Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Meera's Radha

 By V Ramnarayan

(Text of speech at felicitation at SKGS to Radha for completing 75 years in music; it is MS Subbulakshmi’s 97th birth anniversary).

Your Excellency Sri ESL Narasimhan, Governor of Andhra Pradesh, Smt. Narasimhan, Smt Radha Viswanathan, Sangita Kalanidhi TK Murthy, Sri Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty, Sri VV Sundaram, Sri V Shrinivasan, dear rasikas,

As I have been introduced today as someone who married into the MS family, I’ll try to strike a personal note.

Two occasions remind me of the impact MS’s music had on a vast populace beyond its elite admirers.  On the first, in the last 1990s, as I was walking past a slum colony towards the Tiruvanmiyur main road, the Vishnu Sahasranamam was reverberating in her voice from the radio set from each household. The second event was unfortunately her death in December 2004, when scores of poor people poured into her Kotturpuram residence to pay their last respects—with quiet dignity and genuine grief.

I first saw Radha Akka (that's how we all call her) in the 1960s, when she had come to Vasant Vihar on Greenways Road to accompany MS in a concert before J Krishnamurti. Three beautiful people mesmerised the small audience that afternoon—JK, MS and Radha Viswanathan. Needless to say it was a lovely concert with Radha the perfect accompanist to MS, but what struck us even more were Radha’s vivacity, sparkling intelligence and sense of fun, when we managed to eavesdrop on the pre-concert conversations among the artists and invitees. Anyone who knows Radha Akka will testify to these attributes  which have enabled her to face the vicissitudes with courage and a smile.

I also have some happy memories of the movies my wife and I enjoyed in the company of Vijaya and Rajendran, Radha and Viswanathan and some other friends and family. On one such occasion at distant Ram theatre in Kodambakkam, we were all seated in an exclusive box in the balcony, and Radha Akka regaled us with her witty running commentary during what turned out to be a silly potboiler.

As a child, Radha found a lifelong friend in Anandhi, who was later to become part of the family when she married Radha’s cousin Ambi. Anandhi was the daughter of writer Kalki Krishnamurthi, a close associate of Sadasivam. Anandhi remembered her first visit to the Sadasivams’ Landons Road home. “A little girl, twinkling eyes and smiles, was sitting on the swing and trilling out Anandaman solvene, a song sung by Subbulakshmi in Sakuntalai. I was captivated. I noticed the child's photographic memory and sense of rhythm. Her reproduction was perfect, and included the entire background score as well!”

Later, whenever Kalki came to visit, Anandhi accompanied him—to meet Radha. They were both learning dance from the same master, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, so there was much to chat, gossip and conspire about. The Landons Road children did not know that Kalki was a famous writer, but they buzzed around him like bees until he told them stories as only he could.  Radha had a special relationship with Kalki, and later collected his writings meticulously, covered his books with brown paper and so on. She is a very systematic collector of MS Amma’s music, photographs and memorabilia all labelled very neatly.

The Anandhi-Radha arangetram was performed in 1945, when Radha was ten years old. E Krishna Iyer who reviewed it, praised the programme as a rare cultural treat for the rasika. He drew attention to Radha's “restraint, dignity, light-stepping and ease, as well as grace of pose and movements.” He compared her poise to the river Kaveri in its lower reaches, regulated to a steady flow.

Without being aware of it, the girls had taken part in a revivalist cultural movement. Radha and Anandhi impressed everyone in the 25 or so performances they gave in many parts of India. Radha danced with Anandhi for some five years and as a soloist for a few performances after Anandhi's marriage.

A cherished performance came many years later during a Surdas Festival in Calcutta--on 27 September 1978.  MS and Radha gave an entire recital of Surdas lyrics. And like the old times, Radha got up to perform abhinaya to the song Boojhat shyam kaun tu gori in Jonpuri, which she had learnt from Bala, with her mother singing the song. Mr (‘Cleveland) Sundaram was witness to a similar demonstration a few years ago.

In her brief dancing career, Radha made a mark as a fine artiste. Subbulakshmi's padam singing made the whole experience all the more enjoyable.

It was at Lala Shriram's home in New Delhi that Sarojini Devi's introduction of MS in the opening sequence of Meera was shot. Radha's dance performance was organised at the same venue. Ramiah Pillai was specially flown in for the show.

“Amma sang for me. The Chinese ambassador, Rajaji and Nehru attended the show. It was the first time I was meeting Jawaharlal Nehru. During the interval, I came down with my autograph book. Rajaji drew the picture of a dancing figure and autographed it. A smiling Nehruji also signed it for me.

