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Rare composer

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

His melodies flowed with sahitya bhava, shaping nuances to highlight the feelings and their subtle shifts.


Remuneration never entered his mind. To the teacher, any time spent outside music had little value.

Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Spartan grace: S. Rajaram.

At the New Delhi airport the quiet man’s spotless veshti-jibba and wrinkles testify to Spartan grace. Catching sight of the daughter of an old student, he says as though she never left: “Back from America? Your mother says you were asking about Mohanakalyani. Come at 10 a.m. tomorrow.”

When the girl obeys the “summons” she finds the man, S. Rajaram, then Director of Kalakshetra, sitting on a small mat that fills the room in his tiny campus quarters. “I composed this song,” he says as he unfolds ‘Paahi Shambho Hara Mahadeva.’ Pleased with her quick grasp, he teaches another kriti of his own (Manmati jaadyam, Behag). Finally he says, “I am nothing but a drop in the ocean. Now sing Thatha’s ‘Sri Chamundeshwari!’” He irons out all the brigas with a terse “no clutter!” His musical style was as spare as his lifestyle.

“Thatha” was the legendary composer Mysore Vasudevachar. To the grandson he was the ishta devata — chosen god. At Kalakshetra, Rajaram served as principal and director, a known martinet in administration. He melted into affection when he taught his grandfather’s compositions. Many students remember how “Sir” called out as they strolled past, “Don’t waste time. Come, I will teach you ‘Srihari vallabhe.’ Do you know Thatha composed it specially for Varalakshmi puja in Kalakshetra?” Willy nilly a class for one would be held under the trees. Remuneration never entered his mind. To the teacher, any time spent outside music had little value.

Link with Kalakshetra

Rajaram’s association with Kalakshetra began in 1953 when Rukmini Devi arranged for his transfer to Madras from All India Radio, Delhi, to enable him to assist his grandfather Vasudevachar in composing the music for the Ramayana dance drama series at Kalakshetra. Vidwan Sambasiva Iyer changed the young man’s name (Raja Rao) saying, “People should be named after Gods, not kings!”

Vasudevachar’s monumental work at Kalakshetra would not have been possible without Raju’s assistance. At times the excited Thatha would wake his grandson well past midnight to notate a sloka in Harikhambodi or Huseni. Those were Rajaram’s happiest years. “I lived with the gods,” he said.

When Vasudevachar passed away at 96, Rukmini Devi decided that Raju should score for the two final Ramayana productions. Rajaram was back in Delhi by then, but managed to complete the task. He was lucky to have veteran Seetharama Sarma compose some of the key songs with Vasudevachar’s vision intact.

Rajaram never tired of repeating his grandfather’s insight: “A dance drama is not like a kriti. Follow the character’s emotions and the music will come by itself.” Besides, Rajaram’s unshakeable bhakti gave his music a special glow in Bhakta Jayadeva, Sri Purandara, Akka Mahadevi, Sivageetimala and Dasaru Kanda Krishna. He roused a powerful range of moods in Karna Sapatham. When a journalist asked why Kalakshetra had deviated from the tradition of producing only the works of the ancients, Rajaram replied with a rueful smile, “Don’t write this, but for a long time we did not know that the writer of Karna Sapatham was alive!”

A facile raconteur, he never spoke about himself. Teaching M.S. Subbulakshmi a Vasudevachar kriti, he repeated for her the band music swaras the composer had originally set to a Sankarabharanam piece. “When the Maharaja chided him for ruining its beauty, Thatha came up with another chittaswaram,” he laughed, and sang the “improved” version. He added, “But the first has a swing to it, illaiya?”

Administrative skills

Rukmini Devi’s special tone of voice for “Raju!” revealed her soft spot for him. There was much dissatisfaction when she chose to appoint him principal of Kalakshetra overlooking the claims of senior resident vidwans. Her trust probably sprang from her confidence in his administrative skills. After the death of Sankara Menon (1995) Rajaram became the director of the institution.

Not everyone was happy with his style of functioning but Rajaram kept the institution on track. Classes were held on time, teachers held accountable for standards. Criticised for shortening Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas to suit modern tastes, he did keep them alive. He encouraged new productions but always in the same mould.

“There is no present without the past,” he said when he retired to welcome the new director Leela Samson, and shifted to Bangalore to stay with his children. His heart remained in the green groves he left behind, echoing with the music of another era.

The day before he passed away, Rajaram attended Kalakshetra veteran A. Janardhanan’s performance that included Vasudevachar’s compositions. His last words to him were, “Choreograph Kanakadasa’s verses. I’ll help you. Also Thatha’s Kharaharapriya kriti, “Rarayeni pilachite.”

Janardhanan was delighted. He knew he had in Rajaram a rare composer whose melodies flowed with sahityabhava, shaping nuances to highlight the feelings and their subtle shifts.

Neither he nor Rajaram’s associates and students were surprised to learn that the 85 year old musician chanted “Rama! Krishna!” as he was rushed to the hospital. Those names were on his lips till the very last breath.

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