A family affair

The musical AS brothers Krishnan, Murali, Ranganathan and Sankar. Photo: N.Sridharan

The musical AS brothers Krishnan, Murali, Ranganathan and Sankar. Photo: N.Sridharan  

For five generations, Carnatic music has been a way of life for the A.K. Sundaram Iyer family.

Out of a small invisible seed grows the magnificent tree. This tale is something akin to Nature’s phenomenon – the way a supervisor of a Government department canteen made great contribution to Carnatic music.

He nurtured his four sons -- A.S. Krishnan (morsing), A.S. Ranganathan (mridangam), A.S. Sankar (ghatam) and A.S. Murali (vocal and ghatam) -- as musicians to reckon with. The proud father, A.K. Sundaram Iyer, who hailed from a village near Palakkad, was keen on taking up music himself. But following a calamity in the family, his parents prevented him from doing so. AKS was proficient in various rhythm instruments and he laid the foundation for his wards to take up playing percussion instruments and groomed them.

I meet the family at A.S. Murali’s apartment near the Hare Krishna temple, Tiruvanmiyur.

As the conversation starts, traditional savouries and aromatic coffee are served.

Murali, the youngest, says, “Our father was adept in the technicalities of the mridangam and the ghatam, all self taught. I guess that’s why we all took to playing rhythm instruments. I was good at studies and completed my intermediate in ICWAI. While vidwan T.V. Vasan taught me the ghatam, P.S. Narayanaswamy was my guru in vocal music, apart from S. Rajeswari. PSN sir taught me 144 songs in one year, impressed by my diligence. At S. Rajeswari’s behest, I learnt nattuvangam from Adyar Lakshman, which gave me the chance to travel with eminent dancers to many countries. Vasan sir insisted that I listen to recordings of stalwarts regularly and that sharpened my musical skills.”

Having married his niece Lakshmisree, who is pursuing a doctorate in music, Murali often performs with her. Quitting her job as a software professional, she trained under K.T. Sivaganesh and V.V. Ravi. After a two-year teaching stint in London, Murali is now with Kalakshetra. He is also the treasurer of the Hanumanthapuram Pallaki Seva Trust and the organising secretary of the annual Sadasiva Brahmendral Aradhanai.

“My father taught me the basics of mridangam. After that, I learnt from Palghat K. Kunjumani Iyer and Melakaveri Krishnamurthy. At the music college, it was Parameswaran who taught me, and I got advanced training from Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam,” says A.S. Ranganathan, second son of A.K. Sundaram. Ranganathan has been accompanying many senior artists and is also teaching. His wife T. Hemamalini belongs to the music family of Chittoor, which was part of the samasthan of Raja Serfoji. Having been trained in vocal music by Mysore Srinivasa Iyengar, Hemamalini learnt the violin at the Adyar Music College and The Music Academy. Their son, Venkatakrishnan, too is into music.

A.S. Sankar, third son, says, “I was inspired by my elder brother Ranganathan and started playing the mridangam. My brother Murali taught me the basics of ghatam. Then T.V. Vasan trained me further. I was part of the German fusion group ‘Ahimsa’ for about 11 years. I quit the group to join the Tirupathi Music College as a faculty member. I travel to Chennai during weekends and holidays to play at concerts.” His wife Gayathri is a trained Carnatic musician and has learnt from a host of gurus such as Therezhundur Sisters Madhuram, Chembai Narayanan, Padma Balasubramanian, Padma Chandilyan and Suguna Varadachari. Having completed the advanced level course at The Music Academy, Chennai, she is now pursuing her M.Phil. Murali interrupts, “Her repertoire of kritis is enviable.”

A.S. Krishnan, the eldest, surprisingly was the last to enter the music field as a professional. “I started my career as a stenographer. Although my heart was in music, circumstances were such that I had to take up a job. Despite my long hours at work, I would always find the time to practise. Something persuaded me to learn the morsing. My guru Melakaveri Krishnamurthy encouraged me but was also quick to warn me that the morsing was fifth in the rank of pakka vadhyams and that it would be difficult to find opportunities. My father did not object to my going professional. I played my first concert for Sudha Ragunathan. Thereafter, Mannargudi Easwaran gave me advanced training and that helped me play for many other leading artists.”

Krishnan regrets that his father did not live to see his progress. He has toured abroad as part of dancer Malavika Sarukkai’s group. The Kanchi Mutt pontiff Sri Jayendra Saraswathi has provided him a place in Manali, where he teaches the mridangam and the morsing. Krishnan’s daughter and son are also into music.

B. Shree Sundar Kumar, a nephew of the AS brothers, says, “My father, a veterinary doctor by profession, has a liking for classical music. As a child, I used to mentally practise the talam. Soon, I was initiated into mridangam playing when I was four. If I practised every day, my father would give me five rupees as an incentive. I joined Karaikkudi Mani sir when I was seven. Though I was studious, I never had the inclination to go to school as my heart was in music. So, I discontinued my studies after the 12th standard. I was exposed to all styles of music by my guru. Watching G. Harishankar do wonders on his ganjira with just one hand, I wondered whether I could emulate him. So, I shifted to playing the ganjira with my guru’s blessings.” This youngster has been graded in both the instruments by AIR.

The AS brothers have started the A.K. Sundaram Arts Academy and have been honouring vidwans and vidushis since 2009. They also award scholarships to deserving students. They regard Kumbakonam Saravanan as their godfather, for he was the one who encouraged them to take up music full time and also organised many concerts during their formative years.

The brothers and their wives (except Krishnan’s) are all graded artists of AIR.

As I take leave, I realise what self-confidence and determination can do to a person. There cannot be a better example than the AS family, for the fifth generation is getting ready to take the stage.

AKS was proficient in various rhythm instruments and he laid the foundation for his wards to take up playing percussion instruments.

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Printable version | May 22, 2020 3:43:10 AM |

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