Conventional? Or unconventional?

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Last update: 26 May, 2020

Was MDR a conventional musician or an unconventional one?

In most aspects of his life, MDR can be considered as a conventional and an orthodox person. He was very religious and pious. He lived a simple life and his routines were fairly fixed. His concerts followed mostly the preset (Ariyakkudi) format. Most of the time, he stuck to the key popular ragas and didn’t actively try to present rare ragas in every other concert. The rare ones he presented were, again, repeated. Similarly, most krutis he presented were well known ones. Main krutis were mostly from trinity and few other key composers. tukAas were repeated and many times consisted of his own creations. So, at macro level, he was a “fairly” conventional musician.

But, if we dig deeper into his musical performances, one gets a completely different picture. Starting from his voice, almost every other aspect of his music had some “unconventionality”!

First and foremost differentiator would obviously be his voice. With such a low shruti, it would almost come as a “shock”, both to a first time listener and even a first time accompanying artist! Many people start noticing him because he sounds different! But, voice is just the tip of the iceberg! His creativity touched upon almost every aspect of concert performance – he has improvised in every aspect of a concert in ways which people will consider unconventional. For example, take areas like AlApana, handling of kruti (sAhitya & rendition), neraval, kalpanAswara etc. Every now and then, MDR will come up with something new and novel at a micro level, and, almost all these “innovations” actually increased the impact of his music/performance and never interfered with the “AswAdana“. They never came across as rebellions, but always appeared like nice little embellishments making his concerts “one of a kind”!

Some of these aspects like his “slow” singing, laya play, usage of pauses, handling of krutis etc. demand their own pages, so they are discussed separately. Some other smaller topics are compiled together here and illustrated with examples.

Choice of rAgas, krutis

Presently, a performer is evaluated on the “novelty” factor. Concerts are rated based on how much “rare” stuff the artist is bringing in. They are expected to sing rare rAgas, rare varNams, rare krutis (from rare composers) etc. Not even that, the artist has to take care that there are no repetitions within and between concerts in terms of krutis and rAgas. RTPs are to be done in rare ragas and in novel forms and in complex tALas. tukDas need to have more variety like bhajan, abhang, hindustani rAga based krutis etc. If these are not attempted, a concert may be “reviewed” and “stamped” as boring and lacking creativity!

If you score with the above criteria, MDR’s concerts are going to rank very low! In MDR’s case, the rAga list and song list of a concert did not spring any major surprises to the listener. Most krutis were well known and by a key set of composers. “Big” and traditional rAgas like Anandabhairavi, bEgaDa, bhairavi, bilahari, kalyANi, kAmboji, kharaharapriya, rItigowLa, SankarAbharaNam, srI, toDi, yadukulakAmbOji etc. found prime slots in most of his concerts. RTPs, again were based on the major rAgas. The tukDa part mostly consisted of rAgas like sindhubhairavi, kApi, husEni, kAnaDa, mAnji etc. And, occasionally, he took up some rare (or “rarer”?) rAgas like vasantavarALi (or shaDvidamArgiNi), pratApavarALi, sAlagabhairavi etc. In summary, the novelty and rarity factor was relatively low.

If you ask why, the answer most probably would be that MDR sang for himself, and, audience became his partners in this journey. His choice of krutis and rAgas followed his mood and wishes (and sometimes, the audience’s wishes). He did not sing for good reviews. Once, in a felicitation function for MDR, Palghat Mani Iyer remarked that “An artist should not blindly dilute the music just to cater to audience, but it is the artist’s duty to present un-diluted music to the audience and raise their rasana levels”. This perfectly described MDR’s approach – he gave chaste music to all those who cared, and elevated their aswAdana levels.

  • In a concert, most artists take care not to repeat ragas and composers (and some do this even across concerts for rAgas and krutis!). From what can be seen from the recordings, it seems like MDR did not really plan his concerts based on such conditions. The set of krutis that he chose to present in concerts was small (compared to many other artists) and sometimes he also used to sing more than one of his own compositions in a concert. He was not worried about repeating a rAga in the same concert, that too back to back! See an example here – kApi is used in shLokam, his own kruti (with kalapanAswara) and then in the tillAna – all back to back!

