Sudha Ragunathan’s Morning Raga Ensemble Brings Screen Magic to Live Concert Tour

Chicago IL: Padmashree Sudha Ragunathan thrilled both connoisseurs of Carnatic music and those keen on experimental fusion by leading an ensemble that took liberties with traditional compositions. Singing at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago (HTGC) in Lemont, Ill., on Sunday, May 5, 2013, Ragunathan was accompanied by Amit Heri (lead guitar), B. Raghavendra Rao (violin), Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan (mridangam), Guruprasad (ghatam), Arun Kumar (drums), and Keith Peters.

Heri, who holds a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in Boston, has performed in many international festivals, including WOMAD, London, Montreux, and Berlin Jazz Festivals, Rome World Music Festival, and World Social Forum. Having received Carnatic percussion training under S. V. Giridhar, Kumar advanced under Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma, and now learns jazz drumming under Ranjit Barot. Guruprasad studied from an early age with ghatam maestro T.H. Vikku Vinayakram, then with V. Suresh from whom he learned Kodhandarama Iyer’s fingering technique, and finally under Madurai T. Srinivasan. Chennai-based Keith Peters continues to work as A.R. Rahman’s ever-dependable bass guitarist, arguably the best in India. Initiated into music at age five by his father, Rao is disciple of violin maestro T.N. Krishnan. Vaidyanathan, who hails from a family of percussionists, runs an ensemble band called Vibrations.

The concept behind this tour comes from the movie Morning Raga (2004), which culminated in lead actress Shabana Azmi rendering Thaaye Yashoda sung by Ragunathan in a manner that strikes an immediate and stirring chord even in the hearts of those otherwise not yet attuned to Indian classical music. Amit Heri had indeed intended to popularize Carnatic music beyond its narrow circle of connoisseurs, and many fans came away feeling that this powerful rendering of the emotional bond between mother and son perhaps overshadowed the narrative interest.

Following the invocatory prayer by an HTGC temple priest, Dr. Ram Bala of RR International delivered a welcome address, followed by introductions of individual artistes by Ravi Natarajan of Before the intermission, the ensemble elaborated several compositions featured in the movie. The concert began with Muttuswami Dikshitar’s energetic Mahaganapatim in raagam Nattai, followed by Harikesha Nallur Mutthaiah Bhagavathar’s set composition (varnam) in raagam Khamas. India Funk, composed by Heri to celebrate the affinities among the diverse musical genres of the world, especially jazz and Carnatic, gave violinist Rao ample leeway to depart from strict traditional boundaries while echoing and responding to the lead guitar. Introducing the underlying concept, Ragunathan had praised Heri for fusing contemporary styles, such as jazz, into the movie’s sound tracks even while preserving the uniqueness of the original Carnatic ragas and the character of the individual compositions. She credited him with transforming the musical appeal of Morning Raga into a live concert tour.

Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiah’s much awaited Thaaye (O Mother) Yashoda in the plaintive raagam Thodi, the climax of the movie, still draws rave comments, even from non-Indians, on YouTube. Its innovative fusion rendering blurs the distinction between divine and worldly expressions of childhood waywardness and parental love (vaatsalya). While retaining the undiminished flavor, even exact phrases, from the original score, the ensemble greatly expanded the treatment that was now capped by a full-fledged percussion exchange. Arun Kumar, who drew wild applause at the end of the concert, tantalized our eardrums by mimicking a wide variety of instruments (e.g. morsing) and sounds (e.g., anklets jingling on baby Krishna’s feet) and holding up to the challenge of mridangam and ghatam on his Western drums.

Annamacharya’s Brahmam Okate in raagam Bhowli that followed the intermission proved so popular that Ragunathan was obliged to sing it again just before the end, the second time with full audience participation, clapping, singing, and even dancing. There followed a languid jazzy rendering of several Sanskrit prayers, such as Guru Stotram and Upanishadic Asato Maa Sat Gamaya, in raagam Hamsadhvani. Gandhian statesman C. Rajagopalachari’s rare Tamil composition Kurai Ondrum Illai (“No grievance have I”) in Raaga Maalikaa, sung by MS Subbulakshmi at her maiden United Nations concert, did not fail to touch the hearts of all. A natural choice for this fusion concert, the lilting “English Note” popularized by Madurai Mani Iyer blended seamlessly into Thyagaraja’s Sita Kalyanam in raagam Shankaraabharanam. After Purandara Dasa’s Bhaagyadaa Lakshmi Baramma in raagam Pantuvaraali (in Madhyama shruti) and repeat of Brahmam Okate, a Balamurali Krishna thillaana aptly concluded the concert.

Featured in numerous YouTube videos seated firmly upright while animatedly rendering ever popular compositions in strict Carnatic style, Ragunathan had urged the audience to “loosen up” at the very outset. She had warned that some may find these experiments at fusion to be “neither here nor there” but that any “noise” they might here around the music would certainly not be coming from the performers on stage. The ensemble received a standing ovation at the end, with prolonged whistling that she wittily described as being correctly pitched to the drone (shruti), and several enthusiasts were already dancing to their music at the back of the hall.

The artistes were honored with shawls and gift baskets by Usha Ranganathan and Mala Sridharan (Ragunathan), Rama and Ram Raghuraman of RR International (Heri and Arun Kumar), Usha Ravi and Ravi Natarajan of iCarnatic (Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan), HTGC Trustee Bheema Reddy (Rao), HTGC President Tilak Marwaha (Peters), and by Usha Ravi and Usha Pariti (Guruprasad). HTGC Fine Arts Committee Coordinator Usha Pariti, while giving the vote of thanks, announced the rich variety of classical programs that HTGC was hosting over the next couple of months, several of which were fast selling out in advance.

The concert, which was jointly hosted by HTGC, iCarnatic, and RR International, was largely due to the initiative of Usha Ranganathan and Bargavi Sundrararajan, who were prime sponsors of this event. This “national integration” tour of ten North American cities is organized by the Cleveland Aradhana Committee that brought the whole ensemble over from India.

Ragunathan was also introduced as Founder and Managing Trustee of Samudhaaya Foundation, which has supported health care for underprivileged children to the tune of 1.25 crore Rupees ($300,000) over the course of twelve years.

Photo captions for Morning Raga concert by Sudha Ragunathan and ensemble on May 5, 2013
[#161] Morning Raga ensemble taking the bow before wildly cheering audience
[#80] (L to R) Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan (mridangam), Guruprasad (ghatam), and Sudha Ragunathan (vocal).
[#063] Amit Heri (lead guitar) is the prime mover of the fusion concept behind Morning Raga: both the movie and this touring concert.
[#103] Arunkumar (drums) thrilled the audience with the variety of sounds (e.g., mursing) he imitated and for proving match to the traditional percussionists.
[#054] Keith Peters is also AR Rehman’s preferred bass guitarist.
[#012] B Raghavendra Rao (violin) also took off on jazzy flights with the guitarists.