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Saga of a Legend

Padma Varadan, Sruti, December 1987

In December 1987, the Sruti magazine published a commemorative issue dedicated to Sri RR's memory. Smt. Padma Varadan had shared her thoughts through this article which was also included in Kritimanimalai, English Adaptation, Part III.
Sri RR Ayyangar

Being the offspring of a towering figure is indeed a mixed blessing; the standards of excellence are predefined, goals of achievement are laid out, and the atmosphere is charged with the right vibrations to ensure motivation. Chances are that one's own inadequacies to make the grade can also be demoralizing. Yet, in my case opportunities have been countless to observe, emulate and learn from the great master, a stern disciplinarian and a fond parent. Down the memory lane are firmly etched impressions gathered over four decades and more of close association.

Born way back in 1901 on 2nd February in Mannargudi, a small town tucked away in the then culturally advanced Tanjavur district, my father Rangaramanuja Ayyangar (RR) seemed to epitomize the dictum of 'simple living and high thinking'. His father, an acknowledged Vedic scholar, was too otherworldly to be swayed by pecuniary considerations and the family barely managed to survive in the perpetual struggle to make both ends meet. And life took on urgency in everything RR did, obsessed as he was with the belief that present life is a one-time unfoldment not to be frittered away in inconsequential pursuits.

On the academic side, he came under the influence of titans, the foremost among them being T.B. Ratnachalam Iyer of Finlay College in Mannargudi, who literally willed him into the intrepid scholar in English and Sanskrit that he eventually became and continued to be throughout his long life of four score years.

It was again Father's Vedic upbringing that pushed him early in life into the vortex of cultural exposure that went with temple worship in those days. And music became the ruling passion of his life before long, and he devoted hours and hours to listening during the most impressionable years of his youth. He used to recount in later years how he would track down musical events in and around Mannargudi, covering miles and miles on foot across stubby, paddy fields. A nadaswara recital of Chinna Pakkiri, a wedding concert of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, a musical bonanza from Kanchipuram Naina Pillai with Konnakol Pakkiri as a sideman, a concert of Poochi Iyengar, a sumptuous treat of sheer melody from Madurai Pushpavanam, or religious discourses by veterans, were enough to send him on their trail; music in fact took precedence over even his academic obligations. The latter was somehow satisfactorily managed in due time.

Father must have had an intuitive perception of his future mission - editing the various conflicting versions of compositions that were to dog the scenario by and by, and rendering them scrutiny-worthy by posterity and thus contributing to the preservation of hallowed traditions in Carnatic Music. For, he went about perfecting the art of notation writing quite early in life even while acquiring a formidable repertoire of compositions. This was not achieved without sweat or copious tears, to be sure. There were occasions when he was hounded out of hearing distance but there was no let up in his undaunted pursuit of his prime preoccupation. The hardships only strengthened his resolve to throw open on his own the treasure in his possession, to whosoever sought it.

In keeping with the mood of the youth of his times, Father got involved in the Gandhian politics even as he entered the portals of college. The star pupil of Ratnachalam Iyer belied his mentor's expectations of a bright academic career and a coveted post in some government office for his protege! His peers had done well by themselves. Why not Rangaramanujam, bemoaned his well-wishers. Father did stints in the various ashrams including Wardha and Tiruchengode, but in the event he returned home beckoned by the call of duty towards his indigent parents and child-wife. He later moved to Madras, then a haven of opportunities for livelihood and more pertinently for cultural advancement.

After an exciting assignment with THE HINDU as a proof reader which gave him access to what some of the best brains had to say about the momentous developments that were overtaking the Indian polity, he settled for a not-so-lucrative teaching career, partly as a fitting tribute to his master and partly also because it would give him free time to pursue his other passion, music.

