Saturday, 11 January 2014

Cricket, Carnatic Music and Coffee

(Text of speech at The British Council, Chennai, on 30 August for the Association of British Scholars)

By V Ramnarayan

I agreed to speak on this topic in a weak moment. True I am addicted to all three, though in my case, it should actually read Cricket, Music and Coffee, but the link can get tenuous at times. I’m going to try and make sense all the same.

In the course of this speech, I’ll be relating a few stories from the past, some of them apocryphal. I hope the audience will not insist on proof for all the anecdotes. If they do, I’ll have to seek shelter behind Neville Cardus’s famous disclaimer when a critic accused him of inventing quotes he attributed to famous personalities. He said about one of them, “If he did not say so, then he ought to have said so.” Cardus, by the way, was a cricket and music critic of the highest order.

Before I go on to speak of musicians interested in, even fanatical about, cricket, let me declare with pride that the founders of Sruti, the magazine I edit, were all cricketers of some quality. The founding editor, N Pattabhi Raman, was the youngest of three brothers. Despite being a polio victim, he was an active cricketer at the local level, while his brothers PN Sundaresan, my periappa, and PN Venkatraman, my father, both on the Sruti board, were stalwarts of Mylapore Recreation Club, famously engaged in Madras’s own War of the Roses it fought annually against Triplicane Cricket Club. While many of the Buchi Babu clan and distinguished sons of Madras like the diplomat GP represented MRC (run by CR Pattabhiraman, son of CP Ramaswami Iyer), TCC had more than its share of stars-like double international MJ Gopalan and fast bowler CR Rangachari. My cousin PS Narayanan, the publisher of Sruti, was a brilliant opening batsman of the 1960s and 1970s, who started with MRC and then went on to play for Jolly Rovers, the team sponsored by the Sanmar Group.

Another MRC star, my father’s uncle PS Ramachandran who once took 10 for 18 in a single innings in the War of the Roses, was a member of the executive committee of The Music Academy. I am sure some of his colleagues in the committee were also club cricketers.

Tamil Nadu has developed a unique model of sports promotion whereby cricketers and other sportspersons are offered employment and facilities to pursue their sport assured of financial security. They represent teams run by their employers in local and national tournaments.

Among the business houses supporting sport in a big way are my employers The Sanmar Group, who have been promoting cricket for a record five decades. Its chairman Mr N Sankar is also the chairman of the Sruti Foundation, which runs Sruti magazine. An interesting intersection of cricket and music.

Many Carnatic musicians are cricket fans. In the past, great masters like Madurai Mani Iyer were enthusiastic followers of the game. So is Mani Iyer’s nephew TV Sankaranarayanan, a Sangita Kalanidhi like his uncle, who played cricket while at Vivekananda College and follows the game closely. Mannargudi Eswaran, the mridanga vidwan has played cricket, too. On the distaff side, the younger of the Priya Sisters, Shanmukhapriya and Haripriya, represented her state in the national cricket competition.

I have heard this fabulous story about Sangita Kalanidhi DK Jayaraman’s interest in the game. Jayaraman and his sishya Vijay Siva were on a concert visit-to Trivandrum if I remember right. The duo reached there on the morning of the concert, with the performance slated for the evening. There was no television where they were staying, and there was an ODI featuring India going on that day. DKJ was very keen to watch the match, and a reluctant Vijay Siva located a TV retail shop nearby. As often the practice, the shop should be showing the live telecast of the match, DKJ thought, and sent Vijay Siva on a reconnaissance mission to ascertain that it was indeed doing so. He later joined Vijay at the roadside and watched his favourite Tendulkar. Hugely embarrassed that his revered guru was watching cricket on the street, the disciple insisted they go back home. “The shopkeeper is going to switch off the TV set in our face,” he told his guru. And sure enough, that is exactly what happened. But DKJ was not deterred. “Let’s wait. The shopkeeper will have to switch it on,” he said, looking at the small crowd gathering in front of the TV set. “It won’t be good for his business, if he doesn’t.” He was right, the TV came on again, and DKJ watched Tendulkar to his heart’s content.

I have had the pleasure of playing cricket with the celebrated singer Unnikrishnan as well as his father Dr. Radhakrishnan of Bunts Cricket Club. Unnikrishnan, a very good club cricketer, chose to concentrate on developing his considerable musical talent instead.

Back in the 1990s, well into my forties, I was captaining Parrys Recreation Club in the third division league. Unni, an officer of the company was our star player. Midway through the season, I arranged a concert by Unni at my residence on a Sunday evening, only to discover that we were playing a match that day. On top of that, Unni also had a concert the previous evening at Nagercoil. Refusing to cancel the concert, Unni travelled by bus all night, and, getting off at Pallavaram, came straight to the English Electric ground where we were playing. We fielded in the hot sun in the morning, and I gave Unni the option of opening the innings (he was our usual no.3) and going home after his knock. Unfortunately, Unni was out for zero, but insisted on staying till the end of the match, which we won. He then went to his Royapettah home, showered and changed and came to my Kottivakkam home on the ECR for the concert, just half an hour later than the scheduled start. It turned out to be a perfect concert.

