Chitravina N. Ravikiran formed the ensemble "Vintage Virtuosos" or "Soorya" in 1991 with the goal of creating reference recordings of the great ragas and masterpiece compositions of Carnatic music. The ensemble was formed first from his students, incorporating a combination of voices and instruments, but often includes other established or even senior artistes in collaboration as well.
A series of recordings has started to appear, with three issues to date. Taking these in chronological order:
Songs of the Nine Nights is a program of compositions for the Navaratri Festival, and features songs by Mutthuswami Dikshitar, Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi, and Swati Tirunal on the theme. The weighty songs of Dikshitar are given the detailed attention they require, a priority which is a major focus of the project and the ensemble. The recital also does wonders for the stature of the pre-Trinity composer Venkata Kavi, the first to write a kriti cycle of the type for which Dikshitar has become known, and a brilliant composer himself. The program does not shy away from the most weighty and difficult kritis.
The ensemble sound is full and directly expressive throughout, with a clear emphasis on the female vocalists in the upper range, and a variety of instrumental accompaniment which remains supportive but unobtrusive. Although nine musicians participate in the program, the combination of sound is never overwhelming, letting each contribute his or her strengths to the articulation of the song itself. It turns out to be a very "Carnatic" sound and fully appropriate.
The Brilliance of Begada may be the most interesting program of the three from the perspective of the connoisseur. It features an extended discussion by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and then Ravikiran on the details and potential of the raga Begada, leading to a series of songs in this sometimes-misunderstood raga. Unfortunately, since being released at the Cleveland Aradhana, some issues with the printing caused the CD to be temporarily delayed, and so I have not been able to listen to it as closely as the others. The series of compositions is certainly a good one, although the interviews take up a major portion of the duration. The swaras in the "Shankari neeve" setting by Subbaraya Shastri come off in especially intriguing fashion in context. This is also, perhaps paradoxically, given its otherwise highly documentary-oriented stance, the release most lacking in written documentation. A transcription of the discussion, a translation of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's remarks, and maybe even a transcription of what is sung into written examples would make this production extremely valuable. It remains tantalizing as it stands.
Ranganathaya Namaha is a tribute to Lord Ranganatha, produced for the Sri Ranganatha Temple opening in Pomona, New York. The program, aside from focusing on compositions devoted to Lord Ranganatha, is quite varied. It includes not only detailed vocally-oriented renditions of major kritis such as Thyagaraja's "O Rangashayi" but also chanted shlokas and similar poetry, as well as compositions by Ravikiran himself. Ravikiran has also played a short improvised introduction as well as an obligatory solo piece (Ranganayakam Bhavaye of Dikshitar). Again the composer Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi appears to fine effect.
The focus of the ensemble on rendering kritis in the most detailed and dignified manner, without taking the personal liberties of improvisation, is something of a departure for a recorded series of this type. Indeed, the entire idea of "reference renditions" for Carnatic compositions can be controversial.
One cannot view the term as a statement that there is only one way to render a kriti. The variety used in the ensemble already suggests that different combinations could be used, to name only one change. No, the important focus in this area is on bringing out the full depth and beauty of the compositions, in at least one fully satisfying way. For the creative musician with a talent for improvisation, it can become too easy to gloss over some details of a kriti or to let certain aspects become more emphasized than others. Indeed, it can become easy not to study the finest nuances of a composition again and again, but instead to rely on one's personal ability to make an interpretation interesting through variety in improvisation. One testament to Ravikiran is that he is not content to do only this, although he clearly could, but is also driven by a desire to bring out the full majesty of the achievements of the great creators who preceded him.
The reference renditions become a way to appreciate the compositions on their own terms, as separate from improvisation. In many ways, I believe an improvisation should remain ephemeral, rather than being committed so readily to recording. Its greatness is, after all, in its spontaneity, a quality which recordings lack. The series is also a departure from the idea that each concert, and by extension each recording, should traverse the entire spectrum of possibility in Carnatic music, whether in technique or raga. Not only has the CD never been long enough to do full justice to this idea, but the CD is ultimately a document which sits in a library. Indeed, why not explore some particular aspect at the expense of others? It is a form of extended instruction, really. This is not to suggest that even Ravikiran himself views his renditions as truly finished, but they are surely good enough for us to gain something from them. Within the concept, the individual programs select repertory in different ways. They do not form a clear volume 1, 2, 3 progression. In that sense, they are something of a compromise between a more thoroughly didactic approach and a concert tape.
One area in which the "reference rendition" concept can certainly raise the standards of Carnatic music productions is that of documentation. The documentation in these releases varies, from almost too-typical nonexistence to a legitimate attempt on the subject. The series certainly sets no standards in the area as of yet, although there is demonstrated effort to improve, and hopefully an impetus in this direction. To reach the broader educated audience, in my opinion, quality detailed documentation is very important. The sound is of uniformly high quality throughout the series, a statement one cannot make about the average commercial Carnatic recording. One thread the otherwise divergent productions do share is being recorded at Vijay SSS in Madras.
Obtaining these CDs is, unfortunately, not as easy as strolling to one's local retailer or clicking on Amazon.com. In fact, they are all printed by different people and available in different ways. I will provide the information below. The first URL is to a listing of contents at my own organization's web site. After that are URLs or email addresses of people or businesses from whom one can obtain the recordings.
http://www.indiaartist.com/ division of Planworks <email@example.com>
Mr. Eswar Josyula <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cosmic Creations <email@example.com> - Phone: 610-277-8955
http://www.vistaindia.com/ - Phone: 732-494-9155
Mr. Eswar Josyula <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sri Ranganatha Temple - Pomona, New York, USA
Dr. Kidambi Raghunathan <email@example.com>
These recordings are also supported by the International Foundation for Carnatic Music, a unit of Ravikiran Foundation, Chennai. Donations to support this project are sure to be appreciated. Indeed, the opportunity to increase knowledge of Carnatic music among a broader audience through the idea of "reference renditions" whether of ragas or compositions (and the Begada CD is something of both) is very real. In my opinion, to accomplish such an aim, it is important to make recordings such as these much easier for the average person to buy. To do this requires funds to establish a more stable distribution system, after which it can be hoped that increased sales will allow the recordings to pay for themselves.
See also Ravikiran's "under construction" home page, including information on his foundation:
(The page seems not to be functional at last check, but I am assured it will be returning.)
Finally, I would like to note that the Medieval Music & Arts Foundation is a sanctioned non-profit corporation in the USA, supporting Carnatic music along with Western medieval and other world traditions. Ravikiran has asked me to let people know that these recordings exist; the comments and interest are my own.
To Carnatic index page.Todd McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>