Tuesday, 31 July 2012



(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)

* * *

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.

* * *

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.)

* * *

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...”

“Ajith Ramachandran.”

“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

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835)

Born on 24 March 1775 at Tiruvarur to Ramaswami Dikshitar and Subbamma, was the youngest of the three great composers hailing from his home town who went on to be celebrated as the Trinity of Carnatic music.

Named after the temple deity, Muttukumaraswamy of the Vaitheeswaran temple, Dikshitar had two younger brothers Baluswami and Chinnaswami and a sister Balambal.

Belonging to the priestly Dikshitar tradition, Muthuswami learnt Sanskrit, the Vedas, and other religious texts, and music from his father, who was an accomplished musician and composer, besides discharging administrative duties at the Tiruvarur temple.

While he was still in his teens, Muttuswami’s father sent him on a pilgrimage with Chidambaranatha Yogi, a wandering yogi, to learn both music and philosophy. The duo visited many places in north India before settling down for a long stay at Kasi. Dikshitar’s eclectic sweep of thought as reflected in his grand compositions was a result of the north Indian sojourn.

His five years at Kasi exposed Dikshitar to dhrupad, India’s ancient form of classical music. Many of his slow songs known for their grandeur and relatively straight notes show a remarkable resemblance to the dhrupad tradition.

A Srividya upasaka, or follower of the cult of devi worship, Dikshitar was a deeply religious person and mystic, who visited several temples and composed songs in praise of the deities there in a spontaneous expression of his devotion. Thus most of his compositions are marked by a deep sense of reverence and calm. Trained in veena playing, he developed a combination of the vocal and instrumental styles in his compositions—around 500 in number—marked by rich gamaka, a majestic gait, and a general preference for the chauka kala. He employed the signature Guruguha.

Muttuswami Dikshitar taught the four dance masters from Tanjavur who came to be known as the Tanjore Quartet. Dikshitar passed on to them the 72-mela-raga tradition of Venkatamakhi, which (unlike Tyagaraja), he followed. Sivanandam, Ponnayya, Chinnayya and Vadivelu were the star foursome who spread the Muttuswami Dikshitar legacy all over the south.

Evidently fond of Mayamalavagaula, Dikshitar composed several songs in such ragas. and ragas derived from it. Many of his songs were in Sanskrit, and were of the samashti charana variety, opening with a pallavi, eschewing the middle section or anupallavi, and ending in the samashti charana section. His songs can be divided into several groups, with the major Guruguha group including such sections as the Kamalamba Navavarna kritis and Navagraha kritis. He composed as many as 26 songs in praise of Vinayaka or Ganapati.

During his travels, Muttuswami Dikshitar was fascinated by the music of the British military band, which he heard at Madras, and inspired by them he created some 40 songs, of which 36 have survived as nottu swara sahitya. Some of the songs are set to familiar English numbers like God Save the King, but are odes to Hindu deities, including Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Some of these songs are taught as early lessons to students of Carnatic music.

Baluswami Dikshitar is credited with adapting the violin to Carnatic music, which was further popularised by Vadivelu. The descendants of Baluswami Dikshitar are said to be responsible for keeping alive the Dikshitar sishya parampara.

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Syama Sastri (1762 to 1827)

Syama Sastri was the oldest of the Trinity of Carnatic music. He never met Muttuswami Dikshitar, it seems from available records, though there are accounts of Syama Sastri and Tyagaraja singing together and their friendship. The least prolific of the triad of composers, Syama Sastri is best known for his three magnificent swarajatis—a form of song said to be derived from the jatiswaram of dance music—in the ragas Bhairavi, Todi and Yadukulakambhoji.

Unsurprisingly these three moving compositions, the very epitome of their ragas, are in praise of the goddess Kamakshi, for Syama Sastri was a hereditary priest in the Bangaru Kamakshi temple.

Born Venkatasubrahmanya, to Viswanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi on April 26, 1762 in a Tamil brahmin family at the temple town of Tiruvarur, the child soon began to be called Syamakrishna, the signature he was to adopt as a composer.

Syama Sastri learnt devotional songs and Sanskrit and Telugu from his father and became proficient in these disciplines at a very early age. Showing an aptitude for music, he started informal lessons from members of the family who were musically inclined. He was well into his teens when he came under the tutelage of Paccimiriyam Adiyappayya, court musician in Tanjavur and composer of the Bhairavi ata tala varnam, Viriboni.

Over the years, Syama Sastri became a well-known musician, scholar and composer. Of the 300 or so kritis credited to him only about 50 have survived. He composed mainly in Telugu, but also in Sanskrit and Tamil. Most of his compositions are in well known ragas, though he is regarded as the creator of the raga Chintamani. His composition Devibrova samayamide is perhaps the only song ever composed in in the raga. Syama Sastri revelled in dotting his songs with swarakshara—solfa notes that coincide with the syllables of the lyrics, as in the word sari (sa-ri), which means right or yes.

Sastri also composed a few songs in rare ragas like Manji, Kalagada and Karnataka Kapi. A specialist in rakti ragas or ragas amenable to slow, elaborate exposition. His compositions in Saveri and Anandabhairavi are particularly evocative, soaked as they are equally in musicality and emotion. Sastri is said to be responsible for the evolution of the raga Anandabhairavi to its present shape.

Syama Sastri’s compositions were replete with rhythmic sophistication and five-syllable words corresponding to the rhythmic phrase ta din gi na tom. His kriti-s make abundant use of the tala Misra chapu, but some of them also feature dual rhythms. In this aspect of composition he was perhaps unique among the great composers of Carnatic music. He left behind manuscripts of complex rhythmic patterns.

Syama Sastri led a quiet priestly life. While one of his sons, Panju Sastri, is said to have carried on the hereditary tradition of priestly work, another son, Subbaraya Sastri, a disciple of Tyagaraja, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a composer of repute.

