Today, when one is a student of Karnatik music, an oft-repeated question is, “Who is your guru? And, who was your guru’s guru?” The answer to this question helps one place the student in the firmament of a well-known baani. From that starting point, arise a set of expectations about the manifestation of the baani’s characteristics in the students’ rendition of songs. Maybe the student has been trained in a style where the raga alapana (delineation of a raga before the song starts) consists of slow methodically arranged phrases, compared to another style where the musician moves speedily up and down the scale of swaras or musical notes in that raga.
Baanis also distinguish themselves from one another in the way in which they sing, teach, and treasure a particular repertoire of songs. For instance, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer tuned and popularized many songs written by Swati Tirunal, whereas the sisters Brinda and Mukta had a treasure trove of padhams and javalis. Padhams and javalis are short pieces typically rendered in the second half of the concert.
The unique improvisational aspect of manodharma within Karnatik music is where the singer renders a variety of musical phrases and notes extemporaneously, primarily called kalpanaswarams. This provides scope to add creative embellishments and personal touches to the song and the concert. Gurus have always encouraged this freedom, helping students gain confidence and develop their own creativity within the paradigm of their baani.
Musical maestros like G.N. Balasubramaniam (GNB), Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Veena Dhanammal, D.K. Pattammal, and D.K. Jayaraman have established their own baanis. Each baani is characterized by distinctive features, which can be identified by an ardent listener of classical music. GNB was known for his speedy alapanas, flighty kalpana swarams, and his great stage presence. M.L. Vasanthakumari, who developed her own baani, carried on his lineage. She had a very popular repertoire, command over alapanas of rare ragas, and maintained the speed that her guru was famous for. Her disciples Charumathi Ramachandran and Sudha Raghunathan have added their own creativity to the enduring baani of GNB and M.L. Vasanthakumari.
Similarly, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was well known for his unique style of kalpanaswarams, which flowed effortlessly without marring the melody of the music. His famous disciples M.S. Subbulakshmi and T.M. Krishna have their own baanis. M.S. Subbulakshmi was known for her bhava-laden rendition, and Krishna is known today for his creativity in executing niraval and kalpanaswarams reminiscent of S.S. Iyer. Krishna has extended his guru’s style by always including a vilamba krithi (slow paced song) in his concerts.
Musicians like Brinda and Mukta, known for their grand and majestic rendition of vilamba krithis, padhams, and javalis, were greatly influenced by the gurukula baani of Veena Dhanammal. These musicians carved a unique baani for themselves and were sought after by many dancers eager to learn their exquisite rendition of padhams and javalis.
I belong to the D.K. Jayaraman (DKJ) baani. DKJ was trained in a gurukul environment by his older sister, D.K. Pattammal, the grand old lady of Karnatik music. As he started to learn from other artists, he expanded his repertoire and created his own baani, a style known for bhava (expression), sruti suddham (perfect pitch), and vaak suddham (clear pronunciation).
My learning experience with DKJ for over a decade has influenced my singing tremendously. I remember vividly my classes with him when he taught the Kamalamba Navavarna krithis of Muthuswamy Dikshitar. These krithis form an important core of our baani’s repertoire today. My peers and I would be at his house at 5:30 a.m., and the next two hours would be spent listening to and repeating his phrases as closely as possible. He emphasized sruthi, bhavam, and crystal clear pronunciation. He would ask us to repeat every sangathi (melodic phrase) until he felt we could sing it right. His advice was to never sing any song on stage until we could sing it perfectly at least 100 times. He encouraged us to listen to other artists while subtly enforcing his baani.
I feel blessed and proud to be part of the DKJ musical lineage. Additionally, singing for dancers such as Alarmel Valli, Anita Ratnam, Lakshmi Viswanathan, and many well-known Bay Area dancers has enhanced the expressive quality of my singing. DKJ’s baani is the lineage that I belong to and am proud of. I aspire to carry the tradition forward, infusing the style with my creativity.
Asha Ramesh is Artistic Director of Ragamalika School of Music in San Jose, Calif.