: Hmmm. Saridon. Saridon. What possibly rhymes with Saridon?

Composer: Got it. Revlon. We could use two brands in the same song and thus beat everyone else.

Director: Superb. Saridon and Revlon. We could also add ‘babycorn’. ‘Switch on’, ‘Turn on’. See how fast we think.

Composer: Seriously, Shotcall-ji, you have the makings of a legendary lyricist. And if petrol was pronounced ‘pet-rawl’ to rhyme with ‘Fevicol’, we can make ‘Gulab jamon’ rhyme with ‘Saridon’. It’ll sound tastier than ‘Jalebi Bai’.

Director: Fantastic. We can have this song picturised on the hero and the item girl. I’ll finalise the item girl by tomorrow.  And we can call Champakali of Chinchpokli to sing the song. Her voice is so manly she can sing both male and female versions. We can save some money by paying only one person instead of two.

Composer: I have the tune ready. It’s a song from Papua New Guinea. Am sure nobody would know the original so I am safe. Lekh, why are you so silent? Come on, think of the actual lines. The main line should have ‘Saridon’, and the other lines should use all the rhyming words.

Lyricist: Give me two days, Dhun-bhai. I need time to think.

Director: There is no time. The film industry doesn’t work that way. We need things immediately.

Lyricist: But sir, I need some inspiration.

Director: Just imagine any item girl. Close your eyes and think of her belly button, and how she gyrates to the music. That’s adequate inspiration. The words will come naturally.

Composer: Shotcall-ji, Shotcall-ji. I was actually imagining Mallika Sherawat, and I got the first line. The female voice will sing: “Mere maathe pe honth chipkalo toh behtar hai Saridon seyyy.” To give it a rustic effect we can pronounce it Serry-dawn.

Director: Marvellous! Outstanding!

Composer: Then the hero will sing: “Mere gaalon ko laal rang daalo tum Ravalawn seyyy.”

Director: Wow! Revlon pronounced as Ravalawn. Amazing!

Composer: ”Mere life ko tum meetha bana do, gulab jamawn seyyy.” Then, “Pulao ko swaadisht bana do babycorn seyyy.” Then, we can have: “Is kamre go thanda kara lo tum fayn switch-on seyyy.”

Director: Lekh, are you listening? That’s what’s called songwriting. Not your ‘Chaand’ and ‘Sooraj’… Arrey, where’s Lekh disappeared?

Composer: Don’t know. He was here a minute ago. One second, will ask your secretary. (Goes out and returns in two minutes). Shotcall-ji, Maria informs me that she saw this Lekh fellow covering his face with a handkerchief and running out of the building like we was in a 100 metres race. Everybody outside was wondering what happened to him.

Director: Today’s kids, I tell you. No knowledge, no dedication, no effort. Just want to become famous overnight. They only want money. Anyway, let’s celebrate. Mere maathe pe honth chipkalo toh behtar hai Serry-dawn seyyy.  La la la la la la la la la la Ravalawn seyyy.

Composer: Mere life ko tum meetha bana do, gulab jamawn seyyyIs kamre go thanda kara lo tum fayn switch-on seyyy… I have one more line, with one more brand. It’ll be a hit among all the tech-savvy folks, and make our song the biggest caller tune ever. It goes – Mujhe What’sApp pe mey-ssij bhejo Vodafawn seyy…

Director: Wow! Wow! Wow! Doo roo roo roo roo doo roo roo doo roo babycorn seyyy… Ha ha ha ha! We will rock Bollywood with ‘Tard Bas’ and ‘Saridon’.

Take Five: The world of ‘classical crossover’


In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. This time, in the second part, we shall talk of five artistes from the ‘classical crossover’ genre.

AMONG western classical purists, the term ‘classical crossover’ generally evokes negative reactions. Many of them, accustomed to formal concert settings and rigid musical rules, believe it is doing more damage than good to the genre. To figure out what bothers them so much, we need to first understand what this phrase actually means.

According to a common definition, ‘classical crossover’ artistes are those who use heavy influences or play popular tunes of western classical music, but do not follow the rules governing the genre. They dress up trendily, use modern instruments and render pop tunes, thus targeting a wider audience.

