S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Compleat Rasika

A Seshan

By Seshan Ramaswami

A Seshan, a Sruti subscriber since its inception, and a regular contributor (often under the nom-de-plume Sankarabharanan) of articles and letters to the magazine, passed away in Mumbai on 7 January 2018.

Seshan was an accomplished economist, with a lifetime of service at the Reserve Bank of India. He retired voluntarily as Officer-in-Charge, Department of  Economic Analysis and Policy, in the early 1990s, to take up assignments as the IMF-appointed Advisers to the central banks of  Kyrgyzstan, and then Sierra Leone. He excelled academically, topping Madura College in his B.A.  (Economics) degree, and  earning  a  gold  medal.  He had an M.A. from Madras Christian College, before proceeding to the University of Hawaii on an East West Centre scholarship for a Masters in Agricultural Economics, when  he spent a semester at Cornell University.  Of his lifetime of work in the RBI, former RBI governor Y.V. Reddy is quoted in a Business Line tribute published on 11 January  2018, as saying, “He was absolutely thorough, well-respected and one of my earliest gurus in the RBI.”

Throughout his work life, he would type all communications, personal and professional, on a small portable typewriter, with an unusual cursive/handwriting font, which was his lone material acquisition from his years in the USA!  One look at the envelope, and you could recognise the sender from the font! Later, he mastered the use of word processing software and the Internet, and was a regular contributor to the pink papers on monetary policy matters. He would listen to the policy announcement each quarter, and within a couple of hours, send the commissioned commentary to the press for publication the next day. The Business Line and Business Standard, carried many of his articles, and letters, but he wrote for almost all the Mumbai dailies.

His passion from his childhood days was Carnatic music, which gradually expanded to Hindustani music, Bharatanatyam, Western music and all forms of the performing arts.  When he first moved to Mumbai in the sixties, he became the close confidant of the late vainika maestro Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, and would do all the correspondence to AIR, Sangeet Natak Akademi, and sabhas for “veena master,” as we used to refer to the vidwan. He also taught Seshan’s wife, Bhanumathi (grand-daughter of the late F.G. Natesa Iyer, and from a very illustrious musical family), and Seshan himself learnt to play for a while, and would forever proudly tell everyone, with a twinkle in his eye, about his own prowess in playing the Abhogi varnam.  As a patron member of the Shanmukhananda Sabha, and a member of the NCPA in Mumbai, he would insist on attending practically every concert offering of all genres, much to the despair of his family who were increasingly concerned with the strain on his body as he aged!  

With his scholarly bent, and general intellectual temperament, Seshan was a thoughtful and serious rasika, and an obsessive collector of books on music and dance. He had a massive collection of spool tapes of concert recordings, records, cassettes, CDs, and DVDs.  A Madurai-vasi for much of his childhood, he would reminisce about the huge crowds at Sethupathi High School for concerts of the great vidwans and vidushis of the 1940s and 50s. He was an obsessive fan of M.S. Subbulakshmi, and  collected all her Meera film songs on 78 rpm records. And he then would dutifully purchase every single new LP release of her (on a “first day first show” basis). He assiduously recorded on a spool player, radio concerts of all the great masters, and then type up the song lists and file them carefully. And then he would disrupt our sleep early each morning by blaring those concerts at full volume as a sort of suprabhatam to the neighbourhood! And then, by osmosis, both my brother, Ananthanarayana Sharma, and I could not resist the absorption of this music into our very living cells and we are both today rasikas, but not of the stature and passion of our father.  We ourselves learnt some music formally later, my brother learning the tabla, and I learning veena and Hindustani vocal music.

Seshan was extremely excited by the launch of Sruti and was in regular correspondence with the late Sruti Pattabhi Raman, and then with V.  Ramnarayan. He would regularly write letters and had several articles published in the magazine on a variety of topics. His superb command of the English language, combined with his vast experience of passionate, thoughtful listening to music, and his deep interest in and knowledge of the history of Indian music, gave all his articles that touch of class.  He once wrote an award winning essay in a Sruti competition, on M.S. Subbulakshmi, which he titled the 'Compleat Musician' (an obscure reference to The Compleat Angler, a classic work on fishing), and was dismayed when the editor attempted to correct his spelling to “Complete”, which did not quite convey the exceptional completeness of MS’s music.  He was a devoted fan of  Madurai Mani Iyer, D.K. Pattammal, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.D.  Ramanathan, M. Balamuralikrishna, Maharajapuram Santhanam, D.K.  Jayaraman, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, and the Bombay Sisters.  Among Hindustani singers, he had a particular passion for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and Parveen Sultana.

