‘Vellore' Ramabhadran on accompanying stalwart musicians on stage, the raga and rhythm of Mylapore and vignettes from the veedhis

From the sheltered living of a small town to a sea of opportunities and the dynamism of a big city, I arrived in Madras from Vellore in 1942 — wide-eyed and with a heart full of hopes and dreams. My father and guru Vellore Konnakkol Gopalachariar, an accomplished laya vidwan, felt I could hone my skills in Madras and gain a sound footing in the world of music.

I stayed with my uncle T.P. Srinivasa Varadan, who was then headmaster of the Hindu High School. His house was in Mylapore and I was excited about staying in the city's cultural zone. Life in Mylapore had a laya of its own since you were constantly surrounded by raga and rhythm. I was delighted to see and hear the vidwans I had idolised. They had an aura about them and it was difficult to penetrate their veneer of reserve. But many of them had a fun side or an impeccable sense of humour that was not known to the world at large.

Since I was meticulously trained by my father in all aspects of percussion, my mastery of mridangam was acknowledged widely and earned me the title of ‘Sarva Laghu' (for adeptness in playing at every scale and tempo unobtrusively). Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar even gave a tuneful twist to my name when he called me ‘Nadabhadran'. Where else but in Madras could have I reached musical heights? Where else could I have rasikas whose insight and applause have added depth to my playing?

I soon began to get opportunities to perform. At my first major cutcheri in Madras in1943 at the Jagannatha Baktha Sabha, I accompanied stalwart Madurai Mani Iyer, who made his presence with his mellifluous voice and his dense kudumi. To get an appreciative nod or a word of appreciation from the seniors was considered a bhagyam. I have seen artistes such as the Alathur Brothers, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Palani Subramania Pillai and Muruga Bhupathy sitting in the front row during concerts.

Unlike today, the turnout at cutcheris was not very huge. Maybe the lack of transport was a reason. It was particularly difficult to travel from Mylapore to town to hear a cutcheri. The Tamil Isai Sangam and Indian Fine Arts held their concerts at St. Mary's Hall and Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street.

A few of those who owned cars got curious stares wherever they went and their periyamansha (big people!) status often figured in neighbourhood conversations. The negligible number of vehicles meant thin traffic on roads. I would hang the mridangam on the shoulder and walk to performance venues.

Those days, people walked long distances or would sometimes take a tram or a bus. You could travel to Parry's in the tram on a 10-anna ticket and return on the same ticket if you boarded the tram within an hour. Many people used this facility for vegetable shopping. They would go to the famous Kotwalchavadi market, buy vegetables and board the tram within an hour.

Life for those who lived in Mylapore revolved around the mada veedhis that looked colourful with people selling fresh vegetables and flowers. There were also vendors selling knick-knacks. It was nice waking up to the ringing of the bells in Kapaleeswarar kovil.

Life in the mada veedhis was all about bonhomie and having time for others. Sadly, today's over-crowded mada veedhis are losing their traditional charm. It used to be a sight to behold — the celebrated Papanasam Sivan leading the bhajanai troupe during Margazhi mornings. Well-known artistes would follow him and join in the singing. I consider myself fortunate as he would stop the bhajanai at the temple corner and ask me to play the mridangam. Artistes cherished such simple moments.

Where you performed or how much you got paid did not seem to bother artistes — they performed without mikes, sitting on a jamakalam on a totally unadorned stage. Later, when mikes were introduced, one microphone was placed in the centre to be shared by the vocalist and accompanying musicians.

In those days even people who made music instruments shared a rapport with artistes. Munnuswamy of Triplicane was well-known for making and repairing mridangams. The mridangams made by him were known for their mellifluent nadham that resonated even long after it was played.

BIO ‘VELLORE' G RAMABHADRAN Born in 1929, Ramabhadran was initiated into the world of percussion by his illustrious father T.P. Gopalachari. A sought-after accompanist, he excels in adapting his playing to all ‘banis' and is known for his restrained approach. A recipient of honours such as Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Sangeetha Choodamani, Kalaimamani, Sri Chowdaiah Memorial award, Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Ramabhadran has performed with many maestros including Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, flute Mahalingam, Maharajapuram Santhanam and others.

I REMEMBER In 1975 after I received the Sangeetha Choodamani honour at the Krishna Gana Sabha, Palghat Mani Iyer said, ‘The layam and sruti sudham in his playing comes from the blending of the skin — of the palm and the mridangam.‘