Saturday, 4 April 2015

First Published on March 29, 1993 in ‘The Independent’,  The Times of India 

From Master to Maestro
T.N.Krishnan, the violin maestro with a phenomenally long career span has countless admirers all over the world.

Every evening, as dusk would fall and the cows would hoof homeward, a five year old boy and a tall gaunt man walked to the local municipal garden waiting for the clock hands to move to 7.20 p.m. when the loudspeaker in the park would crackle and come alive with classical music.
The child would listen carefully as his father pointed out the swara passages, explained the development of the raga, the intricacies of the sangatis, and the nuances of each artiste’s style. In that remote village, that loudspeaker in the park was the child’s only opening to the magic world of music dominated at the time by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Tiger Varadachariar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. At nine when the AIR broadcast would end, father and son would find their way home through the dark, unlit night.
Thiruppanithura A.Narayana Iyer discovered his son’s immense potential in the field of music when the boy was all of four. Behind Iyer stood five generations of musical tradition—a guarantee of a great career for his little boy. Narayana Iyer was a vocalist and played the veena as well. A guru with foresight ad futuristic ideas, he turned to the violin which had just then caught the fancy of Carnatic musicians.
His son, Krishnan took to the instrument too, and was soon hailed as a child prodigy. As a five year old, Krishnan had already mastered several varnams including major compositions in Bhairavi, Kalyani and Kambodhi. Hearing of the boy’s genius, prominent gurus of the region like Venkiti Bhagavatar began to take a keen interest in him and even vied with each other to teach him. Kittan Bhagavatar, a vocalist, taught Krishnan to play kritis in heavy classical ragas. An affectionate teacher, he ensured that classes were fun for the boy and took him along to nearby towns whenever he had concert engagements.
T.N.Krishnan played his first concert at the age of seven. It was only then, in 1938, that he had a chance to see in person the musicians he had heard on the radio. Soon afterwards, he came to be recognized as Master Krishnan in his own right.
In 1939, AIR (All India Radio) inaugurated its radio station at Trichy. Narayana Iyer and Krishnan were given individual contracts. T.Sankaran, brother of famous dancer Balasaraswati and Director of the Tiruchirapalli AIR station, gifted Krishnan a violin. The boy went back to the park to listen to his first concert over the radio. The world of music had come alive for the great little fiddler.
Krishnan was soon in demand among doyens of Carnatic music like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. During World War II, after the Japanese had bombed several cities in the south, his family left Cochin to move to Trivandrum. It was in this city that Krishnan’s future brightened. At a Navratri Utsavam, Krishnan was offered a chance to perform at a concert. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and Sri C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer were in the audience. Impressed by the charming young boy’s felicity and maturity, Ramaswamy Iyer gifted him with Rs.501/ and blessed him. He told Narayana Iyer that the child now needed to learn from a vocalist. It was after this that Krishnan joined Semmangudi’s gurukula.
Soon after, Flute Mali, another child prodigy who was already a famous name in Carnatic concert circles, told the organizers to engage “that violin boy” for his concert in Chennai. During this visit Krishnan played for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer as well. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, who had a concert in a fortnight’s time, requested Krishnan not to return home but stay on in Chennai. Krishnan who was not yet into his teens was unable to decide and his father was summoned.
The same day Semmangudi had a concert where violinist Mysore Chowdiah was to be the accompanist. Chowdiah, who played truant, did not turn up and Krishnan was asked to fill in. In an unprecedented gesture, Semmangudi publicly appealed to Krishnan’s father during the concert to let the child remain in this city which was the centre of music. Narayana Iyer agreed and the family moved to Chennai.
Narayana Iyer developed for his son special fingering and long-bowing techniques which reproduced vocal music with great fidelity, making the violin sound richly melodious and tuneful as opposed to the harsh, staccato fiddling which was ten in vogue. Krishnan also mastered another art quite early—he would accompany artistes in their own style. It was his keen sense of observation, perfect timing and unobtrusive support that added wholesomeness to a concert. His playing soon acquired polish and sophistication, placing him above his contemporaries.By 1940, he had established himself as the Prince Charming of the Carnatic music world.

As his career graph rose phenomenally, the powers that be were quick to give him official recognition. Krishnan was conferred the Padmasri in 1973 when he was principal of the Government Music College in Chennai and an Asthana Vidwan of Tirupati Devasthanam. In 1981 he was chosen to preside over the annual conference of the Madras Music Academy when the prestigious title of Sangeeta Kala Nidhi was conferred on him. He was given the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1975 and later served as Vice-Chairman of this body.
Krishnan’s US-based daughter Viji and son Sriram—both violinists—accompany him during his concert tours in India and abroad. He still draws full houses during the music season in Chennai every December. For his countless fans, every opportunity to hear him is a prized occasion His violin, like pure gold, has been further enriched. By 55 years of experience. His violin sings almost every word of the sahityam. When he elaborates and plays the neraval of a composition, the bhava comes through soulfully.
An uncompromising classicist, he never takes recourse to gimmicks or a display of physical prowess. He has created a bani all his own which has purity of tone and soul-stirring melody. The master had turned maestro.


