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Margazhi Raagam - A brave and rewarding experiment
Maargazhi, the dawn for the celestials, is an enchanting month. The cool morning blooms with Thiruppavai. A day-long musical jamboree follows, bringing out the best in Carnatic music. Of course, you can enjoy the music part only if you are blessed enough to be in Chennai. Anything by way of music that comes during this month is a rare treat to the rasikas in other cities. This year, however, we have not just a feast for the ears but also one for the eyes in the first digital Carnatic concert on celluloid, brought out by Aghal films and Real Image.

It was a packed hall at Ramba Theatre, Trichy, where most seats had been booked in advance for a Sunday morning screening of this Qube cinema. The theatre staff had thoughtfully dispensed with the usual commercial jingles, and, instead, played Sanskrit slokas even as the seats were filling up. The muted whisperings were about what was to be expected. After all, every one would have seen Carnatic concerts on television but not the one on the big screen. Was it going to be like a 'Hamsageethe' without a story line? Was it going to be like one of those son et lumiere shows that edify rather than enthrall? It proved to be neither. A tasteful blend of food for the ears and eyes, it stuck to the concert mode.

The movie is offered as a tribute to H. Sridhar, the chief audio engineer of the venture, who sadly did not live to see his dream come alive on the silver screen. An award winner for films such as Mahanadi, Dil Se, Lagaan and Kannathil Muththamittal, he was the pioneer of digital sound in the DTS format. The purity of each note, each brigha and each beat was brought out exquisitely in this format.

Bombay Jayashri Ramnath opened the film profoundly with a simple sloka 'Sarva mangala maangalye' and then warmed up with Ponnaiah Pillai's 'Maayaatheetha swaroopini' in the elementary raga Mayamalavagoula. The simple and yet soulful pallavi of this song was followed by the samashti charanam, which, by contrast, was stirring and yet serene. Nagapattinam's Neelayathakshi's divine grace was invoked next in the lullaby like 'Amba Neelayathakshi' (Neelambari-Dikshithar). Though Dikshithar describes the divine consort of Kaayarohaneswarar as wearing a smile made by the navarasas, nary a trace of a smile was seen on the visage of the singer. As Jayashri went on, it was clear that her enjoyment of the music was totally internal, intense and personal. So absorbed was she in her musical reverie, that she hardly ever opened her eyes to acknowledge the rest of the world. This served to underscore the primacy of the music rather than the musician. A delectable alaapana of Reethigoula and a sweet rejoinder by Embar Kannan on the violin were followed by Subbaraya Sastri's immortal piece 'Janani Ninnuvina'. Is it any wonder that this son of Syama Sastri and student of Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshithar combined their qualities of evocativeness, simplicity and lyrical lilt respectively in this composition? And who better than Jayashri to bring out the majesty of vilamba kaala in this kriti?

Patri Sathish Kumar, accompanying Jayashri on the mridangam, started the thani and it was a relief to see the audience remain seated. The cinematic medium allowed director Jayendra to unobtrusively bring in the other players on the screen, a feat that cannot be imagined in a live concert.

K. Arun Prakash (mridangam) and B.S. Purushothaman (khanjira), who were to accompany T.M.Krishna later, joined in to complete the percussion ensemble. The aural tonality and rhythm were exceptional in the Misra Chapu taala. The thani, brief by any standard, left the audience wanting more.

As one expected Jayashri to complete the song with reiteration of the pallavi, the concert changed gears and it was T.M. Krishna who finished the song. Sticking to the concert practice of a lighter post-tani piece, Krishna presented a Telugu padam by Swathi Thirunal (who, incidentally, never left the Travancore state even once). 'Saaramaina maatalantha' in Behag set to Roopakam was rendered with panache and verve. The understanding between the singer and the accompanists, especially R.K. Sriram Kumar on the violin, was magical. It was then intermission time for the customary popcorn (never to be had in any Sabha canteen!) and the collected 'wows' of the audience.

The brisk rendering of Thyagaraja's Khamas kriti 'Seethapathi, naa manasuna' by T.M. Krishna presented a complete contrast to the serene music of Jayashri. It was a visual treat, thanks to the cinematography by P.C. Sreeram, who captured every nuance of the expression of the artiste. A smile here, a wave of the hand there and a nod of the head were brilliantly recorded on the digital medium, elevating the standard of presentation to sheer cinematic poetry. The enthusiasm infected the accompanists, too. The audience, who were muted in their 'karaghosham' initially, were also enthused to rapturously applaud the efforts of the team.

The success of the movie must lie in the Varaali Raagam-Thaanam-Pallavi that followed. Krishna was as effortlessly at ease in elaborating the raga in the thaara sthaayi as in the anthara sthaayi. If the thaanam and pallavi that followed were in the sawaal-jawaab mode, the raga delineation seemed to be an inwardly focused affair, a kind of soul-searching. It is in this piece (as indeed with much of the movie) that the muted sets created by art director Rajeevan, seamless editing by Sathish Kurosowa and the subtle coloring by A.Venkatakrishna, were at their pinnacle, underscoring the fact the medium complements the music. Saama was strikingly fresh in the raga maalika swara prasthaara following the pallavi.

The sub-title said there was magic in the human voice accompanied solely by the thambura. It was divine mystic magic when Jayashri came back to sing in such a manner 'Karaaravindhena' as a multi-ragaa viruttam ending in Kaapi. Krishna took the baton and sang Purandara Dasa's 'Jagadoddharana', again without violin or percussion to support. The brave experiment was rewarding, due to the voice culture par excellence of the vocalists. 'Vande maatharam' by Bharathiyar saw all the artistes chipping in for a fitting finale. This song, the only one in Tamil, carried a patriotic fervor and substituted for the more traditional mangalam.

What struck this reviewer was that the visuals of the cinema stuck to the concert platform and the performers through out its length. There were no unnecessary distracting and irritating visual interludes that one so often sees on the small screen. The entire team deserves kudos for bringing traditional music through a refreshingly new medium that transcends the trappings of a documentary. This happy blend of creativity on the part of performing artistes, aesthetic appeal created by the technicians and heights of audio-visual science will remain indelibly etched in the rasika's mind. We hope that the stock-broker, who is passionate about music and cinema (C.Srikanth of Aghal films), will produce sequels in this genre. Hindustani music and instrumental classical music are waiting to be explored.
Bharathi Srinivasan -
I just happened to see your wonderful review about Margazhi Raaga. I saw the movie in Satyam, a theatre which usually bustles with Young Couples, was full of wonderful Carnatic Music Rasigas of various ages. The whole movie was serene and wonderful. The movie was made with a very wonderful taste. The pooshani poo which was shown before every song informing about the raaga and composer added to the magic. It was a wonderful synchronisation. Great work and everyone who have contributed have done more than their best. Wish the team comes out of such good works every year.

Rohini -
Felt like I was sitting in an auditorium and listening to TMK's Varali! Excellent review.

Venkat Raman (Ramesh Anna), Chembur, Mumbai -
An excellent review, which literaly took me through the concert live. Though I am not a musician, I love to hear carnatic music. While reading this article, I almost felt that I was a part of the audience, enjoying myself. As we know Bombay Jayshree well, we felt proud of this young lady who has got one more feather in her cap after having achieved several accolades within our country and abroad. The report also highlights how aptly both T.M. Krishna and Bomba Jayshree blended to bring out the nuances of this art to the fore. I wish more and more success in their ventures, which will be a bonus to all those who wish to hear or experience such classical treats.