musings on music and life

August 31, 2012

Something different…

Filed under: Video Gaming — Tags: , , — sankirnam @ 6:34 pm

This post is on a different topic than what I usually blog about, for a change. I don’t have a lot of free time these days, what with chemistry and music taking up the majority of my waking hours, but occasionally, when I can find the time, I do like to kick back and relax with video games to take my mind off things. Lately, I’ve been getting back into console gaming, and picked up Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City for Xbox 360.  I’ve played through both of these games over the past 2-3 months, and, I have to say, am highly impressed by both of them. The graphics quality of both games is outstanding – I play Xbox games connected to my parents’ 47″ HDTV with a HDMI connection, and the image quality, resolution, and detail is fantastic. Normally I have noticed that games in a series tend to get progressively more mediocre in some aspects (such as Prince of Persia), but this is not so in this case.

As an aside, I’ll mention my beef with the Prince of Persia series. I’ve been a fan of the series, having played the original in MS-DOS since the age of 5. I played my way through Prince of Persia 3D, which has some of the worst graphics and combat for a game that is supposed to revolve around fighting guards. I wanted to play The Sands of Time when it came out but could not, since my computer’s graphics card at the time was not up to the task. Thus, the first game out of the Sands of Time trilogy that I played was Warrior Within. I am still impressed with the effort that Ubisoft put into the combat for that game – it is probably the predecessor for most of the freeform combat that we see in action games today. The graphics did leave a lot to be desired – I felt that they lacked the polish and finish that Sands of Time had. In fact, if I had to rank the graphics in the series, it would go Sands of Time > Warrior Within >> The Two Thrones. As I played through the series again, starting with Sands of Time, I got the sense that Ubisoft developers were increasingly rushed as the series progressed. My favorite game out of the series, however, is Warrior Within, if only due to the extremely well-developed combat system (although this may be biased due to nostalgia). Two Thrones was rendered unfinishable due to a glitch in the game towards the end that prevents you from being able to complete a difficult jump. I tried and retried this many times and ultimately gave up in disgust – shows that Ubisoft did not do adequate playtesting before release, reaffirming my gut feelings that the developers were rushing the game to store shelves.

Anyway, the Batman games are very good, and highly recommended for anyone into action games. I initally got Arkham Asylum on Steam, but found that the controls were inverted on my gamepad. I have gotten used to playing these kinds of games on a gamepad since I played through the Assassin’s Creed series, and could not make the switch to keyboard (I tried it initially and found it too clumsy). I found online that other people experienced the same problem that I had, and the solution was not trivial (it involved modifying a .BAT file, if I remember correctly). So, to others, save yourself the trouble, and just get the games on console – the Rocksteady developers did not do adequate playtesting for the PC version and still have not addressed this bug. I have no complaints about the gameplay on Xbox, however. The controls are intuitive and fairly easy to grasp.

I recently played through Arkham City on the “Hard” difficulty level, and found it a significant challenge, due to the difficulty of the combat. This forces you to get better though, and develop very fast reflexes. Hopefully this will also pay off in other areas…

August 15, 2012

Palani Subramania Pillai

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: — sankirnam @ 8:50 pm

In my previous post, I had linked the famous AIR recording of the jazz session involving Palani Subramania Pillai with Dave Brubeck. This segues naturally into a post on Palani, since I have not done one yet (though I have been meaning to do so).


In a previous post, I had talked in detail about Palghat Mani Iyer and his impact on modern Carnatic music. While Palghat Mani Iyer was considered one of the undisputed giants of percussion while he was alive, he was not without professional competition. People back then (and still to this day) claimed that there was a “holy trinity of mrudangists” comprising Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, and Ramanathapuram C. S. Murugabhupathi. Palani Subramania Pillai’s position in the annals of modern mrudangam artistry is rather interesting for several reasons which I will go into.

Palani Subramania Pillai belonged to the Pudukottai school of percussion, as opposed to the Thanjavur school that Palghat Mani Iyer belonged to. Both names are geographically derived from the respective towns. However, the Thanjavur school is specifially named after Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, one of the great gurus (teachers) of mrudangam. Similarly, it could also be speculated that the Pudukottai bani is named after Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, although I have not heard of any such claims. Dakshinamurthy Pillai was the guru of Palani Subramania Pillai, and was the reigning kanjira vidwan of his time. In fact, the introduction and development of the kanjira as a classical percussion instrument is one of the hallmarks of the Pudukottai school; its creation is credited to Pudukottai Maamoondia Pillai, the guru of Dakshinamurthy Pillai.