 Note : One of the most charming personalities in the world of music Our families have been associated for many  years . My parents knew him as a handsome young boy, quiet and dignified. Later his sister Dr. N.Rajam married my brother T.S.Subramaniam and we have spent many glorious hours in his company. He was a generous teacher and gave so much to my son Ranjan and daughter Ruupa though for a very short time.  


The Ananda in his Music-MDR

First Published in The Sunday Times of India under Spectrum in Review on April 26 1992

The ‘Ananda’ In His Music…

With almost 300 compositions to his credit, M.D. Ramanathan was a musician compleat. He was a creator and sole exponent of a ‘bani’, which came to be known as the M.D.R. ‘bani’.

One cannot speak of M.D. Ramanathan, the maverick Carnatic musician and not feel a fierce sense of protective loyalty towards him. An M.D.R. fan anticipates even the mildest criticism, with hackles raised and claws unsheathed to counter it. M.D.R. was traditional and orthodox in musicianship, yet he blazed a new trail which was avant-garde in his lifetime.

M.D.R. was born in 1923, as the only son of Devesha Bhagavathar in a picturesque little hamlet in Kerala, called Manjapara. Even while he learned music from his father, Raamanathan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Victoria College in nearby Palakkad.
The city of Chennai is the Vienna of India, though the Cooum canal is no Danube! A classical musician or dancer must strike roots here if he or she has serious ambitions about making it good in the profession. The young Ramanathan’s destiny took him to Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra, where the Principal was the “Tiger” of Carnatic music, Varadachariar. A close bond of affection developed between Tiger and cub. M.D.R.’s dedication to the master and his music set him on the path to glory.
M.D.R.’s music was rich, soul-searching and serene. When he sang, our hearts sang with him. If he sang of Vishnu reclining on the ocean of milk in the swaying grandeur of Devagandhari, we experienced the gentle turbulence of the waves. If the composer Tyagaraja questioned himself in ‘Mokshamugalada?’ will I ever attain moksha? M.D.R. aimed the query at you sitting in the audience and left you introspecting.

M.D.R.’s voice, while rich in texture and sonorously bass,  was more effective in the lower octaves. His detractors pointed out that he not only lacked in range, but also in speed, which is an essential prerequisite for breaking the monotony of a three-hour concert. His gesticulations which endeared him to his admirers were ridiculed by hostile critics. R.G.K. an eminent columnist once wrote, ‘M.D.R.’s wild and grotesque gesticulations are not entirely irrelevant to his art. In fact, ‘facing the music’ of Ramanathan is as important as listening to it. ’
Understanding his gestures helps you to understand his singing.’ R.G.K., who greatly valued the ‘oceanic feeling” or ananda that one experiences while listening to M.D.R.,  feels that it was a very special quality which is something inexpressible joy, tinged with sadness, a kind of  divine restlessness.

An inspired composer of about 300 compositions, ‘Varada dasan’, M.D. Ramanathan was a musician compleat. He established a bani (gharana), which came to be known as the M.D.R. bani, of which he was the sole exponent. He was inimitable. What his students imbibed from him was exploration of the nuances of ragas, a feel for the language and total involvement in its exposition.

It is exasperating then, to think that a simple scholar like M.D. Ramanathan, with his guileless nature, was a victim of neglect by the powers that be. He received the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1975. No other recognition came his way, till he passed away on April 27th, 1984. Even the omnipotent Music Academy of Chennai whose title ‘Sangeeta Kalanidhi’ is most coveted by Carnatic musicians, narrowly missed conferring it on M.D.R.

It is in this context, that it came as welcome surprise that a young filmmaker, Soudhamini, ventured to direct a film, inspired by the music of M.D.R. ‘Pitruchaya’ translated as ‘Shadows Of Our Forefathers,’ was the culmination of a long-cherished and deep-seated desire which no Indian sponsor would touch with a greenback. Her dream was eventually sponsored by a German television company.

Working without a script, Soudhamini has used M.D.R.’s music lavishly, literally allowing her thoughts and impulses to be led on by the selected musical extracts. There is pathos in the film just as it was there in his music and in his life. The camera strays nostalgically into empty classrooms in Kalakshetra and the bare rooms of his home, as if reaching out to his spirit in those hallowed spaces. The sense of loss is acute.

Note: A wonderful human being and legendary musician with whom I was associated as student at Kalakshetra. The classes were great fun as he used his unique voice and quirky sense of humour to regale us with anecdotes and meaning of the lyrics. I continued to extend this relationship further after marriage because my husband R.Raman (Babu) was a great fan and could imitate his style of singing so accurately that MDR himself  gave him credit. He has  a special place in our hearts and his admirers are a close knit circle of this cult musician.

First published in:
The Independent Journal of Politics &Business -The Arts- sat April 13, 1991 (A Times Of India Publication.)


Renowned veena maestro Veena S. Balachander, who passed away on April 14 last year will not be remembered for the stir he created with his ’45 ragas’ concerts in which there was no percussion and his films Anda naal and Bommai, but even for his flashes of temper and his penchant for controversies.

Veena S. Balachander. You almost expect to hear a flourish of trumpets and a clash of cymbals, after you say his name. It is not easy to frame a tribute to him in mere words. His many- splendoured personality just overpowers you. Balachander passed away at dawn on Tamil New Year’s Day (April 14) last year after a massive heart attack at Bhilai. It was a cruel blow, especially in the present day bleak scenario of Carnatic music.

