Carnatic musicians have always been conscious of their public image. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes about the changing sartorial tastes in the world of music.
PERSONAL APPEARANCE has always been important for performing artistes in projecting their image to the world at large. That's why their patrons in the past not only offered them money, but fine raiment and jewellery to express their appreciation.
We get a vivid picture in U. V. Swaminathier's account of the singers Ramaswamy Iyer and his sibling, Mahavaidyanatha Iyer. The brothers have grand shawls flung over zari veshti and angavastram, bedecked with diamond ear rings, wristbands and chains of gold, not to forget five strands of gold capped rudraksha beads, all gifts from Subrahmania Desikar, head of the Tiruvavaduturai Math.
Seeing the brothers thus honoured in the pontiff's court, envious visitor Tyagaraja Sastri was moved to protest. As a scholar, he could imply his fears of being distanced from Desikar's heart by reciting a verse from the treatise, `Kuvalayanandam', "Once long ago, we were of one mind. Next we were like lovers, now we are like husband and wife. What of the future?"
Smiling at the plaint, Desikar made Sastri listen to the musicians there and then. All jealousy vanished in admiration. The scholar declared that no gift could be too munificent for such genius.
From Swaminatha Iyer, we also learn of Gopalakrishna Bharati, hunchbacked, light-eyed, bald, a single rudraksha and vilva villai hanging from his neck, his spartan veshti above the knee. However, the handsome, muscular Ghanam Krishna Iyer rode his own horse and lived in splendour. Once, when he sold the diamond kadukkan and gold hip band at need, the donor of those ornaments made new ones for the artiste!
Stories about Carnatic vidwans are often illustrated with descriptions of sartorial magnificence. The elaborately attired composer-musician Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar announced his presence with scents and scented oils marikozhundu, rakta chandanam, punugu, javvadu and attar. In fact, to see his portrait at the Swati Tirunal College of Music in Thiruvananthapuram was to revive memories of the artiste with princely tastes. His veshti had to be creaseless, the angavastram had to have six inches of zari, to match the silk-n-gold turban, sometimes decorated with a fan frill on top. Buttons, chains and rings of gold and diamond made a glittering aura. Admiring fans would say, "The Cauvery smelled of sandalwood when Muthiah Bhagavatar bathed in it."
The south has had its share of dandies among musicians, along with hasty dressers who appeared on the stage with crumpled veshti and towel worn carelessly on the shoulder. The colours of their shawls had the students of Kalakshetra referring to Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer and Mysore Vasudevachar as Sivappu Thatha (red grandpa) and Pachai Thatha (green grandpa). The Mysore vidwans were known for their sophisticated costumes, especially for command performances at court.
One look at the sepia tinted `snaps' of a Naina Pillai or a Dandapani Desikar will tell us that musicians cultivated a distinct look to go with their personalities, and music. Many musicians adopted khadi when the nationalist movement was at its peak, and won applause for singing `national songs'. Bare-chested Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar had his navaratna and rudraksha beads. G. N. Balasubrahmaniam's charisma was augmented by his navaratnamala, flashing kadukkans and debonair hairstyle. His panchakacham was perfectly tied, his angavastram as pure and crisp as his shimmering music. We are told that he ordered his own brand of home delivered perfume, made from a blend of three different fragrances. Palakkad Mani Iyer once advised his nephew to watch GNB get ready for his concerts, a process as exciting as the concert itself!
For the Carnatic musician, the forehead is important. If Ariyakudi adopted the Venkatachalapati mode of covering it with a namam, Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar had a thin Macmahon line from head to nose. Kunnakudi's fearsome `traffic light' had its predecessors in old timers who survive in dusty albums and galleries.
Old prints of women musicians fascinate us. Many pinned rows of medals to their shoulders won from royals, zamindars, and British officials.
Their karais and otrai kal addigais, manga malais and hamsa padakkams, besaris and vaira todus, had an antique beauty which glowed under the soft lights of lamps and lanterns. Their saris, mostly in primary colours, testified to the grandeur of an ancient craft. You saw them in plain shades such as maroon or ochre, or in shot hues of mayil kazhuthu and maanthulir. The body could be embellished in oosivanam, butta, irattai kodu, muthukottadi, malli mokku or sabhanayakam checks.
The triumvirate of M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal and M. L. Vasanthakumari were inheritors of this tradition. Like her music, Pattammal never ventured beyond the subdued classical in her saris and jewellery.
MS' personal charisma invested the details of her appearance with glamour.
She lent her name to a colour and a coiffure (MS blue and MS kattu). Muthu Chettiar who wove her saris in his Kanchipuram loom was besieged with orders from other women who sought the same exclusivity.
There were fans who declared that the diamonds on her nose and ears got their sheen from the lady's `divine' power! Flowers were inseparable from her hair a crescent of jasmine strung with bits of maru, vettiver, and a rose petal or two for colour contrast.
Her pottu was topped by a streak of sacred ash. Below came orange Hanuman kumkumam, and black paste from homam in math or temple.
Friends who knew her preference would offer her the special Hyderabad kumkumam of deep scarlet, as against the maroon of the Madras brand!
The exuberant M. L.Vasanthakumari was more adventurous with her saris and jewels than her senior contemporaries. As a young artiste, her `tilakam' set her apart. Her fondness for tissue blouses and the different coloured gem encrusted bangles added to the rich spectacle on the stage.
As with her guru GNB, the diamond ring flashed in tune with the coruscating brighas! Moving to the present we see a definite change in the appearance of the leading (and side) lights of Carnatic music. Take the men first. The panchakacham has a few adherents today, notably Neyveli Santhanagopalan. Kurtas from Rasi, Sundari Silks and Fabindia have largely replaced bare chests, bush shirts, or tailormade varieties of the jubba.
TV's preference for coloured garments has catalysed the spread of a rainbow range in men's wear. The influence of the ustads and pandits in the north is seen in the entry of satin and crepe. The veshti has not yet been abandoned in favour of trousers or jeans, though increasingly, debutants in veshti-kurta look as if they are in fancy dress for their recitals.
There is yet no sense of overall design or colour combination in the group on stage the singer can be in red, flanked by accompanists in virulent purple and queasy green. Feminine couture has forsaken grandeur for gaudiness. Saris and jewels proclaim the ostentation that has replaced tradition. Fingers overflow with rings, the flashier the better. Musicians seem to have become brand advertisers for heavy jewellery.
Are we surprised then that a foreign visitor should ask, "Do girls have to be very rich to become Carnatic musicians?"
Send this article to Friends by