Kasim & Babu - Guest Book - Dr.V.K.Viswanathan

Dr. V.K. Viswanathan, Los Alamos
OH! Rangasayee! Yane Palli Kondeer Ayya -- 
An account of the ground breaking, trail blazing 2006 North American Tour of the S.Kasim-Babu-Senthil kumar Nadaswaram Troupe
A Personal Note From V.K.Viswanathan, Los Alamos.

For over half a century Classical South Indian Music and other art forms have been presented to discerning audiences in North America. Now a days the music scene here is no different than Chennai or Mumbai with audiences predominantly South Indian (mostly Madras at that!). The exceptions have been the tours of M.S.Subbulakshmi (1966), Lalgudi-Ramani (1971) and Sheikh Chinna Moulana (1973) which transcended national boundaries and attracted lots of attention and admiration from non-Indians including academic scholars, musicians, and audiences. In addition to joining this select group the unique contribution of the Kasim-Babu-Senthil tour has been the fact that they presented ALL THE FACETS of Nadswaram in south Indian culture and life. They clearly showed how much it pervades and permeates the life, music, and Divine aspects of life in south India.

They managed to accomplish this in a three month period (March 31 to July 4 2006) spanning a 3000x3000 mile area, a most remarkable Achievement and a testament to their discipline and dedication. Of course Bhairavi Fine Arts, Inc (most of whom are the ones successfully conducting the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival for the past 30 years) was the logical sponsor of their tour. They added another accomplishment to their long list of imaginative and innovative FIRSTS in presenting the BEST in our culture and fine arts to audiences in North America.

In addition (as the title implies) all three artists reside in the Srirangam-Tiruchi area; Kasim-Babu are Asthana Vidwans of the Tirupathi-Tirumala Devasthanam. Observing how the natives and ex-patriates from Tiruchi area encouraged and eagerly arranged the performances (as well as hosting the artists) have created a new regard and respect for persons from this area! Of course this phenomenon is not unlike the famous Manimandapam concerts in Tiruchi (where Madurai Mani Iyer with Palani Subramania Pillai accompanying him) with the greatest pioneering Tamil writers known as the Manikodi writers in attendance! By the way I am not from the Tiruchi area!

This article is an attempt to describe the enormous impact on our culture and interest in music this tour has evoked in North America. Close to fifteen persons have shared their expertise, observations and opinions for this article. I thank them and just list their names in the appropriate sections of this article. The broad brush description of this article can be divided into three sections:

  • An account of the tour interspersed with feedback comments and observation.
  • A brief discussion on Nadaswaram and the Kasim-Babu style of playing. Some impressions of the listeners are presented.
  • Some suggestions are presented for capitalizing on the momentum of this tour to furthering the foundations of our culture, music and fine arts globally.

Salient details of tour :
The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival has taken the lead in featuring a Nadaswaram troupe every year. This year S.Kasim-Babu (Nadhaswaram Duo)-Senthil Kumar (Thavil) were the main performers. This was the first time Nadswaram was given the pride of place. Their performance was scheduled as a Memorial Concert for their Guru Late Dr. Sheikh Chinna Moulana who toured North America successfully in 1973.

The tour started on March31 and ended on July4 2006 covering roughly a 3000x3000mile area. It is no exaggeration to say that they performed everyday except the days when travel schedules did not permit a concert! The various types of concerts as well as the occasions and audiences enabled them to fully demonstrate their knowledge and talents to varied audiences. The broad classification is as follows:

Platform Style (Sabha Type) performances held in concert halls, and Temples (open air).
Chamber music style concerts held in large rooms in a house, garden.

Temple related mini-performances at various times of the day, some times lasting over the entire week.

Various Function related presentations involving activities like Nalangu, Wedding, Upanayanam, Reception, House Inaguration etc.

Special Concerts like : 
Lecture-Demonstration-Interactive type; Geared to American musicians, musicologists, professors; Thyagaraja Utsavam, Yugadi, Maha Periyavar Sankarachariar etc; Concert at Televue a famous Company that makes Telescopes for observations and Photography of planets (Navagrahas).

We begin with their signature concert at Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival. In the three hour recital Kasim-Babu maintained their tradition of presenting a RARE kriti (as noted by the musicologist and writer Sankarasethu of Karaikudi in his live Jaya TV interview) on important occasions like Thiruvaiyaru. They played "Mennujoochi" in Sarasangi raga. Also rendered was "Janaki ramana" in Suddha seemandhini raga-the GOLD STANDARD SIGNATURE TRIBUTE to the bard of Thiruvaiyaru from the one and only T.N.Rajaratnam whose depth and Style they are trying to emulate. May be they were paying their own Tribute to the Nadaswara Chakravarthi No wonder INDIAN EXPRESS called them "Pipers to God" and added "As one listens to Kasim and Babu it is hard not to be swamped by nostalgia". The Main piece was "Oh! RangaSayee" in Kambodhi raga chosen for the following reasons:

As Srirangam natives they saluted their PERUMAL: PONNISOOL ARANGAN.

