Her Background, Her Agenda
When Jimmy Carter threw his hat in the ring for the presidency of the United States, the public asked: ' 'Jimmy who?'' He was an unknown quantity. If the reaction to the appointment of Bhanumathi Ramakrishna as Principal of the Government College of Music in Madras is along similar lines, it is because Bhanumathi's career has been exclusively in the cinema world and she is a rather unknown quantity in the field of classical Carnatic music.
SRUTI asked V.A.K. RANGA RAO to talk to Bhanumathi to ascertain her background and her agenda of action as Principal. He did. Excerpts from the interview follow his introduction.
Bhanumathi made her debut in films in Vara Vikrayam (Telugu, 1939) at the young age ofthirteen. She achieved fame for her rendering of aTyagaraja kriti in the film Palukavemi na daivama. Sheachieved stardom doing a vampish kind of role in B.N.Reddi's Swargaseema (Telugu, 1945).
Bhanumathi married P.S. Ramakrishna Rao. Thenworking as an assistant director in films. They launchedtheir own film production company. Bharani Pictures.Starting with Ratnatnala (Telugu. 1947). they producedmany movies.
Bhanumathi continued to act. Films best-known for her acting are B.N. Reddi's Malleswari, Vipranarayana and Vivahabandham, directed by her husband. Her lone exercise in Kannada. Naladcunayanthi (1957), was a prize-winner. She acted in a few Hindi films too.
Bhanumathi acted in several Tamil films, including Nallathambi, Kalvanin Kathali, Ambikapathy, Malaikallan, Ali Baba & Forty Thieves and Madurai Veeran. In the last three, she played the female lead opposite M.G. Ramachandran.
C.N. Annadurai described Bhanumathi as a grammar book for acting after seeing her performance in Rangoon Radha (based on the Hollywood film classic Gaslight). In Vipranarayana, Bhanumathi's performance of some dances are held to constitute a monument to the work of the great dance teacher Ellappa. Her dances and classical songs in films, as classical as they can be in commercial feature films, are well-loved all over Andhra.
Bhanumathi took up film direction too. She continues to direct films for Bharani. run the Bharani Studios and do an occasional film. Her latest Telugu film. Mangammagari Manavadu released last year, is a box office hit. She also supervises the Bhanumathi Ramakrishna Matriculation School and does a bit of farming on the side.
A Padmasri (1965), the Sahitya Akademi Award for her volume of short stories Attaguri Kathalu (1966). and two doctorates (from the Andhra University in 1975 and the Venkateswara university in 1984) sit tightly on her ample frame.
Bhanumathi has recorded a commercially-produced and sold cassette of Purandaradasa's bhajans.
Could you tell us how you came to this job?
Ididn't seek the job: I was offered it
What is your background in music?
I've learnt Carnatic and also Hindustani music, from my childhood.
From whom did you learn Carnatie music?
My father was my first guru Kommaiaju Venkatasubbaiah. He was a vidwan in his own right. I had other teachers too when I was young.
Were they famous ones?
Famous as teachers. Yes. If you were to ask me whether all the teachers in music schools today are famous, what can I say? They are vidwans. that's all
How old were you when you started music lessons?
Very young. My father taught music to my mother. Both used to sing well. But they did not give concerts or records. For middle-class people, these were not accessible. I wasn't good at learning by rote. But I had the ability to pick up a song after hearing it once. That's a God-given gift. I can't criticize Him for giving such an ability to me [laughs].
But who actually initiated you into Pillari geetham?
My mother Saraswathamma. She was a music teacher. She had kutcheri capacity, although she didn't give performances. She knew the Pancharatnalu. and many other kriti-s including Chakkani rajamargamu, Brochevarevaru, Rama nee samanamevaru, Sogasuga. She had a voice like M.S. Neighbours would come to her asking her to teach their daughters some music before they were married off. I'd sit with them and pick up the songs they couldn't. This was in Ongole. Where my father was a revenue inspector. He resigned after I started acting in films.
Did you learn to play any instruments?
Yes. Twenty-five years ago I learnt veena from M.S. Raju, C.R. Subburaman's assistant. Within two months I had come to varnam-s, because I had a thorough grounding in music. I forget as quickly too! But if I take up the veena even now. I'm sure I'll be in sruti! In Sruti. yes.
Much later, from M. Janardhan. I like his playing. Just for a few days when both he and I were free.
Did you learn dancing when you were young?
No. Only for films. But that was from the best of them. Vempati Peda Satyam, Vedantham Raghavaiah, Dandayudhapani Pillai, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, though I don't quite remember the films I did with the latter two. More than forty years ago it was
In all you home productions under the Bharani banner, I find that a song or two of strict Carnatic tradition, a Tyagaraja kriti, or a Kshetrayya padam, or a Jayadeva ashtapadi was included. Why was this?
That's because of the promise I made to my father to use my voice and films to further Carnatic music. I used Dikshitar's Meenakshi. Sadasiva Brahmendra's Manasa sancharare and GNB's Paramukha and hundreds learnt these songs from my records.
