The process of choosing songs for a concert

November 20, 2015


This post will make no sense at all to those who do not know Carnatic music.

I am giving a concert after a long break, in Chennai, on Dec 30. And as usual before any concert, or even starting to practise…comes the tough job of selecting the kritis!

There are so many parameters to follow:

  1. The concert should start with a varnam, or, if a short concert (as this one is going to be) must start with an song on Ganesha.

So..should I think of my daughter and sing her favourite, “vAthApi gaNapathim”? Or should I sing a shorter one? Most songs on Ganesha are set in the rAgam hamsadhwani. (I do know a few exceptions, but since hamsadhwani is a nice bright rAgam and engages the audience immediately, that’s the best rAgam to start with.) Well, I decide on the song composed by G N Balasubramanian, “vara vallabha ramaNA”.

  1. Now I also want a song which would be a guru-vandanA (salutation to my music teacher). I must be careful to change to a rAgam where the notes are different from hamsadhwani. If possible, change the thALam, also, from the 4-beat Adi thALam. I choose “nee chitthamu” in dhanyAsi, composed by Saint Thyagraja, set to the 7-beat misra chApu.

  2. Then comes a song where I can do some rAga AlApanai, and add some swarams at the end (no time for two kritis with niraval and then swaram). Change the rhythm, and leave out the panchamam in the rAgam this time? I choose “sogasugA mridanga thALamu” by Thyagaraja again (vottudu!) in the 6-beat rUpaka thAlam, in the rAgam sriranjani. It’s a lovely song about the qualities of ease, fidelity to pitch, and other attributes that make for good music. I choose a somewhat difficult place to take up the swaram…5 aksharams after the samam, at “mridanga thALamu”. Needs a LOT of practice.

4.Time for a quick, bright kriti alone. Let me think of my father (Viswanath) and sing “viswanAthEna samrakshithOham” in the rAgam sAmantham (not a common rAgam, good!) in Adi thAlam again.

  1. Main rAgam/song time! I must change to a prathi madhyamam rAgam now…all the songs so far had rAgams with shuddha madhyamam (hamsadhwani had no madhyamam). Also, the majesty and stateliness of “rettai kiLai choukkam” (slow, double-count Adi thALam) is needed. I settle on simhEndra madhyamam, and “rAma rAma guNa seemA”,by Swathi Thirunal. rAga AlApanai will be more elaborate, there will be niraval, and a longer run of kalpanAswaram. This will be a “arai eduppu” (two aksharAs after the beat.) The mridangam player will play his thani Avarthanam (solo rendition) after this.

  2. The “thukkdAs” (smaller songs) now. Change of beat and rAgam…so I choose “bhOgeendra shAyinam” (again, Swathi Tirunal,but I can’t add this parameter as well right now!) in the rAgam kadana kuthoohalam, in the 5-beat khanta chApu.

  3. I choose a personal favourite in the haunting, slightly melancholy rAgam sindhu bhairavi, a song surrendering oneself to shivA…“chidambaranai” (I have never been able to find out who composed it) in Adi thALam. A lot of fast-paced notes in the sangathis. Practice!

  4. My cousin Gurumurthi, who was a musical prodigy, and my mother, produced many wonderful compositions, working in an incredibly united musical partnership. Guru’s compositions, especially the rhythmical pieces called thillAnAs, are full of complicated mathematical arrangments. I choose one in the rAgam naLinkAnthi,in Adi thALam. The Tamizh lyrics, composed by my mother, fit seamlessly into the thillAna and are full of swarAksharams. MORE intense practice required to render the mathematical expressions perfectly.

  5. No more time left (yes,I have to calculate the time that each rendition wil take, adding in the time that the violinist will play!)…but a few minutes to sing one of my own compositions, “vAyu puthram” in the rAgam madhyamAvathi (no gandhAram, so change of notes). MadhaymAvathi is usually the last rAgam rendered in a concert, as it is supposed to be a ‘dOsha nivritthi’ or expiation of mistakes committed during the peformance. Also, it is a tradition to end with a song on Hanuman, and so the choice is good. Also, the tempo is again changed…this is the 7-beat misra chApu.

Ah. Working through all the combinations of change o rAgam, thALam, and composer, wanting to include a note of reverence to my guru and my parents…with all these parameters, I manage to put together a list of kritis which will also end the concert in time, and yet leave the audience satisfied.

And…all this is the easy part. To practise relentlessly and perform with as few mistakes as possible (and those, only ones that are apparent to me!) ..not to let stage fright creep up and paralyse me, when I know that there will be many very knowledgeable people in the audience…I try not to tense up. It’s when I lose myself in my music and stop worrying about the audience (or anything else) that my music will rise above the merely good to the very good.

To sing, solo, for 2.5 hours is not easy. It never gets any easier,except perhaps for professional peformers who sing regularly.

Wish me luck…I hope I don’t fall flat on my face…!