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A slice of musical history


Former Kalakshetra director S. Rajaram recalls his conversations with his grandfather-teacher, Mysore Vasudevacharya.

When one is completely immersed in music, and attains a perfect unison with the sruti… the mind becomes blank. That is a sublime moment.

Photo: K. Murali Kumar


After a long, successful stint at the Kalakshetra including as its Director, S. Rajaram is back in Bangalore. Rajaram is also grandson-disciple of Mysore Vasudevacharya (1865-1961), one of the greatest Carnatic-music composers after the Trinity.

When I visit Rajaram’s home, I listen to him reminisce about Vasudevacharya, while the great vaggeyakara looks down at us from an imposing black-and-white photograph in a stark, grey frame on the facing wall. As the mellow light from a late-afternoon sun streams into the room through the close-grilled windows, Rajaram, who himself learnt vocal music, mridangam and jalatharangam, frequently breaks into song. It’s a a spontaneous and melodious rendering of many of his grandfather’s lyrics, which he was fortunate to learn directly from him.

Admirer of Tyagaraja

Rajaram tells us that Vasudevacharya was a great admirer of Tyagaraja. Actually, with Patnam Subramanya Iyer for guru, Vasudevacharya belonged to Tyagaraja’s direct sishya-parampara. He would frequently eulogise Tyagaraja, acknowledge his influence, and say that his own prowess as singer-composer was “Tyagaraja’s bhiksha” (grace).

His admiration even found expression in two laudatory lyrics on Tyagaraja —“Shreeramachandra,” a ragamalika in Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi, Simhendramadhyamam, Khamas, Mohana and Madhyamavati; and second, a kriti “Sreemadadi” (Kalyani).

Himself a talented vocalist, Vasudevacharya was especially famed for his madhyamakaala thanam learnt from Patnam, an expert in this style. Vasudevacharya held strong beliefs about concert-singing. He said that a musician must possess complete knowledge of a lyric’s meaning (not just a general idea) and total clarity of pronunciation. In manodharma, emphasis should be on alapana and niraval, with only a minimum amount of swara.

Also, for Vasudevacharya, music was synonymous with spirituality. Once Rajaram was discussing with him the Tyagaraja kriti “Manasunilpa sakthilekapothe” wherein it is said mind-mastery is vital and no rituals and mantra-chanting can help if the mind is not controlled. Rajaram asked if mind-mastery was really possible. Vasudevacharya replied: “When one is completely immersed in music, singing with the perfectly-tuned tambura in the background, and then reaches upper shadjamam and therein attains a perfect unison with the sruti, then, for a fraction of a second, the mind becomes blank. That is a sublime moment. And if one can sustain that and extend it for a few more seconds, one becomes a siddha.”

Rajaram often asked: “Did you experience those mind-stilling moments?” But Vasudevacharya would only smile enigmatically in reply, never saying anything.

Vasudevacharya also strongly disapproved of commercialisation of music. When asked by organisers to fix a fee, he would later remark, in genuine bewilderment: “How can I quote a sum? How can anyone put a price on music?”

He conceded that musicians too have to make a living, but instead of focusing on increasing their remuneration he felt that they should regard every kutcheri as an opportunity to sing God’s glory.

Like vaggeyakaras of old, when composing, Vasudevacharya would sing the sahitya (words) along with the tune, extempore, and it was left to his disciples to quickly jot down those words and notate them too. Students like Chennakeshavaiah, B.K.Padmanabha Rao and Veena Sivaramaiah notated many lyrics.

Rajaram too had this opportunity during the years spent with his grandfather at Kalakshetra, where Vasudevacharya had been invited by Rukminidevi Arundale to compose music for Valmiki’s Ramayana.

Speaking of this task, the master-composer would remark to Rajaram that there was a great difference between composing kritis/kirtanas, and setting music to an already-composed poem like Valmiki’s epic. The former is always easier, Vasudevacharya would say, explaining: “When composing a krithi/keerthana/varnam, the dhaatu (tune) and maathu (words) come together to the composer. It happens easily and spontaneously. But when asked to set tunes for a poem written by someone else, you first have to spend time and effort to understand the poet’s mind, the circumstances in which he wrote, situation being described, and the character’s nature.” After much contemplation on these aspects, Vasudevacharya would come up with a suitable tune and then discover which raga that was, in which the tune had occurred to him. Rajaram would thereupon record the tune’s notation and raga-name.

Remarkably, all of Vasudevacharya’s lyrics were composed in Telugu and Sanskrit. When Rajaram asked him why, Vasudevacharya replied: “Telugu, with its natural mellifluousness is the perfect medium for music. Moreover, my entire music-training has been in Telugu and Sanskrit.” However, obliging Krishnaraja Wodeyar, Vasudevacharya composed what remains the only Kannada lyric of his output, “Karunisau thaaye” (Saraswatimanohari).

Though Vasudevacharya’s lyrics were widely celebrated for their perfect harmony of melody and bhaava (feeling), some critics said his music was too simple and lacking in an impressive technical complexity. Stung by this criticism, Vasudevacharya composed three lyrics with a profusion of difficult sangatis — “Marimarivachchuna” (Khambodi); “Rararajeevalochana” (Mohana), and “Harinibhajinche” (Sankarabharanam).

In their total emphasis on bhakthirasa, Vasudevacharya’s works were in keeping with Carnatic music tradition.

Even in his few javalis and varnas (two genres which contain many love-songs often with erotic content) he used human love as an allegory for the jeevatma’s longing for union with paramatma or God. Rajaram illustrates this with the javali, “Nepilachina” (Khamas).

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