Kalpagam Swaminthan is well into her 80s. But the age has not mellowed her passion for veena. The teacher par excellence is still willing to take on newer students! She was conferred the title Acharya Choodamani by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 2005. Noted musicologist Professor P. Sambamurthy once called her 'Saveri Kalpagam'. Not just that. Kalpagam is acknowledged as an authority on Dikshitar kritis.
Kalpagam Swaminathan performing
at the Naada Inbam
Kalpagam Swaminathan performing
at the Naada Inbam
Kalpagam Swaminathan performed Dikshitar's Tyagaraja Vibhakthi kritis at Naada Inbam in Chennai recently. She is slated to give a veena performance at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana on March 23, 2008. The grand old veena artiste is set to perform in the U.S. for the first time, perhaps.
Endowed with Tanjavur-style of Veena playing technique, Kalpagam Swaminathan goes down the memory lane in a chat with Sudha Jagannathan.
I was born in a village called Sethalapathi. Lord Rama was believed to have performed libations of water to his father King Dasaratha here. It was known as Thilatarpana Kuzhi. It came to be called as Sethalapathi. It is 15 miles from Mayavaram. From the village Poonthotam, one has to go to this place. There is also a temple for Goddess Saraswathi in Kothanoor, a near-by village. There is a river "Arasilaru" here. I stayed in the village till I was eight. When my father passed away, I was just 1-1/2 years old. We didn't have very close relatives to take care of us. I had an uncle named Vaidyanatha Swamy. He was a professor in Mathematics. He is no more now. He passed away in 1960. He was studying in Germany. He came to know of our plight only when he came to our village. When he saw us, he requested us to come to Madras. My mother was quite young then. She was hardly 22 years. I was born at that time. My uncle felt it wiser for us to be in Madras and, hence, we had all shifted there. I came to Madras when I was eight. Till then, I never knew about school teaching. But I had a gifted knowledge in music. My mother had learnt harmonium in those days. She used to sing quite well.
I started learning music from the age of six. My mother had a lot of knowledge in music. She had so much knowledge in music that she was even capable of training me in big kritis that could be performed on a stage. My mother's name is Abayambal. There was one Srinivasan Pichumani abroad. I didn't know him. Even he did not know me. He and others had learnt Navavarana kritis from my mother. After I came to Madras, I had learnt important kritis of Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Shri Ananthakrishna Iyer, who came from the lineage of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, taught me these. He was my uncle's friend. He was known as Kaladaikuruchi Ananthakrishna Iyer. When I came to Madras, I could not go to school directly without prior education. I was already eight years by then. So I had to undergo tuition. Only thereafter, I was put formally in a corporation school. I joined standard five there. All these were possible, thanks to my eldest uncle. I was then put to the veena class. After attending my school, I used to go to the veena class daily. We used to have veena class for an hour and another hour was dedicated to vocal music. It was the beginning stage in the veena. We had to know the playing technique. Whatever we sing, we couldn't reproduce in the veena easily. Veena has got a procedure of it's own. From the beginning, I learnt it with lot of dedication. I never missed going to school even for a day. First, I went to a corporation school and later on to the National Girls High School. I felt it very interesting to read and learn English as I did not study it before. Once our teacher asked us the meaning of "Rosy". Everybody looked blank. Suddenly I got up and replied, "She was rose in colour." I couldn't explain that her complexion was rose etc. Immediately, I was promoted to the next class for the subject English. I had to study in the same class for other subjects. It is funny to remember these. I went to veena class punctually. Kaladaikuruchi Vedantha Bagavathar and others conducted exams in veena. They all were the colleagues of my guru. He tested us in innovative ways. He would ask me to tune the veena. He would then ask funny questions. "I am flying in an aeroplane and what is the shruti of it?'' he would ask. I used to feel scared when I see him. Thanks to these tests, I reached a position. But I didn't go to competition for a long time. I had seen a veena competition and the way it was conducted. It then occurred to me that even I knew to play a little veena. Let me also go and play there, I felt. I didn't have a good veena. There was a principal in Queen Mary's College. Her name was Bhavani Swaminathan. She couldn't hear properly. The veena I had was not of good quality. The sound was not clearly audible. Someone named Rajalakshmi. I don't remember exactly, who brought a good veena with a velvette covering and played well to win the prize. I thought the judges had given the prize to a deserving candidate only. She had played better than me. I should play much better I thought. When I got down from the stage, Vidya Shankar's father C.S.Iyer quipped, `` What Kalpam? Don't you have any other veena?'' ``I would have given Vidya's veena had I known that you are also competing,'' he went on to say. ``Why did you play in this? You played well but it was not audible,'' he said. I sensed that many people known to the winner were around us. So I felt a little delicate at his comments. I was not so close to him. Hence, I told him that I would accept his offer afterwards. And, I quickly fled the place and headed home.