“I danced at the Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) when Rajaji was the Governor General of India.” Radha's beloved autograph book testifies to her constant encounters with celebrities in every field of human endeavour.

“Amma loved Taaye Yasoda because she enjoyed my abhinaya in playing Krishna's pranks,” Radha recalled. One day Kalki, Sadasivam and TKC came to the class. At the end they decided that the girls were ready to make their debut. Papanasam Sivan composed new Tamil sahityam for the music of their old varnam, and new songs were chosen to express the nationalist aspirations of the time. Anandhi remembers how the tailor sat in the verandah and made their first costume in shiny satin. The girls were so disappointed when the elders rejected it as gaudy. The pattern too had to be more aesthetic. “Model it on Rukmini Devi's costume,” said Sadasivam. The poor tailor had never heard of Rukmini Devi and wanted to know if it was the name of a tailoring establishment.

Years later, when Radha fell seriously ill, Anandhi and Vijaya, Radha’s younger sister, nursed her devotedly. There was not a single day during her prolonged hospitalization when they were not there by her bedside.

V Shrinivasan, Cheenu to all of us, Radha’s son remembers how Anandhi was a great pillar of support when Lakshmi, Radha’s daughter was born. It was she who convinced Radha that her daughter was a special child, even as Radha was in denial initially.

At Sruti, the magazine I edit, we have been great admirers of Radha’s musical acumen and undying spirit. We honoured her with a tribute to these qualities in an article by Gowri Ramnarayan when she made her comeback to the concert stage after recovering from major illness. The same article was expanded into a chapter in the book MS & Radha, a Saga of Steadfast Devotion in 2009.

The way the book got written was by itself an interesting story. One day, in October of that year, Cheenu, who is now more and more like Sadasivam, his grandfather, came home and said, “Gowri Akka, when will the book be ready? I have fixed the date for the book’s release by the Prime Minister on 11 December, Amma’s birthday, and the day MS Paatti passed away.” I was completely taken aback, as this was the first time I heard any mention of a book. It turned out Gowri, who was herself bed-ridden with a painful ailment for quite some time, had agreed to do the book a few months earlier and forgotten all about it. The only way we could bring out a book was now to self-publish it, as no publisher would even think of doing something as crazy as bringing out a book in two months.

At first we thought we would collect all the magazine articles Gowri had written on MS, and the Sruti article on Radha, collate them, edit them and bring out a pictorial book with about 10,000 words. But when Gowri started writing, she could not stop, emotionally charged as she was about those two ladies, and a full-fledged book emerged within 15 days! Everyday, she would complete anything between 3000 and 5000 words, mail it to me, working in another room, I would do one round of editing (not that the text needed much editing) and then email it to my daughter in the US. She would then add her inputs and mail it to Abhirami Sriram, our external editorial resource in Chennai. Abhirami would then edit the text further and mail it back to Gowri, for one final look. In the meantime, Cheenu, in Bangalore, was attending to the herculean task of choosing appropriate images from his collection of thousands of photographs. All this took a maximum of 48 hours each time. The design and layout were also done at home by our friend Ashok Rajagopalan. We just managed to catch the 11th December deadline, leaving for Delhi, armed with seven copies printed digitally, as the offset printer could not deliver by then. Because the release was in the PM’s residence before an invited audience, no sale was permitted, and nobody noticed that we had only seven copies.

I shall now read some excerpts from the chapter Meera’s Radha from the book MS & Radha.

March 12, 1983. The Madras cutcheri scene has been missing the grandeur of MS's music for a while now. There is a hushed expectancy at the Music Academy auditorium at Madras, as her old faithfuls throng the hall, eager to renew their connection with her. She is singing in a fund-raiser for the Minakshi temple in Houston, Texas. Even as her sruti-perfect, majestic voice rings out, the excitement of the listeners is tinged with a feeling of sadness. They are poignantly aware of the absence of Radha. Since her childhood Radha had provided exemplary vocal support to Subbulakshmi.

An old timer remarks, “To see MS on the stage without Radha is to see the sky without the crescent moon. No doubt it is vast and starry, but something is missing.” Most of them know that a debilitating illness had struck her months earlier, leading to prolonged hospitalisation.

Radha had in fact knocked at death's door. The Music Academy audience also knows that her miraculous recovery from this devastating illness is still far from complete.

