A crucial part of the period of anticipation between December music seasons is the action on the Sangita Kalanidhi front. From January to July, music enthusiasts, like racecourse bookies, mull various odds to predict the Madras Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi award that year. Little patterns do exist. Vocalists, violinists and mridangists rotate out of equitable favour, interrupted by players of the ghatam, the veena or the nadaswaram, or the odd musicologist. As with the Nobel, age is a factor; the more grizzled the musician, the better her odds.
After the academy’s announcement in July, the debates begin about who has been flagrantly overlooked. Over the last two years, few would have backed the eventual winner. The 2008 Kalanidhi was clarinet wizard A.K.C. Natarajan; this year, the academy picked Valayapatti Subramaniam, expert on the thavil, the thunderous drum that accompanies the nasal nadaswaram. The awards were pleasant surprises; Natarajan and Subramaniam are masters of their craft, but neither the clarinet nor the thavil had ever won the Kalanidhi before.
Subramaniam, gnomish at 68, does not punish the thavil as others do. Instead, he delivers calibrated raps with his fingers and his baton, his head bobbing in perfect tempo. (There is a market for the Valayapatti Subramaniam Bobblehead Doll). At its most energetic, his playing can sound like a hailstorm descending upon a wooden roof. Over a career of 56 years, he has accompanied the best nadaswaram artistes, but his most popular collaboration was an unorthodox one, with the violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan. They performed nearly 3,000 concerts with this odd, enjoyable offering: the refined tones of the violin paired with the brusque folk notes of the thavil.
Beat it: Valayapatti Subramaniam. S Thanthoni/The Hindu
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that with its recognition of Natarajan and Subramaniam, the academy is growing adventurous. There has always been a maverick gene in its constitution. In 1973, the Kalanidhi was T. Balasaraswati—a dancer given a musician’s prize. In 1946, 1967 and 1975, the academy gave no award at all; these were, respectively, the death centenary of the composer Thyagaraja, the bicentenary of his birth and the bicentenary of the birth of another great composer, Muthuswami Dikshitar. In 1947, the Sangita Kalanidhi went to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, all of 39 years old, still the youngest musician to have won the title.
If I could prod the academy into revisiting its earlier boldness, it would be in this matter of age. Doubtless there is only one award a year and many deserving senior musicians. But music is no devotee of age. I particularly urge the choice of U. Srinivas, 40 years old and a performer for 31. Srinivas has steered the mandolin, an un-traditional instrument, into the Carnatic mainstream. He has spliced Carnatic music superbly into jazz, and has drawn a new generation to the art—all without compromising a gram of classicism.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com