Veteran vocalist and teacher K. Venkataramanan is all smiles when he speaks about his long career in music. A rare musician who has no complains whatsoever about awards, recognitions, concerts and programmes that may or may not have come his way. He says he believes in doing his duty and giving it his best without waiting to see what the rewards are. The 77-year-old emphasises that he sees each of his achievements as the blessings of his gurus, parents and god. Photographs of his concert in Kuthiramalika in Thiruvananthapuram during the Swati Sangeetotsavam of 2012 have pride of place on the walls of his house along with a grainy black-and-white photograph of him receiving an award from Rajendra Prasad, the President of India. Excerpts from an interview…
The boy from Mangalore
We hail from Mangalore. After I finished my class ten, I told my mother, Bhageerathi, that I planned to go to Hyderabad to search for a job, perhaps in a hotel. My father, Kannarayn Krishna Sastri, was then working in Thiruvananthapuram as a priest for the royal family of erstwhile Travancore. He wanted to know if I was interested in learning music. When I replied in the affirmative, he told me to come to Thiruvananthapuram, the centre of Carnatic music in Kerala, and enrol as a student in the Swati music college. I reached the capital city in 1951. But by then the admissions had closed. However, the then Principal of the college, none other than Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, was kind enough to meet me. He wanted me to sing what I had learnt. When he came to know that I had not learnt music, he told me to study the basics of Carnatic music and apply the next year. I did as he advised and in ‘52, joined as a student in the college.
Learning from titans
Legends worked as teachers in the college. Nellai T.V. Krishnamoorthy, whom I consider as my guru, N.V. Narayana Bhagavathar, C.S. Krishna Iyer and Kallidaikurichi K.S. Harihara Iyer were some of them. In the fourth year, Semmangudi himself used to take one-hour classes for us.
In the service of music
After I passed the four-year Ganabhushan course, I participated in an all-India competition conducted by All India Radio. I went on to win the first prize and went to Delhi to receive the award from the then President of India Rajendra Prasad himself. It was the very first time that AIR was conducting such a competition for up-and-coming Carnatic vocalists. Later, I did my post-diploma in music and was selected as a music teacher by the Department of Education. I worked there for eight years, before joining my alma mater as a lecturer. Altogether, I served as a teacher of music for 31 years. My legion of students is my biggest strength and hearing them sing correctly is my biggest reward.
Listening and practice
Both are very important. There are lots of talented youngsters today. But they lack proper guidance and practice. When they should be listening and practising their skills, they are launched on to concert platforms. As a result, I feel that concerts have lost their quality and depth, everything has become lighter. Even today, I listen to concerts sung by veterans and newcomers. Even a child might be able to teach you something new. It is imperative to keep learning. Right now, I am learning a new composition to sing at Tirupati, where I have a concert.
Yen for Purandaradasa
His compositions are in Kannada and maybe that is why I have a leaning towards that, considering that I hail from Karnataka. I have also scored some of his kritis. Once, when I sang in Mangalore, a rasika approached me with a request to tune the compositions of Haridas Laxminarayanaappaya of South Karnataka. By the grace of god, I was able to tune 200 of his kritis and present them too at different concerts. I was also able to notate several kritis in Tulu.
Favourite ragas, musicians
All the ragas are close to my heart. But maybe Kalyani, Kalyanavasantham and Thodi would be little high on my list of ragas. I sang Kalyani for the competition conducted by AIR in 1956 and even now it is a favourite of mine. I am a great fan of legendary singers such as Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi, Chembai, G.N.B., M.L. Vasantakumari, Madurai Mani Iyer…
The brevity of time for a concert is certainly cause for concern. I feel that at least one hour should be devoted to the main item in a recital. Then the sub main can have a raga visthara and swarams and the other numbers can have either one or the other. A concert should be like a traditional sadya – a sumptuous blend of different tastes, textures and flavours. Much in the same way, a concert should have a blend of different ragas in different talas and tempo, different kritis and so on. I am not much in favour of eka raga concerts.
A teacher first and foremost
I enjoy teaching as it enables you to keep practising and learning too. Performances are opportunities to test your learning and potential. I still continue to teach as a guest lecturer for senior students.
I have given several concerts in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Last year, I sang at the Navaratri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram for the first time. It was on the ninth day of the festival and I had to sing Arabhi. I was terribly nervous. This is a place where legends have performed. But I was told that I did a good job. In January this year, I got the opportunity to give a recital at the Kuthiramalika in the capital city. That must be the most memorable one. I felt it was better than all the awards I could possibly get! I will be singing in the Navarathri Mandapam this year too.