(In his introductory remarks, Mr Muthiah said Cardus sometimes wrote on music in cricket terms. I happen to have a copy of something I wrote on an Unni concert in 2000, using cricketing analogies. With your permission, I’ll read out a part of the article (to be posted separately here).

Sivakumar and Burma Shankar, were both my teammates in the TNCA cricket league in the sixties. Sivakumar as we all know is DK Pattammal’s son and a mridanga vidwan in his own right besides being the father of star vocalist Nityashree Mahadevan. Burma’s son, the hugely talented Sanjay Subrahmanyan is crazy about cricket too.

The annual cricket match among Carnatic musicians is now a regular feature of their calendar. I happened to officiate as umpire in one of those some years ago. The intensity of the competition had to be seen to be believed. Chitravina Ravi Kiran, TM Krishna, Sanjay and Unni would give nothing away; there were a few other equally fierce competitors but I don’t remember their names. At least one musician cricketer gave me a withering look when I gave him out lbw, a decision that obviously did not satisfy him. That was when Vijay Siva whose idea it had been to invite me, must have had second thoughts about the wisdom of my appointment. Among today’s youngsters, Rithwik Raja, KV Gopalakrishnan, Guruprasad and Bharat Sundar are among the more fanatical participants.

I may add that I have never again been asked to umpire in this gala affair, but I do hope I will get another chance in the future. Who knows, I may have the pleasure of giving a Sangita Kalanidhi out, provided the Music Academy relaxes the age criterion a bit in honouring its vidwans.

Music lovers and musicians are few and far between among cricketers, but the few I know are diehard rasikas. SJ Kedarnath, an accomplished opening batsman of yesteryear, was a trained mridanga vidwan, who forsook music for cricket. He is a wonderful mimic who can imitate some of Carnatic music’s greats. His takeoff on MD Ramanathan is pretty impressive, but he can do an equally creditable Pattammal. His contemporary, the late Devendran, played the mridangam on the concert stage.

Fast bowler Kalyanasundaram who once took a hat trick against Bombay is a dedicated rasika whose knowledge of music seems to be good enough for him to discuss its technical aspects with musicians and even advise them sometimes. Kalli’s good friend K Balaji, an elegant left hand batsman and a director of Kasturi & Sons, the publishers of the Hindu, is a regular concertgoer. His cousin and fellow director N Murali, a leftarm medium pacer for MRC ‘B’, a team run by the Hindu family, is now the President of the Music Academy.

Former India wicketkeeper M O Srinivasan was well known in music circles as the founder of Dasanjali, a one-man crusade to teach a large number of school kids music especially of the bhajan or light classical variety. His son MO Parthasarathi was a Ranji and Duleep Trophy player, who bowled fastish leg breaks with a Paul Adams like action, except he was a right arm bowler. He was also a hard-hitting batsman, somewhat unorthodox, but extremely successful. A student of Hindustani vocal music, he has performed on the concert stage.

Violinist S D Sridhar is the proud father of left-arm all rounder S Sriram who played ODIs for India. Sriram too learned the violin for a few years before the pull of cricket proved too powerful.

Former Ranji trophy cricketer SVS Mani, an elegant batsman who played for Tamil Nadu and South Zone with considerable success in the sixties, and once fielded as a reserve against England, is the son of Kottamangalam Cheenu, that talented singer, who faded away after a stint in films.

S Radhakrishnan played for several seasons for Parry’s Recreation Club in the league and Hindu Trophy. Once, a century by him in the league led to a newspaper report which said Radhakrishnan, the son of Semmangudi Srinivasier, had scored a century, thus revealing to the world at large his musical ancestry only friends had hitherto known about.

Cricket is probably the only game in the world with a break for tea. Read coffee in Tamil country. We Tamils like our coffee at breakfast, lunch and tea, but it is a rare commodity at many cricket venues outside the south. I still remember the sheer look of terror on the face of the poor bearer who had made the mistake of serving tea to my senior and former Test captain S Venkataraghavan during a match somewhere beyond the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border, when Venkat gave him a tongue lashing. It was thanks to upright and fearless cricketers like Venkat that players from the south were taken seriously.

Chepauk is perhaps the only cricket venue in India to cater to the needs of every visiting player-it could be chai, lassi or bagara baigan-with a smile. In contrast, I once asked for buttermilk at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, only for the minor functionary (who of course hailed from no doubt distinguished Maratha lineage) to wither me with a look of utter contempt. “Not on the menu,” he said. Of course such experiences never deterred a hardy, self-respecting Tamil cricketer from asking for coffee at every opportunity.