  • Similarly, if we take the below concert list, we can see that he didn’t really think too much about composer diversity in his concerts:
  • viribONi – Pacchimiriyam AdiyappayyA
  • gajavadanA – MDR
  • mAnasa guruguha – MD
  • vidajAladhura – T
  • brOvabhArama – T
  • kamalAmbAm – MD
  • shLOka – rAgamAlikA
  • nandagopa yashoda – MDR
  • tillAna – MDR
  • manamE rAmanai pAda – MDR

varNams

MDR will be remembered as one among those very few musicians who gave full justice to the varNams. Many varNams are grand creations, crystallising the various aspects of the rAga and also providing a complex laya fabric. There is a lot of scope for an artist to exploit these aspects and MDR excelled in this. In many MDR concerts, the varNam takes up a good 10-15 minutes – the rendition will be typically slow, focusing on the rAga, will contain multi-speed Avartanas, laya plays, and enjoyable pauses (with beautiful mrudangam interludes). Sometimes they are suffixed with kalapanAswaras as well. MDR’s renditions of famous varNams like “virbONi” (bhairavi), “vanajAkshi” (kalyANi) etc. are always special and so enriching!

  • For example, listen to this elaborate “vanajAksha” in rItigowla:

AlApana

A typical MDR AlApana is made up of short phrases, rendered slowly and with lot of spacing in between. This itself is different from most artists who keep the AlApana flow lot more continuous and without perceivable long gaps. MDR also gave extra focus to the sound production during the AlApana which made the AlApana stand out.

  • For example, the way he builds up the below kIravANi AlApana is really unconventional and different, but at the same time, so impactful! Can’t describe it in words, have to be experienced!

The slow and phrase-by-phrase by expansion of AlApana gives the violinist a chance to repeat the phrase completely. This also provides the listener time to understand, follow and enjoy each phrase that is sung. The gap between the phrases “forces” an attentive listener to involuntarily sing the tune inside his mind along with violin, thus, making the rasika to contribute (silently) to the performance! This is a wonderful and interesting concept!

Typically, in a concert, the artists plan a sub-main and a main item which will have a more detailed rAga AlApana and neraval/kalpanAswara sections, compared to the rest of the items in the concert. And typically, the “main” will be the one with the longest duration for these sections. These widely accepted sense of proportions in a Carnatic concert was not really binding for MDR. He had his own ideas on these matters. One of the key thing that you can observe is the length of his AlApanas. Many times, the AlApana will be of “right” duration – you get a feeling of “fullness”, but you still yearn for a little more! Sometimes, the AlApana for a main item may not be that different (in length) from the AlApana for a sub-main. There are concerts in which the main, sub-main and a shLoka rendition are almost the same length – one will struggle to “decide” which should be considered as the “real” main 🙂

  • At other times, he followed the preset path, with a main AlApana taking a considerable amount of time (but, even this duration may still be lesser than a “main” AlApana of many other artists). But, due to the way the raga AlApana is presented, the impression that a listener gets is that the AlApana is really long and extensive! Checkout the kalyANi AlApana for the main item “ninnu vinA” in the below concert – it is less than 12 minutes, but you may feel that it is really extensive!

  • Another typical MDR “main” AlApana; a traditional shankarAbharaNam affair; well- proportioned, slow, with a bit of fast (bhruga-rich) phrases in the middle, and again slowing down and bringing out the beauty of his low pitch sound so nicely! Violin return was matching the MDR style as well, this does not happen always! (For the full concert, refer 30-MDR-LS-DRR)

  • Next, listen to an amazing kharaharapriya! Not overly long, but not very short as well. The length of AlApana is what I love! He has given enough to the listener and listener’s plate is almost full, but the taste is so amazing that it makes one wish for a bit more! (For the full concert, refer 30-MDR-LS-DRR)

  • MDR’s normal approach is to slowly build up an AlApanA from the lower and middle octave, play around little bit with higher octave and then come back to middle and lower octave pretty soon. But, this is not a rule. Sometimes, he shortens the time spent in lower octaves and quickly moves to the upper octave. For example, take this pUrvikalyANi:

Compared to many other artists, the portion of an AlApanA that MDR dedicates for higher octave is lesser. But, occasionally, there are also cases where he has spend quite a considerable time in the higher octaves.

kruti rendering

When MDR takes up a kruti, it always gets a special “MDR” treatment – even in cases where MDR is following the traditional style, there are those small special “MDR” touches that give the rendition a unique flavour. The slower kAlapramANa, pauses/gaps, splitting and enunciation of words etc. will generate a unique feel. The specialities related to sAhitya handling is dealt in detail in another page.

