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Archive for the ‘Carnatic’ Category

Freewheeling interview/ Carnatic flautist Shashank Subramanyam

Shashank Subramanyam,Flute Artist,in his house,at Mylapore,Chennai,on 4thDec2014.

Shashank Subramanyam in his house,at Mylapore,Chennai

THE audience is dominated by hardcore Carnatic music aficionados. The venue is the prestigious Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion. The date is June 13, and flautist Shashank Subramanyam is ruling the stage.

In his mid-30s, the musician is a picture of immaculate class and perfection. He’s been playing in front of gatherings since the age of six, and at 12, created a still-unbroken record of being the youngest to grace the seniormost slot at the Music Academy, Chennai. Today, he makes the flute sound so effortless, displaying remarkable phrasing and breath control.

He plays non-stop for close to three hours, and the coordination between him and extra-talented violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi is simply amazing. Mridangam player VV Ramanamurthy and ghatam exponent Tripunithura Radhakrishnan control the rhythm section. All the way, it’s sheer magic.

From the varnam in Kaanada to the Purandara Dasa composition in raga Nata, Thyagharaja creations in ragas Devamruthavarshini and Saramati, and the raagam-taanam-pallavi, Shashank is in total control. He’d have probably gone on playing, if he doesn’t have to catch a flight to Germany later that night.

A few days before his Mumbai concert, Shashank gave this writer an interview. A part of it was published in the June 12 edition of Mid Day, Mumbai, the link to which is pasted below. For all his fans, the following is the complete text of the interview.

What are your observations of the audience for Carnatic music in Mumbai?

Mumbai has a substantial south Indian music loving community that is extremely qualitative. Institutions like Shanmukhananda, Chembur Fine Arts Society and scores of smaller organisations around the city have been promoting Carnatic music concerts and teaching activities during the past 80 years. This gave an opportunity for the non-south Indian audience to also get an exposure to south Indian classical music, with Mumbai becoming a melting pot of south and north Indian music and culture.

In recent years, Mumbai has witnessed many north and south jugalbandi concerts attracting different kinds of audiences. Among the organisers promoting such events, there are Banyan Tree, Idea Jalsa, Pancham Nishad and many others. In my own experience, I have committed listeners both from the north and south of India equally. Factually I have performed more for north Indian organisations in the city of Mumbai.

Let’s look at how your career has evolved. You started playing at the age of six and were hailed as a child prodigy. How did the early attention affect you?

Given the short learning time span for a human being, the focus on one thing takes a toll on other aspects of life. In my case, I used to work on music for more than 10 hours a day, even as a five-year-old. Therefore, my academic achievements became a casualty. Looking back I don’t regret this. Honestly, if one wants to super-specialise, the only way is to begin very young and achieve as quickly as possible to stay put in one’s career for a very long time. There are many examples of this kind of career graph from around the world in many fields, including the arts.

What made you choose the flute and who were your biggest influences as a child?

My father Subramanyam was an amateur flautist and I mostly learnt watching him practise at home. At the age of six, when I began performing for the general public, my biggest influences were my father who was my first guru, and my vocal gurus Palghat K V Narayanaswamy and others.

As you grew up, were there any special pressures to keep up with the adulation you received as a child?

Although I began performing when I was six, I got into the big circuit at the age of 12 with a performance at the Music Academy, Chennai in the seniormost slot called the ‘sadas’ during the 1990 music season. Since the expectations were sky high, and also considering the fact that I was relatively young, my father contained and restricted my public performances, thereby making sure that I lived up to the expectations of the audience every time I performed. This also ensured that I could continue to develop and evolve as an artiste.

Who have been your favourite flautists?

From amongst the Indian classical flute players, legends T R Mahalingam from the south and Hariprasad Chaurasia from the north are certainly my favourites although I have followed my own instincts and technique to play the instrument.

Besides pure Carnatic music, you’ve performed at various jazz festivals. What line-up of musicians have accompanied you?

