REMINISCENCES More honours have been coming nonagenarian mridangist Rajappa Iyer's way, this music season.
A living tradition influences our inner faculties, humanises our nature and lifts us to a higher level — Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Palakkad Mani Iyer has this much to say about him: "Those under his tutelage will become stalwarts" (Avar kitta sollindava ellarum nanna varuva). Sri Semmangudi speaks of him as one who performed Vidhya Dhaanam. Sri Yagnyaraman (Krishna Gana Sabha) addresses him as the grand old teacher. The person is Kumbakonam Rajappa Iyer. His mission in life has been the dissemination of mridanga vidhya. His methods (paadam) had a certain adaptable quality were acceptable to other schools. He meted out no preferential treatment — to him all his students were a single community. He could systematically raise the level of a novice by persuading those nimble fingers to its task and applying some intuitive corrective measures. His disciples are well known professional artistes on the mridangam, ghatam or kanjira. Srimushnam Raja Rao, K.R. Ganesh (son), Balashankar, Umayalpuram Mali, Umayalpuram V. Kalyanaraman, Palani Kumar, Ganapathy Raman, Vijay Siva, Manoj Siva, Madipakkam Murali, Adambakkam Shankar , Kalakkadu Srinivasan — the list could go on.
Treasuring the art
Rajappa Iyer has accompanied an incredible cross section of masters such as Ariyakudi, Sivan, T. K. Rangachari, M. D. Ramanathan, Balamuralikrishna, Chittibabu, Lalgudi Jayaraman and Ramani apart from giving many lec-dems on mridangam and ghatam playing techniques. Born in 1916 at Kumbakonam, Rajappa Iyer had as his mentor Rama Sadhu from whom he learnt yogaabyaasam and practised it with firm conviction. He treasured art and turned away from auditing to become a mridangist. He learnt from Azhaganambi Pillai and after his demise, from Saakotttai Rangu Iyengar. Rajappa Iyer is also an expert in ghatam fingering and in fact made his debut as the second percussion (ghatam-upa-pakka vadhyam) accompanist to Madurai Maariappa Swamigal.Saakottai Rangu Iyengar himself played the mridangam on that memorable day. Reminiscing about Azhaganambi Pillai he says nobody can even think of playing like Pillai for songs. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer used to make Pillai's accompaniment a precondition. On one occasion while rendering `Dudukugala,' Viswanatha Iyer in a moment of forgetfulness kept singing the same line repeatedly. It was Pillai who helped him out — he played the next line on the mridangam! Of Saakottai Rangu Iyengar, Rajappa Iyer wishes to call him a `laya sithar' who could sing well too. In a concert of Naina Pillai at Kumbakonam he was able to play a misra jathi jampai tala pallavi (10 aksharam, 4 kalai, ½ idam) impromptu! And then played a tani in same talam — he could challenge and provoke.
Disciples and gurus
Rajappa Iyer says that while there were many schools in existence after the names of giants such as Azhaganambi Pillai, Saakottai Rangu Iyengar, Kutralam Sivavadivelu Pillai and Thanjavur Vaidhyanatha Iyer, at present the main schools are those of Palakkad Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, Ramanathapuram Murugaboopathy, Harihara Sharma, Thanjavur Upendran and Karaikudi Mani. It is our fortune that these gurus have given us more disciples than ever before and it is partly so because many are willing to take to the mridangam. Rajappa Iyer was always the most sought after presiding guru at arangetrams, and not without reason. It was his routine to meet the parents of the fledglings and to advise them benignly. Hard work was his watchword for attaining depth and mastery. The rest he felt would follow.
The titles that have come his way are Layavadya Kovida, Nadha Kanal, Mridanga Laya Mani, Sangeetha Seva Niratha, DKJ memorial award, TTK memorial award, a special honour by Colgate University of New York and Music Academy's Sangeeta Kala Acharya ( 2001). Yagnyaraman, mentions that Rajappa Iyer has spent 50 years teaching. He commenced his classes at the Krishna Gana Sabha in 1961. He was not demoralised when the initial class strength was a mere two. The strength, in due course, increased to 95. He spent long hours with each student till he, as the teacher, was satisfied with the outcome. The prizes being awarded each year to a junior mridangam artiste, in the names of Saakottai Rangu Iyengar and Azhaganambi Pillai (Rajappa Iyer's gurus), have been instituted by Rajappa Iyer. Iyer is a man of unimpeachable integrity. Sruthi Laya Kendra, in continuing with its yeoman service to senior artistes, honoured Rajappa Iyer in December 2005. In spite of his old age Rajappa Iyer was present to accept the honour and in his brief acceptance speech thanked Karaikudi Mani profusely for remembering him and organising the function. Another event is being organised by Rajappa Iyer's disciples to celebrate his 90th birthday, on January 10, at Narada Gana Sabha. A VCD and a book containing lessons from basics to kanda chapu thalam as enunciated by Rajappa Iyer, will be released on the occasion. (Inputs provided by Srimushnam Raja Rao, Ganapathi Raman, Ashwin Sridharan and K. R. Ganesh)