Six degrees of Thyagaraja

Six degrees of Thyagaraja
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First Published: Fri, Jun 19 2009. 10 38 PM IST

Maestro: Palghat R. Raghu. The Hindu
Maestro: Palghat R. Raghu. The Hindu
Updated: Fri, Jun 19 2009. 10 38 PM IST
On the first and second days of June, two of the few living ties with Carnatic music’s past were snapped. Eighty-five-year-old Mysore S. Rajaram, once director of Kalakshetra and composer of the music of numerous dance dramas, had attended a performance by another Kalakshetra veteran the evening before his sudden death on 1 June. One report mentioned that he had just made fresh plans to choreograph a set of verses.
Maestro: Palghat R. Raghu. The Hindu
Rajaram had a unique and incredibly prestigious musical pedigree. He was the grandson of the early 20th century composer Mysore Vasudevacharya, who in turn could trace his teacher-student lineage back to Thyagaraja himself. This is loosely the equivalent of being the grandson of a pianist whose instructors were a couple of levels removed from Wolfgang Mozart. Rajaram was fortunate enough to assist his grandfather during his own stint as composer at Kalakshetra, and in particular, in setting to music Valmiki’s Ramayan.
Reading through the various obituaries that appeared after Rajaram’s death, I was struck by this emphasis on lineage. “Everybody is eager to trace their education back to Thyagaraja, and they’ll do it through whatever permutations and combinations it takes,” one singer told me once, rather cattily. But the fact that musicians today can even do that, and vault back to Carnatic music’s most central composer in six or seven steps, speaks very eloquently about how this old art form is, at the same time, surprisingly new.
A day after Rajaram’s demise, one of Carnatic music’s finest percussionists passed on to the great music academy in the sky. On the mridangam, Palghat R. Raghu accompanied artistes across a broad swathe of generations, from G.N. Balasubramaniam in the 1950s to the contemporary vocalist Sikkil C. Gurucharan, who is all of 27 years old. With Balasubramaniam and the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, Raghu once estimated, he must have played around 1,000 concerts in a five-year period. As ensembles go, this was one worth selling a kidney to hear live.
Some of Raghu’s most memorable collaborations, however, were with his fellow native of Palghat, K. V. Narayanaswamy, collaborations that I have listened to repeatedly with delight. Narayanaswamy was a subtle, emotional, highly classical singer, and Raghu was always able to capture both the subtleties and the emotion, yoking them to his own impeccable technique. He was an ace, also, at combining two seemingly contradictory skills: that of following the main musician like a shadow, nipping at the heels of the music and anticipating its every turn, and that of weaving his own improvised motifs into the larger lattice of his play.
Detecting those motifs, and deconstructing that lattice, is a near-mathematical craft born of pure listening, and it’s something I am not able to do even a quarter as well as I would like. But there is a quality about the well-played mridangam—and Palghat Raghu’s mridangam is a wonderfully played one—that shoots beyond the terrain of rational enjoyment into that of visceral pleasure. The percussive beat is the most primal, elemental form of music, and with Palghat Raghu, even the most rhythm-challenged of listeners (such as myself) can find themselves responding, mysteriously and instinctively, in sync.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at raagtime@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jun 19 2009. 10 38 PM IST