Year – 1982, New Delhi.
“What happened?” asks TRS in the midst of the class, “you don’t have your usual stamina today. What did you have for breakfast before coming here?”
I reply hesitatingly, “curd rice…”
“I have told you NOT to have curd rice and come for classes! You should always have chapattis!”
A constant votary of the efficacy of the chapatti-subzi combination instead of the traditionally favored curd-rice, TRS would often take us out for lunch consisting of chapatti-subzi at the nearby Sharma Restaurant in Kamla Nagar, adjacent to the Delhi University North Campus.
“Hmm… the carrot halwa is rather ‘off’ today”, he comments.
I’m in the midst of greedily devouring spoonfuls of the dessert, which I think is slightly over-sweet but delicious nevertheless. I stop momentarily to ask him why he thinks the halwa isn’t up to the mark.
“It isn’t sweet enough!” is his reply, making my mouth fall open in amazement at the inordinate capacity for his sweet tooth to be always in an overdrive. Seeing my surprise he continues, “Actually I often feel that sugar itself is not sweet enough!”
“Kalyani is an ocean! Etavunara is just a drop…”
“Carnatic music consists more of music in-between the notes rather than on the actual notes…”
“Completing a rendition of a Sri Subramanyaya Namaste or an Akshayalinga Vibho, gives way to feeling of completeness and fulfillment which can be compared to the landing of a Boeing 747…”
When my mother was growing up in Tirunelveli Junction in the 1940s, TRS’ family used to live just a few doors away. I have even been told that he has played street cricket with my uncles – a scenario I found impossible to imagine then and now! Anyway, since both the families were friends, this association continued when he moved to Delhi as the faculty of the Delhi University. Thus the choice of TRS as my guru was natural and I consider this to be my greatest blessing ever.
It didn’t seem to matter in the least that Sarojini Nagar, where I lived was just twenty-five kilometers away from the Delhi University campus and that I travelled all alone changing two buses when I was all of twelve years. As soon as the class commenced, Kanakam Mami would place a steaming cup of hot tea before me – such a welcoming gesture, particularly during the bracing winters of Delhi.
TRS was such a perfectionist that not a single note would be allowed to be out of place. If he felt suspicious or dissatisfied about any note, its strength or oscillation, he would immediately stop and correct. Thus an apparently simple kriti like Papanasam Sivan’s Tatvamariyatarama (the first kriti that he taught me) spanned five classes in total. He would never teach more than two lines a class. Consequently, learning heavy weights like Akshayalingavibho for example, easily spanned a month or two. Time definitely wasn’t quite so much a precious commodity and we never seemed to be in the constant hurry we are now.
There was this question I asked in the early days of my tutelage in all naiveté:
“Sir, I’ve read that when Dikshitar composed and sang Akshayalingavibho, the temple doors in Kivalur closed by the priest, opened automatically. Is it true?”
TRS paused for a minute and said in his usual calm way, “do you realize that Dikshitar has employed the use of the ‘ksha’ praasam in the madhyama kala of the anupallavi – a very unusual usage. Have you noticed the abundance of swaraaksharas in the kriti? The beautiful Shankarabharanam flowing so well in the lines? The superb madhyama kala passage after the charanam?”
He continued to enunciate the beauties of the remarkable kriti for a few more minutes. And he ended averring, “So, you should concentrate on these and so many other such aspects instead of getting carried away by doors being opened and so on!”
It so happened that my mother’s eldest sister Ananthalakshmi Nagarajan, was archetypal composer Kotiswara Iyer’s direct disciple. TRS learnt quite a few kritis from her and always used to venerate the way my aunt used to sing in particular, the Varunapriya kriti, Sringaarakumara.
“Your aunt used to literally melt when she used to sing the line ‘yen jeevaadhara udaara’…”
And he was like this with anyone and everyone who caught his attention – music-wise. He was quick to point out the merits of their singing. I remember one such instance when he was conducting a workshop on Niraval, Kalpanaswaram, Padam and Javali in 1991 in Delhi. There was a mother-daughter duo who sang the padam taught by him in the workshop. This duo, before rendering the padam, chose to sing Dikshitar’s Veenapustakadhaarinim. I recall clearly that TRS was thrilled with their choice, and he sat with them in an impromptu rehearsal session, revised the whole kriti, pointing out the embellishments made by T.Brinda when *he* had learnt it.
“The starting gandhara note of the Todi kriti Sri Krishnam should be lifted from the mandhara dhaivatam (since these two notes are samvaadi swaras) and NOT the chatursruti rishabham…”
“Ragas like Bhavapriya and Vakulabharanam have a grandeur of their own, largely unexplored…”
“I wouldn’t say that the line ‘Veda sastra tatvaarthamu telisi…’ in the kriti Enduku Peddala (Shankarabharanam) is really appropriate for niraval. But I guess you can sing niraval since it’s so strongly established now…”
Apart from composing varnams and kritis, a special mention must be made of his embellishments to kritis particularly in the form of chittaswarams. He has blended the mathematics so beautifully with the music that one barely realizes it except that it “sounds special”. Examples are the chittaswarams for Siddhivinayakam (Mohanakalyani-Adi-Muthiah Bhagavatar), Sriguruguhamurti (Dhenuka-Rupaka-Ponniah Pillai – a wonderfully emotional and evocative kriti), Entanivinavintura (Oormika-Adi Tisra Nadai-Pallavi Sesha Iyer) and Kaikoodavenume (Latangi-Khandachapu-Kotiswara Iyer). The last chittaswaram carries beautiful dhatu varisai and shadja-panchama varja combinations making the chittaswaram truly a cerebral and an aesthetic creation.
