Song of Surrender

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hard taskmaster, great teacher

By V Ramnarayan

Edited excerpts from a TN Seshagopalan profile in Sruti issue 3

Ramanathapurarn C.S. Sankarasivam was the elder brother of C.S. Murugabhoopathy, the eminent mridanga vidwan. Sankarasivam taught music at his home in Madurai. Attending classes there meant Seshagopalan had to miss the Tiruppugazh sabha sessions, with which they clashed. The Tiruppugazh routine was an opportunity for Gopu to play with otber kids at the temple precincts before the bhajana began. At Sankarasivarn’s it was more formal. The guru was then teaching fundamentals to other students and did not pay Seshagopalan much attention. Sankarasivam did not deem it necessary to go over the basics with him, but not knowing this, Gopu soon stopped going to these classes. He went back to him, but not until several years later did he learn that the guru had a good opinion of him.

Sankarasivam first asked Seshagopalan to sing the raga Kiravani. The boy began with Tiruvachakam and then sang Gopalakrishna Bharati’s lnnamum Sandehappadalamo. “Vadyar then tested my swara singing and akara ability. Then the traditional coconut was broken and he started lessons with Valapi Ganapalim. He made me elaborate the raga (Hamsadhwani) a little and sing the kriti. After that, swara singing. This was his general approach while teaching me. He prepared me for concerts rather than start from the fundamentals. Varnams, raga a1apana, kritis, swara manipulation and so on were taught. It was only later, on my own initiative, that I learnt the basics like sarali and janta varisai, in order to be able to teach others.”

Sankarasivam belonged to a family with a tradition of music though belonging to the Servai caste which usually had little connection with it. Vadyar’s father was Chitsabhai Servai, a mridanga vidwan, who regularly accompanied Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar. Chitsabhai and Khanjira Dakshinamurti Pillai were disciples of Mamundia Pillai with whom they lived through their years of studentship in the old gurukula manner. Chitsabhai had also accompanied Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Sakharama Rao.

It was the Raja of Ramnad who sent Sankarasivam to Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar with whom he spent twelve years in guru kula vasam. Later he was made the Asthana Vidwan of Ramnad. He was a concert musician in the 1930s, though not a very popular one. He did not have an attractive voice. “Can you imagine Chittoor Subramania Pillai’s voice blessed with gamaka? That would be close to my guru’s voice.”

“My guru is a bit of a recluse,” Seshagopalan continued. “When he speaks to you, you can get the impression he is no great respecter of men. I didn’t have to wash his clothes or press his feet. It was a simple student-teacher relationship. And what a great teacher! I am what I am because of his blessings. I used to go to his house at six in the morning and stay with him until it was time to go to college, and then go back for another session in the evening.”

“I remember complaining to him once that a woman violinist had been lined up as my accompanist at one of my concerts. His response was full of practical wisdom. “You’d better accept what you get now,” he said, “even if it’s a woman ghatam or morsing player. What you need now are concert opportunities.”

“After singing for three hours in the morning, I would go to Vadyar’s house again at half past three for another three-hour session. He was a hard taskmaster. During my holidays, I would spend as many as six hours at a time with him. In fact all my spare time was spent at his home, all my practice sessions took place there. It was his ambition to make me a top-class performer. He taught me several varnams and numerous pallavis.”

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