Santhome, Madras, 1960. Twenty-year-old Ramachandran of Trichur sat with his mother Kamalamba in the foyer of vidwan GNB’s house. They heard the mild sound of footsteps and looked up to see GNB walking down the stairs. Tall, fair and handsome; in all, an arresting presence.
“What will you sing for me?” GNB quickly addressed the purpose of their visit, and Ramachandran began ‘Sarasaksha Paripalaya…’ in his full-throated voice. Eager to display his best, he halted at the top gandhara and rolled out kalpanaswaras.
A brief pause followed the short recital and GNB said, “One should not halt at the top gandhara in Pantuvarali but you sang well. Again a brief pause, and then he asked, “Do you have your horoscope?” It was GNB’s practice to study the horoscope of aspirants if he found them promising. “No, but I will send it,” Kamalamba replied.
The horoscope was sent. A few weeks later, Ramachandran received a letter from GNB. It read, “You sang well. You have a good future in music. I’ll certainly teach you.” Beaming, Kamalamba looked at Chandru, as she fondly called her son. She had shared his ‘GNB-dream’ ever since he was a child.
1944. “Swish, Swish.” Four-year-old Chandru observed the butter that temptingly rolled itself into an irregular ball as his mother churned the huge pot of buttermilk. His focus, however, was on the song that she was singing, ‘Pralayapayodhijale.’ A few hours later, swinging on an oonjal , he sang the same song. He didn’t need to be taught. He was a natural.
“He has such a good voice. Let’s put him under a music teacher.” Chandru’s maternal grandfather suggested to his daughter. And vidwan Varkala Subramania Bhagavatar laid the foundation in place. The child was also enrolled in school at his father Vaidyantha Iyer’s insistence. Iyer was the Chief Justice of the Cochin High Court. But apart from those few hours at school, it was music all the way for Chandru. By the time Chandru was eight his musical skills were quite impressive. He came under the tutelage of Tirupunithura R. Krishna Iyer. Her son’s innate ability to sing and the timbre of his voice kindled an ambitious desire in Kamalamba. Was it possible that he could learn from GNB? It was around that time the boy heard a live concert of the master and the ‘GNB dream’ was born in him too.
At 14, Ramachandran gave his first concert and at 18, became a graded artist of All India Radio. Looking at his son’s increasing involvement in music and his wife actively fanning that passion, Vaidyanatha Iyer voiced his misgivings. “He is going to be slack in his studies.” But for once the Chief Justice was wrong in his judgment. Ramachandran graduated with a Degree in Chemistry.
But after that, he seriously considered plunging into music full time. Vaidyanatha Iyer had his reservations, but encouraged by his mother, Ramachandran wrote a letter to GNB asking for his advice and received this line in reply, “Music as an art is good but as a profession very difficult. One should have luck.” Nevertheless, Kamalamba sought an appointment with the master and thereafter, had come the letter mentioned earlier.
An excited Ramachandran moved to Madras and classes with GNB commenced. But within a few weeks, he learnt that he had got admission into the Kozhikode Medical College. The prospect of becoming a doctor tempted him and Ramachandran joined the college. One day at class, a cadaver was wheeled in. The lecturer readied himself to dissect the corpse. Ramachandran shrank in horror and shut his eyes. This was definitely not for him. He took the next train to Madras and went back to GNB, who simply said, “Good, you have taken the right decision.”
The next five years were the most memorable in Ramachandran’s life. He listened intently to every note that GNB sang and hung on his every word. “Just by observing the movement of your lips, the onlooker should be able to write the words. Your intonation of the lyrics should be such. Listen to Iyengarval keenly, he represents the optimum in music. To attain mastery, work hard; as a master, stay humble.”
Sadly, in 1965, there was a visible deterioration in GNB’s health. An emotional Ramachandran, while expressing his heartfelt gratitude to his guru added, “I should have come to you earlier.” The ailing musician replied, “You came at the right time. Only now have I begun to understand the art.” GNB passed away on May 1, 1965.
Within a few months, the receipt of a Government of India scholarship with its stipulation of being guided by a teacher, led Ramachandran to the redoubtable M.L. Vasanthakumari. The ‘MLV years’ proved to be a godsend for him for it was here that he met the woman he would marry, Charumati. Their wedding took place in 1973.
As early as in the late 1960s, Trichur V. Ramachandran had come to be recognised as a musician of merit. His strong voice, energetic singing, vivid imagination and uncanny resemblance to the GNB bani drew a lot of admiration. Further, he had a very wide repertoire and offered his rasikas an enjoyable musical fare. The 1970s witnessed rare concerts of his, performed in partnership with musicians such as S. Kalyanaraman and Maharajapuram Santhanam.
Down the years, his handling of the tail-end pieces in Hindustani ragas also evoked much appreciation. It was maybe, to be expected from a GNB sishya, but senior violinist M.S. Anantharaman took it a step forward when he suggested,
“Your handling of these ragas is so good. You should train in Hindustani music as well.” An out-of-the-world experience while listening to a concert by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi concert around this time, clinched the decision for Ramachandran. In 1992, along with Charumati, he enrolled under Krishnanand, a notable teacher of that style, and within a couple of years, gave a full-fledged Hindustani concert to critical acclaim.
Performances at prestigious venues in different parts of the world, a plethora of awards and best-selling records that included his magnum-opus on ‘Narayaneeyam,’ formed a natural corollary to Ramachandran’s burgeoning musicianship and growing fame. Significantly, alongside the upward trajectory of his own career graph, his wife Charumati had also evolved into an admirable musician. Right from the beginning, onset of their relationship, both of them had continuously brought out the best in each other. It helped that they belonged to the same bani but more admirable was the fact that they rejoiced so wholeheartedly in each other’s successes.
In the 1980s Charumati and Ramachandran gave several concerts together. In 1993, Charumati created a record by becoming the first musician to conceive, produce and direct an opera, titled ‘Sri Krishna Madhuri’. Ramachandran played the characters of Tukkaram, Swati Tirunal and Narayana Bhattadri. Completing this endearing family picture was the participation of their daughter Shubashree, who was a budding musician.
Charumati’s creative urges resulted in many such operas and witnessed Ramachandran’s enthusiastic participation in all of them. In 2001, ‘Nauka Charitram’ performed at the prestigious Theatre-de-la-Ville in Paris evoked the rhapsodic appreciation of the French audience
Ramachandran is now 72. Looking back on his musical journey, he muses, “The path is inherently long and tough. There are no shortcuts. What is important is that you traverse it the right way. Experimentations and innovations are welcome. However, one must realise that it takes a long time to understand the style of one’s own guru. One must fully internalise that before attempting to express one’s own individuality.”
On January 1, 2013, Trichur V. Ramachandran will be honoured with The Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi. It is a long association that he shares with this institution, a relationship that assumes greater significance for him because it was one his guru had facilitated exactly 50 years ago. Halfway through a class, the telephone had rung. It was an Academy official on the other side. During the course of conversation, GNB had volunteered, “I have a student called Ramachandran. He sings very well. Give him a chance.” And Ramachandran gave his maiden concert at the Academy on December 22, 1962.
“My guru…,” begins Ramachandran emotionally. He pauses and sums up his thoughts, “My successful journey of five decades can be encapsulated in just three letters — GNB. He is my be all and end all.”
They saw GNB walking down the stairs, tall, fair and handsome. In all, an arresting presence.