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Bonding with the guru

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Legacy Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer showered love on Ranganayaki even as he tyrannised over her as mentor.

In a 1941 review, Kalki (Ananda Vikatan) wonders how the child managed to put in 30 years sadhakam at age ten.

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

ENCHANTING SPELLS: Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.

The four-year old is woken up at 4 a.m. to practise on the veena sarali, jantai, alankaram, and akara sadhakam (four notes per meettu) a hundred times, still under the mosquito net which covered her at night, when she slept snugly between her guru and his wife.

Today, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan sits up on her bed with difficulty. Parkinson’s disease and arthritis have minimised her mobility. She can play the veena only in brief spells for teaching. But her eyes glow when she talks about Amritavarshini and Anandabhairavi. Her journey in music is her bonding with the guru, a living presence in her life.

Their first encounter was disastrous. The crusty senior picked up the loitering child and dumped her into a water tub in the backyard, letting her screams find rescuers. Later, the same man was to shower paternal love on his “Pappakutti,” and tyrannise over her as mentor.

Abandoned by mother

Left by her mother at age three to be brought up by her childless aunt in Karaikkudi, the girl was frequently taken to the home of family friends and neighbours Sugandhakuntalambal and Sambasiva Iyer. He was the younger of the illustrious Karaikudi Brothers. This time Pappa was welcome in his backyard. As Iyer cleared it of pebbles the girl converted his humming to swaras. “I was three. Don’t know how I did it, there was no music in my family.”

Sambasiva Iyer’s temper made him unapproachable. But convinced by her aunt, Iyer started coaching Ranganayaki. A second attempt on Vijayadasami pacified the child to play the strings. Soon Ranganayaki forsook her aunt and uncle for veena periappa and periyamma. “I remember soaping his back when he bathed in the well, helping him in his daily puja, running errands. After demanding rituals this Devi upasaka would have a post-lunch rest — head on the silver betel box, veena across his chest, and strum thanam in the ghana ragas he loved.” Same ragas, but how different they sounded each day!

There was an iron side to this love — no school, no games, no playmates. Contact with her own family was restricted for fear of the child being enticed away from the daily eight hours regimen. The smallest mistake and Iyer pulled up her long plait to cane her.

“Vanajasana” (Sri) was the initial kriti in the Karaikkudi school, followed by Iyer’s favourite “Sarasiruha,” “Sankari ni,” “Sarasasama daana,” “Padavi ni”... It was impossible not to make mistakes. The guru would tolerate nothing but perfection. However, lesson over and Ranganayaki became the pampered Pappakutti.

Sambasiva Iyer emerged from his retirement after his brother’s death to perform with the seven year old. “We played in Karaikkudi and surrounding villages where resident Chettiars held concerts at every family function. When the radio station was established in Tiruchi, he refused to play unless I was also given a contract to accompany him.”

In a 1941 review, Kalki (Ananda Vikatan) wonders how the child managed to put in 30 years sadhakam at age ten, to evoke the mellowness of the Karaikkudi Brothers.

The guru’s temper and gullibility cost him his staunch patron, Ranganayaki’s uncle. A shift to Tiruchi ended in being conned by a disciple who learnt and patented Iyer’s mandira tanti for his own benefit. (Sambasiva Iyer had crafted a machine for twisting copper wire over iron strings for the resonance denied to brass string). The irate vidwan went to native village Tirugokarnam, continuing interactions with the Tiruchi-based Alathur Brothers, to whom as a Devi upasaka he taught a special mantra. A horse drawn cart took him to his monthly tuition for Rs. 50, his sole earnings then.

Marriage at 13 took the girl away but Veenai Periamma’s illness necessitated the resumption of gurukulavasam to manage the household. Music was part of the schedule, this time absorbed with greater maturity.

Ranganayaki’s first child was born in Iyer’s house, under Veenai Periyamma’s care. The couple performed all the duties and rituals for the occasion. (After Sambasiva Iyer’s demise, his wife was to make her home with Ranganayaki.)

The devoted couple followed Ranganayaki when she settled in Madras. Husband Rajagopalan became their son. Few concerts, fewer tuitions (few students stayed with the martinet), until eventually, Iyer became the Principal of Kalakshetra. At 25, Ranganayaki began to give solo recitals, and much-applauded short-term duo recitals with Iyer’s niece Rajeswari (Padmanabhan). “Veena drew listeners then, not like now.” In memorable trips abroad including a teaching assignment in Amherst, students and audiences gave rapt attention to the ancient instrument.

“I love Sarasvati, Nattai, Hamsadhvani... I used to play the tanam well...” Ask if she has passed on this heritage and she confesses, “I never realised its extraordinary value. For a long time I taught to augment family income, not with love. My children ask me why I didn’t teach them. I have no answer, though two showed talent. Grandchildren are busy with studies, careers. Most of my students stopped when they married, others drifted away. There’s R. Ramani... U.S. based Guhan shows fine promise…”

(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools, who have enriched Carnatic music.)

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