Within this genre, there is also something called ‘operatic pop’, which refers to singers who do opera songs in a modern manner, or sing pop songs in an operatic style. A related field is ‘symphonic rock’, where bands play rock songs in orchestral style, but that is marketed as a completely different genre, as its audience is totally different.

Obviously, all this is a direct contradiction to the very philosophy of western classical music. If one looks at the traditional form of the music, two features set it apart. To begin with, the musicians have to compulsorily play pieces the way the composers had written them. There is no question of even the slightest modification, or of introducing a personal style. Secondly, the atmosphere at classical shows is largely formal, whether it comes to the overall ambience, the dress codes of musicians or the behaviour of the audience. No matter how much the listener is moved by the music, one cannot clap between movements or even utter ‘Wow’ aloud.

Western classical music has its own beauty and charm, and contains some of the most haunting, romantic or powerful pieces ever written. But the entry of newer forms like jazz, pop and rock in the 20th century ensured that its market went down. Keeping this in mind, a section of musicians and music industry professionals thought of new ways to reach out to both the masses and to youngsters, using western classical music as a base. This was how ‘classical crossover’ was born, somewhere in the mid-1990s. Some people associate it with what was called ‘new age’ music.

In ‘classical crossover’, musicians may do some of the following things. They may adapt old classical pieces by adding drums, guitars or electronic instruments to make them sound peppier and more contemporary. They may compose modern and catchy tunes featuring classical instruments like the violin, viola, cello, harp or piano. They may take popular operatic arias and sing them without the frills, in a mass-oriented style. Or they may take pop songs and give them a classical treatment.

It’s not only in the music, actually. The musicians dress up fashionably, grow their hair any which way, appear in sensuous music videos, dance on stage and even encourage the audience to clap and shout during their performance.

To the purist, all this is complete blasphemy. Yet, slowly and steadily, the genre has attracted a following of its own, mainly comprising people who do not believe in rules and those who are not as musically knowledgeable as the more serious listeners. More than anything else, it has exposed people to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and the promoters of the genre believe that those who enjoy ‘classical crossover’ will eventually listen to the purer form.

Technically, the first successful ‘classical crossover’ album was violinist Vanessa-Mae’s ‘The Violin Player’, released in 1995. But prior to that, there were many efforts to bridge the gap between classical and pop.

When Luciano Pavarotti sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the song became so popular that it gave opera music a newer appeal. Similarly, pianist Richard Clayderman, though known more for doing versions of well-known pop songs, also played a few classical favourites in his own style.

Dutch violinist Andre Rieu took well-known classical compositions, including waltzes by Johann Strauss II, and gave them new orchestrations, besides adding entertainment and showmanship at his concerts. Greek composer Yanni composed many tunes that were rooted in the classical style, but were admired by those who liked popular music too. He was labelled a new age musician.

The success of Vanessa-Mae’s album, however, made the industry sit up and think. They looked for artistes who were ready to market and position themselves in a very modern manner, and also play orchestral music their own way.

In the past 17 years or so, many musicians have become part of the genre. Here, we list five artistes with whom one can begin, along with a little background. At the end, we shall name a few more, as recommended listening.

Vanessa-Mae: A British violinist of Far Eastern origin, Vanessa actually started off as a purely classical violinist, recording the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. Over time, she decided to blend techno music with classical violin, and released ‘The Violin Player’ in 1995. Most pieces on the album were new, but Vanessa also played Bach’s famous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’.

Her music was initially described as ‘techno-classical’ and even ‘violin techno-acoustic fusion’. But the huge success of ‘The Violin Player’ and the subsequent entry of other musicians with similar ideas led to the term ‘classical crossover’.

Vanessa later released albums like ‘Storm’, ‘Subject to Change’ and ‘Choreography’, the last one featuring Greek composer Vangelis and India’s very own A R Rahman on the tune ‘Raga’s Dance’. She has collaborated with pop artistes like Janet Jackson, George Michael and Prince, but hasn’t done a new recording in nine years.