I have been a part of many jazz bands from around the world of which my brief association with guitar legend John McLaughlin is worth taking note of. I was a part of the Grammy-nominated album ‘Floating Point’ along with him. I also perform with well-known European bands including The Jungle Orchestra, Blue Lotus and many others. Some of the festivals that I have performed in include the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia and Delemont Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

What has been your experience with the Jungle Orchestra?

The Jungle Orchestra, a concept that was initiated by Duke Ellington in the 1920s and further developed by Pierre Dorge, a composer and guitar player from Denmark, is inspired by sounds of the jungle that are incorporated into a concert of jazz music. I met Pierre Dorge when I was teaching at the Rytmisk Conservatory in Copenhagen in 1997. In 2007, we thought of performing at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. It was a very nice interaction with 10 musicians in the band playing drums, percussion, guitar, piano, saxophone, trumpet, flute, etc. Ever since, we have performed around the world including in India.

What is the response of foreign audiences to Indian music?

Many of those who attend our performances in the West or East are either musicians themselves or highly knowledgeable music lovers who are exposed to many genres of music from around the world. They particularly appreciate the complex rhythmic content and the meditative aspects in Indian classical music. They also appreciate the creative blending of melody and rhythm in our system.

What level of interest do youngsters show in Indian classical music?

Although we can’t assign a number or percentage to the decline in interest amongst youngsters, it could be emphatically stated that the decline is very alarming. One example of this could be seen in the age group of people attending live performances. However, it is a little more encouraging to see the growth of interest among Non Resident Indians in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Most Indian kids would try to pursue one or the other form of classical music or dance and some of the young musicians from the countries mentioned above are making names as performers in south India.

Could you tell us about your concept ‘Spirit of Krishna’?

‘Spirit of Krishna’ is an amalgamation of the traditional folk and classical music. The Manganyars of Rajasthan and myself are a constant part of the team. The percussionist and the sitar artistes are mostly guest performers who are invited to be a part of the team from time to time. We present traditional compositions on Lord Krishna in many languages and also incorporate a big section wherein the musicians indulge in creative improvisations. In addition, at times, we also include classical dancers to enhance the presentation.

Do you think collaborations with Hindustani musicians will help expose more north Indians to Carnatic music?

For the past five decades, jugalbandi concerts have been taking place both in the north and south. Citing from my own personal experiences, the audiences have immensely enjoyed both systems equally. However, when it comes to presenting a Carnatic solo to a conservative Hindustani music audience, many in the concert establishment have apprehensions about its success. This is grossly unjustified though. I am of the firm opinion that Carnatic music, if packaged to suit Hindustani music lovers, will be greatly appreciated and right from the beginning of my career, I have been doing just that.

The north Indian music festivals where I have performed Carnatic recitals include Dover Lane (in Kolkata), Hariballabh festival (Jalandhar), Saptak (Ahmedabad), Sawai Gandharva (Pune) and concerts at NCPA (Mumbai). It is time that organisers in the north become more open minded and present music lovers with at least one Carnatic music concert in any series or festival. In some ways, this will be a reciprocation of how south Indian organisations have been offering Hindustani musicians to their audience for quite some time now.

What projects are you working on now?

Careers in music, like anywhere else, involve a constant and continuous evolution in progress and in that direction I keep working on many projects. One of them is to popularise a format of presenting Carnatic music to the north Indian music lovers and the uninitiated music lover as well.

When you aren’t involved with music, what hobbies and interests do you pursue?

Travelling, teaching students, aviation, cars and catching up with the news and happenings from around the world.

Could you tell me about your family’s support to your music.

For the past three decades, my entire family has been dedicated 24/ 7 to the cause of music. My father, a former bio-chemistry professor, has been my teacher. My mother has been a music lover, and sister Shantala an upcoming flautist. My wife Shirisha is a very talented Bharatanatyam dancer and daughter Swara a serious music student. They have all made up for a very healthy music environment.

