A REFERENCE MUSICIAN
(Posthumous version published in Sruti Magazine)
The following article was written by HEMMIGE V. SRIVATSAN, who lives in the U.S. A senior disciple of KVN, he also used to provide violin accompaniment to him. This article was written three weeks before KVN passed away. In editing this article, we have deleted the honorific of Sri used by the author every time he mentioned the name of the artist.
Rare is the artist who excels in all facets of his art. This is especially true in Carnatic music, which has so many aspects that achieving mastery over even a few of them is no easy task. However, K.V. Narayanaswamy (KVN) is an exemplar of all- encompassing excellence-- a testament to his uncompromising pursuit of perfection, or his dedication to, as he calls it, kutram illada sangeetam-- music without any blemish.
What are the components that make such a complete musician?
It can be said that any Carnatic musician should meet the four basic requirements, namely: perfect sruti; proficiency in laya; chaste rendition of kriti-s; and manodharma of depth.
In addition, a successful Carnatic concert vocalist should also have:
· an attractive and appropriate concert plan
· an efficient vocal technique
· a captivating style
· spontaneous creativity
· a wide repertoire of kriti-s in various raga-s, tala-s and languages sourced to different composers
· the ability to sing unaffected by variables such as hall acoustics and the quality of accompanists and audience
· stamina to maintain a high energy level throughout a concert;
· the ability to move the listener to a higher plane; and
· a dignified stage presence.
KVN's concerts typically fulfill all these criteria. Delving deeper one can see how.
Perfection of Sruti This is the hallmark of KVN's music. Further analysis shows that the level of sruti perfection he has attainedis quite amazing. Every plain note and every segment of every gamaka is perfectly aligned to sruti. This is no easy task, given the complex gamaka-s present in Carnatic music. There is not much more that needs to be said about such sruti perfection, except that it is a pure delight to the ears and a major reason why KVN is able to establish an immediate rapport with the audience.
Proficiency in Laya There are three aspects to this: kalapramana (tempo); spontaneous patterns; and kanakku or calculated patterns. With respect to kalapramana, KVN is able to sing comfortably in a wide arc of speeds, ranging from quite slow to very fast. Consider a piece for which he is famous: Gopalakrishna Bharati's Varugalamo ayya (Manji), which he sings at a very slow pace. This pace is one reason for its spellbinding effect. The needle jumps to the other end in Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar's kriti Neekela nayada (Devamanohari). This is a difficult piece to sing fast due to its large movements up and down the scale; nonetheless, KVN has rendered it at breakneck speed in many concerts.
Another example is KVN's handling of Tyagaraja's Raghuvara nannu (Pantuvarali) which is included in the album released by Nonesuch Records in the U.S. in 1967. He has rendered the kriti, the niraval, and the kalpana swara-s in a blazingly fast speed, yet nothing is compromised: each note is crystal clear.
It goes without saying that KVN renders the madhyama kala or middle speed passages equally well. Then there is the difficult `rendungattaan'-- neither here nor there-- speed hovering somewhere between vilamba kala and madhyama kala-- which he handles just as his guru Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Examples of pieces in this tempo are Tyagaraja's Ninnu vina sukhamu (Todi) and Heccharikaga (Yadukulakambhoji). Maintaining this tempo can be quite tricky, but it seems effortless for KVN.
KVN is wont to create diverse musical patterns spontaneously, on the spot, and yet he always succeeds in completing them at the correct point in the tala cycle. This requires a great amount of skill and mastery over laya, not to mention that the resulting pattern itself should be pleasing to the ear. KVN excels at this `last-second fitting' and has displayed the requisite skill throughout his concert career with great effect. It is indeed exhilarating for the accompanists and the audience!
Given his mastery of laya, KVN can plentifully offer kanakku swara-s-- that is, swara matrices based on arithmetically derived permutations and combinations--but he does so sparingly. Examples: his use of 7-akshara patterns in his Misra Chapu niraval; and 17-akshara patterns in his Adi 2-kalai, arai-eduppu kalpana swara-s. Further evidence of his laya mastery is available in the pallavi-s that he sings, which as often as not, are quite complex. Like the Adi 4-kalai pallavi in Todi: Dasaratha bala Ramachandrayya, which has an ateeta (before samam) eduppu of 7/8 on the last veechu (khali). In one concert where he sang this pallavi, he improvised beautiful kalpana swara-s with kuraippu (patterns of diminishing length) at 7/8 eduppu in 2-kalai. It is difficult to describe, but the laya control this required was tremendous. But the sequence was elegant at the same time. What more could a listener ask for?
