(Part I of a short novel by MV Swaroop)
Front Page, The Hindu, 26 December, 2009
NV Mani passes away
CHENNAI: Noted Carnatic vocalist N. V. Sivasubramanian, ailing for more than three months, passed away yesterday. He was 79. He is survived by two daughters and a son. Hundreds of his admirers and musicians thronged his Triplicane residence to mourn his death. (See Page 16)
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Page 16, The Hindu, 26 December 2009
Genius breathes his last
Carnatic vocalist N. V. Mani passed away last night of an acute heart attack. He was bedridden with multiple ailments for more than a month, and had resisted being shifted to a hospital. His children, all living abroad, will arrive in Chennai shortly for the last rites.
Born in Tiruvarur in 1930 to Vaidyanatha Iyer and Komalatammal, N. V. Mani grew up in Madras where his father worked as an accountant. The teachers who taught him music in his childhood have all vanished into obscurity, and it is rumoured that he learnt most of his manodharma music from T. N. Rajarathinam Pillai, the nagaswaram maestro, whom he used to accompany to numerous concerts. GNB’s music, it is said, had a great impact on him. It would not, however, be inappropriate to state that he was largely self-taught.
Around 1943, much to his father’s resentment, Mani quit school to join a drama company in which he acted and sang. Acting as Abhimanyu in a play, the thirteen-year-old Mani achieved instant fame for his music. Singing at a striking 5-kattai, Mani unleashed an exhilarating Todi, Kedaragowlai and Ahiri amidst others on the audience. So popular was his singing that he played Abhimanyu for more than ten years after he was clearly too old for the role.
Simultaneously, Mani’s popularity as a Carnatic vocalist was rising. His youthful, playful voice, his searing tarasthayi brigas, his supersonic swaraprastaram resulted in a burgeoning fan base even before his voice had settled into adulthood. It was around this time, that he began to assimilate kritis just by listening to maestros sing them. An unhappy stint at the Music College ensued. He was said to have been admitted without basic schooling on Musiri Subramania Iyer’s insistence. He unfortunately felt the rigorous, academic atmosphere dampened his manodharma, his music was losing its spontaneity—and quit within a year. After disappearing from the Madras music scene briefly, he resurfaced as the boy who sat behind Rajarathinam Pillai at all his concerts.
Around 1958, N.V. Mani’s name began to be heard again in music circles. His singing was still thrilling, it was still fast-paced, but it seemed to have lost the manic energy of his early years. It started acquiring the depth and stretches of contemplativeness that he came to be known for.
In the interim, Mani married Srividya, his neighbour in Triplicane. It was an alliance forced on him by his brothers who were worried he would lose his way as a musician. It was a happy marriage and they had a son and a daughter.
In 1963, he first performed at the Music Academy during the December season to a sellout audience. Since that year, until 1986, he was a permanent fixture at the Academy - on the 25th of December. In that period, he rose from a young cavalier to a senior statesman in the most dignified manner, being accompanied by stalwarts of three generations on the mridangam and the violin. His playback singing for the popular movie Mohanagaanam starring Gemini Ganesan as an alcoholic musician made him a household name.
However, a vague illness in 1986 waylaid him for two years. Again, nobody knew where he was. When he came back, he looked ten years older, and his music had acquired sobriety to the extent of being almost melancholic. In the next ten years, his music remained highly inward looking and probing. The frenzy of the first phase of his career had disappeared completely. It was as if a different musician had emerged. He lost his popularity to a cult status.
In 1997, he suffered a major double-blow. He lost his ancestral Triplicane house in litigation to his cousin, and Srividya passed away. Unable to deal with the loss, and forced out of his home, Mani moved to the US where he lived with his son for three years. The harsh climate and a dislike for the States’ lonely environs brought Mani back to his beloved Chennai. His brother gave Mani a small house in Mylapore where Mani lived with his students till his death.
With his passing, Carnatic music has lost one of its most original and unique voices. It has lost a man who is responsible for ideas that musicians will play with for generations. It has lost its mad scientist.
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Obituary, Sruti Magazine, January, 2010
Reclusive, obscure, magical
Forty years ago, I was at a wedding of a distant relative who worked in the movies when I heard the most magnificent Todi raga alapana of my life. The singer explored the contours of this most mysterious raga for more than an hour, probing each note, each level, each turn. Every now and then, he would go quiet, focus on the drone of the tambura, and unleash ecstatic phrases of incomparable genius. The Todi had everything - those traditional stamp-like gamakas, unusual combinations of swaras and uncharacteristic plain notes. The crowd at the wedding milled around, as ever, listening to snatches of the concert when they got too tired of talking to one another or gawking at the stars that came to the wedding. I don’t know what about that setting inspired him to sing that Todi. It was noisy, the sound system was primitive. It was a Madras summer, and fans were turned off around the stage so as to not disturb the tambura. He was drenched in sweat even before he began. But he sang as if he were in a universe all his own, and that unearthly Todi, like the music of the Gandharvas, did not stand on the strength of the swaras, but on the microtones in between those swaras. It was music for the gods.
