MD Ramanathan - A Centenary Tribute

M.D. Ramanathan – Simple man, great music 

 Suganthy Krishnamachari

Someone once said that Kerala’s exports could be summed up as three C’s- cashew nuts, civil servants and Carnatic musicians. One such major export to Tamil Nadu was musician Manjapparai Devesa Bhagavatar Ramanathan, or MDR as he was known to the music world. When the Sangeetha Shiromani course was started at Kalakshetra in 1944, MDR entered Kalakshetra as Tiger Varadachariar’s student. As one listened to his lecture demonstration (lecdem) for Tiger’s centenary, one realised that what he said about his guru, was true of him as well.

Tiger was outspoken, and so was MDR. In fact, when MDR was asked to give a lecdem for Tiger’s centenary, he said that he was hesitant because he was known for leaving controversies in his wake, and he was afraid the lecdem would just lead to yet another controversy. But he saw it as his duty to spread “Tiger consciousness,” which was why he agreed to do the lecdem.

MDR never made compromises to please people. In a memorial lecture organised in Tripunithura by MDR fan Krishnamurthy, mridangist TV Gopalakrishnan (TVG) said, “In one kutcheri, someone asked MDR to sing in a fast tempo, and he wound up the kutcheri with a mangalam, and had to be pacified by the organisers.”

MDR used to say that his guru was capable of singing even a minor raga in such a way, that it acquired the majesty of a major raga. This was a characteristic MDR had too.

Like his guru, MDR believed that one must acquire mastery of varnams. He said that a varnam like Adiyappayya’sViribhoni, for instance, was the foundation for all the kritis composed in that raga. MDR believed that unless one practisedvarnam in three kalas, one could not sing niraval. “Without varnam practice, if you attempt niraval, it will be like varuval (chips), and it will belong not in a concert but in a canteen,” he said in the lecdem. Kalyani Ata tala varnam was a favouriteboth with Tiger and MDR. In the lecdem, MDR sang the varnam and explained that in just the span of a single avarta, one could see all the features of Kalyani. Tiger did not see geethams as mere lessons for beginners, but would enunciate each syllable slowly. He was particularly enamoured of the Kalyani geetam Kamalajadala, as was MDR. MDR sang the geetam, showing how the Karivarada portion captured the curvature of Kalyani.

MDR spoke of his guru’s concert in the Music Academy, when he sang Aragimpave and O Rangasayee. Everyone in the audience had misty eyes. But there was no applause. “This clapping is a recent phenomenon, and I see no need for it. I believe good music will not bring forth claps. There should be perfect understanding between the singer and the listener. I sing for myself. You hear for yourself. What then is the need for applause?” he asked.

He regretted unfair criticism from the press. Even his mannerisms were criticised, and he wondered how mannerisms could be a yardstick for judging a person’s music. If his frequent resort to Horlicks to fortify himself was going to be criticised, he was fine with it. He would try to imbibe a little less Horlicks, or perhaps take a slightly diluted version of Horlicks. But why pick on mannerisms, he wondered.

MDR composed a song Sree Guruvaram in Hamsadhwani, in praise of his guru. If one sang a beautiful raga like Hamsadhwani badly, it would become Himsadhwani, MDR joked.  “To get good Hamsadhwani, forget the arohana avarohana for a bit. Do not forget the raga, but do not stay focused on the arahona avarohana. You have to bring out the swaroopa of a raga. Sometimes critics say that when I sing Hamsadhwani, I give Kedaram phrases. I think they are just looking for some way to criticise me,” he said. “Suppose an artist draws an animal in a series of panels, beginning with the tail in the first panel. Can you say what animal it is, even before he has completed the tail? He has just got started. You cannot jump to a conclusion about what he is going to draw. To comment on the quality of the work, you must wait for its completion. Likewise, you cannot comment on music, without getting the whole picture. Sometimes, you may get flashes of close ragas. Never mind. In Sankarabharanam, once in a way, you might get phrases of Kannada. Immediately, the critic writes in the paper ‘MDR brought in touches of Kannada in Sankarabharanam.’ If critics continue to write this way, and I decide to pay attention to them, then I can sing nothing but the arohana and avarhona of a raga and then stop there. A critic should not have useless analytical processes.”