Furthermore, while it is all too easy to make an exhibition out of such laya mastery, KVN prefers to use it in an understated manner, always keeping it congruent to the larger musical picture.
Chaste rendition of kriti-s While singing a kriti, there must be fidelity both to sahitya and sangati-s (variations on a theme) First, KVN sings the lyrics with utmost clarity. His pronunciation is impeccable. He takes extra care to distinguish between alpa-prana (non-aspirated) and maha-prana (aspirated) consonants, since this distinction is especially important when singing in languages rooted in Sanskrit. He even dwells on small details such as pronouncing the two "sh" consonants in Seshachala nayakam differently. Of course, syllable accuracy is pointless if the word itself is distorted; so KVN takes great effort to ensure that he does not split words inappropriately. One example of this is in Tyagaraja's Endaro mahanubhavulu in Sree raga. In the final charana swara, the phrase `bhavaragalayadi' is typically sung with the syllable `ra' in upper Ri and `ga' at the lower ga, resulting in split bhavara-galayadi. To avoid this awkward split, KVN sings the entire word raga at the upper ri. The upshot of all this attention to detail is that a listener can usually gather the lyrics to a song just by referring to KVN's rendering of the same.
As regards sangati-s, KVN's approach is akin to that of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who felt it unnecessary to sing a large number of sangati-s as a matter of routine. Typically, KVN sings no more than three or four sangati-s in the pallavi or anupallavi of a kriti. Nonetheless, his rendition is entirely satisfying. It would appear that his intent is to display the raga bhava as completely and yet as concisely as possible.
Depth of manodharma KVN's treatment of the three aspects of manodharma in a kriti suite-- raga alapana, niraval, and kalpana swara-- also deserves attention.
The highlight of KVN's raga alapana-s is its brevity combined with density of varied expression. In his own words: "An alapana should be like an essay. It should have a meaningful introduction. It should have different types of sentences, with fullstops and commas, and with question marks and exclamation points as well. And it should have a proper conclusion." True to his word, the introduction to his alapana leaves no doubt about the raga's identity. Proceeding further, he uses many varieties of phrases interspersed with meaningful pauses, and each phrase is linked to the next seamlessly. Finally, the conclusion is a summary of the whole raga. His alapana-s rarely lastlonger than 10 minutes, yet convey the essence of the raga fully within that time.
Niraval Niraval is another vehicle for the display of manodharma. Comprising as it does sahitya, raga bhava and laya, it is quite possibly the most difficult to master. There is no doubt that niraval is KVN's forte and, not surprisingly, he is known as a `niraval vidwan' among discerning listeners. What is so special about his niraval? First of all, his choice of the niraval passage, containing pleasing, positive words, is invariably appropriate. Second, he is known to sing niraval in raga-s where it is difficult to execute, such as Athana, Sama, and Surati. Finally, his approach to niraval is methodical, yet exquisite. For instance, in executing the 2-kalai niraval at `Vasavadi sakala deva' in Muthuswami Dikshitar's Sree Subrahmanyaya namastey (Kambhoji), KVN usually starts in the vilamba kala, displaying the raga bhava in full by including free-form phrases similar to an alapana; and then proceeds to the next appropriate swara up the scale. For this piece, he starts at the upper sa, move to ri, then to ga and ma and climax at upper pa!! Then he switches to madhyama kala, which is purely bound to the rhythm and does not include free-form phrases. Subsequently he transits to durita kala niraval; his treatment of this is a marvel, in the way he infuses various rhythmic patterns and fits the sahitya around each. Occasionally he introduces phrases at one speed above and the result is quite thrilling to the listener.
In general, KVN's niraval-s, to singing which he attaches great importance, convey a wide array of moods, ranging from sublime to exciting. He frequently includes niraval in four or five kriti-s, much more than one comes across in a typical concert nowadays.
Kalpana swara-s KVN employs a judicious mix of sarva laghu, spontaneous patterns and kanakku in swaraprastara. He does not overindulge in kanakku. Another characteristic is that his swara-singing has the correct proportion of plain and gamaka- laden notes, even in durita kala.
KVN's exposition of kuraippu can be quite elaborate. On one occasion, in the kalpana swara for Tyagaraja's Manasu swadheena (Sankarabharanam), he sang no less than 30 single-avartana kuraippu rounds. Just when it seemed that he had exhausted the possibilities, he conceived a new pattern.