His last public concert was at the Vinayakar temple in Besant Nagar on a Thursday November evening. A small crowd, undaunted by the rain, was treated to a lovely ragam-tanam-pallavi in Kedaragowlai. The concert also offered Gowlai, Mayamalavagowlai, Ritigowlai and Kannadagowlai! He finished the concert in a hurry and announced, “My wife is ailing. In the hospital... I shall sing more for you another day...”
Srividya passed away that night, and he never sang publicly again. When my uncle, a close friend of his, asked him about it, he said, “I performed, all these years for her. I can’t anymore...”
Many fans, since, have gone to his house to listen to private concerts. He obliged most people who came to hear him. Sometimes, he called his friends for private music sessions. He would sing with two students, accompanied by two tamburas, for hours together. The biggest musicians of our times attended these concerts, which had no structure, no limits, no plan. Often, he would launch into a raga alapana after the kriti, niraval would be done on three or four lines, the other musicians would join in, pallavis were composed, explored and dissected on the spot. And at the centre of it all was the man himself - lost in his music, striving to understand his art better.
N. V. Mani, NVM to his fans, Mani to his friends, Mama to his students, passed away last evening, almost twelve years after he last performed on stage. Yet, there was a huge gathering at his house - fans, many of whom looked too young to have actually heard him live; students, some of whom barely learnt a song from him; musicians, many of whom he’d fought with; and relatives, who hadn’t cared for him for years. Such was the power of his music. He might have left us, but his music will linger for years.
(The February edition of Sruti will carry the last interview of N. V. Mani - a conversation over four days in November 2009 with Ajith Ramachandran.)
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Ajith stood nervously at the door, waiting for it to open. He had rung the bell four times now. Each time, a tired ring echoed around the house, but no further sounds were heard. The doors and windows on the ground floor were all shut. There was a large lock on the main door, but on closer inspection Ajith found it was not actually locked – the bolt was there only to create an illusion. The house looked uninhabited, almost as if it was under litigation. Even the bicycle in the front verandah looked unusable. A tree had merrily grown right into the portico, and was threatening to consume the entire building with its branches.
He walked around the house, through a garden that had grown, out of disuse and neglect, into a wild, thorny thicket. On the eastern side, he opened a window that was slightly ajar. It seemed light had not penetrated through these walls in months. He peeped in to find a cobwebbed room with a few pieces of broken furniture. There was a wooden stick on the inside, just about reachable from where he was. He picked it up and struck the nearest piece of furniture. It made some noise, but it wasn’t enough to elicit any reaction from whoever was in the house. He screamed into the room, but again, to no avail.
Ajith wondered if the man had forgotten the appointment, or if he had given him the wrong address and started to leave. He barely reached the gate when a voice called him, “Hello! Sir!” Ajith turned around to find a young man, around his age, with a moustache and thick glasses standing at the balcony on the first floor.
“Sruti magazine?” the man asked.
“Wait!” he called out, and disappeared from the balcony, only to appear at the front door and open it. He was wearing only a towel, and his hair was still wet. “I’m so sorry. I was in the bathroom, and Mama can’t walk down the stairs.”
“Oh, no problem...”
“Come in. Mama has been waiting.”
They walked into a sparsely furnished house. There was a wooden bench in the front room, three plastic chairs in the drawing room, and two more in the dining room. “I’m Shankar, Mama’s student...”
“Hello,” he paused, and took off again, “This house is unused. Mama and I live upstairs. He’s not well at all... Doesn’t even have the energy to make trips to the toilet. But he’s very enthusiastic. When T.V. Sankaranarayanan came last evening, they both sang Bhairavi!”
They smiled politely. Shankar led Ajith into a bedroom, where, on a creaking bed, Mani lay, wrapped in a blanket, a smile pasted on his face. Shankar left, presumably to wear some clothes.
“So. You are the kid they’ve sent?”
“Sir, I’m Ajith...”
“They must’ve sent you to get one last interview before I pop it?” he said, still smiling. Ajith turned more nervous than he already was. He managed to mumble, “Sir... No... I was genuinely interested...”
He laughed. Then he said, “Pull up that chair, sit down... I’m being such a bad host.
“I think he is changing,” Ajith said, placing an old wooden chair by the bed.
“I’m so sorry, could you just open the curtains a bit? So dingy in here...” Ajith got up to open the curtains. Mani spoke again, “What does Sruti want to know about me now? Everything is known...”
“Actually, Sruti was not too keen on this story. The editor said they had already done a cover story on you. I wanted to interview you,” Ajith replied, the open curtains letting mid-morning sunlight into the room.
“Let me guess. You’ve heard some old recordings from some website, and you’re a fan or something.”
“No. I read a couple of articles in Ananda Vikatan on your two unexplained disappearances. That interested me.”
Mani laughed. “You’re frank. I like you.”
Ajith seated himself on the chair, and said, “The interview can take a few sittings...”
Mani was still giggling, “I’ll call you whenever I feel up to it. You’ll get whatever you want before I die. Don’t worry.”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, with fictional characters. The names of real persons or institutions including those of musicians and Sruti magazine appearing in it are purely the figment of the author’s imagination included for verisimilitude and have no basis in fact. © MV Swaroop 2012