C. Saraswati Bai (1874–1974) began studying Karnatak music at the age of 6, and by the time she was 9 her exceptional talent was so evident that the harikathā guru Tiruvaiyaru Krishnachar took her under his wing.
By the age of 11 she was gaining local notoriety, and as it became clear that she was contemplating a professional career the established performers of this male-dominated genre moved to undermine her, effectively blackmailing performance venues into refusing to engage her. Saraswati persevered, and public support for her grew; at last, those who had sought to squelch her career relented and tried to make amends.
In early 1911 she embarked on a highly successful tour of India and Sri Lanka, and by the age of 22 she had become one of the most acclaimed harikathā performers of the time.
From 1913 through the 1930s Saraswati traveled almost continually, performing standing up for six to seven hours in a different town each night. She recorded nine successful records for Odeon, and often performed on the radio; she was also in great demand for performances at weddings. At the height of her career she earned 2000 rupees each night, more than any other harikathā performer at that time.
From the 1940s until the early 1960s Saraswati performed less and less, due partly to a decline in audiences with the advent of sound films, and partly to the intense physical demands of traveling and performing. She took a keen interest in developing cultural organizations, and was an ardent supporter of Gandhi.
This according to “C. Saraswati Bai” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing as Sriram V; Sruti 262 [July 2006] pp. 21–31 and 263 [August 2006] pp. 17–38). Below, one of her Odeon recordings.
In the first half of the 20th century South Indian temple dance underwent a remarkable transformation from a low-caste activity to a national art form—from nautch to bharata nāṭyam.
This transformation was nurtured by the Indian nationalist movement, which was deeply rooted in European Orientalism and Victorian morality. The unsuitabilities of the figure of Shiva as Naṭarāja from the point of view of previous dance practice became precisely the qualities that qualified him as the nayaka (hero) of the new dance form.
Ananda Coomaraswamy groomed Naṭarāja for this role and brought him to the attention of artists including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Arundale, in particular, moved Naṭarāja to center stage, both as an independent force and as one heavily conditioned by a set of people and ideas.
This according to “Rewriting the script for South Indian dance” by Matthew Harp Allen (TDR: The drama review XLI/3 [fall 1997] pp. 63–100). Above, a traditional sculpture depicting Shiva as Naṭarāja; below, a bharata nāṭyam piece that evokes the cosmic dancer.
Related article: Varieties of love
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21; RILM Abstracts 1999-26342).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
Related article: Rāgs and recipes
Earlier treatises placed śṛngāra (love/the erotic) among the aesthetic qualities known as rasas, but the 11th-century Śṛngāraprakāśa, attributed to Bhojarāja, King of Malwa (inset), was the first to assert its supreme importance.
The treatise includes highly detailed typologies of love—for example, chapter 22 alone discusses 64 stages of love, each subdivided into 8 categories, each of which is then subdivided into 8 more categories, with hundreds of illustrations from poetic works in Prakrit and Sanskrit.
This according to “Bhoja’s Sringara prakasa: A landmark in the evolution of rasa theory” by V. Subramaniam (Sruti 190 [July 2000] pp. 37–41). Above, a classic image of Krishna and Radha in the moonlight; below, the legendary T. Balasaraswati’s depiction of Krishna’s childhood provides an embodiment of śṛngāra in bharata nāṭyam (filmed by Satyajit Ray).
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
On 27 May 1912 the first Karnatak music conference was convened in Thanjāvūr.
Hosted by the celebrated practitioner of Siddha medicine and devotee of Karnatak music Abraham Pandithar (inset, 1859–1919), the conference’s stated purpose was “to promote an academic interest in and to diffuse a knowledge of all that was best in the science and practice of Indian Music; to correct all conflicting notions in regard to Ragams and determine the precise and scientifically correct methods; to concert measures to the advancement of Indian music.”
At the conference Pandithar established the society Sangeetha Vidhyalaya Mahajana Sangam; the group met five more times between 1912 and 1914.
This according to “A centenary of music conferences” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Madras heritage and Carnatic music, 25 May 2012). Above, the society’s group photograph, taken after the first morning session; below, Pandithar Thottam, the farm in Thanjāvūr where Pandithar grew traditional medicinal plants.
After the East India Company attained a firm foothold in Calcutta in 1757, an influx of English middle-class civil and military personnel brought Western classical music to the subcontinent.
A taste for arrangements of Indian melodies arose among these expatriates, prompting such publications as William Hamilton Bird’s The Oriental Miscellany: Being a collection of the most favourite airs of Hindoostan, compiled and adapted for the harpsichord (Calcutta: Cooper, 1789).
In his introduction Bird complained that the songs’ brevity and “their want of variety” obliged him to compose variations for each one, and that their rhythms cost him “great pains to bring them into any form as to time.”
This according to “Corelli in Calcutta: Colonial music-making in India during the 17th and 18th centuries” by Raymond Head (Early music XIII/4 [November 1985] pp. 548–553).
Above, Johan Zoffany’s Colonel Blair with his family and an Indian ayah (Calcutta, 1786), showing a square piano or clavichord. Below, Daniel Laumans performs a “Hindustan air” arranged by Sophia Plowden around the same time.
Related article: How far can a song travel?
A black cow leads the members of a South Indian hill tribe, the Kotas, to the Nilgiri Hills and, with its hoof, indicates where to found each village. This footprint acts as a moral center of gravity, an important place for music making, dancing, and other rituals.
The Kotas anchor their musical and other activities around such places and significant moments in time and, in the process, constitute themselves as individuals and as a group.
This according to The black cow’s footprint: Time, space, and music in the lives of the Kotas of South India by Richard K. Wolf (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006). Above, a Kota women’s festival dance; below, Kota men dancing at Kotagiri.
The Tamil month of Mārkazhi (mid-December to mid-January) has been associated with Krishna since ancient times, and historical connections between that month and devotional music abound.
Against this traditional backdrop, in 1930 the newly founded Music Academy in Chennai (formerly Madras) began sponsoring an annual music and dance festival during that month. Over the years the festival has grown steadily in size; some music lovers call this winter whirlwind of activity “the mad mad Madras music season”.
This according to “The Madras music season: Its genesis” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing under the pen name Sriram V; Sruti 225 [December 2005] pp. 19–24). For decades Sruti has published detailed reports on the season, providing a rich accumulation of data on its history and development. In addition, Venkatakrishnan has written retrospective reports for the magazine on the season in selected historical years.
Below, the Hyderabad Brothers perform during the 2019 music season.
The “Idol” television format has gone global, and since 2004 an Indian version has featured amateur singers of popular Indian film songs. Seeing this, the producer Subhashree Thanikachalam (left)—who had already pioneered three successful television series focused on Indian music—decided to try a version presenting young performers in the classical South Indian tradition.
The result, Carnatic Music Idol, has run for two highly successful seasons and is preparing a third one. The series has done much to raise awareness of the tradition and to help viewers to understand the technical intracacies of its performance. The final rounds even call for a full rāgam-tānam-pallavi, a tour de force that was formerly considered too esoteric for general audiences.
This according to “An idol among TV shows” by Gayathri Sundaresan (Sruti 321 [June 2011] pp. 55–58. Below, excerpts from the 2011 finals.
Filed under Asia, Reception