In sum, KVN's kalpana swara-s are imaginative, engaging and exciting and have the underlying purpose of projecting the bhava of the raga concerned.
Captivating style If his rasika's response to his music is any indication, then it is fair to describe KVN's style as captivating. The style is based largely upon that of his guru Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, but it is far from identical. One could say that he has incorporated the essence of the Ariyakudi bani along with stylistic traits of his own. (His in-depth handling of niraval, for example, is different from Ariyakudi's treatment of the same.) Overall, he is always open to new ideas, but his unparalleled aesthetic sense serves as his musical compass.
Attractive & appropriate concert plan KVN's model for his concert plan was honed by Ariyakudi, whose goal was to ensure his audience's attention virtually every second by offering variety in his concerts. He usually begins the concert with a varnam, followed by a medium- to fast-paced piece, succeeded soon after by a pratimadhyama raga such as Pantuvarali or Poorvikalyani. Then, typically there is a `sub-main' item with a raga alapana of moderate proportion, niraval, and kalpana swara-s. Next there is likely a slower piece rendered without any improvisation. The centre-piece of the concert is the `main item' consisting of an elaborate alapana, niraval, kalpana swara- s, followed by a tani or percussion interlude. This might be followed by a ragam-tanam-pallavi, and finally by tukkada-s or songs sung in a lighter mien. Generally, while Ariyakudi concentrated on madhyama kala, KVN uses a variety of kalapramana-s and moods to captivate the audience.
KVN, like Ariyakudi, has an uncanny ability to read the collective mind of his listeners and select the raga-s and compositions that would please them. Also, frequently he decideson certain pieces in advance of the concert, especially if he has not sung them lately. The result is that he can accommodate in his concert programmes raga-s and compositions he has not sung for a long time.
Additionally, KVN selects concert items that have a nexus to the concert venue, such as a song about or dedicated to the deity of a nearby temple, or a song associated with the occasion which might be Sree Rama Navami or Navaratri. One such instance was in a concert in 1995 at the Sree Anjaneya temple in Nanganallur, when he selected the pallavi text `Kaana kidaikkumo Sabesan darisanam', for the RTP in Kalyani, but quite aptly substituted Sabesan with Hanuman. He sang it so naturally that virtually all on stage and in the audience were surprised how, although presumably he had never sung this new version before, he did so as if it were the original.
Lastly, a sense of proportion is paramount to the success of KVN's concerts. Again like Ariyakudi before him, KVN holds the conservative view that `less is better'. He never indulges in excess in any aspect of his performance. As a matter of fact, he leaves the audience wanting more, hoping, for instance, that he would sing just a bit more of the Kharaharapriya raga that was so enchanting.. Frequently he sings just three or four rounds of kalpana swara-s in a kriti suite because he feels only so much is appropriate. Due to this astute sense of proportion, he manages to fit in a wide variety of pieces and even a short 90-minute concert sounds as complete as a three-hour performance.
Efficient vocal technique KVN's vocal technique is among the best displayed by his contemporaries. His technique requires little, if any, strain. The tonal quality of his voice is sweet, especially in the upper register. His unconstrained open- mouthed singing ensures that all vowels and consonants are enunciated perfectly. Each note is flawless in its clarity. His breath control is nearly superhuman and, because he blends the breath points so well into the music, a listener would find it difficult to detect where he takes a breath. Finally, as he knowsthe status of his voice on a dynamic basis, he takes care not to subject it to undue strain. In fact, he selects pieces that are most amenable to the condition of his voice at any given time, an intelligent practice he has likely picked up from his master. He says: "The biggest secret of vocal technique is that the performer should know the strengths and weaknesses of his own voice."
Spontaneous creativity Listening to just a few of KVN's concerts is enough for a listener to notice this great artist's spontaneous creativity. On stage, KVN constantly explores new vistas, all the while staying within the classical realm. He sings even the same kriti slightly differently from one concert to the next-- for example, by adding new sangati. Once, he sang Swati Tirunal's Kripaya palaya saurey (Charukesi) as the main piece three days in a row, but each rendition was different from the other two. On another occasion he sang a beautiful niraval in Swati Tirunal's Pahi parvata (Arabhi) at a point in the kriti which, he acknowledged, he had never before considered. This level of creativity implies that he is completely in control of all aspects of his music. Furthermore, it appears that he relishes the challenge of exploring new frontiers.
