Aruna Sairam’s evening BBC Proms was announced as the first entirely Carnatic billing in the Proms’ 116-year history; indeed there is no finer torch-bearer for the subcontinent’s southern art music system. She knew she wasn’t playing for the Mylapore Fine Arts Club or Chennai’s Naradha Gana Sabha audiences but the needs of printed concert programme and website information meant that repertoire and running order were fixed. Her recital, a full thali of southern poeticism, was somewhat mediated therefore but worked brilliantly for concert-goer and Radio 3 listener alike.
The evening opened with Hari Sivanesan, the London-based Tamil vina-player who Sairam is mentoring as part of the BBC’s World Routes Academy. It would be hard to imagine how he felt to be performing on this particular stage this particular night. He acquitted himself marvellously on a composition by one of the Trinity of Hindu saint-composers, Tyagaraja’s ‘Manavyalakincha Radate’ in ragam ‘Nalinakanti’ in the all-purpose adi (first or fundamental) tala (rhythm cycle). If he can develop a distinctive voice of his own on vina, then he will, no doubt, be destined for great things. It is clear from this performance that Sivanesan is already well on his way.
Aruna Sairam’s singing possesses a rare combination of virtuosic stylishness, classicism and modernity, joyful élan and dishoom! punch. It’s a combination that moves minds and bodies – an Aruna Sairam recital demands audiences move, not sit motionless in contemplative repose. Her opening gambit was a diptych in ragam ‘Mohanam’ concerning the deity Kapali, beginning with the Tamil eighth-century C.E. Shaiva saint-poet Thirugnyana Sambandar’s composition ‘Kaapali’. Jyotsna Srikanth’s violin reinforced her phrasing like simultaneous interpreting. Then Patri Satish Kumar on mridangam (double-headed, barrel-shaped hand-drum) and Bangalore R.N. Prakash on ghatam (tuned clay pot) joined in to create a joyful sound. A twentieth-century companion composition by Papanasam Sivan completed the diptych.
She announced the concert’s centrepiece – a traditional ‘Raagam-Taanam-Pallavi’ set in ragam ‘Shanmukhapriya’ – as a ‘three-part suite which actually in a full-length concert would take an hour-and-a-half in itself’. A ‘Raagam-Taanam-Pallavi’ is the section of a Carnatic recital that comes closest to Hindustani recital conventions with the greatest preponderance of improvisation. It opened with voice and violin, with Srikanth providing a short, spirited solo before a pulse entered with Sivanesan’s vina figures. At times, Srikanth’s violin verged on kemancheh (spike-fiddle) sonorities. The taanam sensuously revealed the music’s innate tensions with sequences of builds and releases. It also heard Sairam turn herself briefly into a human reverb machine. The suite ended with a tani aavartanam, a percussion exchange for mridangam, ghatam and Pirashanna Thevarajah’s morsing (Jew’s harp), deftly concluded with a turn-on-a-paisa vocal burst.
Rounding off the Prom with two miniatures, Sairam began with a viruttam, a manodharma (spontaneous extemporisation) prologue based on a Kandar Alangaram composition that led into Mayuram Vishwanatha Shastry’s slow-tempo kriti (Hindu hymn) in ‘Sindhu Bhairavi’, ‘Kantamaam’, named after Sri Lanka’s famed Murugan-dedicated but cross-faith temple site. The final piece was a thillana, a talking-in-rhythm form analogous to Hindustani music’s tarana. The eighteenth-century composer Ootukkadu Venkatasubba Iyer’s ‘Kalinga Nartana’ describes the confrontation and rapprochement of Krishna and the ferocious naga (serpent being) Kalinga (or Kaliya). A show-stopper in every sense, it was a monumental flourish with which to close this historic evening.