A Titan Passes Away
Sri V. Balakrishnan, Times of India, Mumbai, 1980
When R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar died in Bombay in May 1980, a mighty link with the past
In the world of music and learning, RR was a real giant. As a scholar, teacher, musicologist,
researcher, writer and Veena player, RR's achievements are stupendous by any standard.
Born 80 years ago in Mannargudi, a small temple town in Tamil Nadu, RR was, in many ways,
a true representative of the better aspects of what can be called the 'Thanjavur tradition'.
In the manner extolled by the Rig Vedic Hymn, RR let noble thoughts come to him from every
side. He was a scion of a family of Vedic scholars and his home atmosphere was inspiring.
RR easily acquired a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil. The local Rajagopalaswami Temple,
was also a benign influence that inculcated ethics and artistic excellence. Rajagopala
Dikshitar, the chief priest at the temple, impressed the young RR as a 'prince among
connoisseurs;' the archaka's soulful recitation in a majestic voice, his devotion to the
best classical music, his remarkable sense of values, his appreciation of the finer graces
of life - all these influenced the impressionable boy.
In young RR's mind, T.B. Ratnachalam of the local Finlay College, created an abiding love
for the English language and literature. RR acquired a beautiful and effective style of
writing English prose. Even as a boy, RR made it a point to listen to Harikatha
discourses (or Sankeertan) and music concerts with, an attentive but critical ear. Above all,
RR imbibed the virtues of discipline, thoroughness, and dedication. Hard work had never any
terror for this old timer, and his exertions were unsparing and single-handed till his last
breath. These qualities had served him well in his long life as a teacher - whether at the
school at Purasawalkam in Madras for over three decades, or while on a cultural tour in
South East Asia in the fifties or at the Thomas Jefferson College, Michigan, USA, in the
A teacher seeks primarily to instruct and to do this, RR had an encyclopedic knowledge
(Itihasa-s), of carnatic music, its theory and its place in the overall Indian philosophic
tradition. Even more, RR's succeeded in inspiring his students by his remarkable and almost
ascetic lifestyles. The word 'education', at its roots, implies a process of drawing out;
RR was able to open his students' eyes to their own inner potential and to draw it out and
help in its blossoming. As a musician, as a teacher, as a lecturer on the great Indian
philosophical, ethical and artistic traditions, RR let not only his students, but also the
entire academic community in the campus to a keener awareness of the true, the good and the
beautiful. Many of his students and colleagues have testified to such a transformation,
leading to a new sense of direction in their lives.
And, yet, to several others, and even to many who did move closely with him, Rangaramanuja
Ayyangar often seemed to be a formidable, and even forbidding, personality. RR had an
absolutely forthright manner of speaking and writing; he had no use for any sugar coating
nor was he willing to stoop, even if it is only to conquer. This quality led to devastating
results, when combined with the weight of his erudition, the clarity of the intellect and
the sharpness of his critical acumen. They literally scared away the modern tribe wedded
to false values of pomp and pelf and cheap gimmickry. Masquerading as artistes under cover
of the normal courtesy of others, and surviving by the simple process of mutual
back-scratching, these charlatans who somehow got on in the art world feared the relentless
exposure that awaited them at RR's hands. Even on the rare occasions when any organisation
chose to felicitate RR, he did not hesitate to speak out his mind. The so-called great
artistes of the present day carnatic music world made no impression whatever on RR. For,
his yardstick was the calibre of the giants that he had himself heard at the turn of this
century in his boyhood days or their elders whom he had heard about in his childhood.
'I have closely observed three generations of musicians. The fourth is now passing before
my bewildered gaze', commented RR on the despicable and doleful display by present day
RR said all this, not in anger, but, in great anguish. He lamented the poor voice culture,
the woeful dependence on the mike, the low Sruthi, the lack of understanding of our great
musical traditions and the crass commercialism of our present day musicians. What RR had in
mind were some of the stalwarts of pre 1930 vintage whose voice was true and uniform over
three octaves, and was heard with clarity even in large halls, whether or not there was a
mike. The powerful vibrations emanating from such a voice had an elemental quality that was
the very essence of good music and which almost overpowered and moved the listener also.
Such voice culture alone could do justice to the several types of gamakas and nuances of
sound, characteristic of the best Carnatic music. RR's regret was that such a glorious
musical tradition has been allowed to die slowly, but surely. For example, the various
gamakas, beautifully brought out by Veena Dhanammal in her soulful music, have been all but
forgotten. However, RR did not become bitter or frustrated. For, till his last breath,
he kept on working, teaching and writing with a touching qauality of faith in his mission
and faith in the future.
To tackle the problem of the restoration of our true musical heritage and its preservation
for the future, RR adopted a constructive approach. He realised that the Gurukula system has
been overtaken by the stresses of changing times, and the Karnaparampara or oral tradition,
therefore, needs supplementing. As his contribution, RR has set down in notation the melody
and rhythmic structure of about fifteen hundred songs of the Trinity and others. His
Kritimanimalai is indeed a monumental work, which can do anyone proud. In addition, RR has
also written an extremely readable 'History of South Indian Music' and a scholarly study on
Sarangadeva's 'Sangecta Ratnakaram'. Even his short book, 'Musings of a Musician'
privately circulated, show flashes of deep musical insight, and the anecdotes are full of
understanding and also caustic humour. Yes, RR was justly feared; for, with him the pen was
mightier than the sword!
Our generation is perhaps much too close to this Titan and his times to be able to assess
his massive contribution to Carnatic music. We can well anticipate the comment, 'In a
performing art like music, any amount of theory and books, are indeed welcome, because
they help to illumine the art; but the ultimate proof of the pudding is in the eating.' Any
music must surely benefit by a very scholarly and analytical approach; but great music
needs a total surrender that completely effaces the ego and merges the artist's
individual identity with the cosmic reality. Bred as he was in the religious and
philosophic tradition of India, RR must have understood this latter aspect also very well.
RR's prodigious efforts and scholarly books take care of the first aspect; and they will
last for a long time to come. They will surely help future generations to understand our
great musical tradition. May they also provide the framework to encourage inspired
performance by musicians of the present day and of the future!