The first song I learnt in Todi was the varnam Eranapai, which my sister and cousin had to sing over and over again until their teacher, the pattu vadyar who came home, nodded his approval. Kalyani was of course Kamalambam bhajare in my mother's lovely voice, as she sat before the family deities on Friday evenings.
Soon I learnt to recognize Hindolam through Bhajare Gopalam and its Hindustani equivalent Malkauns through Man tarpat, the Mohammad Rafi song from Baiju Bawra. Chalamelara in Margahindolam was a favourite as Amma sang it regularly, but I did not know the name of the raga then, nor did I know that Vijayambike was in Vijayanagari, though I knew both songs backwards. I was all of nine or ten.
I knew of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, because Tyagaraja signed his songs with his name and Dikshitar gave away the name of the raga within the song (Guruguha did not enter my consciousness yet), but Syama Sastri and other composers were strangers to me still, even though Brovavamma in Manji and Amma's voice cast a spell on all of us.
I knew Mohanam and Bhairavi through varnams in the ragas, and Hamsadhwani by Vatapi Ganapatim bhaje, but also a strange assortment of compositions in Ramanannu brovara (but had no idea it was in Harikambhoji), Munnu Ravana (I knew it was Todi, because I already knew the varnam in that raga), Saranam, saranam (I knew it was Asaveri, and could vaguely identify songs in that raga on the rare occasions I heard them in concert or on the radio), Sangita gnanamu in Dhanyasi and Sarasijanabha sodari (I could recognize both ragas thanks to these two songs; they made such a strong aural impression that a couple of years ago I was able to correct a senior vidwan who mistook a Nagagandhari alapana for an exploration of Jaunpuri during a concert, purely on the basis of my memory).
I knew some other ragas, too, but on the basis of film songs, not necessarily of the uplifting kind. For instatnce, ! recognized Arabhi from Erikkarai mele poravale pennmayile, Suddhadhanyasi from Brindavanamum Nandakumaranum and Shanmukhapriya from Kurangilirindu pirandavan manidan.
I also managed to learn ragas like Surati and Chenchurutti through some Tiruppavai songs my periappa Sundaresan tuned, for us youngsters, to learn for a competition at the Balasubramania Swami temple at Teynampet. Even though the field was not very competitive, I managed to do badly, thanks to a violent attack of nerves.
The famous ragamalika Bhavayami Raghuramam was doing the concert rounds in the 1960s when I was entering college. I was always drawn to the Nattaikurinji segment of the song, but for years did not even know the name of the raga, and even after learning it, tended to forget it all the time -somewhat like a besotted young man unable to recall the face of the object of his affections. Whenever I heard the raga again, I was always reminded of the words Dinakaranvaya tilakam while struggling to recall the raga's name.
Surprisingly I could tell Anandabhairavi and Reetigaula apart without much effort unlike some of my more knowledgeable friends, but Purvikalyani and Pantuvarali always posed a few problems, as did a whole host of Shanmukhapriya-like ragas. Latangi and Kiravani, I was glad to learn, can stump at least one famous musician - by his own admission.
Just in case I have impressed the reader by the use of the past tense in the foregoing paragraphs, let me confess: I still practice good old hit and miss when it comes to raga identification, but happily, I can enjoy any raga, lose myself in any raga, even if I can't put a name to it. There are few that I dislike, in fact none, thanks to the sheer beauty of raga music and the marvelous way good musicians treat ragas. Listening to lec-dems on ragas, ragalakshana and ragabhava by the likes of R Vedavaili, R K Shriramkumar and Sriram Parasuram has enhanced the raganubhava several fold for me.
To make another confession, Hindi film music, especially songs during the decades from the 1950s to the 1980s made a much deeper impression on me than Tamil film songs, and may I be forgiven for this act of blasphemy. Naushad, Chitragupt, Shanker-Jaikishen, Khayyam, Roshan, C Ramachandra, Salil Chaudhuri, Hemant Kumar, S D Burman and Sardar Malik provided hours and hours of delight, especially through their more melodious numbers based on ragas. Listening to Vividh Bharati during the lazy afternoons of summer vacations was sheer heaven, as was the delightful introduction to ragas that the station provided through its iconic programme Sangeet Sarita. It was through Vividh Bharati that I came to know that sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was a first rate music director in films, starting from Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, and peaking with the Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic Anuradha. Hayere voh din kyun na aaye in the raga Janasammohini (a Valaji clone), by Lata Mangeshkar was one of the many film songs of the era that rose to the highest levels of aesthetic excellence.
So, here I am, the editor of a premier magazine on the performing arts, but with a strong grounding in film music. If I stand before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, charged with treason to the cause of classical music, so be it. I plead guilty.
(The author is Editor-in-Chief of Sruti magazine)