The time spent with his illustrious guru M.D. Ramanathan remains fresh in P.P. Ramakrishnan's memories. MDR's birth anniversary was on May 20.
“MDR was a musician among musicians of the last century. My association with MDR began in June 1966 when I joined Kalakshetra for music training at the age of 15. That is, soon after my schooling at Alathur in Palakkad district,” remembers P.P. Ramakrishnan, former Principal of Chembai Memorial Government Music College. Memories of his illustrious teacher overwhelm the vocalist, violinist and musicologist who now lives in Thiruvananthapuram. Excerpts from an interview…
Enchanted by MDR
“I always wanted to pursue a career in music. That too from Tamil Nadu which was then, and even today, the seat of Carnatic music. There is a reason why I chose Kalakshetra. In 1963, I had an opportunity to see and listen to MDR's vocal concert at the Chembur Fine Arts Society in Bombay [Mumbai]. As a boy of 13, I just had some basic idea of music. But that changed completely after the concert. His approach was different. In those days, Carnatic music was supposed to be very fast. Everybody rendered kritis at jet speed. They were singing sangati after sangati. But here was a person who did not do that. Instead he wanted to display before the audience the true import of what he was rendering.
For instance, on that day while singing Tyagaraja's ‘Sujana Jeevana' in Khamas, he virtually emoted it to the audience. And when he sang ‘Endaro Mahanubhavalu,' he began from ‘Mahanubhavalu.' It was something new to me. That attracted me towards MDR's music. And when I decided to join for music, many people advised me to go to Kalakshetra which followed a gurukula system of education. It was first started at Adyar and later shifted to Thiruvamiyur where it still stands.
As student of Kalakshetra
When I joined the Sangita Shiromani course (1966-71) at Kalakshetra, there were two to three students in my batch. So, we used to get individual attention. MDR's method of teaching was different. Unlike the usual practice of the guru singing and the students repeating after him, he would make us sing. After that he would sing. His approach was that one should observe and absorb; the sahitya and bhava were very important.
MDR as teacher
I used to go to his house at Adyar, adjacent to the Theosophical Society, for training. It was in the gurukula tradition. The class would begin from 5 p.m. and go on till 9 p.m. I would help him in all his activities, including composing music. He had about 300 compositions to his credit. But only 20 to 25 became popular. That was because he always shunned publicity. He would describe the sahitya and we would notate it. He would sing them and alter them if need be. He would also ask jocularly ‘ithu yeppudi irukkuda.'
As a musician
MDR was a disciplinarian during concerts. But that did not mean that he was always serious. He would crack jokes and make comments in between. I used to travel with him to Bombay, Bangalore, Tamil Nadu and other places. I had also had the occasion to be on stage with him. I still remember a couple of concerts when I accompanied him. Once at Sastri Hall in Chennai (it was in the late 1960s), I was sitting behind him with the tampura. He had a rich and bass voice. He was singing Mayamalavagoula. He started exploring, going down to the manthrasthayi and he rendered the manthrashadjam. We felt vibrations on the stage. His rendering was so powerful.
In another concert of the Rasikaranjini Sabha, he sang Gopalakrishna Bharati's ‘Varahalamo Njan Enke' in the raga Manji. It was the final piece just before the mangalam. The kriti is based on the Nandanar Charitam where Nandanar, a downtrodden peasant, seeks his landlord's permission to go to Chidambaram and have a darsan of Siva, which is turned down. When MDR sang the relevant line, I saw people wiping tears from their eyes. So emotionally charged was his voice. He could bring out the apt bhava. That speaks volumes for his genius. And when he sang ‘Mokshamo galada,' he would start from the anupallavi ‘Sakshatkaramo sathbhakti' for that brought out the complete meaning of the sahitya (only those who have attained sakshatkaram through real bhakti coupled with music will get moksha).
MDR had a lot of respect for his contemporaries like K.V.Narayanaswami and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. KVN was his good friend. KVN used to sing some of his compositions. However, MDR did not get due recognition during his lifetime. Though his name was announced for the Sangita Kalanidhi by the Music Academy, he was not given the title.
The last time I met him was at the Navaratrimandapam in 1983. He came to my house with his wife and adopted son. I still remember once he came here to Thiruvananthapuram for an Onam concert. That was in 1979. He was staying at the Mascot Hotel. Being an orthodox person he found it very difficult to eat the food served there. So, in the morning he told me Yennada breadum mattum, onnume piddikkillada. Then I took him to my house and gave him a feast on a plantain leaf. He relished it. Unfortunately I was not with him during his last days. He was suffering from cancer. He could not bear the pain. He would sit on the terrace of his house and ask for a very hot cup of coffee. It gave him some relief. He died in 1984.
In his name
When I took charge as Principal of the Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Palakkad in 2005, I noticed that there was an auditorium in MDR's name built there with MP Krishnadas' fund. But it was not opened. Nobody seemed to be interested. So, I took it with M.A.Baby. And finally it was inaugurated on 27 January 2006.