Call of Bangalore begins with an agile-minded, musically unafraid opening gambit. With its title slyly alluding to her birthplace, this studio album not only shows off violinist Jyotsna Srikanth’s roots but also her command of melodicism, rhythmicality and pace. Furthermore, with the opening varnam she nails her colours precisely to the mast, revealing that the album’s programming likely as not is going to adopt a South Indian convention and progression deployed in concertising.
There is a lot of biography that it is tempting to include about Jyotsna Srikanth. A flit-by will have to suffice. It was the senior violin vidwan (maestro) Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan (1935-2008) that put her on the violin trail. It is plain that since then she has closely studied the work and career paths of the South’s vidwans of violin. One cert has to be Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, whose classically-inspired sessions for the film industries south of Bombay subsidised his classical earnings – a bill-paying revenue stream not unknown to Jyotsna Srikanth either. The album’s closing choice could arguably support further violin vidwan talk or conjecture. It is a thillana – a highly rhythmic form comparable to the Hindustani tradition’s tarana song form – frequently presented as the final piece in a Karnatic recital. This one in Mand, a northern rāg, is composed by Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (1930-2013). He was one of the South’s era-defining Violin Trinity completed by M.S. Gopalakrishnan (1931-2013) and T.N. Krishnan (born 1928).
Jyotsna Srikanth’s opener is set in the pentatonic rāgam Mohana (or Mohanam) in the eight-beat adi cycle. A varnam, declared D. Seshachari of the Hyderabad Brothers in a 2012 interview in The Hindu, is ‘a storehouse of many typical phrases of a particular raga’, though, more prosaically, he also described it as ‘a throat-clearing device before plunging into a prolonged concert’. This varnam is Srikanth’s arrangement of ‘Ninnu Kori…’ by the composer-vocalist Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar (1860-1919). Here, as elsewhere, Patri Satish Kumar is on fine form on mridangam, the South’s most versatile double-headed, barrel-shaped hand-drum. Equally adept at ducking and diving rhythmically is N. Amruth on kanjira, the small frame drum. Melody melded to rhythmicality underpins Call of Bangalore.
Varnams come in various forms and lengthy or relatively short expositions. Srikanth’s intricate interpretation sticks close to the composition’s contours at under seven minutes. As phrase leads into phrase, Iyengar’s composition reveals itself to be full of twists and turns. These are ideal for limber fingers or knotting fingers. This varnam’s plot developments are so edge-of-the-seat that they are pretty much guaranteed to send anybody’s timepiece into a state of suspended animation. ‘Varnam’ flies by in a trice. Parenthetically, the vision she paints is quite different to Vaidyanathan’s wow-factor interpretation. There is a YouTube performance of ‘Ninnu Kori…’ that is a thing of wonderment. From his Mohanam brushstrokes something like a Chinese rāgam emerges – an indication of the willowy strength and sturdiness of Iyengar’s composition. In passing it pretty much nominates and seconds him as the Charlie Parker of Karnatic violin.
As Call of Bangalore advances, the revelations keep on coming. There is a steady build-up through her arrangement of the musician-composer, patron of the arts and Maharaja of Travancore, Swati Tirunal’s ‘Gopalaka Pahiman’ (Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma in full) in the morning rāgam Bhowli. Saint Muthuswami Dikshitar’s hymn to Parvati’s avatar, ‘Annapoorne’ (or ‘Annapurna’) in Sama reinforces the development. Then things explode at first in a leisurely fashion with her treatment of Saint Tyagaraja’s ‘Bhova Bharama’ in Bahudari. At almost forty minutes in length it is the album’s longest track. It is also the recital’s centrepiece and undeniable highlight. She changes the mood completely with a second Tyagaraja composition, the slow-tempo ‘Shobane’ in Pantuvarali. Last comes the finale proper: that ‘Thillana’ composed by Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. It sways. It shimmers. It grounds. It brings the ‘show’ to a close wonderfully.
Throughout Call of Bangalore Srikanth reveals herself as someone totally conscious of the tradition but not hidebound by the conformities of tradition-inspired or -generated music. In that respect, she is reminiscent of A. Kanyakumari whose playing continually goes from strength to strength. Kanyakumari is a violinist whose playing is equally at home as accompanist or soloist. Make no mistake: balancing the two is no little life or artistic achievement. It takes a firm grip on reality – of varying kinds, whether personal, artistic or temperamentally – to get to the point Jyotsna Srikanth has reached with Call of Bangalore. There is a private passion to this recording we ought to count ourselves privileged to eavesdrop upon. This is Jyotsna Srikanth’s giant step forward as a soloist.