Can there ever be another Nagarajan or Harishankar?
- by Chitravina N Ravikiran
|The demise of Sri V Nagarajan and Sri Harishankar is a twin blow to Kanjira, to Indian music, nay, the world of rhythm. It was reasonably well known that Sri Nagarajan was 70 plus year old and was not in good health for quite some time, but the loss of Sri Harishankar is unbelievable. He was just 44 years of age, but conversation with his near and dear today revealed that he had been suffering from an incurable lung disease and that doctors had warned that his life span could be extremely short. Both of them were wonderful artistes in contrasting styles.
Sri Nagarajan was the epitome of classical perfection and his style (be it playing for songs or playing the tani) was a connoisseurs' delight. Son of the great Papa Venkataramaiah and brother of V Thyagarajan, both violinists, he opted to follow the path of rhythm and started as a mrdangist. In fact, All India Radio has a recording of him accompanying his father and brother on the mrdangam. It was Palghat Mani Iyer who encouraged him to take up the Kanjira and the rest is history. Sri Nagarajan's style of playing would blend with almost any mrdangist and his impeccable melodic gnyana and natural dynamism combined to enable him build a style that had both sensitivity and verve. Coming from a classical school of thought that believed in aesthetics rather than dry mathematics, Sri V Nagarajan adapted skillfully to fit in with changing trends and styles of the modern era with considerable increase in the proportion of mathematical combinations. Since he always managed to keep himself up to date on newer styles, he was as much at home playing alongside today's stars as he was when accompanying yesteryear giants.
G Harishankar was Harishankar ji to most of us! He was brilliant, one of the few real geniuses in the field today. He took his instrument to new heights with his flying fingers. While playing for songs, he would never play all the time but make his presence count whenever he joined in. He would be able to garner everyone's attention and admiration with just one small phrase, even while a song was in full flow with the main artiste and all other instruments playing along. In tani avartanams, he was a legend and people would throng to listen to him with leading mrdangists. He had a razor sharp brain that enabled him to grasp, memorize and repeat instantaneously several complex korvais - some of them in reverse, which often led to his coming up on top on numerous occasions.
For me, their departure is huge personal blow as I had the pleasure and privilege of having both accompany me since my childhood. Both could fill a concert so well, even in the absence of mrdangam, if the occasion demanded it. On one occasion, Sri Vellore Ramabhadran's flight was delayed and I played over 70% of a concert only with Sri V Nagarajan. Hari ji was my sole accompaniment for a whole recording for Sangeet Natak Academy, Delhi.
I was always fascinated by Sri Nagarajan's approach and attitude. He would always think of the total effect of the concert and never about himself. Every phrase of his would aim to be a contribution to the success of the concert as a whole. This was the secret of his success. He could make every phrase come alive because he put his whole heart, mind, body and soul behind it. I need to share a relatively unknown fact here. I had the great fortune to take Kanjira lessons from him for a few months (purely for my personal satisfaction) and he was such a wonderful teacher. He never compromised on the basics but would be very patient and always handle me with kid gloves!
Hari ji was a towering personality in fusion ensembles and international rhythm festivals, in addition to being a much sought after accompanist in Carnatic music. He had a huge following in many countries, which included several Grammy level American frame drummers and tambourine experts too. They unanimously considered him as the top of their league. They were struck speechless by his playing and the way he could conjure up as much or more speed and dynamics with just one hand as the best artistes on the mrdangam, tabla, ghatam or other instruments did. In a recent fusion recording, 'Rays and Forays', he had to play a fairly complex piece of mine in Adi talam, Khanda gati, using a metronome, something that few Carnatic musicians can feel at home in. He executed it flawlessly.
Harishankar ji always enjoyed a challenge and it was always a treat for me to watch his expression when I attempted something difficult. It would be most heartening to hear him appreciate some korvai of mine without reserve. But almost inevitably, the next moment it would be me exclaiming 'sabhaash!' as he would have played it back with a smile with his own embellishments. These are some of the things that make concerts so worthwhile for us.
There can never be another Nagarajan or Harishankar. They were each one of a kind ...
Posted on February 14, 2002