Friday, 22 February 2013

'I can't live without music': Rama Varma

By M Ramakrishnan

Rama Varma was in Chennai recently to conduct a two-day workshop (9 and 10 February 2013) ‘Swarasadhana,’ at the Satyananda Yoga Center at Triplicane. Here he speaks of the event, his journey in classical music and his thoughts on the changing trends of the art form.

How did Swarasadhana happen? 

I have been teaching in this village called Perla near Mangalore for the past four years, at a music school called Veenavadini, run by the musician Sri Yogeesh Sharma. He gets musicians from outside to visit once a year. Four years ago Veenavadini invited me. They enjoyed my teaching a lot and I enjoyed being there too.  My visits became regular. Some of these lessons were video-recorded and uploaded on YouTube. The Tirupati based Sri Venkatesa Bhakti Channel telecast around 200 episodes of the programme. The organizers of Swarasadhana were familiar with my way of teaching through these sources as well as through having attended some teaching sessions directly.

What is it about Swarasadhana that hasn’t been done before? 

This is the first time I’m conducting such a camp in Chennai. Also, 2013 is the 200th birth anniversary of my ancestor Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. So I have chosen some unique compositions of his that the participants may not be able to learn from many other sources. 

Maharaja Swati Thirunal was undoubtedly one of the most important modern composers, one who included Hindustani styles in his compositions.

Nowadays it’s become fashionable to calim to avoid Hindustani in Carnatic music or the other way around. But looking back, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was among those south Indians who became luminaries in the north Indian style. How many south Indians are really open to Hindustani music is debatable. The late M S Gopalakrishnan Sir was very competent in the Hindustani field for example and my colleague Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan is a Carnatic musician open to Hindustani ragas – he’ll sing a pallavi in Bageshri, for instance. Then again there are fundamentalist groups who think Behag, Sindhubhairavi, Yamuna Kalyani, Sivaranjani and their ilk should be totally done away with. 

Do you use the same style of teaching as your gurus?

I had four gurus, one of whom is alive today. Each guru had something special. For example, my first vocal guru Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir would repeat parts of songs as many times as I wanted, until I got it right. But he wouldn't allow recording. I imbibed his level of patience. My two veena gurus Trivandrum R.Venkatraman Sir and K.S.Narayansamy Sir were very analytical, splitting phrases into the smallest fragments until each gamakam became perfectly clear. Dr.Balamuralikrishna Sir… he doesn't really teach, per se. He could be compared to a sumptuous buffet in a five-star hotel. All sorts of goodies would be there in front of you and you could help yourself to whatever you liked. Only an advanced student can truly benefit from him, because he doesn’t repeat parts of the song 300 times or break it up into smaller fragments. While teaching, he would sing as he would in concert. But he has absolutely no problem if you record him. I record his lessons and the tape recorder becomes my guru as I play them over and over again.  So, my teaching style is essentially a combination of all these different approaches. 

What do you like about the way Swarasadhana was organized? 

It was a very sincere effort. Sometimes there are big moneyed organizations that might help you with organizing something but their effort might not be genuine. Outside India, you get much more money for teaching but no job satisfaction, much of the time. There could be exceptions, though.

Does your title make things easier for you? 

I don’t use the title myself. If I did, I could have this royal image tag that could give me certain advantages. But people have branded me as a prince in virtually every report where my name appears. If you look at my visiting card, it does not use the title. It’s just Rama Varma. I follow this rule even when I write an article or produce a CD. Earlier there was a misconception that I used my title and family influence to get concert opportunities or obtain sponsors easily. People did not know that my family was totally against my performing publicly. As royal patrons they believed that their duty was only to endorse and financially support musicians and singers. This tradition (in the Travancore royal family) was first broken by me. 

You have said that classical music should be accessible to the common man. Do you see this transition happening or is there still a long way to go? 

This sort of transition is a constant process, but it has been done before. Classical music has had mass appreciation through the efforts of people like KB Sundarambal, Madurai Mani Iyer and even my guru, Dr. Balamuralikrishna Sir.

Can this task be achieved through cinema or new-age music? There have been films like Sankarabharanam, Chithram and Bharatham in the past which have managed to pull it off. 

Yes, these films definitely had a major impact at the time. Some people feel you have to mix classical music with electronic keyboard sounds, a saxophone or a medley of film songs to have greater reach. I stick to my own method, which is to take the trouble to know the meaning of what each word in a song means and convey the same to my audience. 

Is this style of explaining the history behind a song as an introductory note also inspired from one of your gurus or entirely yours? 

I have not seen many others do it. 

Western music involves the participation of groups of people in the form of gospel choirs which essentially are based on their classical styles.  Is this applicable to the Indian scenario as well? 

Both classical systems (in the east and the west) started out as forms of worship. While Christianity emphasizes a congregational effort, Hinduism allows more individualism. The same principle applies to our singing. If ten persons were to sing Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham, they would choose different tempos and even different sangatis. Our classical music is meant to be a solitary pursuit with potential for instant creativity, pushing limits and exploring new methods. Of course, we also have bhajans which sound beautiful when sung as a group. 

So the team effort in Carnatic music is restricted to the main musician and accompanists.

Yes. There are also cases of students who have studied under the same guru and sing perfectly in sync. But when I lived in Europe earlier for 10 years, I sometimes had to do concerts without accompaniment or microphones. They were just solo performances with the tambura. It gave scope for elaboration in raga alapana and other new ideas, without worrying about coordinating with the accompanists. Singing alone has its own rewards but you should be knowledgeable enough to know how to go about it. It requires great stamina, aesthetic sense and a sense of proportion. There shouldn't be any hesitation in the mind. Otherwise it is better to stick with your team and perform. 

What are your plans? 

To continue the same as much as possible. When I was 20 years old, I never thought I’d go to Europe. While in Europe I never thought I’d go to that small village in Karnataka to teach. My family and Dr. Balamuralikrishna never got along, but I ended up learning so much from him. I was initially attracted by some of his compositions thinking I would just learn a tillana or two and leave. But it’s been 19 years since that meeting took place and I’m still learning from him. I just go with the flow, more or less. I don’t plan.

Is Swarasadhana on the way to becoming an annual event in your calendar? 

That depends on the organizers really. I would be perfectly happy to come again if they were to invite me again.

How much does music mean to you?

During my SSLC exams I used to squeeze in my music classes even between examination breaks. My guru back then used to say no other disciple of his had done that before. After the exams, I remember that Sean Connery’s comeback film as James Bond, ‘Never Say Never Again’ had just been released. All my friends planned ahead and went for it. I finished my exam and came back in the evening for my music class. I realized even then that I couldn't be without it, without ever imagining I would be a singer. They say the same about marriage: you should marry not someone you can live with but someone you can’t live without. I can’t live without music.


  1. Great article … I can hear Rama Varma's voice through it … He is really a wonderful artists a great techer and a wonderful person!

  2. Very thoughtful questions. Very well written.