He said that there was a way to sing kritis, which would bring out the meaning of the song. If he sang Tallininnu according to the rule book, Goddess Kamakshi would run away, he said. In his lecdem, he sang Bhajare re citta, and pointed out that it had an oscillating gandharam. Just the way ‘ga’ was sung, would show whether a musician was presenting Sankarabharanam or Kalyani.

While Tiger sang both in madhyamakala and vilambakala, MDR sang in vilambakala, a tempo that suited his bass voice. In the memorial lecture in  Tripunithura, TVG said, “After a concert, when we were relaxing, MDR would sing Ramanatham bhajeham, just the way Ariyakudi sang. And then he would say, “As you can see, that kind of singing will not suit my voice.” So clearly, MDR knew how to build on his strengths. This was perfectly in keeping with the Sanskrit subhashita he quoted in the Tiger centenary lecdem:

Acaaryat padamAdate padam sishya svamedhaya

Padamsa brahmacharibhyah padam kala kramena ca

What it means is that we get one-fourth of our knowledge from the guru; one-fourth through our intelligence, one-fourth from fellow students, and one-fourth through experience.

MDR said that a student should listen, absorb, and assimilate the music of a guru. A student should not be spoon-fed. Tiger would sometimes sing for the students the pallavi of a kriti, and then the anupallavi of another. So, at the same time, there would be several streams of learning. Later he would analyse everything. PP Ramakrishnan (PPR), a student of M.D. Ramanathan in Kalakshetra from 1966 to 1971, says that MDR too would sing and let the students pick up on their own. MDR felt this was the best way for a student to learn. MDR’s son Balaji recalls his early lessons from a music teacher who lived nearby. She asked Balaji to buy a book titled Ganamruta Bodhini. MDR bought the book, but on the first page he wrote:“Kadhaal kettuvaranum sangeetam. Pusthakam vaithu pugattuvadhu parithaapam.” (music ought to be learnt aurally; anything learnt through books is pitiable indeed)

He first signed ‘MDR’ at the end of this message, and then changed it to Varadadasa, which was his mudra in his compositions. The teacher came to his house and apologised. MDR said he was not angry with her, but told her that he was sorry that music education had been reduced to learning from a book.

MDR said that the career of a musician could never be a bed of roses, and added that it should not be. If you gave a man a bed of roses, he would be reluctant to get up from it. It would just lead to lethargy. Challenges shaped a person. MDR would say that not all singing was music. “Some birds sing. Can you call that music?” he would ask.

In the Tripunithura lecture, TVG said that MDR was strong in suddha swaras and in gamakas. MDR used to sing at a low pitch and it was very difficult to tune the mridangam for that pitch. So TVG had a special mridangam made for MDR concerts. 

TVG said that MDR was very loyal to his friends and patrons. He turned down an offer from the Government Music College in Madras, because he did not want to leave Kalakshetra. His salary as Principal in Kalakshetra was just 500 rupees. Had he taken up the Music College offer, he would have had a hefty salary and pension benefits as well. He would say Kalakshetra was like a temple to him. The fact that his guru had taught there and the peaceful atmosphere there were more than enough for him.

In an interview with researchers Amy Catlin and Frederick Liberman in 1977, MDR said, “The process of creating music is more meaningful than the music itself. That should be the criterion for good art. Otherwise one’s music may be grammatically and technically perfect, but the listener will be left with the feeling that something is missing.” MDR’s music was neither a mere cerebral exercise, nor was it merely entertaining. His music appealed to the mind and the heart. PPR says that he invariably sang Varugalamo in his RR Sabha concerts on Pongal day, and there would not be a dry eye in the auditorium.