S. Balachander was like a pillar, a staunch votary of classicism in Carnatic music. He was one of a handful of exponents who have preserved the beauty of the rich gamaka-laden Carnatic music with passionate purity. He was virtuoso, non-pareil of the ancient Saraswati Veena, the hoary origins of which are in a melange of mysticism and divinity. The challenge of such an instrument lies in reproducing classical music without losing continuity of sound akin to vocal rendition. Balachander’s veena technique overcame the shortcomings of a plucked, 24, fixed-fret instrument with rare artistry. The genius of his unparalleled musicianship, his almost demoniacal obsession with perfection and aesthetic fulfillment, reserve for him the highest place among contemporary instrumentalists. His passing away has left a void, truly impossible to fill, because, like the Sarangi, the Saraswati Veena too, is in danger of becoming extinct.

An Aquarian, born in 1927, he was mercurial, irascible and tempestuous. Balachander was the fourth child in a Von Trapp-like family of six performing children. His elder brother S. Rajam was a singing star and in 1938, the pair of them toured India and neighbouring countries, billed as child prodigies. Master Balachander could sing, dance, play several instruments and was a chess champion to boot. He never had a teacher, but learnt music by observation and by the ear, so to say and developed it with sheer talent.

He entered films as a child artiste in 1933. His brother and sisters were already making waves as singing stars. Films were a forum to project his varied creative skills. He was ruggedly handsome as a romantic hero in some and produced, directed and scored brilliant music in several other Tamil films. Two unforgettable films that come immediately to mind are Anda Naal based on an Akira Kurosawa classic, which he made in 1954. At a time when practically every frame had a dance or song sequence, this one had none. Of course it failed at the box-office, but is nevertheless considered a historic milestone in the Indian film industry. In 1970, he adapted a Hitchcock thriller to make Bommai, in which newcomer Yesudas made his debut as a playback singer.
During this time, Balchander had also gained universal popularity and reputation as an artiste whose genius was probing the new and the unexplored in music. In 1962, he was the first Indian artiste to cut an LP, which he followed up by as many as 25 albums. Also in the same year, he toured USA giving recitals and demonstrations. He created a stir among the conservative southern cognoscenti with his ’45 Ragas’ concerts. These concerts in which there was no percussion became as popular as those in which he displayed his mastery of a Dikshitar or Syama Sastri Kriti, or when he touched emotional peaks in a Thyagaraja masterpiece.

He had developed a technique of pulling the main strings laterally to its utmost limit to sweep an entire octave on a single fret. His dexterous fingers could move with breathtaking speed, and during a leisurely alaap the mood of a raga was brought out with all its aching sensitivity. Despite the arrogant power of his presentation and the stunning vibrancy of his creative energy, there was an underlying pathos in his ‘raga’ rendition. Balachander could strum the ‘mandara shadja’ string and produce gamakas of deep emotion which would move his fans to tears.

His passionate involvement in a concert often led to a flash of temper, if an insensitive audience tittered, walked around casually or heaven forbid!, brought in babies that bawled. One recalls a morning session Bombay’s Birla theatre in the late 60’s when Balachander gave his first “45 Ragas’ concert in the city. The eagerly expectant audience spilled over the aisles and listened in pindrop silence for three hours. He seemed transported to another world. During the ecstatic under-the-breath grunts as he coaxed the Veena strings lovingly, we heard him soulfully summoning the raga-devatas!

Balachander had earned notoriety for an outsized ego, which had a knack of showing up in everything he did. A Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, Balachander’s name carried with it no less than 50 titles, some of which are alleged by the not so charitable, to be his own creation. His stylized signature proclaimed to the world, “Veena means Balachander”! His handwriting was reflective of his personality. They were heavily underlined, loudly coloured adjectives confined within inverted commas, scripted with bold type and curly capitals. Yet surprisingly Balachander could be spotted at concerts of other great  vidwans like Ariyakudi or Chembai relishing their music like an ardent rasika.He was a crusader-Don Quixote style, readily crossing swords with anyone who had the temerity to face him. Any assault or insult, real or fancied to Carnatic music got Balachander’s adrenalin flowing and he would then reveal a streak of eccentricity. His fans will also remember him for his penchant for controversies. Much of his creative energy was frittered away in wordy battles.

One such memorable issue, was the no-holds-barred war on what came to be known as the ‘Swati hoax’. Swati Tirunal the revered Travancore Raja is accepted as a prolific royal music composer. Balachander on the basis of his wide reading and research , alleged that the king is a fictional figure foisted on the music world (and thereby on history)”. The Veena maestro went to the High Court, against the National Book Trust, for the withdrawal of the monograph on Swati, penned by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He wrote innumerable letters, printed brochures and booklets and advertised widely for support to his cause celebre. He drew considerable flak for his irreverence in seeking to demolish a cherished figure. The controversy remains unsolved. Yet some of Balachander’s evidence, remains unshattered.

 On April 11, 1990, he participated in a music festival held in Hyderabad. Significantly he played an hour-long Sahana Raga followed by the kriti Giripai Nelakonna. In this kriti Thyagaraja, the saint composer reveals that he had a premonition about his own impending death, which indeed came five days later.