Miracles and MS Subbulakshmi are rarely far from each other, and today yet another miracle unfolds before a stunned, predominantly Mylaporean audience. Halfway through the recital, something totally unexpected happens. The curtain drops abruptly, triggering excited whispers. Curtains in the midst of a classical Carnatic music programme! What is the matter?

When the curtain rises again, there is more surprise in store. There is Radha! She's seated on the stage, in her usual place reserved for pin paattu, vocal accompaniment, next to her mother. Pillows support her at the back, and she has one leg stretched out (later during the concert, she stretches her other leg too). The whole auditorium explodes in a cascade of applause, enthusiastically welcoming the newcomer with affection and appreciation. Several in the audience breathe hard, lumps in their throats.

This is Radha's first appearance after her serious illness, a tremendous exercise of grit and will power. She begins her foray by singing solo at first. It is Tazh sadaiyum, beginning in Simhendramadhyamam and sliding into Brindavanasaranga. It is a favourite with her father Sadasivam, because it celebrates the oneness of Siva and Vishnu, and by extension the gods of all religions, though they appear in different forms. Today, for once, Sadasivam in the front row is not thinking of its philosophical import. There is a tremulous quality to Radha's singing, but as the performance gains momentum again, the initial strain disappears and Radha's voice gathers strength. After all, she is singing Sarojadala netri for Minakshi, her mother's special deity. As MS launches into the main piece in Sankarabharanam, Radha's years of training and experience assert themselves. It seems, in a life of lights and shadows, mostly alternating but sometimes overlapping, she is emerging from the deepest shadow of them all.

Radha's relationship with Subbulakshmi was a very special one. As she grew older, Radha began to assume more and more responsibilities and became an indispensable source of strength and support to Subbulakshmi in every way. She assisted her mother in personal life as well as in her singing career, taking charge of all practical and routine matters. MS relied on Radha to take care of everything.

“After my illness, the roles were reversed,” Radha said with a catch in her voice. “How strange it was to see Amma taking care of me!  It was Amma's turn to help me in everything, looking after me tenderly as if I were a child again.” And Radha felt the change all the more because to her, Subbulakshmi was mother and guru rolled into one. It was not a formal guru-sishya relationship. Radha explained:

“What matters is not the direct instruction that a guru imparts. The preceptor's worth and value to the disciple depend upon the devotion he commands and the inspiration he kindles. Listening to Amma's soul-stirring music has been such a precious gain for me.”

Divine grace, human goodwill, excellent healthcare, or a combination of all of them must have worked in her favour. Radha had emerged into the light of consciousness once again on 22 April 1982. She came home to a long period of convalescence. Recognising that music could be used as a tool of rehabilitation, her husband and parents encouraged her to practise singing and learn new songs as well. She did just that. “At the bottom of my heart burns a fierce desire, one may say determination, to excel in everything over and above everyone's expectation,” she said. With childlike wonder in her eyes, she added: “And when people show that they care about my plight, I feel so touched! When I joined Amma midway during that concert at the Academy, how people clapped and cheered!”

Radha's life has been a bewildering chiaroscuro of experiences, but her personality refuses to wilt, even thriving in adversity. The severe trials of her life have not sapped her vitality. She continues to show rare willpower in pursuing a goal set by Cheenu, which is to remain well enough and practise enough to be able to sing and teach.

It is her sense of humour that makes Radha so much fun to be with.  As a young girl, when her father asked her to serve sweetlime juice for their guest, astrologer Kaviseri, Radha found that there was no fruit in the kitchen. She exclaimed, “Why didn't Kaviseri intervene and suggest coffee? Surely as an astrologer, he should know that there is no sweetlime in the house!” 

Fifty years later, when frail Kunjamma got into a dolorous mood and went on and on listing her woes, Radha finally interrupted her with a giggle. “You know what, only you can sing Kurai onrum illai (I have no regrets) and convince the whole world that you have no worries at all, when actually you are bursting with worries from uchi talai (head) to ullangal (feet)!”

Adversity has not diminished Radha's powers of endurance or her courage, disasters have not deflated her enthusiasm for life. Her joie de vivre and elan remain intact; her indomitable will has helped her keep the MS tradition alive – with a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eyes.

Today’s event is at once a tribute to Radha and MS. Despite all her numerous setbacks, she continues to be the most cheerful person imaginable, and happily passes on her musical knowledge to Aishwarya, Soundarya and other students. On behalf of all of us gathered here, I salute her indomitable spirit.

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