Friday, 27 July 2012



By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

 (Continued from blog post on 26 July 2012)
‘I looked around me. On all four sides of the hall, people had packed themselves to stand like solid walls. Quite by accident, my eyes fell upon a face right at the back and in a corner. It was partly hidden by a huge makeshift turban covering half the forehead. A pair of big green-tinted spectacles indicated that the wearer suffered from some ailment of the eye. For some reason I found my own glance and attention repeatedly returning to that face. I became less attentive to the music. I wondered to whom the face belonged. Somehow he seemed familiar…

‘In a flash I knew the truth. My whole body began to quake in a panic. I had a premonition of impending disaster. Since I was sitting at the back, it was easy for me to get up and make my way behind the row of standing listeners to where the man with the green glasses stood.

‘The concert was over. The man made a swift exit from the assembly, ahead of the others. I followed him. As soon as we came out of the temple and reached a quiet spot I grabbed his hands and exclaimed, “What’s this! Why the disguise?”

‘Gopalsami Mudaliar flung my hands off. But when he saw who I was, he burst into bitter speech. “Yes, Kandappa, yes. It is a disguise. The whole world is in disguise. Didn’t you see how your dear sister had disguised herself today? She had worn a different disguise before this!”

“No, you don’t know all the circumstances. Bhavani told me this was her last concert. That is why she sang like one possessed,” I tried to calm him down.

‘“Kandappa, are you trying to fool me? You think I am an innocent child? Fantastic music! Fabulous concert…! How did she have the heart to do it? God willed the train crash only to open my eyes!”

‘To change the subject, I fired questions at him. “Certainly it was God himself who brought you back safe and sound. Tell me about this miracle. Why did the news report make such a mistake! How did you escape from the accident! Where were you all these days!”

‘“I will give you all the details later. Enough to make a novel. By God’s grace, I was saved at death’s door. For ten days I lay unconscious in the hospital. Then I saw my name included in the death list published in the old newspapers. I wished to see people’s reactions to my death, especially of those who swore they would jump into the funeral pyre with me. How would they have taken it! That’s why I came dressed like this. Now I have seen it all,” said he with revulsion.

‘We had been walking on the street as we talked. “Forget all those things. But where do you intend to go now?” I asked him.

‘“Why, I’m going there. Don’t think I will thrash her or kill her. I shall merely congratulate her on her stunning performance and go away. That’s all. If you like, you can come along and watch,” said Gopalsami Mudaliar.

‘So we walked together to Bhavani’s house. Her horse-drawn carriage stood outside. She was home. I wanted to go in alone and prepare her. But Gopalsami Mudaliar would not allow it. He shoved me aside and strode into the room first. As we entered, we saw Bhavani with a cup of milk held to her lips. When she saw the man with the huge turban and green glasses, she stood rooted to the spot in amazement. Mudaliar removed his glasses and turban. I saw a terrible change come over her face. My heart stopped beating.

‘I don’t know for how long the three of us remained transfixed. I came to only when I saw Bhavani crumple and collapse on the floor. Gopalsami was there before me. He lifted her and put her on his lap. For a few minutes I looked helplessly around. Then I ran to fetch the doctor. When I returned with the doctor there was no doubt about it. It was half an hour since Bhavani had breathed her last.’

Kandappa Pillai broke off at this point. He had narrated the whole story with so much feeling and lucidity, it seemed every incident was taking place right before our eyes. I was deeply moved. I was silent for a while. There was nothing to say.

Then I remembered where our conversation had begun. And I said, ‘So Bhavani was petrified because she mistook the sudden appearance of Gopalsami Mudaliar for his ghost. What did you do after that!’

‘What more could we do! I got the doctor to write out a certificate of death caused by sudden shock. Gopalsami Mudaliar and I performed the final rites. Poor man, there was no end to his grief,’

‘Did the Mudaliar realize at least then that Bhavani’s love had remained pure and untarnished? Did he come to value the depth of her feelings for him?’ I asked.

‘How could he know? Even though he grieved for her, he also believed that Bhavani had died from shock, knowing that he had seen through her deception. His distrust was mitigated somewhat when he learnt that Bhavani had left her wealth and property to his children. Her will was with her lawyer.’

‘Really!’ I exclaimed in surprise. I could see from the expression on Kandappa Pillai’s face that there was more to come.

‘Things had followed their natural course. Why did you then have to get a doctor’s certificate?’ I asked.

As a safeguard against police harassment which is usual in such cases of sudden death. That’s all. I didn’t tell Gopalsami Mudaliar the truth. Only the doctor and I knew,’ said he.

I thought there was still something left to be told. ‘What was the real cause of death?’ I asked.
‘It is more than twenty-five years since it happened. I don’t suppose there is any harm in disclosing the truth now. Didn’t I run behind Mudaliar when Bhavani fell to the floor? I noticed a letter on the teapoy, lying beside the cup she had drunk from. Seeing my name on it, I quickly snatched it and tucked it out of sight. I read it under the street lamp when I went to fetch the doctor. Here it is,’ said Kandappa Pillai and gave me a letter. The paper was old and frayed. The script, written in a beautiful hand, had dimmed with age. It said:

My dear Kandappa Anna,

I don’t wish to live without the man I love more than my life. Today I perform my last concert. I have powdered the diamonds from the ring he gifted to me with such tender affection. I will swallow that powder as soon as I return from the concert. I have bequeathed half my property to the temple and the other half to his children. My will is with Advocate—Iyer. Please forgive me if I do wrong. I cannot live without him.



I read that letter two or three times and asked, ‘Why didn’t you show it to Gopalsami Mudaliar?’

‘What’s the use of telling him about it? He was already a man shattered. If he had known about the letter, he too might have taken his life. Or he might have ceased to have any attachment for his wife and children. Why cause the break-up of a family? No, I did not tell him the truth.’

After a pause Kandappa Pillai got up and took his leave of me. I returned the letter to him.