Meeting Balachander for what was to be the last time on April 12th 1990, in the lounge of a hotel where several artistes were staying, we saw him cradling the veena lovingly in his arms impatiently waiting for an escort to reach him to the airport. He was clad in an outlandish bright green cape, over a rust-coloured kurta.

 Two days later, Balachander died in Bhilai where he was staying with a dear friend Buddhaditya Mukherjee, the renowned sitarist. Did the veena maestro too have a premonition about his end? We will never know.

Note: Veena Balachander's family and my mother's family had a close friendship for many  years. My father-in-law P.A.Raman also knew him as a musician during his  Bharatiya Music and Fine Arts Sabha which ran successfully for many years. He was among the luminaries who travelled to Mumbai for my wedding. What an honour!

                D.K.J.’s music glowed due to his complete mastery over rhythm. His ‘laya gyanam’ was amply displayed, when he wove beautiful swara patterns full of melodic beauty. DK.J.’s music was charged with ‘bhava,’ endowing it with a haunting quality. Aesthetics have always been a hallmark of the ‘D.K. Pattammal ‘Bani’. Their music induces repose (sowkhyam) and touches a deep chord in the listener’s heart.

The avid Carnatic music rasika identifies Sivan’s Kaanakkankodi (Kambhoji) and Kapali (Mohanam) with D.K. Jayaraman. Kritis of modern-day composers like Gangadheeswaram, (Sindhubhairavi) and Mahadeva shiva shambho, (Revathi), immediately conjure up the name of D.K.J. The poignancy of Nannuvidachi (Reethigowla) or Mayamma (Ahiri), have brought tears to the eyes of listeners. D.K.J.’s debut in Bombay, has an interesting story behind it. In 1962, D.K. Pattammal participated in the Tyagaraja Aradhana festival, organized by Bharatiya Music and Arts Society of Sion. The next evening’s concert was to feature another senior Vidwan Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Ill health prevented his travel to Bombay and the organizers were in a fix.

P.A. Raman founder Secretary of the Society, recalling the crisis said: “While we were wringing our hands in desperation, Palghat Mani Iyer suggested that we present the young Jayaraman, who had accompanied his sister the previous evening. T.N. Krishnan the violin vidwan too heartily agreed to the proposal. “It was a truly memorable debut for D.K.J.”
 An audio-cassette album of D.K.J.’s Navavarna Kritis was released last month. Rendered by Jayaraman and thirty disciples, It was a painstaking job that would have daunted anyone else but D.K.J. This achievement was proved to be a fitting swan-song for the maestro. A loving father, an affectionate brother and charismatic musician, D.K.J. had thousands of admirers all over the world.  His sudden death on January 24th, at the pinnacle of his career has struck a harsh discordant note in the music world.
Published in The Independent,  a Journal of Politics and Business, Times of India,

January 30, 1991.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The King Himself Is Gone.
(Maharajapuram Santhanam‘s death on June 24, has left a vacuum in the world of music: and if that sounds like a cliché, it has never been truer than today.)

This article was first published in 1991 in ‘The Independent Journal of Politics& Business’, a Times Of India publication).

The past tense does not come easily when one is writing about Maharajapuram Santhanam .The tragic car mishap on June 24 which so cruelly snatched away this musician at the peak of his phenomenal career, was in every way a fatal collision for Carnatic music. We are humbled. A glorious voice has been  silenced and silence itself is deafening.
Maharajapuram Santhanam had hitched his wagon to a star, the star of the music of the spheres. The success of his trailblazing career in the past 20 years was unheard of in the history of carnatic music. He enjoyed the giddying popularity of a rock star. He demanded fees others could not even dare to dream of. Rasikas thronged the concert halls, spilling over into the aisles and doorways, crowding on to the stage. Appropriately, Santhanam had the demeanor of a maharaja on the stage: his air of confidence, and the disarming smile on his cherubic face, hooked the listeners and they stayed hooked. In the four hours that followed, there would not be a single dull moment.

Maharajapuram Santhanam was born in 1928 in a family whose musical lineage could be traced back to Tyagaraja himself. He had his early training under one Sama Dikshitar of Melattur. But it was his father , the illustrious Maharajapurm Vishwanatha Iyer ( who was also the guru of the octogenarian doyen of Carnatic music, Semmmangudi Srinivsa Iyer) from whom Santhanam inherited a vast repertoire of compositions in four languages.
For many years was quietly content with providing vocal support to his father in all his concerts. The concert platform must have been real training ground, for Santhanam’s one great asset was gauging audience response. For five years (1960-65), Santhanam took a break and served as the principal of a music college in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He seemed to have honed his talents to perfection during this period, for when here turned, his career shot up with dazzling speed.
Not many could have guessed that Santhanam had a robust voice and erudition to match. R. Sethuraman, erstwhile secretary of Bharatiya Music & Arts Society, Mumbai , reminisces,” When I proposed  for the first time that we encourage the young Santhanam by giving him a concert for our Sabha in 1956, there were howls of protest.
Maharajapuram’s voice could soar to the highest octaves, yield easily to gamakas and graces and yet sound melodic and pleasant throughout. His stamina was enviable. Even after a string of concerts for a week, his voice would still not lose its clear ringing tone. He developed his raga alapana to grandiose proportions. His music had a lyrical charm. It was lilting, highly polished, pristinely classical. He could add unusual variations (sangatis) and unexpected twists spontaneously and draw thunderous applause from his fans. He would play to the gallery with gimmicks punctuating the concert with subtly humorous asides, and ingratiating attempts to satisfy the endless request slips that his audience handed over. But he could also sublimate his concerts with an enriched rendition of Mukhari (Ksheenamai), or Harikamboji (Dina Mani). Other evergreen favourites of the Maharajapuram style (bani) were ragas like Atana, Bilahari, and Ritigoulai. Legend has it that the raga Mohanam is a precious heirloom of the Maharajapuram family.

