T-20 of Carnatic Music – it’s a novel Concept; it’s Katha Kutcheri

Ganesa Sarma at the Katha Kucheri – a programme organised recently by Sri Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar Cultural Trust, Chennai

Chennai: It is a novel concept. The Katha Kutcheri. We can call it a hosted concert, where the host is much more than the master of ceremonies. Not only does he set a preamble for the song to follow, but offers a contextual setting. It is indeed infotainment of sorts.

At a programme organised recently by Sri Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar Cultural Trust, Chennai, the audience (yours truly among them) was curious about the format. The host was none other than Brahmasri Ganesa Sarma, an Upanyasam exponent, erudite scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil, an ardent devotee of Paramacharya, and on the academic side, qualified in management studies. Though the show was not scripted, the order of songs was predetermined, an order that could not have been better.

Eleven of the Bhagavatar’s compositions were rendered by Nandini Venkataraman, who is of Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer’s lineage. Her daughter Srivaralakshmi was on the keyboard. No wonder, perfect unison prevailed. The keyboard’s jazz guitar tone resembled that of veena with all its gamakas. And the keyboard played the role of the violin well.

The setting could not have been more auspicious – Sri Tyagaraja Sangeetha Vidwath Samajam, Mylapore, in the divine presence of an idol of the saint. Ganesa Sarma called it ‘Uttara Tiruvaiyaru.’ Periyava, who had camped at the venue for three days had advised the installation of the idol. Sambasiva Bhagavatar got it done by raising funds through his Harikatha performances.

The first composition was Sri Tyagaraja Guruvaram (Atana-Rupakam) in which, Ganesa Sarma pointed to an important and rare insight that Saint Tyagaraja belonged to the Bharadwaja Gothra. This was followed by a Hamsadhwani piece, ‘Ekadantam.’ Here, he explained the significance of one dantam (tusk) which Lord Ganesa used as a weapon (in Gajamukhasura samhara) and as a quill (to write the Mahabharata). Breaking the tusk was a gesture of sacrifice on the part of Lord Ganesa.

Presenting ‘Saravana Bhava’ (Suddha Saveri), Sarma explained that Kanchi Periyava considered the divine siblings (Ganesa and Subramanya) as deities that belonged to Tamil Nadu. In this song, Bhagavatar brings out a lot of puranic references as well, besides a few beautiful lyrics.

While explaining the significance of “Endhanudan Vara Viduveer Ayya,” the upanyasaka pointed out how this is a typical Harikatha composition. In this context, he again recalled Periyava’s nugget: that the Marathas had left Harikatha, Rasavangi and Dangar Pachadi to Tamil Nadu. One could easily visualise the setting as explained by Ganesa Sarma – Chidambaranatha Yogi asking Ramasamy Dikshitar to send his son with him to Kasi.

‘Venkateswara Vegabrovara’ (Khambodi) was divine but more gripping was Sarma’s narration of how Bhagavatar wrote and composed it at Tirupati. As he could not find a paper to write the lyric, he used the white part of a currency note. On another occasion, Bhagavatar composed ‘Bhajan Neeraja Dalanayana’ while on a train to Calcutta . Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, who travelled with him practised it on the spot and included it in his concert.

In the Kharaharapriya composition on Sri Rajagopala Swami of Mannargudi, the home town of the composer, there is a significant reference to Meera (Meera Manasa Panchara Geeram’). Ganesa Sarma wondered if any other Carnatic composition has such a reference to Meera.

In the song on Kapaleeswara (Kunthalavarali), there is an uncommon expression, “Krithivasan.” In the song on Sri Karpagambika, the composer has not mentioned the name of the deity directly. He refers to her as Kapaleeswara Nayika.

The Katha-Kutcheri wound up with a padam, ‘Ivar Yaaradi’ (Surutti) and a Managalam, ‘Ramaya’ in Kanda Nadai.

There were no raga alapanas, no kalpanaswaras and tani avarthanam. Mridangam accompaniment by Kumbakonam Ramakrishnan was crisp and elegant.

The katha-kutcheri style has the potential to change Carnatic music appreciation, much like the way twenty-twenty format has changed cricket.

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