February 12, 2014


BMK Interview with VS Kumar

What is the importance of preserving tradition in Carnatic music and to what extent should breaking tradition be allowed?

Do you call platform singing—concert giving—tradition? Tyagarajaswami has said that those who sing for others are unpardonable sinners. Paluka bojina sabhalu ani patitamana vana kosage khalulu. The practice of singing on the platform is of recent origin. Change is an integral part of life and the musician is no exception—he should keep with the times. The sastras say that change is inevitable: mrigaihi khagaihi nagaha sailaha siddha devaha maharishyaha kalam samana vartante yada vahava yuge yuge. Those who harp on tradition should either go along with the traditional musicians to heaven or understand what tradition really is.

By making music so broad-based, aren’t you inviting trouble in the form of musicians performing any way they like and making a mockery of the great art?

Don’t allow such people to perform then. Don’t listen to them. They’ll automatically disappear. But for God’s sake, don’t throttle innovations—not all innovations are gimmicks.

How would you define tradition?

Tradition to me is merely the grammar of music—the seven swara-s and the laya systems. I don’t want to impose any further limits and constraints on interpreting music (in the name of tradition). Our music is the music of the world. Our foundation, our system is the greatest and the best. We have allowed it to degenerate, to become stilted because of our narrow outlook, our severely inhibiting views. That is why enough people aren’t listening to our music, that is why our music is losing its appeal. On the other hand, other countries and other people have taken some small part of our music and expanded it into a different type of music, made it popular. People flock to listen to them — but it is only a spark of our music. After all, what is Western music, Arabian music, jazz music? It’s all our music only. I can show you the sangati-s of any music in our old Tyagaraja and Dikshitar compositions.

But does that mean you can add Western tunes in your singing?

Where is the question of adding? It is there in our music. Just highlighting it here and there neither makes you great nor is it bad music. I’m criticised just for adding a sangati in Hindustani style in my exposition of a raga. That criticism is totally unwarranted — what I’m showing is only a different facet of our own music, a different colour.

With such unbounded powers to improvise, would you still call it ‘classical’?

There goes another word that has been disastrously misdefined. What do you mean by ‘cover classical’? How will you define classical music? Whatever stands the test of time, whatever lives, is classical. Anything that gets out or becomes a casualty of time is light, is trivia. Even if a film song has retained its freshness, its appeal after three decades, I would call it classical. So Carnatic music can remain classical music only if it continues to pull audiences, to make successive generations of people come and listen. To do that you must inject Carnatic music into the present generation, you must win them over. This is a fairly difficult proposition with today’s listeners, you know. The listening public today is a motley crowd — some who come only to relax, some who are interested in the technicalities, some who come only to compare, and a few who are there to pray, to contemplate the Divine. If you want your music to be classical, you must carry all these listeners with you.

First guru

I learnt under Rajam Bhagavatar in Madurai. He was a disciple of Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavatar. My paternal uncle Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer and the nagaswara vidwan Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai, were also disciples of Ramachandra Bhagavatar. I learnt for two years from him. We rented a portion of his house, which made it very convenient.

First concert

I had been to the Sivagangai area along with my father who had friends there. My first concert was held there, in a place called Alavakottai, during the kumbhabhishekam festival. Nattam Seetarama Iyer, who lived in Kumbakonam, played the violin. Tiruvarur Kunju Iyer aka Rajagopala Iyer played the mridanga. I was 12 years old then.

Pedigree helped

My paternal uncle Pushpavanam Iyer had been so famous that people who had listened to his music would readily agree to hold my concert if someone recommended my name. My only responsibility was to perform well in the concert that had been arranged.

When my voice broke

When I first performed, I used to sing to a sruti of 5 kattai or 4-1/2 kattai. My voice used to be very facile. Later, my voice dropped in sruti, way down to one kattai. It all happened In his own voice 25 l SRUTI March 2009


Quite rapidly in the space of two months. And even at one kattai, my voice could only reach the tara shadja for the highs and the madhya shadja for the lows. Singing higher than the tara shadja was difficult, and so was singing below the madhya shadja. Hence I was constrained to sing within one sthayi at that time. To overcome my problem, I practised for about three hours everyday with the tambura.

