In the footsteps of his guru
When I see youngsters showing an interest in classical music, I feel that people like me have been able to share something with them.
Mavelikara S. R. Raju
Mavelikara S. R. Raju is an ‘A-Top’ grade mridangam artiste. A recipient of many awards including the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1985) and the Nyayapathy Rangamannar Award instituted by the Madras Music Academy (1993), the 76-year-old believes that he owes all his success to his guru and mentor, the late mridangam maestro Mavelikara Krishnankutty Nair. Excerpts from an interview.
Right from childhood, I have had a fascination for the mridangam. My father, M.N. Raghavan Pillai, was a mridangam player who played for harikathas and dramas. Mridangam maestro Mavelikara Krishnankutty Nair, whom I called ‘Kochettan,’ and my father were friends. Father used to take me for concerts of leading musicians where I would sit on stage and try my hand at the mridangam. It was Kochettan who insisted that I learn the instrument. He was my first guru but only for a short while initially because he got selected as staff artiste for Travancore Radio Station. It was during this period that Madurai Mani Iyer came to Mavelikara for his first concert in Kerala. Kochettan was accompanying him. Karamana Padmanabhan, himself an expert mridangam player, was also present. Soon after the concert Karamana Padmanabhan told my father that he was taking me to Thiruvananthapuram to continue my studies under Kochettan. He was only too pleased to teach me. I studied for one and a half years with him before returning to Mavelikara. My arangettam was at the age of 15 when I accompanied Mavelikara Ramanathan.
The turning point of my career was April 15, 1950, when I gave my first public performance. It was the chirappu festival at Vaikom Rajarajeswari temple, organised by Vaikom Vasudevan Nair. All the big names in music like GNB, Mahalingam, M.L. Vasanthakumari, M. Balamuralikrishna and many others gave their concerts at the chirappu. I began to play in concerts in Central Travancore from the next day onwards. And at 18, I had the rare privilege to play the mridangam for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He praised me soon after the concert. I can never forget that. Soon I began to perform at concerts of GNB, Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, T.K. Rangachari, Sattur Subramaniam, Madurai Somasundaram, Maharajapuram Santhanam, M. Balamuralikrishna, T.N. Krishnan, Nedunuri Krishnamoorthy and so on.
Style and improvisation
Improvisation is necessary. Otherwise playing tends to get stereotyped. A mridangam artiste should play to suit the vocalist. This I learnt from my guru and after listening to concerts of legends like Chembai and Alathur brothers. I have also been inspired by Pazhani Subramania Pillai’s style. But I follow in the footsteps of my guru, using a lot of sarvalaghus and chaippus to give colour to the songs. I prepare my own korvais and morahs and they are different.
It should be short and crisp; 15 to 20 minutes or so. Once while participating in a concert in Pittsburg, United States, the organisers requested me to keep the tani short. They also told me that during the tani the audience may go out for a break and that I should not feel offended. But what happened was just the opposite and they remained in their seats. It was because I did not overplay.
At All India Radio
I applied for audition in 1958 and got B-High grade in the first round itself. I joined AIR as custodian of music (instrument) in 1963. I got it just because of my grade and because of the blessings of Pazhani Swami and M. Sivaram, the former Director General (News). Later, in the early 1970s, when there was a vacancy for mridangam artiste, I got selected. In 1976, I got the A-Grade. I retired from service in 1993 as an A-Top Grade mridangam artiste.
Changes in standards…
I have accompanied almost all the top ranking musicians of today including T.N. Seshagopalan, T.V. Sankaranarayanan, N. Ramani, U. Srinivas, Nookkala China Satyanarayana, O.S. Tyagarajan, V.V. Subramaniam and M. Chandrashekaran. All these artistes are geniuses in their own ways. Each one of them has a distinct style. So, there is no question of standards coming down.
There are many. Each concert is an experience. It depends on the person you are accompanying. But people like Neyattinkara Vasudevan are rare. He was a genius. Once I accompanied Nandlal Ghose’s sarod recital. He asked for an A-Grade mridangam artiste to accompany him, instead of tabla. He was extremely pleased.
I consider myself fortunate. It is all because of my guru. I owe all my success to him. When I see youngsters showing an interest in classical music, I feel that people like me have been able to share something with them. I do not believe that music is dying or youngsters are straying away. There are many promising mridangam players today like Changanachery B. Harikumar, Nanchil Arul, Mavelikara R.V. Rajesh, to name a few. And so, I firmly believe the future of the mridangam is intact in their hands.
Photo: S. Gopakumar
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