MUSICSCAN The second and final part on veteran musician M.D. Ramanathan analyses the critical comments and the well-deserved compliments that came his way during his lifetime.
In the preceding article in this column (Friday Review, June 8), I had catalogued the merits of Maha-Vidwan M.D. Ramanathan's unique and monumental style of singing. Unfortunately and quite ironically, MDR had a way of attracting very strong resistance from certain forceful music critics (not only in Madras but in other metros as well), whose harsh reviews often had a negative influence on rasikas everywhere. It is a measure of MDR’s absolute faith in his ‘Swadharma’ -- and in his guru ‘Tiger’ Varadachari’s precious legacy -- that he never made any concession whatsoever to the highly adverse criticism, but just carried on in his own way with unshakable conviction.
The main points of criticism were that MDR’s voice was pitched far too low; his tempo was far too slow; he had certain ‘mannerisms’, such as gesticulations and laboured facial expressions; and his pronunciation of the lyrics was often muffled. There was certainly a grain of truth in such criticism, and he could sometimes stretch things to such an extent that even his greatest admirers would become restless. But what the critics tended to overlook was the vital fact that the singer couldn’t have achieved a unique style without them.
The following extracts from my own reviews and essays would bring out the extremely intricate nature of the whole issue: Bharat Jyoti (Sunday edition of Free Press Journal), Bombay, 1969:
It is true that MDR does sometimes produce a certain amount of weariness in you, because of the relentlessly slow tempo which he likes to impose; but intriguingly enough, it’s the heaviest of his concerts which usually acquire the greatest beauty in retrospect.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about MDR’s music is that it appeals more to the senses than to the intellect, though it is basically intellectual, both in form and content. Its beauty might sometimes elude the ear, but seldom the memory; its weight might occasionally fatigue the mind, but never the spirit...
Hindustan Times Evening News, New Delhi, 1975:
It is true that MDR has a way of muffling some phrases, but he has such powers of suggestion that it hardly seems to matter. Moreover, if we value MDR’s stately style of singing, which depends greatly on his magnificent, low-keyed voice, we shouldn’t forget the fact that bass voices all over the world have problems of pronunciation.
In his book, ‘Going To The Opera’ (Penguin, London, 1955, page 22), Lionel Salter observes: “The heavier and fuller tone of the bass voice prevents it from being quite so agile as the others (and, as a matter of purely technical interest, it has greater difficulty in making its words clear); but for powerful characters... high priests, kings and noblemen, its weight is a great asset...”
Now, what would we rather have from M.D. Ramanathan, the high priest of Carnatic music? Powerful singing in a rich bass voice with some margin for muffling, or perfectly pronounced texts sung in a weak, high-pitched voice?
Hindustan Times Evening News, New Delhi, 1976:
What would you legitimately expect in the best Carnatic music concert you can imagine? Form? Content? Soulfulness? Spiritual joy? Excitement? Repose? Mystic vision? Fulfilment? Mention what you will, and it was there in this recital.
Nothing in this world is so perfect that it doesn’t have a flaw. And so perhaps it was inevitable that in the first half-hour (most of which was taken up by the invocative prayer ‘Vaatapi Ganapatim Bhajay’) the recital should have tended to drag badly.
I am constantly urging others to recognise that MDR’s abnormally slow tempo (like his abysmally low basic tonic) is a vital root of his serene style. Yet I found it difficult to appreciate the way he stretched this song, as if every phrase and syllable of it was a piece of rubber whose elastic properties he was determined to test to the limit.
But Lord Ganapati is apparently more merciful than mere earthbound music critics! MDR’s extended prayer must have moved Him greatly, for in the next three hours he bestowed on the artist the kind of inspiration which can only be the result of a devotee’s communion with the Almighty...
MDR’s rich, forceful voice and calm, meditative style produced a majestic pattern of sound which was at the same time a tidal wave which carried you away and a limpid pool in which you dipped and meditated...
Keywords: M.D. Ramanathan