INTERVIEW Sound training in vocal music led M. Kodandaram to the nagaswaram. “It is my love for vocal music that guides me in my path to become a complete musician.”

We don't frequently hear of nagaswara vidwans being chosen for Ganakala Bhushana awards. This time when M. Kodandaram received the same at Karnataka Ganakala Parishat in Bangalore, it came as a pleasant surprise. "Kodandaram is a complete musician," remarked vocalist R.K. Padmanabha. Only when I spoke to the veteran did I understand what this 'completeness' meant to a musician, especially a nagaswaram artist.

Let me begin with his unassuming disposition that perhaps underlines a rare trait in an accomplished artist. "I am overwhelmed that an English newspaper is going to feature me," he almost sounded embarrassed.

Early years

Hailing from a family of farmers in Gudupalli in Andhra, Kodandaram's father Muniswamy took to nagaswaram 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 trained under Venkateshulu for senior grade music lessons, before the teenager was packed off to Thanjavur to learn from T.R. Jayaraman Pillai at Tiruvengadu, and later Mayavaram Brothers.

"As the Thanjavur belt was teeming with nagaswara 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 a whole year! It was a 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 to assess a student's true talent and interest," he comments. That was not all. Advanced lessons, without any notes on paper, commenced in vocal music and only after a kriti or a raga chaaya was mastered vocally would his guru take it up on the nagaswaram. "I was fortunate to play every day for the poojas at Swetaranyeshwara deity at Tiruvengadu temple and perhaps my fervour dragged me to Karnataka for more vocal lessons from Anoor Ramakrishna of Ayyanar College of Music in Bangalore," he says.

Thirst for knowledge

This was a phase when his passion to learn more kritis helped him take up a diverse fare on his nagaswaram for his other kutcheris. "I realised I had to steer away from being a temple and wedding musician. Although playing on auspicious occasions gives me immense pleasure as it provides bread-and-butter, it is my love for vocal music that guides me in my path to become a complete musician. I believe that to improve one's repertoire, every instrumentalist should go through vocal training," he believes.

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 nagaswaram, generally associated with straight notes, I deal with gamaka-laden sangatis in raga alapana and kriti," he says. The powerful gamaka and emotion is evident in Kodandaram's treatment when he takes up Dikshitar's ata tala 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 in Thanjavur 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 such as Thodi where expertise is needed for handling every-swara oscillation and controlled breath in the scale, determine a musician's skill in playing an instrument," he reveals. Kodandaram's visit to the U.S. was a big success as most concerts, arranged by Nada Tarangini, were packed to capacity. Apart from being a recipient of the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award and the Kempegowda Prashasti by Mahanagara Palike, he has led several film music orchestrations and is a Top Grade artist of AIR.

Just as other senior nagaswaram vidwans generally ask for, Kodandaram also feels that sabhas can organise open-air concerts for the nagaswaram. This will help integrate the instrument into the mainstream.