Friday, April 24, 2015

Travelling light: a journey in music

By V Ramnarayan

Chapter 2

Growing up with music

The monthly programme at RR Sabha was Krishnan's window to concert music, but his musical education did not stop there, even though he had discontinued Paattu Vadyar's evening classes, vacating the arena for his sister and cousin to continue to wrestle with them.  He was by now an avid listener of All India Radio and Radio Ceylon, and he had already attended his first December season concert at the Music Academy, at the temporary pandal erected at the PS High School.

To go to RR Sabha, Krishnan had to walk about half a kilometre to take a bus to Mylapore Tank, and an equal distance from the tank to the sabha. Alwarpet where his family lived was a quiet enclave then, and at Mylapore, livelier thanks to the Kapali temple and the worshippers that thronged it, there was nothing frenetic about the traffic, no chaos on the Mada streets. It was perfectly safe for a ten-year-old to stay till the end of the concert, catch a bus and go home well past nine pm.

At the sabha, Krishnan also had his first taste of Tamil theatre--a mixture of comedies, serious drama and crime thrillers. If I Get It, Aaravamudan Asada, Kalyaniyin Kanavan, Avvaiyar, Gomathiyin  Kaathalan, Mr Vedantam, Tuppariyum Sambu and a Tamil adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde were some of the plays he watched there. Unfortunately, he did not get to witness any of the famous musicals of the time. The iconic MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatar had retired from the scene, and the spectacular productions of RS Manohar did not come to RR Sabha during the time Krishnan was a regular there.

He heard some great musicians during that phase of about two years, when his father, stuck at work in the Mylapore office of an insurance company, gave him his season ticket which his membership of the sabha granted him. Though he was barely ten, Krishnan could recognise the subtle changes taking place in the voice of MS Subbulakshmi, gaining in strength and depth. He found the breezy glides of ML Vasanthakumari exhilarating, her guru GN Balasubramaniam's baritone very attractive, the veterans of the day--Ariyakudi, Maharajapuram and Semmangudi--going over his head somewhat, but it was Madurai Mani Iyer that captured his imagination most, with his cascading music of perfect sruti, and immaculate if idiosyncratic precision in the rendering of swaras.

It was much later that he learnt to pay attention to the accompanists to differentiate between the varied techniques and skills of Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan or Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramaniam and the up-and-coming Umayalpuram Sivaraman. He watched entranced as Vilvadri Iyer threw up his ghatam in mid-concert, and he tried hard to enjoy the customary tani-avartanam,  but found it hard going. Strangely, he liked listening to raga alapana more than the manodharma within kritis, which he found often overdone, at least to his young, untrained ears. Though he generally enjoyed most of the music on offer, he tended to cross his threshold of boredom some 90 minutes into the concert, but did not know that he could get up and leave midway through a cutcheri. So it was that he actually managed time after time to sit through concerts longer than three hours.

Krishnan went to a school in Mylapore, the redoubtable PS High School, which had produced some top class leaders of a whole variety of fields of activity, from lawyers and businessmen, doctors and engineers, sportsmen and artists, to bureaucrats and politicians, even ministers. During his tenure there however, the school was in decline, and its standards had fallen. Some of the students there were fast earning notoriety as ill-behaved louts. Happily, Krishnan's class was an exceptionally nice and well-behaved lot, fortunately taught by some brilliant and caring teachers. Outside the classroom, the school's vast playground afforded plenty of scope to enjoy competitive games of football and cricket. Krishnan got into the school's junior cricket team, which was so strong that some of his seniors went on to play for the state, one of them even for the country. Krishnan did not fare too badly either.

School also provided Krishnan the opportunity to broaden the horizon of his music appreciation. One of his classmates was the son of Mr Sudarsanam, a fine music director in films, and through him Krishnan had access to some excellent songs based on classical music. He learnt to appreciate the songs composed by such talented music directors as G Ramanathan, and KV Mahadevan, before Tamil film music witnessed the phenomenon of Viswanathan-Ramamurthi, the duo who dominated the scene for many years. He was intrigued by the strange fact that the brilliant raga-based music of a Hindi film called Swarna Sundari was produced by a music director of the unlikely name of Adinarayana Rao. The mystery was solved when he learnt that the songs in the film were originally scored for a Telugu film. The same tunes were retained when the film was dubbed in Hindi, with the voices of Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar replacing those of Ghanatasala Venkateswara Rao and Jikki, as G Krishnaveni was popularly known.  A song that started with the words Kuhoo kuhoo bole koyaliya in a ragamala that included the ragas Sohni, Darbari Kanada and Bahar, was a runaway hit of the day, and is still popular among followers of film music of yore.

Thanks to the influence of one of his relatives, and led by his own natural inclination, Krishnan began to enjoy Hindi film music much more than he did what Tamil cinema had to offer. Introduced by cousin Venkat to the more jazzy numbers prominent in the hugely popular weekly Binaca Geetmala Hit Parade, broadcast by Radio Ceylon in the magnetic voice of Amin Sayani, Krishnan was completely hooked by the drama of the programme and the wonderful voices of Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar and Manna Dey, not to mention Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt.  In time, he graduated to some of the more nuanced music offered by Akashvani's Vividh Bharati, many gems based on ragas composed by some of the best music directors Indian cinema has seen. Naushad, SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, C Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Khayyam, OP Nayyar, Chitragupt...the list was long and distinguished.

In the 1960s, Vividh Bharati produced some superb film music programmes including Jai Mala on Sunday afternoons, and a lovely little miniature called Sangit Sarita, which lasted all of 15 minutes everyday, but played raga-based songs followed by some basic explanation of the ragas.  It was a delightful way of learning to identify ragas. Akashvani also broadcast an Urdu programme, which was a veritable feast of ghazals, qawwalis and other songs from films. Lazy weekends were never better for a young (or old) music lover. 

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