It’s an unusual combination – carnatic vocals and the piano – but it’s one that has won the ears and hearts of contemporary Carnatic music lovers and Indian classical purists alike. In Memory of Time, rising star Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan and acclaimed classical pianist Anil Srinivasan pair up in another surprising and harmonious collaboration, this time, a conceptual concert premiering at Kalaa Utsavam 2009.
An Unusual Pairing
In the early years of Sikkil and Anil’s collaboration, critics, purists and indeed many Indian classical music fans found it hard to believe that a pairing of the piano with Carnatic vocals could work. Today, many collaborative concerts and a successful album later, the two are lauded for creating a new, substantive sound in Carnatic music – contemplative, seamless and emotive in a fresh, new way.
The duo’s growing audience base now encompasses both Indian classical and contemporary music lovers from India and around the world. And their performances and albums garner praise from media as diverse as Delhi’s Hindustan Times (which describes the duo as "perhaps one of the best classical acts to emerge from South India") and Radio France ("This is music that defies description. It speaks directly to the soul and the world is the richer for it.")
A Universal Theme
In opposition to the uniqueness of the pairing, is the universality of the theme. Considering speed, precision, counts, beats… taking into account past, present, future, suspension… the concept of time - in both aspects of rhythm and period – is vital to the creation of music in more ways than one. In Indian classical music in particular, pieces that span a wide range of rhythms and that refer to or give a sense of the present, past and future, depicting human sentiments of yearning, longing, memory and hope, abound.
With artistic direction by Aravinth Kumarasamy, Memory of Time features compositions – from sacred texts to well-known devotional melodies and rare romantic poems in Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu and Hindi – that explore how both the measurement and metaphor of time can heighten emotion, memory and the human experience. Experience how a fast-paced piece can elicit the thrill of first love while a slow, languorous melody may evoke a sense of yearning for a lover from a distant past.
The addition of the sarangi (a wooden lute) to the performance is especially exciting for two reasons. Firstly, because it is, today, rare to find sarangi professionals such as Murad Ali Khan who are descended from families dedicated to performing the sarangi over generations in India. And secondly, because the sarangi is an instrument threatened with extinction. Notoriously difficult to tune and master, the sarangi produces a keen sound with impressive tone colours and an unusually expressiveness, almost like the human voice.
Besides sarangi exponent Murad Ali Khan, the duo will also be accompanied by acclaimed percussionist, B S Purushotham on the kanjeera, a South Indian tambourine-like drum covered in lizard or goat skin and used in Carnatic music as a supporting instrument for the mridangam.
Placing these two master musicians - Murad Ali Khan and B S Purushotham - from different classical styles side by side in accompaniment to Anil and Sikkil’s performance will certainly add to the texture and colour of an already fascinating collaboration.
"Anil and Sikkil are very special musicians. They seem to be ideal complements of each other -
matching each other in thought, mood, inspiration and composition. Sometimes you become aware that you have
witnessed history being created in front of you - attending their concert reminds the listener of this." - The Hindu, Bangalore
"I listened to Madhirakshi [Sikkil and Anil’s album] in stunned silence... it was devastatingly beautiful.
These are new musicians, this is the new music..." - John Mclaughlin
Artistic direction: Aravinth Kumarasamy
Kanjeera: B S Purushotham
Sarangi: Murad Ali
Vocals: Sikkil Gurucharan
Piano: Anil Srinivasan
A classical pianist with a contemporary-classical fusion sound that combines the best of Indian and Western classical influences, Anil Srinivasan performs regularly in India and abroad, and has recorded and performed with eminent musicians including U Srinivas, John McLaughlin, Daniel Tetlow, Unnikrishnan, Aruna Sairam and Chitravina Ravikiran. In 1990, at the age of 13, Anil became one of the youngest recipients of the Rachel Morgan Prize, awarded to the best pianist in the Commonwealth.
Madhirakshi, his maiden conceptual effort pairing the carnatic voice with classical piano and recorded with Sikkil Gurucharan, made waves in the classical music world and led to four other highly-acclaimed albums. Anil's work is additionally featured on 12 other albums. Anil is also a well-respected music columnist.
Sikkil Gurucharan (vocals)
One of the fastest rising stars in South Indian classical (carnatic) music, Sikkil Gurucharan is a regular performer at major international music festivals and has a significant global following. His awards include the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, awarded to the most significant classical vocalist under the age of 35 in India.
At 27, Sikkil is the most important representative of the third generation of a well-known classical music family. His adherence to classical mores while still allowing for contemporary influences has won him tremendous critical acclaim. This is evident in his collaboration with Anil Srinivasan, a combination that has toured widely and resulted in five albums.
Murad Ali (sarangi)
Born to a family of musicians from Muradabad and trained by his grandfather Siddique Ahmad Khan and father Ghulam Sabir Khan, Murad Ali is a sixth generation sarangi player, one of the best in his generation. With several albums and award-winning collaborations, Murad Ali is a regular performer on the international circuit and has performed with such artists as Shubha Mudgal, Ustad Rashid Khan, Bombay Jayashree, and Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan, with whom he recorded the album The Blue Divine.
B S Purushotham (kanjeera)
B S Purushotham’s kanjeera playing is noted for its sensitivity, artistry and depth. Trained by the legendary Bangalore M L Veerabhadhriah, Bangalore Praveen and Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr. T K Murthy, Purushotham has accompanied most senior artists, traveled widely, performed at global festivals and extensively in Singapore. A recipient of the Yuva Kala Bharati from Bharat Kalachar and the Kalki award, he received the acclaimed Yuva Puraskar this year from the Sangeet Natak Akademi for the best South Indian percussionist under 35 in India.
Aravinth Kumarasamy (artistic direction)
Aravinth has played the veena for more than 30 years and given hundreds of stage, television and radio performances internationally. He is also a well-known music composer and conductor for orchestras, dance and theatre productions, and has worked with artists from India, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Spain and Hungary. Aravinth was the artistic director of Love Poems for Esplanade’s 2008 Kalaa Utsavam and is the Creative and Managing Director of Apsaras Arts.
Esplanade: What inspired you to come up with the idea of presenting different approaches to time through music?
Aravinth: Time is integral to the performance of music - in terms of rhythm, time signature and pacing. It is equally integral to a musician's approach to the creation of music itself - contextualising one's music, anchoring it in a way that conveys stories of the past through a present-day metaphor. As an important means of preserving continuity, music creates bridges across time. Hence, the concept.
Esplanade: Why do you choose to use the piano in your presentation of carnatic music?
Aravinth: Carnatic music is a deeply spiritual and highly sophisticated classical form. It is a way of thinking about music and not merely a set of rules and grammatical injunctions. Neither has carnatic music shied away from constantly embracing other influences and instruments within its fold. The violin made itself a fixture only in the late 19th century. Today, we find exponents of carnatic music who use the mandolin, the guitar and even the saxophone. As an instrument, the piano needs no introduction to lovers of classical music - for its richness, its completeness and its ability to lead the melody, colour it with harmony and manage percussive support - all at the same time.
Given that Anil was trained in Western classical music while growing up in an environment of carnatic music, the tryst between the two classical idioms was a natural space for self expression. Further, the piano frames carnatic music effectively, punctuating the carnatic melody without puncturing it. The harmonic undertones give the carnatic melody more depth and richness, and the subtle percussive support guides the lyric in its pacing and rendition.
Last, as an instrument familiar to over 90% of the world, the piano's presence has made this form of enjoying carnatic music more accessible to a wider global audience.