Tiger would tell MDR that there was a way of singing ‘ma,’ in Saveri, infusing it with the proper appeal. If one failed to do that, then the ‘ma’ would be no different from the ma in upma! MDR used to say that one could not be a part-time musician. There had to be a 24-hour engagement with music. PPR says that even when he went to see a film, he would suddenly think of some kriti or raga, and would leave in the middle of the show.

In his Malayalam book- MD Ramanathan Enna Athulya Sangeetha Samrattu, PPR says that MDR’s definition of music was:

M- Morality

U- Universality

S- Sincerity


C- Creativity

In his book, PPR speaks of MDR’s guru bhakti. When Tiger’s life was ebbing away, he asked MDR to sing Tyagaraja’s Entara Neetana, and died even as his star pupil was singing. MDR took liberties with kritis, adding a word or two. The charanam in the Hindolam kriti Samajavaragamana begins with the word ‘Veda,’ but MDR prefixed ‘Veda’ with ‘Sama.’ When this writer’s father asked him why he added the ‘Sama’ prefix, he replied, “I am a Sama Vedin. Besides, Lord Krishna said that of the four Vedas, He liked Sama Veda the best.”

PPR explains how he would add a word to the fifth charanam in Syama Sastry’s Bhairavi swarajati. The words in the fifth charanam are: Pathakamulanu deerchi nee pada bhakti santatameeyave.  This is a prayer for sins to be wiped out. MDR would add ‘naa’ before paathakamu, thus changing the meaning from just ‘sins’ to ‘my sins.’

This writer’s father used to recall an RR Sabha concert in the 80’s, where the accompanists were Lalgudi Jayaraman and Umayalpuram Sivaraman. When MDR sang his composition Anda Ramanaippada maravade, he added Jaya Ramanaippada maravade and Siva Ramanaippada maravadeA singer must make a song his, said Prince Rama Varma, in his recent lecture on MDR in the Music Academy. He observed that often people said that even when one heard MDR singing a Tyagaraja or Dikshitar kriti, it was like listening to one of MDR’s own compositions. What this meant was that even when he sang compositions of the Trinity, the rendering bore an unmistakable MDR stamp.

Varma pointed out that in most of his concerts, MDR would sing Vatapi, and would sing swaras at Vatapi. Tiger’s speciality was that he would take a madhyama kala part of a composition, make it half-speed and then do neraval. For instance in Vatapi, he would take Karambuja pasha beejapooram, kalushavidooram bootakaram, make it half speed and do niraval. Varma said that MDR too did this sometimes, but not always. He liked to do niraval in the madhyama kala portions of Dikshitar kritis and Swati Tirunal kritis.

In his interview with Amy Catlin and Frederick Liberman, MDR was forthright when he said it was difficult for a person to make a living out of music.  He admitted that as a profession, classical music was not lucrative. Varma said that a popular joke in MDR’s family was that his remuneration in each concert helped buy one brick in the house he built!

To enliven the class, Tiger would sometimes make up funny pallavis for the students. One of them was Uppuarakaasu, milagarakaasu, puliarakaasu and so on. A whole recipe for a pickle would come out, as a pallavi! These were just for fun, but when it came to concerts, Tiger always followed the prescribed canons for pallavis, clarified MDR.

MDR gave importance to sahitya, and sometimes in concerts, he would explain a few lines of a kriti. PPR says MDR drew inspiration from the Trinity for his own compositions. He gives some examples to show this. MDR composed Tyagaraja gurum Ashraye, in Kedaram, in praise of Tyagaraja Swami. The madhyamakala sahitya in the charanamis reminiscent of Dikshitar’s style.

In his Khamas kriti, Saraswati Sarasa Vani, the anupallavigoes,nara stuti seya kanannu nirantaram brovavamma vinavamma. It is a prayer to protect him always from resorting to praise of humans. It reminds one of Tyagaraja’s Nara stuti sukhama in Nidhi chaala sukhama.