A good 37 years of service at M. Ct. Muthiah Chettiar High School, Purasawalkam, saw him through his own graduation and qualifying for a teacher's training degree to continue as a committed teacher of English and History. He left an indelible impression on his wards, some prominent journalists, doctors, and administrators of later years among them. Notwithstanding the frequent good-humoured references to his fits of temper and unrelenting disciplinarian stances, his dedication to his calling was such that students had free access to his time and energy even during recesses usually reserved for social palaver. His students were always welcome at home when the interaction assumed a more comprehensive dimension - targeted towards the all-round cultural awakening of the individual. His penchant for sparkling, dramatic interpretation of the most prosaic events was no less an attraction for the youngsters. In order to preserve the dignity of the teaching profession and a reasonable degree of impartiality in dealing with students, he scrupulously avoided taking private tuition assignments although he certainly could have done with some additional income to augment his never so comfortable financial resources.

Sri RR in 1939
The advent of Veena Dhanammal in his life was at once a dramatic and a traumatic experience for him; dramatic because he had never before been exposed to such depth and subtlety of approach in music except for a few unusual snatches here and there in some of the then up-and-coming musicians like veteran Ariyakudi Ramanuja Ayyangar; traumatic because all that he had acquired earlier seemed mere peripherals and trappings in music before the unmistakable essence that emerged with telling effect in Dhanammal's renditions.

A good many heart-breaks and even more despair ensued before the Ekalavya could digest, let alone master, the intricacies of veena playing, through trial and error. For, indeed Ekalavya it was that haunted, incognito, Dhanammal's Friday salon sessions for ten years after his introduction to her music. Woefully lacking in expedient, social virtues that generally ensure ready acceptance and popularity among all and sundry, his natural reserve put even Dhanammal off the scent what the strange, reticent Ayyangar loner was up to, week after week, with a small diary in hand, furiously scribbling away in a corner of the dimly lit room, taking note of unique turns in raga delineation now, of the nimble fingers moving effortlessly on the frets next, of the varied aspects of the fingering technique, of the judicious combination of deflection, plucking, striking, and so on and so forth.

With Veena Dhanammal
It was not until a broadcasting opportunity that Father fortuitously came by in 1936 that the tide really turned for him. Dhanammal got wind of it in time through other sources and heard him out at the Panagal Park in Madras. Apparently she was highly pleased. The recital proclaimed Father's steadfast devotion to the style and his capacity for assimilation. In an extraordinary gesture of goodwill and encouragement, she promptly invited him to visit her on Wednesdays for exclusive learning sessions. She spotted in him a worthy competent, musically mature receptacle to carry on her unique Veena tradition. This formal guru-shishya interaction that continued till her end in 1938 yielded rich dividends to Father in respect of repertoire and a convincing Veena technique which could articulate to perfection any musical phrase or nuance. Above all, the coveted association held an overall liberal education for Father. He felt honoured that she had opened up with stimulating accounts of eventful prime years with intellectual stalwarts for her companions. Her erudition left him in awe and her helpless acquiescence in her latter-day mediocre surroundings pained him.

One of my earliest memories is that of a toddler, bemused by the hustle and bustle that go with a celebration in a home. The occasion was Veena Dhanammal's 70th birthday in 1937. My father organised it with gusto mainly to mark his gratitude to a margadarshini in musical aesthetics and partly to set right an act of gross omission, her 61st birthday having reportedly gone by unnoticed. An old, shrunken frame performing to an audience in a specially erected pandal on our terrace is all that I remember.

In this context, it is perhaps not irrelevant to give lie to a canard that Father had contrived to have his own photograph dubbed on to Dhanammal's in support of his bona-fides as her disciple. On the contrary, the negative for the generally sported picture of Dhanammal was made from the photograph of her and Father together. Moreover, such gimmicks were totally superfluous when he had more tangible, demonstrable worth as a Veena artist and teacher for over 40 years after her departure. One had only to listen to Dhanammal's extant disc recordings to assess the closeness of his Veena technique to hers.

Statue of Veena Dhanammal at the 'Sabarmati' residence
of Sri RR
When the grand old lady passed away in 1938, Father sought to retain the association at a different level. The Friday geetanjali sessions became mandatory thereafter, at Sabarmati, our humble dwelling in Egmore, Madras and wherever else we travelled together. Later when his finances improved, he had a life-size statue of Dhanammal installed in the hall upstairs in our house. This helped him draw further inspiration, from her astral presence as it were. An avid student of Theosophy and admirer of Dr. Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky that he always was, he firmly believed in such possibilities.