Finally, as someone who began and succeeded so early, what advice do you give to youngsters who want to learn musical instruments and follow music professionally?

The success rate for a bright professional career in classical music is one out of a 10,000. This is because there is very little focused and committed patronage from the state and central governments. Although there is plenty of talent, parents are often haunted by the scarcity of opportunities and are thus apprehensive. Therefore children are advised to take up professions which ensure a stable livelihood.

My only suggestion to talented youngsters is to take up the arts as a career if they have sufficient financial backing to fall back on, in case of a failure in their arts careers. In spite of the uncertain future faced by students of the arts, if they still wish to pursue this field, it is their extreme passion that will have to play a role immaterial of the outcome. I am one who belongs to the latter.

The link to this writer’s article in Mid Day on June 12 can be found on


While the mandolin gently weeps

u srinivas

TODAY, September 19, has to be one of the saddest days not only for Indian music, but for world music as well. At the untimely age of 45, phenomenal mandolin exponent U Shrinivas has passed away, leaving behind a treasure trove of melodies that only he could present. He had such a mastery over his instrument that every time one saw him on stage, one was stunned by the sheer beauty and perfection he displayed in playing those notes.

A week ago, one had heard he had been hospitalised because of a serious liver condition, and that a transplant was required. The news made the rounds in a limited way in the social media, and those who read it prayed for his speedy recovery. Alas, God has his own mysterious ways, and just when one heard he was getting better, he collapsed. An era was over.

Only a few musicians deserve to be called a legend in the world of music, and Shrinivas is one of them. He was one of those who impressed both the serious listeners of south Indian Carnatic music, with his nuanced exploration of the ragas, and yet had a huge following among admirers of experimental crossover music and fusion. In either genre, he played magically and majestically. And yet, for an artiste of his stature, he had no airs, no star attitude, no ego.

Shrinivas’ work with fusion group Remember Shakti, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira player V Selvaganesh, had a dazzle of its own, whether it was his solo in ‘Maya’, his subtlety on ‘Lotus Feet’ or his accompaniment in the vocal piece ‘Giriraj Sudha’. And while he played with them from the age of 31, he had earlier attracted celebrity followers when he had entered his teens, impressing even jazz guru Miles Davis, who saw him at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983. George Harrison raved about his playing too, and in an interview given to this blogger for ‘Rolling Stone India’ earlier this year, McLaughlin had said: “I saw Shrinivas for the first time when he was 14 years old, and he blew my mind then.”

Shrinivas was literally born to play the mandolin. A child prodigy, he was first trained by his father Satyanarayana from the age of six, after he saw the instrument in the home studio and became fascinated with it. Later, his father’s guru Rudraraju Subbaraju guided him. He was concert-ready by the time he was nine, and from then on, there was no looking back. His brother U Rajesh is a talented mandolin player too, and the two have often performed together.

The fact that Shrinivas successfully adapted the western mandolin to Carnatic technique and later worked wonders with the electric mandolin speaks volumes for his genius. Yes, many south Indian musicians had played the violin brilliantly over the years, and Kadri Gopalnath had mastered the saxophone. But for the connoisseurs in Tamil Nadu, the mandolin remains Shrinivas’s baby.

Having had his first concert appearance as a nine-year-old at the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival in Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh, Shrinivas went on to do a string of outstanding concerts and release landmark albums. Among his Carnatic recordings, the albums ‘Rama Sreerama’ and ‘Magic Mandolin’ were career highlights. While the former had a 29-minute ragam-taanam-pallavi and ragamalika, the latter featured violinist A Kanyakumari and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. His rendition of Thyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis in the album ‘Trio Mandolin’ wowed the purists.

On the fusion front, his most memorable work was arguably the 1995 venture ‘Dream’ with Canadian producer Michael Brook. Containing the tracks ‘Dance’, ‘Think’, ‘Run’ and ‘Dream’, it also featured famed violinist Nigel Kennedy and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. His 2008 album ‘Samjhanitha’ had McLaughlin, banjo master Bela Fleck, Mohan veena player Debashish Bhattacharjee and saxophonist George Brooks, besides an army of top-grade Indian percussionists.

