Posts filed under ‘Indian Classical Music’

Lata Mangeshkar

This is the name that is synonymous with thousands of hit songs from Bollywood over the past several decades. A name that has worked with singers all the way from KL Saigal in the distant past to trend setters such as AR Rahman. A voice against which every single Bollywood voice would be compared. Simply put, you cannot talk about Bollywood music without a mention of Lata Mangeshkar.


An incredible career spanning several decades.

The Bhairavi in Saavro (Film Anuradha tuned brilliantly by Maestro Ravishankar) to valaiosai in 1988 to Khamoshiyaan in the 2000s required Lata Mangeshkar’s voice, one as a young 20 year old and another as a septugenarian. And the nightingale delivered.

One could go on and on about the songs she sang or the fabled legends of her arriving jet lagged from an international trip, walking into a studio in Bombay to record a flawless rendition of Satyam Shivam Sundaram to the accompaniment of a 100 piece orchestra that stood in reverence and watched her sing and leave.

What strikes me about her voice is the freshness that hits you every time you listen to O Sajna or Aayega or ‘Haai re woh‘ ‘man mohana – or the precision and purity of the rendition of songs such as ‘lag ja galeornaina barse or ‘mera saaya’ornanda nandanaorkarm ki gati‘, or the energy in Guide‘, or the spirit of devotion in this version of the Hanuman Chalisa or the sweetness in simple songs such as ‘yaadon ki baaraat or the transcendental serenity in this simple household Ganesha aarti jaideva (Marathi) or the deshbhakti in this scintillating rendition of  vandemataram or this stunning jayostute (penned by Svatantraveer Savarkar) or Narsinh Mehta’s vaishnao-janto (a hymn dear to Gandhiji).

The blessed singer had the ability to make songs sound deceptively simple, when in reality they actually needed a sensitive voice and a superior sense of musicianship that had probably been seasoned over several lives!

Probably the most impactful recording of hers that moves me every single time is this recording of two chapters of the Bhagwad Gita as tuned by her brother Hridayanath Mangeshkar. The beauty with which short passages of ragas are performed, render these precious recordings as the pramana – प्रमाण (the absolute source of reference) that define the ragas, yardsticks against which renditions by other artists would need to measure up to!

We are grateful to be surrounded by her recordings ; one can just search for her voice on Youtube and keep playing them for eternity and still not get tired.

Our gratitude to her ‘MasterClasses’ and  namaskarams to that voice eternal.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran

February 6, 2022 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

Illaiyaraja – Padma Vibhushan

Back in my teens, in 1981, I was lying on the floor listening to VividhBharati on a  well-worn Murphy Transistor Radio that would fit in the palm of your hand. The 2A Eveready Battery was on life support. My brothers and I were praying that the battery would last, anxious to enjoy every second of what we could listen to on the radio at 9:30 at Saturday night.

It was well past bedtime in our household; it was an art to keep the transistor volume at the right level; enough to hear the radio above the sound of the fan. Just about the right volume to not disturb my father in the next room lest we would awaken him from his deep slumber (something which he would never take to pleasantly, especially in those days when his hearing was good!).

The much awaited sponsored programs (vilambara dhaarar alikkum nigazchigal) started; the second film presented that night was ‘Panneer Pushpangal’. I didn’t like the name; but my ears pricked up when the music director’s name was announced. Then came the strings ; soon after, the sound of Uma Ramanan’s voice cut through the night. I increased the volume on the little radio. It didn’t matter if it woke my father up. The scolding would be worth it. ‘Aananda raagam’ – she sang; I didnt know what to focus on; the voice, the singing, the tune, or the powerful strings. This was out of the world; like nothing I had ever heard before. Wait. Was it based on a Raga? There were no markings of kacheri-sangitam in the song, but the scale was unmistakably that of Simhendra Madhyamam. Yes, this was a different paradigm; a fully loaded orchestral construct based on the scale of a raga that I had not been too fond of until then.

“This music deserves every reward under the sun” – I thought then.

36 years later, people are still talking about this song. I saw a recent performance of this song with live string accompaniment; my mind playing back images that I had conjured in my mind – as I had heard this song, lying flat on a thin mattress on the floor on a warm late-summer night 3.5 decades ago, snapping back to reality as the emcee LR Narayanan cut the program short just as the penultimate bgm started.

Anandaragam is just one. There are tons of songs such as these that were part of my teenage years and early 20s.  Illayaraja was an integral part of growing up in Madras (now Chennai!); the man kept creating new vistas in music with the limited tools at disposal – in an age prior to the studio era of sequencing, digital recording, digital editing, auto tuning and pitch correction.

