Thursday, April 23, 2015

Travelling light: a journey in music

By V Ramnarayan

Chapter 1
(Revised and expanded)


The first time Krishnan heard Carnatic music, he was barely five. He did not know it was Carnatic music, but it was clear to him that his mother Radha's singing was special. She had a sweet, ringing voice, perfectly aligned to sruti, and she loved the kritis she sang, sitting before the little puja alcove in the kitchen-cum-dining space in their first floor apartment. Her favourite composer was Tyagaraja (1767-1847), the saint-poet the rasikas of the present day classical music of south India worshipped as an avatara purusha. Largely influenced by her eldest brother Ramu, a successful  executive of Burmah Shell, but a firm believer in tradition and culture, she learnt music from a teacher who came home three times a week, and strenuously practised what she learnt from him. She was as eager to please him as she did her parents, and she became a regular devotee of Tyagaraja, because her brother was one.

Radha was also a devout young girl, though not an ostentatious practitioner of rituals.  She spent a quiet half hour every morning in puja, praying to her ishta devata Rama, whose Ravi Varma portrait in full regal splendour accompanied by his consort Sita, brother Lakshmana and lieutenant Hanuman, filled one wall of the puja space. A brilliant student, strong in English and mathematics, Radha was the joy of her family, with her perfect behaviour and unfailing courtesy to everyone, trusting ways and love of her siblings and parents. 87 years today, she still gets all misty-eyed when she recalls the care and concern eldest brother Ramu had for her. By the time she entered her teens, Ramu recognised her unusual musical ability and located good teachers for her at every stage. Two of her mentors were the veena vidwan Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar and Professor Srinivasaraghavan.

Marriage when she was 18 to insurance company officer Ramanan put an end to her college education and her music classes. She married into a large middle class joint family, whose head was Srinivasan, a brilliant but unworldy-wise scholar in his mid-fifties. A widower, he lived in Mylapore, Madras, at a somewhat decrepit old two-storeyed bungalow, Sarada, named after the wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whom Srinivasan, a devotee of the saintly couple, had once met.
His three sons Raja (and wife Kamala), Ramanan (and Radha) and Raju and three sisters Lakshmi, Kalyani and Lalita lived together under one roof at Sarada, when Radha came into the family.

Srinivasan was a believer in women's empowerment and encouraged his daughters and daughters-in-law to develop an interest in literature, art and music. He had a good ear for music, and enjoyed listening to Radha's singing on the rare occasions she could take a break from housework. Srinivasan died two years after Radha came into the family. Soon after that, Ramanan and Radha left for Trivandrum, Kerala, where the insurance company transferred Ramanan.

Five years later, when Ramanan, Radha and their three children returned to Madras, the head of the family was Ramanan's grandmother, Paatti, a wise old widow. With both her daughter and son-in-law long dead, and only two grandsons earning any income, she had to run a tight ship. She told Radha she must give up her aspirations and merge into the family as a typical woman member bound to the kitchen and household duties, as grandma could not be seen to favour one daughter, granddaughter or daughter-in-law over another. The extended family under one roof then included Ramanan's two brothers and two yet-to-be-married sisters Happily, Kamala, the other daughter-in-law of the family, and Radha got on well. Kamala, the older of the two, was easy-going, and not afraid of hard work, so the workload of cooking and cleaning for an army of hungry adults and children, was shared equally by the two women in a true spirit of give and take. When the two had a few quiet moments to share, in the afternoons when the menfolk and schoolgoing children were away, the pair grabbed a shut-eye in a corner of the cool dark of the vast puja room, before the next round of housework caught up with them. Frequently, Kamala (whom Radha called Manni) asked Radha to sing for her a song or two out of her considerable repertoire. One of Manni's favourites was Syama Sastri's (1762-1827) Brovavamma in the raga Manji, which Radha sang in a deeply moving voice that captured the delicate nuances of the kriti with its pleading, plaintive verses before the goddess Kamakshi.

It was only when Ramanan's sisters had married and left Sarada, and  Krishnan and his sisters were old enough to go to school unescorted that Radha was able to find time to sing in the puja room of an evening. She was also able to persuade Ramanan to hire a music teacher for her daughter Vijaya and niece Gita. Ramanan's family then occupied the first floor of Sarada while his elder brother Raja, his wife Kamala and their four children lived downstairs. After his parents passed away, Ramanan never took a step without Raja's permission, and he duly approached Raja with Radha's proposal. Raja was a strict, orthodox traditionalist, but not an unreasonable man. With some music training because of his proximity to Balakrishna Sastrigal, an iconic harikatha exponent, he agreed, but not before teaching the girls to sing a couple of slokas, and satisfying himself that they had it in them to learn the rudiments of a complex art.

The paattu vadyar who came home twice or thrice a week to teach the girls the basic lessons of Carnatic music was a disciple of well known vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He saw some talent in the girls, and taught them conscientiously, with patience and skill.

Listening to these music classes and Amma's tentative attempts to start singing the songs she had learnt in her own teenage years, Krishnan discovered a latent love of music in himself. As he managed to do a fair imitation of Amma's Kamalambambhajare in the raga Kalyani, and her rendition of Munnu Ravana in Todi, both Appa and Amma decided to enrol him in the paattu class, along with Vijaya and Gita. That year, he was also a member of a group of siblings and cousins that Raja Periappa gathered together to teach them Tiruppavai verses in preparation for a competition at nearby Subramaniaswami temple. With inputs from both Periappa and Amma, Krishnan did manage to learn a few verses in a ragamalika, which he sang with great gusto during practice, raising hopes that he might win at least a consolation prize. But, come the day of the competition, and he was a bundle of nerves, and made an ignominious exit without completing even the opening verse.

Krishnan had been born in Trivandrum, a ''midnight's child'', whose arrival into the world had been welcomed by much noise and celebration, as only hours earlier had the new Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru announced the fulfilment of India's tryst with destiny from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The Ramanans were at the time close neighbours of Radha's parents. A retired schoolmaster, Radha's father Swaminathan was a great music lover, and his offspring including his eldest son Ramu arrived every year to spend the summer vacation with their parents.

While Krishnan had been too young during the Ramanan family's Trivandrum tenure to remember much about these huge family gatherings, he now began to look forward to the annual summer trips from Madras to Trivandrum, where he would be joined by cousins and uncles and aunts. Grandfather Swaminathan's house was stacked with books, which had begun to attract Krishnan. Indoor games galore from Pallankuzhi to Scrabble were delightful escapes from the heat outside, while the late evening was reserved for singing by the adults of the family, Ramu Uncle leading the way. Though not the most talented of the many amateur singers in the extended family, Ramu was the most devoted, most prolific and most disciplined of them. If Tyagaraja was God incarnate to him, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar was his hero. One of his younger brothers, Mani, had a strong, sonorous and malleable voice with excellent reach. He loved to sing slokas in elaborate ragamalikas, and did so movingly, keeping his audience spell bound, even though he perhaps did not know a single kriti in its entirety. Radha was the most gifted of the women of the family, most of whom had learnt music from private tutors.

The high point of the week during these vacations was the Friday evening soiree in which everyone with a semblance of musical ability sang by turns, with Ramu Uncle guiding and controlling them. Though Tyagaraja was the favourite composer, the climax of  the evening was invariably provided by the grand coronation song Mamava Pattabhi Rama by Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) in the raga Manirangu, which almost everyone present joined to render together. Magically, the family sang in one voice, the grandeur of the chorus somehow managing to hide any false notes by individual singers.

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