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Parivadini has carved out a niche in the world of Carnatic music, webcasting live music concerts held at Raga Sudha, home to Nada Inbam in Mylapore, Chennai, so the connoisseurs of Carnatic music can relish classical notes from the cozy comfort of their home. The credit for this must go to Jaya and Sekar who tirelessly organize the concerts. The role of Ramakrishnan (Aarkay) in webcasting live the concerts held at R.K. Convention Centre in Mylapore is also noteworthy. The organizations run by Jaya and Aarkay are pioneering in reaching Carnatic concerts to far-off places.
Parivadini based in Chennai has been honoring designers of musical instruments since 2014. This year its Parlandu award — named after the legendary mridangam maker Parlandu (Fernandes) — goes to flute maker Ponnusamy. He will be honoured at the Raga Sudha Hall on November 20, 2022.
In an interview Ponnusamy had with Inmathi.com, he recalled his life and origins. His father Sankaralingam used to make flutes because he liked doing so, and he made it his profession later when he moved to Chennai.
In the beginning, Sankaralingam made flutes at the home of Balasayee, a reputable flautist. Later, he designed an oval-shaped flute for Sangeetha Kalanidhi Ramani. “But my father told me that both he and Ramani regretted that the special flute had gone missing,” said Ponnusamy. “However, by way of atoning for the mistake, my father designed yet another similar flute and gave it to Ramani.” After Sankaralingam died at age 75, about 12 years ago, his son Ponnusamy took over the baton from his father.
Hindustani musicians, by and large, use only long flutes. Eight-holed heavy flutes are used in Carnatic music. They can withstand heavy air pressure yet produce the sweetest of melodies
Recalling his father’s links with popular musicians, Ponnusamy said his father designed four flutes for the bansuri ace, Hariprasad Chaurasia. The flutes were made as per specifications stipulated by Chaurasia; that is, the bansuri could be played at three kattai shruthi. The bansuri is a north Indian transverse flute with a low pitch.
J. A. Jayanth, a famous flautist, whose grandfather Sankaran was also a renowned flautist, once asked Ponnusamy to design a flute with a low pitch and four feet long. A customary flute is always just one-and-half feet long. Ponnusamay said, “The flute Jayanth wanted me to design was to be played six kattais. As far as I knew, no one has played a flute in such pitches. But Jayanth played with aplomb and with amazing and effortless ease.” Ponnusamy’s father Sankaralingam had made a flute with five kattai shruthi for Mali who played it with the ease that only he is capable of.
Asked whether the bamboo is important or the holes cut, Ponnusamy said the bamboo is more important. He added that the notes emanating from flutes made of well-jointed bamboos were magically mesmeric. Holes can easily be manipulated by musicians.
Nature being diverse, no two bamboos are identical, he said. Light music performers close the holes with corks and play the flutes, Ponnusamy said, adding he makes flutes according to the needs of the flautists.
When his opinion was sought about plastic flutes, he seemed not so interested. It can hardly stand comparison with natural flutes, he opined.
Do you make flutes according to the demands of Carnatic music and Hindustani music?
Generally, flutes played in Hindustani music are small and delicate. Hindustani musicians do not blow in full-throated fashion. Not much air pressure is there inside. The musicians blow softly, placing the flute slightly inside the lips. Hariprasad Chaurasia once played a small flute. But that was a one-off.
The Hindustani musicians, by and large, use only long flutes. A hole which a musician pumps air into is located half-a-foot away from the joint of the instrument; likewise, the swara of ‘madhyamam’ , a note that sounds like the voice of a dove, is also made half-a-foot away from the joint. This explains why their flutes are long.
Eight-holed heavy flutes are used in the Carnatic music. They can withstand hard blowing. Yet the melodies dripping down from them are unchanged and mellifluous. In western music the flute is a button system and unique.
Asked why a flautist in a light music programme comes with a boxful of instruments and how it is possible for him/her to play different models for different songs, Ponnusamy said it was not without reason. As far as Carnatic music is concerned, the basic pitch revolves around ‘sa’ or ‘sadjamam’, one of the seven notes of the scale resembling the voice of a peacock. For some songs like extra items (thukada), the note called ‘madhyamam’ (dove’s voice) is used.
Asked about how the right flute can be identified, Ponnusamy said there was a pitch-pipe during his father’s times. “With that, we used to check the condition of a flute. Now the tuner has replaced it”
But in light music, the note of ‘ri’ or ‘rishabam’ is used as the basic ‘sadjamam’. Sometimes ni is used as the basic ‘sadjamam’. Thus performers of light music use a jumble of swaras.
A flute plays ‘ga’ swara and only then cuts to ‘ma’ swara. But in light music, the performers do not cut from one swara to another swara; rather they have their own combination of uninterrupted swaras.
How could the right flute be identified?
There was a pitch pipe in my father’s times. With that, we used to check the condition of a flute. Now the tuner has replaced it. So, it has become necessary for each swara or note to be played according to the tuner.”
Does he have any disciple in the art of making flutes?
It takes a special gift of intuition or a gut feeling to gauge which bamboo has the potential of turning into flutes for specific pitches. As each bamboo is different from the other, it is really a special talent to foretell which bamboo will be suitable for which notes. So, I have no disciples in this art-oriented occupation.”
Feeling elated at the Parivadini award, Ponnusamy, who is not married, said his father Sankaralingam and his mentor Ramani would have been proud if they were alive now. He recalled with a note of regret how Ramani’s efforts to get Ponnusamy’s father the Kalaimamani award were abortive.
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Parivadini was launched in 2013. Its organizer Lalitharam shared some details with us. “There are awards like mridanga vidwan Thiruvananthapuram Balaji award for eminent musicians. But there was none for designers and makes of musical instruments.” While it was decided to institute an award for makers of musical instruments, the problem of naming it cropped up, Lalitharam said, adding that finally they took the call to christen the award after Fernandes (Parlandu), who is now living in our memory as an ace maker of mridangam for renowned musicians such as Palakkaad Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramania Pillai and so on.
Following is the list of the awardees, musical instruments and years:
1. Varadan – Mridangam maker – 2014 (given to mark the centenary of C.S. Murugabhoopathy)
2. Raju of Bengaluru – Veena – 2015
3. U.V.K. Ramesh of Manamadurai – Katam – 2016
4. T.G. Paramasivam of Tiruvaiyaru – Thavil – 2017
5. Muruganandam – Mridangam and Kanjira – 2018
6. N.R. Selvaraj – Nagaswaram – 2019
7. No awardee – 2020
8. Muthuraman of Tiruvavadudurai – Seevali – 2021
9. Ponnusamy – Flute – 2022.
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