Participating in competition
After that, I didn't participate in any competition for quite a long time. All of a sudden, I thought that I must participate in that year's competition. At the time of competition, however, I had a viral typhoid. I had applied for vocal and veena competitions. I had prepared a separate list of kritis for each contest. I knew all kritis well. Yet, I felt nervous. Hence, I selected small kritis to play in the veena. I thought I could also display Tanam in the veena. I got the first prize. But I wasn't even in a position to play. T.L.Venkatramaiyer saw me in the hall and enquired, "Are you from the hospital right now?'' I was taken aback. I was so sick then. My condition was so bad that I was given a bath and put on to the bed in my room by my mother. The competition happened during this time. I went in a rickshaw. I was lying at the back with pillows and my sister came along in another rickshaw with the veena. When I reached the competition hall, I barely had any strength. I felt very weak.
My mother told me that she was glad that I was alive. She said I could participate in the next year's competition. I told her that I had applied for both veena and vocal contests and that my friends and others would make fun of me if I did not take part in the competition. People would have said that if there were to be a dance competition, Kalpagam would have applied for that as well but would not have appeared. I was not in a position to sing. I was the first candidate in the veena contest. The judge was 'Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer'. My sister fetched the veena for me and kept it on the stage and left. She asked me if she could set the shruti. I told her I would do it myself. I felt I must have cut a sorry figure with my appearance. I could sense some guys in the audience murmuring something about me. When I tuned the shruti, there was a complete silence. Then they asked me to play "Intachala" Varnam in Begada ragam in Adi tala. I played it. Then they asked the organizers to fetch my list of kritis for the competition. They seemed to have lost the list of kritis that I had submitted for my veena recital. Instead, they had fetched the list of kritis that I had given for the vocal competition. I told them that I had given an entirely different list for veena. But they could not locate it. I agreed to play from the vocal list that I had given them. I knew I could do it. They asked me to play "Balagopala". Then they asked for Dhanyasi and a few other ragas. Then they asked for Sahana. I brought the nuances of the raga within two-to-three minutes. As I was expecting them to ask more ragas, they signaled me to end.
Prof. Sambamurthy, Head of the Department in Music (Madras), and my uncle, who was the Head of the Department in Mathematics, used to communicate with each other. My uncle enquired if I (his niece) could do some exams in music. He asked Sambamurthy about those exams. There was a higher grade exam and a lower grade one. In lower grade, Swaravali, Alamkaram and the like formed the syllabus. My uncle told him that I could do better than this. The students required two years for lower and higher grades examinations. But I directly went to the higher exam. There was only four months left for the exams. I didn't know much about the theory part. I did not even know Sa means Sadja. My uncle bought me one or two books and asked me to sit in the room upstairs and read it. He told me not to gossip with my mother and other relatives in the house. I was just readying to learn that `Sa' meant Sadja. At this level, I was going to take a higher exam! I got a first class in the higher grade exams. A part of the syllabus contained Raga Alapana and Kalpana swaras. I told my uncle that I needed a teacher to learn these. He laughed thunderously as if the building would collapse. I could not understand what was wrong in the question. He pointed to the Manodarma and Kalpitha Sangeetham. Geetham, Swarajathi, Varnam etc are Kalpita Sangeetham. Manodarma meant it should be creative. It had to come on its own. Even kalpana swaras also had to come with the laya or tala. If the Manodarma Sangeetha was learnt from the teacher, it would become his Manodarma and not mine, he reasoned. I told this to my mother. My mother told me that we would attend as many veena concerts as possible. I listened to many veena concerts. I by-hearted some of those kritis played in concerts. My mind did not agree with the way they played. In those days, there was one Muluku Sivananda Sastry from Andhra Pradesh. He played the Andhra bani, which was entirely different. I enjoyed playing the Tanjavur bani. Veena playing should be of a high standard. Hence, I told my mother I could enjoy only a few of those concerts. My mother told me to listen to the All-India Radio for vocal and veena concerts. After listening quite a while on the radio, I went to take up the exam in front of Prof. Sambamurthy. He asked me to sing a Varnam. I glanced to see if they appreciated my music. Then he asked me to sing Saveri. I felt nervous. As I sang, I gained confidence. I did sanchara in the Sadja and traveled the upper octave. In those days, there was one Todi Seetharamaayya who sang the Todi raga for eight days. He praised me and said, ``Not bad. I think you can be called Saveri Kalpagam.'' I felt happy when I came out. I sang at the age of 11 in the Radio. T.L.Venkatrama Iyer took me there. There was no All India Radio at that time. There was this music for park-goers broadcast through radio.
