Lakshmi Devnath’s biography is a period book with a firm link to the present.
The book was launched yesterday but first print is already sold out. “The credit goes to the subject, the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman,” says author Lakshmi Devnath with humility. But the success of An Incurable Romantic owes a lot to the style, that of a novel, and the sincerity on which it is based.
Not everyone gets a chance to write the biography of their favourite icon. Lakshmi considers herself blessed. She always wanted to script the history of the man who elevated the violin to new heights. He also put a small hamlet on the international map and how!
“I owe it to Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, Jayaraman’s daughter,” informs Lakshmi. The idea of documenting her father’s life had taken firm roots in her mind. She was searching for an author and was moved by my article in Friday Review in connection with Lalgudi Jayaraman being conferred the Life Time Achievement Award by the Music Academy.”
Lakshmi was overwhelmed. It was a dream come true and the saga began to unfold. What strikes a reader is the fact that the book is not just the account of the life of a single person; it spans a whole era, covering four generations, and includes in its sweep a crucial part of the history of Carnatic music.
The writing traverses over 200 years (1807-2012), a golden period that witnessed the presence of the saintly Tyagaraja, whose disciple was Rama Iyer, Jayaraman’s grandfather, and scores of legends such as TNR, GNB, MLV, Alathur Subbier, Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, Malaikottai Govindasamy Pillai and Palghat Mani.
And it holds a mirror to the life of an orthodox Brahmin family in that era. Gopala Iyer laid down the rules of discipline and the family consisting of his wife and four children followed. As a cleansing gesture, the patriarch once made his wife and Jayaraman swallow panchakavyam, the latter for going to the movies and the former for allowing it.
How was the lineage traced?
“We split the entire period into sections of five years a day. He was a meticulous chronicler, just as his father was, and the diaries were of immense help. Rajalakshmi, the maestro’s wife proved to be an encyclopaedia. And Lalgudi’s phenomenal memory! He was always right on facts whenever we had doubts. The entire family, including his wife, cooperated and came up with details required. Never once did they ask why such information was needed.”
If the book took five years, the first was spent in research. Lakshmi visited libraries, made hundreds of phone calls and collected every scrap of information possibly published on the maestro. She acknowledges the freedom the family gave her in this regard. “I went to Lalgudi, to get the feel of the place. The house has changed hands but is still there. The temple that Tyagaraja visited and the centre of the Pancharatna kritis Jayaraman took care to popularise gave me goose bumps.” She went to Edayattumangalam too.
The family offered a treasure trove in the form of articles, clippings, photographs and letters. “After such intense research, I had notes running to 1,000 pages. This I would relate to the interview sessions – 250 hours – and the picture emerged. It was a mind boggling exercise – to sift through the layers, find the thread and piece them together. Just like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Lakshmi of her task. All the effort has resulted in the book that is racy like a delicious work of fiction.
“The style was a deliberate choice. He was a legend, who took forward a great legacy and has left behind a cornucopia. But music is the only focus. The uni-dimensional aspect had to be tackled and I decided to adopt a storybook like narrative.”
Dr. Ramanathan played a crucial role guiding her in research. He showed how Jayaraman’s music lent itself to analysis. Lakshmi profusely thanks friend and musicologist Padma Narayanan in helping with translations and her husband Narayanan for typing the pages.
Some of the snippets she gathered were new to the family. Jayaraman was thrilled when she told him that his grandfather, Lalgudi Rama Iyer, is mentioned in Karnamritha Saagaram. “Dr. N. Ramanathan pointed this out to me and Lalgudi was elated.”
Lakshmi was stunned by the fund of information his mother had to share. Again that memory! At 92, Savitri Ammal recalled in graphic detail her illustrious son’s childhood. She even sang the dirge, her mother-in-law, Jayaraman’s grandmother and Gopala Iyer’s mother, Muthulakshmi, had penned, to be sung after her demise.
This is perhaps the first time in-depth information about Lalgudi Jayaraman’s ancestors has been brought to light. Right from the family tree to a map of Lalgudi, the glossary and acknowledgement, it is a thorough job that the author has done. “He was a person who aimed at perfection in anything he did. I certainly couldn’t fall short.” The maestro pays handsome compliment to her biographer in his ‘First Person’ note. Pt. Ravi Shankar has provided the foreword.
What about the controversies that cropped up when Lalgudi was at his peak? “I have not omitted anything. The negative aspects are very much there. Lalgudi never asked from where I got the information. Never once did he ask me to change a word or alter a sentence. The honesty was amazing. But that was the person, so true to the art and himself.”
Any regret? “The book, delayed in transit, landed two days after his demise. It was lying untouched in my study for a week. He had seen the manuscript, everything was read out to him, he saw the pictures on my laptop… but he would have loved the finished product, with all its pages and pictures so beautifully laid out. He was such a connoisseur.”
- The CD that accompanies the book has tracks of some special Lalgudi flavours, indicated in the relevant chapters.
- “I was moved by the bhakti he had for his father-guru Gopala Iyer. His eyes would well up whenever he spoke of him.”
- “While he didn’t belittle his contribution to the field of music, he wished he had another 25 years to serve his Muse. He had so much music left in him. In 2000, he reinvented the Bhimplas he played in the Sixties. He referred to the violin as his Kaadhali (lady love). That’s why the title of the book.”