He opened the front door and went away. The breeze blew cold. The black sky drizzled softly.


(Reproduced from Kalki Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin India, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Critic, know thyself

(From the blogosphere)

Theatre critic, playwright, and author George Hunka wrote a piece on his blog Superfluities Redux titled The Complete Critic’s Qualifications reiterating theatre critic Harold Clurman’s 1964 list of the so-called “12 commandments” for theatre and drama critics and comments.

These 12 commandments were modified and published in another blog Sounds and Fury, as equally valid for classical music and opera critics.

According to the blog post, besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of all classical musics:
  1. The critic should know the greater part of historical and contemporary classical music as written and performed. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
  2. He should know the history of classical music from its origins to the present.
  3. He should have a long and broad concert- and opera-going experience — of native and foreign ensembles.
  4. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, theater, architecture and the dance.
  5. He should have worked in classical music organizations in some capacity (apart from criticism).
  6. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
  7. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
  8. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
  9. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
  10. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
  11. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
  12. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff.
Comments are welcome!



By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

 (Continued from blog post on 25 July 2012)

‘Once while attending the temple festival at Tumbaivanam, I called at Mudaliar’s home. His wife belonged to a village close to Iyampettai. I knew her well. Poor thing! She was plunged in misery. “Kandappa, that Poonthottam bitch is the cause of all our misfortunes,” she wept. I felt extremely sorry for her. I deplored the existence of the devadasi community. I resolved to make known to Bhavani the deep-seated anger I felt the next time I went to Tiruvarur.

‘But when I saw Bhavani’s condition, all hostile thoughts vanished. She was grief personified. She repeatedly blamed herself for Gopalsami’s tribulations. I had to console her by reiterating that it was not her fault at all; there was nothing she could do about it.

‘“Anna! I tell him to cut off all connections with his land, house and property and to make his permanent home here. But he doesn’t listen to me. Can’t you persuade him? It has become a daily ritual for him to go to court every morning! Why should he get involved in all these legal hassles when four generations can live off the property we have here? Who else is there to enjoy it all?” said Bhavani.

‘“Talk sense, Thangachi, he’s a man, isn’t he? Doesn’t he have some self-respect? Will he run away from home and town simply because people create problems for him? Even if he agrees to your proposal, what about his wife and children?” I reproved her.

‘After this Bhavani would ask me frequently about his wife and children.

‘I spoke my mind to Bhavani’s mother. “Why invite notoriety? Throughout the district, gossip has it that Bhavani is bringing a respectable family to ruin.”

‘“Let the people talk. It would be a great sin to separate them. If that happens, my daughter will not stay alive.”

‘“How many people have mouthed the same dialogue? Haven’t we heard it all?” I shrugged.

‘“You don’t know Bhavani’s nature,” was her answer.

‘Then I enquired about the state of their relationship. Was it just as stormy as before? I learnt that Bhavani’s personality had undergone a total transformation. She was now the image of tranquillity. In direct contrast, Gopalsami Mudaliar had become highly temperamental. Moreover, he was tormented by jealous doubts. I was surprised by the vicissitudes of human nature. Why should Bhavani love a man so dearly and without any cause or compulsion? That a man should doubt a woman who gave him heartfelt devotion of her own accord aroused my anger and aversion. I went quietly away. I had no wish to get involved further.

‘For about a year after that, personal problems kept me busy and I could not visit Tiruvarur. I did go once to offer my condolences to Bhavani when her mother died. I stopped going there because I felt I should not become embroiled in what was really no business of mine.

‘But I did often hear that things were going from bad to worse for Tumbaivanam Mudaliar. They said he would become bankrupt if he lost the case then being heard in the Madras High Court.

‘It was also at that time that we heard the report of a terrible train accident. The train had derailed between Vizhupuram and Kudalur. Three compartments had been reduced to debris. Forty or fifty persons had died on the spot. I had been an avid reader of the newspapers even in those days. Anxiously did I await the arrival of the Swadesamitran to follow the details of the dreadful accident. A list of the names of those who had perished was published the day after the accident. Imagine my feelings when I came across Tumbaivanam Mudaliar’s name there. It was Poonthottam Bhavani who came immediately to mind. The poor girl was stranded, alone in the world, losing both her mother and her lover within the same year. What would happen to her now?

‘I also thought of Gopalsami Mudaliar’s wife and children. Poor things! All their wealth had been lost in fighting legal battles. Would they now be reduced to utter penury?

‘I had to go to Mannargudi the week after. From there I made a trip to Tumbaivanam. I couldn’t bear to see Mudaliar’s wife. She was totally crushed by despair. The children were a pitiful sight. Luckily, their grandfather and grandmother had come from their village to take care of the children and to console the mother. “What to do, my dear?” they told her. “You have to accept your destiny. For the sake of the children you must take hold of yourself and carry on with life.” They made sure she did not starve herself. I too did my best to put some heart into her before I left.

‘After meeting them, I felt the urge to visit Bhavani as well. I went straight to Tiruvarur. It was with great trepidation that I made my way to her house. How could I bear to see her drowned in grief? How would I find the words to speak to her, much less condole with her?

‘But when I saw Bhavani my anxieties were dispelled. Because she was neither tear-stained nor confined to her bed as I expected and feared. No agonized shrieks when she saw me. She appeared quiet normal. She even welcomed my eagerly.

‘Did I say my anxieties were dispelled? Yes, they were. But I also felt deep disappointment. Finally the world was proved right in upbraiding the devadasi community for its callousness. What a tremendous contrast between the wails of the wedded wife and this casual welcoming of chance visitors!

‘I did not reveal my true feelings. I offered routine words of sympathy, more to discharge my duty than for anything else. As I took my leave of her Bhavani said, “Anna! I am going to give a concert before the sanctum of the goddess in the temple, on Friday evening during the Navaratri festival. You must come to hear me.”

