When I was a child, it did not take long for me to fall irreversibly in love with the beautiful, soul-stirring voice of Bombay Jayashri. Even to this day, she possesses an aura of a beautiful river during her kutcheries – humble, broad-minded and always in a state of flow. When I first heard about Bhoomija’s debut event ‘Listening to Life: A Journey of a Raga’, I felt it would be anything but a conventional Carnatic Kutcheri. Despite being aware of her numerous cross-cultural collaborations, I had to see for myself how Jayashri would perform music in its most global sense. I had also realized that conception and direction for the whole event was led by Jayashri herself.
I reached the Brigade MLR Convention Centre only to find myself dwarfed by an elite crowd moving thereabouts. I spotted Jnanpith awardee, writer-actor-director Girish Karnad and also Padmashri recipient and director-extraordinaire MS Sathyu who had also designed the stage and the lighting for the event. Even before the event started, it felt classy!
The event further proved its class by starting at 8:00 p.m. as it said in the poster. Right on the dot! The artistes made their entries professionally through a well co-ordinated routine; although I could sense that the venue, now completely packed, had their eyes fixed at the centre of the stage where eventually Jayashri took her seat. The audience waited with bated breath for the artistes to start as the electronic tamburas hummed to occupy the impatient silence. Then Sai Shravanam began with 7-4 or a Mishra Chapu beat on the tabla which was followed by the flute, grand piano, violin, mridangam and the chorus in raga Janasa Mohini which Jayashri followed up with a surreal rendition of ‘O Nanna Chethana’ by MahaKavi Dr. K V Puttapa, otherwise known as Kuvempu. The song, as Jayashri explained, urges the spirit to reach out beyond boundaries. The perfect song to start a journey through the beautiful, boundless and magical entity that is music!
Vidushi Bombay Jayashri spoke briefly about the existence of music in and around us – a mother’s lullaby and our heartbeats – before singing a beautiful alaap in Raga Natabhairavi (Aeolian mode is the closest analogy in Western Music) and being aptly complemented on the violin by the brilliant Embar Kannan. J Vaidyanathan on the mridangam joined in for the trio’s rendition of Papanasam Sivan’s ‘Sri Valli Devasenapathe’ in a completely Carnatic style. This was immediately followed by a short soothing alaap in ‘Darbaari’ by the excellent Navin Iyer on the Bansuri. There was a shade of reverb that made the Bansuri sound very ambient and distant. Jayashri followed it up with ‘Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje’ in a Hindustani style accompanied by the tabla, the bansuri and Navneeth Sundar, previously on the grand piano, now on the harmonium. Jayashri demonstrated perfect enunciation and great versatility to sing in both styles of music and with such dexterity that, at the time it was almost impossible to tell which school of music she really belonged to!
Succeeding this was a rendition of Mahakavi Bharathiyar’s ‘Maalai Pozhudhu’ a composition about love wherein Embar Kannan and Navneeth Sundar on the violin and the grand piano respectively, accentuated the beauty of the minor scale. It was one of the softer songs of the event, the chorus adding a neat western flavour to the song. Once the song ended, the piano seemed to hover around the scale for a while with the flute adding a few silky touches. Then once the chorus and the tabla came along, the crowd were struck by a surprise performance of the romantic ‘Aapki Nazaron Ne Samjha’ with Bombay Jayashri showing no traces of a ‘south-Indian accent’, having been born and bred in Mumbai. The song was the first time the crowd witnessed a few shades of the major scale. This was followed by an instrumental medley by Embar on the violin with Navneeth providing an almost reggae-style rhythm on the piano and Sai, the percussion on the tabla before another medley this time led by flautist Navin Iyer. This section was concluded with Jayashri mentioning the nostalgia associated with film music.
