Veteran Carnatic musician N.P. Ramaswamy belongs to a family of great musicians. He is the great- grandson of Palghat Parameswara Bhagavathar who was the ‘asthana vidwan’ [chief palace musician] in the court of King-composer Swati Tirunal for over 50 years. His initial training was under his father, N.P.R. Iyer, who was also a well-known musician. Ramaswamy started giving concerts from the age of 16 and his career in music has spanned 60 years.

A top ranking artiste of All India Radio (AIR), Ramaswamy has written four notable books related to Carnatic music. He is a visiting faculty of the University of Kerala and takes classes on advanced music for the post-graduate course. At 82, Ramaswamy continues to perform, teach and compose music with élan. Excerpts from an interview with the Kochi-based artiste…

Your early years

My father told me that I use to sing manodharma swaras even as a five-year-old. Right from my young age I was singing swaras and ragas. There has been music in my family for five generations. In the 1950s, concerts were held frequently at the Goshree Gana Sabha in Mattancherry. All the artistes who performed at the Sabha would visit our home. I learnt songs from all of them. In that way, they are all my gurus. They include stalwarts such as Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, D.K. Jayaraman, R.K. Sreekantan, G. N. Balasubramanium, S. Kalyanaraman and M. Balamuralikrishna, to name a few.

Singing career

I have a post-graduate degree in applied chemistry and worked with a pharmaceutical company. But I simultaneously carried on giving performances all over the country. I was directly selected to sing for AIR. All the top artistes such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Umayalpuram Shivaraman, Palghat Raghu, Karaikudi Mani, and T.K. Moorthy have accompanied me. I have sung several times at the Navaratri Mandapam, which is always an unforgettable experience. I retired from my job in 1991 but continue to perform.

Composing and writing books on music

After the demise of my wife, Prema, I felt lost. I could not sleep at nights. That was when I began composing and writing books. On certain days swaras come easily. It is like writing poetry. Most of my compositions are in Sanskrit and Narayana Bhattathiri, a scholar from Tripunithura, referred me as ‘Kerala Dikshitar’.

I have written four books. The first, Techniques of Manodharmaswara Made Easy, helps students to develop the technique of spontaneous singing of swaras. The second book, Swara Sancharas Of Popular Janya Ragas, describes sancharas and bhavas of about 128 commonly sung ragas, all in a simple manner.

The Sangeetha Manjari is in Malayalam and contains notated version of Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s compositions of Navagraha and Kamalamba Navavarna kritis. The fourth book contains my grandfather’s varnams and kritis and some of my own. I have composed 20 varnams, two thillanas and about 35 kritis.

As a teacher

I like teaching because I can convey my knowledge. It is very satisfying. I prefer singing, though. I teach only one student at a time.

Carnatic music scene today

Carnatic music has become very commercial. There are very few dedicated musicians nowadays. Youngsters want to learn but do not practise sufficiently or listen to music. In Kerala, musicians are not encouraged enough. Take any concert and you will find more number of artistes from outside the State.

There are not enough opportunities for musicians here. People from Chennai, for example, are better because they have more opportunities, they perform more, they practise more, and they have opportunities to correct their mistakes. My father used to say that one performance is equal to six months of practice.

Reminiscences of some great artistes

Once, before a concert, Semmangudi seemed restless. I asked him if he was unwell. Much to my surprise, he replied that he was tense. The reason – he was worried if his performance would be as good as the previous one! Great artistes also go through tense moments. It was a big lesson for me.

MS Amma [M.S. Subbalakshmi] used to practise with her accompanists for weeks together before a performance. She would insist that they regularly attend these sessions. She would pay them herself. These are valuable points that today’s generation should keep in mind.

Carnatic music has become very commercial. There are very few dedicated musicians nowadays.