Asian Music and Dance

Manickam Yogeswaran

Manickam Yogeswaran (afterwards Yoga) is probably the most-heard South Indian vocalist on the planet ever. That statement may ring like puff prose or press release regurgitation. After all, we are still living in a time when beyond-superlatives singer M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was recently alive. Plus M. Balamurali Krishna is still alive and ripping the insides out of listeners emotionally and intellectually. The contention has nothing to do with South Indian commerciality such as Mollywood – the Malayalam film industry – or Kollywood – the Chennai-based Tamil cinema – either.

To be honest, the wider world hasn’t listened to South Indian music much. The Sri Lankan singer’s music and career is rippled with cross-cultural transfers. He has sung at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Jazzopen Stuttgart, Tanz&FolkFest Rudolstadt and Glastonbury. He has sung with the German-based world-beat combo Dissidenten, with the vocal tour-de-force The Shout, for Shobana Jeyasingh in dance contexts and for Jocelyn Pook. But it was a collaboration with Pook that propelled him into the big league. In 1999 he sang on the soundtrack for what would be director Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut. A selection of Kubrick’s films might include Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). You’ve got the drift… Kubrick’s films stick around and that is why Yoga’s voice singing in Eyes Wide Shut makes him likely to be the most-heard Tamil vocalist of all time.

His appearance at the Museum of Asian Music found him in intimate surroundings. The venue is intimate, to use that evasion. The core of his performance repertoire drew on creative nourishment from his cultural roots; that is, Tamil devotional songs – no crossover, no deviations from the path. He stuck to that side of his performing repertoire for which fewer listeners know him. He opened with a religious tract, call it a hymn, Thirugnana Sampanthar’s ‘Thodudaiya Seviyan’ in rāgam Gambhira Nattai. Frankly, no heaped subtitles or on-stage exegesis about this or the following pieces’ religious contexts would have worked. They would have been head-spinning. Hinduism may be what some would like to call the mother religion of the subcontinent but, when it comes to deities and sects, the variants and permutations on names defeat even the sadhus or sages. Let alone references to Kabir, one of the reforming saint-poets of the bhakti movement or Hindu Reformation whose poetising informed Sikhism. “O devotee,” Yoga sang later, “Sing the names of the Lord/Sing Ram, Govind, Hari…”

Without the gift of Tamil, it was down to music. Yoga sang beautifully, like a songster, though the mridangam player’s premature applause before Yoga’s final notes had decayed grew really, really irritating. The final thillana in Mohana Kalyani dealt with Lord Murugan. The Hindu counterpart of Mars the Roman god of war and victory, Lord Murugan has strong Tamil devotional associations. The sparse composition was by the violinist-composer Lalgudi Jayaraman, his death in April 2013 still very much present. The performance just blew me away.



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