I had been meaning to write about this for a while now, but with work and other things going on this kept getting pushed aside. I finally decided that today I’ll stop procrastinating on this topic and try to write about it while it is still timely.
I had heard about the demise of both of the aforementioned vidwans in the title indirectly, through reading rasikas.org and then seeing the obituaries in The Hindu. Their departure is indeed a big loss to the music world at large, as I will explain below.
Vellore Ramabhadran (or Ramabhadran sir as I might refer to him later) was an extremely famous mrudangam vidwan, best known for his sarvalaghu style of accompaniment. His playing would be very unintrusive, following the pattern of the thalam rather than trying to match the main artist. It was characterised by “sukham” and “saukhyam” (pleasantness and comfort). One way I can describe his playing is that he always maintained strong thalam support, and it would be like the concert was “floating” on his playing. I know this sounds weird, but if you listen to any recordings where he has performed I am sure you will agree.
Ramabhadran sir’s style of playing was therefore the complete opposite of Palghat Mani Iyer (whom I talked about in detail in a previous post). Mani Iyer used to literally “play the songs” on his mrudangam; Ramabhadran took the opposite style and maintained more or less a constant, uniform mattress of laya support. In fact, that is how he was initially introduced to the music world, as a foil for Palghat Mani Iyer. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer gave him the nickname “Naadabhadran”, and it more or less stuck for his entire career. Ramabhadran sir had accompanied all the leading vidwans during his lifetime, from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Ariyakudi, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Maharajapuram Santhanam, Chittibabu, and almost everyone you can think of. In fact, at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana in 2005, I heard him accompany Aruna Sairam live, and in the December season in 2006, I heard him play for Sowmya at the Madras Music Academy.
This video is from the 2005 Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana, and I remember attending this concert with my friend Ramakrishnan Murthy (in fact I think the camera pans to him during one of the audience shots!).
Ramabhadran sir’s style and Palghat Mani Iyer’s style therefore represent two extremes in the art of accompaniment. Nowadays, most mrudangists try to strike a balance between the two, embellishing the song and singing where appropriate, and maintaining a sarvalaghu base to maintain the thalam and kaalapramanam (tempo). Unfortunately, there has been a rather unhealthy trend lately where main artists only prefer mrudangists who heavily use sarvalaghu, almost like human metronomes. This is not good for the growth of the art, especially in an age where laya gnanam (knowledge of rhythm) is decreasing among both artists and rasikas.
I did have the good fortune to meet Ramabhadran sir once, and I did get to play in front of him and receive his good wishes and blessings.
The first time I saw Mayavaram Somu live was at the Madras Music Academy Sadas earlier this year. Before that, I had only heard his playing in audio and video recordings. His concerts with the late Madurai Somu and Ramnad C. S. Murugabhoopathi (mrudangam) are especially legendary. Mayavaram Somu had recieved (if i recall correctly) the TTK Memorial Award for Excellence for his years of service to music as a kanjira vidwan. He was very old, and had stopped performing in concerts, although he was still actively teaching, if my memory serves me correctly. In fact, a lot of people sitting around me were grumbling about why the Music Academy had to wait till these vidwans became very old before deciding to felicitate them, rather than giving them the awards when they were at their peak! Who knows…
A photo of Madurai Somu (vocal, center), M. S. Gopalakrishnan (violin, on the right), a young Karaikudi R. Mani (mrudangam, left), and Mayavaram Somu (kanjira, behind Karaikudi Mani).