Song of Surrender

Friday, 28 April 2017

K. Rajasekharan

Musicians in Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

K Rajasekharan was one of the early vocalists to sing for Bharatanatyam in Chennai. Trained at Kalakshetra and with many years of service at the Little Flower School for the Blind, Rajasekharan looks back with contentment on his career spanning more than four decades. He shares some of his memories and thoughts with Sruti.

How did you come to Kalakshetra?

I had no intention of joining Kalakshetra. My father was a well-known vocalist for Kathakali in Kerala. It just happened that when my father and I passed through Chennai, we met Rukmini Devi who urged my father to send me to Chennai to study. I was only in third standard and came to Kalakshetra in 1958 or so. At one point Athai wanted me to leave my studies and join the music course as a full time student. I was very interested in studies and actually refused to do so! Being the generous person that she was, Athai let me complete my matriculation. I then finished the six-year Sangeeta Siromani course in music offered by Kalakshetra. I was a part of Kalakshetra for 16 years.

Who were your teachers at Kalakshetra?

I was trained by stalwarts like M.D. Ramanathan, Budalur Krishnamurthy, Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Ramaswamy Iyengar and D. Pasupati. What a galaxy of stars!

My mentor was Rukmini Devi. Sometimes on my way to college, she would pass by in her car and stop to ask me about my progress. She would even ask me to sing some new kriti I had learnt. It was a beautiful time in Kalakshetra. Athai was a gem of a person and it was amazing how her mind was always planning and strategising! One day an attender in school came to class and said that Athai would like to meet me. She needed a young Rama and Lakshmana for the dance-drama Sita Swayamwaram, and she was hoping to cast me. Fortunately for me, I was too small for the role or — who knows — today I might have been a dancer and not a vocalist!

What made you leave Kalakshetra? Was it a difficult decision?

After my course, I was keen on getting a job as I married early and wanted financial security. Kalakshetra was not in a position to offer me a job as we had great artists already teaching there. Somehow I was disillusioned by the lives our great teachers were forced to lead. I have seen my own teacher – Ramaswamy Iyengar – such a knowledgable musician, going from house to house to give tuitions to make both ends meet. I decided early in life that even if my salary was low, I wanted the security of a regular income.

Your decision led you to the Little Flower School for the Blind. How did you start the next chapter of your life there?

Initially, I worked with Dhananjayan Anna and Shanta Akka and they were of tremendous support. They guided me in singing for natyam and I sang for them for a long time. I also worked with M.V. Narasimhachari. One of my visually challenged colleagues in Kalakshetra knew that I was looking for a job and when an opening came up at the Little Flower School for the Blind, he asked me to apply. I was one of the first male tutors to join the institution and stayed there till I retired a few years ago. Maybe it was God’s will that I teach the students there. It was a wonderful experience.

Was it difficult to teach students at the school? Did you have to change your teaching methodology?

Not at all. Teaching visually challenged students is no different. The only thing I had to help them with was keeping tala. I would hold their hand and show them how to maintain tala. Otherwise it is the same. The level of their understanding depended on their interest and talent. Many of my students became good singers and have passed the higher level exams in music.

Besides vocal music, what else are you trained in?

I learnt gottuvadyam from Budalur and even performed a few times. I learnt Bharatanatyam for two years at Athai’s insistence. I was taught by Anandhi Teacher. I trained in nattuvangam thanks to Dhananjayan’s encouragement. At a time when students were not even allowed to touch the tattukazhi and nattuvangam in the Bharatanatyam world was termed ‘soyyam’ derogatively, he encouraged me to learn nattuvangam. I too was keen to pick up skills that would help me later.

Who are some of the well known artists you have sung for?

Besides the Dhananjayans and Narasimhacharis, I have sung for Chitra Visweswaran and Shobana. We have travelled widely abroad on long tours.

What are the challenges an artist faces as a Bharatanatyam accompanist?

It is not as easy as mainstream kutcheri artists think it is! It requires a different approach. I remember once during the Natya Kala Conference, the mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman commented on stage that playing for dance was easy. Someone from the audience got up and challenged him to play for Bharatanatyam the following year at the same conference. He accepted and went to Adyar Lakshman to practise. The next year at the conference, he admitted that he was mistaken and that it was actually not that easy!

I feel that music should be used in any way beneficial to others. It does not matter whether you are a kutcheri artist or an accompanist for dance. We have to serve society in whatever way we can.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

[Note: Rajasekharan referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]

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