Santhanam often revealed an inane sensitivity to melodic expression (raga bhava) and lyrical expression (sahitya bhava). He was a past master in weaving a silken tapestry of sarvalaghu kalpana swaras—long passages of swaras woven dexterously to reach a climax with precise artistry. On the other hand, the evening’s fare could become trite and theatrical with an overdose of ragamalikas, viruttams and short Tamil compositions. The purists, therefore, have often felt disappointed and a little piqued at his forays away from weighty classicism.
Maharajapuram performed to enchanted audience in many countries  abroad. He represented the country in the festival of India in the USA. He was honoured  with the Sangeet Natak akademi award in 1984. More than the Padmashri awarded in 1990 by the Indian government in 1990 by the Indian government, Santhanam probably valued the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title bestowed on him by the Music academy, Madras, in 1989. For the first time in its 60-year history both father and son had been equally honoured by this august body.
Maharajapuram leaves behind two young sons, Ramachandran and Srinivasan, whom he has lovingly groomed for a career in music. He has set up a Trust in memory of his father, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, to encourage young talent and provide pensions for retired musicians.
One does not know what plans he had for the future. One cannot guess how many more compositions his genius would have created for the music world. Santhanam’s death has indeed left a vacuum. If that sounds clichéd, it has never been truer today. We have lost yet another stalwart. The Carnatic music world stands impoverished by this loss. And that is the tragedy of the moment.

NOTE: No mention of his death or obituary was published in any newspaper north of the Vindhyas. Late RGK, an eminent author and journalist wrote a letter to the editors signed by several eminent artistes of Mumbai.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Sri Ganapati- Tyagaraja Kriti In Dance

Anxious grandparents, parents and relatives were distraught as the child lay in bed. The 4 year old boy suffered an undiagnosed illness. The child was taken to the city from their small village in Thanjavur. Specialists were consulted. Tests and scans revealed nothing. The grandfather, Telugu Pandit of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, offered a silent prayer.

 “O Ganesha, my grandson will wear the mask and dance on the Bhagavata mela stage this year. I promise.”

 Soon, the child gradually improved in health. On the sacred Narasimha Jayanti day, the Chaitra full moon rose in the sky. The chorus of bhagavatars began to sing the Ganapati Patra Pravesham dwipada  for the Bhagavata Mela natakam ‘Prahlada’. A young boy wearing the mask of Ganesha danced with firm steps, hands held in Kapitha hasta. He looked around, raised his right hand in blessing to the audience. The bhagavatars and spectators raised their joined hands above their heads and thanked Ganesha for His grace and blessings. The grandfather went on the stage with an offering of coconut, fruit and flowers and circled a flaming camphor aarathi around the dancer. It was indeed his young grandson who trained for a week to debut on the bhagavata mela stage. The vow had cured his grandson. Such is the power of Ganesha! The bhagavatas believe that the dancer who wears the mask of Ganesha or Narasimha is temporarily possessed by their divine spirit and will think nothing of prostrating to the human actor!*1

                Every classical dance form and theatre in India invariably begins with the homage and salutation to the adorable Ganesha. Every performing artiste who steps on the stage silently says a prayer to the elephant faced god who can remove obstacles and ensure a successful performance.

*1 Bhagavata mela Natakams are performed in 5 villages in Thanjavur on the occasion of Narasimha Jayanti. Like the elephant, this ancient form is also on the list of endangered art forms.


The greatest devotees of Ganesha are probably in Maharashtra where a ten-day festival during Ganesh Chaturthi is one joyous swirl of colour, song and dance. The common people in the villages, the labourers, the masters, the rich and the poor join in tumultuous welcome to the elephant-headed deity. Ganapati Bappa Morya pudcha varshe laukar ya! ‘Our dear Ganapati, return soon next year’ the rhythmic chant rises to a crescendo accompanied bykartals and lezims. The folk theatre form of this State is called Tamasha . It comprises music, dance and drama and invariably begins with an invocation to Ganesha. Folk Theatre, classical dance,  and other performing artistes anywhere in India consider Ganesha as a patron of arts who can ensure the success of a performance .

Many years ago, on a family visit to the Bangalore zoo, we were distraught and looked on in horror as a mahout struck an elephant repeatedly on its forehead with a heavy hammer. The memory still haunts me and the pain I felt then is still fresh in my heart. Like the Bengal tiger this magnificent animal deserves to live. The very noble thought of a second gajendra moksham gives one joy and happiness of being able to contribute to such a mammoth cause.

Ganesha and Gaja in Bharata Natyam is  the subject of this post. Taking this quite literally, this feature endeavors to sketch a brief understanding of dance, analyzes a dancer’s mind when she composes dance, and a description of an item on Ganesha. This dance in words or word-pictures will hopefully bring out the glory of Ganesha, his various attributes and stories associated with this adorable deity.