Father was a stickler for discipline, be it in day-to-day routine chores or in more enduring commitments in life. His commitment to Veena topped them all where his few students were involved. For instance, it was totally irrelevant that I was the sole survivor among eight children. I remember when I was seven years old, some extraneous pressures at school had thrown me out of gear and I missed out on veena practice a little too often. Father chucked my veena into the attic, tore my music notebook into shreds and vowed never to teach me formally. It took months of persuasion before the veena could be brought down and I could resume my association with it. But he stood his ground for many years to come in so far as my formal training in music was concerned. Nor did he relent on not writing music for me thereafter!

Mercifully, his just being around in our home was sufficient inspiration, as most conversation related to music; with apt demonstrations at random, with a vibrant voice, of the umpteen facets of a particular raga or a song, what aberrations to avoid, all this and more as informally as even when he dried his self-washed clothes on the clothes-line! And I certainly deem myself singularly blessed in this best circumstance in life - a parent who knew just when to use the rod as a corrective measure and how to make up for a momentary fit of temper and not appear to have compromised! God's dispensation is ever a many-splendoured miracle.

About the same time as Father's contact with Dhanammal, also came about a chance encounter with that great post-Trinity composer, Papanasam Sivan. Stung to indignation that a rare genius like him should languish in poverty and non-recognition, Father used his notation - making skills to give Sivan the break that he deserved. Sivan's Keertanamalai saw the light of day in 1933 solely due to Father's labour of love. An impressive release function in collaboration with Muthanna of the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha advertised the Sivan phenomenon far and wide. Before long, film directors knocked at Sivan's doors, first with lyric assignments and latter with roles as well in their films.

Lalithangi and her daughter M.L.Vasanthakumari brought out their publication of Purandaradasa's Purandaramanimalai in 1941. Here again father played a role behind - the - scenes, providing help in editing, notating and organising the publishing.

Tyagaraja's birth centenary was just a few years away. There was all-round enthusiasm to observe the event in a fitting manner. A committee of four that included Father was constituted to plan and bring out a volume of the bard's songs, with suitable notation, in time for the aradhana in January 1947. The committee discussed the laudable idea over lunch, tea and dinner. The ever-obliging press too gave wide coverage. But that was about all! Father was dismayed that, while the centennial was fast approaching, no concrete efforts were in evidence to implement the original intention. Hoping he could sufficiently motivate the committee at least with a ready manuscript, he set about preparing it. He completed it in late 1945 but it was a merry passing-the-buck game thereafter. The other protagonists had no use for any tangible commemoration, their immediate objective of stealing the limelight having been achieved. The manuscript moved from one desk to another without even the courtesy of a cursory glance.

In his characteristic fashion, father decided to go it alone. There was moral support from a few staunch friends like Muthanna. But the latter was fast fading out as a force, struck as he was by a deadly stroke. Nevertheless, there was no looking back. And Kritimanimalai, Part I was out in time for the Aradhana in the centenary year. A hundred select pieces with detailed notation, meanings and raga lakshana accompanied as well by a brief biography were for the first time offered at the feet of the Muse at a release function in Madras. A school teacher of meagre means but with amazing tenacity of purpose had come forward to erect the much vaunted memorials not only to Tyagaraja but his peers, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry too. The other stars in the firmament like Kshetragna engaged his attention soon after. A monumental series of volumes, subsequently enlarged, revised and regrouped into four bulky crown-size volumes with an average of 800 pages each on a scale hitherto unattempted, covering 1500 classical compositions hit the scene; a testament of his faith in his own destiny as a 'lekhaneeya danda roopa' - a mere quill that moves in deference to Him that commands. This feat was no cakewalk. He was a chronic high diabetic for over four decades, with an unrelenting ritual of daily self-injection of insulin, and a victim of bouts of Euremia. But these were no deterrents. Nor were a year of leave from school on loss of pay and the consequent financial strain. But manna did descend from heaven from time-to-time. For instance, proceeds from a cultural, lecture-demonstration tour of Malaya-Singapore in 1951, took care of yet another publication and so on. Yet, paradoxically, buoyant, independent India was just then witnessing unprecedented Government patronage for the arts, the beneficiaries not always deserving of the largesse. No such assistance was forthcoming from any quarter however, for Father's pioneering efforts.

