M Chandrasekaran

Ask Sangeeta Kalanidhi M. Chandrasekaran for his reaction to the award, and he says emotionally, "I lay this honour at the feet of my late mother who was also my guru". It is not a customary token of homage paid by a fond son to a mother but a statement of gratitude made by a student to his teacher. Yes, Charubala Mohan was, besides several other things, the only violin teacher of her son Chandru. If M. Chandrasekaran chose to M. Chandrasekaran dedicate his life to the art of music, it was because his mother chose to dedicate her life to forming his. This is how their story goes. Chandrasekaran was born on the 11th December 1937. Charubala Mohan was appalled when, at the age of two, Chandrasekaran her second son, turned irreversibly blind, an aftermath of jaundice. But she was not one to sit and mope. She was an accomplished violinist having first learnt music from Umayalpuram Venkatarama Iyer and then the violin from Sangeeta Kalanidhi T.K. Jayarama Iyer. She sensed that her son had an instinctive understanding of music. Charubala was not wrong. When he was barely three-years old, Chandrasekaran could identify many raga-s. His mother decided that music would be his profession. Vocal lessons began in right earnest. The family was then in Kanpur and Charubala employed a teacher to teach him Hindustani music as also the harmonium. A few years passed and fate struck again. Chandrasekaran's father, Mohan, died. Buttressed by her mental fortitude, Charubala decided to shift to Madras. Her goal was a successful career in music for Chandrasekaran. At Madras, she initiated her seven-year old in playing the violin. She would remain his sole guru. Quick grasp and a prodigious memory were among Chandrasekaran's gifts but there was one problem— he had difficulty in positioning the bow. Persistence paid and that was got over.

The meticulous teacher that she was, Charubala would swoop hawk-like on the slightest tinge of a false note. She taught him the meaning of the lyrics that he sang and was particular that he frequently listened to the music of great masters. And so, Chandrasekaran attended many kutcheri-s often escorted by the neighbouring 'mamis' who vied with each other to do so. So thrilled were they by the young boy's knowledge of music and talent in the art. Charubala had her own school of music wherein she taught many students and soon the 11-year old Chandrasekara n started assisting his mother in doing so. Charubala had big dreams for her son and chalked out every little step toward turning them to reality. When, as a playful boy, he faltered in his practice, she sternly chided him: "Odavaakkarai, Odavaakkarai!" When she appeared for her Higher Exams in music, she made her son take them too. Practical to the core, she taught herself in Braille to teach her son. She also sent him to typewriting classes. But the crucial lesson that Chandrasekaran learnt from his mother was that a person need not be daunted by adversities and could and should go beyond mere coping to even conquering them. If there was one thing that irritated Charubala , it was when others referred to her son's handicap and said, "Ayyo paavam!" (how sad). In later years, much to the admiration of his colleagues, Chandra ­ sekaran would not only globetrot by himself but also 'watch' movies avidly besides listening to old Tamil film songs with great relish.

In 1949, eleven-year old Chandrasekaran made his debut at a concert in the Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam in Mylapore. The very same year he qualified himself as a graded artist of the All India Radio. In 1950, he won the best violinist award from the 22 Music Academy. In 1951, he accompanied Flute T. Viswanathan at the Academy and in the same year played for GNB at a family wedding. GNB was very appreciative of this promising violinist. He was not the only one to be so. "Kottungo, kottungo" (clap, clap), Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer enthusiastically spurred the audience to applaud even more. The year was 1952 and the venue the Kapali temple. Viswanatha Iyer's accompanist, Chandrasekaran had thrilled everyone with his kalpana swara-s for the phrase, 'Agamamula nutiyinchi' in the Pantuvarali song, Siva Siva, Siva yenarada. The same year, The Hindu, in a review of a concert of Salem Desikan at Vani Mahal, praised violinist Chandrasekaran as a "child prodigy". With such impressive performances it was not long before Chandrasekaran was accompanying top-ranking performers like Madurai Mani, Mali, Alathur Brothers, Semmangudi and T.K. Rangachari. A brilliant rendition of the raga Kathanakutoohalam had Nagaswara Chakravarti T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai caressing the boy's palms remarking, "These hands will play many more ragas like this". It was a blessing that fructified, for Chandrasekaran till date is a much sought after artist in the concert circuit. Chandrasekaran is a commendable vocalist too. In this, besides being taught by his mother, he has been trained by Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar, Kumbakonam Viswanatha Iyer and Vidyala Narasimhulu Naidu. From T. Jayammal he learnt padam-s and javali-s.