‘I was flabbergasted. A concert? So soon? “Thangachi, do you have to perform this year? Can’t you wait till next year?” I asked her.

‘“No, Anna, I had agreed to give that concert. They have printed my name in the festival invitation. I don’t want to back out now.”

‘My indignation was directed at both Bhavani and the temple trustees.

‘“I will come if I can,” I replied.

‘“Don’t say that, Anna! This may be my last concert. You must certainly be there.”

‘My heart melted at these words. “Why do you say that? Whatever happens, your music must continue to grow and flourish.” I left, promising to attend the concert. ‘I did go to Tiruvarur on the Friday during Navaratri as I had promised. I reached her house just as she was setting out for the concert. I was stunned to see her magnificently dressed in silks and jewels. She looked like a bride about to enter the wedding hall.

‘Bhavani was endowed with great natural beauty. Adorned as she was, she seemed a celestial nymph. Had Rambha, Urvashi, Menaka or Tilottama left the heavens and come down to the earth? But I cannot tell you how that vision tormented me.

‘“Anna, so you did come!” Bhavani smiled at me.

‘I was outraged. But I answered with outward calm, “Yes, Thangachi, I did.”

“Anna, I had been expecting you since morning. Never mind. You must come straight home after the concert. It is about a crucial matter. You must not let me down.”

“All right, Thangachi!”

‘“I swear it on your head. It is important. You must not fail me,” said she and got into her carriage.

‘I had never heard Bhavani talk in this manner. Clearly something significant was afoot. I went to the temple in a thoughtful mood.

‘I have heard any number of concerts in my life. I have heard famous musicians, both men and women. But never have I heard anything like the concert Bhavani gave at the temple on that Navaratri Friday. Her voice was as mellifluous as honey. Nectar flowed from the strings of the veena when her fingers plucked them. But there was something in it above and beyond the allure of melody and musicianship. It evoked the pain of an incredible sweetness. There was pin-drop silence in the assembly. You couldn’t even hear the sounds of breathing. Nor were there the usual cries of appreciation-”Aahl”, “Bhesh”, “Shabash!” The crowd savoured her divine music as if bound by a spell of enchantment.

‘Finally when Bhavani sang the lines of the Tiruvachakam “Paal ninaindootum taayinum saala parindu…” in the ragam Kambhoji, I looked at the figure of the Divine Mother inside the sanctum. I was surprised that her stone image did not melt as she listened to Bhavani’s song. I thought I saw teardrops in the eyes of the goddess. I wiped my own eyes, chiding myself for yielding to such hallucinations.

(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999) 
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Umayalpuram K Sivaraman (born 17 December 1935)

He is an undoubted leader among some of the greatest percussion artists known to the world of classical music. His wizardry on the mridangam has enhanced the quality of Carnatic music cutcheris of at least three generations of artists, and continues to do so with the latest crop of young musicians. He is among the most decorated practitioners of his art, with the Sangita Kalanidhi and the Padma Bhushan the most prestigious honours of his career.

Umayalpuram K Sivaraman was born to Dr P Kasi Viswanatha Iyer and Kamalambal at Kumbakonam, where the family had moved from Umayalpuram, a village in the Kaveri delta and home to several musicians during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A medical doctor, Kasi Viswanatha Iyer counted a number of musicians among his patients and was a vocalist and violinist himself—a disciple of a disciple of Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, guru to many greats including nagaswaram maestro TN Rajaratnam Pillai.

The doctor’s residence constantly reverberated with the sound of music, provided by Viswanatha Iyer’s clientele and other musicians. It was hardly surprising that Sivaraman showed a keen interest in music even as a child. The soirees on the balcony of the house had one regular listener in little Sivaraman, whose constant drumming led to his grandmother buying him a khanjira. With his father actively encouraging Sivaraman’s interest in percussion, the boy soon graduated to a bigger instrument in the mridangam.

Sivaraman was unusually fortunate in the way his mridanga career was shaped by parents and circumstances. In time he had four great and illustrious teachers in Arupathi Natesa Iyer, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer, and Kumbakonam Rangu Iyengar, and enjoyed extensive exposure to the traditional gurukulam system for over 15 years.

Natesa Iyer taught Sivaraman for the first seven years. At age ten, the boy had his arangetram at the Kalahastiswara Swami temple at Kumbakonam, accompanying Srinivasa or Sona Iyengar (vocal) and Vedaranyam Krishnamurthy Iyer (violin). His next guru Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, the father of the Tanjavur school of mridangam playing, approved the early training Sivaraman had received from Natesa Iyer, and took Sivaraman to new heights of learning, “opening the floodgates of knowledge” in Sivaraman’s own words.

When Vaidyanatha Iyer died in April 1948, Sivaraman was again fortunate enough to be accepted by another great master: Palghat TS Mani Iyer, while a student at the Ramakrishna Mission school at Madras. Sivaraman never forgot his father’s advice that he must be an intelligent listener of music, asking questions and introspecting at once. He observed Mani Iyer’s mridangam playing carefully and internalised his unique strokes and fingering technique. This quality in the young student greatly impressed the teacher who let him return to Kumbakonam with his blessings. Dr Viswanatha Iyer once again made a wise intervention by deputing Sivaraman to Rangu Iyengar of nearby village Saakottai, for advanced training in accompaniment for pallavi rendering.

Sivaraman made steady, even rapid, progress as a concert mridanga vidwan, accompanying many great artists even before he turned 15. The impressive list included the names of Embar Vijayaraghavachari, Sathur Subramaniam, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Madurai Mani Iyer.

Recovering from the big blow of his mother’s death when he was barely 16, Sivaraman resumed training with Palghat Mani Iyer, then living at Tanjavur, but soon moved to Madras following his guru’s advice, to launch his concert career properly.

