Guru Mahajanam Shriramamurthy on what makes good music.

At 80, he is among the senior most Carnatic vocalists. But old habits are etched in stone. So Mahajanam Shriramamurthy has never learnt to throw around the weight of his learning. He remains a modest gentleman of mild manners. A fund of knowledge in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, a composer and teacher immersed in his musical calling, he has spent a good part of his life in North India and incorporated his knowledge of Hindustani music in his compositions. His albums include “Abhayamba Navavarna Kritis” — a compilation of Dikshitar kritis sung by him — and a translation of Sankarachariar’s Bhajagovindam, composed by him and sung by his disciple Swarnalatha. He has also directed music for films and theatre.

In Delhi since 1998, Guru Shriramamurthy decided, some years ago, to shift to a home for the elderly. For an erudite musician to be spending the autumn of his life in such circumstances tells us something not too palatable about the status of the arts in our society. His tanpura is not with him there. No atmosphere, he admits. Thrice a week when he goes out to teach, the world of music envelops him. In a recent interview at disciple Jayanthy Iyar’s home, he spoke about what makes good music — and also what a musician needs. Excerpts from the conversation:

On his early training

From the age of seven to 12, I learnt music from Guru Pakshi Rajam Iyengar. Then I studied under Pandit Srinvasa Sharma. Later he shifted to Benaras Hindu University. I went along with him and he taught me there also. He also gave me training in Hindustani music up to 1974. In the early years, I practiced from Sa Ri Ga to janta varisai and alankaram, in all three speeds, and then aakaaram in three speeds, and if possible in fourth speed too. This gave me strength of knowledge. By the age of 18, I was perfect at the basics. Then I worked on the presentation, with emotion and inspiration.

On music theory and practice

It was not common in those days to combine Hindustani and Carnatic training, but my guruji had that capability. Also, he only accepted 32 melakarta ragas, not 72 as per Venkatamakhi. Most people follow Venkatamakhi’s theory, but even then they don’t sing the first few melakartas. Even if they do, it is not ‘tasty’. He accepted only 12 swaras, not 16. My guru’s calculation was like this: He did not count the first chakra, and then from the next five chakras, he did not count the first and sixth ragas. He followed the same calculation in the second half of the melakarta scheme (ragas using Prati Madhyamam). Papanasam Sivan has created a ragamalika in all the 72 melakartas, and Koteeswara Iyer has composed kritis in all 72, on Lord Muruga. People do sing them, but they are not so palatable — there is not much scope for elaboration.

On the three pillars of Carnatic music

Dikshitar places more value on gamakas. To sing his compositions you need to practice the ten types (dashavidha) gamakas. Similarly, Shyama Shastri has murchhana, etc. These two are not as popular as Tyagaraja because they are more complicated.

What does a good singer need?

A singer needs a voice that can produce gamakas, modulation with bhrigas. It is a combination of gamakas and murchhana and bhrigas. However, the bhrigas should not spoil the lyrics. A marriage between lyric and sound is classical music. Whether Carnatic or Hindustani, music should contain intellectual aspirations, aesthetics, rhythm, symmetry, harmony.

Indian music and harmony

Harmony is chords. Indian music is said to be melodic, but it uses chords too. For example, when the vocalist sings Sa and the violin plays Ga.

On concert accompanists

If I have a highly talented violinist and a highly talented mridangist, it is a class performance — for which payment is a must, otherwise how can one hire good musicians? A good violinist is in full control of gamakas and sound modulation and accompanies so as to adjust with the vocalist. The same is required of the mridangam artiste. The percussionist should know the bhava of the song and follow that bhava. Modulation is necessary in a mridangam too. Guruvayoor Dorai, Palghat Mani Iyer and Delhi’s Kumbakonam Padmanabhan are examples of such playing. Ninety per cent of accompanists are mechanical. They are not creative.

Lack of concerts

I would like encouragement from the public and to be invited to perform in local organisations and Chennai sabhas. When I wrote to the sabhas I got no reply. I am not a popular man’s disciple. My guruji was famous but not very popular. He was more fascinated by teaching and didn’t perform much. I have some serious disciples, like Jayanthy, Aishwarya, Geetha, Rajini, Swarnalatha, Rajeswari and Lavanya. All of them are good. But they must be encouraged. When even the guru doesn’t get any encouragement, what can one say!