Pliant voice, effortless singing, tremendous creativity and immense appeal are hallmarks of this talented Carnatic vocalist, who just happens to be young. Ramakrishnan Murthy’s countenance, manner and speech are as traditional as his music, belying the fact that he spent the bulk of his life in the U.S. Devoid of hang-ups, he is the quintessential boy next door.
His music encapsulates the distilled essence of the best of acknowledged masters, infused with fresh verve. He has won accolades, including four consecutive Outstanding Vocalist awards from the Madras Music Academy. In 2016, he received the Academy’s prestigious Yogam Nagaswamy Award for Best Senior Vocalist – at age 27, one of the youngest to do so. The following year, his performance was adjudged the Outstanding Concert in the senior slot. Besides awards from other august institutions, a galaxy of artistes have accompanied him.
Growing up in Irvine, California, he was enrolled in music classes to stay connected to his Indian roots. His first teacher, Padma Kutty, was “the sun in their solar system,” with the family’s, and the greater community’s, life revolving around the once-weekly music class. She took great care to instil the basics systematically and thoroughly. Practice was insisted upon and Ramakrishnan’s mother ensured that her son put in the effort. Trips to India were utilised fully too – at least one music lesson a day – from Vaikom Jayachandran, Vairamangalam Lakshminarayanan, CR Vaidyanathan and Chingleput Ranganathan at various points.
In 2001, he began advanced vocal lessons under Delhi P. Sunder Rajan during the latter’s trips to the U.S. and sporadically during Ramakrishnan’s visits to Chennai. “The reason I sit on stage today is because of my guru, Sunder Rajan Sir. Not only did he mould me into a musician from scratch, but he also taught me the responsibility of being a musician. He instilled in me the confidence it requires to be a performer,” says Ramakrishnan.
Lessons continued awhile with Jayachandran and Lakshminarayanan. Having had so many teachers, Ramakrishnan has an enviable repertoire of songs of every hue and texture. How does he stay on top of it now? “I do forget songs,” he responds apologetically. “I have been working on it. I keep tabs on shortcomings and consciously put effort to rectify them.”
Padma Kutty continued to mentor him in Irvine and arranged his first ‘public’ performance in 2003 — an informal house concert. “My parents were not interested in arangetrams – we (his younger sister and he) learned the art for art’s sake.” That debut was very well received and Ramakrishnan realised then that he wanted to pursue Carnatic music seriously. He was now self-motivated.
On the insistence, and with the guidance, of Sunder Rajan, he started listening to recordings of the old masters. The family also attended live concerts in the Los Angeles area. Unlike most school students with distractions galore, Ramakrishnan’s life was focused singularly on studies and music and nothing else. He practised extensively, and akaara saadhakam was (and is) a daily feature. “Sunder Rajan Sir impressed its importance on me,” he says. “One needs the felicity in the voice to convey one’s ideas.” This might explain his adherence to sruti, fluid open-throated singing, the consummate ease with which he renders brigas and switches instantaneously and seamlessly between ragas or octaves.
K.R. Subramanyam, a concert-level flautist, student of N. Ramani and professor at the University of Southern California, also mentored Ramakrishnan at this time. When R.K. Shriramkumar, Subramanyam’s good friend, visited in 2010, Ramakrishnan was introduced to him. Subsequently, he entered Shriramkumar’s tutelage. Though Sunder Rajan and Shriramkumar are known violinists, they are both trained vocalists as well.
Shriramkumar further stressed already learnt values — for example, that lyrics were an indelible part of the music. Referring to the song ‘Varugalaamo,’ by Gopalakrishna Bharati, Ramakrishnan explains: “Nandanar sings the song as a lament on being denied entry into the sanctum of Lord Siva. Each of us can identify with the fundamental human emotion of intense longing — for whoever or whatever it might be. While the poetic beauty and the impeccably conveyed emotions can seem otherworldly, understanding the meaning makes them relatable to anyone.”