The move to Madras in 1951 brought not only concert opportunities but also vocal lessons from Kallidaikurichi Mahadeva Bhagavatar and the generosity of several young musicians who sang for him at home to enable him to practise accompaniment. These included PS Narayanaswami, VR Krishnan, Chingleput Ranganathan, AIR Kannan and Palghat Subramania Iyer.

All along, Sivaraman, was gaining a formal education, completing his BA and BL degrees, while expanding his knowledge of music theory under the guidance of another generous soul—Sivasubramaniya Ayya, a violinist who had once accompanied Bangalore Nagaratnammal.

His mind made up by now, Sivaraman focused entirely on his mridangam career, and developing an original new technique that enabled him to the most musical sounds with his instrument, he became one of the most sought after accompanists of all time, arguably the greatest exponent of his art after the Mani Iyer-Palani era.

In his long and distinguished career, he has accompanied almost every artist of note—Ariyakudi, Musiri, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, \Chowdiah, Rajamanickam Pillai, Papa Venkataramiah, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Santhanam, Alathur Brothers, Chembai, Semmangudi, Balamuralikrishna, Nedunuri, Voleti, Balachander, Mali, and almost every young vidwan of today—not to mention some of tomorrow, if we include the number of child prodigies he encourages on stage.

Sivaraman is well known for his research in the art of mridangam, and his lecture demonstrations in India and abroad. He is also a fine teacher in the forefront of propagating the Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer school of percussion. He has written extensively on his art, with special attention to tani avartanam.



By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

(Continued from blog post on 24 July 2012)

‘Bhavani’s mother did take every care of her daughter. Yet misfortune could not be averted.

‘Bhavani’s mother Poonthottam Brahadambal had inherited the great wealth of many generations. She was also famous for her virtuous conduct. She had a relationship with a single man of distinguished status. She was like a chaste wife to him. When he died, she turned her mind to God and to acts of piety.

‘The daughter had the same qualities. She came to the stage with the sacred ash on her forehead. She sang nothing but songs of devotion. Elaborate ritual worship was offered daily in their home. Even wagging tongues declared that Bhavani was lost in a spiritual quest.

‘Brahadambal wished to get her daughter married to a respectable man. But Bhavani insisted that she had vowed to remain single, and like the saint-poet Andal, she too would find her refuge only in the feet of the Lord.

‘Neither mother nor daughter realized her ambition. Things went awry, all because of a few casual words spoken by one man to another.

‘Once, when Bhavani concluded her concert at the Tiruvarur temple and was about to get into her coach, she happened quite by chance to overhear a man talking to his friend as they walked past her. “You keep harping on her music! Never mind the music. What about her looks, the charm that oozes from her face?”

‘When Bhavani heard this, she couldn’t help bursting into laughter. The speaker turned to see who laughed. He was embarrassed to find Bhavani standing close by. Bhavani got into her coach quickly and drove away.

‘Well, this turned out to be fateful. Why should that particular man have spoken just those words in the dark as Bhavani was getting into her carriage? Why should his remarks have fallen on her ears?

‘As soon as Bhavani went home, she asked her mother why she had forgotten to pack her handkerchief for the concert that day. The mother was silent, dismissing it as a meaningless query.

‘“It was very stuffy in the hall. I perspired all the time,” explained Bhavani. “But listen to this, Amma, my face was dripping with sweat. A man who saw it thought I oozed charm!” she laughed. Later mother and daughter would often narrate this incident to me. But what began in fun and laughter ended in disaster.

‘I knew the man. He was a landowner in a village called Tumbaivanam near Mannargudi. Gopalsami Mudaliar was quite young. In fact I had played the tavil at his wedding. He had been married for five or six years when Bhavani saw him. He had children as well.

‘Fate decided to bring him and Bhavani together. I don’t know how they met again, or how their relationship grew. When fate ordains something, it also clears the way. It was rumoured that Bhavani had strayed from her spiritual quest. And Tumbaivanam Gopalsami Mudaliar’s name came to be bandied about throughout Thanjavur district.

‘These rumours brought me little comfort. You know my views. I believe that the perpetuation of the devadasi community and profession is a social evil which must be totally abolished. Why should things have taken such a turn? Couldn’t Bhavani have entered into a respectable marriage? I felt very sorry for Gopalsami Mudaliar’s wife and children. More than ever I became anxious that this connection would have an adverse effect on Bhavani’s divine music.

‘Thank God, that did not happen, Gopalsami Mudaliar was a true connoisseur. He was also extremely proud of Bhavani’s musical gifts. Well do I remember what he said to me once. “The Creator did not make Bhavani as he made other human beings. He has shaped her out of Kalyani and Mohanam and Senjurutti. Wait and see. When Bhavani dies, her body will melt and waft away into ragams.”

‘“That may be,” I answered him. “But you and I won’t see it. Bhavani will sing for many years after our time.”

‘God has not given us the power to see into the future. If he had, would there be any sorrow in the world? Or joy for that matter?

‘Yes, I was describing Bhavani’s music. It scaled newer peaks. But to my ears accustomed to her style, many surprising changes were discernible. One concert was not like another. One day the melody would swell in exhilaration. You could hear in it the gladness of bird song welcoming the dawn. And the joyous clamour of the waves as they rose to greet the full moon. On other occasions, the listener’s heart was filled with melancholy without cause. The poignant wail of the child torn from its mother and the devotee’s anguished cry for the Lord were alike audible in that music. You wondered if she played on the strings of the veena or on the heart strings of the listeners.

‘At first I found this puzzling and mysterious. Slowly I understood something of the matter.

‘What we term love and affection are inexplicable phenomena. What do human beings attain through love? Pain? Joy? Indescribable misery? Immeasurable rapture?

