It seems to be almost a rule of statistics that during any discussion of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer or of concerts of bygone years, the “Airport Concert” will come up within the first 10 minutes. The first time this happened, the moniker snagged my interest. Carnatic music enthusiasts are apt to refer to concerts in the manner of Friends episode titles—“The One Where He Sang Begada For Fifty Minutes”, “The One In Bangalore”, “The One With The Terrible Bhairavi”—so why “Airport Concert”? Did it actually happen in an airport, in a corner of a terminal where Semmangudi and his troupe were breaking journey, where they launched irresistibly into song?
Maestro: Carnatic exponent Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Sruti Magazine
As it turned out, the concert occurred not in an airport but near one; the mridangam player in the concert, Trichy Sankaran, once confirmed that it was held, sometime in the 1960s, in a hall in Tambaram, a Chennai suburb that abuts the international airport. And indeed, the drone of low-flying jets routinely cut through the music. Once, out of exasperation, Semmangudi remarked in wry Tamil: “The asura is back!”; on another occasion, after an aircraft had passed, he observed: “My ears are still returning to normal”.
The “Airport Concert” arises so often in conversation because it is said to be one of Semmangudi’s best performances. But given its vintage, I had initially despaired of finding the recording—until I googled for it and discovered that some kind soul had uploaded it on a website called Surasa.net. So a couple of Sundays ago, I downloaded the concert, queued the songs up and sat back to listen.
The most noticeable aspect of the concert is how thoroughly a Semmangudi concert it is, filled to the brim with songs he sang so often that he made them his own: Marubalka, in the raga Sriranjani; Dinamani Vamsa, in Harikambhoji; Rama Nee, in Karaharapriya, to name a few of the 18 pieces on the list (even if I rack my mind, I can think of only two or three Semmangudi staples that have been left out). It is also an impeccably paced concert; those 18 pieces are fitted into three-and-a-half hours, but at no stage does the music feel hurried or lethargic. Semmangudi moves smoothly from song to song, and on the violin, the maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman feints and weaves with the vocalist’s vision, always equalling and sometimes trumping it.
By the time he delivered this concert, Semmangudi had been singing professionally for close to 40 years and that vast bank of experience is palpable at every turn of the music. When he improvises on a raga, he tosses off highly classical phrases with alacrity and then riffs on them with verve and imagination. The breadth of that imagination is astounding. On at least four instances, I found myself wondering how much more he could toy with a phrase, only to be presented with further elaborations, further effortless creativity. The effect is nothing short of majestic, and it is marred only in patches by his sharp nasal twang. The “Airport Concert” may not be his greatest live performance, but it is a wonderful, accurate exhibition of the qualities that made Semmangudi great.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org