This he feels has helped him to hone his violin and vocal skills in no mean measure. With a bent of mind that allows him to absorb the best of all that he hears, Chandrasekaran's style of violin playing is, in the words of Sangeeta Kalanidhi Dr. R. Pinakapani, "A blend of vocal, veena and nagaswaram". Chandrasekaran's impressive repertoire of songs includes his own compositions— varnam-s, kriti-s, javali-s. Be it accompaniment, solos, jugalbandhi-s, or vocal concerts, he handles them all with great aplomb. In the 1970s his duets with covidwan T.N. Krishnan were great hits amongst the public. As an accompanist, he thrills rasika-s not only wit h his repartees but also by playing phrases from popular songs to indicate the raga-s sung by the main performer. He is the recipient of innumerable awards, noteworthy among them being the Kalaimamani award from the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram (1982), the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1986), Sangeeta Choodamani and Sangeeta Sarathy. With a plethora of awards from reputed music organisations, a sizeable number of sishya-s that include his daughter Bharati, and concerts across the globe— Chandrasekaran is a contented man. He takes absolutely no credit for his achievements attributing them all to the grace of God and to the toils of his mother. In her name, with the help of his children and disciples, he has started the Charubala Mohan Trust that honours many a deserving artist. "Men are what their mothers made them," said Emerson. 

Read Interview


M Chandrasekharan, a leading violinist in the Carnatic classical music field is visually challenged.

Editorial Associate V.S. KUMAR interviewed him to find out how this handicap affected his musical training and what effect it has had on his performance and career. Excerpts follow:

M Chandrasekaran

From whom did you learn?

My mother used to play the violin. When I was a child I would be near her, touching the violin, feeling it. At the age of three. Even then, my mother told me later, I had good 'gnanam' (knowledge). I couldn't name any raga but could always identify it as the raga of this or that song. When I was three, I believe someone tested me. A singer was told: "Well, you usually sing the same songs in the same manner and naturally he can identify. Change one and see." So the singer made some changes and I was still able to recognise the music from the violin. She decided to teach me. We were in Kanpur those days; my father was with J.K. Cotton Mills. Around that time I also got interested in Hindustani music and a musician named Jagannath Prasad Tripathi taught me to play the harmonium. When I was seven my mother started teaching me the violin.

Were there others who learnt under your mother?

She ran a music school, but the other students didn't learn with me.

Did you learn only from your mother?

Yes, I learnt to play the violin from my mother alone. Before that, I also learnt vocal music from her.

Were there any differences between other students and you which you observed? For instance in your absorption of the music?

My grasp was naturally quicker because I had gnanam, knowledge. You can't expect the same level of knowledge from everyone.

Was there any difference in keeping the beat—the laya alignment?

Laya is also a natural asset, born with you.

There was no difficulty in that for me. Or in the fingering technique, the learning and mastering of fingering?

Blindness didn't create any problem for me in learning and mastering fingering techniques. The problem area for me was bowing — which I couldn't get at first. Bowing troubled me because one should put the bow straight across and mine would slip down. The bow should come near the bridge of the violin. It took me some time to get the bow to the exact spot, for it would slip down often and I couldn't see it slip. That was one thing my mother had to take the trouble teaching me.

Did you have other problems as a student, like for instance playing briga passages?

No problems. Not being able to see has nothing to do with playing gamaka-laden phrases.

Did you perceive any advantage arising from your handicap? For example, in grasping the 'bhava' aspect of our music.

I learnt vocal music first and that helped in my acquiring the bhava quicker. That's why learning vocal music is a primary requisite and should be done before one learns to play the violin or any other instrument. Vocal music is the foundation, the base.

Are you able to identify any advantages in pursuing the violin with a handicap like blindness?

One thing is concentration. A blind person won't get distracted by other things. He can devote undivided attention to his violin and probably learn better.

When did you first perform?

My first performance was in my eleventh year.

As an accompanist?

Yes, of course. With a vocalist.

Was it a conscious decision you took then, to become an accompanist and not a soloist?

No such decision. How could I have decided anything when I was just 11? Neither did my mother make any such decision. It just happened. Mind you, I would have played solo violin even then and as a matter of fact, did play violin duets with my mother. But we didn't plan on becoming solo artists or on me developing as one.  