The next section was dedicated to pentatonic scales, a world music style characteristic of South-east Asian music, African A Capella, European Music and also the Western Blues. The alaapanas and piano fillers that followed in Hindolam, Durga, Suddha Dhanyasi and Mohanam gave me goosebumps; it was remarkable how they blended one raga into the other! Then came the central piece of the whole concert. After Jayashri’s multi-raga alaapana which came back to Hindolam, Sai introduced a pentatonic melody using differently tuned ‘dahinas’ which had an oriental zing to it. The chorus stepped in with swaras in Hindolam before Jayashri started off with the verse section of Saint Thyagaraja’s ‘Samaja Vara Gamana’. As the song reached the verse again, two of the chorus artistes took turns to sing brilliant variations or Neravals of the verse melody. Jayashri led the troupe into the final paragraph of the song, where the two chorus artistes joined her in almost a kalpana swara duel. The energy of the whole performance was extraordinary and was well complemented by J Vaidyanathan. The song faded off seamlessly into a Durga introduction by Navin and Navneeth which was followed by the rendition of Kaatyayani in Mishra Chapu Tala by the chorus vocalists. At this moment, I couldn’t help but think that any applause would break the continuity that the artistes would likely have planned.
Embar embarked on a composition in Suddha Dhanyasi with J Vaidyanathan on the mridangam and one of the chorus vocalists with a ghungroo beat in a 5-4 or Khanda Chapu tala, before the solo faded off into an Oriental-style Dizi solo in the Major Pentatonic scale by Navin accompanied by Navneeth on the piano, who like a mischevious kid introduced a few stray notes that added to the flavour. When Sai joined in, Navin shifted to Mohanam – the Carnatic equivalent of Major Pentatonic – and also from the Dizi to the flute. The shift seemed like taking a walk from South-east Asia into the Indian sub-continent, as Navin and Sai enjoyed a fabulous jugalbandi. Another nifty transition and we’re into a Abhang-style tabla beat as MD Pallavi joined in the act with an energetic alaap followed by ‘Bhaktha Jana Vatsale’ in Brindavana Saranga.
That Jayashri had taken a back-seat during the last few songs was felt only when she introduced the next song, Saint Thyagaraja’s ‘Mokshamu Galada’. Embar played a beautiful Carnatic-style solo before Navin played an equally beautiful one on the flute followed again by Embar with another solo this time in a very western style with trills, vibratos, legatos and the works and finally concluded by Navneeth’s solo on the piano. The whole song was sung by the chorus vocalists while there was one notable variation when mischievous Navneeth went chromatic in one drop. The mood changed to a Yaman Kalyan raga and Bombay Jayashri took up vocal duties again and also brought enough longing in her voice to render the evergreen ghazal ‘Ranjhish Hi Sahi’.
The music moved into Kannada Sugama Sangeeta territory as the violin led a rendition of ‘Nanna Jeeva Neenu‘ before MD Pallavi joined in with her beautiful voice for the verse section and then for ‘Deepavu Ninnade’. Sindhu Bhairavi with a few shades of Chandrakauns and Malkauns was in order when Jayashri and chorus performed Saint Vadiraja’s ‘Ondu Baari Smarane Salade’ with finally a beautiful thillana in Sindhu Bhairavi rounded off in a magnificent climax. After Jayashri gave credit to all the artistes including sound engineer Kamakshy Sundaram and lighting engineer Vijay Saravannan, the artistes bowed to a standing ovation before making their way out in almost the same way they made their way in!
By the end of the event, people on both sides of the stage, fell further in love with music. What I thought was remarkable about the event was that no one artiste dominated the stage, there was no single standout performer. They were, as Jayashri mentioned, ‘lovers’ of music and not ‘performers’ of music on the day. It was incredible to see all the artistes, especially Jayashri, in flow and relishing every note of their performance. The performances were not technique-driven; instead the crowd was treated to a beautiful platter of ragas and styles and was shown how different styles emerge from a common entity. Another fact worth mentioning was that Bhoomija, the organizers for this event showed fantastic professionalism and efficiency throughout the event, which is an amazing feat considering this was their very first event. With them entering the scene, one can expect more enthralling events around Indian classical and folk music in the future!