Pandit Ramesh Narayan's tryst with Hindustani has popularised this genre of classical music in Kerala

It wouldn't be wrong to call Pandit Ramesh Narayan a trailblazer. As a disciple of Pandit Jasraj of the Mewati Gharana since 1978, Ramesh is today one of the few Malayalis who have successfully scaled the heights of Hindustani classical music, and in the process popularised Hindustani music in Kerala. It could not have been an easy task for the singer from Koothuparamba in Kannur to kick-start a career in Hindustani music in Kerala.

Challenging journey

“These days, with the explosion of the media, it's quite easy to be a classical musician anywhere in India and it's fairly easy to get identified as one, and more importantly, appreciated by rasikas as one if you have that spark of talent. When I started out in the early eighties, though, that was not the case. Remember, this was not a place where music buffs were that familiar with Hindustani music. I've had an uphill battle to get to where I am today, to say the least. I recall ignorant well-wishers advising me against taking up Hindustani music for they feared it was a haven for drug abusers and alcoholics! They even told me that Hindustani music had only 10 ragas!” says Ramesh, with a laugh.

Nevertheless, he was enamoured enough to pursue Hindustani music first in Pune under Khan Sahib Ustad Mohamamd Hussein and later in Mumbai under Pt. Jasraj, after graduating in Carnatic music from Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Chittoor, Palakkad. “I plunged into it without thinking about how I was going to survive as a Hindustani musician in Kerala. It's that uncertainty, that thrill that kept – no, keeps – me going,” muses the city-based musician, who keeps on waxing lyrical about his time with his “guruji, Pt. Jasraji.”

Ramesh peppers the conversation with so many anecdotes of the maestro that it's not hard to understand the depth of this guru-shishya bond. “Guruji is the ideal musician, whose very life throbs with music. As far as Hindustani music is concerned there is no better way to learn it than through the gurukul system. Guruji didn't teach me a thing for the first two years. I was expected to listen and learn – imbibe music from his actions. Then suddenly at a concert he asked me to sing a tan! Learning the gurukul way you realise that the ultimate for any classical artiste should be to pass on the knowledge that's been handed down over generations to the next. To be a guru means you've come full circle,” adds the 52-year-old musician.

Coming full circle

Well, he certainly looks the part, dressed as he is in his signature long-sleeved, heavily embroidered kurta and dhoti, complete with twinkling ruby earrings and heavy-set rings flashing, sitting in his riyaz room, which is strewn with tanpuras, harmoniums, surmandals (harp), sruti boxes, music sheets and, of course, a huge portrait of Pt. Jasraj.

Ramesh is also one of those rare breed of classical musicians who has managed to cross-over into filmdom with ease. Nowadays he is a sought after composer with a kitty full of hits such as Garshom, Megh Malhar, Paradesi, Makalkku, Rathrimazha, Adaminte Makan Abu, Veetilekkulla Vazhi, Makaramanju, and the latest, Veeraputhran, to name a few, most of which have earned him some award or the other.

He has also composed a few popular ghazal albums, in themselves genre-benders for the very fact that they are in Malayalam. He is even composing music for the Bengali film Grihaprabesh.

“I've had the luck to compose music for films with some substance, which have situations that warrant a song rather than the other way around. I try to use and promote Hindustani music wherever possible. That does not mean I don't like or I don't compose new-age techno songs, my work in Kottaram Vaidyan being an example!” says Ramesh, who himself enjoys listening to all kinds of music across genres, but who listens “more carefully” to classical music. “I also enjoy watching movies and cricket. But it's music that's my life.”

Homage to the gurus

Pandit Ramesh Narayan was the first to introduce the concept of Gurupoornima celebrations in Kerala. It's a religious fete for Hindus and Budhhists and also a day where disciples, especially students of classical music across North India, pay tribute to their gurus. 2011 marks the 16th Gurupoornima celebrations organised by Ramesh's Pandit Motiram Narayan Sangeeth Vidyalay in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. Veterans such as Devarajan Master, Neyyatinkara Vasudevan, Dakshinamoorthy, Ustad Rafique Khan and Pandit Anand Badamikar have participated in the previous editions of the festivals. This year's fete is being held on June 25 (at Hotel Pankaj) and June 26 (at Vyloppilly Samskriti Bhavan).