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Musician with many dimensions

To S. Ramanathan by Geetha Bennett in commemoration of Father's Day that passed on June 19.



An encyclopaedia of music:S. Ramanathan.

It is a great honour for me to share a few things about my guru and father Sangita Kalanidhi, Isai Perarignar Dr. S. Ramanathan, musician and musicologist. There are several aspects of my father that we all admire: his simplicity, unassuming quality, his thirst for knowledge, and more than anything else his humanity.

As far as I know my father had never spoken ill of any one. He had the kindest heart to sit in the front row to listen to even a very young kid singing and say a few encouraging words after. He believed that any one can learn music and would never turn down anybody who showed an interest to study with him.

He used to say that teaching and sharing one's knowledge were very important. “It does not matter what you do today, but it is very important what you are doing for posterity.” Not surprising that many of his students are successful artists spreading Carnatic music all over the world.

Appa was known for his singing, playing the veena, musicology and research work. There were other facets of father which were also unique. The first that comes to my mind is his command of the English language. We would have games choosing difficult words at random and one of the participants had to give the meaning. Appa never made a mistake. When we questioned him how he got it right every time he shared the secret. “Go to the root of any word… that is the way to learn the meaning.”

Lessons at the beach

We lived our younger days in Chennai at 20, Sydoji Street, Thiruvallikeni, which is near the Marina beach. Appa would walk us to the beach before sunrise and give us several kinds of lessons; one day he would teach us English conversation, another day he would ask us to memorise Thevaram, Thirupugazh, Bharatiar, Kamba Ramayanam poems and so on.

Sitting on the sand he would explain the meaning of the song which we were memorising. Even today the whole Ramanathan clan knows and remembers all these songs, poems, and authors.

On a more personal note the very first time when Appa came back from the U.S. in 1962 he brought many Hollywood movie scripts such as ‘It Happened One Night' and the Alfred Hitchcock classic ‘Rebecca.' Fascinated, I started reading them even in my school days. The first time I came to the U.S., I made it a point to see all those films. It opened up a new avenue for me. This exposure could easily be one of the reasons for my writing Tamil fiction later on.

Appa's thirst for knowledge was amazing. When he later came to stay with us in California, I had to drive him to the West Covina Library every other day. His subjects of interest varied including autobiography, philosophy, cinema scripts and short stories from all over the world.

Appa was a walking encyclopaedia. Any question you asked him about music he would answer without referring to a book.

In his last days, Appa was bedridden with lung cancer. He was not able to eat, speak or move around. I would sit next to him and play the veena. Those were the hardest moments of my life.

I had just learnt a piece, 'Ika naina na,' in ragam Pushpalathika, from a cassette and wanted to play it for him, but had no clue who the composer was. When I asked him, in that semi-conscious condition, in a very feeble voice he said, 'Tirupati Narayanaswamy.' I broke down and started crying.

He believed that one should know everything in one's field. He proved it even in his last moments. His soul left his body listening to ragam Suruti sung by my sister, Dr. Vanathy Raghuraman and S. Sowmya, both his students.

When Dr. S.R. passed away, T.S. Parthasarathy, well-known musicologist had written in Kalki, Tamil weekly, that as long as Carnatic music existed, S. Ramanthan's name would also be there. I think this summarises appa's musical accomplishments.

Wherever he is, he is singing his heart out with the angels.

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