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Friday, April 20, 2001

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Magic of the Mysore musician


THE 19-YEAR-OLD came from Mysore to Tiruvaiyaru with many dreams. He did not know Tamil, but he knew that the great musician he had heard back home lived in one of the streets in that pilgrimage centre.

Had the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar of Mysore not given the stripling a scholarship to study under Patnam Subramania Iyer, who had agreed to teach him if he came to his village?

When he knocked at one of the doors of the agraharam and asked for directions, a majestic figure emerged only to growl, ``Anda medhavikku edir veedu.'' (That genius lives in the opposite house). Unwittingly, the boy had pitched upon Subramania Iyer's arch rival Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan!

Eventually, Mysore Vasudevachar himself became a celebrity musician like his guru, and asthana vidwan in the Mysore court. Lauded as performer, scholar and composer, he set to music the grand verses of his royal patron Jayachamaraja Wodeyar like Kshirasagarasayana, Mayamalavagowla, Dhruva; Srijalandhara, Gambhiranattai, Adi; Sivasivasivabho, Jhampa, Nadanamakriya.

The eminent artiste spent his last years in Kalakshetra, Chennai, where he excelled in a new genre when he scored the music for Rukmini Devi's dance dramas based on Valmiki's Ramayana.

The fastidious Rajaji was wonderstruck by the production and said, ``Rukmini Devi and Vasudevachar have built a peerless temple for Rama!''

Pachai Thatha (as he was known by the shawl he wore - Sivappu Thatha being the formidable veena Sambasiva Iyer) retained his endearing humility to the end.

When M. S. Subbulakshmi sang ``Brochevarevarura'' in a Kalakshetra concert, Vasudevachar declared that he could not recognise the song as his own - his homely daughter had returned after marriage, decked in gold and diamonds!

There are many anecdotes about his struggles to master the art he loved. Once when senior contemporary Veena Seshanna took him along to Coimbatore where he had a concert, Vasudevachar learnt an Ata tala varnam from the master by rushing to his second class compartment from his own third class, every time the train stopped at a station.

Two avartanams at every halt. This was Seshanna's expiation for having made the young man a target of ridicule in the Tamil town. But Vasudevachar made his repartee. He composed a sloka on the spot saying, ``I may not have mastered music yet, but I know my Sanskrit.''

Vasudevachar's compositions bear a stamp of their own, but they contain the ardour and sweetness of his role model. This uttama vaggeyakara, whose over 200 compositions had the words and the music emerging together, is often called ``Abhinava Tyagaraja''.

He has paid homage to the Trinity in the three ragamalikas, besides the lovely Kalyani piece, ``Srimadadi Tyagaraja guruvaram'', on the saint he revered.

Once when the Maharaja asked him to compose in his mothertongue, Kannada, Vasudevachar refused saying that he was well-versed in Sanskrit, and Telugu came to him as a blessing from Tyagaraja, but to compose like a Purandaradasa was beyond him.

However, he was quick to applaud the 108 kritis in Kannada composed by Pandit Devotthama Jois at the royal patron's behest, set to music by Muthiah Bhagavatar.

Sadly, only a few of this veteran composer's songs are part of the popular concert fare today. No wonder there were many applicants to the workshop on Vasudevachar's compositions organised by Sampradaya, Chennai, with the composer's grandson, S. Rajaram, Principal of Kalakshetra, to teach them.

He had assisted his grandfather in composing for the Ramayana ballets, and himself composed the music for the last two parts after his grandfather's lifetime.

The workshop with ten women participants of different age groups, focussed on rare kritis by the master. I attended the concluding session which began with ``Pranatarthiharamaham'' in Senjurutti, a kriti ranking with Dikshitar's ``Gange Mampahi'' in its imposing edifice and grand treatment of the desya raga, usually reserved for lighter tukkadas. (This song is a favourite in the Mani Krishnaswamy repertoire.) A tillana in Kalyani preceded the teaching of a short kriti in Maand (``Janaki Manoharam Bhaje,'' Adi).

Workshops are not new to Sampradaya, which records the proceedings for its archive collection. It conducted sessions on the Veena Dhanammal repertoire with T. Brinda and T. Viswanathan (1990), a tavil workshop (1998), and another on the varnams of several composers from Papanasam Sivan to S. Ramanathan (1998).

Geetha Rajagopal, Director, Sampradaya, explains that Vasudevachar was a natural choice this time as an uttama vaggaeyakara, who also had a grandson resident in the city to teach his songs with authenticity and a personal touch.

``The response was tremendous,'' she says. Selected candidates are from different backgrounds from performers Padmini Ravi and Sumitra Vasudev to music students in Madras University and Kalakshetra, as also school teachers who wield an influence on young minds.

The project launched with Bangalore-based M. S. Sheela's concert of Vasudevachar's kritis, will conclude with the performance of the workshop participants (June 1). Rajagopal also hopes to release a cassette of Vasudevachar compositions rendered by S. Rajaram, along with a book of notation, and a biographical note.

Talking to the participants was to realise how privileged they felt about learning the Mysore vidwan's compositions. ``They are grand and mellow, and also very different from the Trinity's compositions,'' said Sumitra Vasudev.

``There is something special about an artiste who composes both the words and the music together,'' was Kalpakam Balasubramaniam's response. Padmini Ravi felt that ``the shorter pieces make fine concert tukkadas.'' There was pragmatic gain for Radha and Gayatri - ``We now have songs for the annual Vasudevachar competition in the city sabhas!'' The students knew very little about the composer, and the workshop opened a new terrain for exploration.

``I have taught Thatha's songs at home when anyone asked me, but this is my first workshop experience,'' smiled Rajaram. ``With a precise notation that I distributed at the start, teaching was easy, as all participants were music students eager to learn,'' he said. This positive response has made Geetha Rajagopal contemplate another workshop on the compositions of Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, to round off the experience.

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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