Rajam And Rajam Iyer: A 'Kutcheri' On Carnatic Music

Vidwan B. Rajam Iyer will preside over the annual conference of the Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras this month and will receive from the Society the honorific of Sangita Kalasikhamani Recently, he was honoured also by the Sur Singar Samsad, Bombay, with the title of war Vilas. Rajam Iyer is a senior disciple of the late Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar; a leader in performing and propagating the compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar which he learnt from an authority on the subject, namely the late Justice T.L. Venkatarama Iyer; a former professor at the Government Music College in Madras; and currently principal of the Teachers' College of Music of the Madras Music Academy. Born on 15 June 1922, he started his musical training with Tirukokarnam Subbiah Bhagavatar and continued it under Jalatarangam Ganapati Iyer, a step-brother of Kunnakudi Venkatrama Iyer. For a few months, he received training in violin-playing as well as in singing but abandoned the stringed instrument in favour of his voice, thus leaving the field clear to another artiste associated with Kunnakudi to gain name and notoriety as a violinist Rajam Iyer is a traditionalist, which is perhaps symbolised by the pair of diamond studs he wears on his ears, but he also moves with the times, this aspect illustrated by his riding a moped around town, with a helmet on his head. One day recently, Rajam Iyer and SR UTI Contributing Editor vidwan S. RAJAM both arrived at the SRUTI office each riding a moped Helmets off, the two put their heads together to develop, for the benefit of SRUTI readers, information on Rajam Iyer's early training, experiences, insights and views. Following are excerpts from their exchange, with S. Rajam's questions and comments in bold type:  

You learnt music doing gurukulavasam under many musicians, didn't you?

Yes. I learnt music in the gurukul system. I first started learning music under Kunnakudi Ganapathi Iyer in my eleventh year. The three years I was with him built the deep foundations for my further musical training.

Did he teach you vocal music also?

He did indeed. He was an instrumentalist but he understood the importance of vocal music. I came under his tutelage when he was practising the gottuvadyam also, apart from jalatarangam. He would sit in the mornings and practise saralr varisai on the gottuvadyam; he would then ask me to spell out the swara-s that he played on the vadyam. If I made a mistake, he would threaten to hit me with the gottuvadya-kattai! I feel I owe my swara-gnana almost entirely to his gottuvadyam playing.  

Isn't it a pity that the gottuvadyam, which offers the closest approximation to the human voice, has not become popular and has been handled by very few?

Yes, indeed.... After Ganapathi Iyer died, my grandfather put me under Ramanuja Iyengar, though I was getting some private education besides, at that time. Iyengarval was reluctant at first but, after testing my knowledge, he agreed to teach me. Th e first song I learnt was Veena pustakadharini.

So you had started specialising in Dikshitar kriti-s even then. And with the right item too — in Vegavahini raga.

Yes. My grandfather taught me Sanskrit. My first concert was with [Ramanuja] Iyengarval in Swamimalai. I began with a Kanada varnam and sang all kriti-s taught by him. When he taught music to his son-in-law, he used to teach me also, with notations. This was from 1937. After learning from him for ten years I came to Madras in 1947. I consider it a singular privilege and a great honour that for four or five years he wrote out swara notations with his own hand and taught me.  

It's my experience also that, in those days, there were few teachers who taught music and also wrote it out for the students. Ramanuja Iyengar was a rare example of them. Ambi Dikshitar who taught me was another. Wasn't Iyengar's handwriting distinct and beautiful?

Yes, his writing was so clear — like his music — that no explanation was necessary: you could understand it by reading it off straight. Have you heard of Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Iyer.

 Yes. Wasn't he the great vidwan who sang rare raga-s like Malavi effortlessly?

