Sound and firm training in vocal music, led M. Kodandaram to the nadaswara. Musicians hail him as the complete musician

We don’t frequently hear of nadaswara vidwans being chosen for Ganakala Bhushana awards, and this time when M. Kodandaram received the same at Karnataka Ganakala Parishat, it came as a pleasant surprise. “Kodandaram is a complete musician,” said vocalist R.K. Padmanabha at the recently held award ceremony during the Sangeetha Sammelana. Only when I spoke to the nadaswara veteran did I understand what this ‘completeness’ meant to a musician, especially a nadaswara artiste. Let me start with his unassuming disposition that perhaps underlines a rare trait in an accomplished artiste. “I am overwhelmed that an English newspaper is going to feature me,” he almost sounded embarrassed.

Hailing from a family of farmers in Gudupalli in Andhra, it was considered God’s gift that Kodandaram’s father Muniswamy took to nadaswara even as a child. “My father wanted me to pursue a profession with the mangala vadya, and with my aksharaabyaasa started my sangeethabyaasa too,” says Kodandaram. When the family moved to KGF he was under Venkateshulu for senior grade music lessons, before the teenaged boy was packed off to Thanjavur to come under T.R. Jayaraman Pillai at Tiruvengadu, the Budha Kshetra temple and later Mayavaram Brothers. “As the Thanjavur belt was infested with nadaswara vidwans, my father was resolute about his decision,” says Kodandaram, pleased about the timely intervention that helped him reap the benefits of his long musical devotion.

“I would term my gurukula at Thanjavur as ‘devotion and prayer’ as it wasn’t a run-through of the so-called syllabus. My curriculum started with patient observation for one whole year! It was sheer endurance test as my lessons started only after a silent hear-and-grasp of my guru and other musicians at home and in temples. “Perhaps this method helped a guru also to assess a student’s true interest,” he quips. That was not all. Advanced lessons, without any notes on paper, commenced with vocal music and only after a kriti or a raga chaaye was mastered vocally would his gurus take it up on the nadaswara, said Kodandaram. “I later was fortunate to play everyday for the poojas at Swetaranyeshwara diety at Tiruvengadu temple and perhaps my fervour dragged me to Karnataka soil for more vocal lessons from Anoor Ramakrishna of Ayyanar College of Music in Bangalore,” he says.

This was a phase when his passion to learn more and more kritis helped him take up a diverse fare on his nadaswara for all his other sabha cutcheris. “I realised I have to steer away from being a temple and wedding musician. Although playing at auspicious occasions gives me immense pleasure as it is my bread-and-butter, it is my vocal music obsession that helps me in my path to become a complete musician. I believe that to improve one’s repertoire, every instrumentalist should go through the initial vocal schooling,” he says emphatically.

So, is Kodandaram advocating the Gayaki school for instrumentalists where the style is a pronounced vocal approach? “This technique has helped me get at least four kinds of gamakas in the so-called 10 gamakas existing in the Carnatic genre. Even in a wind-instrument such as the nadaswara, generally associated with straight notes, I deal with gamaka-laden sangatis in raga alapane and kriti,” he says. The powerful gamaka and emotion is evident in Kodandaram’s treatment when he takes up Dikshitar’s attatala navagraha kriti in Farz raga, “Sri Shukra Bhagavantam” where most sabha reviews have extolled his distinctive style.

Kodandaram’s schooling also made him a veteran in sound management as the loud instrument needed skilful handling. Apart from guarded breath control in certain phrases, his gurus at Thanjavur had insisted on a cloth cover during his rehearsals that helped students listen to their own play and control the audio levels to a great extent. “Ragas like Todi where expertise is needed for handling every-swara oscillation and controlled breath in the scale is what determines a musician’s instrument skill,” he reveals.

Kodandaram’s visit to the U.S. was a big success as most auditoriums were packed in the stream of concerts arranged by Nada Tarangini. Apart from being a recipient of the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award and the Kempegowda Prashasti by Mahanagara Palike, he has lead several film music orchestrations and is a Top Grade artiste of AIR.

But just as other senior nadaswara vidwans generally ask for, Kodandaram also feels that sabhas can organise open-air concerts for the nadaswara. This will help integrating the instrument into mainstream.