How to enjoy Tamil Isai? With a lec-dem session on Zoom on “Tamil isai payanam down the ages” during the virus-induced lockdown time in May, he literally opened a new world. Most of us have heard master pieces such as Tevaram, Divya Prabandam, Silapadikaram and the like. On the tour down the ages, he also enlightened the audience with highlights of great composers such as Dandabani Desikar, Papanam Sivan, Arunachala Kavi, Oothukadu Venkata Kavi, Gopala Krishna Bharathi, Neelakanta Shivam, Koteeswara Iyer, Muthiah Baghavathar and, of course, Subramanya Bharathi. That day on Zoom, Vidwan Ram Vasudevan took us on a thoroughly enjoyable musical journey of Tamil isai down the ages, now and then singing a few lines from select composers responsible for creating memorable music (and poetry) that have become quite popular with Carnatic music and musicians. Ram Vasudevan is among the current generation musicians, who is deeply immersed in our traditions and culture, especially in championing the cause of Tamil isai and Carnatic music.
He chucked a flourishing career in IT to pursue his passion for Carnatic music. He spent many years in learning music from veterans such as Vidwan Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Vidwan Palghat K. S. Narayanaswamy and Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy. He also had a great opportunity to be guided by Vidushi NeelaRamgopal. Vasudevan believes music has to be ingrained in today’s youngsters by making it interesting for them through not only teaching them to appreciate the finer technical aspects, but also through lec-dems and music appreciation courses in schools and colleges, giving them a deeper insight into the finer aspects and aesthetics of Carnatic music. Endowed with a vibrant and pleasing voice, he has been able to successfully engage in providing vital inputs to improve the skills of students. He has some remarkably interesting anecdotes to share in this interview. One is how his guru Palghat K. S. Narayanaswamy, though not well, walked all the way from his house to attend one of his concerts. When Vasudevan asked why he took the trouble, the guru smiled and said, “What better way to bless a disciple?” Another fascinating example is with Guru Neyveli Santhanagopalan after their morning walk and eating hot medu vadas and bajji and discussing carnatic music. On one such occasion, Neyveli Santhanagopalan surprised Vasudevan with a sudden alapanai of raga Jonpuri.
Edited excerpts of the interview with T.M. Anantharaman:
How did you develop interest in Carnatic music? What was your motivation?
We did not have any musician or very musically-inclined people in my family. My grandmother was supposed to have been interested in music and learnt music. But that had been long forgotten by the time my interest triggered. Music always seemed to be in my day-to-day things from time I can remember - from Hindi and Tamil songs on radio to music blaring out of the speakers in the surrounding temples, and the constant bhajan and shlokam sessions in the agraharam I stayed in. Learning music though was the trigger from some of my close friends who supported and furthered it. Music, I think, was a gift of the almighty.
You have studied music under various stalwarts. Can you share some unique and memorable experiences?
My first guru was Vidwan Neyveli Santhanagopalan sir. He taught me to listen, absorb and analyse music without any prejudices. The four years with this maha vidwan was a veritable treasure hunt of learning which stands till now. It was not just rote learning but a veritable experiential learning of accompanying him in concerts, being part of soiree with other vidwans who visited him and introduction to music of many music masters of the yore. I had the opportunity of learning under Vidwan Calcutta K. S. Krishnamurthi - soft by nature and a very good teacher. He understood what each student could do, and, accordingly, taught them even while at the same time encouraging them to move further. He passed on unfortunately before my learning could continue with him. I had a very short opportunity to learn under Vidwan T.N. Seshagopalan. Though short, I am blessed to have learnt from such a maha vidwan. His aesthetic and technical approach is something that inspires me. My guru Palghat KS Narayanaswamy was the nephew and student of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. His classes themselves were a unique experience of tradition, innovation, and interesting anecdotes. There is always the last-mile motivation to push yourself seriously into something. And, this was provided by Vidushi Neela Ramgopalmaami. I learnt only for two years with Maami, but it was a learning experience for a lifetime. I can never forget the music sessions of Neyveli sir with Vidwan Thanjavu Sankara iyer, Vidwan Sethalapathi Balu mama (a devoted student of Papanasam Sivan) and other such eminent musicians at his house followed by a tasty lunch served by sir’s mother. I remember Balu mama visibly moved to tears when singing some of the krithis. Many teaching sessions of Neyveli sir used to happen when we wait at Venkateshwara poli stall for the bajji/bonda/vadai or poli or walking on the road when he would suddenly start singing a ragam. I remember clearly one such session where he told “ippa Jonpuri yoda form puriyaraduppa” and started on an impromptu Jonpuri on the road. For one of my concerts in Bangalore, KSN Mama, who had then recently undergone an angiogram, came walking to the hall to listen and bless me. When I asked him why he had to take that trouble, he told me “that is nothing at all- he had to hear and bless his student”. Since mama is from Palghat, the way he used to tell some of the anecdotes involving Semmangudi mama used to be hilarious.