You could call him swara-laya-swarupa — an incarnation of swara and laya. He was the man who asked me to do gurukulavasam unde r Iyengarval, saying: "You should learn from this great musician whose music is pure and sampradaya-bound." Even when Iyengarval taught me the Kanada varnam, I used to marvel at his voice control, his ghana-naya-lalita saareeram [the voice that could span the whole range of the soft, the suggestive and the commanding]. But my highest level of education came, I would say, from listening to his concerts, and sitting with him. The fact that he could attract the pundits and the laymen alike with his performances and yet not swerve from sampradaya [tradition] — wasn't that abundant proof of his musical prowess.

Of course. Another unique feature of his music was his coordination with the accompanists and his encouragement of the junior artists. Whether his accompanying 'sei' was a top class or of a lesser standard never made any difference to him, did it?

Never. And that was because of his musical conviction and varied experience.

To my knowledge he was the first musician whose concerts attracted college students. I used to hear them humming the airs they heard in his concerts — he was that popular.

Right up to the last tukkada, his concerts retained the classical flavour.  

You have sung in concerts with him and heard him perform for ten years. Can you describe those?

In the olden days [before Ariyakudi] the pattern was tc sing a raga very elaborately — for an hour and more — and to include only a few such lengthy items, like a comprehensive and detailed pallavi. I think Iyengarval was the first person to change this and include, in a concert of around three hours, a varnam, kriti-s of the Musical Trinity, a number of smaller kriti-s without raga alapana or in some cases swara-s, an elaborate ragam-tanam-pallavi and tukkada-s in many languages including Tamil.  

True. And he was the first singer to include compositions of Koteeswara Iyer and Papanasam Sivan in his concerts.

He included Sivan's Kartikeya Gangeya Gowri tanaya ;Todi) in his records too. If my memory serves me right, his first song in a Tamil Isai Sangam concert was Kali teera of Koteeswara Iyer. H e should also take credit for making Ramanatakam songs into classical, concert-worthy pieces; and it was he who turned songs from Tiruppavai into kutcheri items. His speciality was raga-singing in brief spells but spells that were forceful and so full of nuances and pithy expressions etching out the raga clearly that, even if the listener's mind wandered for a few seconds, he was likely to miss a sangati or two.

How does modern kutcheri music compare with that?

You can be frank. These days raga alapana-s are done for lighter raga-s also. I do not accept this present-day practice of singing alapana and swara-s for a minor composition.

But a singer can elaborate on a small kriti or a light raga only if he or she has understood it very well. So if they are doing this nowadays, doesn't it mean that musical capability has improved considerably?


In the olden days, singers did not have a very wide repertoire. The number of items sung in kutcheri-s then used to be much smaller. This has grown considerably now, hasn't it?

Without a doubt.  

In the singing of tillana-s and pallavi-s and the singing of swara-s for a kriti also, nobody can deny the fact that the quality has gone up smartly. Despite such a talent explosion, there are some defects which must be overcome. What is the way out?  
One solution is that the number of songs taught by the Musical Trinity should be much more. That and better teaching methods are the answers to this problem.

Two questions about teaching methods: one, what is the difference between the earlier method of learning under one guru and the current practice of tuition under several gurus? And second, isn't the teaching of music with the modem gadgets available today much more advanced and beneficial?  

T h e single guru concept was all right in those days. It won't be suitable for today's musical world. It would mean a single-track, narrow approach, whereas today's teaching has got to be of a broad spectrum. Just as we have several shades of classicism in classical music like light, heavy and so on, there is music which touches only the surface and music that goes deep inside you and entrances you. Earlier we had to listen to our guru sing and practise it on those lines until we learnt all the sangati-s and nuances. Writing out the music in notation was not very common and was still in its developing stages. Much depended on our grasp, our interest. Things are much more developed now.

 Indeed. Now one can find notations for almost all songs in books, magazines, etc.

But notations cannot give all the nuances in our music

No, but notations do help to recall the sangati-s, retain the identity of the style in which one learnt the song and teach many more persons than one can cover by personal teaching.  

