The resonant guru-shishya symphony

Carnatic vocalist Trichur V. Ramachandran with his guru G.N. Balasubramaniam. The Sangita-Kalanidhi-elect is renowned for his Gurubhakti. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Devotion to the teacher has been a constant factor in the evolution of Carnatic music, though we have come a long way from the age of gurukula vasam. In these days of instant electronic communication and virtual classrooms, the bonding between teacher and taught can still be affectionate and emotional, even if the guru is a jetsetter as comfortable in t-shirt and denims as in veshti-angavastram, and the shishya speaks with a strong American accent.

In fact, the bond seems stronger today than in the past, if anything, to judge by how closely shishyas resemble their gurus in style and mannerisms. Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s or T.M. Krishna’s students can for instance be identified easily by the way they fling their arms about if not by their neraval or swaraprastara rendering.

Not too long ago, Neyveli Santhanagopalan started out as a near-clone of his guru T.N. Seshagopalan, before he broke away to establish his own style, though paying obeisance to his ‘ gurunathar’ in concert after concert. He once told his audience that though Carnatic music, unlike Hindustani, was not obsessed with raga time zones, a morning raga could easily turn into an evening raga or vice-versa depending on the time of day his guru rendered it.

There is a popular theory that today’s vidwans betray no signs of the bani of their gurus. I have a different view. Anyone captivated by K.V. Narayanaswami’s poignant vocal qualities for instance would struggle to find similarities between his style and the vigorous bani of his guru Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, whom he adored and worshipped. Contrast this with KVN’s shishya Pattabhiram Pandit’s singing, and you will be impressed by how faithful he is to the KVN bani. KVN spoke of his gurukulavasam with Ariyakudi as an idyll, but though he would have been the last person to admit it, he learnt more by osmosis and on-stage accompaniment than through one-to-one lessons from the master. KVN’s disciples were fortunate. They had the run of his house and were doted upon by Mr. & Mrs. KVN. Shishyakulavasam, they term it, referring to the way they were looked after. And the teaching was rigorous, though sometimes sugar-coated, especially for the younger disciples. A singer of impeccable shruti-shuddham himself, KVN could not stand apaswaram. “How can you sing so badly off-key?” was the harshest criticism he could muster.

The disciples of D.K. Jayaraman and Musiri Subramania Iyer regard themselves as similarly blessed. Their gurus showered affection on them and generously shared their knowledge with them. To listen to the reminiscences of Vijay Siva and Suguna Purushothaman during the recent Oli Chamber Concerts was to catch glimpses of a golden past. Countless are the delightful anecdotes R.K. Shriramkumar and T.M. Krishna can relate of their gurus. Sriram Parasuram’s tribute to S.R. Janakiraman at a talk a couple of years ago was movingly affectionate.

Ravikiran and siblings were lucky to be taught by their father (Narasimhan) as were Lalgudi Jayaraman (Gopala Iyer) and his offspring. Each of the gurus was a hard taskmaster who leavened his strictness with genuine if sometimes carefully concealed love for the wards.

T.R. Subramaniam and the late Calcutta Krishnamurthi, T.K. Govinda Rao, and Chinglepet Ranganathan have been among the more cerebral yet accessible teachers of the not so distant past. R. Vedavalli’s acknowledgement of her debt to her vadyar Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer and her mentor Dr. V. Raghavan, has been frequent and fulsome, while she herself is a much-loved guru to her scholarly as well as performing disciples. Many of today’s leading lights in Carnatic music are branded as brash and confident beyond reason. It is often suggested that they lack humility.

Without going into the merits of such a generalisation, we can see ample evidence of respect and affection between guru and sishya in many cases. To illustrate, here was this guru who adored his favourite (and stubborn) disciple but did not know how to get him to obey his diktats. When a senior colleague criticised him for allowing his prime student to take up an unsuitable raga for ragam-tanam-pallavi at the Music Academy season concert, he quickly deflected the question by exclaiming: “Look at how superbly he’s keeping talam in two hands!”

(V. Ramnarayan is the Editor-in-Chief of Sruti magazine and former cricketer, the author writes/blogs on music and cricket.)

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 7:18:04 AM |

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