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R Muralidaran: The 25 Varnams challenge

May 27, 2020

Dancer, choreographer and composer Madurai R Muralidaran wanted to make this lockdown period a useful one for the dance files. And he came up with this unique project. He shares his thoughts and work process for readers of narthaki.

What was the inspiration for this project?
Varnam 25 Challenge happened due to the extended lockdown. I had requests from many of my followers and young talented singers all over the globe. I challenged myself with self confidence of my 40 years of experience in composing dance compositions. Inspired by Isaignani Ilayaraja's speech, I started this work as soon as the Government announced the lockdown period for 3 weeks. He actually did the whole re-recording in one day for a movie and he composed music for 3 movies in one day. He broke the record of so many music directors. It was in my mind for many years and honestly it was not humanly possible. I don't want to cut and destroy the banyan trees which were planted by the legends starting from Tanjore Quartet, Papanasam Sivan, KN Dandayudhapani Pillai, Madurai N Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and many great composers. I am trying to plant a small seed that will also grow and give shade for the future generation and I am doing it as a service to the field of Bharatanatyam. I didn't want to write female oriented themes and I have written most of my Varnams in bakthi bhava and also in Nayaka Bhava.

Did you write one Varnam almost every day?
Yes, daily I would start writing the Varnam in the morning. Actually I used to dance and do the abhinaya bhavam for each and every line I was writing and finalize everything before I went to sleep and sent the notation and rough tracks to the singers. I could not finish this target within 21 days. I took 28 days to finish it and luckily the government also extended the lockdown period.

How challenging was it?
Initially, I thought it was going to be very easy to finish within a day. But it was not. I faced many practical difficulties and mainly choice of ragas, choice of theme, choice of tala because I didn't want to repeat the same theme which is already in the field. Another challenge was finding the singers. I wanted to give experience to the young talents and luckily my veena player Priya Ratnakumar from Canada introduced many singers from Germany, Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand. The time difference between their countries and ours was another challenge. By the time I finished the composition in the evening around 8, I would get a call from the singers from other country for clarifications in tune, lyrics, modulations and also expressions in the Varnams. It occupied all my time and I was working almost 20 hours a day to finish this project. They would send the voice track to me and I would edit the voice track and send it to the veena player or violin player for adding instrumental support. Priya Ratnakumar would add veena notes from Canada and send it to me. After adding veena, I would edit the whole varnam with small effects. With the help of this track, the singer would act and take the video and send it to me again for posting on Facebook. It was really a challenging task and by god's grace I finished all the 21 Varnams. Due to requests from many young talents I extended the target from 21 to 25.

Can you tell us about how you identified musicians to sing it and therefore create a challenge of sorts for them as well?
I would ask the singers to send their previous voice tracks and also the YouTube link first. I have introduced many singers and musicians to the field and with that experience I chose the singers without compromising on the quality of music and also without spoiling the sahithrayam and theme. I challenged the singers to sing on their own after singing my original notation, so the singers improvised little after singing the original notation for 3 to 4 times in all the pallavi and Anupallavis.

I approached many super singers Sai Vignesh, Samanvitha Sasidharan, Keshav Vinodh and Carnatic singers Vishnudev, G Srikanth and explained this Varnam challenge and they accepted this challenge and sang the Varnams.

What has the response been?
From my side, I have improved my music knowledge by challenging myself. All over the world, the dancers and dance gurus are eager to choose different Varnams to learn and teach to their students. Many dancers want to perform my Varnams and have started dancing and posting on Facebook. Followers on Facebook waited eagerly for the next day's offering, this was so encouraging and gratifying.

Why are projects like these important?
I do not like to waste my time. I feel god has given me this chance to create 25 Varnams to enrich the field of Bharatanatyam. I am setting up a record for the younger generation to break and I want to see with my own eyes before I die. This is a first of its kind in the music field and of course this is a very special and important project to me.

(The Varnams can be accessed on Facebook: Madurai R Muralidaran)


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