He tries no less than three times to get the right pitch. Finally, when the ‘street boy’ does find the ideal shruti in the fourth attempt, the gentle vocal that wafts out blows away the small crowd of aesthetes accompanying him in the bhajan procession.
Particularly impressed is a grandson of the composer of the song.
There are several elements that add to the charm of this roadside music even though it was most likely just another sublime performance in the bustle of the 1993 edition of Margazhi festival in Chennai. Yes, it happened 23-and- a-half years ago in the capital of Tamil Nadu, where summer is at its peak today at the start of the annual Agni Nakshatiram. Now, that’s in complete contrast to the nip in the air that you feel in that metro when it celebrates the December season—the colourful occasion that primarily showcases south Indian culture.
If Carnatic music forms the core of the event that reverberates across Madras and its suburbs for almost 45 days from end-November, Mylapore forms its hub. The locale in the clip is the very residential pocket—in front of the vintage Kapaleeshwarar temple with the chief idol of Lord Shiva.
This tranquil-looking yet destroyer god’s son, Murugan, assumes a special significance for Hindus when it is Agni Nakshatiram—this time between May 4 and 28. Also called Subrahmanya, the trident-holding mythological character will typically have shrines in his name teeming with devotees, more so on the hilltops of the Dravidian terrain. The period is centered around Katthiri, or dog days, when the heat is at its extreme—much as the weather is upcountry.
What the pre-teen kid in the visual renders is a 20th-century kriti in praise of Murugan—as is obvious from the first word of opening verse. ‘Kartikeya’ is another name for the same god, also referred subsequently as ‘Gowri tanaya’—that is the son of Parvati, who is the wife of Shiva.
Even if one ignores the lyrics and their topicality vis-à- vis this summer-time column, particularly striking is the music, coming as it is coming from just an 11-year- old. The boy, today, is a frontline Carnatic vocalist, poised to turn 35 this November when another Margazhi festival will bloom in the city of Madras where he was groomed. S. Saketharaman, who lives with his family in the IT powerhouse of Bangalore as a software professional, is a busy vocalist performing across India and abroad.
That said, Saketharaman might himself concede that he cannot reproduce the kind of charm that brims in this 1993 rendition with no backup from any instrument. The innocence of a child that echoes in the vocals is anyway at the risk of a loss as one grows and broadens views about life.
When the little child initially finds himself not getting the pitch suiting his timbre, Saketharaman gives a broad, almost self-deprecating, grin. At this, the girl to his right, holding the tanpura, hums the Papanasam Sivan kriti he had just attempted in the eight- beat rhythmic cycle called aadi talam. The boy copies it, only to realise that the shruti isn’t yet apt. An expression of haplessness clouds his face by now. In comes the artiste’s elder sister, standing to his left in the back. The churidar-wearing youngster’s bid, too, doesn’t rescue him in the first round—before things are finally set right, much to the relief of every soul in the gathering.
Saketharaman’s sister—Vishaka Hari is these days a leading exponent of epic-based story-telling called Harikatha that has musical interludes—evidently knows the potential of the boy. That way, she doesn’t show particular admiration for the sibling’s artistry,while all the time encouraging him. A record of hers (a qualified chartered accountant), singing the same composition years later, shows similarity in the family’s bhava-laden musical approach, much of it groomed by violin maestro (late) Lalgudi G. Jayaraman:
Back in Mylapore on the Christmas day of 1993, the listener who is pleasantly astonished across the child’s tanpura-less presentation is young Ashok Ramani, who happens to be a grandson of Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973). Sivan is called ‘Tamil Tyagaraja’, going by his compositional eminence that is remindful of the most celebrated Carnatic icon in the trinity. Ramani, himself a musician clad here in a blue sweater in the Chennai winter and seen patting Saketharaman just ahead of his show, sports an admiration-laced smirk each time little Saketharaman comes up with a frill or loop or weighty sangati that only masters are expected to generate. Equally noteworthy is the erudite applause the boy gets from a white-shirt elderly person, whose hand gestures synchronise with Saketharaman’s microtones that are quintessential to enrich Todi, one of the grandest of Carnatic ragas.
As for the boy, he is totally unmindful of anything happening around. Neither the scholarly nod of heads nor the off-key horns of vehicles that screech past the street by the 7th-century shrine makes an impact on little Saketharaman. With traces of vibhuti on his forehead that has a tuft of hair hanging loose, the boy is in yogic concentration effectively bordering on trance. Once, he is through with the four-stanza composition lasting nearly eight minutes, the artiste raises his head and looks back at his sister, who gives out an affectionate smile.
Almost a quarter century later today, how does Saketharaman’s Todi sound? Definitely classical, with a lot of intricacies. Here is a 2016 sample, where his alapana even has a grahabhedam where the raga smartly branches out to another (into the fifth minute)—and returns to the torso tune so expertly.
All said and done, the 1993 ‘Kartikeya Kangeya Gowritanaya’ remains outstanding. The Saketharaman@11 wonder is never to be regenerated.
On a lighter note, none of the ways of appreciation (late) wizard Dr M. Balamuralikrishna mimics here is applicable to Saketharaman’s salad-days magic.