antarkatha – inner story through music & art

Charsur recently conducted a 3-day series on the theme ‘antarkatha’, an inner story through music and art. There was a great line-up of artists and, added to it, it was being held at the recently-renovated Rasika Ranjani Sabha, which I was yet to visit. I was pretty curious and attended this event on Days 2 and 3.


The theme of Day 2 was ‘Muddu Krishna’ (or Bala Krishna) performed by Sriram Parasuram (narration and singing), Nisha Rajagopalan and K Gayatri on vocals, Nishanth Chandran on violin, Poongulam Subramaniam on Mridangam, Srikrishna & Ganesh Rao on harmonium and tabla. The artist illustrating the story was Keshav, whose cartoons appear everyday in The Hindu.

The programme started with Sriram Parasuram singing mArgazhi thingaL. Keshav, on his corner of the stage, started sketching something out with pencil. There appeared to be the form of Krishna, a couple of cows and a small girl. Though the concept of the programme was supposed to be bringing out the leelas of little Krishna through music and art, the music part turned out to be mostly like any other concert, with the addition of Sriram saying a few words about each composition. One interesting fact that he pointed out was that many songs, though they start out singing about ‘bAla’ Krishna, spell out the stories from the later parts of his life as well (example: bAlagOpAlA in Bhairavi by Dikshitar). Another new thing I learnt was that the rAgam hindOLam means ‘to swing freely together’ (with Krishna 🙂 ). Sriram said that it is as if the rAgam is made for Krishna and inspired by Krishna. Sriram, Nisha and Gayatri (excellent rendition of Bhairavi alapana and bAlagOpAlA) took turns in singing compositions (full list below) while Keshav’s canvas started to bring out in vivid strokes, Krishna’s graceful form, his beloved cows, a little girl (Radha?), Yashoda and a little Krishna running towards Yashoda. With the pastel shades of black and orange, the brilliant-and-beautiful form of Krishna took a life of its own while we heard songs singing his glory. A very interesting experiment on the whole when the audience got to enjoy not only the sounds and words, but also got a visual experience. We do get to experience the musicians’ creativity in concerts through kalapanaswaras, alapana, etc., but when an artist wields his drawing instruments, we are left to wonder how the final form was conceived in the artist’s mind starting with a completely blank canvas, how his hands execute the ideas from his brain and if and how he reacts to the music and words that were flowing from the other side of the stage. I did not stay till the end of this programme but the concept impressed me enough to come back the next day.


Image courtesy: (you can find more beautiful sketches of Krishna by Keshav on his Twitter)

1. mArgazhi thingaL – nAttai – ANdAL – Sriram
2. bAla sarasa muraLi – kIravANi – UtthukkAdu venkatasubbaiyar – outline – Nisha
3. srI vENugOpAlA – kurinji – dIkshitar – Gayatri
4. sAmaja vara gamanA – hindOLam (meaning: to swing freely together) – tyAgarAja – AlApana, swarams – Sriram
5. srI rAjagOpAla bAla – sAvEri – dIkshitar – AlApana, neraval – Nisha, Gayatri
6. jamunA kinArE mOrA gAon – misra kalyAN – ? – Sriram
7. bAlagOpAlA – bhairavi – dIkshitar – AlApana, swarams – Gayatri, Nisha
8. kAkkai chiraginilE – brindAvana sArangA – bhArati – outline – Nisha
9. tAyE yasOdA – tOdi – UtthukkAdu venkatasubbaiyar – Sriram

Day 3

Day 3’s programme was called ‘Story in concert’. The description given in the pamphlet that was distributed the previous day did not quite give away what it was about. While introducing the artists, Charubala of Charsur said that it was Jayanthi Kumaresh’s idea to do a ‘story in concert’. From that idea sprang a full 3-day festival, which Charsur chose to call the ‘antarkatha – inner story through music and art’. Jayanthi’s idea was to present a story in a concert through different media – song, percussion, words (story), painting. Jayanthi Kumaresh played the Veena (rather her Veena enacted the part of the Veena 😉 ), Vidhya Anand transported us to Ambi’s world through her story ‘The Mystery of the Missing Veena’, K U Jayachandra Rao played the Mridangam, Pramath Kiran played the tabla and morsing, and Neernalli Ganapathy from Hubli brought to life with his lightning-fast strokes each episode of ‘The Mystery of the Missing Veena’. The programme invoked hearing drama on radio, reading a comic book, listening to a concert, listening to fusion music and simply listening to a grandmother’s tale all rolled into one. Perfectly conceptualised and perfectly executed. Vidhya Anand narrated the story in colloquial Tamil, interspersed with some English, just as we speak, starting with ‘Once upon a time… ‘.

There lived a little boy called Ambi with his parents, periamma and periappa. He was fond of his Lalitha periamma, who pampered him and was more of his friend except for that magical time after lighting the lamp in the evening, when she took out her Veena for her daily sadhaka, which left Ambi in so much awe and wonder that he would only peep from behind a door or a window to see his periamma practising with that aura. We could imagine Jayanthi Kumaresh transforming into Lalitha and her Veena played the Sankarabharanam varnam, while we saw within the span of that five minutes the back view of little Ambi standing hesitantly in a room, looking out from the window at the form of his periamma playing the lilting swarams of Sankarabharanam on her Veena. Neernalli Ganapathy was a magician. With a thread(?) and some paint, he could create a marvel in a span of minutes, bringing to life the little details of our little Ambi’s world, perfectly in sync with the duration of the song.