  • Every now and then, a kruti will get an MDR makeover! Listen to this “mAnasa sanchararE“!

Listed below are few other interesting aspects.

Construction of musical phrases from sAhitya

Normally, artists try to keep the lines in the kruti aligned to the tALa cycle. If a pallavi/anupallavi/charaNam consists of one line, the standard approach is to fit the line to one tALA cycle, and for slow speed items, the line will be split into two equal halves and they will be fitted into a tALA cycle and so on. Though there are exceptions, for most krutis, this is the standard approach that is taken.

But, MDR’s idea on constructing musical phrases out of a given sAhitya went beyond this simple formula. He would find interesting ways of splitting a line or a pair of lines into three phrases whereas most artists would split the same into two phrases. Normally, this gives an interesting twist! And occasionally, the effect would be wonderful. The following examples illustrate this point (once you hear some examples, it becomes easy to appreciate this).

  • In “nAdasudhA rasambilanu nar(A)kRti(y)AyE manasA“, the standard approach is to start with few rounds of “nAdasudhA rasambilanu” and then go to “nar(A)kRti(y)AyE” in the initial attempt, and then start back from “nAdasudhA” and take the full line in further Avartanas (you can check any other rendition). Now, see how MDR handles it – he has an intermediate state “ilanu nar(A)kRti(y)AyE” 🙂 In order to create such phrases, one has to know the meaning of words, how they can be split and an idea about how the new phrase can fit in the tALa and how the overall presentation would sound!

  • Another example is in “rAma ninne namminAnu“. In this kruti, the anupallavi is “kAma janaka kamanIya vadana nanu kAvavE kAruNya jaladhi“. Normally, singers split this into two parts – “kAma janaka kamanIya vadana” and “nanu kAvavE kAruNya jaladhi” (and then sometimes join them together and repeat the full line). MDR does this with his extra split – “kAma janaka kamanIya vadana“, “kamanIya vadana nanu kAvavE” and “nanu kAvavE kAruNya jaladhi” and the overall effect is very beautiful with his characteristic addition of “rAma” and few pauses in between!

Pallavi Ending

One of the area during kruti rendering where MDR brings his own unique style is ending of the pallavi. It is typically slow, filled with pauses, some careful repetition of words/phrases and focusing on the rAga bhAva and quality of sound.

  • Here is an example of a beautiful pallavi ending for “ninnuvinA“:

  • Below is another instance. Note how anticipation and support from mrudangam is also able to generate a wonderful feel!

Starting at anupallavi/charaNam

This is a convention followed by all artists when singing the traditional mangaLam – “pavamAna” (“nI nAma rUpamulaku“) 🙂 Many artists do this occasionally for other krutis as well. Creating wonderful impact using this technique is a “specialisation” of MDR! And, if we examine carefully, one can see that many Tyagaraja krutis are composed in such a way that this makes lyrically perfect sense as well – the pallavi typically completes the line started by anupallavi! MDR was so confident of this approach that he could do this with any kruti – irrespective of whether it is a “tukDa” or a “big” one 🙂

  • See how he starts “lokAvana chatura” (in non-tukDa session) and “enna kuTram” (in tukDa session) in this concert:

  • Here, “nannu viDachi” is getting this treatment!

  • here is a lovely “kshINamai” – the way MDR emphasises the words in the line “gIrvANa nATaka alankAra vEda purANa yajna (dhyana?) japa tap(a)dula phalamulu” by pausing appropriately also notable.

  • An example of starting at charaNam – “rAma pAhi“:

  • padavini” is getting the anupallavi treatment here and the effect created is very nice!

