A Garland of Ragas for Shankar Mahadevan

Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 30 August 2019

Had an inkling that something was up. I reached the Academy office after the first day of SANGAM 2019. And I chanced upon Dr Prakash Sontakke, Advisor to Shankar Mahadevan Academy. Leaning against a motorcycle parked on the office compound, he shared with a straight face, “We have planned a surprise for Shankar. Watch out for it tomorrow.”

The surprise was the finale of the Hindustani vocal music segment, presented by 24 students handpicked for the occasion. There were three accompanists too: Surya Upadhyay on Harmonium, Karthik Bhat on Tabla, and Aniket Ashok on Cajon Drum. One of the senior students too hopped across, midway through the composition, to play chords on the electronic keyboard.

The composition was a Ragamalika—the term literally means a garland of Ragas. It strung together seven Ragas: Vibhas, Khamaj, Bhoop Kalyan, Bhimpalasi, Bageshree, Lalit. And it ended in the traditional way that most performances do - with Raga Bhairavi. 

The students sang the composition in two parts. First, they gave a two-line introduction of each Raga, using Raga Vibhas for the refrain that was repeated after every other Raga. Next, they followed each of these ragas with a popular film song in that raga. Here's a glimpse of it:

The selected songs were all Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy compositions, sung by Shankar Mahadevan himself, barring the inventive Kaaga, sung stunningly in the original by Kaushiki Chakraborty (who incidentally watched the whole performance seated in the front row as a guest of honour for SANGAM 2019.) 

The surprise worked well. It visibly moved the audience. It even moved Shankar to join the students on stage to finish the composition in Bhairavi with his typical elan. 

From the students of Shankar Mahadevan Academy, it was truly a suitable tribute to the Padmashree awardee.

The making of something special

A conversation with Chaitra Sontakke, 

Curriculum Coordinator for Hindustani Vocals at the Shankar Mahadevan Academy

How did you hit upon the idea for the finale?

This SANGAM we wanted to do something special for Shankarji (Shankar sir for students, Shankar Mahadevan for the world) to celebrate his Padma Shree. His work is deeply influenced by classical music. We started sharing songs on a chat group where each student shared their favourite song. We came up with a basic list of songs and Raga interpretations. We made sure that no two songs were based on the same Raga to correlate to the Ragamala concept. We then tweaked it based on the rhythm structures, Taal and the flow of melodies. 

Who wrote and composed the Ragamala?

It was truly a combined effort. The senior students came up with the tune. The composing of lyrics was a bit of a challenge. We included the name of each Raga and the characteristic feature of the Raga. Thus we wrote—“Gaaye Vibhas, Us ki boonden"—to picturise dew drops at dawn. Raga Vibhas is followed by "Is Des mein phoole Nav bhaav" which means novelty and freshness of our soil is reflected in Raga Des. And "Khamaj ki Chanchal Kiranen"—the rays of the Sun—has very playful lyrics that find a fitting similarity in the Chanchal Prakriti (playful character) of Raga Khamaj.

In the second half the song (Antara) starts with the musical meaning of SANGAM with the lyrics are “Sur aur taal ka ye sangam; Bhoop Kalyan ka madhur milan". This is followed by "Magan hua man Bheempalas Mein; Bageshree si madhur Ragini”—which means the mind went into a trance while singing Bhimpalasi, whereas Bageshree is such a beautiful melody, a powerful ragini. The lyrics later say “Lalit kala priya Lalita Maa” which means "Bless us, oh Maa Lalita, the founder of all fine arts. This is in Raga Lalit.

The students were far away. How did you plan practice to pull this off?

In the formative stages we shared the song with all our students. The students at the centre were getting together and practising whereas the online students were practising their bits separately.We then wrote Taans, which were challenging as the Ragas switched in quick succession of complex Sargam structures in Drut Laya. The songs sung in a regular medley would not convey the Raga structures. Hence we came up with the idea of merging the two. The magical part is when you see the eagerness and creativity of the students! They get on video calls and the composition was shared. It was an exciting collaboration! 

How was the student experience? And yours?

It is wonderful when we met a day before and heard all the voices in unison. The way they bond with each other, the excitement they have to meet their teachers and Shankarji is wonderful. 

What moments did you treasure the most?

The treasured moments are when senior students appreciate the juniors and guide them through their compositions, and the juniors are inspired by the seniors. The students were at the forefront in preparing and presenting the script for the whole program.  

How did you pick the students?

Most of the students who performed in the Ragamala are in the intermediate and advanced levels, which means that they have been with us for a long time. And they have attended at least 2 SANGAMs till now. There are 2 things here: first, they have acquired the necessary skills over the years of learning; next, the stage of SANGAM is not new for them and hence it is not as overwhelming as it is for a first-timer.

This is a mixed group where juniors get to learn from the advanced level students—the concept of vertical group is used keeping in mind that the juniors are not under pressure to perform. For the finale song Sapnon se Bhare Naina a larger student fraternity was involved. Here the selection criteria was purely based on passion and not just skill, though this also not an easy song. Students practised to get most nuances and every note right.

Shankarji joining them at the end was a blessed and rewarding moment.