As Ambi grew more and more in love with the music and the Veena, he boldly asked his periamma one day to teach him the Veena. His periamma agreed to teach on two conditions: 1. he would practise for two hours every morning before school and 2. practise for two hours every evening after coming back from school. Ambi, after much thought, agreed to it, pushing away thoughts of his play time that he would have to give up in order to do this. And so began Ambi’s journey with the Veena. A song in Malahari was one of his first lessons. Jayanthi’s Veena now transformed to Ambi’s Veena playing the song and we saw the next canvas creating the scene of Ambi and Lalitha seated with their respective veenas, playing Malahari. Yet again, the painting was complete just as the last strains of Malahari flowed from the Veena.

Lalitha’s Veena was not just any other Veena. It was a 150-year-old Veena handed down over generations and Lalitha took great care of it. When she became very old, she gave it to Ambi so that he could continue playing on that. Ambi, by now, had become a true vidwan. He would not perform in public, but whenever he played the Veena, one sensed the magic of the world that he was creating through his Veena. He had learnt to play rare ragams like kAntAmaNi – a melakartha ragam that sounded like a beautiful amalgamation of kalyANi and sucharitrA. Jayanti outdid herself playing this beautiful ragam. Neernalli Ganapathy painted a picture that invoked nature, sculpture and art through Ambi’s Veena.

In the meantime, Lalitha had passed away. Ambi was working as a Data scientist and got an opportunity to move to Mumbai from his beloved Madras. He couldn’t stand parting from his Veena and decided to take it with him. He arranged for a separate cargo to take it to his new Mumbai house. And so Ambi began his new life in Mumbai waiting eagerly for his Veena at 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vihar. The rest of his luggage arrived within a couple of days but his Veena seemed to be missing without a trace. The courier company had no answer and could only keep assuring him that they were ‘trying to locate it’. Ambi was anxious, and dreaded what would have happened to his precious Veena. His heart was playing its agitated tani avartanam – Jayachandra Rao and Pramath played a very different kind of tani avartanam that would have fitted perfectly as a background music to any movie scene showing the emotions of an Ambi-like character. Meanwhile, the artist was drawing what looked like a modern guy with torn jeans, t-shirt, earrings on one ear, playing the Veena in an awkward position sitting cross-legged in an angle with a thought-bubble that showed a guitar inside it. The audience was left wondering who this person was. There seemed to have been a bit of a confusion since Neernalli Ganapathy did not know Tamil, so he wasn’t sure of the exact scene being narrated, but this also added an element of mystery to the audience.

We would discover who that young man was after that sprightly tani avartanam. John, residing at 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vilas, received a big box one day. He was a confused electric guitarist playing in a jazz band and simply assumed that someone had sent that box as a gift. On opening the same, he found this ‘strange’ instrument, the name of which he had no clue. After googling about Indian instruments, he found out that it was the Saraswati Veena. Something drew him to the instrument, so he started trying to play it. Not in the Carnatic style, but in his chaste electric guitar style. And, once again, Jayanti’s Veena acquired its new character of an electric guitarist’s Veena. Jayanti played some completely non-Carnatic jazzy music which sounded absolutely delightful, while Neernalli Ganapathy recreated the torn-jeans-earring-adorned John once again playing the Veena, while Ambi was terribly worried about his Veena, since it was over a month since he moved to Mumbai.

Finally, Ambi received a call from the courier company informing him that the Veena had been delivered to 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vilas instead of Shanti Vihar and they could return it to him in a couple of days. Ambi couldn’t wait that long. He immediately noted the address and drove down to the current residence of his cherished 150-year old Veena. And there he was greeted by John and his amazing music studio. He was glad that his Veena had somehow found its way to a musician’s house. John was way too curious and had gotten very attached to the Veena with his recent experiments that he wouldn’t let Ambi simply pick up the Veena and leave. He asked Ambi to tell him more about this instrument. Jayanti (as Ambi) spoke eloquently about the history of the Veena – an ancient instrument with an important place in Indian culture with all gods and goddesses playing this instrument, its form as a reincarnation of the human body itself, the positive vibrations that are generated (destroying any negative vibrations that may be present) when one plays the Veena and the peace that it brings to the listeners, the incredible amount of multitasking that a person playing the Veena has to do in terms of keeping the beat with one hand, remembering the notes and playing them with the other hand and keeping the spine straight – a great exercise for children that could help them improve their learning capabilities and concentration. The Veena has not changed form for a long time now. If one has a Veena at home, it does bring positive vibrations, but it should be regularly played and one should never keep a broken Veena at home.

After hearing this, John really wanted to hear Ambi play the Veena the way it is supposed to be played. And Ambi launched into a Ragam Tanam Pallavi in Kharaharapriya that totally blew John away. It was as if Saraswati herself was playing the instrument. By the time the Tanam was done, Neernalli Ganapathy had already created a masterpiece of Saraswati standing in a graceful reclining pose, playing the Veena. John and the audience were really left with no words.


Thus, Ambi was reunited with his missing Veena. In a few days, his doorbell rang and he was pleasantly surprised to see John with a new Veena in his hand. John wanted to learn the Veena from Ambi. And so continues the story of music – passing from one generation to another, taking in its stride countless musicians, artists, storytellers, and the millions of hearts of enamoured and overwhelmed and blessed rasikas. As Madhyamavati poured out from the Veena before the curtains would close, I felt the bliss of having experienced a unique programme by outstanding artists (kudos also to Vidhya Anand for a truly engaging storytelling with ‘natural’ dialogues and expressions), that gratified all the senses, and I revelled in the magic of art.


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