Worse still was the mounting prejudice against written material in music. It never registered with the powers that be that the subtlest of nuances, anusvaras, gamakas and rakti aspects so distinctive of Carnatic Music system could be analysed exhaustively in terms of the various swaras that indeed permeate them and be scrupulously recorded with precision, using only a few intelligible signs, mainly to mark the phrase lengths. With this approach not much is left to chance, unlike the arbitrary curves and similar graphic notings which admit of endless speculative interpretation.

Although never in the rat race for popularity and pelf from the concert platform, Father's equal involvement with theory and practice is amply borne out in his publications. What is Kritimanimalai if it is not a work that encompasses both aspects, a complete compendium of songs with detailed notes on meaning and raga lakshana; with special treatment of rhythm through a chapter on rhythm exercises? There were also Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam and Hari Keertanam of Suddhananda Bharatiar, for which Father set the tunes as well. What did it all prove?

Again, how about his Pallavi Tradition with 25 sample pallavis duly delineated when for the first time, the less inhibited but influential musicians like K.V.Narayanaswamy, Lalgudi Jayaraman, D.K Jayaraman and others participated in the function at which it was released? What was that if not practical music?

Further, his reviews appearing in the Tamil magazine Kaveri under the nom de plume of Sabari were a refreshing contrast in constructive criticism to the lacklustre, pompous, superficial, pretentious verbosity that music reviews, alas, often came to mean. But it is an amusing study in psychology that Father's sometimes unflattering observations were considered valid and authoritative when they pertained to a fellow star-performer as long as one was not at the receiving end. If one was, it would promptly be dismissed as sulphur and vitriol!

Sri RR on AIR
The erudite scholar-musician was irrepressible. He could hardly resist the need for a cogent record of the landmarks in the evolution of Carnatic Music from its Vedic origins. History of South Indian Music from Vedic Times to the Present, in chaste English, was his tribute to the geniuses, starting with Bharata, who, with rare insight, added fresher and fresher dimensions to the Indian music system over the centuries. Sangeeta Ratnakaram - A Study, again in English, was a corollary that was a compulsive addition.

Father's American odyssey reads like a fairy tale, a Cinderella figure that he was in the cultural scene of those days! A keen student of world history and current affairs since his school days he was at once fascinated and intrigued by the glaring contradictions in the American society. With a culture hardly 400 years old, the American society sported new horizons and robust dynamism refreshingly free from stifling, sanctimonious posture that greatly vitiated the fabric of older societies. Its spectacular material progress within the framework of democracy was achieved in an incredibly short time and Father, with the rest of the world, gasped in wonder. However, the very opulence with the perpetual struggle that went with it to excel or perish seemed to place the cart before the horse; the pursuit of material progress before obligation towards the spirit to keep the springs of humanity from drying out. The American society seemed to be at the crossroads.

A possible solution to the malaise seemed to lie in the philosophy of the East, of India in particular, with its hoary heritage, its ethos of enduring spiritual values, and harmony born out of disciplined living and contentment by and large, despite paradoxically shocking conditions of illiteracy and poverty among the masses. Tourists, scholars, students, and seekers alike thronged the corners of India to assimilate its multi-faceted cultural heritage.

Woven into the warp and woof of Indian culture from time immemorial, Indian music played a vital role in enlarging the spheres of understanding between the two very diverse cultures. Father played his humble part in this healthy integration programme, twice over without any fanfare, in his usual, quiet style.

Harold S. Powers, a Fulbright scholar from Princeton University was in India in the early fifties to gather material for a doctoral thesis on the structure and composition of Carnatic music ragas. He stumbled upon Father just when he was planning to leave lndia after a not so fruitful year or so trying to locate helpful sources for his thesis.