He feels that both melody and lyric are important and one could choose to focus on the one over the other on a case-by-case basis. There are lines that do not express a complete thought — ‘Veda sastra thathvarthamu thelisi’ from ‘Endukku Peddala,’ for example, or ‘Bhooloka vaikuntam idhiyani’ from ‘O Ranga Sayee,’ although they are melodious and appealing for niraval. There are other cases where the fidelity of the words has to be adhered to, to preserve the sanctity of the composition, he explains.
He selects pieces carefully for each concert. “I strive to touch a gamut of emotions within a performance,” he says. The multifariousness of ragas, kala pramanams and songs in his concerts exemplifies this goal. He puts up the list of songs he renders in each concert on his website (http://www.rkmmusic.in/) soon after.
After completing his BS in Informatics from the University of California at Irvine in 2011, Ramakrishnan moved to Chennai. The fact that he achieved success right away in the Chennai music scene speaks of both his talent and ethics. He lives with his grandparents, who attend many of his concerts. “The home front is completely taken care of by them,” he says.
His musical style is traditional in multiple ways. He keeps his back ramrod straight, prefers old-fashioned acoustic tanpuras, and hardly ever uses visual aids. He sings sangathis twice, pronounces words with clarity and closes the consonant sounds. He puts in the time needed to internalise what he presents. “I do not like to perform what is not yet instinctive because the goal then becomes just presenting ‘a feat.’ The emotional content can get affected. My goal is to elevate, not to entertain. Entertainment doesn’t sustain people’s lives. It just makes existing lives more beautiful. Rasikas have other options and they have chosen to spend their valuable time listening to me. It is always on my mind,” he says.
Talking about his rapport with the accompanying artistes, Ramakrishnan says, “We are a team. The sum of the parts is always greater than the whole.” Violinist Charumathi Raghuraman states, “Besides being pleasant to share the stage with, he has a great work ethic.”
On notation and its importance, Ramakrishnan was exposed to two views. Shriramkumar prefers to let the song sink in organically without specifically teaching the underlying swaras. Delhi Sunder Rajan used notation closely and Ramakrishnan intently learned the art of writing it from him. He mentions Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, renowned for his clear and concise notation, who stated that every detail of a song should not be notated — because it is what is between the lines that brings out the individuality in interpretation. “That is the best of the both worlds — musical beauty combined with the rigour of discipline.”
He underplays difficulties stating that if enough time and focused hardwork are put in, anything musically can be acquired. About two years ago, he felt that his voice was getting strained — voice therapist and voxologist Dr. Shyamala Vinod helped him with techniques for long-term voice maintenance. On the occasions he felt any loss of musical direction, he always had Sunder Rajan and Shriramkumar to count on and motivate him. “It is truly God’s grace that I am under their tutelage”, he says.
When Ramakrishnan won The Music Academy’s Best Senior Vocalist award in 2016, Shriramkumar telephoned Sunder Rajan, and his two gurus congratulated each other on their young protégé winning the coveted honour. Ramakrishnan treasures that moment. T.V. Sankaranarayanan calls him ‘Ranganayaka’ Murthy to this day — stemming from his singing that song (in Nayaki) before the doyen at age 12, having just learned it from Sunder Rajan. Another unforgettable incident is T.N. Seshagopalan strongly advocating to a local organisation for Ramakrishnan to get an award. That sabha told Seshagopalan that Ramakrishnan had never performed there. Seshagopalan asked whose fault that was! Ramakrishnan got the award, that very year.
Besides his active performing career, Ramakrishnan teaches several students. An NBA basketball junkie with a wry sense of self-deprecating humour, he is passionate about language, reflecting in articulate speech. “I love what I do and apparently some people love seeing me do what I love, that is immensely humbling… The challenge, though, is understanding and finding myself. How do I personally want to pursue this art further? To what end? These questions are constantly on my mind,” he adds. Being able to look at and outside himself with candour makes Ramakrishnan Murthy a rare blend of mature temperance and youthful exuberance.