Thursday, January 8, 2009

Aging Carnatic Singers - Ignominy by MS

Recently a biography of M.S.Subbulakshmi and her backup singer Radha was released, that triggered a musing in me. Radha comes in the tradition of "pin paattu" a backup singer who accompanies a primary singer, who is usually the more famous of the duo. The purpose of this backup is to pick up notes, especially high ones or notes that follow in rapid succession which the primary singer falters, owing, mostly, due to age. MS had Radha during her famous UN performance in 1966. I was curious as to why she needed Radha, well she was aged 50, well past the prime for any virtuoso singer. I found a clipping of her singing at Thyagaraja festival at Thiruvaiyaru, in the 80's. Yes she is the queen of melody, anybody who has a musical ear, irrespective of literacy in carnatic music can say that. What a voice, then what a grunt, gargling the phlegm while Radha nonchalantly carries on the tune. The interludes, when the instrumentalist performs solo, were steadily punctuated by MS's scratchy throat and gulps to stifle unsuccessfully what was impossible. The age showed up. Now who in their right aesthetic sense would call that a performance.

Subbudu, the master-critic ripped into Semmangudi for singing into his eighties when all that came out was "only phlegm" (andru sangathi varavillai, sali thaan vandthathu).

Imagine Luciano Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli giving a grunt amidst an opera at the Philharmonic. Pavarotti was once rumored to have lip-synced with a recording of his song (nevertheless his own rendition), it caused a furore.

Tagore visiting performances in London, in the 20's, wonders why Indian musicians do not tune up their instruments prior to performance and show some professionalism like their western counterparts. Some would argue that seeing that tune up is a wholesome experience itself. I beg to differ, the stage is not for prep work, what comes on stage should be sheer "presentation" that qualifies to be called "performance".

I am not quibbling about MS's musical genius, I am least qualified. However it takes no qualification to see that somesobody is performing beyond their physical limitations.

Maybe these singers like our actors do not know how to age and retire gracefully. As much as it was horrible to see a paunchy 60 year old Sivaji nuzzle up like a teenager to a teenage girl singing a senseless song so also it was grating to see this kind of performance by the doyen of music.

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