  • Now, a “lEkanA” in asAveri:

  • An emotive “mOkshamu galadA“:

Fitting sAhitya into musical constructs

Occasionally, MDR tries to fit the sAhitya into interesting musical constructs during kruti rendering, generating some unique handling of the words/lines. The pronunciation/split of syllables will be adapted from the normal mode to suit the musical constructs.

  • For example, here see how he is handling “manchi” and “sama” in the line “manchi samayamurA” musically. In most initial Avartanas, there is a similarity (musical rhyming) in how these parts are rendered.

  • In this “sItApatE” (kamAs) see how MDR is splitting the line “rAmacandra tyAgarAja vinuta” into phrases, which musically rhyme:

neraval

  • A highly specialised and unique “pseudo-neraval” at the beginning of “entharO mahAnubhAvulu” is an absolute gem!!!

  • Another stylised mini-neraval can be heard here for the “sogasugA” – starting with “mrudanga tALamu“, he builds it up in his own unique style!

  • Occasionally, he does the neraval at places and in styles not done by most others, and creating amazing effects! For example, see the neraval at “karAmbuja pASa” in the “vAtApi gaNapatim” below:

swara singing

MDR’s kalpanAswara /chiTTaswara singing is always special in many aspects. He could bring amazing musical impact with his slow speed swara singing and the way he emphasised the right swaras. The laya variations also added charm to the swara singing. Some interesting examples are discussed below.

kalapanAswara
  • The impact that MDR can create with a slow, power-filled repetitions of swaras around lower “S” cannot be described in words, but has to be experienced. So, here one such instance for you – tODi – “ninnE namminAnu“. What a start with G, R & S!!! And, this continues for the first 2.

  • In this “pakkala nilabaDi“, kalpanAswara is built with small slow phrases and slowly the speed is increased, interspersed with slower pieces. At one point, it is just the ArOhaNamavarOhaNam itself – still feels amazing! And he wraps it soon without much fanfare, just after a violin repetition – typical MDR!

  • Sometimes, he takes very unconventional routes to sing kalpanAswara. Checkout how he does it towards the end of this swara passage – he plays with the emphasis and tempo to create a unique experience!

  • In order to enhance the overall effect of kalpanAswara, many artists employ a technique of varying the laya fabric of the landing sAhitya in each round. MDR does this very frequently. For example, take the example of this “dAriNi telusukoNTi” (unfortunately, the audio quality is not that great and it is also cut at some point, but still a wonderful experience!). Some of the laya patterns that he (and LGJ in this case) creates are wonderful!

chiTTaswara

MDR loved to sing chiTTaswaras, and, he also created few. In the chiTTaswara MDR focused both on the rAga bhAva and laya adjustments to create wonderful effects. This is easily noticeable in most of his chiTTaswara renditions. Few examples are given below.

  • Note how MDR treats different sections of this kalyANi chiTTaswara. Also note the difference between the first Avartana (1:00:21 – initial notes are plainer), second Avartana (1:00:40) and third Avartana (1:01:00 – with some additional laya play) . Also note how the swaras are treated in the faster round!

  • Check out this small, but beautiful chiTTaswara! See how the swaras are placed and rAga bhAva is brought out!

The laya aspects are detailed in another page.

RTPs

RTP (rAgam-tAnam-pallavi) is considered as the highest form of manOdharma sangIta in Carnatic music. RTP has the least amount of “kalpita” (composed) elements and consists almost entirely of improvisation. Artists like GNB had taken RTP rendition to such advanced levels which is tough to match!

From various recordings, it appears that MDR was not an “RTP fanatic” – meaning, he did not not force himself to squeeze one in most concerts. One can find many MDR concerts without RTPs.

MDR choice of rAga for RTP was typically confined to one of the major rAgas. It is very rare to find MDR taking up a “rare” rAga for RTP. The AlApana for an RTP is typically measured (in duration). Only rarely he sings rAga AlApanas which would be considered as “very long”. In terms of content, RTP AlApanas may be of more exploratory nature compared to rAga AlApana for a kruti. Typically, his AlApana is constructed in 2 stages. At the end of the second stage he takes up the tAnam. tAnam starts at a very slow pace most of the time. The length of tAnam can again be classified as short to medium. Typically he uses the pallavi of famous krutis as RTP pallavi as well. I could not find any attempts to create novel and complicated pallavi lines. Creating a pallavi for the occasion or creating and singing own pallavis are generally rare. Normally MDR sings liberal dose of swaras. Most of the time, he sticks to a single rAga and does not sing rAgamAlika swaras.

