Re-living those special moments

Sankara Iyer, leading banker in Kallidakurichi honouring TNR Photo courtesy: K.S. Raman  

In the second part of this article, I quote from TNR himself, from his recorded interview on AIR, Chennai, done with Malaikottai Panchami. His talk is like his music - clear, emphatic, authoritative, every word carrying weight. I will also quote from eyewitness accounts, a few snippets that make up part of the TNR saga.

TNR had an infinite capacity to hear good music—this gave him an extra insight into music. “Our music is divine,” said TNR. He himself used to play for long hours at home. Practising in all speeds, the faster he played, he felt errors could be conquered. Instrumentalists had to first learn vocal singing, emphasised TNR. He himself was an adequate vocalist and has sung in his films. He had sung on Tiruchi AIR concert relays too, a few times.

TNR, delighted at hearing GNB sing, would be present at his concerts whenever possible. GNB too had great regard for TNR, and looked up to him as a mentor, his song list often reflecting TNR’s repertoire.

GNB’s disciple T.S. Balu recalls how once at the Erode railway station, GNB was asleep in the waiting room after a late concert, waiting for a train. The disciple was awake, watching over GNB and his silver ‘kooja’ [water pot]. Around midnight, TNR came there on learning that GNB was there. He said, “Thambi thoongattum” (Let him sleep). He needs the rest. He is the only singer who can add life to my nagaswaram playing vocally.” At Kallidaikurichi, in 1956, at the wedding of Sankaralinga Iyer’s daughter, GNB, TNR and MLV were to perform. “Knowing TNR’s penchant for the bottle, he was closely guarded. TNR gave a fine concert, and also played intermittently for over four days. GNB’s turn came, and after a few songs, he signalled TNR from the stage, as to what he should sing as the main raga. TNR tapped his huge diamond earring. And GNB delighted TNR with a grand Thodi that evening, recounts Mrs. Raman, Sankaralinga Iyer’s daughter-in-law.

Reliving these special moments, Mrs Raman said, “Everyone in Kallidaikurichi loved TNR’s music. They would eagerly look forward to his concerts, but also feared that he would not turn up, even more so as he always took advance payment.” She recalls her father going to Tiruvarur for his concert. TNR saw him, enquired solicitously after him, and then asked when he would be leaving. “I’m going to stay and hear your whole concert,” said the gentleman. Then TNR confided in him that his plan was to have the thavil play most of the time! And why? For TNR was persuaded into playing here by the patron, from whom he had borrowed some money and not returned. As he was coerced into the concert, TNR felt justified in getting his own back thus! “He was so bold,” chuckles Mrs. Raman.

“At Alleppey, house concerts were being held,” recalls the elderly Sivaramakrishnan, who used to carry his new Grundig recorder to concerts. TNR was there, sitting on the lawn listening to GNB. The next concert was to be by another stalwart. The incorrigible TNR heard GNB fully, and as soon as the other musician took the stage, he got up, dusted his upper cloth disdainfully, and walked off!

Again at Alleppey, in 1943, Sivaramakrishnan remembers TNR’s concert at a spice merchant’s house. He started the concert at 10 p.m. and finished at 2.30 a.m. He played Thodi around 2 a.m., lulled them with Nilambari, and then energised them with Bowli!

Two more recollections from him are as follows—

At the Amman temple in Alleppey, TNR was to play during the morning ‘kalabham abishekam,’ for an hour and a half. . TNR chose not to come, and so a local artist was brought in. TNR heard about this and soon showed up at the venue and took over.

At another concert, a man asked TNR why he did not play Tamil songs. TNR quickly snatched the talam from the boy keeping the beat near him, and struck him on the forehead, asking him why he did not bring the Tamil nagaswaram! Quick to wit, quick in temper, but with a childlike devotion to music.

At one of TNR’s concerts Namagiripettai Krishnan, a devoted fan, was sitting among the audience. TNR saw him, and called him up to the stage. He told the audience how devoted he was to TNR’s music, like Ekalavya “But I will not ask for his thumb” he quipped.

