Friday Review

Turning his lens on musicians

spotlight on Rajiv Menon speaks about T. N. Rajarathinam Pillai.  

Rajiv Menon plays multiple roles as advertising director, cinematographer, actor, and and filmmaker with ease. He is also the founder of the film school, Mindscreen Institute.

What’s more, Rajiv’s recent audio-visual work focusses on Carnatic musicians. This connect kindles interest when one sees a poster announcing a talk by him as part of the Vintage Concert series on the nagaswaram maestro T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai (TNR), at The Music Academy.

What is the connection? “A lot,” says Rajiv during a chat about his presentation. He speaks about his love for classical music (fostered by listening to his mother practising at home), of how he made A.R. Rahman present ragas through film songs, his work at the Mindscreen Institute, his documentary film on Carnatic musicians — the latest one, yet to be released, on mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman, — and, most of all his love for the “electrifying” Thodi played by Rajarathinam Pillai.

Why Rajarathinam Pillai? “I have been attending concerts at The Music Academy for the past 20 years. When the organisers invited me to talk about the vidwan, I had to do some homework on him. I sent my assistants to the Narasingapettai village, where nagaswarams are made, in order to understand how this genius had transformed the wooden wind instrument. We contacted nagaswaram makers to understand how TNR did it,” says Rajiv.

“He could sing whatever he played,” adds Rajiv. “How many nagaswaram or thavil vidwans can actually compose a chittaiswaram for a kriti?” he asks.

Highlighting the fact that TNR was in New Delhi performing on the day India got its Independence, Rajiv has audio clips from the archives to demonstrate TNR’s distinctive style of playing the nagaswaram.

Talking about how ragas inspire him, Rajiv says, he made A.R. Rahman listen to kritis in Nattakurinji such as ‘Vazhimarithirukkudhe’ and Thyagaraja Bhagavatar’s songs before composing ‘Kannamuchi Enada’ (from ‘Kandukonden Kandukonden’) and introduced Rahman to ragas such as Anandabhairavi before he composed ‘Anbendra Mazhaiyile.’ “After listening to TNR’s Thodi alapana, Rahman said, he would compose a song in Thodi one day. In Malayalam films, there are many raga-based songs,” Rajiv points out, as he hums ‘Swapnangal Swapnangale,’ a ragamalika song that begins with Sahana.

In his video made for the book, ‘Voices Within,’ and the yet-to-be-released documentary, ‘Overtone,’ the camera moves beyond music. ‘Overtone’ on mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman showcases the man behind the artist.

One touching scene is where the veteran percussionist is seen teaching mridangam-maker Johnson’s little son to play the instrument. Johnson’s family has been mridangam makers for generations. There is also a breathtaking scene set in a Kerala home with lamps lit all around. Umayalpuram Sivaraman is playing the mridangam with Mattanoor Sankarankutty on the chenda. “This was the only scene where we used cranes. I wished to capture his passion for collaboration,” Rajiv points out.

Another remarkable visual is that of an African drummer challenging Sivaraman on an international stage and how the maestro coolly counters it with his impeccable artistry. The documentary has the stamp of an ace filmmaker.

Rajiv sings kritis such as ‘Vazhimaraithirukkudhe’ (Nattakurinji), ‘Marubalka’ (Sriranjani), ‘Nee Sati Deivam’ (Sriranjani) and ‘Theruvil Vaarano’ (Khamas) among others. He has also composed a piece in Kedaragowla and gives a demonstration of it. He extols the beauty of Ramnad Krishnan’s rendition of Sahana (one of the ragas for which Krishnan was known). “I keep listening to it,” he says.

The musical dimension of artists of the past are hard to find today, even much of the dance repertoire is lost, he bemoans as he sings, ‘Kalai Thookki Nindraadum’ in Yadukula Khambodi.

Genius and crusader

“Rajarathinam Pillai was a performing genius and a crusader. His was a shining mind, prone to excesses of temper and his life can be seen as a continuous struggle for recognition,” said Rajiv Menon during a talk at the Music Academy recently.

Rajarathinam lost his parents early and his uncle Natesan Pillai, became his guardian. “This youngster went on to become the most celebrated nagaswaram vidwan and won accolades including the Sangeet Natak Academi Award.”

“TNR was able to create a cascading new interpretation of Kedaram,” Rajiv stated, after playing the audio of TNR’s ‘Rama nee pai’ in Kedaram. TNR’s gurus were uncle Kadiresan Pillai, Veena Dhanammal and Thirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer. The cinematographer spoke about TNR’s ability to play a flawless Begada, a result of rigorous training. “When he played the Begada with a flat ‘Ni’, Thirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer hit him on the nose with the bow,” said Rajiv referring to an AIR interview where the nagaswaram maestro talks about the incident.

“He learnt nagaswaram through vocal music and wanted to achieve that effect in his playing,” he pointed out. TNR brought in changes in the nagaswaram in such a manner that it became an instrument equal to vocal music.

The speaker showed beautiful visuals of how nagaswarams are made and Injikkudi Subramaniam talking about how TNR changed the high pitch of the instrument. TNR also changed the length of the wind instrument and became famous for his five-and-a-half kattai nagaswaram. “It is because of this genius that “Nagaswaram was no longer just a mangala vadhyam, and was in the frontline competing with vocal music,” pointed out Rajiv.

He was not just a musician but also a reformer who fought for the welfare and respect of nagaswaram players. “Rajarathinam was fascinated by cinema and politics,” Rajiv said. The vidwan played a hero in ‘Kalamegam’ (1940) and a visual from the film was screened. Soon, TNR reached the zenith of fame and was part of India's first AIR broadcast in 1947 on the day of freedom. A Doordarshan video clip showed TNR playing the nagaswaram as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and many other leaders are entering.

“Rajarathinam was supposed to play for 10 minutes, but he ended up playing for one hour,” said Rajiv laughing. TNR had the ability to play non-stop for four to six hours.

Impressed by TNR’s outspokenness, Rajiv played an AIR interview in which the artist says that vaipattu is superior to all instruments.

Rajiv next played an audio of TNR singing “Valli Nayakane” (Shanmukhapriya). “He turned out to be a great singer. He had his set of favourite ragas — Natabhairavi, Bhairavi, Kalyani, Khambodi, Pantuvarali and a few more. What made TNR famous was his Thodi raga alapana.”

The speaker pointed out that though TNR lived life kingsize, he died in penury in 1956. N.S. Krishnan and other friends raised funds for his funeral.



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