Mavelikkara P Subramaniam talks about his Evolution as an Artiste and the development of his Baani

Mavelikkara P. Subramaniam, ace Carnatic Vocalist and Guru to many leading young musicians of today, talks about his style and musical thoughts.

Beginnings, Guru and initial Approach:-

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: I was fortunate to be born into a family of musicians. While my mother, Mavelikkara Ponnammal, is a singer herself, my father, Padmanabha Iyer, was an avid lover of Carnatic music. Another huge influence was my uncle Mavelikkara Ramanathan, a musician par excellence.

I used to sit along with my uncle on the concert platform and sing along with him. Although I was too small to understand his contributions, deep within me I knew I was in the company of a great artiste.

After ‘Ganapraveena’ from the Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram, I began my private training under guru Mavelikkara Prabhakara Varma. It was then that I realised that I had many shortcomings. Institutions do serve their purpose but the magic of a guru-sishya relationship is what is missing in our educational system. Coming under Varma sir’s tutelage I decided to follow my guru’s methods and ideas.

I did only what my Guru told me to do. My music slowly began to have discipline and style. A strong foundation built on steadfast adherence to certain principles blossomed in me. No doubt, it was only under Varma Sir’s priming that I learnt to be in sync with the ‘swaroopam’ of Carnatic music.

Swaroopam and later developments

Constructing the ‘swaroopam’ of Carnatic music is a difficult task as there are many dignified aspects to it. Ragas like Thodi require sampoorna (elaborate) alapana while ragas like Yadukulakamboji or Syama need only sangraha (brief) alapana. How does one intelligently construct a phrase for a particular raga? These are all examples of the exhaustive list that constitute the swaroopam. I gathered all these at various stages of my training and am still learning. In our younger days, radio was the only ‘other’ source for learning. I would listen to the masters and try to learn from each one of them.

At one point of time I developed a liking for pattern singing of manodharma swaras. Constructing a five- or seven-swara pattern within the broad framework of the tala cycle fascinated me and I applied it to my concerts. My guru encouraged me even though his own style was different. After some time, the fascination wore off. The swara patterns resembled a chitta swara and therefore lacked spontaneity.

I realised I was not doing justice to manodharma sangeetham. Likewise, during my initial years, I was thrilled to learn new ‘sangathis.’ When the right sangathis or brigas failed to appear in my alapana, I felt that my concert did not live up to the connoisseur’s expectations. Even after singing the ‘sangathis’ rendered by the great masters, I was not happy with the way I was singing. Oh my, we were a confused lot!

Realisation, new approaches

I don’t know when and how it dawned on me. Just like the twists, turns and surprises of life, music grew within me and I evolved through my music. Life taught me to handle people and events with maturity.

Maturity kindled a different music in me. The core was the same, but something had changed. I was searching for deeper meanings. Intelligence gave way to emotion. I try to approach music emotionally and see if I can induce emotion in my renderings.

Earlier, my style was rigid and replete with technical calculations. I am now intrigued with the lyrical beauty of kritis. When I hear or sing Dikshitar’s ‘Jamboopathe’ in Yamuna Kalyani I go into a trance. Before Yamuna Kalyani, I prostrate. I have evolved spiritually over time. Looking back, I did what was right then. I sing differently now; that’s all. There is no right and wrong. Speed thrilled me earlier. Now it doesn’t.

Twenty years ago I would have sung Tyagaraja’s ‘Brovabharama’ in a faster tempo on a celebration mode. Now, when I sing it in slow tempo I realise the inner beauty of the kriti. Ask me to sing ‘Brovabharama’ 100 times and I will. I am inspired by it, besotted with love for this piece. I feel connected to Tyagaraja through this composition and believe that I am given an opportunity to carry the torch, which the trinity lit centuries ago.

On emotion and voice culture

How does one infuse emotion in music? Take the charanam of ‘Jamboopathe.’ The line ‘Pancha bhoothamaya prapancha Prabho’ brings tears to my eyes. But then I need to sing to do justice to the salutation, to make my listener feel the beauty of the sahityam. So, I can’t think of singing this open throated. I am humbled by the word ‘Prapancha Prabho.’ There needs to be total surrender. So I sing it softly, for which I need to modulate my voice, and when I do people feel the difference. Now, this is vocal dynamics, the essence of emotional renditions.

I believe that Carnatic singers in Kerala excel in the application of vocal dynamics in their singing.

On Manodharma sangeetham and concerts

As we begin the concert, we get a clear picture of the physical condition of our voice and its flexibility. One is also influenced by the mood of the situation. Favourable factors decide our build-up plan for the next three hours of the concert. We try to innovate, delve into the different possibilities of a raga, and experiment. If conditions are less favourable, we still have to continue singing with the restrictions. There is risk taking in varying degrees. But that is manodharma sangeetham. Before you actually sing, a lot of thinking happens within you. It is this contemplation that decides the singing style of a musicians.

Concerts represents only one face of the musician. He is more than a concert singer, waiting to be discovered by a listener/learner.

Kerala’s contribution to the Carnatic world

‘Chowkam’ (slow tempo) has a premium tag in Kerala, be it in Kathakali, melam or music. One understands and appreciates the nuances of a raga better when sung in Vilambitha kalam. In fact, Kathakali music offers a window to the learner to such styles of rendition.

When I sing in Chennai, rasikas tell me that my music is different from ‘Chennai music.’ I guess I am unconsciously influenced by Kerala’s rendition styles and peculiarities. We can see this influence in most of the Carnatic singers from Kerala. Rather than saying Vilambitha kalam is better than madhyama kalam, let’s just say it is better to have a blend of both tempos. Having said that, singing in fast tempo is not a crime. We need that too. But fast tempo is not to be confused with commotion. For a concert, we generally agree with G N Balasubrahmaniam’s insistence on the madhyamakala being more apt. He calls it the golden mean.

The future of Carnatic music

Long lasting Sowkhyam is available aplenty in Carnatic music. It is an oasis. It is precisely this aspect that will preserve the form. People will come searching for this aanandam.

That it has survived hundreds of centuries itself, is a testimony that this music will thrive and Carnatic music is also a perennial source of inspiration for artistes yearning for perfection and self actualisation. These are times when space and time available for performances are shrinking but I am sure there will be a group of people who need Carnatic music for nurturing spiritual quality of life.

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