In Janaranjani raga, he composed Paadayugamunu nammiti. Here, in the anupallavi, he repeats the word vini three times, reminding one of Syama Sastry’s Nammiti, nammiti, nammiti in Mayamma (Ahiri). MDR’s compositions were spontaneous, says PPR, and cites as an example, MDR’s Huseni kriti –Enna kutram seidano. When MDR went to the Kanyakumari temple, the temple was closed, much to his disappointment. PPR used to accompany his guru to concerts, and on the train, MDR composed the Huseni kriti. Here he asks Amman if she is turning him away just as she had turned away Siva, when he came to seek her hand in marriage. MDR calls himself chinnavan Varadadasan in this kriti.

MDR’s son Balaji says Mangala Charane was written after a visit to Madurai. When MDR arrived at the Meenakshi temple, the sanctum was closed for the day. Luckily, one of the temple officials recognised MDR and opened the sannidhi for him. MDR was so happy, that on the train, he composed Mangala Charane, in Hindolam. Lalgudi Jayaraman took down the sahitya.

PPR also talks of how MDR’s Bhagesri composition Sagara sayana vibho came about. MDR once heard a Hindustani musician’s demo of Bhagesri in Music Academy. He was so enamoured of the raga, that he wanted to compose a kriti in it, and thus was born Sagara Sayana.

PPR (in the picture) narrates some interesting anecdotes. In a concert in Bharatiar Sabha, Bombay, MDR sang Nannu Vidachi (Reetigaula). He had completed the anupallavi, but because the sabha was near the railway track, he had to stop and wait for a noisy train to pass before resuming. Palghat Mani Iyer reproduced on his mridangam the tadak tadak sound of the train, and MDR said, “As you can see, the train also keeps to tala!”

The famous Navaratri mandapam concerts in Trivandrum have to end the moment the bell goes. PPR says that once MDR was in the middle of his elaborate mangalam, when the bell went off. MDR would not stop midway through the mangalam. The result was that for a few years, he was not  invited to the annual concerts. But the Maharani was so fond of his music, that she asked Vaidyanathan, secretary to the royal family, to invite MDR again. And so MDR was back again in Trivandrum for the Navaratri Mandapam kutcheris. His last kutcheri there was in 1983.

MDR did not use his Varadadasa mudra for his Neelambari composition Rama Rama. He cut his first disc in 1969, and this was for HMV.  The accompanists were TVG and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. This writer’s father had this 45 rpm vinyl record. On one side was Paripalaya (Reetigaula), and on the other side was MDR’s composition Rama Rama. Interestingly, HMV had labelled Rama Rama as Tyagaraja Divya Nama kriti! MDR also cut a 33 rpm record in 1976, where the accompanists were TN Krishnan on the violin and Vellore Ramabhadran on the mridangam. This record had Maha Ganapatim (Nata), Samaja Varagamana (Hindolam), Hariyum Haranum (Athana), Giripai (Sahana), and MDR’s Kapi tillana.

Some years before PPR became principal of the Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Palakkad, an auditorium had been built in the college by Krishna Das of the CPI(M), with the funds allocated to him as Member of Parliament.  It was named MD Ramanathan Auditorium. But it had been left unfurnished. PPR sought the help of M.A. Baby, an MDR fan and also a member of the Communist Party. And with his help, the auditorium was opened in 2006 by the cultural organization Swaralaya. PPR and his son Easwar sang MDR’s compositions there, and the inaugural concert was by V Ramachandran, with M.A. Sundaresan on the violin and Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam.

In the Catlin-Liberman interview, MDR said his guru’s music was like the sea. You look at the sea, but do you see all of it? You see a portion of it. Likewise, when Tiger sang, what you heard was a small portion of what he was capable of giving. That small portion suggested the variety he could present.  The same can be said of MDR as well. As Lalgudi GJR Krishnan said at the Music Academy, MDR can best be described as a lion from the Tiger’s den.



MDR’s lecture for Tiger centenary, TVG’s lecture at Tripunithura, MDR’s interview with Amy Catlin  and Frederick Libermann  and Prince Rama Varma’s lecture at the Music Academy.