Was your mother also a performing musician?

No, not really. She played a couple of concerts only for me.

Did you think about being a soloist or continuing as an accompanist later on?

That stage never arose in my career. I made my mark as an accompanist and built up a good name, so the question never really got posed. Solo does have more scope, no doubt; but 'they' [sabha organisers] should like me to play solo—I can't keep asking for solo chances when they are not interested. Besides, listening to and appreciating instrumental solos requires an extra gnanam, a special knowledge. So I can play solo where there is an opportunity and where I know it will be appreciated. I'm not particular about playing solo.

You have established yourself as an accompanist.

Yes and so I would like to play solo only where they know my value as one. Only then is it worthwhile. 

What is the special knowledge you talked about, which you said is needed for appreciating solos ? Would you say this special gnanam is lacking ?

I wouldn't say it is lacking, no. I only said I don't insist on solo, it has no special attraction for me; but 1 do play solo when they ask me for it. There is that inherent ability in me, that natural ability—I only want that ability to be exhibited. They should realise my capability for a solo and ask. me to play; I will not ask for it. I'm not saying they don't know my potential, but probably I'm not as much of an attraction as a soloist [as I am as a sideman]

Tell us about your experiences on stage as an accompanist—the problems, the advantages.

At first, it was difficult because, if I didn't know the singer, I wouldn't know what he was going to sing, or his style. I needed time to get accustomed, and adjusted. Frankly, I didn't need much time even in doing this—it came off very easily, naturally. But generally, an accompanist needs time to understand the main performer and adjust to his style. When the singer has sung something, the violinist shouldn't play something else! And he should remember all the time that he is an accompanist—he shouldn't dominate, even unintentionally. ignorance is no excuse. He should give only the essence. He shouldn't aim at showing off his musicianship.

What do you do to learn the style of a new singer whom you are asked to accompany for the first time?

One song is enough. Experienced violinists like me can grasp the style and the tenor of the singer in the first song or two.

Does the blindness make it any more difficult?

Assuredly not. It's the only experience that counts. If you play with a singer and get accustomed to his method, it does not matter whether you can or can't see him. When you are with a new singer or with a singer for the first time, you should ask freely whatever you want to ask. If you don't ask, they are as much in the dark about you as you are about them and the concert can't take off. You mustn't be inhibited, you must ask. In my case—it must be God's gift—I can even visualise a performer and sense his musical mood.

As you say, you are unusual and in any case, you are a veteran. For a younger, less experienced violin sideman who is similarly challenged, what would be your advice?

He should ask. And the main performer should respond without hesitation.

What should he ask?

Things like: "How would you like to be accompanied ?" "Any special points to be followed ?"

For younger, upcoming violinists these days, do you see problems of adequate opportunities if they are challenged ?

Well. There are many more musicians today — violinists, mridangam players, and even singers. Competition is more and so, naturally, opportunities are less. The field is getting crowded. That's why I tell everyone not to depend upon music alone for livelihood. I say: have some other occupation on a permanent basis and music as a subsidiary line.  

For a specially-abled person, is mastering an instrument or vocal music easier?

Can't say, really. Actually, vocal music should be easier as a performing medium. He'll be the main performer then, you see. An accompanist will have to adjust to someone else and sometimes the main performer may decline to have a handicapped violinist, he may hesitate to take on a blind person as his sideman. I am liked by everyone and I have come to stay as a veteran violin accompanist, but that can't be said of other handicapped violinists. Main performers will try to avoid them to the extent possible, even if they, the blind violinists, are talented.  

So that problem is there?

Yes, it is very much there. You can put that down as a major problem experienced by handicapped violinists. I may not have—in fact, I have not—suffered the problem of being avoided because of a handicap, but other younger or newer violinists have experienced it. When we tell the main musicians about this, they assure us that they will give the blind violinists a chance, but they seldom keep their word. They say: "Ah yes, he plays very well", or words to that effect but don't really give a break when the time comes.


Because of the handicap that these violinists have. This is wrong that is being done often and should be talked about and redressed, especially when the handicapped violinist is equally, or even more talented [than others]. There is the realisation that these violinists are good but this is offset by the feeling that they are handicapped.

But there are many blind wanting to be sidemen, many more than the blind people training to be vocalists. Why ?

Once again it is the problem of getting a chance to perform I'm not talking about myself when I mention this problem of opportunities, mind you. It's about others who have talent but who don't get opportunities.

