MEET Prapancham Sitaram, musicologist, administrator, academician, and above all, an acclaimed flute player.
Prapancham Sitaram is many personalities rolled into one. As an administrator, he had served as Station Director, Chief Producer and Director of Programmes in the IBS cadre, AIR, controlling broadcasts throughout India. As an academician, he was an expert member in the UGC and retains his association with various Universities - Mysore, Delhi, Madras, Tamil, Telugu, and Ravindra Bharathi - as an evaluator, resource person and judge at viva sessions. The musicologist in him felt happiness when he got his doctorate from the Bangalore University by taking the measure of the flute, to use his own words 'horizontally and vertically', thus tracing its evolution.
Prapancham, the musician has 'unrivalled breath control, sensitive tonal chastity, perfect intonation and mediating phrases on the flute' — to mention the words of Subbudu. The Kalaimamani Award came to him in 1983.
Prapancham recalls his childhood years. "My toddler days were not over and I could barely utter a few words. Yet I was able to produce nadham from the flute." Bemused, his grand-uncle, Prapancham Srinivasachar a good flutist himself, realised that a star was in the making at home. And then the basic lessons on the flute began. "My grand-uncle's name is mentioned in Abraham Pandithar's Sangitha Karnamritham," Prapancham says proudly. At the age of five, Prapancham could play varnams and kritis.
He performed his first full-fledged kutcheri (three hours) even before he was 10, and mridangam maestros Mani Iyer and Palani were among some of his listeners. He remembers their blessings. His grand-uncle, who was 86 then, was not in favour of his learning at home anymore and so, Prapancham was introduced to the genius Mali, who accepted him as his disciple.
His other gurus Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, Sandhyavandhanam Srinivasa Rao and violinist Annavarappu Ramasamy played a vital role in shaping Prapancham musically. "Learning vocal music is a must for all instrumentalists, in order to absorb the meaning of the lyrics."
Prapancham's study of the flute made him comprehend the universal nature of the flute. It is known and played the world over in Congo, Alaska, New York and Tokyo.
"I was spurred on by Prof. Sambamurthy and Dr.V.Raghavan to find and read more about the flute and develop an enquiring mind. Dr. S. Ramanathan drew me to 'Silappadhikaram', which mentions the measurements that must be carried out to punch the holes on this bamboo beauty and also explains the reason for choosing the Harikhambodi melam as its base."
Prapancham's father Krishnamurthy belongs to the Tyagaraja Parampara. "It is known as the sishya-prasishya-prasishyasishya lineage. My father and Balamurali's father learnt from Parupalli Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu who was the disciple of Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sastry. Sastry garu was in turn a disciple of Manambuchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer who was the cousin and disciple of the Sadguru." Here was a tradition where regular practice (sadhana) was termed as a tapas and singing was nadopasana.
The sampradaya was such that not a single line could be changed from the patantara, and if done inadvertently, the prescribed expiation was a purifying bath. "Such was the kind of sanctity attached to our music. Manodharma was permitted only in alapanas, kalpanaswaras and niravals and this had to be well within the raga aesthetics."
Prapancham has been touring the world since the 1960s and was the first flutist to release an LP record in France in 1970 in Indian Flute. He created a milestone in the history of National Orchestra of AIR by devising, composing and conducting Vadyavani, and then won the most first prize in the International Music Competition organised by Asian Rostrum and sponsored by UNESCO for his orchestral composition 'Ragam Thanam Pallavi.'
He upbraids attempts at 'fusion' and would want its protagonists to listen to the compositions of Pandit Ravi Shankar, T.K. Jayaram Iyer, Emani Sankara Sastry, Anil Biswas, Balamurali, Balachandar and Lalgudi. That was music that had a meaning and purpose, where due attention was given to bring out the tonal colours and the unique richness of each instrument used. "The thar shenai had its inimitable quality in sound and the same was true of the viola, or the dilruba. I really long for those days where the concept of orchestra had the great aesthetics of Indian music in mind and never tended to be a pointless imitation of other kinds of music."
Today, his disciples Balasayi, Prapancham Mukhyaprana, Balakrishna Thanthri and Ramana carry forward his style. Talking about the current trend, he says, "Today's musicians take up and perform with astounding felicity alapanas in rare ragas as vividly as in well established ones. They also listen to Hindustani music, and are fond of and absorb its aesthetics and melody. They should apply themselves to bring in a little more depth and this then is the inexorable progress towards maturity."
As you wind up, you notice a cupboard with as many as 30 bound volumes - research papers - lined up in order. "These are the Ph.D. papers submitted by successful candidates for whom I happened to be the master-guide," says the mentor.
The Mali magic
The maestro Mali could grasp things even as they were being told (an eka santha grahi). His striving towards perfection meant a kind of self realisation which could be construed as an uncompromising purity of pitch, notes and oscillations (sruti, swara and gamaka sudhdham). Prapancham reveals another truth. "I have not seen him practise much on the flute. If he got into the mood, the violin would be in his hands and I have had the privilege of being with him during many of his violin sessions." He brushes aside the myth about Mali's eccentricity. "He was a noble soul, and had helped many deserving musicians quietly." (An interesting story is that Mali had a wish to become an emperor, like Alexander or Ashoka!)