You could call him a musicologist, a polyglot or simply refer to him as a good conversationalist, whose conversation ranges from a discussion of serious topics to light-hearted ones. But one thing that you cannot do is fit him into any one slot, because Dr. B.M. Sundaram is all of these and much more. He is the recipient of the 2009 musicologist award of the Music Academy.
And yet he could so easily have been excluded from the world of music. His father, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, himself a thavil vidwan, felt there was no future for thavil vidwans and made Sundaram promise that he would never play the thavil, but luckily he did not insist that Sundaram keep totally away from music.
It was Pillai's dream that his son study Sanskrit, get himself a college degree, and become a Collector. “I fulfilled two of my father's dreams. I learnt Sanskrit and I have a Bachelor's degree in Economics. But I didn't become a Collector,” laughs Sundaram. He also learnt the Vaishnava Agama Sastras from Sattanatha Bhattar of Nachiar Koil and from Lakshmana Bhattar.
However, music was in Sundaram's genes, for he comes from a family of musicians. “I've traced my family back to 40 generations, and there has been a thavil vidwan in every generation,” he says. The story of his initiation into music is interesting. One day a gentleman dropped in to see Sundaram's father. The precocious Sundaram asked him what his profession was. “I am a musician,” said the visitor. “Yesterday I heard a song called ‘Sarasamukhi.' Do you know that song?” Sundaram asked. The visitor said he did.
“Can you teach me the song?” asked Sundaram. The visitor agreed, and as he began to teach Sundaram, Pillai appeared. He was taken aback by his son's boldness, for the visitor was none other than Muthaiah Bhagavatar, the composer of the song. “So I was initiated into music by Muthaiah Bhagavatar,” laughs Sundaram.
Muthiah Bhagavatar advised Pillai to arrange for music classes for Sundaram, and Pillai sent his son to Melattur Narayanaswamy Iyer to learn music. Later, Sundaram learnt music under K. Rama Iyer and Vaiyancheri Janakirama Iyer, a relative of Mahavaidyanatha Iyer. Sundaram's formal education continued apace. But the turning point in his life came a little after his marriage. Annoyed with her son's preoccupation with music, Sundaram's mother said she would disinherit him, if he continued to learn music. Sundaram gave her a release deed relinquishing his interests in the family property, and 22 days after his marriage, he left home. When his guru Balamurali went to Vijayawada, Sundaram followed him. For the next seven years he learnt from Balamurali, a period that Sundaram cherishes more than anything in his life.
During these seven years he did not keep in touch with his family. Music was so absorbing that he even forgot his young wife. In this context he recalls a greetings telegram sent by flute Mali, for his (Sundaram's) wedding. “The inevitable has happened. Suffer,” said the telegram! His complete involvement in music to the exclusion of all else, prompted Sundaram's daughter to observe recently that “the telegram had been sent to the wrong person. It should have been sent to his long suffering wife!”
“Gurukulavasa is absolutely essential for a student of music,” Sundaram insists. During Gurukulavasa, there could be unplanned sessions of teaching, characterised by an air of informality. Sometimes other musicians drop in and have discussions with the guru. This can be an enriching experience.
At the suggestion of his guru, Sundaram studied the manuscripts on music available in the Saraswathi Mahal Library.” There are 11,830 manuscripts on music there. I've edited the published versions of many of those.”
He is concerned about preserving the traditional arts - be it Harikatha, music or dance. He learnt lavani, which consists of traditional Marathi songs sung during festivals like Gudipadva. “Lavani in Thanjavur acquired a unique flavour, with its saval-jawab pattern,” Sundaram explains. He has written a book on Marathi lavanis in Thanjavur that ends with the requiem - ‘Oh great lavini! May your soul rest in peace.'
He recalls the Bhujangathaasitham that devadasis used to dance in the Nageswaraswamy temple. “That's another tradition we've lost,” he rues. He has written more than 20 books and monographs. He is currently translating into Sanskrit a Kannada book called Rasika Jana Manollasini, written by a Devadasi and published in 1910. Another book that he is in the process of editing is ‘Abhinaya Lakshana' by Chinnaiah of the Thanjavur quartet. Chinnaiah describes abhinayas that were used to indicate different relationships - brother's wife, mother- in- law, father's sister and so on.
When Sundaram was a producer in AIR Pondicherry, he did a programme titled ‘Arthamum Anarthamum,' which was about how vocalists mispronounce words.
A stickler for proper pronunciation, Sundaram however says that sometimes compressing a long word or stretching a short one is all right. “There is a verse in the Bhaandeera Vyakarana that approves this.”
Sundaram has a Ph.D. from Norton University, Massachusetts. His thesis was on ‘Ancient temple instruments of South India.' He has 77 compositions to his credit.
How does he find time for all the reading and research he does? “In his foreword to my book Suryakanti, in which I notated my guru's kritis, T.S. Parthasarathy wrote, ‘I think B.M. Sundaram has 36 hours in a day!'”
At the end of the interview, I too begin to wonder if indeed his day has 36 hours!