Song of Surrender

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The veena player from Harvard

By Charukesi

CIT Colony first main road in Mylapore, Chennai, is quiet at two-thirty, one sunny afternoon. An autorickshaw driver parks his vehicle in front of the house in the corner of the lane and informs the resident on his mobile, “I am here!” Richard Wolf responds, “Nallathu” (‘Good’). He comes out, sits comfortably in the three-wheeler, and says, “Pogalaam!”

The auto moves fast towards T’ Nagar, crosses the crowded Panagal Park area and races towards West Mambalam. Once it reaches Srinivasan Street near Ayodhya Mandapam, it slows down and stops in front of a large compound with a closed gate.

“Anju manikku vanthidu!” (‘Come at 5 o’clock’) Wolf tells the auto-driver softly. In the sprawling house, he meets his guru, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, an octogenarian, sitting on a cot, both her legs stretched in front of her. He greets her gently, opens a large wooden cupboard and takes out two veenas one by one. He offers one to her and puts the other one down on the carpet.

“I am going to perform at Coonoor. May I play Kalyani now?” Wolf asks his guru in Tamil and she says, “Yes, go ahead”, again in Tamil. The guru plays the alapana and the disciple follows, sangati by sangati. Then he takes up a short tanam before embarking on the kriti ‘Etavunara’, while his teacher keenly watches him.

“Tanam avarukku special!” Ranganayaki compliments him. Wolf acknowledges it with a shy smile. The conversation seems to be between an affectionate mother and dutiful son.

Richard Wolf, Professor of Music in Harvard University, is here on a sabbatical, having obtained a Fulbright scholarship through the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi, for further training in veena from his Ranganayaki Rajagopalan of the Karaikudi school of veena playing.

“I will be here till 20th August and leave for Tajikistan!” says Wolf. He will also visit Lahore in Pakistan. “I will come again next June and stay here for three months.”

His friend and mridanga player Umayalpuram Mali arrives for practice and Wolf is ready for the day’s work.

“He has learnt six kriti-s in this one month – in June. He is a keen learner!” (Wolf begins slowly playing ‘Jalandhara’ and it serves as background score for Mali’s narration.) “Jalandhara in Valaji, Manasu vishaya in Nattaikurinji, Ma Janaki in Kambhoji, Aparadhamula in Latangi, Bhajana seya in Dharmavati and Devadi deva in Sunada Vinodini! Isn’t it amazing what he can do?”

Mali was with Wolf at Harvard for about five months on a Fulbright fellowship this year. “Three years ago, he played a pallavi in Keeravani, Tisra triputa talam, in Brandeis University in Boston. Raja Rao accompanied him on the mridanga. It was a wonderful performance. He played trikalam!” Mali tells us excitedly.

According to Mali, Wolf puts in great effort to learn a kriti. “Playing ‘Vara Narada’ in Vijayasri or Kripa Juchutaku in Chhaya tarangini, on the veena can be difficult, with their demanding sangati-s. Wolf played them comfortably during a symposium at Harvard.”

“We presented a lot of items in Harvard. Four days a week, two hours a day in an international rhythm symposium. After the symposium, we demonstrated ragam-tanam-pallavi. Two participants, Richard Widdss and James Kippen dwelt on Indian music, while other scholars spoke on their countries’ music,” Wolf told us.

Richard Wolf has published a book, ‘The Black House Footprint’ on the Adivasi-s of Nilgiris. It is about religion, time, space and music. His second book ‘The Voice in the Drums’ is almost finished, he says. “It is partly music and partly fiction’. It is being published by University of Illinois Press, U.S.A.

“I was into serious academic work and research. Mali brought me back to music and performance.” Wolf smiles.

“Didn’t his guru tell you that he is an intelligent learner?” Mali says with a broad smile.

Richard Wolf does ‘sadhakam’ meticulously for a minimum of two to three hours everyday. Even during the classes at Ranganayaki’s residence, he plays for at least a couple of hours. He is full of admiration for her. “She has many ailments and yet forgets everything while teaching.”

Ranganayaki Rajagopalan has undergone knee replacement surgery, and has been operated on for colon cancer. She suffers from Parkinson’s too, besides asthma.

She is of course known as a torchbearer of the Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer-Sambasiva Iyer school. “I was the only one taught by them. I was three when my mother left me in the care of her elder sister who resided close to my gurus’ house at Karaikudi. I wanted to go out and play and I had no interest in veena and totally disliked music.” says Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, recalling those childhood days.

Richard Wolf has trained in vocal music too, under Madurai Kamala Ramamurthy, a disciple of T.M. Thyagarajan.

I ask Wolf, “How did you find your guru?” 


"An earlier student of hers, Paul Butler, suggested her name. I landed right here and found her.”

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