Keyboard For Carnatic

Mohan Ayyar is famous for not only his very detailed website carnatic corner but also as a modern keyboard player. He says he went Carnatic in his teens after he developed a fascination for this form of indian classical music. Mohan Ayyar played at the Sydney Music Circle recently accompanied by Bala Sankar on Mridangam, Janakan Suthathiraraj on Kanjira, Balaji on his violin. Sydhwaney took the opportunity to ask him a few unique questions on his choice of the keyboard as the instrument and his choice of compositions for this concert.

You played all songs in today’s concert in memory of GNB. Why ?

This year is the birth centenerary year of GN Balasubramaniam (he was born in 1910). Celebrations have been taking place throughout the world remembering this great musician who revolutionised Carnatic music with his unique style and renditions. GNB also popularised many rare ragas (such as Andolika, Chenchukambhoji, Malavi, etc) and has composed over 250 compositions. Of course, I am also a big fan of the GNB style of music. I selected and played the following:

1. Ninnukori, Mohanam, Adi, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar

2. Karimukha varada, Nattai, Adi, GNB (S)

3. Saraswati Namostute, Saraswati, Rupakam, GNB

4. Sivananda kamavardhani, Pantuvarali, Misra Chapu, GNB (RNS)

5. Paripalayamam, Rithigowla, Rupakam, Swati Tirunal (R)

6. Manasayetulo, Malayamarutam, Rupakam, Thyagaraja (S)

7. Kaligiyuntegada, Kiravani, Adi, Thyagaraja (RNS)

8. Marukelara, Jayantasri, Adi, Thyagaraja

9. RTP, Andolika, Khanda Jathi triputa (+ragamalika swaram in ranjani, kadanakuthuhalam, varali, hindolam, gavati, yadukula kambhoji)

10. Himagiri tanaye, Sudha Dhanyasi, Adi, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar

11. Dikku teriyada kattil, Ragamalika, Adi, Bharatiar

12. Radha sameta krishna, Misra Yaman, Eka

The concert featured some of GNB’s own compositions plus a few which he popularised and rendered often such as Manasayetulo in Malayamarutam, Paripalayamam in Rithigowla, Marukelara in Jayantasri and lighter compositions like Bharatiyar’s Dikku teriyadu kattil in ragamalika. I composed a special pallavi in raga Andolika with the lyrics ‘Rajarajeshwari pada namaste, Balasubramanya janani’ . The lyrics are in praise of GNB’s ishta devata Rajarajeshwari and Andolika is one of the ragas which GNB popularised. The ragas chosen for ragamalika swaram are all the ragas which GNB has composed varnams in (Andolika, Ranjani, Kadanakuthuhalam, Varali, Hindolam, Gavati & Yadukula kambhoji). GNB is said to have learnt the Hindustani raga Gavati from Bade Gulam Ali Khan and in turn taught him Andolika! The concert was a success due to the good rapport between the musicians on stage. The four of us Balaji Jagannathan, Bala Sankar, Janakan Suthathiraraj and myself are all passionate musicans and this contributed to a great musical atmosphere.

Did you vary the raga/thalams in the sequence of your concert ?

I select the sequence of the ragas so as there is a variety of different notes presented. For example, I would avoid playing Mohanam followed by Hamsadhwani – two ragas that have only one note that differs. This is the primary concern but I also like to choose a variety of different talas to give the concert some variety and make it a little more challenging for the musicians. The concert featured different talas including different variations of Adi tala, Rupakam, Chapu talas and the nine beat Khanda Triputa for the pallavi.

What about the capacity to create Gamakas on the keyboard ?

You won’t be able to get easily get gamakam (glides and ornamaentations) on a standard Yamaha or Casio keyboard. On selected synthesizers made by Roland or Korg there are special functions which enable certain glides. This technology together with the correct technique makes most gamakam used in Carnatic music possible on a synthesizer. There are still some phrases which are difficult to reproduce on a synth.

When and how did you learn the keyboard ?

I taught my self Western popular music on the keyboard when I was in my early teens. Later, when I started listening to Carnatic music I tried to play some simple compositions. From there my interest developed and I learnt vocal music for a few years when I was in University. However, the important aspect of learning Indian music is to listen to lots of music.

Do you know of Other practitioners of the keyboard for carnatic music and is there scope to improve upon it ?

A lot of children in India are learning ther keyboard these days. I think this is basically so they can get a start for film music. There are a few artistes who play Carnatic music on the synthesizer such as Palladam Venkataramana Rao and recently Master Sathyanarayanan (Keyboard Sathya). However, the keyboard is still striving to get recognition as a suitable instrument for Carnatic music in India. Some of the stigma behind this is due to people associating the keyboard with the harmonium. Technology has somewhat bridged the gap and I now think the synthesizer is 95% suitable for Carnatic music.

There is scope to improve the synthesizer to suit Carnatic music, such as by getting better tones that replicate the veena, bansuri or the violin as it sounds in Indian music. There are probably some other technical changes that could be made to make it easier to play gamakam.

Who are the Musicians you admire ?

I listen to a great variety of musicians. This has helped me to accompany different artistes in many concerts around Australia. I have a particular liking for the GNB school of musicians that includes GNB, ML Vasantakumari, TS Kalyanaraman and Trichur V Ramachandran. I am also a great fan of the soulful renditions of MD Ramanathan and the vibrant renditions of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Of course, I admire many of the current crop of musicians as well.

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