Dr. N. Ramanathan in the cover story of TRS in Sruti’s issue 350 has said that there was a time when TRS concentrated on Mysore Sadasiva Rao’s compositions. Additionally, he had a special place for Mysore Vasudevacharya, and sang and taught several kritis of his. Particular mention should be made of Idineekunyaayama in Gamanasrama, a composition in Chapu Tala he used to render in a fast tempo and execute mind-boggling and precise high speed niraval and kalpanaswaras at the anupallavi. With a virtuoso like T.Rukmini in tandem, this item used to be a smash hit.
Apart from the ultra-popular Ra Ra Rajeeva Lochana and Brochevarevarura, the other kritis of Vasudevacharya that he used to sing often are Upendramaashrayaami (Khamas, Adi), Pranamamyaham (Ranjani, Misra Triputa), the beautiful Pranataartihara with that wonderful, wonderful chittaswaram (Senjuruti, Khanda Triputa), Mamahrudaye (Ritigaula, Khanda Triputa), the heavy-weight Begada kriti Manasavachasa (Adi), Mahaatmuleni (Rishabhapriya, Adi), Janakimanoharam (Mand, Adi) and others. His rendition of Janakimanoharam used to be especially remarkable in the sense that he used to perform extensive kalpana swarams with poruttams. Singing kalpanaswarams for a raga like Mand is relatively rare even now. His Music Academy concert in December 1989 when he sang Janaki Manoharam complete with elaborate swaras remains indelibly etched in memory.
In addition to popularizing composer D. Pattammal’s kritis, another composer whose compositions he embellished and sang often, was Kalyani Varadarajan, her Saptagirisham (Kanada) and the delectable Aparna Parvati (Nalinakanti) being two examples. A concert at the IIT Delhi in 1990 with Umayalapuram Sivaraman on the mridangam saw Saptagirisham as the opening piece.
“Padams consist of sangatis that can be compared to the thick viscosity of liquid jaggery (vella paahu). Hence padams consist of paahu sangatis…”
I was first introduced to padams when TRS taught us Kshetrayya’s ‘Gaddarivagala’ in the raga Kalyani. There was this phrase in the Anupallavi ‘iddari sairintu pavvalinchu…’. The syllable ‘pav’ of ‘pavvalinchu’ had a sangathi which TRS termed as a ‘paahu sangati’. The sangati consisted of a complex sanchara spanning two octaves that seemed to have all the three speeds built into it – super slow, fast and super-fast – multiple times and that too in no particular order! When we first heard it sung, though it was obvious that this was a flash of sheer brilliance, we were totally lost as to how to even *begin* to comprehend the sangati in the first place! As we dazed students blankly looked at one another, TRS, true to his style obligingly sang the sangati several times for us before a glimmer of light finally began to appear!
TRS was largely responsible for exposing us to different schools of thought. I have mentioned in the previous part how he organized workshops by reigning maestros when each of them was at the peak of their career. And he was also ever ready to take ideas from different schools of thought. Thus he used to say, “KVN used to sing niraval in Nidhichalasukhama slightly differently”, and proceeded to demonstrate that to us.
“The maestro Mali (flute) used to play the two notes ‘Pa’ and ‘Ma’ in Nilambari in several different ways…”- an insight he shared when some of us students were rendering Lalgudi Jayaraman’s pada varnam in Nilambari after the violin wizard had taught it to us in the workshop.
I can relate several anecdotes, teaching instances and TRS’s thoughts on music which can fill an entire book, perhaps several books. A most cherished trip he undertook for his students from Delhi in the year 1990 – he organized for us to be taken by him to Tiruvaiyyaru for the first time in our life; the journey to Tiruvarur with him that same trip where all of us had the opportunity to collectively render Dikshitar’s Tyagarajaaya Namaste at the sanctum sanctorum; the way he kept us in fits of laughter when he demonstrated how he had made sure he got hot water during his concert trip to the state of Manipur – this last instance was told to us when we were returning by train from Chennai to New Delhi and some us were playing Dumb Charades. That year marked the beginning of the Chennai chapter of his brainchild – the Music Education Trust where all of us from Delhi were given concert slots – it was the first time most of us were performing in Chennai.
It cannot be denied that in addition to his scholarship and vidwat, his superlative humour and very high sense of fun and the sheer service for the cause of Carnatic music made him really and truly a very unique personality.
I will conclude with what Tyagaraja says:
“guruvu cilla ginja guruvE bhramaramu
guruDE bhAskaruDu guruDE bhadruDu
guruDE uttama gati guruvu nIvu-anukoNTi
dharanu dAsuni brOva tyAgarAja nuta” (Neechittamu – Dhanyasi – Chapu)