Rear Window (DNA, 5 May 2013)
By V Ramnarayan
Lalgudi G Jayaraman breathed his last on Monday, 22 April, making TN Krishnan the lone survivor among the triumvirate that ruled the world of classical Carnatic violin for over 50 years. The other maestro MS Gopalakrishnan, scion of the Parur school of violin playing, was the first to go, just a couple of months earlier.
Jayaraman put the small town of Lalgudi in Tanjavur—once the granary of Tamil Nadu and its cultural capital—on the world map, because he and the place of his birth 82 years ago are synonymous. Son and disciple of martinet guru VR Gopala Iyer, Jayaraman was an instant star in the 1940s, when he began to accompany the great vocalists of the day—GNBalasubramaniam, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the Alathur Brothers and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, among them. He was only 12 when he made his concert debut.
Honing his art by accompanying these stalwarts with strict adherence to the pakkavadya dharma or accompanist’s code of never overshadowing the main artist but still providing e aesthetic value with the embellishments the violin could add to the voice, Lalgudi—like his contemporaries MSG and Krishnan—added several new dimensions to his undoubted talent to become the consummate artiste he was in his mature years.
He found in his duets with his sister Srimathi Brahmanandam plenty of scope to give free rein to his imagination and creativity, and develop what came to be known as the Lalgudi bani. It included showing great respect for the lyrics of the compositions he played, leading to the oft-repeated cliché that Lalgudi’s violin sang. Indeed the impact of his music gained from the power of the lyric, but it also grew in lustre thanks to his total expression of the raga’s swaroopa or image. He became a much sought after trendsetter when he combined with flautist N Ramani and veena vidwan R Venkatraman to launch a whole series of violin-venu-veena concerts in the 1970s.
Lalgudi, Krishnan and MSG were not the first violin ‘trinity’ of Carnatic music. That honour went to representatives of an earlier generation of fiddlers: Mysore Chowdiah, Papa Venkataramiah and Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai. Strangely, most of these practitioners of this European instrument were from very orthodox south Indian backgrounds, mostly upper caste.
How on earth did the western violin infiltrate their lives and how did they make it their own, starting with how they held it and tuned it? We have to go back to Baluswami Dikshitar (1786-1858), a brother of the great composer Muttuswami Dikshitar, who was known for his preoccupation with the mystical power of music and his peregrinations that took him to temples all over India to sing the praises of the presiding deities. It was Baluswami, said to have learnt the art from a European violinist, who introduced the instrument to Indian concert music.
By the end of the 19th century, the violin was part of the standard fare in concerts at the Mysore and Travancore courts. Today, it is a major instrument in Carnatic music, both solo and in accompaniment, usually to vocalists. Unfortunately, solo instrumental concerts, at the peak of their popularity from the 1950s through to the 1970s, are no longer favoured by audiences.
The gayaki ang or vocal style characterised the violin playing of all three artists, but in the case of MSG, there was a touch of the Gwalior gharana—for his father Parur Sundaram Iyer, a pioneer of the violin in Hindustani music, taught at Vishnu Digambar Paluskar’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, while MSG himself accompanied DV Paluskar and Omkarnath Thakur.
While TN Krishnan’s is a relatively austere, meditative approach, Jayaraman’s playing acquired an altogether more delicate touch with the years, bringing out the nuances of a raga with almost feminine grace and sophistication. This enabled him to reach out to a vast circle of listeners beyond the closed circle of connoisseurs. No wonder he was in his youth a matinee idol among women listeners, drawn as much to his vulnerable good looks as the magic of his music; but he remained a crowd-puller all his life.
In time Lalgudi became a reputed composer, affixing his unmistakable stamp on varnams (often vocal exercises as well as concert openers) and tillanas (the south Indian equivalent of taranas). His compositions for dance dramas—and on the rare occasion cinema—repeatedly proved that he was an expert at innovation within the boundaries of tradition. He was fond of Hindustani music and collaborated happily in north-south jugalbandis with celebrity musicians. A master teacher, he imbued his students—including son GJR Krishnan and daughter Vijayalakshmi—with a keen sense of aesthetic pleasure, something the sweetness of their music invariably demonstrates. Some of them like Bombay Jayashri have gone on to be successful vocalists. A strict disciplinarian, he was also a caring guru, who took a deep interest in the growth and development of his pupils.
Lalgudi took Carnatic music beyond India, and was one of the first star performers abroad from among south Indian instrumentalists. The eminent western violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a fan of both Lalgudi and MSG, while Krishnan too had his share of admirers in the west. All three performed extensively abroad.
Most Carnatic musicians are cricket enthusiasts and Lalgudi was surely no exception, but he was perhaps the one Carnatic violinist of his era whose music cricketers enjoyed. Rare examples of his exotic followers were Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and England captain Tony Lewis (an accomplished violinist himself) who reportedly attended his concert at the Music Academy during the January 1973 Test match at Madras. He was a man of considerable reading and had independent views on complex issues.
Lalgudi was a proud torchbearer of his family tradition and an upholder of the dignity of his art and his instrument, taking many a principled stand all his life. In terms of popularity, he was primus inter pares relative to his celebrated contemporaries Krishnan and MSG.