Their Guru late Dr. Chinna Moulana was a great devotee of Lord Ranganatha as many writers have attested to.

This concert was dedicated to Sheikh's memory; both the raga and composition were his favorite. The profound nature of this kriti is beyond analysis and mere language. Imagine as late Professor S.Ramanathan used to say: if only we had heard Thyagaraja render it himself! They capped the whole performance with Swati Tirunal's magnificent Dasavathara Ragamalika "Kamalajaasya" not heard in concert halls since the halcyon days of the Alathur Brothers. No wonder the audience was on their toes throughout and gave a rare standing ovation at the conclusion of the memorable concert. Their eighteen such concerts in major venues evoked similar responses.

The novel and interesting aspect of this tour was the seamless combination of major concerts with activities that are part and parcel of the all pervading nature of Nadaswaram in the daily lives of South Indians in terms of their culture, music and past. We illustrate this with two examples one from each coast of the United States separated by over two thousand miles.

The start of the tour was in the San Francisco bay area on March 31 2006 as soon as they arrived! South India Fine Arts (SIFA) hosted the 2006 Spring Music Festival on April 1, 2006. The festival started with a three hour Nadaswaram concert by Subhan Kasim and Subhan

The brothers started the concert with a varnam in the morning raga Vasantha, followed by Saint Tyagaraja's pancharathna keerthana in Sri raga. The main piece was Mahalakshmi in Sankarabharanam This was one of the best concerts of the entire spring season, and the artists rendered scholarly compositions, and made the listeners feel that everyone was one listening to a grand vocal concert. Such was the ability of the artists to render scholarly compositions with utmost clarity. The swaras were simple and elegant void of any gimmicks or emulation of percussion patterns. .They fully participated in the Kumbhabhishekam at the Fremont Temple in San Jose, a suburb of San Francisco. They performed for the Yaga sala pooja on 31st, the main Kumbhabhishekam on April 1st, Kalyana Utsavam on the morning of 2nd and procession in the evening. That Evening they presented a special concert of kritis of Bhadrachalam Ramadoss and Annamacharya at the Livermore Temple for the Telugu UGADHI (New Year) for the Silicon Andhra Association.

They arrived in New York City for their June 10th evening concert (after an early morning flight thousand mile flight from Dallas, Texas), a very special concert in which the Dr. Chinna Moulana Trust honored Professor William Skelton (of Colgate University well known for his contributions regarding Indian culture and music) for his over 50 years of service to our culture and music especially for his support for Nadaswaram music. He himself is a Nadaswaram player as well as western instruments. His collaboration with Dr.Chinna Moulana in 1973 for the Lecture-Demonstration concert at prestigious Vassar College explained the instrument and music better than anyone I have heard. He was very happy that this group finally was implementing all the aspects and potentialities of Nadaswaram he had discussed in that presentation. Next morning they played at an upanayanam in N.J. and in the evening a concert at Poughkeepsie, N.Y. where a lady was happy when they played her requests: Nagumomu and Magudi. She had heard Sheikh render them in his Poughkeepsie concert in 1973! On the 12th they played a concert in a beautiful garden setting; Next day a very special performance at TELEVUE a premier Telescope manufacturer (Albert Nagler's designs are world famous and the pictures taken of planets with his telescopes are famous) with an invited audience working there enthusiastic about these artists. They played Angaraham in Suruti and the audience was surprised to learn that Muthuswamy Dhishithar had composed on all the planets in Hindu Mythology one for each day of the week for a specific planet (Gustav Holst the western composer whose compositions on planets are very famous covered lesser number of planets). I am specifically mentioning this because the audience got educated and enthused about the contributions of India.

These are just two of at least six other major places (like Los Angeles, San Jose, Columbus, Cleveland, Memphis, Dallas, Chicago etc) where similar happenings occurred. In Columbus, Rochester, Jackson, and Los Angeles especially many musicians, musicologists, and professors were excited to interact with this group. Another interesting aspect that was appreciated by their hosts was their daily practice sessions twice daily. In certain places they even imparted lessons to those learning Nadaswaram like R.Venkataramani of N.Y.

