Virtuoso N. Rajam says music should be introduced in schools as it is important to expose children to music.

A YouTube video shows N. Rajam performing Mian Ki Todi in what appears to be an ancient temple courtyard beside the Ganga. As she invokes the muse of the morning, even the birds and the breeze seem to respond. Nature and music are in total harmony. Her involvement in the process is complete, says N. Rajam, as there is nothing else but music in her life. “Even if you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to perform, I would play with all my heart,” she says.

The Hindustani violin exponent, on her recent visit to Kochi for a series of Spic Macay lecture-demonstrations, believes she is just carrying forward the legacy passed on by her father, Carnatic vidwan A. Narayana Iyer. Having grown up in a family of musicians, Rajam feels there was no other way for her. “Not all of them performed. But they were all as good as professionals.” Her brother is none other than violin maestro T.N. Krishnan.

“I was always surrounded by music. It was within me, too. My father wanted one of his children to learn Hindustani. He was in Bombay [Mumbai] in the 1920s and was exposed to Hindustani music, he even got to listen to greats such as Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.” Rajam had started learning Carnatic violin at the age of three and was quite good at it by 12. “I have played with M. S. Subbulakshmi in one of her concerts. I was around 13 then.”

Learning Hindustani music

By the time she finished her Matriculation, at the age of 14, her father suggested she join the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) to learn Hindustani music (as a private candidate). Rajam was not surprised that she took to the Hindustani tradition with exceptional ease. “The way I look at it, I already had a base. All I needed to do was adapt to a different style.”

Her ‘gayaki style’, gave her an edge over the others who were playing the violin in the instrumental style. “The gayaki style is Carnatic – where the violin is played in the vocal way,” Rajam says. Her technique revolutionised the way the instrument was played in Hindustani music.

Rajam’s association with the BHU did not end with her education. (She had finished her MA and and Ph.D, too, from BHU). She joined the university as lecturer in 1959 and eventually became the dean. “I undertook teaching as a mission. I remember my first student. He was a colonel and had nothing to do with music. But, he was interested in learning,” she says. Teaching for the last 40 years has been extremely rewarding, Rajam notes. “One gets to learn something new every day. The student in me is still alive.”

Since her voluntary retirement from the BHU, for the last two-and-a-half years, Rajam has been teaching at the Dr. Gangubai Hangal Gurukul at Hubli. “It is in true gurukul style. There are five teachers with six students each. For learning music, the gurukul method is most effective. The teacher decides what to teach and how to teach,” she says.

Journey with Spic Macay

She has been involved with Spic Macay right from its inception in 1978. “I have been to several colleges and universities even in far flung villages. The project is intended at making children aware of our culture. Unless artists support ventures like this, they will not go far.”

Every one, she feels, should learn one art form or another. “Music should be introduced in schools and children should be exposed to it from the age of three, so that they at least learn to appreciate it. Children will start responding to everything that they are exposed to at a young age. It is the responsibility of the parents to create the atmosphere for them to learn an art form.”

She taught her own daughter Sangeetha Shankar when she was just three. Her grand daughters Ragini and Nandini too followed in the same tradition. “All four of us perform together sometimes,” she says. Rajam has also trained her niece, Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath.

Rajam cherishes her relationship with the violin. “The violin is a complete instrument, it requires no modifications,” she says. Practice is the only thing that really matters. “I believe you have to practise till your physical faculties allow you. I still do that.” Single-minded devotion and regular saadhana (practice) have been her constant companions. “I was also fortunate to have learnt under great teachers such as Omkar Nath Thakur,” she says.

She won the Padma Shri in 1984, the Padma Bhushan in 2004 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2012 among many other awards. “I don’t aspire for anything except for perfection in the art. I believe that if one keeps learning, recognition comes on its own.”