M.D. Ramanathan was a colossus in the Carnatic world. May 20 is MDR Day.
It was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who used the epithet ‘a musician among musicians' to describe Manjappra Devesan Ramanathan, popularly referred to as MDR.
MDR, who was born on May 20, 1923, came to Chennai (then Madras) from the remote village of Manjappra in Kerala, to capture the empire of music.
He did it with his outstanding knowledge of sangita, which was sharpened under the tutelage of Tiger Varadachari, in the serene atmosphere of Kalakshetra. His musical voyage was supplemented by the education he received even in those days --- he was a science graduate from the Victoria College, Palakkad. His hunger for learning languages including Sanskrit, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, helped him interpret the compositions on the concert platform. In his own compositions, he used the mudra ‘Varadadasa', which brought out his gurubhakti for Tiger Varadachari.
A witty person, he used to say after reluctantly singing one of his own compositions in a concert that it was his ‘kapithvam' rather than ‘kavithvam'. However, he did not think it fit to sing his own pieces due to his respect for the Vaggeyakaras.
Growing in stature
It was said of Tyagaraja, that his compositions would become famous only after his lifetime. The same can be said of MDR whose fame has become manifold after his demise in 1984. One can go to the extent of saying that the demand for his music is increasing day by day not only in India but abroad also.
The present day rasika or student who has not had the opportunity to listen to MDR might wonder what was so special about his music? There was a period in Carnatic music when musicians resorted to a speedy tempo while singing a composition and gave more importance to sangita rather than sahitya. But MDR explored the deep possibilities while presenting the kritis of great vaggeyakaras and started analysing them, giving newer interpretations for a discerning audience which enjoyed it like never before.
Further, he resorted to a slower tempo while rendering these masterful compositions and brought out the inherent subtleties such as the gamakas through his bass and expressive voice. Even his style of raga rendition had a unique touch -- it was done in a leisurely manner with necessary pauses in-between. This style also enabled violin accompanists such as Prof T.N. Krishnan to follow the phrase with total tonal quality equalling the voice of the musician. The leisurely pauses followed suit in the compositions also during the intervals between pallavi and anupallavi as well as anupallavi and charanam, where the mridangam vidwan had scope to play beautiful rhythmic patterns.
When the other musicians clung firmly to their patanthara, MDR had the ability to sing a kriti in different ways. For example, ‘Samaja varagamana' in Hindolam was presented in many colours by this musician. One day, he would sing it very fast, using tisra nadai in between, while on another, he would resort to a leisurely drupad style.
MDR was a staunch devotee of Lord Rama and performed puja daily. Once, mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman explained how beautifully MDR sang ‘Nannu Vidachi' of Tyagaraja in Reetigowla at the famous Rama Mandiram in Mysore, and added adjectives to the pallavi describing Rama on the spot.
Though he used a low pitch in his later years, he could touch the anumandra panchama with ease. One cannot forget the reverberating effect during one such concert at Sastri Hall, Mylapore, Chennai. It did not mean that he was a novice in the tara sthayi as during one of the yearly Music Academy concerts, he touched athi tara sthayi shadjam, while elaborating Madhyamavati.
One has heard a story about how he reacted when he heard an adverse whisper from some quarters about his chowka kala rendition. He was invited to perform at the Sri Swati Tirunal College of Music in Trivandrum, where he sang the Bhairavi ‘Viriboni' varnam in three kalas. Halfway through, during his customary leisurely tuft tying moment, he announced, “Enakku idhuvum varum!”
MDR had a wide repertoire of compositions and some special items for different days of the week. A Saturday concert would definitely feature ‘Divakara Tanujam', ‘Harihara Puthram', ‘Theradeeyagaraada' or ‘Pahi Rama Dootha.'
His extempore and exclusive portrayal of the Bhairavi swarajathi ‘Amba Kamakshi' of Syama Sastri was appreciated by all those who had a taste for heavy music. Often, this piece would be taken as the main item and given full treatment for about one and a half hours.
He sang varied versions of the Pancharatna kriti ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu' with the manodharma aspect peaking to great heights. His rendering of the Samkshiptha Ramayana ragamalika of Swati Tirunal's ‘Bhavayami Raghuramam' would portray the complete bhava of the Ramayana as if the listener was viewing a dance drama of the epic.
When the great Palghat Mani Iyer had his mike-less concerts, the voice of MDR was chosen in many places for its resonance.
As a vaggeyakara, he had composed around 300 songs in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Manipravala, only about 25 of them have seen the light of day. His notable compositions include ‘Tyagaraja Gurum' in Kedaram, ‘Sagara Sayana Vibho' in Bageswari, ‘Hariyum Haranum' in Atana.
Once during a concert tour, he happened to visit Cape Comorin where he wanted to have darshan at the Kanyakumari Temple. To his dismay, the temple was closed due to some reason and he instantly composed the ninda sthuthi kriti ‘Enna Kutram Seideno' in Huseni.
It is heard that he was the favourite disciple of Tiger and was by his side when Tiger breathed his last. The disciple was asked to sing ‘Entharane' of Tyagaraja during those last moments, which he did with a choked voice and tears in his eyes.
In the present times, when separate schools of singing seem to be fast disappearing, one wonders whether anybody would lament the Tiger School of Music becoming a thing of the past.