He promptly got his stay extended by a year more. And the two of them worked almost in a gurukula fashion, putting in hours and hours of question-answer sessions daily, with regular lessons in vocal music as well. By and by Powers took the Tiruvaiyaru and Madras audiences by storm through his full-scale performances. With due deference to American students like Jon Higgins who subsequently carved niches for themselves under other competent teachers, it should be noted that it took Father's expertise and Harry's determination to blaze a new trail very much earlier in the Indo-American experiments with Carnatic music.

New York, 1962
A lecture-cum-demonstration tour in the United States was arranged for Father in 1962 when he could assess at first hand the potential for fruitful work among the student community there. The real, lifetime opportunity knocked at his door in 1972 when he was well past his prime. He was offered a teaching assignment as a visiting professor with Carnatic Music, Indian Philosophy and epics for subjects at Thomas Jefferson College, Michigan. His initial ten month assignment got extended to two more terms.

The 72-year 'young' scholar-musician accepted the offer as God's own answer to his prayers for an outlet. Here was some whiff of fresh air at last, his outspokenness having consistently denied him opportunities for useful work nearer home...

The American offer, hence, was just what he could hope for; no unfounded prejudices to contend against, no need to take on mulish refusals to look beyond the obvious, and no power politics to neutralise his constructive endeavours.

Father's American students gave public recitals within a short span of two years of training under him under the banner of TJC Carnatic Music Ensemble in Detroit, Allendale, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo - all in Michigan State. There were similar engagements on the television network as well. Besides, they put on boards scenes from the Ramayana with relevant stage sets and costumes to capture the spirit of the times. And, furthermore, two of his students visited India to participate in the Indian Fine Arts Society's annual music festival in Madras in 1974 with an unprecedented Konnakol recital. That the American students could effectively negotiate the intricately woven rhythm syllables and patterns even in fast tempo with perfect ease spoke volumes of their own dedicated hard work as also their teacher's commitment to keep alive an art form that had lost its rightful place on the concert platform.

Once again, it was Father's ill luck that a more tangible, lasting work could not be ensured owing to his advancing age and fast deteriorating health. A total of two years of stay was too short by any standards for transfer of an exotic music tradition to any significant degree. What he could achieve was a lasting appreciation of Indian culture, of the basic values that sustain it and of an overview of the various aspects of Carnatic music.

While monetary recompense was never a criterion of service with him, it was some solid grit indeed to have continued with a shoestring budget that was made available to him for his work. The initial effort involved in getting the students to work systematically amounted to breaking totally new ground. The mutual adjustment, he to their unbridled ways and they to his strict discipline work and schedule, could not be achieved overnight. And he was not without regret that he could not complete what he set out to accomplish owing to constraints not of his making.

Sri RR
Daily readings from Valmiki's Ramayana for nearly 60 years of Father's life yielded a synthesis of the three main streams of epic, which he left behind as a manuscript. He had another work 'Silappadhikaram' on the anvil, but did not live to accomplish it. In fact, he was full of regret that he fell short of his goals just to that extent and it was foremost in his psyche minutes before he lapsed into coma on 20th May 1980.

The colossus - he was that to me and many others - is physically no more with us. But he lives on in a hundred many ways through every page of his monumental publications and other published pieces. In his abiding faith that the Carnatic music tradition will continue as the eternal spring of sustenance for all music systems; in the sagas of untiring crusade for value-based music involvement; in that lone voice that time and again sought to expose hollowness, sham and shibboleths masquerading under high sounding labels of guru - sishya paramparas.

He lives on in his express impatience with the glorification of the oral tradition in the learning process, especially after he had to wade through any number of renderings to arrive where he ultimately did; in his rigid stand that obsolete teaching methods deserved to be replaced with more rational emphasis on the utility of simple classical compositions to give the beginner a sure sense and feel of melody and rhythm, let alone sustaining the student's interest; in his outbursts of despair over the stereotyped, staid concert pattern which had become potpourri of torrential, boxing bouts between the main artiste / instrument and their obliging percussionists. Whereas he underscored the urgent need to revamp the concert pattern, to ensure a leisurely independent treatment of one aspect of Carnatic Music at a time; for a re-orientation of the audience to look forward to several such sittings. This, he conceded, was an even more challenging task.

Sri RR with daughter-disciple Padma