How I practised

I used to set the sruti high and then try to hold the tara shadja which used to be difficult, but I would practise this for a while. I would take a suitable raga and practise the phrases dha ni sa, pa dha ni sa, ma pa dha ni sa, etc., along with the proper bhava of the raga, to try and strengthen the shadja. Then I would proceed upward to halt on ri and then take a look at ga and then try ma. I only managed to reach the ma this way. Then I would lower the sruti to 2-1/2, 2 kattai and sing the high notes a little easier, and then move to 1- 1/2 kattai and sing with even more ease. I had to work really hard, sing open-throated and practise strenuously to bring the voice into shape.

Vidwans I like

In Madurai, I have heard a lot of concerts of Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar. I have heard the musical discourses and concerts of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. He sang many Tyagaraja compositions and other great pieces. The discourses were very musical. Also in Madurai, Nagaswami Bhagavatar sang a lot of Tyagaraja kriti-s in his concerts. He would not repeat kriti-s in the many concerts I heard! I had a great opportunity to listen to many different kriti-s of Tyagaraja, all those in vogue as well as many rare ones. He was a disciple of Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, a prime disciple of Tyagaraja. I have heard concerts of the Karaikudi Brothers accompanied by Dakshinamurti Pillai on the mridanga, and Kancheepuram Naina Pillai, with Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai on the violin and Dakshinamurti Pillai on the mridanga. I have listened to many, many concerts of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Veena Dhanammal, great naagaswara vidwans during temple festivals and night processions, staying up all night and walking behind them.


The adhara sruti should be set so that the tara shadja is easy to reach, but not so easy that it is floating and fragile. If you hold the tara shadja in an extended manner with karvai, you should be able to hold it with firmness and strength, without tiring. Only then can you sing the higher notes like ri, ga, ma, easily and attuned to sruti. Much of musical phrasing in our current music is in the upper reaches. These are also the notes heard with clarity and which grab audience attention. If you sing in the lower octave, people nearby can hear it clearly and only knowledgeable rasika-s like it. The adhara shadja should also be held well and firmly. Even if you are only able to intone the lower ni dha pa in a soft manner, that’s okay, but the tara shadja is very important, it should be held with strength and firmness.

My swara style

My style is not unique. Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar used to sing swara-s like this. When I was a student and a novice, I heard a lot of his music. He used to sing swara-s even for many rare raga-s, his sarvalaghu manner of swara singing used to be very good. I tried to sing like that and develop my swara singing. My style is a direct outgrowth of that.


As long as the raga bhava is not spoiled, there is nothing wrong in doing arithmetic swaraprastara with tisra, misra, etc. If the voice admits of this exercise, and if the arithmetic is also interesting, then there is no problem at all. We can all enjoy it.

Advice for young musicians

They should hear many concerts of senior vidwans. However talented, the youngsters lack experience. Their music will not be fulfilling. They should observe how the senior vidwans make their concerts a success and please all varieties of listeners, how they use their voices in a concert hall, how they employ the various thick and thin shades in their voices, how they plan their concerts. These are all to be learnt by direct observation, however well they sing or practise their music. They must listen to the senior vidwans over and over again, there’s no other way, but don’t have to imitate them. It will all jell together over time as they keep singing and attentively listening to the senior vidwans.

They should pay sufficient attention to setting the sruti before singing. They should give sufficient time to the accompanists to adjust their instruments to the sruti. Before proceeding to sing, they should attune themselves to the sruti by intoning Sa-Pa-Sa in a manner audible just to themselves. If they sing steadying themselves thus, they will have no problem. If in the midst of a concert, the sruti drifts, they should adjust it properly and only then continue. If the sruti wavers, sukha bhavam will be lost, the felicity will be lost. The more and more we are attuned to sruti, the easier the music will flow. We must pay great attention to it.

Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation with S. Rajam.

Was there ever a conflict between music and painting in your life? Especially in childhood?

No. There was no conflict. I used to paint at home, go to school, sing, do everything. I used to paint upstairs on the roof. The neighbour from the opposite house, an army man, bought me a paint box. It was my treasure. Before that I used to make paint with colour powders. Those days, I had long hair and looked smart, cycling everywhere. “Master Rajam,” they used to call me. You know, the atmosphere at home was full of music. I started performing on AIR when I was 13. I performed on the second day of AIR-Madras. D.K. Pattammal sang on the first day. My painting partner was Lingiah, whose nephew Maniam became famous as an Ananda Vikatan artist.

I was in the third form at school when Lingiah joined the Madras School of Arts. He was still there when I joined after my sixth form. With a double promotion I went past him as well. He was a superb artist. He committed suicide after being afflicted with leprosy. It was his artistic genes that Maniam inherited. True to the tradition of his community, he was able to make the most intricate replicas of adhikara nandi and such objects of worship. Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury was the Principal of the School of Arts. He taught us Western art. K.C.S. Panicker was my senior.

 I took to water colour painting. Sculpture was compulsory. I also did carpentry. The Victoria Technical Institute was next door to us. They commissioned work from us, doing imitation Kangra valley paintings on lampshades – deer, musicians, raga-s and ragini-s, polo hunting and so on. We were paid as soon as we supplied the paintings to VTI. The carpentry section was one of the best. In learning music, I had some great teachers, Papanasam Sivan, Madurai Mani Iyer and Naina Pillai among others.

What scope did you have as a career artist?

There was no prospect of any income, until K. Chandrasekharan introduced me to Kalaimagal. I learnt much more on my travels than at the School of Arts. I travelled in all for eight years – Ajantha-Ellora, Elephanta, Sittannavasal, even the Sigiriya Caves in Ceylon and learnt by observation. My music concerts with Balachandar took us to many of these places. He used to play tabla with his right hand and harmonium with his left hand. The success of Seeta Kalyanam led to these tours. After my first visit to Ajantha, I decided to hang up my paint brush and did not touch it for two months. What fantastic work! They say 40 students to every master worked in ten to 15 areas demarcated in the caves. They painted on cloth in the lower tier of the caves and then transferred the paintings upstairs. The Sistine Chapel was nothing compared to Ajantha, where there were no facilities. They made their own paints, crushing stones and herbs together and s ored them right there in the caves.

The gigantic Buddha there has a face 4’ by 4’. The princess, Black Beauty, wears innumerable pearls. Breathtaking! To go to Sittannavasal, you had to cycle 13 miles from Devakottai. I went to the Jain temple there when I was a student at the School of Arts. A pond full of lotuses is painted there, with buffalos, fish, frogs, crocodiles and sanyasi-s carrying flowers in their hands. I couldn’t get up for three days, after collapsing in sheer astonishment. The School of Art did not teach us any of this great art. In fact, Roy Chowdhury tore up any painting done in the Indian style. I refused to allow him to tear up my work.

How did you become deeply interested in Indian culture?

I owe it to Lewis Thompson who came to Ramana Asrama, where I used to sing occasionally. He was an English poet, deeply interested in Indian philosophy, ten years my senior. He used to stay with Mr. Ranganathan, the pioneer of Indian library science. He used to write his verses in tiny books. He did his sketches with Waterman pens which he kept losing every ten days or so, as he slept on the beach with his wallet and pen. When we visited the palace in Trivandrum – I was working in AIR there – he told me that Ravi Varma’s paintings were calendar art. He sent me photographs of ancient bronzes from wherever he went on his travels.

