By Arundhathi Krishnan
A sultry September evening finds me at Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra, the venue of a Hindustani vocal concert by Ustad Shafqat Ali Khan. Titled 'Sham-E-Mauseequi', it is unconventional, blending khayal music with Urdu poetry, sometimes richly classical, at other times delightfully folk. But far more unexpected is the sight of the harmonium artiste, an elderly lady draped in the traditional nine yard sari, a picture of poise as she responds to the vocalist and humbly acknowledges his praise for her. Janaki Rajagopalan is like any 86 year old, proud mother, doting grandmother, leading a peaceful retired life with husband S Rajagopalan—except that she is an accomplished harmonium artiste who regularly accompanies Hindustani musicians in concerts in the city.
The obvious question is how the harmonium. And why the Hindustani style? Janaki Mami says she has no idea herself! She has had no formal training in music, save a few months of violin classes at age 12. Her family is one of much music and many musicians, and her husband Rajagopalan (her paternal aunt's son) quips that a blood test of anyone of the family would reveal a common 'music gene'.
Interestingly enough, despite having lived many years in the north, in Delhi, Allahabad and Pune, it was only after the move to Madras that Mami found herself drawn to the harmonium. It was in 1982 that she started playing the harmonium, accompanying several bhajan groups including that of Andavan Pitchai and Indira Krishnamachari, Suramandal, and Sharada Bhajan Mandali. Old friends from her convent school days including Kalanidhi Narayanan and Baby Saroja persuaded her to play more frequently. It was just a matter of time before she started to accompany Hindustani musicians in concert. She has accompanied musicians based in Chennai as well as those visiting the city. These include Lakshmi Sriram (whom she accompanied at The Music Academy), Shruti Jauhari, Mala Ramadorai, Saumya Madan Gopal, and Balachandra Nakod. She remembers fondly her accompaniment in a concert of renowned vocalist Lakshmi Shankar about four years ago.
Chennai based Hindustani musicians Janardhan Mitta and Jyoti Nair Belliappa contact her and request her to accompany visiting musicians, says Mami. Very often she has no idea who the performer is until the concert actually begins. She takes with her a special harmonium with a broad range, sometimes unaware of the gender of the musician. Her only request is that she be taken to the concert and back home afterwards, for age prevents Mama from accompanying her. Mami says the reason she is able to perform even at this age is the immense support and encouragement her husband and the rest of her family have always extended to her.
Her humility is evident when she says she merely follows the musician, but this is no mean feat when your fingers must race along with the musician's imagination. These musicians belong to different schools, musicians Mami most often meets only the evening of the concert. Her playing is instinctive, intuitive, and natural.
Mami also regularly accompanies devotional music groups and is an artiste of AIR and Doordarshan. She has accompanied the dance performances of Padma Subrahmanyam and Lakshmi Ramaswamy, and Kathakalakshepam performances and also plays the keyboard. Mami has taught several students and accepts no fees. Teaching, she feels, is her contribution to the cause of propagating music. A recipient of the Bharat Kalachar Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer Veteran Award, she credits all her accomplishments to the grace of the Almighty and her husband's unflinching support and open-mindedness.
Much is said about the universality of music and its transcendence of language. What better demonstration can there be than a Pakistani musician singing Ghalib's verses to the harmonium accompaniment of an Iyer Paati?