Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Humble Master: Voleti Venkateshwarlu

I was born and spent the first years of my life in the southern states of India. We lived in a provincial town in what was then known as Mysore State.  In the early 70’s the state was renamed, Karnataka.

The classical music of southern India is known as Carnatic music. Not because it originated in the State of Karnataka but because that region bordered the land of the Marathas (now known as Maharashtra) who were the ones who identified the musical tradition that was different from the one that prevailed in the north, (Hindustan), as being Carnatic. In essence, Carnatic was the Maratha way of saying ‘south of the border’.  In the US of A that may conjure up thoughts pejorative, and indeed, if history is to believed, the Marathas, themselves, were pretty pejorative of anything and anybody that wasn’t Maratha.
Musicians honouring the great composer Thyagraja

Carnatic and Hindustani classical music are a single bifurcated stream of culture. The roots of India’s classical music are embedded way back in the time of the Vedas (1500 BC) several of which lay out the abiding principles and structures, śruti (the relative musical pitch), swara (the musical sound of a single note), rāga (the mode or melodic formulæ), and tala (the rhythmic cycles)  of the music.  In an oft-cited and magnificently conceived passage one ancient text (Yajnavalkya Smriti) states: vīṇāvādana tattvajñaḥ śrutijātiviśāradaḥ tālajñaścāprayāsena mokṣamārgaṃ niyacchati  ("The one who is well versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis and one who is adept in tala, attains salvation without doubt.")

With the coming of Islam, Persian and other Islamic musical traditions and forms blended with the music of the north (dhrupad) to form a distinct musical system which today we refer to as Hindustani.  So while the Marathas prided themselves on being the true and pure resisters of Muslim culture into the subcontinent, it was in fact, the music of those ‘south of border’ that was the real deal!
Some cultural icons, Rajahmundry. 2006

With tonight’s post, the Washerman’s Dog, begins a musical tour of Carnatic lands and begins in the cultural heartland of the Andhra people, the city of Rajahmundry.  It is in this city that the Hindu epics, Mahabharta and Ramayana were translated, in the 11th century, into Telegu, the regional language. The first Telegu novel was written in Rajahmundry and the city is also home to one of the premier Carnatic singers of the modern era, Voleti Venkateshwarlu.

He was born in 1928 and had his formal training in music from C. Achutaramaiah and Munuganti Venkatarao Pantulu. He polished his music with the veteran musician, Dr Sripada Pinakapani. He was fond of Hindustani music also and therefore he sang many Hindustani ragas at the end of his concerts - either as shlokas or bhajans . He graduated with a degree in music from Andhra University.  He worked in the All India Radio, Vijayawada as the Program Producer and he brought in some innovative programs.
He was fond of singing ragas like Begada, Varali, Ranjani, Hamsanandi, Hindolam and Pantuvarali. Of course, he did not exclude singing ragas like Todi, Kharaharapriya, Kalyani and Purvikalyani. Before he sang a kriti in Purvikalyani he would be elaborating panchama varja raga alapana for Purvikalyani, which was interesting. The sancharas were clear and precise.
He never practiced for his concert. Before his concert he would be in a contemplative mood and would not talk much at all. Before the Sangita Sikshana program on the AIR, he would be humming or doing alapana in Hindustani ragas at the studios. However, as soon as the program or the song was announced on the radio he would quickly switch to the typical Carnatic style of singing. Such was his facility in changing from one style to another.
Among Venkateswaralu’s pastimes, going to movies had high priority. It is said of him that he could invariably be found in a movie house if he was not busy singing in a concert! Voleti was a simple man and he was breathing music 24 hours of the day. He did not care for honours and accolades and neither did he seek them. (
This selection of devotional songs was recorded in 1963 at the All India Radio studios in Vijaywada by the eminent musicologist Nazir Jairazbhoy. It is simply gorgeous and a wonderful introduction to Carnatic music. Voleti’s voice is assured and sonorous but his humble nature is demonstrated when like the leader of a jazz band, he allows each of his sidemen to take extensive solos.  The record includes several instrumental pieces which allow Annavarapu Gopalan (mridangam), K. Kannan (flute) and especially Ramavarapu Subbarao (saraswati veena) to demonstrate their virtuosity.  The title of the recording Voleti and friends is perfect. There is an atmosphere here that is intimate, respectful and thoroughly enjoyable.
Fantastic stuff.

            Track Listing:
01.     Cittaranjani raga kriti by Thyagaraja (Voleti: vocals)
02.     Todi raga kriti by Thyagaraja (Voleti: vocals)
03.     Sriranjani raga kriti by Thyagraja (K. Kannan: flute)
04.     Kirvani raga kriti by Muttayya Bhagavtar (R. Subbaro: saraswati veena)
05.     Sindhi Bhairavi raga alapanam (R. Subbaro: saraswati veena)
06.     Tala vaday kacceri (Yella Somanna: mridangam; Annawarapu Gopalam: ghatam)
07.     Kedaragaula raja javali by Dharmapuri Subbarayar (Voleti: vocals)
Listen here.

1 comment:

danothy said...

Thanks for the post. Looking forward to the rest of the Carnatic tour.