He was responsible for my development and growth in Indian art. He moulded me. He would say, “Art must represent nature, not reproduce it. That’s why you see that Akbar is bigger than the horse in the miniatures. Learn perspective but ignore it once you have mastered it.” The size of the figures depends on their relative importance. I admired the paintings of Nicolas Roerich in the Himalayas, where he made his own colours. In a painting of his you could see a sanyasi doing pooja before a small lingam on a stool-like rock, under a small tree set in the vastness of the mountains. I learnt to paint like that, but the memory of such art haunted you for days on end after you returned home.

What haunted you like that in music?

It was Dhanammal’s music. (Rajam sings in imitation of Dhanammal: Nareemani. Look at the emphasis… sa ni sa ni dha. Look at the beauty of Khamas, the play with the tala. She would play the veena and sing. I would sit very close to her and listen. My brother Balachandar used to say there was no tala in Dhanammal’s music. Tala is inherent in the music, not in the beats you keep by hand. Take the case of nagaswaram Pakkiri. He could play Natakurinji all day long, perhaps did not know any sahitya. The great Rajaratnam once told Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer after his rhythmic exploration on the violin: tala should be in the singer’s throat, not in his thigh (where he keeps beat).

Rajaratnam was a terror when he came to AIR for a concert programme. During a rehearsal before recording, he played a superb succession of swara-s. When I asked him what kriti he was playing, he said, “You write what you like.” Similarly on another occasion, Madurai.Somu sang a very emotive Tamil viruttam. When my father asked him who composed the song, he said, “Sankaracharya!” I relate these stories to show you how these musicians cared more about the music than the lyrics.

Who were your teachers and role models?

Dhanammal was Saraswati incarnate – she sang and played the veena alternately. I was fortunate to attend her Friday soirees some 40 times. When she sang Akshayalinga vibho, she shed tears while doing niraval on the line ‘padarivana’. Shouldn’t we have the same intensity of feeling while performing? How can you be a real singer if you are not a rasika yourself? Madurai Mani Iyer. Music was his life. He was a very good teacher who taught me for some five years. All vakra, varjya raga-s. I didn’t hear Dhanammal in her youth. I heard her in the last years of her life. I heard Madurai Mani Iyer from his youth onwards. In his last years, he sang the same way he sang when he started. He did not need to improve with the years, as he achieved completeness very young. Music has to be inborn, it cannot gradually improve. Madurai Mani Iyer taught me Nagumomu with chatusruti dhaivata, while Papanasam Sivan taught me in suddha dhaivatam, the correct way.

Didn’t you find it difficult to assimilate from two pathantara-s?

Not at all. All you need is concentration. (Demonstrates how Naina Pillai rendered Morabetide in Todi while it should be sung in Roopavati. He sings both versions).

Can you describe the music atmosphere at home?

You know how my father gathered great musicians like Ariyakudi and Maharajapuram at home and how he organised concerts at a hall he built upstairs at the suggestion of Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai (Sruti 83, August 1991). So I was fortunate to have many leading musicians like Ariyakudi, Papanasam Sivan, even Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar teach me songs. Appa played the veena and so did I, before I switched to vocal music, as I was enamoured of the scope of the human voice. Appa used to buy unused gottuvadyam-s, convert them into veena-s and distribute them. I trained Natesan to fix frets on to the instruments to convert them.

Those days, I was yet to join AIR as a staff artist. Performing for AIR meant that you were picked up by car by white-uniformed staff, served coffee at AIR and generally treated like royalty. The exception was the time I came for an AIR programme from Coimbatore during the wartime evacuation of Madras. Shooting for the film Sivakavi starring M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar was going on at Coimbatore, and Appa had asked me to bring a veena from the house of “Shylock Iyengar”, a well known advocate who lived in Triplicane. Madras was virtually deserted and I walked all the way from the Central railway station to AIR on Beach Road. It had been raining heavily and there was knee-deep water inside AIR. The recording was done upstairs. Afterwards, I walked to Triplicane and transported the veena in a jutka, the only transport available, to Central. To watch Thyagaraja Bhagavatar at work for Sivakavi was a revelation. The music director was Papanasam Sivan, without whom Bhagavatar would not agree to sing in a film.

