As India slipped into the new decade, a number of dance floors across the country’s north reverberated to words that would have baffled northerners even a few months ago: Kolaveri di. The Tamil song’s popularity led the good people at Hindustan, this newspaper’s Hindi cousin, to ask your reviewer whether it had finally provided a gangplank across the seemingly unbridgeable musical differences between the North and the South. Well, it has helped paper over some of our classical reservations.
But a true following will be possible only when the songs of one region are easily available in the other. So it was with a rare pleasure that I picked up a couple of nationally-distributed albums that present old South Indian music in contemporary arrangements.
EMI’s Urban Grooves series seems to have learnt from the mistakes of its previous editions. The publishers have not handed over its South India special to one set of producers and musicians. Instead, it has put together old classics that had already been re-arranged.
The album is split into three sections: classical, folk and devotional. In the first, P Unnikrishnan’s mellifluous rendition of ‘Venkatachala nilayam’, a prayer in Kannada written by 15th-century Bhakti poet Purandara Dasa, is the headliner.
The tracks in the folk section begin with the radio static one gets while browsing a band. Charanraj’s gutsy rendition of the Kannada song ‘Bonje Honnamma’, about the agony of a childless man, is supported by free-flexing horns in a Ricky Tej arrangement.
Perhaps the most striking re-arrangement is in the third section, of ‘Shri Venkatesha Suprabhatam’, by Sai Madhukar. (Disappointingly, it credits the chorus to just ‘Female Choir’.) A warning: those who have been brought up on the MS Subbulakshmi version could find it a bit disturbingly different.
Karthik’s rendition of ‘Nagumomu galaleni’, Thyagaraja’s composition in raag Abheri, and a collection of poems by Subramanya Bharathi are common between this album and the second one we are looking at this fortnight.
The best-known composition in Karthik’s Music I Like is Vyasaraya’s ‘Krishna nee begane baro’, which reached north India in the 1990s through Hariharan’s singing and Leslie Lewis’s babbling. Karthik’s rendition, while staying on raag Yamuna Kalyani, explores its contours a bit more extensively.
His ‘Nanaati brathuku’ (Annamacharya) reminds us of the best of Yesudas and SP Balasubramanyam. Thirumurthy’s nadheswaram lights up this track towards the end.
Whereas the first two albums mostly tinkered with new arrangements of old tunes, Kedar Pandit wrote fresh scores for Classic Bhajans. The arrangements do not cross over convincingly into the new millennium. And not all the melodies and their enthusiastic rhythmic arrangements seem apt for the emotions written into the texts. But the use of some of the raag-based melodies force you to look at the old devotionals in a new way.
For example, you will not hear a strain of the old in ‘Payoji maine’, the Meera bhajan introduced to the masses by DV Paluskar. The composition reached even more listeners through Lata Mangeshkar’s all-time best-selling album. In the new version, Rekha Bhardwaj lets float a different tune with folk tendencies and a haunting middle range. It’s mixed with a warm base parked upfront and a rounded rhythm that gives it a distinctive bounce.
The repetitions of Nanak’s ‘Sumiran karle’ by Sanjeev Abhayankar, star student of Kedar Pandit’s guru Jasraj, also stands out. Sawani Shende’s ‘Mere to giridhar Gopal’ stands out for a not-so-attractive reason: the chant of ‘Gopal, Gopal’, as if in an underwear ad.
Something tells me this album could be a creeping hit with the download-happy, ringtone-flaunting Middle India.