Visually impaired brothers find their forte in music

R Lakshmi Narayanan (right) with his elder brother Renganathan. Photo: M.Srinath/THE HINDU

R Lakshmi Narayanan (right) with his elder brother Renganathan. Photo: M.Srinath/THE HINDU  


R Renganathan and R Lakshminarayanan haven’t let visual impairment stop them from becoming professional accompanists and music teachers

Mridangam and ghatam artist ‘Andanallur’ R Renganathan personally welcomes visitors into his family home in Srirangam, leading them from the harsh daylight into the cool darkness of the residence with sure-footed ease. “Watch your step, don’t trip over the threshold,” he says as proceeds quickly inside.

In that brief moment, Renganthan, 47, negates the impact of the visual impairment that he was born with. He takes us further inside, to the room where his younger brother, violinist ‘Srirangam’ R Lakshminarayanan, 42, also a person with visual impairment, is waiting.

“Our disability is a bodily shortcoming; we haven’t allowed it to affect our mind. If we kept ruing the loss of sight, our whole life would be wasted and destroyed. Both of us have never felt our visual impairment to be a limitation especially after we took up music,” says Lakshminarayanan.

Engaged in life

Music, and the efforts of their family members (father Ramanujam, a former Public Works Department clerk, mother Radhai and sighted sibling Venkatesh) to make them independent from a young age, have indeed made a great difference to the lives of these self-assured brothers. Both Renganathan and Lakshminarayanan are respected professional accompanists in Carnatic concerts, besides being teachers to young aspirants.

“We feel our music keeps us fully engaged in life. Someone will always seek you out when you have a skill in hand,” says Lakshminarayanan, who takes violin and keyboard lessons. His elder brother teaches mridangam and ghatam.

“Our students are young and mischievous, especially because they know that we cannot see them; so we give them enough time to settle down before class. We are strict only when necessary,” says Renganathan.

While they may not be able to see their students, they can surely sense their mood and even guess their physical posture. “When a musician bends over his or her instrument, the music will sound nervous, and strained. Only when he or she looks up confidently at the audience, will the performance be an emotionally satisfying experience,” says Lakshminarayanan, who has accompanied many Bharathanatyam dancers as well.

Training under stalwarts

Born in 1972 with weak eyesight, Renganathan was brought up by his maternal grandparents S Srinivasan and Jayalakshmi in Jeeyarpuram. “I was able to read slightly until Class 8, after which I became completely blind and had to discontinue school. Since I was always tapping out rhythms on any available surface, my grandparents decided to enroll me for mridangam lessons in 1986. They felt it would help me later in life.”

Learning under the tutelage of Sundararaman (RR Sabha), Venkat Raman, and then from Kalaimamani awardee Tiruchi R Thayumanavan, Renganathan took to the mridangam happily. He took advanced lessons from B Harikumar and Coimbatore V Mohanram.

“It was Thayumanavan Sir who asked me to learn the ghatam, because the fingering techniques are quite similar to those of the mridangam,” says Renganathan.

The invisible web
  • There is much excitement as Renganathan and Lakshminarayanan get ready to be photographed in formal concert attire. Their mother Radhai watches from the sidelines with quiet pride as her sons dash about looking for their things.
  • A musically-inclined person herself, Radhai learned how to play the violin by observing Lakshminarayanan, and for a while, used to teach her son’s students the basics.
  • “My favourite raga is Karaharapriya because it has great depth, despite being light in tone and easy to play,” says Lakshminarayanan.
  • Renganathan prefers laya (structured metered rhythm), especially when it is joined to a raga.
  • The brothers settle down on the floor of their living room with the violin and mridangam.
  • After a few tentative forays, Lakshminarayanan leads with Venkatachala Nilayam in Sindhu Bhairavi raga on his violin. And exhibiting an almost telepathic understanding, Renganathan supports him on the mridangam. The divine notes of the Purandaradasa composition weave a magical web that defies sensory perception.

What started as an add-on skill, has become the mainstay of his performances as an accompanist. “I play the ghatam more than the mridangam in concerts these days,” says Renganathan, who had his arangetram (debut) in 1992.

There was no formal debut for Lakshminarayanan, but his love for the violin dictates his career. He began training at the age of 14 under V Sundaresa Iyer, in Thillai Nagar and continued his education with TV Ramanujacharyulu, and NC Madhav. He has recently begun learning the mridangam.

“My mother was a constant companion during my violin lessons. We used to walk long distances from the classes to the bus stop, during which time I would memorise all the notations for the following day.

The violin is among the hardest instruments to master ... the learning never stops,” he says.

Working for music

Both brothers have accompanied many veteran Carnatic vocalists; Lakshminarayanan for example has played for S R Janakiraman, Kovai S R Krishnamurthy and Parassala B Ponnammal, while Renganathan has accompanied ‘Bombay Sisters’ duo C Saroja and C Lalitha, Thirumalai Nambi Seshagopalan and flautist T R Navaneetham, among others, and has been part of the Madras Music Academy’s winter season concerts for the past three years.

With the help of sighted collaborators, Renganathan has authored a book on percussion notations titled Kuraippus, Mohras and Korvais for 175 Talas.

Lakshminarayanan co-founded Sree Karpaga Vinayagar Isai Sangam with mridangam artist V Venkata Raman and other music lovers in 2007.

The association organises annual competitions for children in vocal and instrumental music. The event attracts at least 250 participants from Tiruchi and nearby districts, and also has a website maintained by volunteers. The prize certificates double up as mini brochures on leading figures of Carnatic music. “We want children to remember the great people who have come before them, and also to preserve the certificates and cherish the exponents of those days,” says Lakshminarayanan.

The brothers hope to start a Carnatic music school in the near future. “It is our way of giving back to society, and also helping to identify talented musicians from a young age. There’s no dearth of Carnatic music teachers; we have to find the right kind of students who will appreciate the education that we give them,” says Lakshminarayanan.

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This article was edited post-publication.

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 6:35:22 PM |

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