There was this beautiful girl from Ceylon who was auditioning for the film with Sivan. She sang the Mohanam raga kriti Kapali, (Rajam demonstrates how she sang with very straight notes, missing the raga bhava completely. “Karunai vadanam poli” he imitated her). Sivan listened without expression. He was such an innocent man, with no artifice in him. He had great affection for me. He would teach me for hours, sing continuously. I was his best student. In Seeta Kalyanam, Sivan just retained the Tyagaraja compositions intact, only rendering the lyrics into Tamil. Shooting depended on the availability of sunlight. The studio had a 40’-50’ tall glass ceiling to let the light in. Still, the final result was often rather dark! When the sunlight was streaming in we had to sing on the spot. It was very difficult to keep our eyes wide open and stare into the camera, reproducing every sangati in the original composition.

How were you and Balachandar different as musicians?

He did not study music in a regular fashion. He didn’t know the grammar of music. He was very intelligent, though he did not utilise his gifts fully. When he played ragam-tanam-pallavi, he had no equal. Unfortunately, he started focusing on stretching the strings. That proved to be his undoing. You can’t depend on your muscles in music. When you are older, you can’t count on your virility. The same is the case with dance. Only abhinaya can serve you in the long run.

Did he learn from you?

He accompanied me on the khanjira and tabla for tenyears. It was pleasant, enjoyable music, not like regularkutcheri-s. He learnt by kelvi gnanam. He would not learnfrom me. It was a matter of prestige for him.

How did you get the idea of depicting music in your paintings?

Hari Rao, son of Sangita Kalanidhi T.V. Subba Rao, wasthe manager of the Higginbothams bookstore. Heshowed me letter pads with Omar Khayyam illustrationsand asked me if I could do something similar for Carnaticmusic. That is how I did the series for our music. SrutiPattabhiraman saw the letterpads and asked me todo similar illustrations to be published every month.Semmangudi told me he liked the letterpads so much thathe did not use them to write letters, keeping them withhimself. I wanted people to use them and create interest inour music in the recipients of their letters.

Any unforgettable experiences in your music career?

I think it was 1980. I was singing at a 24-hour Dikshitar akhandam at Ettayapuram. My painting was the backdrop to the 40’ by 40’ stage. Mr. Sundaram, IAS, who inaugurated the concert, had come from Tuticorin. “Enna saar paadarel?” he asked. I said I was going to sing Sree Mahaganapatim. His response was instantaneous. “I don’t know about all that. Sing Anandamritakarshini, or I’m leaving,” he said. I obliged, sang with a lot of feeling. Everyone was happy. Sundaram took me to Tuticorin for lunch in his car and sent me back in the evening by car. As I entered Ettayapuram, it was raining cats and dogs. The temporary roof had been blown off. I told the organisers, “Don’t blame me or Sundaram. It’s only a reminder for a permanent structure here.” My singing the raga Amritavarshini had the same result again during my tour of the U.S.A. in 1982. At the end of a 30-day tour, it rained heavily after a sunny morning following my Anandamritakarshini. Of course, I have sung the song many other times with no change in the weather whatsoever!

More memorable in a strictly musical sense was a concert in Washington during the same tour. It was the last concert of the trip. I sang Janaki Ramana elaborately with alapana, niraval and swaraprastara for more than an hour. I was quite pleased with my effort. As I was about to pack my tambura and leave the hall, two ladies approached me. “That was a lovely Suddha Seemantini. It reminded us of Naina Pillai.” I was stunned. Ten thousand miles away from home, here were two women who had heard my guru Naina Pillai and who could tell Suddha Seemantini from Todi. I had gooseflesh. “What more do I want amma?” I said to the ladies.

V. RAMNARAYAN with S. Janaki and Gayatri Sundaresan

Interviewed By