With 300 students training in Carnatic music, 160 in dance, and 80 in art and design, the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts is bustling with song, dance and colour

Snatches of familiar tunes catch your ear as you walk around the hut-shaped, circular classrooms at Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts in Jaffna University.

One of them is ‘Sri Rajamatangi’— Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar’s popular varnam in Suddha Dhanyasi — that is heard distinctly, in a loud chorus of female voices. It is hardly surprising that the charming composition has travelled from south India across the seas all the way to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, going by the links that Jaffna and Tamil Nadu have had in the past.

Bound by the love of music, acclaimed musicians on either side of The Palk Strait exchanged ideas, collaborated, frequently hopping across the sea, until Sri Lanka’s ethnic war began in the 1980s, virtually paralysing the island’s northern regions. There is a fascinating Sri Lanka chapter to celebrated musician Maharajapuram Santhanam’s career — he was the first principal of the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts, called Ramanathan College then.

“His Jaffna stint was really the turning point of his life,” says his son Maharajapuram Srinivasan. During the nearly seven years he spent in Jaffna, Santhanam taught many students, tuned compositions and performed across Sri Lanka. “That was the time he reflected on his music very deeply,” Mr. Srinivasan said, speaking to The Hindu over telephone.

It was only after his return from Ceylon that his career peaked in India. Very soon, Santhanam rose to stardom, his fame surpassing even his legendary father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer’s. At the pinnacle of his career, Santhanam — credited with drawing unprecedented crowds to a Carnatic music concert — passed away in 1992, in a tragic car accident in Tamil Nadu.

“Few artistes can read the pulse of the audience the way he could,” said Yazhpanam A.K. Karunakaran, visiting faculty member at the Academy. Mr. Karunakaran was one of the nine students from the first batch of students to study in the institution, under Santhanam.

Viswanatha Iyer himself came to Jaffna for the inauguration of the college. Although friends asked him to stay back in Jaffna, he wanted to go back to Madras. He decided to leave behind his son Santhanam instead.

“He was such a liberal teacher,” said Mr. Karunakaran, suffixing his fond memory with a quick demo of ‘Sarasamukhi ...’ in raga Gowdamalhar, in his robust sounding voice. Enchanted by Santhanam’s music, Mr. Karunakaran followed him to Chennai to continue learning from him, and eventually became a full-time musician and teacher. Based in Colombo, Mr. Karunakaran travels to Jaffna frequently to offer classes at the Academy. Recalling his student days at the same institute, he said: “We were nine students in our batch. That was the first. Santhanam sir got people like Prof. Sambamurthy and Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao as external examiners for us. Those were the days when music flourished here in Jaffna.”

It is precisely that kind of engagement that the current Head of the Department, S. Darshanan, deems necessary now.

“In addition to artistes from India coming here and performing for our students, we need academics and musicologists from Chennai to come and hold workshops here,” he said. Among the locals, the Academy is much sought after. With 300 students training in music, 160 in dance, and 80 in art and design, the campus is bustling with song, dance and colour. “But opportunities are very limited here. Even at temple festivals, only light music is preferred. Teaching is the only option available for our graduates,” observes the 37-year-old who has a PhD in music from the University of Madras.

The academic-cum-musician is also encouraging colleagues and students to publish research papers in international journals. “There is a lot of work to be done in order to reconcile the theory handed down to us and the way we practise music.”