She greets you like your favourite school teacher who made her first impressions on you. If you hear her perform, well, you are bound to think that such depth and feeling are hardly discernible today. You are surprised that you have come to meet the most unassuming persona. Veteran musician-musicologist ‘Sangeetha Kalanidhi’ awardee R. Vedavalli is a name to reckon with in the learned music circles of Chennai. She is a guru first and then a performer. She teaches at Madras Music Academy’s Advanced School of Music.
Born in Mannargudi, Vedavalli was fortunate to have trained with Madurai Srirangam Iyengar and later under Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer. “I started performing at a very tender age. My first katcheri was at Bangalore at the Malleswaram Sangitha Sabha way back in the 50s. I was 18 then. In 1959 I gave a concert in the afternoon slot (junior) at the Music Academy during the December season. From then onwards, I’ve been regularly performing at the Academy year after year,” she says matter-of-factly. Fifty years into music and having received awards innumerable but showing no sign of pride.
You are bound to question her about her teaching methods and her views on music, because of her vast experience. “I stand for purity in Carnatic music. I’m a traditionalist to the core. To me, it is an anathema to tamper with classical music. There is no need. Things have already been researched and fixed. All we have to do is to just follow the rules and render. Good enough. Technology has revolutionised music. I cannot understand nor comment on people teaching such music on telephones/mobile phones or even through the computer. And parents are in a hurry when it comes to the performance level of their kids. How can a child master manodharma which is the soul of this Carnatic system? At the most, he may memorise and reproduce a kriti. Virtuosity and improvisation are to be developed and nurtured as one learns,” she pauses.
“In my style of teaching, the sahityam comes first and then the notation. I will first ask my pupils to repeat the composition any number of times till they get the nuances right. Then, I allow them to record so that they can practice it at home. Notation is not sine-quo-non of learning music. No. The beauty of this music is the change in gamaka. How you oscillate a particular syllable in a particular raga at a particular place is of utmost importance. Can a notation tell you where exactly you have to use this and where to avoid? Music is practicality and theory is secondary. It is like learning grammar before you learn to speak the language. Children are taught speaking correctly over the years and much later, grammar comes into their learning process. It is only a reckoner,” she says in detail. How many can be so candid and clear about things?
The veteran guru is very keen on reviving some of the ancient musical art forms like the ‘mallari’, the ‘arayars’, Thyagaraja’s ‘divya nama keertana’ and ‘prabhandams’. The first two were part of temple rituals and she laments that all such beautiful music which is far different from concert music is lost to us. Her latest musical of King Shahaji of Thanjavur, Pallaki seva prabhandam being rendered in group by her pupils is doing the rounds in many a south Indian city. And what is her favourite aspect of music. “Manodharma,” she says promptly. Yes, she loves to expound how to use the system of ‘sarali’ and ‘janta’ swara as the foundation for manodharma (improvisations) which is arterial to Carnatic music katcheri.