Shrinivas’ album ‘Ilaayaraja’s Classics in Mandolin’ featured the works of the great composer. More recently, his mandolin was heard in the original soundtrack for the film ‘Eat Pray Love’, on the tune ‘Kaliyugavaradana’.

Despite his glory in the field of music, Shrinivas had a sad personal life. Much has been written about his bad marriage and subsequent divorce. But for those who knew him personally, he was the epitome of humility.

He spoke only as much as required and was shy on most occasions. A decade ago, this blogger had approached him for an interview which he politely agreed to. But he spoke very less, and one had to really prod him to say something more elaborate. But then, he never believed in media exposure or public relations. He let his music do all the talking, and that was what mattered.

The world will miss your presence, Shrinivas, but your genius will stay on. The news of your death is something one won’t get over so easily.

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

A case for more Carnatic music in Mumbai

On August 15, the Sivaswamy auditorium of the Fine Arts Society in Chembur, Mumbai, was almost packed to capacity. The occasion was a Carnatic music concert held to mark 65 years of India’s independence and 50 years since the society’s formation. Around 75 per cent of the audience might have been over 60 years of age. And while many men turned up in casual cross-striped T-shirts worn over formal trousers, a large number of ladies were attired in silk sarees.

The star attraction was 76-year-old Umayalpuram Sivaraman, one of the most prolific and respected exponents of the south Indian drum mridangam. But a large section had also come to hear 30-year-old Sikkil Gurucharan, a Chennai-based vocalist who’s shown plenty of promise and who’s being labelled as a future great in Carnatic music. With accompaniment from Sivaraman, brilliant violinist S Varadarajan and Giridhar Udupa on the percussion instrument ghatam, Sikkil captivated the audience for nearly four hours with a diverse range of varnams, kritis, bhajans and thillanas.

Being a public holiday and a free concert, one obviously expected a packed house. But even otherwise, on weekdays and in ticketed concerts, Carnatic music attracts a fairly large audience in Mumbai, whenever concerts are held.

While that may make things seem rosy as far as the Mumbai scene is concerned, the truth is that they are not. What are the problems? Three things, actually. One, Mumbai, unlike the major south Indian cities, hosts only a few Carnatic concerts as compared to the north Indian form of Hindustani music. Two, the majority of those who attend these concerts comprises Tamilians who have grown up on the genre. Except for a handful of diehard music lovers, other communities are not adequately represented. And three, musicians performing pure, traditional Carnatic music don’t get as much recognition in Mumbai as those who are involved in fusion or experimental projects.

Let’s take each issue separately. To begin with, the number of shows. In comparison to Chennai or even Bangalore or Kochi, Mumbai hosts relatively fewer Carnatic concerts, and that too, at select venues. Besides the Fine Arts Society, one sees some shows at Shanmukhananda Hall, Karnataka Sangha, Tata Theatre and Nehru Centre. This September, Fine Arts Society is organising a festival featuring vocalists Malladi Brothers, Bombay Sisters and TV Gopalakrishnan, and violinists M Narmadha, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Ganesh-Kumaresh.

But compare them with Hindustani music, and the number is quite small. While Mumbai’s Carnatic music calendar has one annual festival called Dakshinayan, organised by Banyan Tree Events, and regular events at Fine Arts Society, there are aso many Hindustani festivals like IMG Janfest, Megh Malhar, Gunidas, Sureshbabu-Hirabai, Vyas Vandana, so on and so forth.

The same holds true for other cities of north, west and east India. While Dakshinayan is also held in Delhi and Pune, the number of Hindustani classical events is much larger. In contrast, Chennai has a Carnatic music season for six weeks every December and January, where numerous ‘sabhas’ host a string of concerts featuring scores of musicians. Bangalore, Kochi and Hyderabad, though much smaller in scale than Chennai, have Carnatic concerts through the year, albeit with smaller crowds.