  • MDR’s RTPs can be short/medium or extensive. Here is an example of an elaborate sankarAbharaNam RTP – AlApana is slow and detailed; considerable amount of time is dedicated to tAnam and it starts with some slow segments – beautiful!; it is interesting to note some English note style tAnam segments! The pallavi is also done in an elaborate fashion:

As mentioned earlier, MDR’s approach towards AlApana for a kruti and AlApana for an RTP may be different. Mostly, the AlApana for the kruti depends on the kruti and its prominence – for heavy and important krutis, it is generally serene and grand, befitting the kruti that follows. On the other hand, the RTP AlApanas may be a bit more experimental, where his manOdharma explores different aspects of the rAga.

  • For example, let us compare an AlApana for a kruti and one for RTP. First is a kalyANi RTP – note the start and build of the rAga and then compare it with the next example.

  • Here is an instance of kalyANi AlApana for a main kruti (kamalAmbaAm bhajare):

It was mentioned above that MDR typically does not sing rAgamAlika swaras in an RTP, but, here is an instance of it!

mangaLam

MDR managed to give his special touches to even the “ever-traditional” mangaLam. This topic has been dealt in detail in another page.

Misc

Maths, and, lack of it!

Showing the mastery in maths is one of the techniques used by musicians to enthral the audience. A complex kOrvai with the right emphasis can be very appealing to even a lay rasika. MDR treaded a slightly different path in this aspect – many times, he did not use complex kOrvais or kuraippus to impress his listeners. Even when ending even a “main” or an RTP, these were omitted! And on the occasions when he used them, they were generally simpler or shorter.

  • For example, check out this last swara passage of the “main” item in the below concert and note at 1:26:30 – no complicated kOrvai, just a simple slowing down of swaras to end this section:

  • See the ending of kalpanAswara for an RTP – very simple; no complex korvais, no adrenaline raising stuff…

Instead of using kOrvais, MDR preferred other ways to show his mastery over lays like creating nice patterns during kalapanAswara, pallavis, kruti renditions etc. His neravals, especially RTP neravals also contained some mathematical “jugglery”. MDR also loved to play with laya in a “micro” manner.

But this did not mean that MDR never did kuraippus or kOrvais.

  • Here he actually ends with a very short, simple tIrmAnam (?). And here too, he just triggers it and gives opportunity for UKS to complete it:

  • Here is an example of a “kuraippu“. But, the “kuraippu” was not taken to the crescendo (as done by others) and the swaras ended with a long passage and some simple patterns (rather than a long and complex kOrvai as it is typically done by others). At some points, MDR seems to miss landing at the “perfect” place – just reminds us that things may not be “perfect” at all times!

trikAlam during kruti/swara

Most of the artists use trikAlam/tishram etc only during RTP. MDR liked to do such laya variations during kruti or chiTTaswara rendering. Sometimes, he did a “full” trikAlam and sometimes, he did the passages in two kAlams or just added tishram at appropriate places.

  • An example of trikAlam can be heard in the below “O jagadamba“. During the swara rendition, note how he starts the pattern and then leaves it to violin/mrudangam and complete the rest (at around 1:27:44, 1:28:18 & 1:28:32), creating a beautiful effect. Also note around 1:32:56!

Usage of “right” emphasis

MDR knew what, where and how to emphasis things to generate maximum effect during a performance. The emphasis could be of different types.

Emphasis on words/line

One of the frequent technique used by MDR when rendering krutis is to emphasise some specific word or a line in the sAhitya. Most times, this is done to highlight the bhAva of the sAhitya. Occasionally, this is also done to bring out the musical aspect of the sAhitya.

  • The start with just pAhi repeated few times is lovely! Then he switches to rAma pAhi and then starts the complete line. The way he use the “O” around 0:02:08, 0:02:38 etc. are also so nice! (For the full concert, refer here)

  • Sometimes, the emphasis will be very small and subtle, but interesting! In the below “vAtApi“, at around 8:10, the unique style of emphasis on “vAraNa Asyam” can be seen, which no one else can imitate!

