Young vocalist Papanasam Ashokh Ramani writes about his grandfather, the legendary composer, Papanasam Sivan dubbed as 'Tamizh Tyagaraja' on the occasion of his 111th birth anniversary.

My grandfather Brahmasri Papanasam Sivan, as you are all aware, was a great composer. I carry very fond memories of my years with him. He was a frail man, yet he would lift and carry me around very affectionately when I was a small boy, telling me stories or singing to me. He would always tell me that I should be a good mridangam vidwan and a singer. I was 5 years old then and too young to realise the implication of this. But my evolvement an artiste began. 

The stalwart Kumbakonam Rajappaiyer used to accompany my mother Rukmini Ramani on the mridangam for her concerts. My grandfather one day called Rajappaiyer and said, “I am handing over this child to you. I want you to teach him in your style and make him a great mridangam vidwan.” That is how I came under the tutelage of Kumbakonam Rajappaiyer, who used to come to my house and teach me mridangam. We were living in the out-house of my grandfather’s house at 9, Srinivasan Street, Mylapore. In the hall of the main house, there used to be a platform lining all around the hall. Thatha (grandfather)used to come and sit during my mridangam classes and say, “Ashok adha gavani, avar yeppadi vasikkaraarnu paathu, adhe madiri nee vasikkanum” (meaning, observe how he plays and try to reproduce all the finer nuances). After my guru left, Thatha  would make me play and repeat the lessons so that I did not forget them. After sometime in the main hall of his house, Thatha, Mani Mama, a direct disciple of Thatha, and my mother would all sit and sing either his new compositions or Tyagaraja kritis. This would draw me from my house to them and I too would hum the songs along with them. 

When Thatha, Mani Mama and my mother sang, I was asked to play the mridangam. Thatha used to guide me in playing the mridangam and say, “Ippadi vaasi” (meaning, play like this). This experience made me feel that singing was nice and I'd feel very happy to sing. When I was 8 years old, Setalapati Balasubramanian (known as Balu Mama) came to Madras and used to come to my house. Especially in the month of Maargazhi (mid-December to mid-January), they (Balu Mama, Mani Mama and my mother) would assemble in Thatha’s house a day before the Maargazhi Maasa Bhajanai and plan/practice the songs that they wanted to sing.

Apart from the time that I went to school, my time was spent sitting next to my grandfather, listening to their singing. Thatha had a steel trunk on which he played (like a mridangam) with his hands. His combinations, beats and laya were so wonderful, it would merge beautifully with the songs and yet have a freshness about them. Though it was more than I could digest at that age -  music, nada, tala all around me, I would feel very happy and ecstatic to be at home. My desire to pursue music was kindled. More than playing or studying, I wanted to be a musician. Thatha was then 82-years old. After his daily singing sessions, he would lie down to rest. At that time, I would take take Balu Mama, Mani Mama and others to our out-house and continue singing and playing the mridangam. Mani Mama and my mother would teach Thatha’s songs to all of us (my 3 sisters and me). Balu Mama was a Tamil teacher. He would sing a lot of viruttams; my mother and the rest of us would join in and sing. When this singing session was in progress, Thatha would slowly come to our house and sit on the thinnai. He would then start singing, we would stop and listen to him. When he sang, no one sangati will be repeated again and all the beauties and nuances of the raga would be brought out. Thatha, Mani Mama, Balu Mama and my mother were instrumental in shaping my impression at a very young age as to how a raga should be sung. Once the singing sessions ended, Thatha would tell us, “Kuzhandaigala, padippu romba mukhiyam” and we would pick up our books and study.

In 1972 Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam, Chennai celebrated Thatha's Satabhisekham (80th birthday) in a grand scale. Several vidwans, eminent personalities and music lovers were present, and the hall was very crowded. Everyone prostrated in front of my grandparents. I felt very proud and happy. That year, The Music Academy, Chennai honoured him with the Sangeeta Kalanidhi. I used to tell him that I also wanted to be a great man like him. He then blessed me and said, “Nee romba pramadama irrupai’’ (you'll have a wonderful future). He said he was leaving the entire legacy of his songs to my mother and me. I did not then understand what that meant. 

Thatha would sing the songs and my mother would write and notate them. His Keertana Malai, fourth part was released in September 1973 at Sringeri Pravachana Mandapam under the auspicies of Balasubramania Sabha. My uncle, Dr. MGR was the chief guest on the occasion. The hall was very crowded. Dr.MGR released the book and presented Thatha with a cash gift. He then said that Thatha was his father-in-law and, prostrated in front him. The audience was stunned and speechless for a moment and then broke into a thunderous applause. When we returned home that day we all hugged him and felt very happy. Exactly 15 days after that he fell very sick. As soon as we came home from school, we used to sit with Thatha, stay with him the whole evening. Amma looked after him. Thatha called me next to him, stroked me gently and said, “Nalla paadu, mridangam vaasi” (sing and play the mridangam well). On 30th September 1973, my mother and my uncle (A R Ramamurthy) took Thatha to the Isabel hospital. That night we slept with Paati (grandmother). She told us stories and said my mother would be back in the morning with Thatha. She said, “Children, please move and make place for Thatha. When he comes back in the morning he has to lie down here”. Little did we know that it would be his dead body and not him that came back home. I will never forget that morning of October 1st 1973.  My grandfather came home but did not speak or sing any more! 

Even now I am able to visualize him in front of me. I have tried to live up to his expectations. I got a professional education qualification, played the mridangam and became a vocal musician. I will continue my endeavour to spread his music with his blessings…..


Posted on 27th September 2001


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