S. Rajam’s imagination was fascinating as both musician and artist.
Imagine having Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar play the tambura for your fledgeling recital before the Kanchi Paramacharya. Or watching Mylapore Gowri Amma dance before the deity at the noon puja as you took a post-prandial short cut through the temple to your school; singing and acting in a talkie in Poona (Sita Kalyanam, 1933) with Papanasam Sivan for music director; having your painting in Indian style torn up by your teacher Roy Chowdhury in School of Art, Chennai, but inspired to continue in the same vein by English poet Lewis Thompson sending postcards of ancient Indian bronzes during his travels in the subcontinent; appointed art and music director to a dance troupe (Ramgopal’s) in Bangalore; working as music supervisor AIR, correcting errors at rehearsals by stalwarts.
Finally, imagine being taught music by a veritable galaxy – Ambi Dikshitar, Gowri Amma, Ariyakkudi, Muthiah Bhagavatar. Madurai Mani Iyer, Papanasam Sivan, Harikatha Ramachandra Iyer, Veena Sambasiva Iyer, Fiddle Sundaresa Iyer… S. Rajam remained fully aware of the responsibility of such a splendoured heritage, as also the need to polish, preserve and pass on what fortune had showered on him through his own performance, teaching, writings and lectures.
A major reason for closeness with a range of musicians was the concert hall in their home terrace which rang with some all-time great voices. Rajam stopped playing the veena and started singing, fascinated by the emotive power of the human voice.
An equally potent passion for painting proved no distraction. It sharpened Rajam’s awareness of bhava in music, just as being a musician made him a keener observer of rhythm and harmony in art. It guided him to spurn western models and search for the soul of art in the Indian ethos. A sepia photograph shows a stripling amidst old stone sculptures, leaning against a pillar, body taut, head bent, hands folded as in prayer, a ferocious look of concentration in his eye. You heard the same wonder whenever Rajam mentioned his visits to Ajanta, Sittannavasal or the Sigiria caves. “After Ajantha, I hung up my paint brush. Couldn’t touch it for months.” The lotus pool mural at Sittannavasal made him gasp, “I collapsed in astonishment, couldn’t get up for three days.”
The same intense rapture he felt when he saw Gowri Amma dance, or at Dhanammal’s Friday soirees. “I didn’t have to see her tears as she sang before my eyes got blurred.” His instinctive empathy for rakti ragas did not make him disregard the fascination of vivadi ragas. He remained an authority in Kotiswara Iyer's mela raga kritis.
Even as a young man he knew his mind. He could separate wheat from chaff. He was riveted by carpentry from the art school days, as it taught him the importance of focussing, and precision at a manual level. “Never forget the concrete in the abstract,” he laughed, recalling the great astronomer who gazed at the stars and fell into a ditch.
Though the later years saw Rajam established as a musicologist and guru, member of many committees including the Experts' Committee at the Music Academy, he had received ample recognition as a performer in his younger years. Connoisseur K. Chandrasekharan said, “I wonder which is more successful, your colour imagination or your sound imagination.” Rajam tapped the imagination of his sishyas, making them find their own way, while guiding them with arresting images and phrases to illuminate a raga or a composition. He could be epigrammatic: “Tala should be in the singer’s throat, not on his thigh.”
Rajam has done many series from Navagraha to Nayanmars — as commissioned paintings or magazine/book illustrations. Here too, he created his own bhani in “water colour wash.” His ubiquitous sangita mummoorti (earning Rs 200 in youth) has acquired the credibility of real life photographs. His gods and goddesses are not static figures but bristle with metaphysical, mythopoetic and iconographic significations. His colours and designs belong to the Indian cosmos.
Sundaram Rajam (1919-2010) lived an extraordinary life. He responded vibrantly to everything that life offered him - from masaaldosai to Mamallapuram sculptures. Till the very end, he remained a dedicated teacher ready to share his lakshya gnana of a bewildering variety, and his encyclopaedic lakshana gnana. He had a singular personality, though not as eccentric as his brother Veenai S. Balachander. His remarks on Balachander reveal his insight into the essence of art. “He started focussing on stretching the strings. That proved to be his undoing. You can’t depend on muscles alone in music, (in dance too) only abhinaya can serve you in the long run.”