Ramanathan N. Iyer

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"Bhesh!” the elderly gentleman sitting next to me at the concert suddenly exclaimed, slapping palm on thigh, evidently pleased by the emphasis given by the vocalists to a particular phrase in the composition. For me it was a jolt back to reality, lost as I was, in trying to decide what raagam they were singing! I’m one of those so-called connoisseurs with a half-baked knowledge of the nuances of Karnaataka Sangeetham (Carnatic Music). But I love it with a passion, intensity and curiosity that has not dimmed since that day many years ago when Appappa, my maternal grandfather, dragged me along one evening to listen to someone named Semmangudi who was performing at Trivandrum’s hallowed Navaraathri Mandapam. That scene from the ages is still etched in my mind. A bald, avuncular man, squatting cross-legged on a carpet, bare-chested except for a simple angavasthram adorning his shoulders, his face and gold-rimmed glasses gleaming in the light of the tall oil lamps… a ripple among the audience seated on the floor before him as the first notes of Maayaamaalavagowla emerged with a subtle nasal undertone. It was a surreal atmosphere, one of tranquillity, one that reflected hoary traditions, one that gave you a solid secure feeling of continuity and contentment.

It took me several more years to fully digest the significance of that first glimpse of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Carnatic Music’s most venerated performer. It is a scene that comes back to me time and again… for instance, when I’m flying over the barren deserts of Baluchistan one September morning many years later on my way to Chicago from New Delhi; when I’m in a truck in Denver, Colorado on a bitterly cold winter night testing radio equipment for a cellular network; when I’m in verdant, humid Kerala during the marvelous monsoons; when I’m ferreting through a musty bookshop in downtown San Diego, or simply snuggled in bed in a state of absolute laziness. A Carnatic concert, to me, is a time for nostalgia and reflection, a time to laugh silently at one’s foibles. It is a time to marvel at the series of illusions or Maaya that human life is composed of, a time when you realize the stupidity and utter inanity of one’s daily actions in the name of intangibles such as love, money and career. And of course, it is a time to decide who is maintaining the thaalam perfectly - the vocalist, the percussionist or the hyperactive gent sitting next to me!

It is also one of those times when I remember Appappa, the man who was an influential part of my life for as long as I can remember. He didn’t just introduce me to Karnaataka Sangeetham; he was also my most valuable critic, be it for my fledgling efforts at developing a command over the English language, improving my performance in school or simply at becoming a better human being. I remember writing long letters to him, describing in excruciating detail, my latest fifth-grade exploits at school. Waiting eagerly for his response, I recall the pure thrill I felt when the blue typewritten inland letter arrived from Tiruttani, a remote town in Tamil Nadu, with the familiar typeface, a psychedelic mixture of red and black ink. To this day I haven’t figured out why he insisted on using that double-color typewriter ribbon!

November 25th, 2000 is a day ingrained in my memory forever, one of those days whose events never die from your consciousness, when you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. It was a Saturday. Rising early morning, I flew from Chicago to New York and rented a car to drive into Long Island on a business visit. I had just emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel when my phone rang. I rarely received calls from back home and the caller ID indicated this was one of those… and the news was bad. Appappa, who had been ailing for the past few days, had journeyed on, exactly as he had always assured his disbelieving grandson. A flood of tears blocking my vision of the freeway, disregarding the angry honks from a New Yorker irritated by my slow pace, I felt a deep personal agony. I felt at last, what it was like, to have a piece of one’s life plucked away. Random events flashed by in the mind’s eye… Appappa resplendent and proud in his starched white shirt and dhoti, Appappa teaching me how to enjoy a sadya (traditional Kerala feast), Appappa’s famous half-smile masking inner emotions of pure joy as I presented him with a brand-new white Arrow shirt on my first trip back home from the States, his strong hands holding me afloat in the swirling waters of the Periyar during my first swimming lesson, his conspiratorial tone while discreetly sharing with me a pile of priceless gramophone records lest they be misappropriated by predatory cousins…

Today when I listen to a live concert or to the immortal music encapsulated in my precious Carnatic tape collection, I think of Appappa and the way he dragged me to that Mandapam years ago. That small action on his part has made such a difference to my life. Whenever I feel blue, whenever I’ve had a bad day at work, whenever I’ve fought with loved ones, all I need to do is jump into my automobile, pop in a tape and go on a long drive. I have the divine music of Semmangudi and MDR, Madurai Mani and Ariyakudi, all of them singing in full-throated gusto, to keep me company and bring me back to sanity. The tape maybe a scratchy n-th generation copy and half of Semmangudi’s original energy and MDR’s deep bass maybe lost by the time it reaches me. But therein lies the simple beauty of Karnaataka Sangeetham. Bereft of the trappings of hi-fi audio and Dolby noise reduction, bhaavam, jnaanam and vidwat shine through with the greatest of the masters! Put in a little effort at understanding the intricacies of raagam and thaalam, and you are transported to a magical realm. Thank you, Appappa… I can’t believe it’s already been two years and more since you left me!

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