“Mr Ramnarayan must have his coffee.” The deep voice from behind me startled me. It was former India captain and my Hyderabad senior Tiger Pataudi’s. At matches at Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Stadium, I had this private contract with Francis, one of the bearers at the Fateh Maidan Club, where we had lunch during match days. He would quietly bring me coffee after the other lunchers had left for the dressing room. That afternoon, Pataudi had been kind enough to stay back to bring me some good news. (I started my first attempt at writing a cricket book some 25 years ago, with the very words Pataudi spoke to me).

Speaking of Pataudi, I must share a couple of stories concerning him and Chennai with you. The first incident, in November 1975, would be unthinkable today. You will know why when I finish telling it to you. The Hyderabad cricket team, of which I was a member, was staying at Admiralty Hotel, Mandaveli (Incredibly the Indian hockey team, which went on to win the inaugural World Cup at Madras that month, was staying at the same hotel, where the autograph hunters ignored them completely to goggle at the cricket players). The day before our Ranji Trophy match against Tamil Nadu at Chepauk, Tiger, our wicket keeper Krishnamurti, and I went to the Marina cricket ground, where the Indian hockey team was playing ICF in a practice match. We sat under a tree in the western end of the ground and watched the match for about 45 minutes, then decided to go back to the hotel. As we left the ground and looked for a taxi, I made bold to ask Tiger, “Have you ever done a bus ride in India?” Saying no, he then sportingly agreed to take a bus to Foreshore Estate or thereabouts and then maybe an auto to Admiralty Hotel. Unfortunately, soon people on the street recognised and surrounded him. “Shall we do it some other time?” he said and we hailed a taxi. Today, such an episode would belong to the realm of fairy tales. Imagine a Test player walking down the street.

The second Chennai-based Tiger story was quite funny.  It happened at the hotel that same evening.

Among the autograph hunters there was a man originally from Hyderabad, who asked Pataudi some awkward questions.

Fan: Nawab Saab, is it true that you can’t play Venkat and Kumar? They say you are their bunny.

Pataudi: (Mutters under his breath).

Fan: Beg your pardon?

Pataudi: (Aloud) Of course, Venkat and VV are very fine bowlers.

I then politely show the visitor out.

(Here I must stop to acknowledge the partial truth of our irritating visitor’s claim. My chairman N Sankar who’s here today once recalled in an article how Pataudi, completely beaten by the Kumar magic, doffed his cap to him in admiration).

To continue with our story,

Pataudi (to our captain): Jai, I’m opening the innings tomorrow.

Jaisimha: Like hell you will.

Pataudi: I’m dead serious Jai. I’m going to score a double hundred. Bunny, indeed!

Jaisimha: (By now mellow) Okay, Tiger, have it your way. You can open the innings tomorrow.

The next morning, the atmosphere was electric as Jaisimha and Venkataraghavan went out to toss before a capacity crowd. Hyderabad won the toss and elected to bat. The mood in the Hyderabad dressing room was equally electric, with three batsmen padded up to open the innings. Pataudi was all set to go in first, to the surprise of the regular openers Abbas Ali Baig and Jayantilal. It took all of Jaisimha’s persuasive skills to get him to agree to bat at No.3, still three places ahead of his usual batting position.

When his turn to bat came, Pataudi turned on the old magic. He started by playing some spanking shots against the brisk pace of Kalyanasundaram. He was equally severe on Venkataraghavan and debutant left arm spinner SK Patel, off whose bowling he was reprieved early. He raced to his hundred, playing strokes all round the wicket.

Pataudi was not satisfied with a century that day. He took fresh guard and dug himself in, his defence studiedly elaborate, as if to give his thoughtless caviller of the previous day a message.

When he finally returned to the pavilion to a tumultuous ovation, he had made 198. Just two short of his own prediction. None of us knew it then, but that was Pataudi’s last innings at Chepauk. At the end of that season, he announced his retirement from first class cricket.

The brief I have from ABS requires me to trace the evolution of the different components of my topic. I suppose the title also refers to a certain commonality among them.

Cricket, of course, came to Madras, thanks to our British masters, with GG Arbuthnot establishing Madras Cricket Club in 1946. Famous personalities like King and Partridge, both partners of the eponymous law firm, were presidents of the club. So was CP Johnstone, the first captain of Madras in the Ranji Trophy. The Presidency Match, the brainchild of Buchi Babu Nayudu, who started Madras United Club in response to the MCC practice of offering only a tree-shade to visiting Indian teams in place of a dressing room, could not be held in 1908 as scheduled, as Buchi Babu passed away that year. It resumed in 1915 as a result of the efforts of his lieutenant B Subramaniam, and continued till 1950.