It is a delight to still use a palm size device – create a play list and play a seemingly never ending list of songs that transport me back to that era.  I had never imagined on that sultry summer night that such a playlist would be available in every corner of the world. And, as a teenager,  I hadn’t imagined that the effect of those songs would be the same, some 35 years later.

I think Illaiyaraja’s music and the impact that it had on society is beyond rewards and titles. Every song of his that has touched and moved people is a ‘Ratna’ in itself.


Kanniks Kannikeswaran

January 26, 2018 at 4:08 pm 1 comment

Illaiyaraja and Manikkavacagar’s ‘porchuNNam’

The Tamil month of Margazhi celebrates the work of the Saint Poet Manikkavacagar.  Reflecting on the legacy of the poet, with Tiruvadirai (the full moon night in the darkest month of the year) just coming up, I youtubed Manikkavacakar on my iphone and immediately ran into ‘Tiruvacakam in Symphony’ recorded  in 2005 by Illaiyaraja.


What is Tiruvaacakam?

Tiruvaacakam (Sacred Sayings) – or Tiruvasagam  is a collection of poems packed with devotion and alliteration written by the Saint Poet Manikkavaacagar expressing his bhakti to Shiva, several hundred years ago.

The tiruvaacakam consists of several thematic chapters such as Tiruvempavai, Tiru-Ammaanai, Achho patikam, porchunnam, Tirupponnoosal etc.

The chapter porchunnam’ contains 20 verses. Roughly translated ‘porchunnam’ means ‘songs sung to accompany the joyous ritual of preparing (pounding) incensed powder for the Lord’.

porchunnam’ is featured in the 5th Track in the album.

porchunnam’ is referred to as ‘aananda manOlayam’ i.e. transforming into a state of oneness through a joyous state of being. Illaiyarajas’ arrangement of these verses does reflect this state of joy.

From the standpoint of Tamil rules that govern classical poetry, the verse form is classified as an ‘aru seer kazhi nedil adi aasiriya viruttam’. Ignore the term if it fails to ring a bell from your 11th standard Tamil grammar lessons. Just remember the number 6.

The orchestral arrangement projects a brisk waltz like character for these verses (3+3). vocalizing the sense of joy seen in the poetry, based entirely on the scale of the Karnataka raga sarasangi.

What is sarasangi? It is a raga with a scale that differs from that of sankarabharanam by just one note, the dha. Illaiyaraja has dealt with this scale (with some minor variations) before in songs such as ‘meenamma meenamma’, ‘muthu muthu medai pottu’  (mostly sarasangi!) etc. some eighteen years ago.

The strophic hymns of Tiruvaacakam are usually sung in the mohana ragam. Typical musical arrangements would involve the repetition of the same melody for each of the verses. Illaiyaraja’s arrangement however brings out porchunnam with a difference.

Violins, violas, celli, basses, woodwinds, brass and various percussion instruments bring this track to life along with a western chorus and an Indian chorus singing characteristically tamil phrases such as ‘tandananna’. On top of all this, there is a galaxy of singers such as Unnikrishnan and Vijay Yesudoss.

Once the spirit of the scale of sarasangi falls in place (a minute or so into the track), the entire track sticks to it. There are several ‘charanams’, each in a different tune within the confines of the same scale. Even the background music leads to these charanams is different; one of them even gives a glimpse of the scale of hamsadhwani with a careful withholding of just two notes ma and dha for a few cycles. While it is cased in a symphonic setup there are moments where something tugs at your heart very much like the Illaiyaraja melodies of the yesteryears.

Apart from the refrain ‘Aada porchunnam idittum naame’ there is no repetition in melody anywhere. The first charanamsundara neer’ starts on ‘pa’, the second one ‘vaal tadam’ on ni. ‘muttani’ and ‘mai ani’ start further higher up. The next two charanamsvatta malar’ and ‘vedamum’ start much lower down. (Only 7 out of the 20 verses written are featured in this rendition)

The words in the last stanza stand out.

vEdamum vELviyum AyinArkku – meimaiyum poimaiyum AyinArkku
sOdiyumAi iruL AyinArkku – tunbamumAi inbam AyinArkku
pAdiyumAi muRRum AyinArkku- bandamumAi vIDum AyinArkku
Adiyum antamum AyinArkku – Ada porchuNNam idittum name

“The One who is both the knowledge and the yajna – one who is both the wholesome truth and the illusion – the one who is the light and the dark at the same time – the one who is an embodiment of both pain and pleasure – the one who is ‘part and the whole’, the one who is bondage as well as liberation – the one who is both the beginning and the end – Shiva – enshrined in Tiruvaiyaru – for him we pound the incensed powder with much joy”.