‘Whatever I heard about Bhavani and Tumbaivanam Mudaliar raised these questions in my mind. It was impossible to say whether they had more days of happiness together or spent their time in suffering and squabbles. Her mother told me she thought Bhavani was bewitched. Sometimes she would snarl at everyone and throw a tantrum over trifles. She would shout and scream. Or alternately, she would sit still for hours, her face unwashed, hair uncombed…

At other times her behaviour was exactly the opposite. She would adorn herself splendidly and indulge in excited laughter. When I heard all this I understood somewhat the reasons for the changes in her music. Therefore, when her mother asked me if she should call an exorcist to come and talee a look at Bhavani, I had no hesitation in answering her, “You don’t need chants and spells. In a little while, everything will be all right.”

‘Two or three years went by. In that period Tumbaivanam Mudaliar’s financial affairs became a mess. His enemies increased in number. It was to be expected that many rich landowners would have their eyes on Bhavani. Now they ganged together and vowed to destroy Gopalsami Mudaliar.

‘At first it was a court case in connection with the temple committee. Gopalsami Mudaliar was one of the three trustees of the temple. Not content with excluding Mudaliar from the committee’s transactions, the other trustees insulted him in public during the temple festival. The enraged Gopalsami went to court.

‘That was the beginning of a whole chain of civil and criminal cases in which he became involved. The neighbouring landlords and aristocrats were determined to bring Gopalsami to ruin. Gopalsami’s debts mounted day by day. Every year, he sold yet another piece of land.”

(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

Tuesday, 24 July 2012



By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

It was around nine o’clock at night. Black clouds filled the sky. There was a slight drizzle. In the dim light of the shaded street lamps, the sky seemed to be shedding tears from a sorrow too deep for words.

I simply couldn’t bear the gloomy sight. I came into the house. My mind was sunk in dejection. I shut the windows against both aggravations and switched the lights on. I picked up a book, hoping that it would bring about a change of mood.

Readers may wish to know why I felt depressed. Aren’t there reasons galore for depression? The state of the world and of the country can furnish any number of reasons for low spirits. As if these were not enough, a report in the evening newspaper exhausted whatever reserves of zest I may have had.

There had been a train accident somewhere between Kudalur and Chidambaram. Having left Egmore last night, the Boat Mail had met with a serious accident. The cause was yet unknown. But the city heard several versions of the story. The official explanation was that the tracks had been washed away in a sudden and heavy downpour. Rumour had it that someone had deliberately sabotaged the tracks because a high-ranking official of the Railways was travelling by the train. There were endless rumours about the numbers of the dead.

I was not as badly shaken by the news that a hundred, maybe even two hundred, persons had met their deaths in the accident. But I felt as if the train had crashed right over me when I scanned the long death list and came across a certain name.

Readers may remember Iyampettai Kandappan. He was the tavil player who had told me the story of the nagaswaram maestro Sivakozhundu. Seeing his name among the dead hit me hard.

For God has made us like that. We don’t react when we hear of twenty thousand people dying in a volcanic eruption in America. Yet we feel miserable when we hear of the death of someone we know personally.

Should Iyampettai Kandappan have met such a tragic end? What a wonderful man he was! What a patriot! So good and conscientious! With such affection for his friends! A true connoisseur!

The sound of a horse cab halting in front of my house disturbed my reflections. ‘Who can it be at this hour?’ I wondered with some distaste. My mind was in no fit state for me to receive anyone.

A second later the front door was opened. I wouldn’t have been more astounded if I had found Adolf Hitler or General Tojo on my doorstep. For the man who stood there was none other than Iyampettai Kandappan.

‘Don’t be afraid! It is I myself in the flesh, not my ghost!’ When I heard Kandappan’s voice, amazement turned to overwhelming delight.

‘Welcome, welcome!’ I cried as I took him by the hand and made him take a seat.

‘What happened? How did you manage to escape from the train accident? I was terribly upset to see your name in the newspaper. How could they make such a mistake? Shame on them!’ I went on and on in excitement.

‘Thank God I didn’t board that train! I had reserved my seat in advance. My tavil and luggage had been loaded on to the compartment but I myself reached the station two minutes after the train had left. I was lucky…’

‘Your name must have been on the passengers’ list. Seeing that and your tavil, the press obviously decided to send you straight to heaven!’

‘I think so.’

‘Won’t your people be worried? Why didn’t you go home today?’ I asked him.

‘I’ve sent them a telegram. I thought I should give you a fright before I went home.’

‘You tried to scare me?’

‘Yes. Didn’t you frighten us in the same manner in one of your stories? This is my revenge.’

‘Such things can happen in stories. Not in real life,’ I said.

‘You are completely wrong,’ Kandappan averred.

‘How can you be so absolutely sure of that?’

‘Because I have seen such a thing happen in real life.’

‘What thing?’

‘Danger arose because a man presumed dead made a sudden appearance.’

‘What kind of danger?’

‘Danger to life.’

I knew then that Kandappan had come with the specific intent of relating an interesting incident.

‘Tell me all about it, I’d love to hear it. My mind is very unsettled today. I feel extremely depressed. Perhaps, if I listen to your story…’

‘…This is not a story to arouse enthusiasm. It is steeped in grief. Perhaps we’ll keep it for another day…’

‘Not at all. You must listen to a sad story especially when you feel depressed. So tell me now…’

Kandappa Pillai began all his tales with a question. He made no exception this time. He cleared his throat in preparation and asked me, ‘Do you recall having heard of Poonthottam Bhavani?’

I recognized the name but as if through the mists of a previous birth. I remembered having listened to two or three gramophone ‘plates’ by her. But Kandappa Pillai did not wait for me to prod my memory any further. He went on.

‘Thirty years ago, Poonthottam Bhavani was a celebrated name. She was also known as Veenai Bhavani. When she sang with the veena on her lap, it was as if the goddess Saraswati herself donned a human form and appeared before us. You could compare her voice only to the ringing resonance of the veena’s string when her fingers plucked it. The sound she evoked from the veena found its match only in her voice. Her concerts were held before assemblies of thousands of people who listened in rapt silence. They lost themselves in her music.

