Guru Vandanam




Charumati Ramachandran, a senior vocalist and one of the most popular disciples of Dr. M L Vasantakumari talks about some of her experiences with her Guru.

In Hindu philosophy it is said that the good that we have done in our 'poorva janma' (previous birth) can only be the prime reason for an 'avatar' in the present life. Even generally, artistes and musicians are considered to be 'gifted' by God in the sense that, only a chosen few are endowed with artistic talent. And only a few have the luck to be associated with geniuses in the field.

I am twice blessed, surely. First, I have innate musical talent. And second, my mother Alamelu Viswanathan, herself proficient in vocal, violin, vina and harmonium, put me under a musical genius, Dr. M L Vasantakumari, for my 'gurukulavasa'.


MLV was affectionately called 'Akka' (elder sister) by all her disciples. I think it was in 1963 that my mother took me to meet Akka. I was twelve, and could sing varnam and kritis proficiently. Akka made me sing a song and accepted me as her disciple. She was only thirty-five at that time, at the prime or I could say, even in the pre-prime of her career. Senior disciples, Saraswati Srinivasan and T M Prabhavati were her satellites and faithful disciples at that time. I joined the brigade.

A year later, I started giving vocal accompaniment along with Prabhavati for Akka's concerts. Akka's engagements were many - in Sabhas, homes, weddings, temples, conferences and the like - and of course, the All India Radio. In fact, I accompanied her for the TV inaugural programme too.

Dr. MLV believed that innate talent and listening (kelvignanam) were more important that formal teaching methods. Therefore, we went along with her, listening to her concerts and observing the world from the stage. Everywhere, people raved about Akka and listened in rapture to her imaginative ragas, her lively swaras, her bold Pallavis and last but not the least, her dessert-like Tukkadas.

It was T K Govinda Rao who tuned several beautiful ragamalikas for Akka. Of course, she embellished them further with her creative touches. Thus, Baro Krishnayya of Kanakadasa, Chandrachooda and Yake Nirdaya of Purandaradasa were among the great hits sung by Akka. At almost every concert, “Baro Krishnayya please” would be the request and she would sing it delectably and without hesitation. She had a unique, sweet and rich voice, full of bhava and with easy mobility. She sang every phrase with attention to the melody, without resorting to shouting at any stage. Her swara-gnana was amazing and faultless. Her sense of rhythm or laya was perfect.

Each time she rendered, say, Todi raga, it was a unique and meaningful experience. In the earlier stages, I found it very amazing that she could sing Ri Ni da ma ga ri, and avoiding sa and pa, spin it into Mohana raga. My head reeled, and only after some time I understood about graha bheda, which was what it was. She gave glimpses of graha bheda in some other ragas also. The way she wandered from base and came back to base was tricky and quite out of reach for others. That was her genius surely - to sing something that no one else could easily attempt.

Akka sang at a brisk pace, unflagging from beginning to end. The tempo at which she sang 'Endaro mahanubhavulu' (Sriragam) was so brisk that I had to take deep breaths to stay along with her. She had extreme lung power and breath control and could easily render the Pancharatna like a marathon - no effort! Speed came naturally to her. And what came with practise and by nature was total voice control. For example, in 'Baro Krishnayya' the last sangati for 'Salahalu Barayya' was a beautiful briga flourish. Every time, she rendered it breathtakingly and perfectly. I was very scared to attempt it. Then, once, she let go at the last moment and I had to fill up! It however turned out right and I had got it – again a case of 'on the spot' training given by my guru.

Very soon, Akka started giving me turns for neraval and kalpanaswaras in her concerts, both in kritis and for Pallavis. No guru had done this and it was a challenge for me. By God's grace, I fared well and the audience started noticing my potential, while Akka smiled encouragingly. She never commented about those things afterwards. After the concert, she was relaxed and spoke about general topics.

Actually in my long association with Akka, I saw her practice only on the stage. True, same new compositions were always being prepared for the stage, but I never saw her sit with the Tambura and practise raga alapana or kalpanaswaras. Sometimes she would be humming something under her breath. That was all. Mentally she would perhaps work out some rare prayogas - I don't know. On the stage, however, she sang the raga impromptu and creatively. Sometimes it clicked great, sometimes a little less. But the fundamental rule of 'manodharma' (creative improvisation) was upheld. There were no stereotyped and pedestrian renderings or anything spilt out by rote. Never. On stage, Akka was 100% creative - no setups, except the outline of the Pallavi or the setting of the kritis.

Once however, on a trip from Rishi Valley where Palghat Mani Iyer was also teaching, I heard Akka sing some ‘kanakku' (mathematical) swara patterns for some kriti. Mani Iyer's influence seemed to be there - it was refreshing and I was stunned that Akka was trying new vistas in laya and did not sit content with her 'sarvalaghu', which was already a formidable asset she possessed. Of course, this also inspired me to try some 'kanakku' swaras for a change.

There are so many aspects to write about that I can't decide what to highlight. For instance, Akka's wide and vast repertoire deserves special mention. She had a deep respect for the Mummoorti's (Trinity) compositions. She had her mother's tradition of Dasar Padas and became an expert in these also. She had a yearning for bringing out new compositions and spared no efforts for the same. Especially for the music season, she tirelessly learnt new kritis, polished them and they were 'new' releases appreciated by one and all and immediately snapped up by others, as she was a trend-setter.

Raga Sekharachandrika is a janya of Subhapantuvarali, without the Panchama. Akka used to render this raga in a very soulful manner and sang Ragam Tanam Pallavi in it. Her rendering of GNB's raga Sivasakti and his kriti in that raga were unique. For Natabhairavi Pallavi, she used to reminisce about Rajaratnam Pillai and his rendition of that raga. Somehow, Akka did not go for Vivadi ragas but instead went for rakti ragas. This was her commitment to aesthetics and mood creation, for, Vivadi ragas do create a dissonance sometimes.

Akka had learnt from her father Ayyasami Iyer and her mother Lalitangi. Next she had learnt from 'GN Sir'  (G N Balasubramnyam) as she used to call him. Later, she learnt Pallavi and Tanam under the doyen Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer. Later, again, she learnt some special Pallavis form Alathur brothers. She had also learnt some Bhajans form Malavika Kannan. Her rendering of Hindustani ragas was authentic.

One of my sisters, Sujatha, was in Bombay. She had learnt some beautiful Abhangs. When I mentioned this to Akka, she promptly invited my sister and wrote down the Abhangs and she sang them beautifully. This is to show that she sourced out songs from conventional and unconventional sources and successfully too.

Akka had sung from early times for films. This had probably given her a keen 'mike' sense, and also a feel for voice modulation. She felt that too deep a tone was not good for women. She also did not sing full-throated in the upper sthayi, but gave a controlled tone. All this added up to the melody of her music.

Another aspect of her music was her programme planning. She rendered songs suitable for the occasion and the venue and thus could satisfy, the 'pamara' (layman) and the 'pandita' (connoisseur) alike.

Coming to her personal nature, she was generous to a fault. She was not very particular about her fee. Some people took advantage of her good nature. She was dedicated to her art and to her family members. Sometimes she yearned for a quiet life, away from concerts and commitments, and voiced these thoughts.

In the last years, it was the scathing critic of a local daily who hurt her more than anything else. This upset her psychologically and brought down her dynamism and courage. This goes on even today and many a good artiste is being systematically demolished by some critics.

I am glad to have shared some of my experiences with my guru, with Carnatica and the music-loving public.


Related links: V Subramanyam on Semmagudi Srinivasa Iyer
                     K N Shashikiran on Calcutta K S Krishnamurti


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