Admiration, skill and sentiment mark the short feature on Manakkal Rangarajan.

The Alliance Francaise Chennai screened a documentary titled, ‘Musician of the Era’ on the life and music of senior vidwan, Manakkal Rangarajan. Produced by R. Pathmanabha Iyer and directed by Amshan Kumar, the film chronicles the start and evolution of the vocalist’s musical journey, throwing light on the persona and the person.

Born in 1922 and debuting at age 15, Manakkal Rangarajan entered the concert arena at a time when it was the unchallenged fiefdom of musical giants such as Ariyakudi, Maharajapuram, Semmangudi, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers and Chembai, awe-inspiring in their achievements and intimidating in their charisma – a situation that worked equally to his advantage and disadvantage. Advantage, because the Himalayan standards they set spurred him on to scale ever higher peaks. Disadvantage, because his achievements, however hard won, were invariably overshadowed by those of the high profile stalwarts. Where a lesser musician would have quailed, the self-taught vocalist remained undaunted by their formidable stature, undeterred by the long haul ahead and uncompromising in his realisation of the grand classical ideal.

By dint of sheer industry, the artist carved a niche for himself, winning the respect of peers and the adulation of audiences. “My life centred round sadhakam – from 8 am - 1 pm, a break for lunch and then from 4 - 8 pm. A vocalist should have perfect voice control and to achieve this, assiduous practice is a must.” The results were there for all to hear. An extraordinarily fluid voice that traversed three octaves with enviable ease, firing fusillades of greased lightning brigas and ravai sangatis, yet gentled to elaborate vilamba kala with weight and power, the orderly construction of alapana and sangati progression in kriti, the evenness of kalapramana, the effervescence of sarvalaghu and judicious use of kanakku in kalpanaswara, the effortless exposition of demanding pallavis, the masterful delineation of both heavyweight and rare ragas.

The narrative is interspersed with video clips of eminent musicians who felicitated the artist on the occasion of his being conferred with the Sangita Kala Sikahamani title by the Indian Fine Arts, in 2010. Senior mridanga vidwan T.V. Gopalakrishnan lauded Rangarajan’s wellspring of creativity and prodigious vidwat that came to the fore during back-to-back marathon concerts on six consecutive days! They left him exhausted, but Rangarajan was as energetic and raring to go on day six as he had been on day one! Each kutcheri was a unique presentation with no repetitions, no burn out. Late vidwans T.K. Govinda Rao and Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan paid rich tributes, the former acknowledging Rangarajan as his ‘manasiga guru’ and the latter sharing his recollection of a Rama Navami concert that enthralled a mammoth audience.

Words of praise

As the film is the brainchild of Pathmanabha Iyer, a London-based long-time rasika, the footage, among its significant moments, counts interviews with him and with several artists teaching and performing in the U.K., who have succinctly recorded their appreciation of the finer nuances of the vidwan’s artisanship.

As the vidwan travels with his family to his native Manakkal and the miles slide past in a blur of earth, sky and foliage, he journeys back in time, marking tala to glorious recorded renditions that include ‘Ninnuvina’ (Navarasa Kannada, Tyagaraja), justly famous for the stunning precision of the rapid-fire sangati line up in the kriti. Echoes from the past rise up from the pyol of his ancestral house that once reverberated with akara sadhakam and varisais. Father Santhanakrishna Bhagavathar, a Harikatha exponent, honed the abundant talent of his youngest son, while mother Seethalakshmi ensured a smoothly humming household, lavishing care on her family. The young vocalist’s first big break came with a kutcheri in RR Sabha in 1940, while successive Tiruvaiyaru performances fetched the highest accolades.

Concerts in which the artist was accompanied by greats such as Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, Mysore T. Chowdaiah, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Palghat Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai to name a few, remain embedded in memory by virtue of their invaluable support and contribution.

What comes across in the narrative, is the artist’s quest for virtuosity rather than a thirst for fame. Golden opportunities were utilised to the utmost in terms of artistic integrity. If due recognition did not follow, the vidwan’s serene acceptance is a lesson in karma yoga. The kutcheri-packed peak years did not make him an inaccessible icon to his family. With professional success and a busy schedule, the close-knit family only grew closer, with wife, son and daughter as accompanists.

Wife Padma (vocalist), disciple and constant companion describes a caring husband who believed in marriage as an equal partnership in which her domain was not limited to the kitchen, a rarity in his generation. A touching sequence captures the couple’s camaraderie as they render a kriti together, seated on a swing. Daughter Banumathi Hariharan (violinist) remembers an affectionate father who went all out to ensure that his family had meals on time during journeys. Son Sriram (mridanga vidwan) has been instrumental in digitizing and archiving the limited number of audio recordings. ‘My father did not set much store by recorded music and allowed very few concerts to be taped – the only regret of family and rasikas.’ The lively interactive session that followed the screening saw the nonagenarian vidwan fielding posers with calm assurance.

(Priced at Rs.275, DVD copies are available with Amshan Kumar. Contact 9884332244.)