By Anjana Anand
Ramanathan Kalaiarasan has been in the music field for over 25 years. He began his career with Adyar K. Lakshman and Bharatakalanjali (headed by the Dhananjayans). His keen musical sense and classicism have made him a much sought after violinist for Bharatanatyam. Kalaiarasan has received several awards for violin accompaniment for dance from prestigious sabhas like Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (2010 ) and Natyarangam, Narada Gana Sabha (2011).
Was your family involved in music?
My father Sangeeta Bhushanam Prof. A.S. Ramanathan was a complete musician. He was a mridangist and my first guru. He taught me several music techniques. All my siblings are also into music – we are three brothers and two sisters. One sister plays the mridangam, another is an AIR tambura artist. Both my brothers play the mridangam. Our family moved to Sri Lanka when I was very young as my father was appointed professor of mridangam in Jaffna University. Musicians like Maharajapuram Santhanam were then teaching there.
How did you become a violinist?
I was interested in the violin even as a child. I used to skip my vocal classes and go for violin lessons instead. I was attracted to the kalpanaswara playing of a violinist I heard in my younger days. I was amazed at the manodharma which allowed the swaras to flow for several avartanams. I would go home and repeatedly try my hand at kalpanaswara. There was a time when I had to struggle to play even half an avartanam of swara; it was quite frustrating. I think this challenge is what drew me to become a violinist. I feel vocalists have a chance to rehearse before a kutcheri but the violinist must have the confidence and creativity to respond on the spot.
From whom did you receive training in violin playing?
I initially started with a teacher who did not freely share her knowledge with me for whatever reason. Later, my father suggested that I learn from Thanathevy Mitradeva who was also teaching at Jaffna University. She lived about twenty kilometres away from my home, but that did not deter me. I used to cycle to class in the hot sun. Sometimes, if she was not at home, I would cycle all the way back and return in the evening for class. That was how determined I was to learn the violin. Luckily because of my vocal background, I was quick to learn the violin and within three years began to play for kutcheris.
When did you move back to India?
My parents were from India – my mother from Kumbakonam and my father from Tanjavur. After the Sri Lankan problem broke out, he decided it was safer to come back to India. My father was active in the Annamalai Manram and he was known to the Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University who offered him the assignment of mridangam professor.
We moved back to India and the first year was difficult as we had to adjust to life here. I completed a four-year course at the Music College (Annamalai University). It was there that I gathered a lot of experience. My mridangist brother Yogaraja and I used to play as a team and we won the first place at the annual South Zone youth festivals. In 1987, before the Festival of India in the USSR, they arranged for a jugalbandi competition in India. In the national competition, another player got the first place and I got the second. We were selected to play at the USSR festival together. The festival featured only dancers but we were the only two instrumentalists representing the country. My career as a solo artist began soon after that.
How did you enter the Bharatanatyam field?
I was very ambitious about becoming a solo violinist and wanted to make it as a concert artist. After successfully completing my Sangeeta Bhushanam course at Chidambaram, I decided to move to Chennai to further my career. In the beginning, my father was hesitant as we did not have many contacts in Chennai. He then took me to Adyar Lakshman for advice.
What was your experience with Lakshman Sir?
I knew it would be difficult to find opportunities in the concert field immediately, so I decided to take any opportunity that Lakshman Sir gave me. I started playing for Bharatanatyam performances. It was the turning point for me. I was in awe of his musical prowess and I learnt many things from him. It was he who introduced me to V.P. Dhananjayan at an ABHAI function and I started playing for him as well.
Do you feel that accompanying musicians are not used to their full potential in a dance performance?
Yes, sadly, many dancers do not realise the importance of this. V.P. Dhananjayan is one artist who knows how to use each instrument to its full potential. In a musical score, each instrument plays a distinct role and contributes to the soundscape of a dance production. In some presentations, I find that the pakkavadyam is used merely to follow the vocalist, there is no plan for orchestration. If a dancer has knowledge of music and a larger vision, then the accompanying musicians can elevate the production to another level. I realised over the years how important it is for the dancer to become a complete artist like Adyar Lakshman and V.P. Dhananjayan.
Did you continue to seek opportunities as a solo or concert artist?
Yes, I have a B-high grade at AIR. Unfortunately because of my travel schedule over the last few years, I have not been able to go for the scheduled upgrading regularly. I make it a point to perform solo at least five or six times a year. It is important for me to continue practising as I am a solo violinist as well as a violin accompanist for dance and music concerts.
How did you venture into recording?
I was always interested in recording. When I was in Sri Lanka, I started learning Radio and Electronics at the Polytechnic and worked as an assistant at a recording studio. It was always my dream to run my own studio. I have achieved that dream in a small way by setting up my own studio at home. I bought equipment over the years during my travels abroad. Today, I record full productions in my in-house studio. Baba Prasad (Adyar Lakshman’s son) has been very helpful in this venture. I recently recorded a full production called Ganga for Anuradha Murali who lives in the U.S.A.
I am satisfied with the way my music career has taken shape. Music has taken me to many countries and given me experiences which I could not have had otherwise.
[Note: R. Kalaiarasan referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]