Carnatic vocalist O.S. Thiagarajan on a life steeped in music

Vidwan O.S. Thiagarajan, who was named for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Carnatic music in the 2012 list and performs as part of the Akademi Award Festival in New Delhi this Friday, has long been popular among Carnatic music audiences of Delhi. His total command of the medium, along with his unhurried, unostentatious presentation, carries his listeners along on a river of contentment. It brings to mind a phrase one has often heard in praise of a beautiful handloom sari: “simple and grand”.

The seeming oxymoron makes sense. A hand-spun, hand-woven sari, hand-dyed in natural pigments, is a work of art whose great attraction is its subtlety. No one part screams for attention, no artisan involved in its creation has sought to impress the viewer with a personalised stamp. No gold zari to awe you, no large motifs, not even the shine of silk. But a thread-work border and a plain body in a contrasting colour make an irresistible statement. The final work represents one moment in a long tradition of sari weaving, yet it is not lost in a sea of sameness. It stands out as a quiet gem. Simple, and grand! And so with the music of Onbathuveli S. Thiagarajan, or OST, as he is popularly known.

In this interview, the maestro appears eminently satisfied and cheerful as he looks back at a career that has provided glorious moments of rasa to listeners and his co-artists, yet has not sought the trappings of stardom. The son and disciple of ‘Sangeetha Bhushanam’ O.V. Subramaniam, he grew up in Delhi and later made Chennai his headquarters. For one raised on a staple of classical music, the move from amateur to professional was a smooth one. The order of doling out government honours is always controversial, so it may irk some that his turn for the SNA Award came after many younger artists. However, he is sanguine, saying, “…though received late, I am happy that at least now I received it. Thanks to the officials and the Government of India. It is a very prestigious award and I welcome it.”

Edited Excerpts from an email interview with the vidwan:

When you were young and music was a natural part of life, did you plan to become a professional performing artiste?

Right from my childhood, my passion for music was enormous and my dream was to become a full-time professional musician. I am happy that I achieved this aim with blessings from my revered parents and my gurus. I grew up in a musical atmosphere, as my father was a full-time teacher and musicians visiting Delhi from Chennai regularly called on us to meet my father. Such visits were full of music and only music-related. My close observation of all these artistes gave me the individual approach of each artiste to our music, and I was able to understand, even at a young age, how their ideas reflected the individual character in their presentation, which was very well received by the audience. All these put together helped me climb the ladder fast in Chennai.

Was your father a strict guru? Did you later have other gurus/ influences as well?

Apart from my father, I had the honour and privilege to learn music from the late Lalgudi Jayaraman and late T.M. Thiagarajan. Both of them were very strict in their own thoughts, and this helped me to become a top-ranking artiste very soon. Eminent vidwans like Lalgudi Jayaraman, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, V.V. Subrahmanyam, and M. Chandrasekaran, among others, accompanied me on the violin in many concerts. The mridangam artistes included Palghat Mani Iyer, Palghat Raghu, C.S. Murugaboopathy, T.K. Murthy, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T.K. Murthy and Karaikudi Mani.

Did Delhi influence your art or your approach to art?

I was a Delhi-based boy for many years, up to 1980. I had performed at many sabhas in Delhi and around (the region). The situation now is not the same as before. There is only one Sabha now in Delhi, Shree Shanmukhananda Sangeetha Sabha, which is somewhat active. There is hardly any chance for Carnatic music in other centres of North India.

Do you feel that, over the decades, enough has been done to popularise Carnatic music in Delhi and North India in general?

The other States of the North, like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, U.P. ,Haryana, etc., where I have performed long back, do not promote Carnatic music regularly. I have doubts if the Government of India will do anything about this in future.

Are you happy with the condition of Carnatic music and musicians today — in the sense of keeping up musical standards, getting recognition, making a living from one's art?

Today’s musicians, especially young and promising, have abundant talent, and most of them are professionals. They are well placed in the society. They also have a comfortable living. But there is no comparison with the music of yesteryear musicians.

O.S. Thiagarajan gives a Carnatic vocal recital this Friday as part of the Festival of Music, Dance and Drama by recipients of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards – 2012. The concert will be held at Meghdoot Theatre – I, 6 p.m. He will be accompanied by K.V. Prasad, also an Award recipient, on the mridangam. The recital will be followed by Sharmila Biswas’s Odissi performance and a Hindustani vocal concert by Rajshekhar Mallikarjun Mansur.