Among animals, the elephant is credited with the unique attributes of intelligence and memory. Ganesha symbolizes these basic qualities that are essential in any performing artiste.

 How valid is the comparison of Ganesha to the elephant? Is Ganesha a realistic depiction of the animal? How does the dancer adapt the mammoth sized animal on the stage? In the jungle, the elephant forages aggressively for large amounts of vegetation to assuage his hunger. He is not easy to train and is known to revolt against his own trainer mahout. The elephant has great strength and is used for heavy labour in timber yards. The grand finale in animal circuses is the elephant act where they are made to perform and dance on their hind legs. A visit to a temple is incomplete without feeding bananas to the baby elephant at the entrance. An elephant ride is the high point in the itinerary of every tourist in India. The elephant is divine. The elephant is regal. The very sight of the elephant, single, in a herd or a hundred of them aligned in a festive caparisoned row, inspires awe.

The grace and beauty of an elephant’s gait is amazing. The bulky form disappears when he jauntily breaks into a run, ears waving like a maharaja’s pankha. The long trunk sways like a willowy coconut palm in a breeze as he turns his head majestically from side to side. In the classification of women in classical literature, Gajagamini is a woman whose gait is graceful like an elephant.

Can a dancer resist such a challenge from Nature? In dance Ganesha is depicted as an adorable, lovable deity. His benign blessings are sought before a child learns the first steps of dance. Traditionally, Ganesha is invoked to dwell in the wooden stick which the child holds as she strikes her first steps. Every classical dance or theatre performance begins with a prayer to Ganesha to destroy the surrounding negative vibrations which may mar a performance.

On stage the gargantuan form of an elephant is aesthetically depicted as dwarfish and with a pot-belly. His enormous appetite is translated into a deity who loves modakam and fruit. The elephant’s graceful gait is an integral part  of every Ganesh vandana in dance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Aspects of Dance

For those who would like to understand a sophisticated dance form like Bharata Natyam, a few words on the technique would not be out of place.

In Bharata Natyam there are two aspects; nrtta which is pure movement and nritya, the expressive element. The third one called natya uses both these elements to tell a story. Hand gestures, movement of feet, arms and torso, the eyes and in fact, every part of the body is trained to move in coordination according to the basic technique. The face becomes the mirror of the soul, expressing the inner emotions to depict the lyrics. The pure dance movements or adavus are decorative in nature and form patterns around the rhythmic grid of the song. Although they were traditionally not meant for expressing emotions or moods, the modern dancer uses them to enhance the underlying mood. The pure dance sequences are composed keeping in mind the mood of the lyrical statement. For example, if the song is an invocation to Ganesha, the footwork could be flat and heavy with flowing body movements to depict the elephantine grace. The hand gestures or hastas may symbolize Ganesha’s weapons, his fan-like ears or the swaying trunk.

The nritya or abhinaya elucidates the meaning of the lyrics and invariably includes a few anecdotes of Ganesha’s exploits. The underlying mood of the item would be one of devotion and salutation. The language of hastas or hand gestures of Bharata Natyam are used tell stories and support expression of emotions. Ornaments and weapons held by the gods are shown through use of hastas. Arala or pataka are used to show his large waving ears. Amukulam in the left hand is used to depict the long trunk. Abhaya hastam to bless, padmakosha to show a fruit or modakam and two kapitha hasta held low on either side of the body indicating the pot belly. 

An invocation to Ganesha is usually sung at the commencement of a concert or performance. Therefore the ragas suitable are Natai, Arabhi, Hamsadhwani, or Saurashtram. Of course, there are hundreds of music compositions on Ganesha in various other ragas. Some of the epithets most commonly used are: Giriraja Suta (son of Giriraja or Shiva), Gamganapate Gananatha, Ganadhipate, Gana Nayaka (leader of the ganas), Gajavadana, Gajamukhana, Kari vadana (Elephant-faced) Gajaraja (Elephant-King) and Siddhi Vinayaka.. Eka dantaa (single tusk), Mooladhara Murti, Pranamamyaham, Pranavakkaram, (Symbolizing AUM), Vighnaraja (Remover of Obstacles) are also commonly used by composers. In a varnam in Todi, Swati Thirunal begins the pallavi with ‘Dani samajendra gamini’ meaning ‘one with a graceful gait of an elephant!’

