The story goes that when Bharat Ratna awardee and the iconic Carnatic classical singer MS Subbulakshmi was in the US, her voice drew crowds from unexpected corners. During the tour, she was staying in a friend’s apartment and as is customary, fans had gathered in the apartment to soak in the conversations and, if they were lucky, even a few songs. To satisfy some of the incessant demands, Subbulakshmi started singing. There was some interior work going in an adjacent apartment and the noise was bothering the assembly but that didn’t deter the great singer. All of a sudden, the noise stopped and soon a couple of workers appeared at the doorstep of the apartment where people had gathered. They said, “We can’t understand the music but it is very nice. Can we sit and listen?” Such is the power of music. It transcends barriers, countries, caste, colour and just tugs at the heart’s strings of the listener.

It’s also true that the genre too is unimportant because the ‘language’ is universal. What matters is the melody. Or harmony.  Melharmony Festival organised by Melharmony Foundation is one such event where a connoisseur could immerse himself in a sea of music.   

This year the festival was dedicated to two brilliant contemporary composers from the 18th century – Shyama Shastri (1762-1827) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) from Austria.

The best of both worlds

 Schubert excelled in every musical genre but was famous for his songs known as “lied” in German (or lieder in plural) and chamber music. Lied is a song – poetry set to music and almost always performed by a vocalist and a piano. His creations Elkonig (based on a poem by Goethe) and Ave Maria are very famous. He lived only for 31 years but even in that short span of time, he wrote more than 1000 pieces of music and more than 800 songs. He is rated as one of the best composers ever in the field of Western Music.

The Shastris – the father and son duo, are two of the finest composers in Carnatic music. Shyama Shastri, the oldest of the musical trinity, lived, breathed and composed songs on Devi, the divine mother. Son of an Archaka, he was brought up in a Kamakshi temple and composed many wonderful kritis on the Goddess. Though not as prolific as the other two of the musical trinity, he was admired for his scholarly compositions.  His son Subbaraya Shastri followed in his father’s footsteps and composed a few superb kritis; a few because he is supposed to have torn up many as he himself was dissatisfied with the quality.He has the unique distinction of having learnt from all the three members of the trinity.

The Melharmony concert

Melharmony pieces embellished the event and a couple of pieces of Schubert’s famous compositions played by the Madison Memorial Symphonic Band and Middleton Community Orchestra added to the variety.

The festival featured many stalwarts and upcoming artists including mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Chitravina N Ravikiran (artistic director of Melharmony Foundation),  Chris Raemaker,  Shashank Subramanyam, Akkarai Subhalakshmi, Patri Satish Kumar, Ben Jaeger, Shree Sundarkumar, Embar Kannan, Gayatri Kamakoti, Vishnudev Namboodri, K V Prasad and M A Krishnaswamy among others.  

A jugalbandi by Ravikiran and Shashank Subramanyam on flute kickstarted the festival. Patri Satishkumar and Umayalpuram Sivaraman were accompanied on the Mridangam. The opening piece was Janani ninnu vina of Subbaraya Shastri in the raga Reeti gowla. This kriti is a masterpiece and is considered the signature song in that raga.

They complimented each other very well and the harmony between the two was outstanding. It was a well-crafted rendition which brought out the beauty of both the raga and the song.

The flautist looked resplendent in an ochre colour kurta which matched the colour of his flute. The unusually long flute (seen more often in the hands of flautists of Hindustani music) facilitated in playing notes in low octave which blended well with the chitravina.

The swaras at the end of the piece was mind-blowing. Later the popular raga Kalyani with a grand alapana was a treat to the listeners. The kriti was Birana varalichi by Shyama Shastri. Both of them exhibited all their prowess and skills as they moved effortlessly over the higher notes. Patri Satishkumar played a bit ‘too much’ of mridangam and often broke Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s dictum that it is “equally important to know when not to play.”

Shashank also played solo a kriti of Shyama Shastri in the raga Chintamani. Devi brova samayamidhe is a superb song and the rendition lived up to its reputation of being the representative song in that raga. The alapana, though short was superb and the quick tempo of kalpana swaras in contrast to the chouka kala sahitya would have pleased anybody.

The magic wand and the coffee

The two pieces of Melharmony one in Shankarabharanam and the other in Karnataka Kapi were very interesting, to say the least. The former titled ‘Blue Lotus’ began dramatically with a tanam of the raga. The sahitya of the kriti, sarojadala netri followed, the chords slipping in and out of melody time and again. The Middleton Community Orchestra (conducted by Chris Ramaekers) blended perfectly with the chitravina and the conductor’s baton turned into a magic wand to produce delightful music.

The line, which is usually taken up for Neraval (or Niraval, implying elaboration or improvisation of melody) sama gana vinodhini – came for special attention here. It was quite a scintillating confluence of melody and harmony.

The second was titled ‘Carnatic Coffee’ a clever pun on the name of the raga Karnataka kapi. The kriti was akhilandeswari of Shyama Shastri. The arrangement was short and sweet. Alternating periods of dominance of the chitravina and the orchestra made it sound very interesting. The blend of Karnatic kapi and Western Coffee made a heady brew indeed!

A blend of beauty and devotion

 The standout kritis in Chitravina accompanied by Akkarai Subhalakshmi on the violin, Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam and Sundarakumar on the kanjira were the immortal swarajati in the raga yadukulakambhoji of Shyama Shastri. The gentle chitravina glided effortlessly across the swaras and the sahitya. Sivaraman showcased his skills with the mridangam in a tani. The man is a phenomenon and his mere presence lit up the whole stage. The ever-smiling countenance has been doing so for more than seven decades.

And then came the kriti, Emani ne in the bahurangi ragaMukhari, in which the composer enthusiastically goes all out with his description of the beauty of the Goddess. Mukhari never fails to touch the heart and was no exception this time too.

Ave Maria, composed by Schubert is based on a poem written by Walter Scott titled ‘Lady of the Lake’ in which the lady Ellen goes to live with her exiled father in the Goblin’s cave as he declines to join in a rebellion against the king. Ellen sings a prayer to Virgin Mary calling for help. This has been adopted to be sung in Latin as a Catholic prayer. The Madison Memorial Symphony Band conducted by Ben Jaeger played the song to perfection. The orchestra was captivating and thoroughly enjoyable.

Bring in the harmony

Middleton Community Orchestra conducted by Raemaker played Rosamunde Overture, a piece composed by Schubert as sort of a prelude to a play called Princess of Cyprus. An overture is sort of an instrumental introduction to a ballet or opera. As promised by the conductor, the start was quite dramatic and after moving through an allegro, the overture ended as dramatically as it started. The harmony was tremendous and the performance deserves applause.

There were some technical shortcomings in the production. In the first jugalbhandi, there was a palpable mismatch in the timing of the audio and video, the former lagging behind. In the Melharmony pieces, the camera work left a bit to be desired as it flitted across nobody in particular.

Immortal music

The event concluded with Ravikiran’s solo of Shyama Shastri’s karuna joodu ninnu in the raga Sri in which the composer is praying to a Goddess who is engrossed in music (Gnavinodhini). It was an engrossing programme alright – a connoisseur’s delight. It was a treat to have listened to three types of music, each competing with the other for attention. But what finally lingered were the violins overlapping the chitravina only for the latter to regain ascendency over the orchestra as it played sama gana vinodhini guna dhama shyama krishnanute…  If music can melt the heart of Goddess, what are we lesser mortals to say?

(This concert is available at

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