A musician is at times made to answer questions — scathing ones, like the purpose of art, the use of it all. One plausible ideal is the creation of music for its own sake. This, accompanied by an innate, almost supernal, force exhorting us to give it our best. Many great musicians manage to do just that. Listen to their recordings of 50 years ago. At the right moment in your life, their inspiration can enter your soul and pull it up. This, more than anything else, seems to be the only ideal driving some very special musicians. As a listener, I find myself flying back towards their music when I need spiritual solace, a homing pigeon in search of its perch.
Today, I return to M D Ramanathan. This great Carnatic musician, teacher and composer would have turned 86 last month, had he been alive. My first introduction to his music was listening to him rendering Samajavaragamana in an old LP belonging to my parents. Much younger then, I found the music unappealing: very slow, with the alankaras (musical ornamentation) a little too elaborate for me to understand. I “ditched” listening to MDR soon afterwards, preferring a more melodious M S Subbulakshmi and faster-paced younger vocalists who held greater appeal. The fact that much fun was made of MDR’s facial contortions while performing did not help my childish imagination either, and I put him down as ‘uncool’. It was in New York, in early 2005, that I returned to MDR’s music. Listening to an assorted tape at a friend’s apartment, I came across the same Thyagaraja composition in Hindolam. This was followed by a rendition of his thillana in raga Behag. With the snow falling gently outside, the overheated atmosphere inside the apartment began to slow my pulse. I sat back, closed my eyes, and started allowing my mind to swirl meditatively to this vocalist’s rendition. In art, you can often see the outlines of an older painting if you look closely at a canvas. This effect, called “pentimento”, perhaps applies to music too.
Listening to MDR on that midwinter afternoon, I could glimpse several years of my life as though in kaleidoscopic vision. Each note seemed to drag itself out of the previous one, creating a patchwork quilt of musical ideas. As he stitched the melody slowly, I started seeing the composition in its entirety, understanding the purpose of each successive phrase, savouring each moment of reposeful silence and quietening myself to the point of absolute concentration. The pace of rendition was purposeful and not because he “could not sing” any faster, and the silences were pregnant with possibilities, as though he had a clutch of different musical permutations at his disposal, but chose one deliberately and with precision.
In fighting my own battles as an adult, and trying to find my feet in the musical milieu and define my “sound”, I find myself guilty of earlier having not understood MDR’s depth and unique place in the firmament of Carnatic music. How beautiful a silence is! And how rare it seems to be in today’s obsession with razzmatazz! In understanding the man from his music, I see an artist whose only ideal seems to have been music itself. He was often in the “background”, devoted to his beloved Kalakshetra and not acquiring the sheen of popular fame or bloated fortune. The silences were from his own soul, offered with surrender and piety to his teacher and musical schooling. And like the snow outside, it fell in gentle but beautiful patterns on the listener’s ears.
In spring 2006, I heard another master musician sing live in New York. This was somebody I knew personally, and had not heard in a long time. After a brisk introduction in Shankarabharanam, he moved into a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition in Sahana, and once again, the reposeful silences came to the fore. Each note had a purpose, and there was no hint at either gimmickry or superfluousness. I’ve often scorned the word “purity” used so lightly in the classical music context, but this was a singer who came very close to embodying it. Not knowing it at the time, I found my eyes moistening and my senses heightened, and a sense of déjà vu as my mind quietened down once again, and focused on life’s possibilities. This was not an ordinary musician. This was “Subra”, my brother’s classmate and my senior from high school, whom the world knows better as Sanjay Subrahmanyan.
While this article is not about Sanjay, I cannot help link the two musicians inextricably in my mind’s eye. There are not many overt similarities apart from their adherence to classicism and a very informed, scholarly approach to many rare ragas. However, there is a common love for pacing and repose, and a profound reverence for silences in their music — pauses in their delineation that allow the listener to unwind, breathe and find room to rejoice again. I remember an American lady who sat next to me for Sanjay’s concert who suddenly clutched my hand at the end of his piece in Sahana. I do not think she followed either lyric or significance or musical context. I think the silences moved her too.
MDR might no longer be with us. But sometimes, in the silences that I allow myself between rehearsals and a hectic day’s work, his exhortation to contemplate and savour the music I create calms me. And in the rare and precious moments that I do experience Sanjay’s music, I feel at home. I stop questioning my purpose as a musician and just breathe.
Published on 31st May 2009, Sunday Express