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20 years after M.D. Ramanathan

CHENNAI, AUG. 14. By the mid-20th century, the kutcheri was a buzzword among connoisseurs of the devotional songs in Carnatic music. The faster tempo in recitals had already assumed prominence among artistes and audiences.

At times concerts had the appearance of a string of songs delivered at breakneck speed. Even the aalapana and kalpanasvaram singing came under the influence. In substantive terms, the dhuritakaala facet of compositions was on the road to being vulgarised. Rasikas began hip-hopping between the mushrooming sabhas.

But there was one rock that withstood this onslaught, restoring meaning and perspective to many a clich� and hackneyed phrase in the description of classical Carnatic music. This was the composer and vocalist Manjapara D. Ramanathan (1923-1984), third in the line of the direct disciples of saint Tyagaraja. (He died 20 years ago, on April 27.)

Ramanathan's power and appeal lay in his deep, resonant voice. It enveloped your conscious being even before you were aware of it. MDR, as he came to be known, introduced a new approach to singing, or perhaps revived one that was long lost.

Anchored in his individuality, he rendered kritis in a style that was simple, direct and elegant. Singing in a slow and leisurely pace, he beckoned audiences to mull over each syllable. It was as though music had rediscovered its eternal value all over again in his recitals. MDR's crusade against the tide of time was rooted in context.

The vilambita kaala gaanam during Kathakali dance performances influenced his delivery of Carnatic songs, he once acknowledged. His voice and style were noticed even during student days in Palakkad. His singing in the lower register was ridiculed as "paatala sruti." "Manushya Drohi" is how the residents of Taracaud Agraharam in Palakkad described him on hearing his early morning saadhana.

This sarcasm probably strengthened MDR's resolve to eschew the straitjacket in music as well as in life generally. He earned a bachelor's in Physics from the Government Victoria College in Palakkad. Not heeding his father's counsel to take up employment, he enrolled for the Sangeetha Shironmani course at the Madras Kalakshetra. MDR then served as a Professor and rose to become its Principal. His guru, the legendary Tiger Varadhachariyar, had enormous regard for the young MDR's originality and individuality. MDR appended the signature "Varada dasa" to his more than 300 compositions in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu — thus immortalising the guru-sishya relationship.

MDR's legacy is alive through a modest number of albums and private recordings. A collection of tributes, in Malayalam, is M.D. Ramanathan, A Unique Octave in Music, edited by Dr. Madhu Vasudevan (2003).

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