Porchunnam is to be enjoyed at many levels; one is just by reading the lyrics and appreciating the alliteration; the next is just getting the purport and the meaning of the verse; the third is to actually sing it and feel the words sing ink into you, leaving you in awe of the centuries over which these words have survived; in awe of the classicism inherent in Tamil – a language that you take for granted as your mother tongue.

Illaiyaraja’s version of porchunnam, transports you to a different world. The words are cloaked with so many layers of ‘happenings’. Groupings of instruments such as woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion, voices weave layer after layer around the words; the scale of sarasangi is unleashed as a pravaha of notes in an 8 minute deluge as it gushes forth into finale with a ‘tandananna’ chorus and a strong punctuation by the timpani.

One of Illaiyaraja’s best creations ever.

January 10, 2017 at 10:33 pm 1 comment

Acknowledging the gift of our musical landscape

On this day of rejuvenation in early spring, I am writing this note to express my acknowledgement and gratitude for everything we take for granted in music and the musical landscape that we are exposed to today.

We live in an era where there is so much available gratis. I am not speaking about just the recordings and the videoclips available on the internet.

I am talking about the very systems of music that we take for granted. The staff notation, advanced notating software, universally accepted conventions, the large repertoire of music that has evolved from the Gregorian chants to the large scores of John Williams.

For those of us of Indian origin – we are certainly grateful for the Bollywood melodies of yesteryears, songs that gave us great joy while we walked to school, and the songs that continue to delight our children, the voices that we remember in our sleep – the melodies that make us go back in time and feel young again.

For those initiated into Indian art music, arent we glad that ragas exist! What would this world be like without a mian ki malhar or a bhairav or a senjurutti or an ananda bhairavi? Our musical senses are conditioned by what we as a community have listened to. My father’s generation was thrilled to bits with the 78 RPM recordings of yesteryear masters. My generation listened to the radio and to tape recorded music in the days prior to the proliferation of sabhas.

Most humans have a taste for music; music elevates moods; brings comfort, memorializes occasions. Some of us humans have the ability to enunciate musical distinctions such as the raga, the swara and tala even as mere toddlers. Some of us have the ability to learn them later; some of us have the ability to set aside all these distinctions and just enjoy the feelings that music creates. The bottomline is that there exists a system (that parallels the order in nature) that has evolved over centuries in our collective cognition such that it is possible for some of us to latch on even as toddlers.  Particularly in the world of Karnatic music, there exists in the public domain a treasury of compositions dating back to pre Hyder times – a treasury whose tip has merely been scathed in today’s exploration of ragas. It is thanks to this system and the treasury of compositions that today’s concerts and festivals (that in turn shape today’s musical landscape) flourish.

Our children have a wider access to musical distinctions. Opportunities abound today for those that want to sing, play, perform, create, innovate. And these in turn will shape the musical landscape of tomorrow’s generation.

As we celebrate spring again this year, I chose to acknowledge the system of Indian Art music that exists with its fine musical distinctions and a vast repertoire of compositions that beckon us to learn and grow more each day. I acknowledge the masters that have nurtured and shaped the musical landscape that I was born into. I acknowledge the proverbial Sarasvati that sits majestically on every voice that rises in song and poetry. I am grateful for every voice that wants to sing and for every every ear that loves to listen.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran

March 27, 2016 at 1:43 pm Leave a comment

The Kriti Kalavati by Dikshitar (Soundcloud Link to Recording)

The raga kalavati in Hindustani music is described as using the  pentatonic scale

SGPDNb ; its equivalent in Karnatic music is referred to both as Kalavati and as Valaji.  In the Tyagaraja school of ragas, the name Kalavati adorns the raga using the scale SRbMPDS – SDPMGSRbS (attributed to the chakravaga mela (16) ).

Our discussion pertains to Kalavati belonging to the older Ragaganga raga system of Muddu Venkatamakhi that the Dikshitar clan tenaciously followed in all their creations.  Raga Kalavati here is defined as the 31st raganga raga with a murchana that goes as follows:


S Nbb DP M R#GM R# S

Bearing the dissonant pairs of R#G and DNbb – Kalavati is a vivadi raga on two fronts (the R/G and the D/N); it occupies the 31st position in the Venkatamakhi scheme of Raganga Ragas corresponding to the 31st position occupied by Yagapriya in the later scheme of melakarta ragas propounded by Govindacharya.


The word Kalavati refers to ‘the one adorned with the arts’; Kalavati here is none other than sarasvati the Goddess of Knowledge/Wisdom.   Kalavati here is a modern 18th century raga derived from theory. Dikshitar portrays Sarasvati using a series of adjectives essayed using the contour of this raga – with stress on passages such as ‘PD NbbD’ , ‘MR,,S’ , ‘M,R,P’  contrasted with occasional melodic outbursts in ‘M,G,M,P’, ‘MP,GM,’ etc. in lieu of mere scalar passages.