They gave at least three Lecture-Demonstration-Concerts, four Wedding Concerts, fully participated close to a week in the temples at Rajarajeswari temple at Rochester, Greater Hindu Temple and the Aurora temple in Chicago performing in all activities like Garuda Seva Pooja, open air processions etc at Rochester, Salt Lake City Ganesha, and Toronto Murugan temples. In Washington D.C. they gave a special concert in memory of Maha Periyavar (Paramacharyar) and rendered two of his favorites: Kamalamba Navavarna kriti in Ananda Bhairavi and Sankaracharyam in Sankarabharanam. I hope this account gives an idea of what I consider to be the most successful and satisfying tour of North America. Next we address a few aspects of Nadaswaram music with some observations on the Kasim-Babu style of playing.

Glory and greatness of Nadaswaram :
I am indebted to (Late) Rangaramanujam Iyengar, (Late) Sruti.N. Pattabhiraman, Sri. B.M.Sundaram and Sri.Narayana Pillai, Frank Bennett (well versed musician in BOTH South Indian music and Western music-good mridangam & veena player, Jazz expert-Composer), and Dr.Chandramouli (East Brunswick,N.J. a keen observer of our music) for the contents of this section. On a personal note if I could write just one sentence with the authority, knowledge and passion of Rangaramanuja Iyengar I would consider my life a success! An attempt will be made to trace and provide a perspective to where Kasim-Babu stand in terms of activities involving Nadaswaram music today.

Nadaswaram, a wind instrument, has the well deserved title of The King of Instruments as well as "Mangala Vadyam" (instrument of auspiciousness). Some Tamil works ascribe its advent to Vedic age though some contend it came into existence only in the seventeenth century. Professor Skelton has said there is no equivalent instrument that is so difficult to master as well as in terms of status and influence in any system of music.

The ancestors of Kasim-Babu were all Nadaswara vidwans (for close to 300 years). They belonged to the Chikaluripeta school of Nadaswaram playing which originated in the second half of the 18th Century. They hail from Karavadi a small village near Ongole in Andhra Pradesh. They played in Hindu temples and took part in all the functions celebrated by the community also. At this point a slight necessary detour is needed as gives insights into their Nadaswaram playing.

Writing of the immortal Chinna Pakkiri ( he had no second Nadaswaram player and played only Ragam-Rakthi and Pallavi; no kritis) Iyengar has noted that "there was a particular charm and mellifluous cohesion in the sound that confirmed the belief that the mechanics of the instrument was only a small part of its personality" and "the only Nadaswaram player who had some of that quality was Rajaratnam". Further he wrote that the opening phrases of T.N.Rajaratnam's Thodi Alapana (which began at 8p.m. and ended at 2a.m.!) "Soared like a Rocket in the placid night sky and the raga spread out like a magic carpet throwing the crowd of knowledgeable as well as other listeners into hysteria with the swelling cascade of transcendental music that tingled in the ear and made every hair stand on end"! Add to this the perfect krithi rendition of Thruveezhimalai Brothers, the Pallavi and Rakthi melam of Sembennarkoil Brothers, no wonder Sheikh Chinna Moulana moved to Srirangam and incorporated the THANJAVUR BHANI into his style. From a tender age Sheikh tirelessly listened to the gramophone recordings of TNR and he learnt raga alapana from Doraikannu Pillai of Nachiar koil ("whose configurative raga alapana has many a time flabbergasted even T.N.Rajaratnam Pillai") though he was a well known Vidwan by then himself! To this he added a deep study of the sub-texts and nuances of the lyrics needed for the proper expression of the Sahityabhava.

Shiekh passed on all this knowledge and legacy to his students Kasim &Babu who have learnt well. As a result they are noted for both the raga alapana &kriti rendering; Especially Dhikhshithar kritis which are very difficult to render properly. This is particularly so in the case of Nadaswaram as it requires both power &subtle breath control in a tough instrument to start with!

DHINAMALAR & K.S. Srinivasan (President, SIFA, San Francisco Bay Area) among others have pointed out that their "listeners felt as if they were hearing the kritis vocally". They play in the Gayaki style. The classic example was the rendition of Tyagaraja's famous piece in Kambodhi "Oh!Rangashayee" in Cleveland. To these attributes they have added the influence of Shenai like phrases in the lower octaves "projecting a meditative mood" perhaps influenced by the maestro of Shenai Ustad Bismillah Khan. Their other great trait is the innate ability to judge the occasion and the audience & come up with a suitable combination for the concert without sacrificing any of the classicism that is the forte & inner core of their music.

Frank & Geetha Bennett (well known musicians themselves) invited some well known composers, musicians (Jazz &Classical), musicologists &professors to attend their concerts and meet these artists in various places.

