INTERVIEW At 85, Nedunuri still remains as uncompromising as he was in the past with respect to his music VATSALA VEDANTAM
Nedunuri Krishna Murthy, the master craftsman of Carnatic music, once referred to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar as the Bhishma Pithamaha of melody. Today, at a splendid 85 years of unremitting devotion to this fine art, he could very well qualify for the title himself. When we watch him perform the melodious Bhairavi krithi “Sri Raghuvara Sugunaalaya” and teach the same to his pupils in the awesome ambience of the Tirumala temple, we are seeing an artist who believes in the ancient gurukula system of teaching where, in his own words, “they taught music like the Vedas!” According to him, there was no notation, no taking down notes, no learning of lyrics by heart. Pupils simply grasped the essence of music when the master sang. They listened and absorbed. They learnt to appreciate the intricacies of a raaga or thaala.
Nowadays, we teach and learn SONGS, not music,” says a sad Nedunuri, who believes that notations are only for reference. “The music must enter the mind and stay there,” he adds. I met him after a workshop for young musicians, where ambitious parents crowded the auditorium with their young wards, hoping that this guru would perform the miracle of placing them upon a public platform immediately. He deflated their hopes and aspirations with the stern advice: “Music is not just an art. It is a science to be studied, practised and assimilated for years. It not only needs talent, but a system of learning and training,” Nedunuri deplores the idea of students wanting to “do” a kutcheri after one year of training.
Do you realise what you are doing?” he thunders. “This is not like writing an examination and thinking your job is done. Music requires devotion and sacrifice of a high order if you must reach the top. Listen to vidwans, develop ‘ kelvi gnaanam ’ before anything else. Do you know it took me 20 years to understand and sing one kirthana?” He quotes Ariyakudi who was once asked why he sang the same keerthana again and again in all his kutcheris. His answer was simple. “I will sing it 200 or even 300 hundred times if that is the way to master it.”
Born into a family of musicians, “Nedunuri” as he is popularly known, had his initial training on the violin which paved the way to vocal music. He had already developed a style of his own when he sang in his first major performance. A scholar and researcher even in those early years of his career, he participated in major music conferences at an age when young musicians are more enamoured with making their debut in glittering music halls. His academic interests can be seen in the various positions he has held in the course of his musical career. He was the principal of various music and dance colleges in Tirupathi, Vizianagaram, Secundarabad and Vijayawada, besides being a visiting professor in the Andhra University of Vishakapatnam. A dean of the Fine Arts faculty in Nagarjuna University and Chairman of the Board of Studies in Venkateshwara University, Nedunuri has served as a member of the Audition Board of All India Radio as well as the Experts Committee of the Music Academy in Chennai.
All these point to his academic leanings. Unlike most professional musicians who are content to perform to appreciative audiences or record their music for posterity, here is one musician who is first and foremost a teacher and guide to younger artists. His passion for popularising the music of the great Telugu composers, Annamacharya, Thyagaraja nd Bhadrachala Ramadasa has taken him to other countries too where he has tried to create an awareness of the pristine quality of Carnatic classical music. Nedunuri has worked tirelessly on this project – again the researcher in him takes precedence over the musician who merely sings. No wonder the Tirumala Tirupathi devasthanam has recognised him as their “aasthaana vidwan” who showcased the great Annamayya to the world.
Nedunuri’s advice to students of music: “Practise the swaras. Learn the punctuation of music. Practise, listen, develop ‘kelvi gnaanam.’ Your listeners must HEAR the raaga. My guru used to note the notation every time he heard a raaga. Above all, develop a taste for good music by listening. Remember the singer must enjoy what he sings if the audience must enjoy it too.” He does not suffer indifferent singers. His own disciples, the Malladi brothers, are ample proof of this great master’s teaching techniques. Nedunuri is blunt and candid when he declares: “there are so many reasons to defend mediocrity in music.” But, they simply cannot be accepted, according to him. If aspiring artists claim “Yesterday, Shankarabharanam came out very well,” his rejoinder is “But what about today?” This stern teacher believes that there are no shortcuts to reach the top. His own career proves it. An elegant artist, a sophisticated professional and a relentless teacher, this one-in-a-million performer can take his listeners to ethereal heights when he sings: “ Nee paadumule gathi naaku, mandheruko swaami paraaku ….”
At age 85, a frail Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, who stands tall in the realm of Carnatic classical music, can still sing and teach. He is one of the few musicians who was not afraid to pass on the baton to others. He never feared that they may overtake him. He is a true believer in Thyagaraja’s moving words: “Entharo mahaanu bhaavalu, andhariki vandanamu cheyuvaa….”