There is not a single nagaswaram artist who does not try TNR’s special touches. Some succeed to some extent, but none ever gets that magical tone. It was unique, and will remain so, forever.

The radio show

TNR has spoken on Carnatic music in detail, in a radio recording of a talk with Malaikottai Panchapakesa Pillai [Panchami], his good friend, and thavil vidwan. Recorded in the 1950s, TNR says how in earlier days, people would listen to music for hours together. “The word ‘bani’,” he says, “came about from ‘rasikas’, or listeners of music. Their opinions differed by time, place, and concert.”

“Today,” he said, “rasikas are of two kinds — sangita lakshanam — with knowledge of music. This lot liked to find fault only,” said TNR The other lot was the ‘lakshya gnanam rasika’—one who would appreciate without a formal knowledge of music.”

TNR recounted an incident at the Tiruchi Rockfort temple. “Madurai Ponnuswamy Pillai was playing the nagaswaram — Nattai, mallari, and then a raga. A daily wager carrying the gaslight (“Mandai Vilakku”) is heard saying that Pillai played Nattakurinji superbly today. Such appreciation,” he says.

TNR said listeners expect “inimai, sowkhyam and sukham” [sweetness, comfortable to the ear, and happiness]. When they experience these, they call it a ‘bani’.”

The Thanjavur bani was created by rasikas from that area, felt TNR. “Cauvery la oorinaalthaan nalla sangitam, sandeham illai,” he emphasised. TNR learnt from Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer for a few years. A little here and there, but largely a self-taught genius, who had the highest regard for Veenai Dhanammal. Of his Bhairavi, TNR said, “I’m playing Dhanam’s sothu.” The nagaswaram bani has long entranced listeners, and other musicians have long tried to imitate the nagaswaram—GNB, Semmangudi [who had very high regard for TNR’s music] TNS, and in recent times Sanjay Subramaniam, who is even learning from a nagaswaram player. The last perhaps comes as no surprise, for Sanjay greatly admires the music of S. Kalyanaraman [GNB’s disciple], who loved the nagaswaram bani.

AIR, Chennai, started functioning with a short alapana of Thodi by TNR, on July 11, 1954.”

The only living person who also sang on that day at AIR is Mrs A.R. Sundaram, who recalls her family’s association with TNR. “We used to go to the Academy with great anticipation, to listen to TNR—will he come and play, was always a big question. For my sister’s marriage TNR played, over four days in Mylapore. After he had played for the ‘Oonjal’ function, TNR asked me and my sister to sing. We sang ‘Gitartamu’ in Surutti — he was very pleased. Later in the day he was missing. My father sent someone, and brought him back, he knew all his haunts. For the procession four platforms were put up at four corners of the road around the Mylapore temple, for TNR to sit and play—huge crowds were there to hear him. My father had a car, so he would send TNR in it, wherever he wanted to go, to meet people. My father used to take me with him everywhere.

“One such occasion was to Soundarya Mahal, to hear TNR, requested to play by Veenai Dhanam. He played so wonderfully that Dhanam got up and hugged him. It was my father A.K. Ramachandra Iyer who arranged for TNR to cut all the records. He used to also conduct a nagaswaram festival, in open air, where Midland Theatre used to be.”

Veenai Dhanam even once commanded TNR to play for her, without the thavil. This wouldn’t have been too difficult for TNR, who anyhow revelled in long raga essays, where the thavil had very little to do.

At Tiruvavaduthurai, crossing trains would slow down to catch the waves of his music practice. The wheel seems to have come a full circle – the Indian Railways has announced that it will relay TNR’s music, and that of other greats, in the railway carriages.

Awards may have eluded him. But the title of Akila ulaga nagaswara eka chakradipati was very dear to him, perhaps because he felt justified in using it.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 11:48:51 AM |

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