Having lived his entire adult life in Mumbai, with much exposure to Hindustani music, he gradually began taking greater interest in it too, and would attend many seminars and music appreciation courses, peppering the speakers with questions to improve his understanding.  With that knowledge, and from hours of dedicated reading, he began writing articles on Hindustani music too; the academic in him would lead him to seek “peer review” from many artists and scholars before submitting the article for publication.  He also was invited by the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai to be a part of their programmes committee, an advisor to their music and dance school, and on the editorial team of their publication Shanmukha. A collector’s issue of Shanmukha that he conceived and executed was on the banis of Bharatanatyam, which involved meticulous follow-up with dancers around India to get them to describe the niceties of their individual banis.  He also designed a regular quiz on music and dance for the publication.  His creative, constantly curious mind  led him to curate conferences, for the sabha, notably one on the use of Western instruments in Indian music.  He also contributed articles in Tamil to Kalaimagal magazine, notably a profile of  DKP, which led the maestro to inquire around about the identity of this mysterious “Sankarabharanan” who knew so much about her. 

Seshan regularly contributed dance reviews and articles to narthaki.com and to the dance publications, Nartanam and Attendance. Leading dancers soon realised that they had a discerning (but friendly and exceptionally fluent and expressive) critic in Seshan and began regularly calling him in advance, beseeching him to attend and review their concerts in Mumbai.  And he could not “just say no”, so would always oblige, attending the recitals, taking copious notes, and within a day of the concert, turn in a sparkling review to narthaki.com, excerpts of which would soon enter the “press review” sections of these dancers’ resumes. Last year, we in the family decided that he could not continue to brave the Mumbai traffic and senior-unfriendly sabhas to attend concerts.  He chafed at the restrictions muttering, “Stop treating me like a sick man”, and would beg to be taken to concerts, from arangetrams to major dance productions and concerts.

The art historian in him led him to discover, important impending birth and death anniversaries of composers, musicians, dancers and gurus, and he would research and write profiles of these artists, and also write to sabhas worldwide urging them to organise commemorations.

Seshan was a devoted follower of the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, and instituted the Ramaswamy-Seshan-Ananthanarayanan (RASA) Awards (in memory of his ancestors) for excellence in Vedic Studies, administered by the Veda Rakshana Nidhi Trust (VRNT) of the Peetham. These annual awards have been given, since the beginning of the millennium to the best scholar, teacher and student of Vedic studies as judged by the VRNT.

Seshan was also a passionate tennis fan, and wrote commissioned previews of all Grand Slam tournaments for Mumbai newspapers, with detailed statistics of the past history of these tournaments, and his own pick for singles winners. When we were children, he would type up his prediction, seal it in an envelope before the start of the tournament, and reveal the contents after the final. I can’t remember how accurate he was, but we loved the performance spectacle of the opening of the “Grand Slam envelope.”  He was overjoyed to be able to personally witness Serena Williams and Sania Mirza/Cara Black, win the singles and doubles 2014 WTA finals in Singapore.

To the extended family, of some forty plus cousins, he was “Durai Anna”, the unquestioned head, and chief counsel and advisor on personal and professional matters. His generosity at times of distress and family weddings could be reliably counted on.  As he aged, he found it difficult to travel to Chennai, and Madurai, to meet family members individually, so he made arrangements for a high tea party for the entire family of some 150 members to gather in a rented bungalow in Luz, Chennai, for a family get-together for a celebration of his 80th birthday, and then sent CDs with photos of the event to every one of them. 

Seshan is survived by his wife, and two sons. His daughter-in-law, Dr. Siri Rama is a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, and founder of the Kanakasabha Performing Arts Centre in Mumbai and Singapore. His grand-daughter Amara Rama, is an aspiring student of  Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathak, and Hindustani vocal music, in Singapore. 

This combination of complete (dare I say “compleat?”) professional and devoted family man is a rarity these days when professional and personal matters all co-exist and much writing is done informally, and at a fairly superficial level on the same social media platform.   If he could have read this piece, he would no doubt have whipped out his editing pen and done a few edits, of  both content and form.  If only this article could have been sent to him for a friendly “peer review” before publication!

May the music of the late greats continue to resound around him in the afterlife!


1 comment:

  1. Truly a rara avis of modern times--a Renaissance man and polymath. It was an honor and a privilege to have known him. May his soul rest in peace.
    Rama Viswanathan
    Professor (emeritus) of Chemistry and Computer Science
    Beloit College, Wisconsin, USA