N. Ramani on the inimitable Mali influence on his music, the thrill of interacting with maestros at Margazhi kutcheris and the information-packed lecture demonstrations
As the cool Margazhi breeze sweeps the city, a full-fledged kutcheri of memories plays in my mind: namasankeerthanais breaking the pre-dawn silence, the delight of not just hearing the doyens but the bhagyam of seeing them up-close, the lecture-demonstrations that were oral treatises on music and getting closer to the radio to listen to live broadcasts of kutcheris. But more than this was seeing my mentor and flute vidwan T.R. Mahalingam casting a spell on rasikas, and that eventful day when I shared the stage with Mali sir to perform my first duet flute recital.
I was five when I was introduced to the simple wind instrument. As I grew up, I was completely taken in by ‘flute' Mali's style and my dream was to play like this innovative genius. Though I was being trained by my grandfather Aazhiyur Narayanaswami Iyer at my native town Tiruvarur, I would wait desperately for school holidays to come down to Madras and listen to my idol and learn from him. Since Mali sir was related to me, I was extremely fortunate to have been able to stay in his house and imbibe a lot from him. There was no formal training, I learnt more by watching him perform and understanding his technical virtuosity. My first public performance was in the early 1940s when I accompanied Mali sir in a recital. The first time I performed solo was at director K. Subrahmanyam's house in the esteemed presence of veena exponents S. Balachander and Pichumani Iyer.
At my guru's advice and to pursue music full-time, I moved to Madras in 1951. In 1956, I performed at the Music Academy's December season festival. By then it had moved to its present location where a pandal used to be put up till a permanent structure came up. It was an afternoon concert (3 p.m.). The evening performance began at 5 p.m. and would go on for two-and-a-half hours. The late evening session (8 p.m.) showcased more of instrumental music, including the now almost-extinct jala tarangam. Eminent Hindustani musicians such as Pandit Ravi Shankar were also invited to perform in this time slot. Their concerts often stretched late into the night but the audience would sit through till the final note.
The Margazhi festival was not a long-drawn affair. It was just a ten-day celebration of music and dance, conducted across three sabhas — The Music Academy, Indian Fine Arts and Tamil Isai Sangam.
And the joy doubled when you attended the concerts with like-minded relatives or friends. The post-concert analysis on and outside the premises used to be as engaging as the performances. Ramnad Krishnan, Raghav Rao and I went together. For concerts at Indian Fine Arts (Gokhale Hall) and Tamil Isai Sangam (St. Mary's Hall) on Armenian Street, we would travel by the tram which was great fun. Most often we walked back to Mylapore!
If you went to watch the concert of one vidwan, you would invariably see many others in the audience. Experience and expertise apart, their impeccable appearance — turban, long coat, silk jibba, diamond kadukkan, well-oiled kudumi, aroma of attar — added to the aura. They were generous in acknowledging a good performance, even of contemporaries or juniors. Most of these titans — Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tiger Varadachariar, Muthiah Bhagavathar, Professor Sambamoorthi and T.L. Venkatarama Iyer were at their vociferous best during lecture-demonstrations that drew full houses. As they explained, discussed, debated and argued you learnt many valuable lessons on art and life.
Chamber concerts too were flavour of the December music season. A few patrons of music such as ‘Pallavi' Mahalinga Iyer of Mandaveli and Muthulakshmi of Gopalapuram organised these concerts. Sometimes it would be based on a theme. The Tyagaraja kriti akhandam at Mahalinga Iyer's house was an amazing concept in which even senior musicians participated.
Replaying Margazhi moments in old-world Madras would be incomplete without a mention of revered composer Papanasam Sivan's early morning uncha vrithi around the mada veedhis in Mylapore. It was a divine experience to be a part of it and many musicians would join the procession each day. The celestial sound of the cymbals, the melodious notes of the harmonium and the bhava-soaked bhajanais of Sivan… what better way to begin a day!
Pandit Ravi Shankar was responsible for bringing Pandit Hariprasad Chourasia and me together for our first jugalbandhi concert. Ravi Shankarji during a visit to Madras heard my playing on the radio at the airport. So taken in was he with my rendering of bass notes in Sindhubhairavi that he enquired who the artiste was. He expressed the desire to see me. When I went to meet him, he said, ‘I think you and Hariji will make a great pair on stage'.
Bio N. Ramani Born in 1934 in Tiruvarur, he is the disciple of the legendary ‘flute' Mali and torchbearer of the Mali bani. Known for displaying the characteristics of the human voice through flute in his concerts, he has performed across the country and around the world. He has done several jugalbandhis with ace Hindustani musicians and experimented extensively to improve the playing techniques. He founded the Ramani Academy of Flute to train young enthusiasts in the Carnatic style of playing the flute. He is a recipient of The Music Academy's coveted Sangeetha Kalanidhi title, was awarded the Padma Shri and an honorary doctorate from The World University of Arizona.