A lot of the artists in the Pudukottai tradition were also tavil vidwans, including Palani Muthaiah Pillai, the father of Palani Subramania Pillai. Thus, the notion arose that the “Pudukottai school is more characteristic of tavil playing”. Based on my experience, that is not completely correct; however, there indeed are (or were) some mrudangam vidwans who actually did incorporate tavil concepts and sollus into the parlance of mrudangam, but that is material for a later post. Even for a (relatively) knowledgeable person like me, it is difficult exactly to clearly elucidate the differences between the Thanjavur and Pudukottai banis (traditions). One can attempt to grasp the differences by analyzing the different approaches to playing employed by artists in either school. For example, Palani Subramania Pillai initially had a very high-level kannaku (calculation)-oriented style that he later modified to make more pleasing for lay audiences, by shifting to an almost pure sarvalaghu style. Palghat Mani Iyer, on the other hand, used to almost replicate the song and music on the mrudangam. However, further analysis is confounded by Palani’s early demise (1962) and the fact that there has been much blending of the two schools in the last 5-6 decades. I have heard Trichy Sankaran (Palani’s star disciple) play korvais that were taught to me as being Palghat Mani Iyer’s compositions, so it is difficult to come to an absolute conclusion in this matter.

Palani was the first left-handed mrudangist in the Carnatic music scene, which was slowly being increasingly dominated by the orthodox brahmin community. As such, he faced incredible hardship and harrasment (to a degree) before he managed to establish himself as one of the top artists of his era. Nowadays, there are lots of left-handed mrudangists active in Carnatic music, including Bangalore Arjun Kumar, K. Arun Prakash, Kalladaikuruchi Sivakumar, Anantha R. Krishnan, Delhi Sairam, and R. Sankaranarayanan, among others. The community of mrudangists owes a lot to Palani for paving the way and equalizing the field for left-handed artists as well.

Just like Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani was also an active teacher, and had many students who became popular vidwans in their own right. His seniormost student, Ramanathapuram M. N. Kandasamy Pillai, was a popular guru and tutored several of the mrudangists in the concert circuit today, including Arun Prakash, Neyveli Venkatesh, and J. Balaji. Other students of Palani include K. S. Kalidas, Erode Gururajan, Guruvayoor Dorai, T. Ranganathan, Dandamodi Ram Mohan Rao, and Mavellikara Krishnan Kutty Nair. Of course, special mention must be made of Trichy Sankaran, who was Palani’s youngest and most brilliant student. Palani liked him so much that Sankaran had the opportunity to play double mrudangam concerts with him; these experiences gave Sankaran much valuable concert experience early on and helped catapult him to his present position today as one of the top mrudangam vidwans in the world. Sankaran sir recently received the prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from the Madras Music Academy last year, and in his acceptance speech, mentioned that it gave him great pride to be the first vidwan from the Pudukottai school to receive such an honor.


Of course, I could go on and on, but in this case, an audio recording is worth a thousand words, so I will just end it here.

August 7, 2012

L. Shankar, Abheri, and Shakti

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 4:31 pm

Thanks to the joys of Youtube, here’s another music clip that I’ve been listening to lately:

It’s from a commercial album of L. Shankar. I would say the ragam is Karnataka Devagandhari rather than Abheri, as the dhaivatham (in the avarohanam (descent)) seems to be the lower one. Abheri, as used by Thyagaraja, has the higher dha (I don’t remember which one is which off the top of my head). If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me and let me know.

This clip demonstrates L. Shankar’s absolute technical mastery and command over the violin – just listen to the incredibly fast tremolos he plays approximately a minute in. He is also not playing an ordinary 4-string violin, but a custom-made 10-string double violin. This covers all the frequencies that the double bass, cello, viola, and violin cover.

L. Shankar initially was brought to the limelight as part of the violin trio (L. Vaidyanathan, L. Subramaniam, and L. Shankar). I had mentioned them earlier in the context of Palghat Mani Iyer. He was part of the group of Carnatic Musicians that studied at Wesleyan university in the 60’s/70’s, and got his Phd from that university (I found his thesis online by searching through ProQuest). His real claim to fame, however, was the group ShaktiShakti initially had 4 members: L. Shankar (violin), Zakir Hussain (tabla), T. H. Vinayakram (ghatam), and John McLaughlin (guitar). It was one of the first “fusion” groups that attempted to blend Indian classical music with Western (Jazz) music, and so there are elements of Carnatic, Hindustani, and Jazz in their albums. Their first album, Natural Elements, is one of my favorites:

Since Jazz and Indian Classical music (both Hindustani and Carnatic) are both highly improvisational, that aspect of those styles of music is maintained. I remember reading a rather telling quote by Trichy Sankaran where he said “Fusion should not become confusion. The artiste should know what he is doing and why. This is only possible if his foundation is rock-solid and his ideas are rooted in tradition. The bottom line for meaningful fusion is discipline, responsibility and aesthetics”. This is why fusion is best left to those who have grown up and internalized musical traditions, rather than amateurs and dabblers. In other words, only highly experienced artists should attempt fusion, not beginners.

UPDATE: Somebody uploaded the recording of the fusion music mentioned in the article above – here is the link:

August 2, 2012

Blast from the past

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 11:14 pm

I found this on my hard drive and thought I would post it here. It’s a review of a program that SIMA conducted in 2005. This was one of the first concerts I ever performed…

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