Ananthakrishna Iyer was my guru. I learnt for only three years from him. My mother also had aught me music. She also learnt veena as I was learning that instrument. She could play harmonium with gamakas. For any instrument, vocal is the base. Nobody can deny this. I followed a technique. The way I play will seem entirely different. But the result will give a vocalized music in veena. For raga Hindolam, "Panchamam" should not be heard - " ni da ma " - but I will place my fingers on the panchama. It cannot be explained unless you know the technique. The Mysore bani differs. So does the Andhra bani. They won't touch the panchama and Sadja when they play. Veena has perished because we don't understand the technique behind this. We were taught the tala for all the three speeds. Nowadays, tala is not given much importance. In veena, first we play the swaras. The keerthana (sahitya) will be played separately. When you teach the children in an interesting way, they would surely like it.
I did not have a father to guide as I lost him very early. My uncle was a Maths professor. He took utmost care to do his duty and was pre-occupied with his profession. There was no one to help me. What could my mother do? I had played at the Music Academy continuously for four years. Veena player E.Gayatri's mother was my student. I taught her when she came to Kalakshetra as my student. She stayed with me for two years. She had played along with me in concerts. Later on, she joined Chittibabu.
There was this Rajalakshmi Narayanan, who worked as my assistant in the college. It was a great thing when I went to the college. I got the first prize in the college. S. Balachander's father came to my house and asked me to play the "Intachala" varnam. He said that there was a vacancy in Kalakshetra. The style of my playing impressed him very much. I could not agree to take up the teaching profession. What did I know about teaching? I thought then. I did not go to the Kalakshetra as requested by him. He came to my house and regretted to my mother about this. My mother was angry with me. She asked me to just apply for the post. So I had to apply. Within a day or two, I was called for the interview. When I went to Kalakshetra, I was weak following a fever. Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastri was present there with a Gotuvadya. He asked me: "Are you the one who had come for the interview?'' He tuned the veena for me and asked to check it. I was checking the level of shruthi. At the same moment, there appeared Tiger Varadachari. Sundaram Iyer, Balachander's father, advised me that in Kalakshtra singing was mainly for dance. He said Tiger Varadachari would ask me to sing. Iyer advised me to sing one or two songs and take rest. Predictably, Tiger Varadachari asked me to sing. He also listened to my veena. As I was going away from the Kalakshtra, the peon came running towards me. He told me that Tiger Varadachari had asked me to come for the job the next day. I was surprised and didn't expect this. Afterwards, I went and told Rukmini Devi and asked for two month's time. The prayer at Kalakshetra those days began at 8.00 a.m. I was having a small kid at that time. I was staying far away from the place. Hence, I said I could not be present there in time. My husband had a traveling job. So it would be difficult to manage. My husband was my uncle and my mother's brother. I traveled with Rukmini Devi on tours. I played for the children who had even performed the dance before Pandit Nehru. I used to play and sing for the dance. That was the reason why I didn't give solo performance. There was one K.S.Iyer from HMV, who requested me to give an audio album. There is no other album of mine at all. Dr. Priya is my student in Chicago. I have played in an album with her. That was only the recording I had done.
My guru taught me Abayambal Navavaranams, Kamalamaba's and group kritis consisting of Navagraha kritis and two types of Panchalinga kritis. I learnt from Ananthakrishna Iyer of Dikshitar lineage. Ambi Dikshitar was a Dikshitar's disciple .I also learnt from T.L.Venkatrama Iyer, who learnt from Ambi Dikshitar. I had played with Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastri after my appointment at the Kalakshetra. I also learnt a few kritis (vocal) from Musiri Subramanya Iyer.