Herewith a short list :

Drs. Ellen Koskoff (Professor & Director of Ethnomusicology Dept at the World famous Eastman School of Music where Ravi Shankar made his name in USA in 1959!) & her husband Dr. Bob Morris. Both visit Chennai during music season & even present research papers at Music Academy!

Dr.Rickdodge famous Saxophone player from the Eastman School. Dr. Tom Ross (Albany,N.Y) well known composer-performer of Jazz and World music-studied with K.V.N. &Ramnad Raghavan-.Professor Avodberger Head of the Dept of Music, Ohio State University. (Columbus,Ohio).

Drs. Amy Catlin & her husband Nazir Jayrazbhoy who teach at University of California, Los Angeles and are well known ethnomusicologists.

Frank &Geetha Bennett arranged a house concert in their Los Angeles home with many knowledgeable guests. Frank has written that the "beauty &intensity of the sound is somewhat startling to those who never experienced it. Several were Jazz experts and they were totally captured and enthralled by the phrases and the sound as I was by their grand father Sheikh Chinna Moulana in the early 70's"…..The whole experience defies linguistic expression".

We conclude this section with part of a typical email from one of several persons who either hosted or interacted with the group. The Ramaswamys of Warren, N.J. wrote: "More than their consummate Craftsmanship, more than their enviable pedigree, and more than their rich repertoire of compositions what impressed us most was their modest and unassuming nature".

Some observations and conclutions :

The highly successful tour of Kasim-Babu-Senthil clearly proved that given an opportunity the Nadaswaram in the hands of competent artists is still the king of instruments at an International level. As noted by many persons it is a pity that both this regal instrument and Veena (the instrument of Saraswathi the Goddess of learning in Hindu mythology) are languishing due to lack of Recognition &support from the prestigious organizations "devoted" to Promoting our music in North America as well as Chennai itself. One can only hope that today's organizers and sabhas as well as younger generation of rasikas will get recognize this aspect and encourage novel instrument and highly talented artists in the years to come.

It is quite obvious that both these instruments have been Contributing mightily to Carnatic music that we listen to in our times. Late G.N.B.& Semmagudi Sreenivasa Iyer showed what Quantum leaps are achievable in utilizing Nadhaswara Bhani in Raga elaboration and Palani Subrahmanya Pillai's Incredible Laya advancements were somewhat based on the traditions of Thavil playing. Similarly the Veena has contributed to the Gamaka aspects of carnatic music. Even with prodigies like Veena Gayathri in our midst we have not provided the proper forum &atmosphere to realize the greatness of the musical system that has been literally handed to us in the "proverbial" silver platter.

The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, Krishna Gana Sabha, and Dr. Sheikh Chinna Moulana Trust are the only organizations seriously trying to promote & keep Nadswaram as a serious instrument in Carnatic music today. Incidentally Kasim-Babu-Senthil donated part of their earnings to the Thyagaraja Festivals they performed in.

The Cleveland Festival has made a serious commitment to promoting Veena (by having at least two Veena concerts every year) as they have done for Nadaswaram by featuring it every year. They also encourage Harikathakalashepam by having at least one presentation every year. One would think that leading Madras organizations can at least do this as the artists are in Tamil Nadu. In conclusion it is incumbent on all of us to our best to return the Nadaswaram, Veena and Harikatha to their rightful places as the crowning symbols of our culture and music. We owe this to present & future generations.

About the author: V.K.Viswanathan has been listening to South Indian Classical music since early 50's regularly. He has learnt Vocal, Flute and Mridangam enough to know how tough it is to do a good job! He is a retired scientist living in the U.S.A. since '59 having worked in the U.S.A. Space Program and at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Thanks :
I thank the following who provided input & their views for this article. However responsibility for the way they have come out as well as views expressed are solely that of V.K.Viswanathan (The list is in no particular order).

Professor William Skelton (Colgate University, Hamilton, NY)Geetha &Frank Bennett (Los Angeles, CA)Narasimhan Raghavan (Cleveland,TX)
K.S.Srinivasan (SIFA, Bay area, CA)
R.Venkataramani Family (New Rochelle,NY)
Ramaswamys (Warren, New Jersey)
V.V.Sundarams (Chennai &Cleveland,OH)
K.Venkataramans (Toronto, CANADA)
Cleveland Balasubramanians (Cleveland, OH)
Flute Dr.N.Ramani (Chennai)
Srimushnam Raja Rao (Chennai)
Vijayalakhshmi Subramaniam (Chennai)
Selvi Viswanathan (Los Alamos, NM)