Did you sing these songs as you learnt them in your childhood or did you change them?
Only Nagumomu was changed a little to suit the film. I was criticised for lightening it too. Musiri's version is good for a concert but, for a film. I fell it had to be more Bhimplas. All others were sung as I was taught by vidwans. Pakkala nilabadi and Meenakshi especially, which were taught to me by a teacher engaged by my father.
Who was this teacher? We understand you learnt several songs from G.N. Panchanatham.
I don't recall. Neither can I remember the name of my Hindustani teacher brought by my father from Kolhapur. He wore a topi and taught, in all. two songs during one and half years of teaching. One of them was Piya nahin aaye. I also learnt from the records bought by my father. That way M.S. Subbulakshmi was my 'manasika guru'. Her Saraguna palimpa, Bal Gandharva's Moorrimanra,Karim Khan's Jamuna ke teer, and various others by Hirabai Barodekar. Roshan Ara Begum. Narayan Rao Vyas, I had at the tip of my tongue.
So much for your background. Now what's your agenda for action as the Principal of the Music College?
Firstly, I'd like to improve the ratio of pure Carnatic music. The Musical Trinity isCarnatic music and only a few of their compositions are being taught here, I am told. The ratio of Tamil compositions has increased during the last few years, at the expense of the Trinity's. Such a state of affairs disheartens the teachers and no true Carnatic vidwan can emerge in such circumstances. What are Carnatic vidwans if they cannot sing the Trinity's compositions as they should be sung? It isnot enough if some Tamil songs are sung in a Carnatic manner. Sri Chidambaram Jayara'man. in power earlier as Director of Music — the post is vacant now — seems to have reduced the proportion of non-Tamil songs. But language shouldn't be the criterion in music. For all students of Carnatic music, Tyagaraja and such others are godly personages, apart from being gurus. To eschew their songs is to climb a tree and chop off its trunk. So I have revised the syllabus. I haven't cut off a single Tamil song but included more kriti-s of the Trinity. All the teachers have expressed their happiness at this change and gone on record saying that they were oppressed by the previous attitude.
Are you thinking of widening the syllabus to include other compositions too? Ashtapadi-s, tarangam-s of Narayana Tirtha whose samadhi is in Tiruppanthuruthi in Tamilnadu?
Everybody's samadhi is right here [in this College], because they did not write in Tamil! No, I'm not deleting a single Tamil song — I myself sing Tamil songs. I have sung Gopalakrishna Bharati's Rattumukku in a film. But I'm enlarging the syllabus to include the simpler songs of Tyagaraja so that the students can pick them up easily.
Are you thinking of bringing about any improvements in the administration?
Itis too soon for all that. I have to increase the facilities for the practice of nagaswaram.'The rooms set aside for it are in a dilapidated condition. The PWD needs to be prodded to take this up quickly. The Tamilnadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram is occupying a part of the ground floor. I've asked them to vacate so that these rooms can be used for offering more conveniences to the students. I am thinking uf getting a well dug to supply water to the hostel and to make practical a garden. We shouldn't lose sight of aesthetics too. should we? I haven't looked into the hostel yet. An auditorium too is needed but that'll have to wait till next year. There are sixty veenas and many other instruments here. Their proper up-keep should be looked into. Before all this, a board proclaiming this institution has to be put up.
How do you find the students here?
The students, for some reason, do not seem to be ardently interested in what they're being taught. I hope to remedy all these. I've taken charge on 28 June and I have three years time to implement my ideas.
How many hours a day, how many days a week?
Five days in a week, six hours per day. Now it is ten in the morning till four in the evening. There is a plan to change it to 9.30 to 3.30. I shall have to attend to my personal work afterwards.
I understand that the Principal of this. College always takes a class, as a tradition more or less. Will you be taking classes too?
I don't see any such tradition. There is no rule that I should. I will if I feel like it.
Have you looked into the teaching-learning process here?
Not really yet. Yesterday I went to a violin class. The playing is without the necessary gamaka, plain and straight. That has to be remedied. Though the teachers take pains, the students cannot benefit unless they have the aptitude. Out of the 500 applications this year, only the best are to be chosen. They have to meet minimum standards.
Only Carnatic system is being taught, isn't it?
Yes. But in dance, I want Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak also to be included. There is natyam in Bharatanatyam but for abhinaya. Kuchipudi is more helpful.
Kuchipudi is okay, as Carnatic music is the base for both. But Odissi and Kathak, for which you need a wholly different infrastructure?
Yes, that's true. So we’ll think of Kuchipudi first. Then sitar, mandolin. Isn't Srinivas making the most magnificent Carnatic music on it? Hasn't Chittibabu reproduced a koel on his veena? What does it matter which instrument it is as long as classical music is being served?
Are you thinking of issuing cassettes/LPs of your own, featuring Carnatic and Hindustani classical music?
If the Gramophone Company is alive, alive to the needs of the music and listeners, it will be issued on disc. Otherwise, I hope to bring out a cassette of my classical music by my next birthday, the 7th of September. Let's see. I need the good wishes of all music-lovers if I am to succeed.