Music and Lyrics · Nostalgia

Carnatic Music & I

It was not inherent.

As am listening to this beautiful rendition of Tunbham Nergayil by Sanjay Subramanian, I awe at the beauty of dEsh. This version is so incredible and indulgent that it has slowly transformed into a leitmotif for Sanjay himself. I can’t write about the intricacies of the composition like Brangan or spin an imagery on the swaras like Aparna. Like most arts, classical music and especially Carnatic, is an acquired taste over the years.

There was a time when I used to protest playing Carnatic songs in the car. It used to annoy me to no end, and mom would silently comply. As a kid though I was made to sit through the various Ram Navami celebration concerts during the month of March-April every year at Sri Ram Samaj, more popularly known as Ayodhya Mandapam in West Mambalam, Chennai. Bragging alert, kindly adjust: My late maternal grandfather was one of the founders of Ayodhya Mandapam back in the 1950s and it has now grown to be a major landmark in this part of Chennai. My grandad’s house was in the street right across, and they used to tie speakers to the coconut trees in the garden. The house is still there and they do it to this day. We didn’t even have to walk to the temple to listen to the performances but the worth of all that was quite lost on me back then. The only instances I remember back from those wonder years are going to pick up Mandolin Shrinivas for an evening concert, with my dad in a white Ambassador, hogging the tamarind rice and curd rice late into the night after the concert was over and other minor games we used to play in the sand(The place is all concrete now).

My mom and her elder sister have performed on the stage in the Samaj. Maybe if they had continued in the music line, things would have been different but that didn’t happen. I went to Bombay in 1996 and only the memories of the Ram Navami celebrations remained with me. That was till about 2003 when, not only did I return to Chennai, but returned to the house across Ayodhya Mandapam to live with my grandfather and aunt(mom’s elder sister mentioned before)  and do my engineering. Again the speakers were up on the tree trunks, Ram Navami celebrations happened like always, and my favorite spot was the swing in the balcony. I had a book in my hand, usually for the exams that came around the same time(or at least the Anna University preparatory holidays) but that was just a prop.

Some of the regulars there were Unni Krishnan, Sudha Raghunathan, T.N. Seshagopalan, Nithyashree, Ganesh-Kumaresh etc(post-1994-95). The 10-15 days of blissful carnatic music frustrated a college friend of mine living in the same street. He found it hard to study for the exams with the speakers blaring and I must admit he had a fair point. I never challenged his statement but used to quietly listen to his rants against the whole noise pollution, as he used to call it. But over the four years that I lived there, the birth of interest in Carnatic music came about, gradually developed into a hobby and I graduated from the swing in the balcony to the front row seats for selected concerts.

Once again, after three years, I find myself back in Chennai, with all these things accessible. It was T.M. Krishna yesterday at Sri Ram Samaj and I took that front seat, thanks to granddad’s legacy. As brilliant as he was, it was great to know that something like the Ayodhya Mandapam was a reason for nurturing interest in the classical arts, even though theoretical knowledge still eludes. Listening, obviously, is the first step.


27 thoughts on “Carnatic Music & I

  1. I come from a family of carnatic musicians myself and could totally connect :) I have had formal training but lost interest and stopped going for classes. I regret it now, because as much as I enjoy Carnatic Music now (after a couple years or so of being continuously subject to Shruti on Worldspace every morning), “theoretical knowledge still eludes”. :)

    Adi: Oh, Worldspace rocked! I heard they are shutting shop because there are no takers. Sad.


  2. My maternal grandfather, who lived a big part of his life in West Mambalam, was a regular at Ayodhya Mandapam and I am told (too small to remember) that I was taken there regularly to listen to greats like Semmangudi and co.

    My mother still claims that it’s Ayodhya Mandapam that really kindled my interest in learning Carnatic music, which I eventually did for over 2 decades of my life.

    So your grandfather’s legacy has touched me too :)

    Adi: Wow you’ve visited the place as a kid? Nice to know!


  3. Ayodhya Mandapam :)

    That place will always bring back some lovely memories of my childhood and like you mentioned, just sitting outside our home, we could listen to the concerts. It was a short 5 year time there on Bhakthavatsalam st, but an impressionable one to say the least.

    Enjoy! Hope all’s well. :)

    Adi: :) All’s well. How are you?


  4. Wow Wolfie — really nice post :)

    My teacher used to tell me that 1/4th of learning carnatic music comes from listening, and the other three are theoretical knowledge, practice and learning.

    I wish I had this much access to Carnatic music! Hope you attend my share of concerts :)

    Adi: Sure, maybe sometime in the future, we can attend one together!


  5. Superbly written as usual! I’m more into Hindustani music but Carnatic is very captivating, once you get the flavor of it. What distresses me – and I have been listening to classical music for 40 years perhaps – is the uniform disgust with which it is received by all kinds of people. Here you have the most sublime music in the world and people actually ask you to “stop that nonsense and play something by Britney Spears”. I ask you! When they finally make me dictator of the world, we will have a “program for culling boorish people”

    Me: “Ok, Citizen no. 1123394, what is the vadi in Yaman?”
    Citizen 1123394 : “Er… I…I don’t know…”
    Me: “Off with his head!”

    Adi: Haha Mr. Shenoy! I wish someday this really happens :P


  6. Isn’t that just the most brilliant version of the song? I remember raving about it not so long ago, and now I haveto listen to every morning. It’s so beautiful the way he sings and the way his accompanying artist gives one kedi smile!

    Adi: I know, has to be the most brilliant version of the song. I also heard it live last December. He’s made it his trademark I guess.