Wide concert repertoire KVN's repertoire consists of varnam-s, kriti-s, pada-s, javali-s and tillana-s, as well as of devotional texts like Tevaram, Tirupavai and Tirupugazh, in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi. He prefers compositions in ghana raga-s such as Todi and Kambhoji, but also sings some in less popular ones such as Nagadhwani and Kokilapriya. He sings kriti-s in rarely used tala-s, such as 4-kalai Desadi, Sankeerna jati Triputa and Tisra jati Jhampa. Beyond those of popularly- known composers, he sings compositions by others like Subbarama Dikshitar, Vedanayakam Pillai, Ramalinga Swamigal, Surapura Anandadasa, C.S. Krishna Iyer and Swarna Venkatesa Dikshitar. Thus, it is self-evident that he has a many-splendoured repertoire.
Dignified stage presence `Stately though simple' is perhaps the most appropriate description of KVN's stage presence. Some say he appears quite serious on stage, and they are correct. But it would be no overstatement to say that such seriousness is in concordance with his whole approach to music, which is that music should not be taken lightly. It was not surprising, therefore, that KVN, while on stage, does not give in to any banter or frivolous gesture; in fact, he eschews anything that did not pertain directly to his singing. Though he interactswith and appreciates the contributions of his accompanists, and accepts requests from the audience, he retains his professional mien. Simply put, he gets on stage, performs with great sincerity, and leaves the stage quietly. Even when his sidemen are quite junior to him in age and status, he never treats them with condescension. He gives each one of them due respect for his position on stage. He never engages in `testing' his accompanists or in one-up-manship. Due to his fair and encouraging attitude, he brings out the best in each one of them and the resulting synergy between the artists contributes to the concert's success.
Ability to sing unaffected by variables Some of KVN's best concerts are those in which his sidemen are most discordant. How is this possible? One theory is that he retains the tambura sruti in his memory and sings in tune even when any of the others on the stage play truant. This does not explain the mystery but only deepens it: how does he manage it? Similarly, even when any of the percussionists goes out of step, he maintains the kalapramana without faltering.
KVN is equally impervious to hall acoustics. There have been many occasions where the music echoed so badly that even those on the stage could not hear each other properly, but KVN continued to as though there was no problem. He can sing just as well at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City as he would in a stone cave. The size and quality of his audience does not affect his performance either. Many memorable concerts have had only 20 or 30 persons in the audience.
During his performance at the Rama Seva Mandali in Bangalore in 1988, it started to rain and the stage too was affected. Surprisingly, this did not bother KVN in the slightest; he just signalled the accompanists to move over and continued singing as if nothing had happened. Such a level of concentration and composure is something that every artist would like to possess.
Stamina to maintain a high energy level Given a style that encompasses singing in the upper octave as much as it did, KVN ought to be physically drained by the end of a concert. Yet this never happens. In fact, his concert performances underscore his remarkable stamina. The tillana that he sings at the end is as energetic as the varnam with which he started. This remarkable staying power, combined with his perfected technique, has resulted in many high- octane performances even in four-hour concerts.
Ability to move the listener to a higher plane All of the above parameters would be meaningless if a musician did not transcend the technical and intellectual realm and connect with the listener on a deeper level. The quintessential reason why KVN's music leaves a lasting impression on his listeners is that he genuinely feels everything that he sing and sings nothing for the purpose of exhibition. It appears that every sangati he creates is a paradox: well thought out and yet spontaneously charged with the feeling of the moment. Because of this deeper connection with the listener, one can hear even a recorded concert of KVN for the hundredth time and feel just as transported as the very first time.
KVN is also an excellent teacher. Because of his careful attention to detail in his own music, he can exactly assess the ability of a student of any proficiency and tailor the teaching method to suit the learner. If a student does not have the capacity to grasp a particularly complex phrase, he deconstructs it into simple parts so that the student canunderstand and absorb the lesson.
Not surprisingly, KVN makes it a point to underscore voice culturing also. He prescribes voice exercises which, when applied faithfully, enable the student to sing with relative ease.
Despite all his achievements, KVN remains a humble person, constantly aiming at higher level targets. A couple of years ago, referring to an earlier concert, he remarked: "Annikku daan nan saareeram eppadi kudukkanum-nu terinjinden." (It was only on that day that I learnt how to produce my voice correctly).
Considering all these aspects, it would be no exaggeration to say that vidwan Palakkad K.V. Narayanaswamy is a "reference musician", a role model for all those aspiring to navigate the vast and glorious ocean that is Carnatic music.