Maksim: The pianist grew up in war-torn Croatia but never let anything affect his music studies. His began his recording career with ‘Gestures’, which contained the works of contemporary Croatian composers including the popular Tonci Huljic, but achieved international success with ‘The Piano Player’, where he improvised on pieces by well-known classical composers Handel, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His next album ‘Variations Parts 1 & 2’ had some traditional tunes from Croatia, besides variations of classical compositions by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Later albums like ‘A New World’, ‘Electrik’ and ‘Pure’ have used similar combinations, and one of his best pieces is his adaptation of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, where he has used many other instruments too.

Bond (in picture on top):  An all-girl British-Australian string quartet, Bond rose to fame in 2000 with its debut album ‘Born’. Interestingly, the album was removed from the classical charts as traditionalists felt it was too pop. But it became popular because of some tunes composed by Croatian Tonci Huljic (specially ‘Victory’) and a modern version of Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’.

Consisting of two violinists, one viola player and one cellist, Bond was known for its fashionable stage costumes, energetic live performances and trendy videos like ‘Explosive’. It has also released the albums ‘Shine’ (which included a string version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’), ‘Classified’ and ‘Play’, which includes rearrangements of classical composer Vivaldi and a crossover version of A R Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’ from the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Andrea Bocelli: An operatic tenor, the blind Bocelli has practised both classical and pop territories with equal passion, and has played a major role in popularising ‘operatic pop’.

On the classical side, the Italian’s album ‘Sacred Arias’ is a huge success among those who follow spiritual music. He’s also released many full-length operas on CD, but albums like ‘Bocelli’, ‘Sogno’, ‘Andrea’, ‘Amore’ and ‘Passione’ reflect his crossover side. Among other songs, his versions of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and the standard ‘Autumn Leaves’, and his duet with Celine Dion on ‘The Prayer’ have added to his mass following.

Sarah Brightman: British actress and singer Sarah Brightman has established herself as the biggest selling soprano of all time. Besides English, she has rendered songs in various European languages, Chinese and Japanese.

Married to and divorced from renowned composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Brightman first earned fame on the stage, specially with the musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. She actually released a few crossover albums before Vanessa-Mae, including the well-known ‘Dive’, but her fame as a singer expanded hugely after 1995 with consistent live performances and new releases. Her albums ‘La Luna’, ‘Harem’ and ‘Symphony’ are considered among the best in the genre, and she’s currently working on her latest venture ‘Dreamchaser’, due for release in April.

Besides these five artistes, one can try out violinists Catya Mare and Lindsey Stirling, pianist Myleene Klass, singers Romina Arena and Katherine Jenkins, and the operatic pop vocal group Il Divo. There’s also singer Josh Groban, who besides many easy listening numbers, dabbles in crossover.

These are good enough to begin with, but as mentioned before, appreciation of ‘classical crossover’ depends on how open your mind is to experimentation. It’s relatively a new genre, and may take a few more years to be really established.

A memorable night with the Mekaal Hasan Band


(Left to right): Vocalist Javed Bashir, guitarist Mekaal Hasan and flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu


Artistes: Mekaal Hasan Band

Venue and date: Blue Frog, Mumbai; January 8, 2013

Genre: Sufi-jazz-rock fusion

Rating: *****

ON the night of Tuesday, January 8, Mumbai’s Blue Frog was packed to capacity when the Mekaal Hasan Band arrived on stage. Around 10.20 pm, vocalist Javed Bashir began the opening lines of the Shah Hussain-penned song ‘Sajan’ to a huge applause. Flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu followed up with a soothing stretch, and guitarist-bandleader Mekaal Hasan, bassist Amir Azhar and drummer Fahad Khan played marvellously. The night had just begun.

Formed in Lahore in 2001, the Mekaal Hasan Band or MHB is easily one of the best groups fusing east and west. Its music is an intricate blend of classical and Sufiana vocals with jazz, rock, funk and eastern folk elements. And though Pakistani bands like Junoon, Strings and Fuzon have probably played more in India, MHB has its own cult following, created largely through its two albums ‘Sampooran’ and ‘Saptak’.

The best thing about MHB is that one never finds a weak spot in their renditions. As a live act, they’re just stunning and flawless. As a singer, Javed is simply outstanding, whether he’s rendering the words of Sufi kaafis or modern love songs, or presenting taans, sargams and harkats. His voice has that raw and natural charm, and he travels between the low, middle and high registers with such effortlessness that you believe there’s some kind of a computer in his throat.

