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Musical waves with water

SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI

Personality She became a jalatarangam artiste with AIR when she was 41. Her very first cutcheri won her rave reviews. Now at 79, Seetha Doraiswamy still wields the sticks with joyous abandon.



AGILE WITH THE STICKS: Seetha Doraiswamy Photo: M. Karunakaran.

A set of porcelain cups filled with water, two bamboo sticks, a 79-year-old woman striking the cups, and presto, you have the strains of a carnatic ragam. Seetha Doraiswamy, jalatarangam artiste, wields the sticks with joyous abandon and with an agility that belies her age.

Jalatarangam in Sanskrit literally means `water waves.' It consists of a set of porcelain bowls arranged in a semi circle, with the bigger bowls to the left of the artiste, and the smaller ones to the right. The bigger bowls produce a deeper sound than the smaller ones. Adjusting the volume of the water in the bowls changes the pitch.

Why jalatarangam?

Born in Tirunelveli, Seetha was encouraged by her parents to learn music and began formal training under Kodaganallur Subbiah Bhagavatar, gottuvadyam vidwan, and under Seetharama Bhagavatar. When she was ten, the family moved to Madras, and in 1937, Seetha enrolled in Professor P. Sambamoorthy's summer school of Indian music, where DKP too had had training earlier. Seetha says DKP and she have another thing in common. Both of them were married on the same day! In the summer school, everyone who enrolled for vocal classes was given the option of learning either gottuvadyam or jalatarangam. Why did she choose jalatarangam? "I was only ten then, and the dishes used by jalatarangam artistes reminded me of the miniature vessels children use when they play `house.' Striking dishes containing water seemed a lot of fun," she says.

But while jalatarangam was her choice, there still remained the task of convincing jalatarangam Ramaniah Chettiar that she would be a suitable candidate for jalatarangam training. He gave her a simple test. He filled the cups with water, and kept them tuned to the notes of Sankarabharanam. He then asked her how she would play Mayamalvagowla. "Simple," said Seetha. "Increase the level of water in the cups representing `ri' and `da,' and you'll get Mayamalavagowla." She was accepted as his student, and trained for one-and-a-half months. Her family lived in Vellala Street in Purasawalkam at that time. Sambamoorthy lived in nearby Dewan Rama Iyengar Road, and Seetha would go to his house to practise jalatarangam. Later, Sambamoorthy presented her with a set of porcelain cups to practise at home.

She was married at the age of 14. Her husband, who understood her yearning to continue with her music lessons, encouraged her to enrol for a course conducted by the Music Academy. She completed the course under Valadi Krishna Iyer, and was top of the class in her batch. She was given a gold medal.

Family responsibilities kept her from pursuing her music career actively, until she was 41, and her children were able to take care of themselves. She became a jalatarangam artiste with AIR when she was 41. Her very first cutcheri won her rave reviews.

She has played a jalatarangam for dancer Kamal's Nala Damayanthi. She won the Kalaimamani Award in 2003. She went to the U.S. in 1990, and gave 25 concerts here. The New York Times reviewed her New York concert. The reviewer mentions how Seetha overcame the inherent difficulties in playing the jalatarangam. And difficulties there are. For one thing, striking the bowls only produces staccato sounds. One cannot produce the gamakas that Carnatic music requires. The New York Times reviewer says Seetha got round these difficulties by "placing a small bowl inside a larger one and displacing some of the water into the larger bowl." This helped her to bend pitches. She also used different types of sticks from bamboo ones to plastic ones to produce tonal variations.

Hitches

One of the reasons why students may be put off by the jalatarangam is the need to tune the cups for each raga. Then there is always the possibility that a cup or two might break midway through a concert. Despite this, however, Seetha has taught more than 15 students. Many of the grandchildren play the jalatarangam too. She is anxious to pass on the art to those interested.

She, along with her elder sister Meenakshi, has presented the entertaining `samaiyal sangeetham' programme on Doordarshan and other private channels. `Samaiyal Sangeetham' is nothing but the use of kitchen utensils and instruments to produce music. A sieve, rolling pins, pans and assorted vessels all become musical instruments in the hands of the women who constitute the `kitchen orchestra.' As one of them sings popular film songs like "Kannodu Kaanbadellaam," the orchestra provides the background music using kitchen utensils!

The versatile Seetha also plays the veena, harmonium and a rare instrument called Balakokil — a smaller version of the Chitraveena.

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