!!! IMPORTANT – Read this first !!!
Over a period of time, the structure and presentation of a mainstream Carnatic concert developed a model format, which then established itself as the “ideal” format. The currently accepted “ideal” format is more or less based on the Ariyakudi paddhati, popularised by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in early 20th century. Every now and then, some minor changes have been accepted (E.g.: Not starting with a varNam) or sometimes, a stalwart/bAni would rise and bring in some specific style (E.g.: GNB’s RTP style). The format also kept adapting to the times (E.g.: concert duration in the recent times are hovering around 2 hours, and, this in turn, has resulted in RTP getting dropped in most concerts). But, none of these changes significantly affected the overall structure; key characters like kruti sequencing (short items-submain-filler-main/RTP-tukDa), treatment of rAgas, treatment of kruti enunciation (though different pAThantarAs exist) or tempo (predominantly madhyma kAla based singing) remained more or less the same. Any attempt to disrupt this format was (and is) typically rejected by the whole Carnatic music fraternity (which includes the artists, rasikAs, critics and musicologists). Only a genius could tamper this “ideal” format and “get away” without being “battered” or thrown out of the system 🙂
And, MDR (M. D. Ramanathan) was such a phenomenon!
Let us suppose that there is a “regular” rasikA, who has been exposed only (or mostly) to performances that stuck to the above referred “ideal” format, and has never heard MDR before. And, this rasikA hears the below kalyANi varNam “vanajAkshi” by MDR (listen till 00:16:25).
Now, we can imagine the thoughts that will be running through this rasikA’s mind:
“What the hell is this??? How can someone sing like this? What a slow start! And how long does he take to finish a varNam! At many places, it appears like the singer is not even singing – there are so many gaps, parts of the kruti and swaras are “swallowed”, at other places, the words and swaras are manipulated to such an extent that I am not even able to understand what is being sung! And when he sings, he doesn’t follow the norms at all – he is distorting his voice, and at places, he generates sounds that are not typically used! He is also changing the pre-set laya pattern of the varnam and doing lot of laya acrobatics. He is stressing words/swaras at unusual places. On top of that, check what all other things he is doing while singing – he seems so lazy to start the charaNam, in between he is talking to someone, at one point, he laughs in the middle of the performance, and he abruptly stops and restarts his performance at his will. What a “crazy” singer!!!
And that is MDR for you – a true maverick!!!
Many people may be put off with this extremely slow tempo and unorthodox style, and many may not be able to enjoy this unconventional flow (with plenty of interruptions!)!
But, the few who can go past these initial hiccups, are rewarded with a “gate pass” to an “alternate” universe of Carnatic music, which I believe only MDR can take you to!!!
Saint Tyagaraja had described the essential qualities of a kruti (=> composer) and its rendering (=> singer) in his famous composition “sogasugA mrudanga tALamu” and we can see that this was a fair description of MDR’s music as well – MDR’s music was true to the lyrics and intent of the composer, was built on swara shuddham and focused on the quality of the sound produced, was based on his bhakti & virakti, had the right amount of pauses (viSrAnti), and, brought out the various emotions (“nava rasa yuta“) beautifully. Here is an example (listen till 00:34:00. Coincidentally, this is from the same concert which is referred earlier in this page, and note the contrast!)
The above kruti rendition brings out a completely different aspect of MDR’s music. Listening to this may open doors to a completely different world of music to some, as it did to me! As I listened to more and more MDR concerts, I started noticing some salient (and repeating) aspects of his musical ideas. In these pages, I have attempted to note down some of these with examples. So, here are some “MDR-isms” for you to ponder over!!!
And here is a short note on my journey till here.