  7. Nice one!

    I also grew up and lived in Mambalam riding my cycle a zillion times on Arya Gowda road. Ayodhya mandapam is definitely a special place and every single person who lived in Mambalam will have some nice memories related with that place.

    Skipping pattu class after learning for a couple of years is one of the things that i repent till date. This post was a really nice refresher. Desh also happens to be my favorite ragam.

    Adi: Don’t tell me you were around there during college. Were you?


  8. Also, last weekend I went to a Ganesh/Kumaresh, Sridhar Parthasarathy & Zakir Hussain show – it was * amazing * !

    Adi: Aah nice! Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana is sometime this month? Or just got over?


  9. Sanjay enunciates the thamizh words so well. BTW You forgot to mention that there was a nice madhyamAvati vandE mAtaram mangaLam at the end. :) Nice little bonus.

    All great art exists within the purveyor as much as it does the presenter. Hence the purveyor must prepare, maybe not as much as the presenter, but prepare he must. You’ve glossed over how you ‘prepared’. What happened in 2003 for the music to be appealing? However, it is a fine destination you’ve reached.

    Adi: I don’t know, maybe the engineering books weren’t that appealing. That’s why!


  10. I really wish I could empathise. I was sent to music classes too, but all my interest and learning ended right there. I stopped giving one excuse after the other.

    The post is lovely and evokes memories of my grandparents :) However, with what my music ‘tastes’ or the lack of it are, I shouldn’t even be saying as much I’ve managed to.

    Adi: Thanks! :)


  11. I grew up in Bangalore. Other than the mandatory carnatic music lessons as a kid, my only touch with classical music was Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan on TV on festivals.

    When reading this post , it quite surprised me that I do in fact have fond memories of my grandmom teaching me ‘Kurai ondrum illai’. It remains my favourite.

    Adi: Haha you should just make a trip to Chennai during December!


  12. Nice!! your being the chamathu iyer aathu boy is it ;)

    @shreya: i went for the same concert here last week. it was quite nice.

    Adi: chamathu? Hmm nee sonna seri :P


  13. Aiyoo! I missed being the first to comment by a large margin, given my classical music fanaticism!! :P
    Anyway, my mother’s side of the family traces is lineage back to one of the Trinity *beams proudly :D. But, despite the brag-worthy pedigree, my love story with Carnatic music brewed in a strange and interesting way, after listening to a Western Classical magnum opus by Beethoven, although I grew up listening to Carnatic music all my life!

    Adi: Haha!


  14. What can I say? I read it just because I like reading the rambles here. Someday, I will come back after a thorough education and comment eruditely here.

    Adi: You chose this post to show your presence? :P


  15. No one really does Desh like Sanjay. A couple of years ago, Sanjay performed in Dallas, and the RTP was in Desh. And what a beautiful rendition of Desh that was. 45 minutes of pure bliss, I owe my entire knowledge of the ragam to that one concert.

    Adi: True, he is quite peerless!


  16. The best thing about Madras is the abundance of carnatic music, you can always find your favourite performer, singing in some sabha, at any given time!

    I remember when I first started attending kutcheris, there were mamas and mamis carrying their copies of Ready Raga Reference and shouting out some erudite words from the book :D The only way out is to sink in the music and not let the theory deter people from attending kutcheris.

    Adi: Madras rocks when it comes to art, cinema etc. Now only if they bring those multiplex films to Madras! Haha I noticed that in Vani Mahal this time. Maamis and Maamas with small pocket books in hand.


  17. > Like most arts, classical music and especially
    >Carnatic, is an acquired taste over the years.
    Very true. As much I have been immersed in it for the last 15 years or so (as a fan), when I was young, I was like you. I found it “boring” and “too serious” – even though it was there all along in my life (via mom). Then something “clicked” – not sure exactly when, how and why, and all of a sudden I began to “get it” – and it has been a sublime and blissful ride.


    Adi: From your blog I would think you were probably born with it!


  18. This is a lovely post. One of the best I’ve read in recent times. Very true, Carnatic music grows on you and then settles for life, surfacing every now and then for some people – like me. :)
    I like how you write – placid, simple, complete. You should try your hand at fiction!

    Adi: Thank you! Fiction? I’ve miserably failed before.


  19. Growing up in India, never felt the need to search for Carnatic music as it was always part of my life from MS’s cassettes playing in the morning to dance and music classes in the evening. Coming to US created this whole void in my life as you can’t hear carnatic around you except in your ipod i guess :(

    btw curious to know how did you come up with this “gradwolf” thing

    Adi: True that you cannot hear carnatic “around” you in the US but it’s pretty accessible nevertheless. And that is a good thing. And if you’re not in grad school etc. you can find time for numerous festivals around the country. Or the local popular temples and other places.

    Hmmm, I went to NC State and the sports teams are called NC State Wolfpack. I was a grad student and it came from grad + wolf :)


  20. Ayodha Mandabam is a stone’s throw away from my extremely musically inclined cousins, who spent so many evenings there. But somehow, even with all the karnataga isai methais around me all my life, I have yet to warm up to it.

    Adi: Oh really? How come you remained uninfluenced?!


  21. I know i told you this before, nevertheless, “Thunbam” always reminds me of the version in “Or Iravu” featuring Nageshwara Rao and Laitha( or Ragini – too hard to tell them apart). Finally found that version :
    Sung by MS Rajeswari.

    I specifically like the part where they figure out how to sing “maataya” :)

    I also liked Sanjay and Nithyashree’s version.More classical .

    Another thing that mesmerizes me about this song is Bharathidasan’s lyrics. “Tamizil paadi nee en allal neekka maataya” .

    Carnatic music to me always been healing music. I listen to it and somehow everything around me seems better.


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