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An American Student's Account

Dr. Harold S. Powers, Sruti, 2001

This article was written by Late Dr. Harold S. Powers in 2001 as a contribution to the Souvenir brought out on the occassion of Sri RR's birth centenary. This article was also reprinted in Kritimanimalai, English Adaptation, Part III

I spent the years 1952-54 in Madras on a Fulbright grant to study Carnatic music. The richness and vitality of the musical world of South India and the concert life of Madras in those days were absorbing and exhilarating. I learned different things from different people during those years, but the central figure in my musical learning was the late, R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar (RR). I was introduced to him by the late K. J. Natarajan, who was an aficionado of European as well as South Indian classical music. Since I was - as I am still - a scholar of European classical music, and accustomed to music in notated form, Natarajan thought that RR would be the teacher from whom I might learn the most in the short year or two that I might have in Madras. And he was right.

Rangaramanuja Ayyangar had begun the laborious task of seeing his magnificent compendium Kritimanimalai (KMM) through the press in 1947; the publications were completed while I was studying with him. The hundreds of classical Carnatic compositions he had painstakingly notated himself, or adapted and clarified from earlier publications such as Subbarama Dikshitar's Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini, were for me - as they have been for countless others - an ever-present treasure house of reference. But for me they were also much more; the constant interaction of the visible written record in KMM with RR's viva voce teaching was a learning experience of unparalleled intensity. He would sing and / or play on the veena a kriti, phrase by phrase; I would imitate his rendition and annotate his notation; I would go over the lesson as soon as possible, with the sound fresh in my ears and the volume of KMM before my eyes; at the next lesson I would sing and he would correct me. He gave me three such sessions a week, from December 1952 until June 1954, with the brief hiatus noted below.

I asked many questions during our sessions, not only about what we were doing (of this more below), but also about the music and musicians I was hearing constantly in Madras and occasionally elsewhere, and of course on the radio. Sometimes I worried that one or another enthusiasm of mine might seem hopelessly naive, or worse, disloyal, but he always said, 'No, no, it's all grist to the mill' - a favourite expression of his that I often still hear myself saying, and it always brings him vividly to mind. Though his firmest professed devotion was to the music of the late Veena Dhanam, he often spoke of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai and other stalwarts of the twenties and thirties as well, always reverently but never piously. He wove for me a rich tapestry of images of musical South India between the old ways and the new. He was eclectic in the best sense of the term; his firm feeling for what was central in the tradition allowed him to embrace diversities that would have overwhelmed anyone with a less sure critical control.

Without Rangaramanuja Ayyangar, I could not have accomplished a tenth of whatever I did in those two years, and even in the midst of that tenth I would have floundered and probably foundered. And I once had a good test of that probability. About a year after our association began, RR had occasion to go to Mangalore for some lectures, and from that safe distance he wrote me that he had been distressed by certain aspects of my frequent demands that he explain why he had notated something in one way and seemed to be singing it in another, in short, my petulant frustrations at being unable instantly to delineate certain subtleties of intonation in terms of his notational system. He concluded by saying that he thought perhaps we had better put an end to the sessions.

I was devastated, and wrote him immediately, promising to mend my ways - as best I could, at any rate, for he was calling attention not so much to my asking of questions as to a belligerently persistent manner that still sometimes gets the better of me and annoys my intimates. No answer. Over the succeeding weeks I wrote several more times, with never a reply. Meanwhile I was going about the city, picking up a little something here, a little something else there, but missing more and more the combination of regularity and discipline with free-floating dialogues that had meant so much to me. Finally one evening, in desperation, I took my courage in hand, went to RR's house in Sait Colony (Egmore), and climbed the stairs to the first-storey front verandah with the famous life-size model of the late Dhanammal with her veena. He was there. He looked at me and all he said was: 'Where have you been all these days?'

From this experience I learned two things. One is familiar to all Indians: in a relationship looking upward, one must make one's respect known in person. The other was a lesson for me alone; I needed him. We resumed forthwith. And there is an amusing postscript. A few years later a fellow American on his way to study music in Madras asked me about possible teachers. Of course, I suggested Rangaramanuja Ayyangar from whom I had learned so much so fast, but it didn't work. At some point during my second long stay in Madras, in 1960 - 61, I asked RR what had happened. 'I was unable to help him,' said he, 'he never asked any questions!'

During this second stay in Madras, my times with RR were infrequent and irregular, but as always his tips and ideas for me were seminal. This time they were largely in the domain of rhythm, drumming, and tala, where previously my studies with him had been focussed entirely on gamaka, raga and kriti-s as exemplification of raga-s. And there was an unforgetable four days in January 1961, when he took my then wife and myself on a temple tour around Tanjavur district, at its greenest, and as only he knew how to.

The year after my return from that second stay in Madras RR wrote that he was coming to America, and asked me to arrange a series of lectures and demonstrations for him. I did so, and I remember vividly many incidents of the weeks he was with us and our infant children in Philadelphia between trips away, and the stories he told about those trips away too. His first impressions of America, and of Western music, were another kind of education for me. Among musical impressions, I particularly remember once taking him to, of all things, Wagner's Gotterdammerung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He was attentive and alert for the whole five hours, took it all in, and as anyone who knew him will imagine, he had many perceptive and illuminating observations to make. He acquired a large number of enthusiastic admirers during this first American visit; many of them kept in touch with him, in later years, more than I was able to do. But it is a comfort to me, after so many years since he has left us, to remember that I was his first American student.