What do you think is the future of Carnatic music?
It is organic. It has evolved and has been able to balance tradition with the modern. It goes through its own cycles -probably that is why it is able to stand the test of time. Though I personally feel a little more introspection, internalizing and depth is to be looked at. Probably it also has also become a profession with its own demands. Once a musician settles, probably they will have the time and mind to do it.
In what way you consider Guru is more than a teacher?
A teacher will give the skills and tools, but a guru guides your life. A guru guides you and shows you the path. It is for you to see that path and look at means to go through it. The guru opens up something in you which is more than just music – it is something that has to do with life itself. I consider myself to be fortune to have had two gurus - Neyveli Sir and KSN mama - who showed that to me. Of course, it took some time for it to sink into me. Neyveli sir guided me to listen to a lot of masters, talking about their styles, making me realize what music is about. He used to insist that after class I should visit Sampradaya, which was the archive of master’s music that was set up in Mylapore, and listen to certain masters. The next class he would ask what I understood from the music. He showed the path to listen to music without judgement. This has stood with me, and will stand till the end of my life.
Can you highlight the importance of gamakas in Carnatic music?
The most important aspect of Carnatic music, which is raga based, is certain forms of gamakas or relationship and movements between swaras that give uniqueness to a raga. Without these, it will just be scales.
What is your view on Carnatic music and voice culture?
Voice culture is an integral part of Carnatic music. Voice culture is not just a great voice but tuning one’s voice to the gamakams and movements that define Carnatic music. That is why the great Pitamaha Saint Purandaradasa gave us a structured step by step approach to tune the voice before one sets into the rigours of learning music. If you listen to the wide variety of voices of the masters, this will be very evident.
I believe you have been doing a lot of work on music appreciation courses and lec-dems in Bangalore. Can you briefly elucidate the importance of these?
Music is about experiencing. When someone has a background about what you are listening to, it enhances the listening experience. It is also essential to understand the history and science of such a great art. People need to understand the effort and science that has gone into this art. Hence, lec-dems and appreciation courses become important.
As opposed to regular sabha concerts, chamber music concerts are becoming popular. Do you agree?
Yes, and it is a good trend. The listening experience is more intimate. Also, it means supply and demand are somewhat addressed with more people taking to performing. The downside though is people who may not really be kutchery-ready may jump into fray, without realising what goes into making a kutchery.
How important is improvisation or manodharma in Carnatic music?
It is the important part. Exploration is the hallmark of Indian music itself. Even the compositions of the great composers for us are a trigger point of exploration. But one needs to balance manodharma with innovation within the framework. Rather, one should be capable enough to expand the framework and gain acceptance. Of course, one should have reached a certain maturity to do this effectively.
What is your view on the importance of diction in Carnatic music?
It is very important. Music is important and so is the diction. One may not naturally sing languages other than one’s mother tongue with the same ease, but one should make an effort. It improves bhava as well as listener experience.
What is your view on singing rare Melakartha ragas or something totally new?
Not at all a problem as long as one knows how to handle it. A musician again needs to know the balance between introspection and innovation.
We have seen new teaching mediums such as YouTube, Skype and Zoom emerge of late. They are also proving to be useful concert platforms in the context of Covid-19 induced lockdown. How do you see things going forward?
They are certainly not equal to face-to-face teaching. It is ok when there is no option. It is also good when a student has been with a guru for some time, used to the style and teaching and is currently away. These are surely good additions but not the same as face-to face-teaching. Face-to-face teaching brings a certain value and intimacy to guru-shishya bhava.
Visit this link to listen to his music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIHnHyoHIuc
To further enjoy his music, click below:
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