‘Bhavani performed frequently in temples, particularly at the Tiruvarur temple during festival time. Nowadays we see atheism gaining ground. Rationalists’ movements and Self-Respect movements are making things worse for the world. On top of all this, we have the advent of cinema. There are very few left who will conduct temple festivals with care and solicitude.

‘But in those days people found their enjoyment only in the rituals and festivities connected to the temples. From twenty miles around people would throng in multitudes to attend them.

‘At festival time music concerts were held in the kalyana mandapam of the temple. Every concert drew capacity crowds, but Poonthottam Bhavani’s recitals broke all records. “As great a crowd as at Poonthottam Bhavani’s concerts” became a common phrase of the times.

‘You can imagine the din and racket at such colossal gatherings. But Bhavani’s fingers had only to touch the strings, she had only to raise her head slightly and align her sweet voice to their pitch. The noise subsided at once. As Bhavani’s mellifluous voice, accompanied by the veena’s resonance rose, and the audience fell silent, there was a hint of other-worldly magic.

‘I never missed a chance to attend Bhavani’s concerts. And I did often get to hear her. I found that Bhavani’s concerts were also held at many of the weddings and temple functions to which I was invited in my professional capacity. Tears would come to my eyes whenever I listened to her music. I would drop my head down, pretending to have a headache, so that the others did not laugh at my response. You ask me the reason for those tears? I don’t know myself. Were they tears of bliss? Or evoked by fears that so marvellous an outpouring may be short-lived? Can such music last long? Can the world bear such divine ecstasy? A few others would worry about the effects of the evil eye on the artiste. I invariably went to meet Bhavani after every concert and told her, “Thangachi, ask your mother to take some ritual precautions against the evil eye.”

(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

Sunday, 22 July 2012


By MV Swaroop

Anna was surprisingly tense. He had given at least 200 concerts before, including far more important ones, but he was edgy all morning. He tuned and re-tuned his mridangam every fifteen minutes, until even he couldn’t tell the difference between the sound before and after the tuning. He then took to ironing his veshti with a vengeance. The dhobi had done a stellar job, but Anna wasn’t satisfied. He had chosen a kurta on the previous day - something he’d never done before - but that morning, he decided to fish another one out. This one was crumpled. So, it was taken to the dhobi again and ironed under Anna’s personal supervision.

“Is your girlfriend coming to the kutcheri?” Appa asked tactlessly. Anna answered with a scowl. Then, he purposefully walked out of the house, returned in two minutes, unearthed his first mridangam book and read some very fundamental rhythms with nervous concentration.

I sat quietly with the newspaper through all the drama - the Sunday Crossword in the Hindu was always hard.

Suddenly Anna asked me, “Are you coming to the kutcheri?”

“Who’re you playing for?”


“Oh. Is he good?”

“Yeah. Why do you ask?”

“No, you seem nervous...”

“I-I-I... I’m not nervous!”

“No, the thing is, you’re revising some basics and all. I just thought you were playing for someone big.”

“I always revise!”

That was a lie, but there was no use in pointing it out to him in this mood. I went back to my crossword. I hate it when the Sunday Crossword requires you to know the names of port towns to the east of Essex. Or wait, maybe “east” was “e” and Essex was... Curious and Curiouser. I stared on.

Lunch was served. Anna ate nothing. Appa and I had a cursory discussion on clues in the crossword. Amma, who just returned from her sister’s house gave us a detailed report on our cousin’s lives. One hadn’t done well in his semester exams, a cause for worry for everyone, and the other had rejected the fourth “boy” who came to see her.

Amma suddenly asked Anna, “This Avi is a nice boy, no?”

Anna distractedly said, “Yeah.”

“What gotram?”

“Ma, I’m not his horoscoper!”

“Is that even a word?” I asked.

“Poor chores are future-tellers!” Appa declared.

I laughed.

Anna muttered something and left the table. Amma was about to get up to console him, when Appa said, “Leave him alone.”

Lunch resumed. “Poor chores! Too much, Pa!” Appa’s speed with anagrams always amazed me.

“Dai, forty years of solving the crossword...”

Just then, Anna stormed into the dining room, picked up his bike keys from the table, and charged out purposefully.

“Where are you going?” Amma asked.

“Need to buy some stuff.”


“Hair gel.”

“What?!” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

“There’s coconut oil in my cupboard. Use that,” Appa said, and added softly, “Gel spoils your hair.”

“Leave him alone,” said Amma this time.

The sound of the door banging was following by the roar of Anna’s bike.

The three of us settled down into a bad afternoon movie on Sun TV. Appa and Amma dozed off as the first dream sequence, consisting of extras in embarrassing costumes and the hero and heroine in equally garish, but contrasting clothes. They declared their love to each other for this life and all their reincarnations. I wondered what would happen if, in the next life, one was born to a descendant of Osama, and the other to a descendant of Obama.

Soon, sleep overtook my senses, and I had a strange dream of a wrestling match between Osama and Obama with Anna in a veshti as the referee. As the wrestling intensified, and Osama stood on the rope to jump on Obama, a loud bell rang around the stadium, and a voice spoke through the microphone, “Uncle! Saar, Harish, Saar!”

I woke up. Appa was already walking towards the door. There was urgency in the voice calling him. I joined him at the door. Senthil, the watchman from the adjacent apartment complex, spoke very fast, “Arjun was turning into the main road, and he skidded and fell. I was going on my moped, and I took him on it to the hospital. His phone wasn’t working, so I came here.”

“Is he okay?” Appa asked.

“They’ve asked him to get an x-ray of his arm.”

Appa and I rushed to the hospital to find Anna’s chosen kurta soaked in blood and wet mud from the recent rains. But his arm was the cause for worry, the doctor told us. It was a fracture.

Anna’s first reaction was, “Fracture-aa? Six weeks-aa? Today’s kutcheri?”

