Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Remembering Vellore Ramabhadran

By BuzyBee

The air was heady with nostalgia on the evening of 27 February 2016 at Raga Sudha Hall, Mylapore, where vidwans and rasikas alike had gathered to pay tribute to the memory and legacy of mridanga maestro Vellore G. Ramabhadran. After the lighting of the kuthuvilakku and the prayer by T.R. Padmini, the chief guest vidwan P.S. Narayanaswamy delivered the presidential address and conferred the first Vellore Ramabhadran Award upon Prof. S. R. Janakiraman. 

In his address, P.S. Narayanaswamy (PSN) drew upon his six-decade-long friendship with Ramabhadran and recalled how he had not only been the preferred accompanist for every leading artist over the years, but a vocalist of flair as well. PSN shared an instance of how Ramabhadran had sung Begada to help clarify his doubts about the raga. He narrated another incident to illustrate how Ramabhadran could vary the pitch of the same mridangam to suit different vocalists with effortless ease. Once, Ramabhadran arrived in Coimbatore to accompany PSN (whose pitch was 1-kattai) after playing at a concert in Bangalore for Trichur V. Ramachandran (2-kattai). When PSN wondered if he had brought a separate instrument aligned to 1-kattai, Ramabhadran had quipped, “You can play only one mridangam at a time, right?” and went on to play the same mridangam, now perfectly aligned to PSN’s sruti.

A host of distinguished speakers transported the audience back in time as they shared fond memories and anecdotes about Vellore Ramabhadran. Cleveland V.V. Sundaram harked back to his first meeting with Ramabhadran at a Madurai Mani Iyer-Lalgudi Jayaraman concert in Calcutta, and spoke at length about Ramabhadran’s invaluable contributions to the Cleveland Tyagaraja Festival, his enviable “knowledge bandwidth”, and above all, his genial and jovial personality. V. Narasimhan, Secretary, Asthika Samajam, Tiruvanmiyur, drew parallels between the styles of Ramabhadran and mridangam stalwart Tanjavur Ramadas, even as he highlighted Ramabhadran’s quiet down-to-earth approach. ‘Spencer’ R. Venugopal regaled the audience with an anecdote from the 1975 Sangeeta Choodamani award ceremony, when Palghat Mani Iyer memorably described Ramabhadran’s vidwat as tholpatru (kinship of skin), and added that only Ramabhadran could coax the mridangam to play tones that were such sweet music to the ears.

Prof. S.R. Janakiraman, the Vellore Ramabhadran Awardee 2016, insisted on walking up to the podium to make a speech despite his advanced years. Expressing his deep gratitude at being chosen as the first recipient of the award, he described Ramabhadran as a consummate vidwan who was well-versed in both percussion and vocal music, and highlighted the remarkable comfort levels he shared with countless vidwans, which fostered a spirit of warm camaraderie on stage. 

Ramabhadran had always remained young at heart, and believed in wholeheartedly encouraging up-and-coming talent. Standing testimony to this fact, flautist J. Jayanth, grandson of the late Tanjavur Sankaran, recounted how Ramabhadran mama had accompanied him from his first concert as an eight-year-old to the last one they had played together at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. Describing Ramabhadran’s stage presence as “stylish”, Jayanth said the veteran had educated him on the finer aspects of kalapramanam and sruti suddham. He went on to narrate an anecdote about the time he had forgotten to resume after Ramabhadran mama’s tani avartanam, and how he was prodded in a gentle, timely manner at his next concert so that he would not repeat the same mistake. Such was Ramabhadran mama’s keen observation and memory, said Jayanth.

The programme concluded with a concert featuring vocalist Sunil Gargyan (disciple of P.S. Narayanaswamy), supported by M.A. Sundaresan (violin), Trichur Narendran (mridangam), K.V. Gopalakrishnan (khanjira) and Balaji (tambura).

Vellore Ramabhadran (1929 -2012)

Born on 4 August 1929, Vellore Gopalachariar Ramabhadran was a celebrated name in percussion, a master of the mridangam.

Ramabhadran was fortunate to have been initiated into Carnatic music by his father, T.P. Gopalachariar, a konnakol artist and one of the founders of the Vellore Sangeeta Sabha which had conferred the title Sangeeta Ratnakara on Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Gopalachariar’s residence in Vellore was frequented by stalwarts such as Tiger Varadachariar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, GNB, M.S. Subbulakshmi and D. K. Pattammal, and it was during one such visit that Ramabhadran had the privilege of accompanying Tiger Varadachariar at an in-house concert.

Ramabhadran’s first stage performance was at the age of 14 when he accompanied the doyen Madurai Mani Iyer at the Jagannatha Bhaktha Sabha, Egmore, in 1943. This marked the beginning of an illustrious career spanning over six decades and as many generations. Ramabhadran’s gentle and effortless way of playing the mridangam came to be known as the “sarvalaghu” style.

Ramabhadran has brought out a solo DVD titled Sarvalaghu: The Nuances of Mridangam accompaniment. He was the recipient of numerous awards, most notably the Sangeeta Choodamani (Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, 1975), Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1992), Sangita Kalanidhi (Music Academy, 2005), Chowdiah Memorial Award (1994), Sangeeta Ratnakara (Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana, 2005) and the Bangalore Gayana Samaja Centenary Award (2005) which he received from the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Ramabhadran often attributed his success in accompaniment to the fact that he was also a trained vocalist.  His vocal concerts at Guruguhanjali, a sabha run by V.V.  Srivatsa, as also his chamber concert at Sruti, bear evidence to his vidwat. Ramabhadran also participated in numerous lecture-demonstrations around the world and was part of several fusion concerts and jugalbandis along with eminent vidwans such as Zakir Hussain and Amjad Ali Khan.

Vellore Ramabhadran not only believed in encouraging young talent but also in  recognising the contributions of veteran musicians who did not aspire for star status. With this objective he instituted the Vellore Gopalachariar Memorial Award and entrusted the responsibility of administering it to the Sruti Foundation. Several musicians of merit have been honoured during the past 20 years.

The mridanga maestro with the gentle touch passed away on 27 February 2012 at the age of 82.

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