Not every concert has a riveting story behind it. This one does.
A few weeks ago, a friend named Rama invited me to a performance by Nilakantan Sridhar, a Chennai-based singer who was travelling to New Delhi for the purpose. The concert, she’d mentioned in her text message, would be an intimate affair, just family and a few close friends. This sounded intriguing, and after Rama sent me an explanatory email, the story only grew more fascinating.
The concert was to feature the songs of Rama’s aunt V. Kamakshi, who lived a hurried, eventful life and died of tuberculosis in 1953, at the age of 23. From her childhood, Kamakshi claimed that she could feel the presence of the Hindu god Krishna around her; in Rama’s words, “she argued, played, danced and sang with him”. Growing up fatherless, and in a poor family, Kamakshi possibly fell back on this divine companionship as a form of escapism. A happy consequence, however, was the volume of Tamil songs she wrote celebrating her deity—300 or more, according to one count.
Kamakshi contracted tuberculosis when she was 17, and her poetry began to reflect, alternately, her despair and her near-delirious faith (“Are you fair to test me like this?” she asks in one song; in another, Krishna promises her: “I will never forsake you”). After she died, V. Subramanian, Kamakshi’s brother and Rama’s father, travelled often around south India with a “hard-bound, British empire diary from the 1940s”. The diary contained his sister’s songs, and he was searching for musicians to set them to music.
Food for devotion: Nilakantan Sridhar in concert in New Delhi, singing devotional songs composed by V. Kamakshi in the 1950s before she died at the age of 23. Jeff Pachoud/AFP
Earlier this year, in Sridhar and Gayathri Venkatesan, Subramanian finally found the musicians he was looking for. The two singers set 37 of Kamakshi’s verses to music and recently released a double album—at, very poignantly, the very temple where Kamakshi had died. Sridhar’s concert in Delhi was an extension of that work; in a way we don’t see very often, he served as both the composer of, and the conduit for, the music that evening. Pleasingly, the songs seemed to suit the singer. Kamakshi’s verses are simple and forthright, devoid of the ornate metaphors that can sometimes be found in Carnatic music. Sridhar’s voice was similarly strong and clear, free of unnecessary acrobatics.
The combination made for a more meditative concert experience than usual. It is easy to forget that much of Indian classical music—and Carnatic music in particular—started life as the lyric poetry of religion. The infinite technical nuances of the music can distract from—and even overwhelm—the potency of the lyrics. The auditorium in which this music is now most often performed is a sternly secular space, very unlike the temple, which was the only available stage for many centuries. Perhaps, with the best of intentions, we have even fashioned our aesthetic into one giant secular space; at least a couple of leading contemporary musicians have suggested that their devotion belongs more to the art form than to its theistic agenda. The most obvious exchange is now that between the musician and her audience. Listening to Kamakshi’s songs—and knowing the story behind them—was a reminder of another, less immediate exchange: that between the composer and the focus of her faith.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org