The happiest musical development of 2009, for me, has been the Madras String Quartet’s return to active performance. Over the past few years, the quartet has, according to its founder V.S. Narasimhan, found it difficult to coordinate its members’ schedules and meet regularly. But the summer of 2009 has been a full one, and the quartet has been booked for three more concerts over the next two months.
Formed in 1993, the quartet—with two violins, played by Narasimhan and Hemanthraj Muliyil; a viola, played by B.J. Chandran; and a cello, played by V.R. Sekar—conducts an interesting inversion of the tenets of Carnatic music. Of the three primary elements of music—harmony, melody, and rhythm—Carnatic music is described as having only the latter two, while Western classical music is flush with the first. Working with Carnatic music’s constituent set, the quartet adds harmony and subtracts rhythm. There is still a meter to the music, of course, but it is silent and implicit, not insistently marked out on a mridangam or a ghatam. The classicist’s perception of such fusion—to use the word in its least derogatory, most purely technical sense—is that it is too easy because it allows musicians to indulge themselves in the liberties offered by both forms of music. But the converse is also true. Merging two complex idioms, two systems of rules, can be doubly restrictive, just as it can be doubly liberating; Narasimhan suggested as much when, in an interview to The Music Magazine, he once said: “One must understand that doing something new within the confines of Indian and Western music is difficult.”
The quartet’s 2000 album Resonance—their only commercial release so far—is a fine introduction to the architecture of their music. Via a pair of expertly played violins, the familiar melody line of the nine Carnatic staples is always recognizable, keeping its head well above the surrounding bustle of fascinating harmonic activity. The song itself will often come with a prefix, a snatch of creative orchestration that offers only a delicate hint of the raga to come. For instance, the first full line of the popular Krishna Nee Begane, in the Raga Yamuna Kalyani, kicks in nearly 3 minutes into the track—but by then, it has already been split into deft little phrases, to be used and explored in the prelude.
More enjoyable still is the diversity of moods that Resonance manages to evoke (“If from the Western music repertoire you remove harmony, most of the mood is lost,” Narasimhan told me. “Harmony gives the mood, the color, everything”). Sara Sara Samarai, in the Raga Kuntalavarali, is a jaunty little rendition, reminiscent almost of a Frederic Chopin Mazurka in its playfulness. Amba Kamakshi, in Bhairavi, is deservedly weighty and solemn; in fact, in brief, parts where the cello pours forth its deepest notes, it can sound almost ominous. But just when you consider subscribing to the views of the quartet’s critics, who maintain that the heavy harmonies crush the religious soul of Carnatic music, Narasimhan’s lead violin unfailingly breaks through, its voice freighted with a simplicity and sweetness that immediately suggest the spiritual.
The text is the same; only the grammar has shifted away from the regular Carnatic syntax, but it is still very much within reach.