But that might be because they don't measure up because they aren't as good as the others.

No, no. I am talking about deserving musicians. Ability can shine only with practice, with experience. And these people don't get the chance to have that practice. Take my own case: my ability has definitely improved over the years with the amount of experience I have had. Without that, I may not have been so good. So opportunities to perform, kutcheri chances—these are important. We shouldn't deny these chances to a violinist merely because he's blind.

Can those who organize kutcheries help overcome this problem?

Unless the vidwans cooperate, how can the organisers help? Suppose the organiser asks; "Shall we have so-and-so accompanying you ?" And the vidwan replies: "If you don't mind, not so-and-so, please; get someone else." What can the organiser do? The vidwans must come forward and accept deserving accompanists—even take the initiative to suggest their names.

Even if blind people have one or two defects in playing, the main singers should help correct them and should guide them. None of us is perfect—there may be some need for improvement. The organisers have another problem—that the concert must pull crowds. On occasion, even I have been asked to get the tickets for my solo performances sold! So you can well imagine the plight of less-known violinists seeking a platform as soloists. In any case, a violinist should first be a sideman and only then a soloist. The knowledge one gains, the different varieties of music one absorbs, by playing accompaniment to many singers—that's very relevant and crucial for one's success as a solo violinist.

Are there any other major problems for a blind violinist?

One of the major problems faced by handicapped artists is missed opportunities. The necessity for an escort both during travel and in the concert hall is sometimes not successfully fulfilled — and thereby some chances are forgone. What is even more exasperating is that it is difficult for me sometimes to recommend a blind violinist for an outstation concert since I'm not sure whether he will have the necessary help and escort.

Tell us about yourself now as a teacher, a developer of fresh talent. Do you teach regularly? And how many students?

I teach anyone who is interested in learning to play the violin, but I restrict myself to the advanced phases. The preliminaries are difficult to teach and require tremendous patience, especially with my handicap. So I normally teach from the kriti stage onwards.

How do you teach, and communicate?

I tell my students to carefully watch how I play. I encourage them to ask and clarify any doubts they get. But my first condition is: they should also sing, they should have also learnt vocal music. Only if they know singing can they play the violin as if the words themselves are being articulated. And that to my mind is a very important requirement for good violin playing in Carnatic music.

What kind of sishya parampara have you built? How satisfied are you?

I have had—and still have—good devoted students. But some of my earlier students—who are themselves, illustrious violinists, now—have not followed my style of playing. They have been attracted to other ways of handling the violin and have been swept by what you could call the popular wave. The logic seems to be: "Many violinists play this way, I'll also follow." The temptation of popular acclaim has been too much for them. For this reason, I have not been totally satisfied with some of my students.

How would you rate the quality of students these days?

There are—and there have always been—students who know the greatness of our music. These students learn devotedly, apply themselves, and make the whole process an enjoyable experience both for themselves and for me. Some of them not only possess powers of concentration but have good gnana. When they say, for instance, in the course of learning a raga: "Oh, that was a lovely pidi, Sir," 1 am also inspired to teach them all the nuances I know. The atmosphere plays a crucial role in making teaching a rewarding exercise. The students should be familiar with, should be free from shyness and build closeness through repeated questioning and talk. For a teacher with my handicap, this is very essential for effective communication of ideas, and for good teaching. The student can't, shouldn't be mechanical and think of it as just learning to master an instrument.

The number of violinists is larger

Probably the number of people—both handicapped and otherwise—taking up the violin is much more. I don't think there is any appreciable difference in terms of the ratios. As for taking up the violin in preference to other instruments, the reason I think perhaps is that the violin offers better career possibilities.

It isn't easier, perhaps? Which could be the reason for so many people 

Certainly not. Probably after one learns how to handle it, playing the violin becomes easier and advanced musical expressions like gamaka-s are more easily executed, but to begin with the violin is a difficult instrument to play—the player will get every other sound from it except the violin sound! In contrast, the veena is easy to start with but much more difficult to master.

In summary, therefore

The handicapped violinist needs opportunities and should not only be given the platform but encouragement by colleagues in the music field so that he can show his talent. Critics also should be constructive in their reviews of fresh talent and should emphasise the points to be corrected and improved. The main performer and accompanists should learn to work as a team with perfect rapport—that alone can ensure concert success.  

Published, October 1, 1986