For the dancer, anecdotes that can be elaborated dramatically are of crucial importance. Well-known stories about Ganesha are depicted dramatically in dance. Parvati created Ganesha from her own body. A brave and strong child, he was asked to guard Parvati’s door while she bathed. Shiva returned home after a long absence and was not aware that Ganesha was his son. Shiva demanded that he be allowed to see his wife, but Ganesha refused entry. Father and son fought fiercely. Before Parvati could intervene, the furious Shiva had beheaded him. Parvati was distraught and pleaded with Shiva to restore him to life. Shiva repented his hasty action, and told her that he can be brought back to life but only with a different head. The first animal sighted was an elephant. So the elephant’s head was placed on the dead boy’s neck and the boy came back to life. Shiva rewarded his son’s bravery and made him the leader of the ganas, his army. He also ruled that all deities and mortals should invoke Ganesha and worship him before commencing a project and on all auspicious occasions. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya once had a dispute. In some versions the dispute was about who was the elder son. The commonly accepted story is that Narada had in his possession a fruit which would bestow wisdom to one who partook of it. Both Ganesha and Kartikeya wanted it. Their parents Shiva and Parvati decided that the fruit will be the prize given to the one who can circle the Universe first. While Kartikeya took off on his peacock, Ganesha circumbulated his father Shiva and mother Parvati , and saluted them saying, “You, my divine parents, are the Universe.” He was rewarded with the fruit of wisdom and declared the winner. This angered Kartikeya who left his parents and took to the hills. Ganesha broke his tusk and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata as Vyasa dictated to him. Ganesha the drum player, Ganesha the dancer, Ganesha the remover of obstacles and Ganesha the lover of sweets are also popular with dancers. In South India, Ganesha is regarded as a celibate and therefore does not feature in love poems. In north Indian traditions Vinayaka has two wives Budhi, symbolic of intellect and Siddhi, and the second, achievement. Kartikeya, on the other hand is well-known for his exploits with Valli and Devyani. There are popular padams in Tamil which recount how Kartikeya or Murugan once summoned his brother Ganesha, to frighten Valli into submission by appearing before her as a wild elephant. The North Indian Ganapati is painted vermilion, while in the south he appears to be grey, the colour of sacred ash or vibhuti.

From my experience as a dancer who enjoys composing dance and studying fresh compositions, I believe that it is the dancer who brings to life the beauty of a song. A dancer selects a song from a cross section of hundreds of composers and ragas, several languages and deities. There are many reasons why a dancer selects a particular song. The song probably inspired her when she first heard it. Maybe it is childhood favourite hummed by her mother. Some songs pose a challenge and dancers love challenges. Perhaps the rhythmic structure is exciting. Or is it that the achingly beautiful padam touches a chord in her heart as it reflects the sorrow of her life? It is the abstract, the philosophical, mathematical or emotional illusions portrayed in the lyrics which draw attention. Today thematic presentations depicting social problems, current events, or feminist issues are popular. Dramatic life stories of composers like Jayadeva, Tyagaraja or Swati Thirunal attract dancers like bees to the flowers. One can drink deep and long from their compositions and never be satiated. And every dancer worth her art would surely have composed at least one on the beloved Ganesha.

Once the song is selected, ideally one must study the composer’s style, his life, the general canvas of his works and understand his philosophy of life. Reference points to the context of the lyrics should be noted. Many of Tyagaraja’s kritis are autobiographical. They are a direct reference to events in his life. His saintly life, his single-minded dedication to Rama, his austerity and dignity must be kept in mind. 

The dancer first learns the song, understands its rhythmic pattern, studies the meaning of every word and its connotation, and visualises the scope for anecdotal elaboration. The underlying mood or sthayi bhava is an important element. After serious research into all these aspects, the dancer commences to compose.

Tyagaraja’s kritis have always fascinated me for the tremendous range and emotional content. In 1971 when I first researched the saint’s compositions, I knew that I had struck a gold mine. Here was a treasury of kritis each brimming with navarasas, and with a story to tell. The first kriti I ever undertook to compose was one of only two kritis Tyagaraja composed on Ganesha. Sri ganapatini in Raga Saurashtram was the traditional salutation composed as a curtain –raiser for ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’, a bhagavata mela natakam by Tyagaraja.*2 This is preceded by dwipadas or couplets which describe the various aspects of Ganapati.

Kariraja vadanundu karpuranibhudu

Girisuta sutudu sangita lolundu

One who is elephant-faced, whose body is white like camphor

Son of the daughter of the mountains (Parvati), connoisseur of music

Ambuja sammavdhya marulu koluva

Jambu phalambula savijoochukonchu

Worshipped by Brahma (one who sits on the Lotus)

One who enjoys the fruits of jambu (and other) tree


*2 Tyagaraja belonged to the bhagavata mela tradition. He composed another musical dance-drama called ‘Nowka Charitram’ on child Krishna’s boat trip with gopis.


Dharmadi phalamula dayastunanuchu

Nirmala hridayudai nirvikarundu

One who rewards the one who follows Dharma

One who resides in the heart of a pure devotee

Sokkuchu soluchu soga suga vedale

Mrokki sevinthumu mudamunarare

He captures our hearts as He comes

Let us all welcome Him with prayers

Every line is a word picture and even as we sing them we can visualize the image of Ganesha whose arrival is awaited by the eager devotees.

Pallavi: Sri ganapatini sevimpare, shritha manavulara

O devotees of pure hearts, worship Sri Ganapati!

Now, very simply, we can analyse each word and see how it is depicted in Bharatanatyam. In a music concert the singer repeats the line several times changing the emphasis on each syllable and introducing new musical phrases. These are called sangatis. Similarly, the dancer uses sanchari bhava to elaborate ideas. The word Sri Ganapati is performed with varying poses each time. For instance:

a)One who wears a snake as a sacred thread, (b)One with large ears and long trunk.(c)One who dances.(d) One who holds a lotus, a rosary,  a gada. (e) One who broke his tusk to write the Mahabharata. (f)One who circled his parents Shiva and Parvati and bowed to them saying, ‘you are the Universe’ Now, give me the prize, the fruit !

