Rajeswari Padmanabhan is a renowned disciple of Sambasiva Iyer and has been carrying the Karaikudi tradition forward. She was interviewed for Sruti by NITHYA BALAJI.
I was born in koilur in 1939. As I was born during Sri Vidya Puja.I waS named Rajeswari. My mother Lakshmi Ammal. herself a veena Vidushi,was the third daughter of the elder of the Karaikudi Brothers.All the daughters of Subharama Iyer were musically talented and, Naturally, our generation was deeply interested in music. Even when I was two or three years old, I was drawn to the sound of the veena, being exposed to it so much at home. It seems that, when I was asked to call a street vendor of vegetables, I used to call out in musical phrases of my own making using the names of vegetables !
Sambasiva Iyer used to visit our home. Once, when I was about four wars old. he had observed my musical inclinations and asked my mother whether my father would permit me to go over to him and learn to play the veena. My mother was very pleased, as this was what she had herself been hoping for. So I was soon with grand pa — that is what I called Sambasiva Iyer, never having known my own grandfather Subharama Iyer.
From then on, I was to spend most of my time with grandfather and grandmother at their residence and kept moving with them from place to place, of course with visits to my parents now and then. Grandma also was a veena player. I received much of my training in domestic chores from her. We lived in Pudukottai for two years and I was initiated into true gurukulavasam.
Grandpa's Teaching Methods
Grandfather would make me get up at four in the morning. Then I had to start my veena practice, beginning with the basic lessons—sarali, jantai and alankaram. The last in various raga-s, with gamaka and the proper fingering technique. Only after 6 a.m was any refreshment allowed. Thereafter, grandpa would start his pooja. While he was at it. I would play the veena. He would remember any errors that I committed and would ask me to play the passage correctly the next day. Sometimes he would join me. Invariably he would play along too, as the veena was an instrument of pooja for him. In the afternoons, even when he was relaxing in a reclining position, he would play manodharma sangeetam. I would listen and learn. He was not one for theorising. Most of the teaching was by demonstration and practice. Again in the evening, while he did his pooja, the two of us along with my grandma would play the veena. Grandpa would never skip his ritual rites and would accept concert engagements only if they were to be held after his evening sandhyavandanam.
Grandpa encouraged me to sing while playing the veena, saying that it reminded him of his elder brother. If there was a good music concert by some other musician, he would take me along. At all times he was a strict disciplinarian.
Perambur & Kalakshetra Days
Once we moved to Perambur, I was exposed to a whole world of eminent musicians. Many luminaries used to visit grandfather and sing. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Alathur Brothers, Rajamanickam Pillai, Mali, MSS, DKP,Lalgudi Jayaraman—almost all the top musicians have performed there over the years.
Ranganayaki was Sambasiva Iyer's student before me. At Perambur I used to play together with Ranganayaki too. We would both practise together and also with grandfather.
My first solo recital was at the Perambur Sangeeta Sabha when I was 11 or 12 years old. It was also the first appearance for Karaikudi Krishnamurthy who accompanied me on the mridangam. After two years at Perambur, grandpa moved to Kalakshetra and taught there. T.N. Ramaswamy Sastry was his assistant. I was still young, being groomed to join the institution. Rukmini Devi often used to ask me to play for her. When the foundation stone ceremony for Kalakshetra's new premises at Adyar was being held, Mysore Vasudevachar and grandpa were asked to plant mango saplings. Rukmini Devi then asked him to pray that his line would always serve Kalakshetra. Later, after grandpa's demise. Rukmini Devi asked me to join the faculty at Kalakshetra.I was 18 then. My mother commented that the students would not respect such a young teacher ; Rukmini Devi countered by saying that vidwat was not necessarily related to one's age.
During the Kalakshetra years, when I had started giving performances over the radio, grandfather was a very particular listener and critic. When I came back home from the recital, I would anxiously await his greeting. If the main raga I played that day was, say, Shanmukhapriya and grandpa greeted me with 'Hey Shanmukhapriya'. that was equivalent to a sabhash.
Grandpa's Last Days
In 1958 I received an invitation to play in a special programme organised in New Delhi by the Government. Grandfather had been ailing for some time but little did I know that his end was not too far. He said : "They have only called her. Let her go". So I went and played and the programme was well received.
Despite his poor health, even when he was unable to play the veena, grandfather would often hold the instrument, gently touching the frets. His last moments shall ever remain etched in my memory. Suffering from cancer of the throat, he was in great pain and could not talk. Subramanian, his adopted son and my brother and Rama Sastry were reciting devotional sloka-s and playing them on the veena. Earlier,Rukmini Devi had told me to play grandfather's favourite pieces; saying it would soothe him. Even though I was in an emotional upheaval, I played Saraseeruhasana, Sankari nee and I am Narada and accompanied the others on the veena when they sang the Durga Stotram as, slowly, grandpa's life ebbed away.
