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On a joyous musical journey

Confronted with choice, T. V. Sankaranarayanan has always voted for music. The decision has fetched great results for this nephew of Madurai Mani Iyer, observes LAKSHMI DEVNATH.

JOYOUS, MELODIOUS, vibrant — all these are apt to prefix the music of T. V. Sankaranarayanan, Sangita Kalanidhi designate of the year 2003. Also, other titles like Sangita Kala Jothi, Sangita Maamani, Sri Ranjani Kala Sagaram and probably a few more are to be conferred on him this year. In his music, life or physical appearance, T. V. Sankaranarayanan or TVS (as he is popularly known), strongly resembles his uncle — the legendary Madurai Mani Iyer who is his guru, mentor and for all practical purposes his God in human form.

A biography of TVS cannot be sketched without touching upon the life of Madurai Mani Iyer, for the lives of both were inextricably linked right from the birth of Sankaranarayanan or Raman as he is known among close circles. Madurai Mani Iyer, due to the exigencies of World War II, shifted to Mayuram from Madras.

In Mayuram, on March 7, 1945, his sister Gomathi and her husband T. S. Vembu Iyer were blessed with a son. They named him Sankaranarayanan. In Mayuram, Sankaranarayanan grew up literally with music around him — Todi, Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam, Shanmukhapriya et al.

Added to this, visiting musicians of great calibre provided the icing on the cake. Thus it was but natural that Sankaranarayanan displayed an interest in music right from a tender age. Under instructions from her guru and brother, Gomathi taught her son the rudiments of music. One day, Madurai Mani Iyer started the lessons for his young nephew with "Giriraja Suta ... Tanaya ... ". By the time he was ten, Sankaranarayanan had learnt 50 kritis from his uncle, some of them melody mammoths like "O Jagadamba" (Ananda Bhairavi), "Kamalambam Bhajare" (Kalyani) and so on. By 1955-56, the family shifted back to Madras. This period also saw a perceptible shift in young Sankaranarayanan's attitude towards music. Cricket had become an obsession with young Sankaranarayanan to the extent that one day his uncle Madurai Mani Iyer beckoned him and said, "Rama, make your choice. If you want to sing, give up cricket. But if you want to play cricket, give up music." Sankaranarayanan took a decision to opt for music and the third generation of musicians in the family, commencing from Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, had now begun. From 1961, Sankaranarayanan put his heart and soul into music and by his 16th year even started providing vocal support for his uncle. In 1959, Sankaranarayanan, on behalf of Madurai Mani Iyer, whose eyesight was dimming by this time, also read out the Sangita Kalanidhi address on the stage; the memory of which, he cherishes to this day.

Over the years, Sankaranarayanan completed his graduation in Commerce and also took up a degree in law only to later realise that a full-fledged lawyer's profession hardly afforded him any time for music. The decision again went in favour of music. Mani Iyer also suggested that his nephew regularly listen to concerts of other musicians. In fact, recalls Sankaranarayanan, "Even after his own concert, Mani Iyer would ask, `Rama what did you like in my concert today?' Such was his greatness."

One day, senior violinist T. N. Krishnan, also a regular visitor to Mani Iyer's house, remarked, "Iyerval, Raman is singing so well. Why can't he sing solo?" Mani Iyer thought for a while and on February 1, 1968, asked his nephew to sing at home to the accompaniment of T. N. Krishnan and mridangist Vellore Ramabhadran. Sankaranarayanan had passed the acid test. On the very day, his arangetram took place with the above mentioned stalwarts and also Alangudi Ramachandran readily accompanying him in this young artiste's maiden concert.

In fact, even in the successive years and, in the initial stages of his career, Sankaranarayanan has had the rare privilege of stalwarts like Lalgudi Jayaraman, M. S. Gopalakrishnan, T. K. Murthy, Murugabhoopathy, Palghat Raghu, Umayalapuram Sivaraman and a host of other seniors willingly providing him accompaniment. At this juncture, Mani Iyer offered him a few pearls of advice. He said, "Raman, take to music; sing well; if you sing well concerts will come in search of you instead of vice-versa. Don't worry if other people have more concerts than you. You concentrate on your work. The rest will automatically follow. Again, do not worry if only ten people attend your concerts. If you sing well these ten in course of time will increase to hundred and will proceed to grow. Never cause inconvenience to the organisers." To Sankaranarayanan, to this day, these words are gospel not to be violated at any cost.

On June 8, 1968, Madurai Mani Iyer died. Vembu Iyer decided to give up his own career and focus all his energy and talent in grooming his son. Sankaranarayanan remembers with gratitude the long practice sessions he had at home with his father strumming the tambura. It was his father who taught him the nuances of music and also groomed him as a concert artiste. His career graph gradually started registering an upward curve. It was a jam-packed hall. "Oru Kal Urai... " _ the sruti and bhava music of Sankaranarayanan touched the heart and soul of the audience. The time was 10 p.m. But the audience was thirsting for more music. "Eppo Varuvaro," shouted a voice, "notes, notes", another voice was heard. Sankaranarayanan, unmindful of the time, happily obliged his fans. A thundering ovation followed.

Audience appreciation apart, several honours, awards and titles have also sought him in abundant measure. In 1975, he was the first male vocalist to be invited to the United States on a full-fledged concert tour. Till date, the demand for his concerts abroad continues unabated and he has visited several countries like Canada, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong. In September 1999, he was chosen to perform at the `Millennium 2000' concert at the Lincoln Centre, New York.

Titles and awards have been heaped on him since 1975 like the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Sangita Choodamani, Sangita Kala Sarathy, Padma Bhushan (2003) and Sangita Kalanidhi (to be awarded in January 2004).

Over the years, Sankaranarayanan, while faithfully following his uncle's style, has also evolved into an artiste with an individualistic approach to music. His RTPs are innovative and he enjoys singing them even in rare and minor ragas like Brindavana Saranga, Hamsanandi, Surya, Kalyana Vasantham and so on. His repertoire of songs, of the Trinity and other composers, could be the envy of any musician. He has mastered, from his uncle, approximately 15-20 songs in ragas like Todi, Sankarabharanam and Kharaharapriya. In subsequent years, he has further expanded his repertoire to include kritis in rare ragas like Vishnupriya. Sankaranarayanan observes, "In fact, it was in my house that Tanjore Sankara Iyer composed his song in this raga and immediately taught it to me."

Sankaranarayanan also sings the compositions of several other contemporary composers. His penchant for Tamil music is all but too well known and has earned him the titles of Sivan Isai Chelvar and Tamil Isai Vendar.

Notwithstanding a hectic concert schedule, Sankaranarayanan is a voracious reader of English literature, and also has a deep interest in Hindustani music and Western classical. His attitude towards life is a positive one that makes him look only at the brighter side of things. Like his uncle, he avoids singing ragas with a melancholic flavour though he does sing viruttams with devotional fervour.

However, to Sankaranarayanan, life is a joyous journey and one to be celebrated. While his music with his lively ragas and bouncing swaras lifts the spirits of the listener, the artiste looks at it as a means to spiritual growth.

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