In the resplendent realm of Carnatic music, the opening strains of a concert represent far more than a prelude — they serve as a vibrant tapestry woven with emotions, lyrical beauty and creative expression. As the curtains rise and the first song fills the air, it is not just a melody; it is the beginning of a harmonious journey, an invitation to savour the symphony of life through the artistry of sound.
The greats of yesteryears — Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, and M.S. Subbulakshmi — each had a signature tune that kicked off their musical sojourns. These maestros, like painters with a pristine canvas, carefully selected their inaugural strokes. For some, it was the spirited varnams, adhering to classical structure. For some others, a heartfelt rendering of prayer to gods and gurus or soul-stirring swarajatis, showcasing their virtuosity. Choosing the first song is like opening the doors to the artiste’s musical universe.
Yesteryear musician Musiri Subramania Iyer often commenced his concerts with Subbarama Dikshitar’s pada varnam ‘Entaninne delupudura’ in Khamas, distinguished by its length and verses for the swaras in charanam, unlike a typical tana varnam.
On the other hand, the veteran Madurai Mani Iyer frequently opened with Muthuswami Dikshitar’s ‘Vathapi ganapatim’ in Hamsadhwani, paying homage to Ganesha. Compositions in the Hamsadhwani raga, known for its swift and playful notes, establish an exuberant ambiance from the outset.
The selection of the first song is a contemplative process. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, credited as the architect of the present-day concert format, usually began his concerts with the Kanada ata tala varnam ‘Neranammiti’, a composition of his guru ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar. However, the guru frequently favoured the Bhairavi raga ata tala varnam ‘Viribhoni’ for his own performances.
M.L. Vasanthakumari, known for her charm and grace had a gamut of well-known varnams in ragas from like Mohanam and Navaragamalika varnam to sprightly kritis like Gopalakrishna Bharati’s ‘Sivakama sundari’ (Jaganmohini). Revered for popularising the compositions of Purandaradasa, MLV’s ‘Jaya jaya jaya janakikantha’ (Nattai) was a much-anticipated opening number among her fans. Emulating her guru, Sudha Ragunathan presents beautiful varnams in ragas such as Vasantha and Kedaragowla, as well as weighty ragas Bhairavi and Thodi, as a prelude to grand concerts.
“Well begun is half done,” says senior musician Neyveli Santhanagopalan. “Though our music generally needs no introduction to regular listeners, presenting it to them starting with small doses, progressing gradually to the zenith and culminating in a lingering conclusion after the concert is crucial.” He extols tana varnams with more musical elements than lyrics as a perfect opener. Recommending the old adage ‘adhi Nattai anthye Surutti,’ for beginners, he suggests ragas like Mayamalavagowla, Kedaram, and compositions on Ganesha, such as the beautiful Bangala composition ‘Giriraja suta tanaya,’ also make excellent starters.
For major ragas like Thodi and Bhairavi chosen for varnams, does a composition like ‘Kaddanu variki’ in Thodi fit as the opening slot of a concert? “It can, but what can one present subsequently after such magnificent kritis?” questions Santhanagopalan.
Amritha Murali, who experiments with a spectrum of compositions from varnams to grand compositions such as Tyagaraja’s ‘Swara raga sudha’ (Sankarabharanam) and Syama Sastri’s swarajati ‘Rave himagiri kumari’ (Thodi) as the first numbers in concerts, concurs. “Thematic concerts demand a different approach, aligning all kritis with the theme. Generally, besides varnams, kritis like ‘Pancha mathanga mukha’ (Malahari) and ‘Himachala tanaya’ (Ananda Bhairavi) with a few rounds of kalpanaswaras can also make a vibrant start,” she opines. “The ambience and the musician’s mood determine the choice. Also, the artistes should know how to make the piece impressive, which is a challenge by itself, as the initial rendition in a concert needs to instantly establish a connect with the audience.”