The last idea is called sanchari, an elaboration of an idea. The story of his birth would be too detailed and may upset the balance of a short invocatory piece.

Anupallavi:   Vagadhipaadhi supujajala chekoni

                     He (Ganesha) has just now received Brahma’s worship

                    Baaga natim puchu vedalina.

                    Now he comes here dancing gloriously

Brahma can be depicted in many ways. Four-faced One, creator of Vedas, Saraswati’s consort, born from the navel of Vishnu, or One who sits on the lotus, etc. Since Brahma is mentioned in passing, and is not a part of the scene here, we will choose the first two epithets which are direct and simple. Brahma can be shown worshipping with flowers, circumbulating and bowing to Ganesha. It is in the next line that one can elaborate on words like baga natim puchu and vedalina. How does he enter? How does he dance? Imagine a long procession with drummers, nadaswaram players, girls spreading a carpet of flowers, and devotees waving large sacred whisks! And then behold! Ganesha Himself comes dancing with many rhythms swaying His trunk, ears flapping, His large body moving gracefully. The picture is complete when the devotees are shown enraptured by this vision.


                 panasa narikeladi –jambu- phalammula araginchi

 He has accepted offerings of jack-fruit,coconut,and fruits like the jambu

                 Ghanatarmbuganu mahipai padamulu ghallughallana nunchi

The earth resounds with the sound of (Ghall ghall )of his heavy footsteps

                  Anayamu haricharanayuga mulanu Hridyambujamuna nunchi

One in whose heart nestles the sacred feet of Hari

                 Vinayamunanu tyagaraja vinuthudu

With great humility Tyagaraja praises Him

               Vividhagatula dhalangumani vedalina

He who comes dancing to varying rhythms

In the Devagandhari kriti ‘Kshirasagara shayana’, Tyagaraja pleads with Rama to free him from his worries as swiftly as He came to the rescue of Gajendra. This kriti is very popular with dancers as there is an allusion to the well-known story of the King of elephants whose leg was caught by a crocodile while drinking water in a river. Gajendra sent up a poignant prayer to Vishnu who came to protect his dear devotee. The crocodile is in reality an accursed soul. He too gets released at the hand of Vishnu. This indeed is the first Gajendra Moksham!

The Ganesa Kauvuthvam is part of an ancient temple ritual sung usually at the onset of festivals. The Tamil composition has rhythmic syllables interspersed with lyrics that are recited and also set to ragas. A brief excerpt:

 Aru thiru marugane vighna vinayaka

Vinakitta aruliya ganapati jaya jaya thikkitta udarakadan jaya jaya

Thikkita udarakadan kinnam tadhikathudikkai yaanai mugathavar

Tongita kita taka thongutakka devargal ganapati

Tikkta kitathaka thikkitonga ganapati kauthvam

Katrravar vinaiyara ukkkudutham … …..                

The elephant is an important animal in Indian mythology. It is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. The origin, content and imagery of our classical dances are traditionally based on our scriptures and epics. In Buddhists lore, Siddhartha’s mother Maya dreamed of a white elephant just before giving birth to her son. Indra’s vehicle is a white elephant, Airavat. Dance is a divine skill which most gods and goddesses are naturally gifted with. Nataraja is the inimitable dancer and dance acquires its divinity by virtue of being associated with Him. Although he is known as Pasupati, Protector of animals, Shiva ismerciless with asuras who challenge him in the guise of an animal. Mahishasura mardini is one of the items perfomed regularly and religiously by women dancers to portray the power of women. Durga empowered by the gods, takes on a ferocious Mahishasura, the asura in a buffalo form. The demon also transformed itself during the fight into an elephant, Gajasura. One of the popular anecdotes depicted in dance is the Daksha Yagna. Shiva rushes to the yagna after hearing that Sati has immolated herself. Unable to face his fury, the sages create asuras who fight Shiva. Among them is an elephant, whose hide is ripped open by Shiva and worn as an upper garment. The earth trembled and shook as Shiva danced his Tandava after destroying the pride and arrogance of Daksha. Kathakali, the magnificent dance of Kerala, has a poignant anecdote in its repertoire that describes a tussle between an elephant, lion and a crocodile witnessed by Bhima in a forest. The elephant loses to the other two cruel animals. It is not part of any text, but gives the artiste scope to present his dramatic skill.

The time has come for us to face the fact that we are leaving for the future generations a derelict and sparse earth .The flora and fauna which is the balancing factor of Mother Nature is being depleted at an alarming pace. The panda, tiger and the elephant are in danger of extinction. The elephant in Asia and Africa are hunted for their ivory, confined to sanctuaries, or are used for heavy labour. They suffer from lack of care and cruelty at the hands of their owners. As the forests are being axed down, the elephants forage and destroy cultivated crops.

Elephants are killed and elephants kill men. Man and elephant are in conflict everywhere. We must commence an awareness drive for conservation of natural resources, on a war footing. Will the elephant be perpetuated only in dance, literature and art? Will our great grand –children see only skeletons of the elephant in museums?  Then we will be back where we began. Like the cave –men who drew elephant sketches and drawings on the walls of their caves.

 (This article was written a few years ago  for a project that never materialised .  I posted it in my blog in for music and dance lovers )