True. It must be admitted, however, that the swarupa of the raga, the essence, is difficult to understand from notations. In my own experience, after I came to Madras and started learning unde r TLV — T.L. Venkatarama Iyer — I realised that my music needed quite a few corrections.

 You have spread the songs of Dikshitar far and wide with your teaching. About his kriti-s...

TLV invited me to conduct classes at the R.R. Sabha in Madras. At that time I had the opportunity to learn hundreds of Dikshitar kriti-s from him. Dikshitar's songs have the majestic gait of a royal elephant. Look at the way he has handled Ahiri raga in the Navavarna kriti: it's like seeing an ocean within a small molecule, such depth of meaning and feeling. In fact, some of his kriti-s are so deep that I couldn't learn them then and regretfully to shelve them for later. You could even say that his kriti-s are perhaps the ones with the most intricate expressions. He has composed many group songs, many songs with samashti charana-s [cpmbination of anupallavi and charana lines]. His musical creations in the ghana raga-s have many^ specialities. His Navavarna kriti-s, Navagraha kriti-s, are rare gems which should be sung in many concerts and which, if handled well and popularised, can aid the growth of music. Dikshitar's songs should be publicised well and spread widely through all media like temple concerts, tapes and records. If possible, we should give the meaning and explain briefly the relevance of the specific kriti-s being rendered, especially in temple concerts. If this is done in the language of that place, the messages will have immediate and great appeal.

He has composed quite a bit of [Westem] 'note' music too, hasn't he?

Yes, in Sankarabharanam alone he has done forty or so: these are invaluable teaching aid. These were composed by Dikshitar when he was hardly twenty, I believe. When 'English' notes or melodies are sung with Sanskrit words and script, fresh students — even children — can understand these and sing easily. I've introduced these in the preliminary classes in our college.  

What are the differences and meeting points between Hindustani and Carnatic music?

T h e North Indian or the Hindustani style emphasizes sruti-suddham — purity of the sruti. Hindustani music is practised with swara-sadhana karvai-s. Even old-time Carnatic music was based on suddha swara-s.

Aren't suddha swara-s important for concerts also?

Surely, Sthaana-suddham [purity of individual notes] is crucial for good music in any system, be it North Indian or South Indian. Speed is necessary but the essential sukham should never be forsaken. In Hindustani music, they have only twelve swarasthana-s [note positions]. We have, besides those, many subtle, delicate variations. In this context, we must note that the type of composition we call the varnam is a unique vehicle to give us the raga-swarupa clearly and with no room for doubt or confusion. The gamaka-s will vary, of course. In my teaching method, I combine both these aspects and start training my students to practise eight akshara-s, etc., from the first class itself. This method could have been in vogue in the olden days but it isn't followed much now. Th e concept of suddha swara-s has become rare through neglect by teachers and performers alike.

How would you rate the students — girls and boys — of today, with particular reference to their approach to music?

T h e boys certainly don't have the interest and application shown by girl students. The achievements of the girls have also been more in the recent past and we see them making a name and earning distinction.

Yes, yes. After all sangita is called a lalita kala, isn't it? Many opportunities are being given these days to girls and they're making maximum use of these: the boys should see this ur.I improve their efforts too, shouldn't they?


About current-day music...

T h e Musical Trinity of Carnatic music has indicated beyond doubt that music is not a profession, but that it's an offering, God. They didn't have music as a jeevanopaya but as a surrender to 'ananda'. Later Maharajas became patrons and promoted music and the vidwans. By and by this has become commercial.

But is it wrong to keep music as a profession, as a means of livelihood?  

Certainly not. Even when it is a profession if the singer is still able to forget himself and the world around him in the music he creates, it can be called service to the cause of music. The musician must strike a nice balance between singing good quality music and at the same time catering to the public taste. That is the responsibility of vidwans. What the general public likes is not only the definition of good music, even though music has become much more. general and widespread now than earlier. Another equally important criterion is the identification of the singer, and his integration with the music he creates.

Many thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas with us.

S Rajam