Coffee, too, was a foreign influence. Here’s an academic reference to coffee my daughter passed on to me:

“The incursion of coffee in to India society was marked by a cultural anxiety which was matched only by the enthusiasm with which it was consumed.” A.R. Venkatachalapathy refers to an advertisement of 1947, which read, “Coffee is the elixir that drives away weariness. Coffee gives vigour and energy.” Some conservatives declared that coffee drinking was not required in our nation and that our ancestors never consumed coffee. Some even compared it to liquor. In spite of this coffee grew in popularity.

An organ of the Women’s Indian Association argued: These days the enemies called tea and coffee have entered all homes, wreaking havoc. They are not food. They seem to stimulate cheer for a little while after drinking, but gradually subvert the vitality of the digestive organs, and when the body is weak, they create all sorts of unknown diseases.

Mariamalai Adigal said: “In the last few years people have started to consume coffee, tea, cocoa and liquor. Many people consume coffee decoction as many as 4 times per day. Even the country folk who never knew this drink have learnt to drink these beverages and now proclaim that they cannot live without them.”

While there can be little doubt that cricket and coffee are colonial cousins, Carnatic music is clearly indigenous in origin, though concert music, as we know it today, even the way it is taught and transmitted, had its origins in British times. In the past ruled the oral tradition of guru and sishya, with the pupil going to live with his teacher, and learning more by osmosis than by structured lessons. With notating or recording on tape either still in the future or forbidden by the guru, your aural memory was the only way of recording what you learnt.

Today, the tape recorder, writing down notations, and Skype have turned the learning process upside down.

Two major aspects of the Carnatic cutcheri are imports from the West: 1. the violin as an indispensable part of it, and 2. the microphone. In fact, the very idea of concerts in a proscenium setting was a natural byproduct of the westernization brought about by British rule. Before that, music belonged to the temples and royal courts.

Of course the violin too has its own colonial cousins like the viola, clarionet, mandolin, and so on. And the concert format took a quantum leap when for the first time in its history it was abridged and packaged in the last century to suit audiences lacking the attention span of their predecessors who could sit through five-hour concerts involving the expansive treatment of a handful of ragas.

The ragam-tanam-pallavi, the central part of the concert, gave way to more and more songs (and therefore more and more ragas) being performed, with the RTP itself becoming optional. The present concert format known as the Ariyakudi formula, after the late Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who conceived it, is too well known to Carnatic music aficionados for me to have to explain it, and would take too much time to describe it to those unfamiliar with it. This formula has worked for more than 50 years, but could soon be undergoing major changes, with some of our leading musicians beginning to tinker with its basic structure. Today, the standard concert also coexists with experiments like fusion, jugalbandi, and thematic concerts.

Carnatic music’s future seemed a little uncertain some 20 years ago, but tremendous support from the Indian diaspora has made it a thriving, vibrant movement, with several foreign-born Indians showing the dedication and promise to equal domestic talent. The result has been a dramatic change in the lifestyles of musicians. It is now seen as a viable career option, even though the early years are still very uncertain.

We all know how cricket has evolved in the subcontinent. From a fairly somnolent pastime of spin doctors, maiden overs, straight drives and the defensive forward block, it first changed post-1983 (when India won the World Cup for the first time), into a faster, more aggressive game of fast bowling, acrobatic fielding, coloured clothing, floodlights and attacking batsmanship. In recent years, with the advent of T20 cricket, it has been completely transformed into a dramatic spectacle of thrills and spills, reverse sweeps, switch-hits, the dilscoop and cheerleaders.

Cricket coaching and mentoring have undergone a seachange, with video technology a key component of the process of learning and course correction in the career of a cricketer. Several coaching academies, including specialised institutions like the MRF Pace Foundation have helped spread the game far and wide.

We old timers however have fond memories of the BS Nets organised by the TNCA, where great coaches like AF Wensley and TS Worthington, both pros from England, and our own beloved AG Ram Singh and KS Kannan, made a huge impact on our cricket.

And coffee? It is still an essential part of the lives of Carnartic musicians and cricketers of Chennai; only it has moved out of Udipi restaurants to new age coffee shops, where you are as likely to run into jetsetting, tech-savvy bhagavatars as the trendy cricketers of the new generation.

What is the future of cricket, Carnatic music and coffee in Chennai? I had the pleasure of watching the recent Oval Test in London, where a friend asked me, “When did you last have a full house for a Test match in India?” I was happy to inform him that we continue to get excellent crowds for a Test match at Chepauk. Likewise, the December season of music, when music lovers from all corners of the planet descend here, is living proof that Carnatic music is alive and kicking, for all the popularity of AR Rahman and Beyonce. And as for coffee, you can still get a good old cup of digiri coffee side by side with the fancier Capuccinos and Lattes so popular today.


  1. Master raconteur!
    Amazingly versatile personality. PraNaam.