By V.P. Dhananjayan
“Bhava sangeetam” or expressive music is synonymous with M.D. Ramanathan. In this century, I have not heard such bhava-laden Carnatic music as that sung by MDR. Two years ago, when I performed the dance-drama Tyagaraja Vaibhavam in Hyderabad, a learned, elderly person walked up to the stage at the conclusion of the performance. He asked me a simple question, “Have you heard MDR singing Nannu vidachi (Reetigaula)? You brought back to me memories of his music and now I fully realise the meaning of the song; you made me visualise MDR’s rendering of it.” I bowed humbly before him and said that whenever I performed a Tyagaraja kriti I tried to express the spirit of MDR’s singing.
If I am able to evoke in an audience the memory of a person, composer or a particular rendition by a singer, it is proof of the indelible mark that person has left in the memories of connoisseurs. At that moment in Hyderabad, I was so proud to have been closely associated with MDR and pleased that all the time I had spent with him had not been in vain.
I remember my first meeting with MDR in 1953. I was a young lad from a remote village who did not know anything about music or dance. I had no experience of attending a Carnatic music concert. When MDR sang Vatapi ganapatim in Hamsadhwani, I burst out laughing. Someone behind me caught me by my shirt collar and dragged me out of the Kalakshetra Panchami hall. Later on, as a student in Kalakshetra, I had the good fortune of playing the tambura for hours together at MDR’s concerts. All that listening to his wonderful bhava sangeetam has been absorbed into my veins, giving me a way of understanding the true spirit of Tyagaraja and other composers.
MDR was a musician’s musician. His scholarship in literature (Samskritam – I prefer this to Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu) made him great and placed him above other successful musicians. He delved deep into the sahitya of each song and explained them to his students as well as to listeners like me. My wife Shanta had the good fortune of attending his master classes, and she was a pet student of his.
All his mannerisms faded away from the attention of a connoisseur the moment his music flowed into the ear. His sruti alignment, pronunciation and the way he split words according to their correct meaning made his music more enjoyable, though to some people his rendering of the words may have sounded just musical, not verbal.
Every passage he sang was an essay in itself. I have not admired a musician as much as I have MDR, not just for his music, but also for his qualities as a human being. He was very charitable, humorous, approachable, caring and generous. He was a true “sthitapragna”, not perturbed by criticism or praise. Singing, to him, was an upasana; sangeetam that was totally involved in the bhava of the lyrics and spirit of the composer.