  • In this instance, he is emphasizing “bhakti, mukti” & “bhukti mukti” in the “rAmachandram bhAvayAmi” by repetition and alternation:

  • In this “sarOja daLanEtri“, MDR is highlighting the key point in this line: “is protecting me it really so tough? (ati bhAramA?)” by appropriately repeating and emphasising the words!

Emphasis on some syllables/letters

Sometimes, instead of a whole word, he emphasises on specific letters of the words in a line. This is typically done to accentuate the sound effect created by the line or for creating interesting laya patterns.

  • In this instance, see how he is creating an interesting effect by emphasising on the sequence “vA” which is appearing in different points in the line – “vA vA murugA velavA vaLLi maNavALa“:

  • See how MDR is placing the stress on different syllables in the pallavi line “rAmachandram – bhAva-yAmi…” around 53:28! Such efforts are done primarily for musical effects.

  • Here is an example of MDR’s subtle use of change (shift) of emphasis among various syllables (“bhajana sEyave” – kedAram). Note the handling of word “praNatArthi” in various repetitions. At 2:56 – no special stress, at 3:04 there is a perceivable emphasis on “”tA”, two Avartanas from 3:12 “praNatA” gets almost equal emphasis, at 3:28 emphasis shifts to “pra“, at 3:36 both “pra” and “ta” gets extra emphasis, at 3:44 all the syllables in “praNatArthi” gets individual emphasis! These types of small nuances appear all across MDR’s renditions and an attentive listener can detect and appreciate plenty of such “micro” embellishments in his concerts!

I personally feel that many of such small nuances that we note in renditions may not be planned or created consciously by the artist on that given day. These may be something that has got integrated into their style over a period of time. So, such subtleties randomly get embedded in their natural flow of music, providing that “little surprise” element in each concert!

Emphasis on some swaras

During kalpanAswara rendering, MDR has this unique style of emphasising some swaras or patterns. This is done mostly to exploit the musical possibilities, but at times, this also helps to bring out a different shade of the rAga. These modifications may also bring out the laya intricacies (rhyming/prAsa etc). At other instances, it is just the aural impact that is the target.

  • In the below “sAmi ninne kOri“, when he is singing the third chiTTaswara passage, at around 6:17 and 6:24, we can note the way MDR emphasises the N and M, creating the interesting effect! (Another noteworthy part in this area is the way he treats swaras. In the first Avaratana, swaras are rendered fairly flat, and see how he is handling them in the second round, especially M and S – subtle and lovely!)

  • maguva ninnE (nArAyaNagauLa): see the difference between the two Avartanas of the swara passage in this varNam and the effect created by emphasising M and introducing explicit pauses in the second Avartana – exquisite!!!

Sometimes, the emphasis comes as a side product of the high energy flow, as in the following case. See how he is changing the point(s) of emphasis in the landing phrase “karAmbuja pASa bIjApUram” in each cycle.

Trivia

Here are some other miscellaneous trivias!

  • MDR had no hesitations in singing one of the Tyagaraja’s pancharatna kIrtana in a slow and sedate manner, with multiple repetitions of passages in varying speeds, followed by neraval and swaras! Here is an example of “sAdhinchanE” (around 40 minutes):

  • In this instance, it is “endarO mahAnubhAvulu” which is getting the detailed treatment. The starting point has been set to the start of neraval!

  • It was not that all pancharatna kIrtanai renditions were slow and sedate. For example, take this jagadAnadakAraka – it is over within 10 minutes! And, compare it with the one in this page, which is at the other extreme. A knowledgeable rasika pointed out in one of the comments that MDR has used “dhaivatam” in this rendition and the order of charaNams also seems to be completely different! Not sure if this is a different pAthantara or some random choice. I have heard about a different version at https://archive.org/details/JagadanandakarakaNataThillaistanamVersion, but MDR seems to have followed a different sequence of charaNams from that also! If someone has more information on this, please do share!

  • Some times, MDR just “swallows” his mudra, as if he does not want the rasikas to know that this is his own kruti! For example, check this instance where he is singing “tyAgarAja gurum” (kedAram) – note around 33:00!