T. Sankaran At 81: Guilty On More Than Two Counts

Many years ago, when a trenchant satirical magazine called Shankar's Weekly used to be published out of New Delhi, it carried a Man of the Week* caricature of dancer Balasaraswati. In the text accompanying the drawing. Editor Shankar Pillai noted how so many claimed to be either the grandchild of Veena Dhanammal or a cousin of Balasaraswati. It so happened that a namesake of his from Tamil Nadu, T. Sankaran Pillai, met the Editor shortly afterwards. When the two Pillais were being introduced. Sankaran quipped to the quillman: "I plead guilty on both counts!"

The statement reflected both his wit and his pride at being related to the legendary Dhanammal and the equally legendary Balasaraswati. This pride has been so great that. all his life, T. Sankaran has liked to be known simply as the grandson of Dhanammal and the cousin of Bala. Yet Sankaran, who completes 80 years of life on 21 June, is a personality in his own right. A lifelong student of the twin arts of music and dance, a scholar devoted as much to karna parampara as to the dust-covered tomes of antiquity and the columns of old journals, a collector of rare compositions, a walking who-was-who in music and dance with a ready knowledge of where nuggets of information on them lie buried, an erstwhile broadcasting executive with memories of incidents involving the great as well as the small, a penman who has brought to life many a musician, composer and dancer of the misty past, a songster who can himself render pada-s and javali-s in the style patented by his revered grandma a man who is proud of his heritage.

Sankaran has himself been a torch-bearer of the great Tanjavur tradition in the arts. For some years he did try careers outside of this tradition. Initially. he took up a job as a teacher and taught English, history and geography at schools in Kanchipuram. Chidambaram and Madras. His Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Economics from the University of Madras gained him entry into this profession. After five years of playing guru this way. he changed course and found a berth at Cochin Harbour where he worked for three years. Then fate intervened to bring him back into the fold When he came to the Tiruchi station of All India Radio in 1939 to give a vocal recital — his fourth or fifth — the Station Director promptly hired him as a staff artist. And he stayed with AIR until 19M when the remorseless march of lime brought him to the statutory age of retirement and paid put to his career in it.

In All India Radio, he had become a Programme Assistant in lc >4<) and risen to progressively higher positions. When the time came to lay down the official quill, he was Assistant Station Director in Vijayawada Besides Tiruchi and Vijayawada he worked in Ahmedabad. Baroda Madras and New Delhi Retirement from AIR was dictated merely by service rules. Still, in full possession of all his faculties, he moved on quickly to Annamalai Manram. the home of the Tamil  Isai Sangam of Madras, where he served until 1 January this year as director of the Sangam's own music school, the Tamil Isai Kalluri. His family connections and his service with All India Radio and the Sangam brought Sankaran into close contact with musicians of at least three generations.

A keen observer of men and more, he has noted down incidents and utterances that illuminate the achievements and ambitions, the fame and frailties of many an artist. Never a rolling stone, he has gathered a mighty crust of moss' — a still vividly green moss of memories — that has stood the passage of time to bring to his readers and auditors over the years an intimate view of a parade of people and events: glimpses of the greatness of his George Town grandma; sketches of such stalwarts of music as his favourite Naina Pillai of Kanchipuram Tiruchi Govindaswamy Pillai and others included in his Isai Medhaigal. a slim volume of biographies: fragments of his fond yet the fragile relationship with cousin Bala; insights into the incisive leadership of his erstwhile bosses at AIR like G.T. Sastri and S. Gopalan: and touching tales of decency and decorum, rousing tales of rascality and rabid communalism and humorous accounts of human weaknesses among the men and women who have peopled his world — musicians and mandarins, composers and courtesans, belles with bells on their ankles and cherished gurus with cymbals in their hands, the well-heeled as well as the barefooted, the arrogant as well as the abjectly servile. Once you unbutton his lips, there is usually no stopping him. His speech can have a sharp edge to it as his grandmothers did. but he rarely cuts to wounds.

He is a pundit of puns as well as a purveyor of pungent humour. If he tells you the same tale a thousand times, it must merely be to ensure you don't doubt his redoubtable memory: the tales never vary for the repetition! Not too long ago. someone who 42 ought to know better thought — and said — that Sankaran's memory had played truant with regard to Bala's sense of humour — and that of a brother of hers — when he disclosed some incidents illustrative of it. Sankaran rejected the charge that he had been "untrue"' to facts but, with his characteristic pungency, added that the charge had thrown up a possible epitaph for his life which the critic might relish: 'Here lies Sankaran.' Sankaran lies, of course, but mostly in bed. And when he is not lying in bed, he manages to be active despite troublesome health and the tender advice of his only son to take it easy".

He receives friends who visit him and scholars who seek his counsel. In turn, he visits long-time friends with homes not far from his own. He attends concerts and meetings, though not too often. And he drops in at the SRUTI office frequently to scrape off some of the moss, to "contribute", as he says, so that he might "justify the title of Contributing Editor." He has. of course, has been contributing all his life — to various journals and magazines. His articles have appeared in popular weeklies, and in more serious journals like Kalaimagal, Sangeet Naiak. Shanmukha and the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society and also in souvenirs brought out by the Tamil Isai Sangam, the Madras Music Academy, various sabhas and such. He has participated in a number of seminars and delivered numerous talks, sharing his knowledge of and insights into music and musicians.

He has collected — and then disseminated — the scores of dozens of rare compositions, especially pada-s and javali-s. He has gathered — and deposited at AIR-Vijayawada — valuable source materials relating to Kuchipudi. To all these endeavours, he has brought the attributes of a true scholar — diligence and scepticism among them — as well as great enthusiasm. He has contributed, too. to the promotion of the arts by serving on the committees of the sangeet natak academies at the Central and State levels, and on the boards of studies of universities and other educational institutions. Although he has spent much more of his life talking and writing about music and musicians than singing, Sankaran is indeed a musician with excellent credentials.

As a son of Dhanammafs daughter Lakshmirathnam and her spouse A.V. Swaminathan, he grew up in a home resounding to the melody of music and to the rhythm of dance as well He learnt music mostly from his mother but he received instruction also from Mecheri Sundara Sastri, a violinist and disciple of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. But, aside from the formal learning, he benefited immensely from listening to his grandmother, his mother and almost all his aunts and cousins. Although he did sing over the air in his younger days. Sankaran has been shy about giving public recitals. He has sung mostly to small private gatherings.

For that matter, that's what his grandmother did too. for the most part. And true to the tradition followed by Dhanammal herself, he too has been teaching various rare compositions to whoever has wished to learn from him. Many a front-ranker has learnt songs from him — including the mellifluous M.S. Subbulakshmi. the deep-voiced D.K. Pattammal and the puckish Papa Venkataramiah. Sankaran's wife VedammaL whom he wed in May 1937. passed away a couple of years ago. She was the grand-niece of violin maestro Tiruchi Govindaswamy Pillai. Their son, who is an executive with a TVS group company, once startled a radio interviewer, who had assumed that he too would be greatly fond of classical Carnatic music, by exclaiming: "Oh. I hate it!" But Sankaran loves it - and it has been his life really.

Text by PORR Research by K.R.R