Perennial fount of knowledge

Karaikkal ammaiyar story in detail - illustration by S. Rajam  

An era has ended - ended at the ripe age of 91. S. Rajam - singer, teacher, musicologist, painter - a multi-talented personality. Nadu Street, Mylapore shall never be the same again, for the occupant of No. 41 is no more.

Love for mythological subjects, and art brought me into contact with S. Rajam. Rajam, my father and Sruti Pattabiraman would often sit together in the last rows at the Music Academy, during the December season. A separate kutcheri used to flow, parallel to the one on stage, sometimes joined in by the likes of Subbudu. Knowledge and information passed back and forth, in between ‘sabash’ and ‘besh’, for the performing artist.

My first visit to Nadu Street and Rajam's art treasures led to continuing visits. His paintings were complete encyclopaedias of mythology - every legend was painted in his particular muted style. His ‘Viswakarma’ stands bewitchingly in my home, along with his works of Annamayya and Durga - all masterly in the subtle shades of creams, greens and blues, with a hint of dull red. His Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganesha ensure prosperity and knowledge in homes around the world.

Audio-visual presentation

On January 5, 2005, I had an audio-visual presentation on the theme of Siva, one section comprising the Nayanmars, painted by Rajam. He was thrilled to see his work projected on screen, to commentary and music, and spoke very encouragingly about the effort. He advised me to include the Thanjavur Big Temple in the presentation, and I made a dash to the town on the morning of December 26, the day of the tsunami, returning the next day, both journeys made along the coastal road.

Painting apart, Rajam spoke beautifully on GNB, in my video ‘GNB - legend immortal’. A contemporary, GNB too had lived on Nadu Street for sometime, and later was Rajam's colleague at AIR Madras. Rajam had made a thorough observation of GNB's music - both his singing style, and his compositions. We both shared a love for Muthuswami Dikshitar's music - in my video ‘Dikshitar and Devi’, Rajam spoke and sang on the Kalavati composition. His exposition inspired Mandolin Shrinivas to include the raga in his ragamalika at the Academy concert, that December, in 2007.

Rajam was a perennial fount of musical knowledge, always willing to share it with the seeker. ‘Purinjitho ungalukku' (Have you understood) he would ask, after explaining the composition, or raga. I shot him at his bench upstairs, in the natural light coming in from the small muttam open to the sky, where he used to sit and paint, all his life. “Please sit down, I will be with you shortly,” he would say. I would carefully leave my footwear on the narrow stairs, at the turning where he had kept a painted sign of feet, to make sure it was left there.

I gave in the shots and a feature on him to Inside Outside – the then leading design, art and interior magazine. “It's rather an old-fashioned subject, we'll see,” said the editor. The feature was beautiful in the edition, opening many eyes to the South-Indian art tradition, away from modern art.

I last saw him a couple of months ago, at his home, rather weak, but valiant in spirit. He had arranged for one of his friends to talk on Ajanta paintings, and to show a few slides. This occasion inspired him to do a few small paintings on silk, his love for the Ajanta style overcoming his frailty.

Rajam touched many lives, enriching them with his knowledge. “Very kind of you, thank you,” he would say, whenever I visited him. Thank You Rajam, for being such an inspiration, to so many.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 8:00:19 PM |

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