“Commencing a concert with a varnam, especially in pleasant ragas, is the best-ever,” remarks Shertalai Renganatha Sharma, who thoughtfully designs his concerts with a blend of kritis of his choice, audience expectations, and a few lesser-known compositions in vivadi ragas. “I admire Lalgudi Jayaraman’s varnams. It is gratifying to start with Nalinakanti, Valaji, or Bahudari varnams of the maestro,” he shares. “My father and guru Shertalai Narayana Iyer, a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer has mentioned how the doyen would start his concerts with the Mayamalavagowla composition ‘Deva deva kalayami’ of Swati Tirunal. Mayamalavagowla is also my choice, as the raga comes off as an auspicious one. Ragas with antara gandharam and kakali nishadam are pleasant choices to commence a concert with. He opines that an intricate and monumental composition has its rightful place in a concert rather than serving as an opening song. “Many performers ensure they commence their concert with a kriti on Ganapathi for a positive mindset throughout,” he remarks.
“I am slightly superstitious about commencing my concerts with a Ganapati stuti,” admits Gayathri Venkataraghavan, who creates a striking atmosphere with bright presentation featuring songs in varied tempos in her concerts. “I am particular about an auspicious start. I lean towards ragas with all or most notes for the starting number and avoid ragas without panchamam.” To her, a concert should radiate vibrancy from the get-go, especially as concert durations have shortened. “Stalwarts of the yesteryears did a substantial preparation before ascending the stage, leaving no room for warming-up once on stage.” Gayathri too has ventured into beginning her concerts with kritis such as Dikshitar’s ‘Sri dakshinamurthe’ (Sankarabharanam). “With intimate audiences, every aspect including a raga alapana in the beginning, creates an instant connect,” she says.
For students, she insists that every single piece exudes vibrancy. “With a familiar varnam, the entire team synchronises instantly, gaining a grip over the concert.”
According to senior veena vidushi Kalyani Ganesan, instrumentalists should opt for a well-known composition to grab the attention on opening a concert. “In the initial days of introduction of audio systems, the first number served as a sound check, setting up the team for an enhanced listening experience. Times have changed. The impact created by first song when played with the sahitya swaroopam intact, shapes the rest of the concert. It is an emblem of their instrument’s prowess too. Often, the opening song is contextual, coinciding with special days for deities,” she explains. Delving into the significance of tanam in a veena concert, she shares insights from the vidwans of the Karaikudi school who often commenced their concerts with ‘Sarasiruhasana priye’ in Nattai to incorporate a ghana raga tanam later in the concert. She suggests that performers opt for ragas such as Yadukulakamboji, Dhanyasi or Ahiri, suitable for instruments to display their skill and gnanam. However, familiarity in the initial phase is important to retain listeners’ interest.
Both Gayathri and Amritha assert that varnams are not simpler pieces. Young Kalyanapuram Aravind, whose concerts are punctuated with innovative manodharma, goes a step further and opines that the varnam is the most advanced form of composition requiring a fully warmed-up voice. “The gait of the varnam directly influences the tonality and pace of the entire concert. Short and brisk Rupaka tala kritis in oru kalai will give a spirited start.” He shares instances of starting his concerts with compositions like ‘O jagadamba’ (Ananda Bhairavi) or ‘Swara raga sudha’ and ‘Enduku peddala,’ both in Sankarabharanam, delivered slightly faster with a few rounds of kalpanaswaras to crown the rendition. “With such compositions, the singer delves into the depth of music. Pancharatna kritis are also excellent starters with swara sahityams,” he adds.
Santhanagopalan believes that after accomplishing a level of maturity, a singer can experiment with anything deviating from the norm and the audience would accept it!”
Kalyani Ganesan echoes that experience implants confidence in presenting anything unconventional and gaining appreciation from the audience, similar to the artistic ‘cuckoo song’ by veena exponent Chittibabu. Aravind recalls listening to his guru, Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan, during an entire ‘December season,’ starting his concerts with grand compositions such as ‘Sri rajagopala’ (Saveri) or ‘Meenakshi memudam’ (Gamakakriya) preceded by elaborate raga alapanas, where the first song lasted an hour!
Now, is the opening number about warming up, creating an impressive start, or invoking sentiments? It encompasses all these aspects and more. It is about the artiste’s finesse, invoking emotions that resonate with the audience’s heartstrings, setting the stage for an unforgettable auditory voyage.