Add to that the quality of the band and the beauty of the compositions. Mekaal, who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, is an absolute virtuoso with the guitar. Rock riffs, jazz improvisations and folk melodies flow through those strings magically. Papu is a delight with the flute, and can play lengthy solos with immense control and emotion. Bassist Amir and drummer Fahad are perfect on the rhythm section, providing just the right texture. In short, here’s a five-member band with five lead musicians.

The set lasted a little over two hours. ‘Sajan’ was followed by the uptempo ‘Raanjha’ and ‘Jhok Ranjhan’, another adaptation of a Shah Hussain kaafi. Then came the masterpiece ‘Sanwal’, written by contemporary Pakistani poet Farhat Abbas Shah. The words “O kabhi aa mil sanwal yaar wey… Mere roo roo cheekh pukar wey” resonated in the venue.

Up next was the gem ‘Waris Shah’, written by the great Punjabi writer and poet Amrita Pritam to express her anguish against the violence that took place following Partition. ‘Bandeya’, written by modern poet Ahmed Anis, boasted of spitfire riffs from Mekaal. Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s ‘Chal Bulleya’ had the wonderful lines “Chal Bulleya chal uthay chaliye, jithey saare anay, na koi saadi jaat pacchane, na koi sannu manne,” besides some charming flute and guitar passages.

The band then moved into ‘Andholan’, brilliantly set to raga Kirwani, with some smart guitar and bass, a great drumming background, and the lines “Tore bina mohay chain na aave, yaad mein tori jiya ghabraave, gin gin taare main ratiyan guzaroon, birha sataave, mora man tadpaave.” Javed was brilliant on ‘Mahi’, one of the most beautiful and moving love songs written by the band.

Next in line was ‘Sampooran’, which had amazing flute and guitar passages, before Javed suddenly went into the popular raga Yaman composition ‘Eri aali piya bina’. This song was beautifully adapted for live performance, considering that the studio version makes good use of vocal over-dubs. The last of their own compositions was ‘Ya Ali’, in which a vigorous sargam intro and an energetic bass-and-drum line were followed by the lines Ya ali mushkil kusha, mushkil kusha ki jiye,” before a spectacular guitar solo.

Though the band didn’t play some of their other popular numbers like ‘Raba’, ‘Darbari’, ‘Albaella’ and ‘Huns Dhun’, it got into popular qawwali mood towards the end. The finale was an excellent adaptation of the famous ‘Damadam mast qalandar’, with Javed excelling in the nuances. It was one of the most innovative versions of the song one has heard.

As happens with most wonderful bands, a sizeable section of Mumbai’s musicians had come to see the band. In the audience, we spotted guitarists Mahesh Tinaikar, Ehsaan Noorani, Babu Choudhary and Ravi Iyer, drummer Ranjit Barot, singer Mahalakshmi Iyer and members of the band Agnee.

It was an absolutely memorable evening. Over the years, Mumbai hasn’t seen too many shows by MHB. They had performed at the Shanmukhananda Hall in 2005 and a couple of years later at the St Andrew’s Auditorium to launch their album ‘Sampooran’ in India. A show scheduled at Blue Frog two years ago was sadly cancelled.

After Mumbai, MHB is slated to do three shows in Delhi over the next week. We just hope they keep coming back, to give a live treat to Mumbai’s true music lovers. And, of course, one is eagerly looking forward to their next album.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent: **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world

MSG: The violinist who unified south and north


IN Carnatic music, the word ‘trinity’ has been used to group different kinds of luminaries together. The Holy Trinity of composers consists of Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshikar and Syama Sastri. The Divine Vocal Trinity comprises the late MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattamal and ML Vasanthakumari. And the Violin Trinity refers to Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan.

Each member of these trinities has played a path-breaking role in the history of Carnatic music. Naturally, it came as a huge shock to hear of the demise of MS Gopalakrishnan, fondly known as MSG, on Thursday, January 3. The simplest way one could describe his music is with the word ‘unique’. In fact, his death comes as a major loss not only to Carnatic music, but to Indian music as a whole.

