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Bridge across generations

PERSONAL Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, vocalist, reminisces.

Photo: S.S. Kumar

OPEN HOUSE:Teacher and disciple.

I watched my Guru breathe his last. I stood there in silent communion, with my hand on his knee hoping he would intuitively sense my presence and my feelings. He stopped breathing within a few minutes.

My association with Rajam Sir is 25 years old - March 1985 to January 2010. It is hard to express in words what this period meant to me. It has enriched me in innumerable ways. I think of Rajam Sir in so many little things everyday. The warmth with which he would teach his students, the willingness to give and share, the small things he derived happiness from, his simple needs…

I don't know how Rajam Sir could do as much as he did each day. His repertoire was perhaps unmatched. While documenting his audio classes (recorded in cassettes through a simple recorder — to the accompaniment of a manual sruti box alone!) I was astounded at the variety of ragas and songs he knew.

He was generally associated with Vivadi ragas and Kotiswara Iyer, but his repertoire of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar was phenomenal. Hardly had I heard him say that he did not know a song. In Akhandams, he would be given the late night slots when he would bring his little book and sing rare songs through the night! He knew closely and had learnt from all the great vidwans of his time - Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Papanasam Sivan, Muthiah Bhagavathar, Madurai Mani Iyer, Ambi Dikshitar, Mylapore Gowri Ammal. It was his great disappointment that he never learnt directly from Kotiswara Iyer. Rajam Sir had seen him often going to the Pillayar Koil around the tank but he was too young to know his greatness then. The passion for his kritis later, during his AIR days.

Learning experience

With such a rich and wide learning experience, he managed to create a style that was his own. He was a teacher at heart and considered even his concerts an opportunity to tell people about new songs, ragas or composers. Rajam Sir loved lecdems more than concerts and would prepare meticulously. He would try to give an opportunity to as many students as possible. He would willingly give them as many rehearsals as they needed and encourage them to sing without inhibitions. His works of art and music notes were stored immaculately in his cupboard. He knew exactly where to look for a particular script. He had his system of numbering and filing. A conservationist at heart, every scrap of paper was saved and reused. He would write scripts on the back of used envelopes, even draw sketches on them!

I never saw him idle. He would either be painting or teaching music. If not, he would be reading something. He was particular about retaining the structure of a composition as visualised by the composer. It was perhaps an innate understanding of another creator's mind. He loved the work he did. Art was his way of life and anything he did, he did artistically. He would file his nails with the same finesse as he would paint a picture. He gave credit to his mother for this talent. He often recalled with great awe how Chellamma would fold clothes and arrange washed vessels all with a touch of artistry. She was apparently much sought after for making the ‘mukham' or face of Goddess Lakshmi on Varalakshmi Puja!

Rajam Sir's clear lines in his drawings and music sangatis were a sure representation of the clarity of his mind. He enjoyed plain notes in music too. It was important to him that one learnt to sing plain notes before learning ornamentation as this would ensure sruti and swara suddham. He was forthright without being rude. He was appreciative but would give a rap on the knuckles when required.

Rajam Sir took great pleasure in little things, the four o'clock hot bajjis at the Woodlands Drive-in for instance! (This was before it closed down). He loved crisp dosas and ice creams. He loved chocolate, cheese and Marmite. He did not care for awards or recognition. He was doing what he loved and that gave him happiness. People sought out his paintings. No. 10 Nadu Street became a famous address (much like 10 Downing Street, he would joke). The greatest appreciation he cherished happened at an event that took place on his U.S. tour. He had sung ‘Janaki Ramana' in raga Suddha Seemantini in a particular concert. At the end of the programme two elderly women in ‘ nine yards sari came up to him and said they had enjoyed the concert very much, particularly Janaki Ramana – they were reminded of Naina Pillai's rendition! That, according to him, was the biggest honour he could ever get!

Rajam Sir was like a bridge across various generations. He was alert till the end and could remember minute details about various incidents. He was one of the most positive persons I have ever come across, always planning projects ahead; perhaps that is what kept him so youthful. As Mrs. Devaki Muthiah put it in a meeting soon after his demise - Rajam Sir can never die. He is ‘Chiranjeevi.'

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