By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How The Maestro Gave Me A Glimpse Of God And Converted Me To Carnatic Music!

In the preceding Articulations (July 21) I had mentioned the legendary Indian musician M.D. Ramanathan, alias MDR.  Here's the story of how I discovered his glorious music, exactly 50 years ago:

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Glossary/Annotations(in same order as in text)

Carnatic music --  Classical music of South India.

Capital  --  New Delhi, in the North.

Madras/Bombay  --  South-East/West coast cities, now named Chennai/Mumbai, but still called Madras/Bombay by hard-core citizens.  Madras is known as the Mecca of Carnatic music.

Sangeet Natak Akademi  --  One of the three National Academies in New Delhi, meant for preserving and promoting Indian music, dance and drama (Sangeet-Natak). fine arts (Lalit Kala) and literature (Sahitya).  When I had mentioned these important custodians of Indian culture in several articles in the 1970s and '80s, I had no idea that eventually I would be a member (and also the secretary) of an important cultural panel which would  review their performance in 1988-90. 

Sapru House  --Prestigious building in New Delhi, Headquarters of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), with a library and conference facilities, and a fine auditorium selectively available for cultural events.  Named after ICWA's first President Tej Bahadur Sapru, an eminent pro-British lawyer in the colonial regime.

Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha  --  One of  the major cultural institutions in New Delhi, disseminating South Indian classical music and dance.  

Tamil Nadu  --  A Southern State.

9 p.m. English news  --  For several decades in British and independent India, All-India Radio (AIR) was broadcasting its evening English news at 9 p.m.  This was the only news broadcast which was heard all over the country (even the Hindi news in the national language not being universally popular) --  and thus, it was  a hallmark of India's amazing 'unity in diversity'.  I've no idea whether AIR still continues this feature or not:  --  it's a long time since I last heard the radio!


Bach  --  When I heard MDR for the first time, I was familiar only with Bach's instrumental music, and not his oratorios.  When I heard the St. John Passion on LP records later on, I was certainly impressed by the mystic power of some of the arias and choral spells.

Mridangam  --  Main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, played with the palms and fingers of both hands  --  capable of creating extremely sophisticated patterns of percussive sound.

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Evening News, New Delhi
5 December 1975

I travelled 200 miles to hear M.D. Ramanathan

I am really happy that I am living in the Capital, which is a cross-section of India itself.  But there are moments when I regret that I am not living in Madras.

Not because Madras happens to be my home town.  Not just because I miss the beautiful beach.  But because I can't hear all the Carnatic music which is flowing so profusely there, especially the music of the great master, M.D. Ramanathan. 

MDR gives not fewer  than a dozen recitals every year in Madras.  Even in Bombay he sings once in six months.  But New Delhi doesn't invite him even once a year!  His last major performance here was in March, 1974.  He did give a recital for the Sangeet Natak Akademi early this year;  but it was a formal and insubstantial affair, and didn't count as a concert.

I am therefore really glad that MDR will be here for a concert on December 7 at Sapru House.  The Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha are organizing this event.

I don't know why most of the organizers of Carnatic music in the Capital go on resisting M.D. Ramanathan.  Perhaps they are still remembering the furious controversies which used to rage round his music way back in the Sixties, when some music critics in Bombay and Madras condemned his slow tempo, gesticulations and facial expressions.

But it is a long time since music-lovers in Bombay and Madras learnt to ignore unfair criticism and to appreciate MDR's music without any reservations.  It is high time people in the Capital also found out the answer to the question:  "What is so great about MDR ?"

The answer is very simple:  his rich voice an meditative spirit.  Everything else about his music is determined by these twin factors.  Let me tell you about his voice first.


I wasn't a lover of Carnatic music to start with.  Till I was nearly 30 I was only fond of Western music.  I loved Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Tchaikovsky.  I loved New Orleans jazz, and I admired Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  I was thrilled by the powerful voices of Mario Lanza, Benjamino Gigli and Paul Robson.

I never liked Indian music, classical or otherwise, because all voices in Indian music seemed high-pitched and too weak.  Because of this I never heard much of it, and of course I must have been missing a great deal.

I was living in a Tamil Nadu town in 1963.  Late one evening I switched on the radio for the 9 p.m. English news.  There were still a few minutes to go, and someone was singing Carnatic music.  Though I tried not to listen, my attention was compelled, because there was something unusually powerful about the singer's voice.

It was a full, deep-throated bass, something I had never associated with Indian music.  And the music was progressing in a stately, unhurried manner so uncharacteristic of Carnatic music, unmindful of the fact that the English news was only a few minutes away!  I was fascinated, and waited breathlessly for the announcer to tell me the name of the singer:  it was M.D. Ramanathan.

A few weeks later I travelled 200 miles by train to Madras to hear a full-length recital by MDR.  And what I heard taught me something more:  that MDR's music wasn't just Voice, but also Spirit.

I sat transfixed for three hours as he sang in his characteristic slow tempo, meditating rather than entertaining.  Suddenly sound acquired a kind of mystic beauty which I hadn't found even in Bach or Beethoven.  If this was Carnatic music, I thought, then I was already converted!  And since Carnatic music rests wholly on a religious foundation, my agnostic mind at once began to see spiritual light.  My life has never been the same again.


Since then I have attended hundreds of Indian music concerts. I have made friends with many great musicians. I have learnt a little bit of Carnatic music myself, and have even become a music critic.  But I can never forget the fact that it is through MDR that I discovered the beauties of Carnatic music  --  and, on a larger plane, the whole mystique of Indian music.

And yet here I am, living in New Delhi all the year round, not being able to hear MDR sing more than once in 18 months at best, unless I travel a thousand miles or more to hear him somewhere in South India! It often occurs to me that at this rate I may not be able to hear many more of his recitals in this lifetime, and it's a shocking idea.

But meanwhile, what a happy thought that MDR will be singing next Sunday evening at Sapru House, accompanied by the mature and dazzling violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and the subtle, sober mridangam-player Vellore Ramabadran!  I wouldn't just like to praise the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha for organizing this event:  I would like to thank them for it.

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PostScript, 2013
Volte face!

This article was one of the landmarks in my track record as a journalist, and also marked a dramatic turning point in MDR's New Delhi connection.  The large auditorium overflowed with wildly enthusiastic music-lovers, heralding a period when the maestro's image in the  capital would soar sky-high.  But that was only a repetition of what had happened in Bombay seven years earlier!  Let me tell that story some other time.


1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to hear more about MDR, please do post about your experiences with him.

    You have very aptly put it, MDRs music is not entertainment, it is meditation. I felt the same way too, when I heard him first.