United Kingdom Milapfest 2018: Jayanthi Kumaresh (Sarasvati veena); K U Jayachandra Rao (mridangam); Kousic Sen (tabla). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 14.6.2018. (CC)
A celebration of the magical sound of the Saraswati veena and held as a post-awards concert following the National Indian Arts Awards, this was a magisterial, virtuoso showing from Jayanthi Kumaresh. Those who wish an introduction to the instrument itself might be interested in a Tedx talk (see link here: Kumaresh explains how playing the veena activates various processes that align to act as a type of kundalini yoga). The use of the Goddess’ name in the instrument is significant: Saraswati, the Goddess of learning, is part of a Hindu aligning of deities to instruments (so in similar manner, Krishna famously plays the flute). In the South Indian, Carnatic tradition, the Sarasvati veena is known as the Queen of Instruments.
The Saraswati veena has two resonators, one at the end and another underneath the fingerboards, and 24 frets (a number aligned to the vertebrae in the human body; and, indeed, at the very top of the instrument there is a shape aligned to that of neck and head). There are seven strings (divided into four main strings plus three). The range is three octaves. The performance was underpinned by mridangam player K. U. Jayachandra Rao and tabla player Kousic Sen, both of whom seemed to have a ball. At one point, in the extended final portion of the concert, there was a percussion duel between them (think of the piano duel in Stockhausen’s two piano Mantra, perhaps, transplanted over to India). A student of Kumaresh’s was on stage also but set back to one side.
There is an almost vocal element to the Sarasvati veena’s expression, at least in Kumaresh’s hands; and an astonishing variety of tone is available, including a left-hand only technique that has a shadowy, ghostly effect. The first rag was on a six-beat cycle, the Sarasvati veena’s rich bass a thing of beauty; it was also clear that the two percussionists worked superbly well together.
After a complaint from an audience member that it was ‘too loud’, some adjustments were made (it was not uncomfortable in the first place …). The next piece, Raga Lathanghi, based on an eight-beat cycle, rather fascinatingly seemed to concentrate what we in the Western tradition might call the ‘leading note’ – yet played with ‘resolution’ (again, a Western term) without ever achieving full close. It was here that that ghostly effect came fully into play, and here that tabla player Kousic Sen really came into his own.
The largest panel of the concert was a string of ragas, including Basantha (Spring) and a composed piece, Palevi. During the course of an extended veena solo, there was one remarkable moment when Kumaresh made the instrument sound, effectively, like a guitar. The close of the concert was a riot of instrumental colour, a playful, dance-like piece that was the perfect conclusion.