One reason for this may be the larger demand for Hindustani music in Mumbai, and also the fact that a number of leading and upcoming Hindustani classical musicians are settled in Mumbai. Most of the Carnatic musicians are based in Chennai, and since the average size of a Carnatic ensemble is larger (normally four or more people), transportation and hotel costs become involved. Add to this the fact that corporate sponsors back shows by a select group of star musicians, most of whom belong to the Hindustani genre.

The second factor we mentioned is the audience profile. Among Tamilian families, children get exposed to Carnatic music at an early stage, and they often accompany their parents to ‘kutcheris’ (concerts). As such, the understanding of the nuances and development of a serious taste happens from an early age.

North Indians and Maharashtrians residing in Mumbai don’t get that early exposure to Carnatic music, and thus stay away from the genre for the rest of their lives. Thus, a large proportion of visitors to Carnatic concerts naturally comprises south Indians, who have been brought up on that music.

The third issue relates to the popularity of certain artistes who are involved in experimental and innovative music. Let’s take a few examples here. Violinist L Shankar and ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram are essentially Carnatic musicians, but they attained mass popularity because they were part of the Indo-jazz group Shakti. Similarly, mandolin genius U Shrinivas and kanjira player V Selvaganesh are part of the Remember Shakti ensemble, and are thus known among fusion fans.

L Subramaniam is an excellent Carnatic violinist, but his recordings with western artistes like Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin, or his ‘global fusion’ projects, sell more than his pure Carnatic recordings. Similarly, among Mumbai listeners, path-breaking saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath is known more for his international collaborations than for his pure Carnatic renditions, which are a rage in the south. The violinist brothers’ duo of Ganesh and Kumaresh are known in Mumbai, because they are often accompanied by the great Zakir Hussain, who adapts south Indian rhythmic patterns to his tabla. The great Balamuralikrishna and talented Bombay Jayashree are extremely popular as Carnatic vocalists in the south, but a large chunk of Mumbai’s audience knows them more for ‘jugalbandis’ (duets) with Hindustani classical musicians. Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan have their roots in Carnatic music, but the world knows them for other styles.

While all these musicians are game changers in their own way, the sad truth is that many other talented Carnatic musicians don’t get equal kudos in a place like Mumbai, or rather get it only among a select few. Brilliant vocalists like Aruna Sairam, Sudha Raghunathan, Sikkil Gurucharan and OS Arun, to take only four examples, are all stars across audiences of all age groups in Chennai. They are stars in Mumbai too, but only among a select audience, that too as and when they perform.

The same could be true of violinists Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (children of the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman) or Viji Krishnan and Sriram Krishnan (children of the brilliant T N Krishnan). Or veena players E Gayathri and Jayanthi Kumaresh, and gotuvadyam player N Ravikiran. All of them are established in the south, and get adequate opportunities across India, but ask the hip Mumbai concertgoer and page 3 follower about youngsters in Indian music, and chances are that he’ll drop names like Anoushka Shankar, Rahul Sharma and Niladri Kumar easily, and not even know of Gayathri, Ravikiran or Sikkil Gurucharan.

All this is not to start any debate on which of the two forms — Hindustani or Carnatic — is superior or more popular. Both are steeped in traditional and have a long musical history. Moreover, there may be some would will rightfully say that barring a few top names, Hindustani musicians don’t have the same popularity as Carnatic musicians in Chennai as they have in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata.

But in a place like Mumbai, cosmopolitan by nature, one would love to see a serious and continuing effort on the part of musicians, musical organisations and sponsors to expose and educate more non-Tamilians about the intricacies of Carnatic music. This could be done through regular workshops, lecture-demonstrations and listening sessions, and will greatly help increase the overall appreciation levels manifold. Otherwise, a whole section of musically-inclined society will miss out on the magic of the Carnatic form.

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