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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 snapped.

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 early seventies.

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 Carnatic musicians.

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!