The Karaikudi Bani
Yes, there are some distinct features of Sambasiva Iyer's style.Peculiar to this style are the method of plucking, the gamaka-s used and the way they are executed. Though there are more than 10 types of gamaka, only some are specially suited for the veena. Whether a particular gamaka should be used depends on the song being played, the phrasing, whether the passage is an ascending one or a descending one, etc. But trying to explain it verbally makes it sound complicated. It is so easy to demonstrate by playing.
Changes In The style
I do not think that changes in the basic style will ever be necessary, as it has been perfected by my elders. But between the times before and after the advent of the microphone, there have been changes, minor ones, perhaps in the style of plucking. Grandpa was consciously trying to project the sound over a large area, as there was no mike then. I have deliberately adopted a change in the style of plucking, to reduce its sound which is picked up and magnified by the amplifier. I use silver clips on the right hand. I do not use any amplification device on my veena except for recitals in large halls and weddings. When the Karaikudi Brothers played in the mikeless days, they plucked louder. The elder brother would sing one line and then play it and then both of them would play it together. It is a question of adapting the technique to the playing conditions and the audience.
Grandfather often said that, in his elder brother's opinion, in playing the ragam-tanam-pallavi, manodharma should not be fettered and restricted with anulema and pratiloma. But, today, when those in the first rows of the audience insist on themselves marking the beat (tala), it is difficult to give full rein to manodharma.
Grandfather would never start a new lesson till the first one was perfected. But today, with the ambition of modern students and the pressures, their impatience, I do not follow such rigid rules. While I do not compromise on the basics, alongside I teach easy pieces, to keep the students' interest alive. Music has gained a place in the academic syllabus. This is good.
Apart from the intensive training I received from grandpa, the experience and insights into concert techniques I obtained by accompanying him in his programmes have helped in building my reputation as a concert artist. My study later on with Mysore Vasudevachar under a Government of India scholarship, while he was at Kalakshetra, has also helped me.
I have been giving veena recitals all over the South and in (be major cities of the rest of India as well. I have been giving radio recitals too, of course. But, although I was asked to perform as a young artist in the National Programme of AIR in 1967, more than 20 years ago, I have not been asked again !
I have been to Germany thrice. First with Rukmini Devi in 1970, when I played for her programmes. She was also kind enough to arrange some solo performances for me. In 1975, my brother Subramanian and I went to Germany, accompanied by Tanjavur Upendran. The third trip was with Suchindram Krishnan, E.M. Subramaniam and my husband. They have invited me again. I have also given recitals in Singapore and Malaysia.
Phonograph recordings and cassettes of my performances have been released in India, Germany and Japan.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi presented me with one of its 1986 awards recognizing distinguished contribution in the fields of music, dance and drama ; the award was given to me in the category of Carnatic instrumental music. Earlier I received the Kalaimamani title awarded at the State level.
Some Green Memories
Once, when we were at Perambur, Alathur Venkatesa Iyer offered to teach me two kriti-s, if I promised to learn and sing them for him.One morning, around 8 o'clock, he taught me Sri Mala Siva in Begada raga and Bhooshavati in Vachaspati raga. He asked me when I could sing them for him. I said I would do it the same evening. I practised the whole day and could live up to my word. Alathur Venkatesa Iyer was so pleased that he brought me a gift the next day.
When I was about nine years old, grandpa took me with him when he went to meet the Maharani of Travancore, at her invitation. On seeing me, a child, and after asking Iyer about me, the Maharani took me on her lap and asked me if I could sing. I said I could and asked her what she would like to hear. Grandfather was aghast at my boldness but the Maharani was amused. I sang an alankaram and a pallavi in two speeds. The delighted Maharani asked me what I wanted and gladly presented to me a small porcelain doll in the room which I asked for. The Maharani remembered this incident even later when she visited Madras and I played for her on two or three occasions.
Innovations On The Instrument
Recently, with the help of my husband, I have decided on a few changes to reduce the bulkiness of the veena, so that it can more easily be carried about, without adversely affecting the sound. This new veena has a reduced height for the 'kudam' ; the 'yalimukham’ and the gourd can be detached for packing. The length of the main frame and the frets are unchanged, so that the timbre is not affected. We have a few more experiments on the anvil.
When my marriage was being thought about, Rukmini Devi advised me not to be in a hurry but find a family where my music would be allowed to flourish. I am grateful for my good luck in this respect.
My advice to young ladies pursuing music is first to secure a standing in their art and then only marry. Once a girl has already won some recognition. I do not think her husband or in-laws would object to her pursuing the line further. This way creative talent will not be snuffed out.
Many men accompanists today think it is below their dignity to accompany women artists. While they could be discriminating about vidwat, why should they discriminate on the basis of one's sex?