Here is a recording of ‘Kalavati Kamalasana Yuvati’ rendered by Vidita Kanniks in the compilation ‘Shri Sharadambam Bhaje’ released recently at the Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation – Stroudsburg and at the sacred site of Sringeri itself on Vijayadasami 2015.

Dikshitar paints Sarasvati with epithets such as Kalavati, Bharati, vAg vANi, vINA pANi and Sharada. He refers to Sharada as ‘Kashmira Vihara’. The final madhyamakala sahitya passage in the charanam resembles the one in the saurshtra raga kriti varalakshmIm ‘surArchita padAmbuja shobhanA’ (surArchita padAmbuja vikAsinIm) – where the dvitiya akshara (2nd consonant) is ‘ra’ throughout the composition (the charanam in kalavati also uses ‘ra’ as the second consonant throughout). In the kalavati kriti, Dikshitar describes sarasvati as one who delights the heart of Shiva and Guruguha (as he does in the saurashtra kriti as well as purari guruguha chid vilAsini).

November 22, 2015 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment

Abdul Kalam – A Life to be Celebrated

As I observe the outpouring of condolence and grief at the passing of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam I realize that his life is one to be celebrated. In life and in death, President Kalam stands out as a towering personality.

Apart from his poverty- to-Presidency story and his tenure as undeniably India’s most popular president, what is it that makes his life so special?

kalam3First of all I realize that a lot of my friends (and a lot of everyone’s friends) have either met President Kalam or know of someone who has met him. Yes, Abdul Kalam was a people person; he reached out everywhere.

I have had the honor of meeting him (and having my work performed in his presence) on three occasions; once in Lexington KY and then in Seattle WA where we had a private audience with him and then at a reception held in his honor at the residence of the Consular General of India in Houston.

He was dear to anyone that went in for higher education; he was an inspiration to all school children. He was and is viewed as a man that blazed forth the torch of inspiration – almost leading you to a guaranteed growth path – full of hope.

It didnt matter whether he offered namaaz or whether he read the Gita each day. All that matters is that there is probably not a single soul in India who would utter a word against him. Isnt that a rarity? Any celebrity has adversaries. Not President Kalam who was dear to one and all. There is thus no surprise that every other post on Facebook feed (or for that matter, anyone’s FB feed) is about him.

His love for Art Music (Karnatic Music in particular) was something that has been talked about in the media. Yes; in his speech in Lexington, when he talked proudly of Indian cultural heritage he did make a mention of the Vaggeyakaras of South India – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri(gal). Yes, in a characteristic Tamilian manner he referred to Sastri as Sastrigal (in a speech in English).

He quickly struck conversation in Tamil with my then 13 year daughter in Seattle when we presented him with a recording of the Indo Colonial Music of Dikshitar (Vismaya). “unakku Dikshitar pidikumma ma? enakku Tyagarajar taan ma pidikkum. ‘yandaro mahanubhavulu”. (Do you like Dikshitar? I like Tyagaraja the most”).

He stands out tall in his death. What an enviable way to leave one’s body behind? No prolonged hospitalization; no illness; no accident. No premature death; he had lived a full life. He was doing what he loved best until his last breath. He was teaching; imparting knowledge. It is an undeniable fact that the body ages – and the death bed images of most people are vastly different from portraits taken in their moments of greatness. President Kalam looked no different at the time of his death than he did during other great moments in life.

In fact, he was never ever past his prime.

Such a life is to be celebrated. His death in fact reminds  me of the last section of the movie ‘Dreams’ by Akiro Kurusawa where the death of a ripe old person is actually celebrated by the entire village.

Yes, we are all proud to have been acquainted with this well lived life in one way or the other.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran

July 27, 2015

July 27, 2015 at 8:28 pm 6 comments

What analysis does to music

It is said that the origin of rishis and rivers should not be analyzed. (more…)

February 10, 2008 at 4:31 am 2 comments

Chennai Music Season Part II

The scene unfolds thus each day.  (more…)

February 10, 2008 at 4:28 am Leave a comment

Chennai Music Season Part I

The early rays of the sun in Chennai provide a startling contrast to the gray skies of the midwestern winters. The pleasant sounds of the early morning hustle and bustle sound like music to the ears of an NRI who is accustomed to be woken up in the middle of a still silence by the none to friendly beep of an alarm clock. (more…)

February 10, 2008 at 4:27 am Leave a comment