Nattuvanar, composer and vocalist Seetarama Sarma is being felicitated this evening at Kalakshetra.

Voice production and sruti suddham are vital to him, so is sahitya suddham. How else can bhava become the focus of music? — T.M.Krishna

Ask him to sing, compose music to a kriti or sloka for concert singing, a verse for dancing, a sollukattu for a situation evoking any given mood, and Bhagavatulu Seetarama Sarma will conjure up something perfectly suitable, balanced, arresting.

Rarely do such multiple skills coalesce in a single person as they do in Bhagavatulu Seetarama Sarma. He belongs to the vanishing tradition of fine musicians who experts in dance music as well. His Kuchipudi background gives him an unshakeable grip over raga, laya, performance technique, and that elusive element called bhava.

Sarma can make listeners laugh and sigh over his early struggles with a father determined to make a dancer of the boy, and the boy’s obstinacy in pursuing music instead. He managed to get tutored by Pasumarti Sitarama Sastri (Machilipatam), Neeti Srirama Sarma (Vijayawada) and T.R.Subramaniam (Madras).

A scholarship test in Madras had examiner Rukmini Devi absorbing him into Kalakshetra, as a student, teacher, to sing and perform nattuvangam for her productions. Sarma’s devotion to Rukmini Devi remains unwavering. Disciple T.M.Krishna asks, “When did you start teaching me?” Sarma replies, “Your father asked me to teach baby. I looked around for the toddler and realised it was your mother! Barely three then, you’d sit beside us with a long stick for tambura and pretend to sing. You lisped ‘kopet’ instead of ‘pocket’ but had no trouble with sarigamapadhani!”

Patient guru

Later, the guru’s entrance was the signal for Krishna’s exit with a cricket bat. When the boy returned, the guru was still waiting for him. Sarma nurtured the child with a strict patience. He predicted to Krishna’s sceptical father that the child would one day become a fine vidwan.

Sarma took the boy to music concerts, to dance rehearsals, even made him accompany him once in singing for the Ramayana. But the guru warned him never to sing for Bharatanatyam. “If you do, no one will take you seriously.” For Sarma had faced that heartbreak in being typecast as a dance musician.

Co-workers and disciples testify to his endearing nature. Kalakshetra thespian Janardhanan says, “When Sarma sir was at the helm the dancer had no worries. We did our best with confidence. His expertise made him cover up any small errors in the dance, and get things set just right. I have seen him compose to fulfil Athai’s needs on the spot.” What Janardhanan prized most in Sarma was his emphasis on both ragabhava and arthabhava. Young dancer Anjana Anand talks about Sarma’s generosity, approachability and affection. Senior artiste Jayanti Subramaniam admires his innovative teaching methods. “His own sollukattus are unique. He can use one speed for singing or sollu, and another for the cymbals and footwork. That training enables me to compose my own jatis today.”

His musical knowledge is his great asset in conducting, singing and composing for the dance. “No dry mathematical calculations, his sollus too have bhava. He didn’t merely teach techniques, he made you imbibe all round knowledge about choreography.”

Krishna agrees that his guru’s greatest impact on him was in instilling a thought process prioritising clarity, discipline and “giving one’s all.” “Even manodharma must have discipline, you can’t sing whatever you like in the name of imagination, he said. Nor could you get by with false voice or crooning. Voice production and sruti suddham were vital to him, so was sahitya suddham. How else can bhava become the focus of music?”

The guru has the last word. “Many recognised Krishna’s promise. Someone told me that I came from Andhra desam and created a wonderful musician in Tamil Nadu. But I only pointed out errors and areas for improvement. He began to mature after marriage. Now I will say with absolute truth that he sings very well. I pray that he should maintain this quality all his life.”

We leave the guru and sishya planning Krishna’s concert today (6 p.m.) at Kalakshetra Foundation’s celebration of Seetharama Sarma’s 50 years’ service to music and dance when the doyen is to be felicitated by luminaries and fellow vidwans, including his own guru T.R.Subramaniam.

He nurtured nuancesLeela Samson, Director, Kalakshetra, says:

When Seetarama Sarma came to Kalakshetra, the pioneers had already shown the way, a great tradition to follow, and a difficult standard to emulate. What Sarma Sir brought with him was the knowledge of the Kuchipudi tradition and his inherited knowledge of nuances — all they needed was nurturing.

He was a willing student, I am sure, fired by the great opportunity to learn from all the legendary figures that taught and practised in Kalakshetra at that time. He also had the good counsel and influence of Rukmini Athai and Sankara Menon — influences that moulded his being as few others could have done.

Sarma Sir put his heart and soul into the exceptional music of Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas. He stroked the words and sangatis and gave them life for us actors who were trying our best to extract meaning from the sahitya.

Some songs were his hallmark renditions — as in the moving lament of Lakshmana (Naaham jaanaami keyure). His sollukattus were crisp and bold when required and his nattuvangam smooth, natural and unobtrusive.

His compositions stand out because they are by a musician/dancer rooted in tradition. He knows the mood of the sahitya and interprets it for the dancer. It is a God-given understanding of raga-tala and natya in all its hues and colours.