It’s very rare to see individuals who achieve such a high level of mastery in music that they become synonymous with their instrument. I consider myself lucky to have heard concerts by a few of these legends of our time, such as Mandolin U. Srinivas and Chitravina N. Ravikiran. Flute N. Ramani sir was another vidwan who belonged to this category, as he was the first musician to take the Carnatic flute across the world. Unfortunately, I heard the news that he passed away earlier today. This is another terrible loss for Carnatic music as he represented the pinnacle of perfection in flute playing; he served as a benchmark for the younger generation of musicians to aspire to.
Ramani sir (middle) with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (violin) and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam).
N. (Natesan) Ramani was the nephew of T. R. Mahalingam (Mali), the maverick genius flute vidwan who first took the Carnatic style of flute to great heights with his fluid style of playing. Like so many other famous guru-sishya combinations, Ramani sir’s playing represents an extremely polished version of his uncle’s style. But, while Mali usually played his flute concerts at G#, Ramani introduced a deeper flute (not really “bass”) to Carnatic music, which was usually pitched around D#. Lowering the sruthi also demands an increase in breath control, as the instrument becomes larger, and the volume of air that must be pushed therefore increases; Ramani soon became the master of playing the instrument at this sruthi. The lower pitched flute is also more pleasant to listen to; the recordings of Mali playing at G# can be quite shrill at times. It is also much more convenient for mrudangam vidwans; most find it easier to play lower pitched mrudangams as opposed to higher-pitched ones, and maintaining very high pitched mrudangams (G# or above) is a challenge.
When one takes a look at the evolution of Carnatic music over recent decades, one has to look for changes that have succeeded and been taken up by future generations (which is a Darwinian perspective: survival of the fittest, that only strong mutations will propagate). Changes that are not successful will not be taken up by future generations and will die out on their own. On the other hand, examples of successful changes are Ariyakudi’s introduction of the modern kutcheri paddhathi, G. N. Balasubramaniam’s introduction of the medium-fast tempo that dominates modern Carnatic music, and of course Ramani sir’s pioneering of the D# sruthi flute. It is very rare to hear people play the flute at G# anymore these days.
This krithi, Gurulekha Etuvanti, is one of the pieces that Ramani sir was able to put his indelible stamp on; almost all instrumentalists (not just flautists) play this krithi the way he has played it here, with the patterns of 5, 6, and 7 in the pallavi at “Teliyagabodhu”. The swara patterns in the charanam at “Tattvabodhanajesi” also feature classic combinations that quickly became popular among all artists. Another delightful aspect of this recording is how effortlessly M. S. Gopalakrishnan is able to match every brigha played by Ramani sir; I can just close my eyes and imagine him playing those with a smile!
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (Violin), N. Ramani (flute), Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam), not sure who the tabla player is… would appreciate any help identifying him!
One of the convenient aspects about lowering the sruthi of the flute is that it matches with the usual sruthi of other instruments, such as the veena and the violin. Thus, Lalgudi Jayaraman and N. Ramani soon started performing together, and in the 70’s, performed a series of concerts in the US under the “East-West Exchange” along with Trichy Sankaran and Ramnad V. Raghavan. This influence led to Ramani sir featuring a lot of Lalgudi’s compositions in his concerts, especially his thillanas. In addition, Ramani sir also participated in the “Violin-Veena-Venu” concerts featuring Lalgudi Jayaraman and Trivandrum R. Venkatraman, and was also in the original Sruthi Laya ensemble by Karaikudi R. Mani.
This recording demonstrates how nicely the three instruments (violin, veena, and flute) are able to blend together. Of course, this is all done without amplification, which is why the veena is not very audible in some parts.
Ramani sir also followed the gayaki style of flute playing, which attempted to emulate vocal music to the maximum extent possible. He was also a follower of G. N. Balasubramaniam’s style of music, and this was amply evident in every brigha and fast-paced piece he played.
Ramani sir’s mastery of the flute is demonstrated here in spades. The tight control over the kalapramanam, and the precision of each swaram, not just in the chittaswaram but in every sangathi and brigha is just amazing. This recording is sped up slightly; I think it was recorded from a spool tape being played at a slightly higher-than-normal speed. You can tell because the sruthi is in between E and F, as opposed to D#.
Ramani sir had a long and successful career, and basically everyone among the famous violinists, mrudangists, and upapakkadyam artists had played for him. He came to the US several times with Srimushnam Raja Rao, and served on the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana committee for several years. He was very close with not just Lalgudi Jayaraman, but also Thanjavur Upendran.
I particularly like this recording because of Bhaktavatsalam’s use of sarvalaghu, the continuity in his playing, and his clever shuffling of phrases. The phrases Ramani sir does at “Mahakavyanatakadhipriyam” are especially nice; these are only possible on flute. Such akara phrases would sound odd if done by a vocalist.
I apologize for the poor photo quality – this was taken on my old cellphone, a HTC Sensation; it does not have a very good camera. I am very glad that I attended this concert, as it is a rare “triple Sangeetha Kalanidhi” concert! Ramani sir (assisted by his son R. Thyagarajan and grandson Atul Kumar), M. Chandrashekaran, and Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir all received the coveted Sangeetha Kalanidhi title from the Madras Music Academy during the course of their careers. This was the inaugural concert for the December 2012 series of concerts at the Music Academy, and this concert took place after a speech by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha. This concert featured many of Ramani sir’s classics, including Shri Mahaganapathi (Gaula), Gurulekha (Gaurimanohari), and Enduku Peddala (Shankarabharanam). I should also mention that the ghatam in this concert was played by Giridhar Udupa – unfortunately he is hidden on stage!