“Kuttan will play,” Appa said, pointing to me.


“Why not?”

“He’s... He’s not good enough. No offence, Kuttan.”

I hadn’t taken any offence. I was used to being treated like a back-up option.

“Avi isn’t that good. He can make do with Kuttan.”

“No. Let me call Sir. He’ll suggest someone else.”

Sir suggested my name, and the matter was settled.

There was something dubious about Anna’s behaviour. I had played in quite a few concerts myself, and although I didn’t have Anna’s wisdom, inventiveness or promise, I was steady. While reviewers showered praises on Anna and his ‘impeccable control and understanding of laya aspects’ or his ‘spectacular tani’, they reduced me to a mere reference, ‘S.H. Anil on the mridangam provided apt support’. There was, therefore, no reason for Anna to get all nervous about the concert.

I would provide apt support.

Anna called me towards him and whispered in my ear, “No naughtiness. Play the way you play usually, and come back home.”


“No. No mischief.”

“Ok da. Whatever.”

Amidst all the drama, I reached the concert slightly late. The others were already on stage setting up by then. I settled myself on the right of Avi, in the customary spot for the mridangist. Avi whispered to me, “Dai, I’m nervous.”

“Chill, da. You’ve done this before.”

“Big crowd, da. Usually there’s only Amma in the front row putting talam, and a few relatives here and there.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine. We are here to support you.” Just as I said that last line, I glanced at my co-supporter - the violinist, a young girl from Bangalore. Slim, classical features, pottu, flowers adorning long hair, silk sari and ethereal grace, she explained every little aspect of Anna’s behaviour through the day. If she was a decent musician in addition, there was nothing more one wanted from life. Poor Anna—on painkillers, with his arm in a cast. Here, my life was playing out in slow-motion, like in the movies.

Avi started with the majestic varnam in Narayanagowlai. His rendition, though, was anything but majestic. He was nervous from the first note, sang as if he had only recently learnt it, and kept looking towards me for support. I kept the steady stream of fours going, not experimenting too much with the rhythm, especially with Avi looking like he’d just eaten his angavastram by mistake. As he doubled the tempo, he completely lost track of the song.

But he was seasoned enough to know what to do in these circumstances. He coughed, and started drinking water. The violinist looked at me and winked. It was our time in the sun, as life went into slow-motion mode again. We launched into the anupallavi, since the pallavi was suitably wrecked. I knew a couple of rhythm tricks to play here, and was about to execute them when I heard Anna’s voice in my ear warning me against naughtiness. She didn’t hold back though. There were a few touches whose deftness was masterly. They were always followed by a magical smile.

When Avi joined in for the second half of the varnam, he was rendered useless to the proceedings. True, the audience still listened to him. But the two of us were on a trip of our own, exchanging more than the occasional glance and smile as we led Avi though the swarams. The applause at the end was slightly unenthusiastic, but it didn’t matter to me. Her eyes flirted in my direction before turning to Avi for the start of the next song.

Avi started an alapana. Five seconds into it, I concluded he was singing Arabhi. I set about watching her follow him through the alapana. Five phrases into the alapana, her left eyebrow rose in suspicion. Was he singing Devagandhari? Two seconds later, there was a definite touch of Arabhi again. And back to Devagandhari, and back and forth and back and forth till she decided to stop following him. He turned towards her nervously, as a phrase typical of Shaama escaped his mouth. The audience watched in collective horror. Avi might have cried, but controlled emotions and finished his unsure alapana.

It was her turn to play now. But she didn’t know what ragam to play. Her eyes asked me if I knew the answer. “Arabhi,” I mouthed. Her eyes asked me why I thought so. I just nodded my head, as if I was sure. Truth be told, I wanted to hear Arabhi. She played an Arabhi, and I shook my head more vigorously than required, and Avi, hoping he’d win some audience back, nodded his head vigorously too. Her alapana was followed by applause that sounded thankful. She had, after all, put the audience out of their misery.

Avi asked her sheepishly, “Shall I just get up and go? The two of you play.

I attempted Devagandhari.”

“Dude, chillax. Just sing something in Arabhi now,” she replied.

I wondered if that was the first time that the words ‘dude’ and ‘chillax’ were used on the Carnatic concert stage.

Anna walked in with his cast, and settled in the third row, keeping a watchful eye on me.

The dubious Arabhi was followed by an equally dubious Varali, a trepidatious Mukhari, and a fast-paced Nalinakanti that defied all definitions of the ragam. Throughout, I kept myself under control, playing steadily as ever. Anna wouldn’t like it if I engaged in ‘mischief’. Especially with her around. Avi then proceeded to ask “Brochevarevarura?” in Khamas. I was sure it couldn’t be anyone listening to the question. When I thought of this and grinned, she grinned too, almost as if she had heard the joke. It was time for me to give Anna’s warning the royal ditch - I had to show her my prowess, lest she thought I was just an apt, unimaginative mridangist.

I unleashed all my mathematics on the crowd in the tani. I even surprised myself with my competence. I had something more than encouraging reviews to play for! Something in me had mellowed down, though. I tended to play big-hitting solos in the past, producing loud volumes to get claps, and hopefully the adjective ‘enthusiastic’ instead of ‘apt’ in the reviews. On that day, I played with more poise, mirroring her approach to the violin. The audience decided to make up for the lack of thunderous mridangam with their applause.

Backstage, as we were leaving, she said, “Hey. ‘Twas great fun! It’s funny - people told me you were a really serious person.”

“Ha, that’s my brother! He fractured his hand this afternoon. I was the last-minute replacement.”

“Oh. Nice meeting you,” she said, walking away.

I gathered the courage to ask her, “What are you doing tomorrow evening?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“Let’s go eat some... dosas?”

She laughed and said, “I’d prefer idlis.”

In the background, Anna muttered away, “What was that dubious korvai you played, rascal?”

Copyright MV Swaroop, 2012