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A coffee-table book on Carnatic music that is neither simplistic nor technical.

Voices Within Carnatic Music; Bombay Jayashri, T.M. Krishna with Mythili Chandrasekar, Matrka; Rs. 1900.

AWALK down memory lane is always a cherished pastime for those to whom the past is as alive as the present. Indeed, the past becomes the present, with one's chosen reality just a thought-pulse away, cached between the yellowing pages of a diary or the whispering rustle of tissue-gauze sheets within a black and white photo album. And when these pathways echo with the glorious strains of music immortalised by great artistes whose names are engraved in the hall of fame, the walk becomes a pilgrimage.

Voices within Carnatic Music, presented by Carnatic vocalists Bombay Jayashri and T.M. Krishna in association with Mythili Chandrasekar, and published by Matrka, directs the spotlight on the music, life and times of seven star musicians who graced the firmament of South Indian classical music. Trailblazers all, they broke new ground, enriching the classical form through their invaluable contribution born of an inner vision. The publication, designed as a coffee-table book, is a compilation of impressions, anecdotes, letters, rare photographs and memorabilia.

The stalwarts

She breezed her way into the heart of a nation with Kaatrinile varum geetham (Wind song) and other exquisite melodies in the film "Meera". Then, she proceeded to take Carnatic music to an international audience, captivating heads of state, queens and commoners alike with her unique voice and renditions steeped in devotion. Destiny's favourite child, M. S. Subbulakshmi was gifted with a glittering career that garnered many firsts. It is difficult to find something new to relate about a legend, when so much has already been said. And so, much of the speaking is done by eloquent photographs that capture a spectrum of moods. Here, as in other chapters, the vivid prints sourced from several institutions and private collections are grouped in an attractive layout that makes for an alluring montage. Innovation within the framework of tradition was the concept that underscored the significant changes wrought by the stalwarts. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar formulated the blueprint of the present-day concert format and proved the efficacy of the medium tempo in krithi rendition.

The power and strength of G.N. Balasubramaniam's voice and high-voltage brigas coupled with his keen musicality sparked a renewed interest in the classical genre in lay listener and connoisseur alike.

Palghat Mani Iyer's amazing mastery over the mridangam and laya intricacies added a new dimension to the rasika's perception of the role of percussion. Tradition was the touchstone of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's rich repertoire that emphasised the importance of patanthara.

Voices Within also dwells on the demons within, particularly when speaking about T.R. Mahalingam and T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai. T.R. Mahalingam, better known as "Flute" Mali, considered the enfant terrible of Carnatic music was the quintessential eccentric genius. Born musician but reluctant performer, in whose hands the lure of the bamboo proved irresistible, he vocalised the flute.

Caught between sorely-tested organisers torn between exasperation and amusement, and wary fellow artistes who nursed a sneaking admiration for his cock-a-snook attitude towards the establishment, the only constant in his fascinated following was the adulation of his audience. Their motto? Expect the unexpected. The sheer sweep of his imagination encompassing the myriad moods of a raga, his exhaustive alapanas and exhilarating flights that lifted his listeners to a higher plane earned nagaswaram vidwan, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, the title Nagaswara Chakravarthi.

The narrative is fluent and easy, linking fact and hearsay in a manner that holds interest. The use of a central leitmotif in interludes, such as the oscillation of the swing that marks the passage of hours as well as the chiaroscuro in Ariyakudi's music, is an effective device that evokes a tangible ambience. In addition, the highlighting of the salient aspects of `bani' or style is neither too simplistic nor too technical and deserves mention for making the subject approachable to the reader whose introduction to classical music is through these pages.

Grey areas

It is when encountering certain observations in the context of some artistes' personal shortcomings that one pauses to reflect. Every human landscape encompasses grey areas shadowed by the ironies of fate, inexpressible pain or loss. Areas where shadows are locked into an intensely private space that forbids trespass, more so in a mere passing overview. Therefore, when stating cause and effect in this regard, a deep insight into cause is a necessary prerequisite for any comment on effect, an exercise better left to the biographer.

Behind each artiste's success lay an untold story: the trials, the inner conflict, the sacrifices. But overriding all this, in a triumph of mind over matter, the music emerged, an exultant paean, assuring them a place in the sun. As long as breath sustains life, their music will live on.

For, music was their life breath.

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