What made MSG special is that he was equally adept at both south Indian Carnatic and north Indian Hindustani music. In fact, he was probably the only musician from his generation who deeply specialised in and regularly performed both.

Considering that the styles and techniques of both forms are vastly different, that both require a completely different performance mindset and that even audiences for both have subjective approaches to appreciation, this wasn’t an easy task. Even from the rhythmic point of view, the Carnatic musician is often joined by two or three percussionists, whereas the Hindustani musician normally has one tabla accompaniment, as a result of which the whole concept of ‘layakari’ (rhythm-play) has separate approaches.

There have been numerous examples of Hindustani musicians adapting Carnatic ragas and playing them in the north Indian style ― Pandit Ravi Shankar being the foremost. There have been Hindustani percussionists playing Carnatic rhythms ― the way Ustad Zakir Hussain plays adi talam, for instance. Similarly, there have been cases of musicians being rooted in Carnatic music, but later specialising and excelling in Hindustani ― violinist N Rajam being the leading instance. And there have been numerous north-south jugalbandis where representatives of both styles play in their own way and yet manage to make the two meet.

MSG played both styles with equal dexterity and passion. He at times used south Indian techniques while playing north Indian music, and vice versa, but never compromised on the purity of the form, or indulged in gimmickry to please the gallery. He was also deeply familiar with western violin technique and there were instances when he incorporated that too. And all this while maintaining a perfect balance between technical virtuosity, melodic soul and musical charm.

Part of his mastery came from his heritage, of course. His father Parur Sundaram Iyer was a violin wizard who initiated what came to be known as the ‘Parur technique’, which blended the Carnatic style with Hindustani elements picked up through his interaction with doyens Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Omkarnath Thakur. MSG’s brother MS Anantharaman was a virtuoso too.

As a youngster, MSG picked up the nuances of the Parur technique, including one-finger playing, use of a long bow, and special fingering and bowing styles. As a result, he could play Carnatic gamakas and Hindustani meends with equal ease. He began to research deeper into this style, and his early interactions with Hindustani stalwarts Omkarnath Thakur, Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan helped him even further. Interestingly, Omkarnath Thakur also groomed N Rajam into one of the finest Hindustani violinists.

MSG’s efforts, which were also helped by his understanding of western violin, led to what is now called the ‘Parur-MSG Bani’. Regular solo concerts in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, and jugalbandis with artistes like flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan made him one of the most accomplished musicians of India. Undoubtedly, he was also a huge influence on many other musicians, who learnt something new from his distinct technique.

As a teenager growing up in Delhi, I was lucky to have heard MSG in concert on a few occasions. Though my first exposure to Indian violin was at a stunning Hindustani concert by N Rajam, I got a chance to see Carnatic giants like Lalgudi, Krishnan, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan and MSG in due course, and was later exposed to L Subramaniam and L Shankar. Over the years, I also picked up some of their recordings, and from the MSG catalogue, his ragas Bhimpalasi and Puriya with the label Magnasound, his duets with Carnatic flautist N Ramani, and the albums ‘Gems of Purandaradasa’, ‘Daasarathi’ and ‘Entanerchina’ remain personal favourites.

It’s been over a decade since I last attended his concert. Now, two of his children have taken to the violin. I am yet to hear his son Suresh, but a few months ago, I saw his daughter M Narmadha at the Fine Arts Society in Chembur, Mumbai. It had poured cats and dogs that day, and though the venue was on my way home from work, it was certainly not a great idea to wade through knee-deep waters to attend a concert. But having heard so much about her, I had to see what MSG’s daughter sounded like.

I literally counted only 24 people in the audience that day. But Narmadha was undeterred, and played marvellous music for nearly two hours, giving many glimpses of her father’s genius and yet, playing in her own individual, thoroughly-researched manner.

Surely, her individuality of rendition would be in the genes. After all, MSG was one of the most original musicians India has produced, and he leaves behind a rich legacy and many magical memories. With his death coming just three weeks after Ravi Shankar passed away, this has been a rather sad period for Indian music.

Further reading:

For details on how the violin is played in India, check the earlier blog

For a blog on the Carnatic music scene in Mumbai, see

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