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.