N. Rajam, who will be conferred the Pt. Bhimsen Joshi Lifetime Achievement Award, on how she created a space of her own in theworld of music
For Dr. N. Rajam, who just added the Pt. Bhimsen Joshi Lifetime Achievement Award to her long list of honours (including the Padma Bhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, and the Padma Shri), the many challenges she faced in the world of music are no different from how one negotiates the difficulties of life. “For sure, it was not a bed of roses — there was opposition. But you deal with it rather than dwell on it,” the 82-year-old says, looking back on a lifetime with the violin.
Until Rajam, the violin in Hindustani music was a non-entity with few solo exponents. Accompanying instruments were the sarangi, esraj, dilruba and the harmonium. Most instrumentalists then, Dr. Rajam says, followed the gatkari or tantrakari style — specific to instruments and distinct from the gayaki (vocal) style. “Right from the beginning, I wanted to follow the gayaki style on the violin for Hindustani music.” The magnitude of her pioneering efforts is compounded by the fact that she arrived as an anomalous South Indian (‘Madrasi’) woman in the 1950s in a North Indian male-dominated art form.
Since the violin allows for continuity of notes, the gayaki style could be aped perfectly. “My style is 150 per cent vocal,” she says. Never having heard an instrument sound that way though, her playing was a revelation. Many new things, however good they might be, are initially met with opposition and she did face skepticism. “At first, people were taken aback. Some said I was playing like Carnatic music. But I knew I was on the right path and I persevered. Soon, everybody accepted. So much so that many aspire to play the way I do.”
Dr. Rajam came to Hindustani music after 15 years of training in Carnatic violin. Her father, A. Narayana Iyer had taught her (and her brother, the celebrated Carnatic violinist T.N. Krishnan) the instrument rigorously. She trained under the titan Musiri Subramania Iyer as well and, at age 13, had accompanied M.S. Subbulakshmi. “I could play anything anyone could sing.” Her foray into Hindustani, interestingly, occurred because she was underage (14) to appear for the local intermediate school leaving examinations (having received a double promotion early on). Learning that the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) had the option of appearing as a private candidate without the age requirement, her father registered her for it. One of the required papers was Hindustani music. To prepare for it, she took lessons from L.R. Kelkar, a Chennai-based Hindustani musician.
Simultaneously, a fellow Musiri student shared some 78 RPM records of Pt. Omkarnath Thakur. Dr. Rajam found his music captivating and decided that if she pursued Hindustani music, it would be under him. “When I went to BHU to write the intermediate exam, I took a letter to Omkarnath-ji, who was the Founder-Principal of the Faculty of Performing Arts, from Parur Sundaram Iyer (father of violinist M.S. Gopalakrishnan) whom our family knew well. They were guru bhais, both having learned from Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Omkarnath-ji asked me to play — I reproduced what I had heard on those LP records. He was surprised to hear his style replicated so faithfully and agreed to take me on as his student.”
On the difficulties in switching from Carnatic to Hindustani, where the tala is not overt, she is candid. “Guru Kelkar, having lived in Madras, would put taal by hand. I kept taal with my foot, so while I did not err, I wondered how Hindustani musicians did it. The tabla player I practiced with would say, ‘kaali is coming’ (the start of the second half of the taal, typically played distinctly), which I did not understand. I just needed to be told that it was based on the sound of the tabla — but since it was so obvious for them, they didn’t. I soon figured this out myself.”
Kelkar was a student of Omkarnath Thakur’s disciple and thus, unknowingly Rajam had been soaking in the Gwalior gharana style. With all styles just a click away, the relevance of gharanas now may be questionable, but Rajam points out how between teachers preventing students from listening to others’ music and travel being cumbersome, styles stayed within narrow confines. “While it is still possible to maintain the main characteristics of one’s gharana, I have always been open to taking good aspects from other gharanas and have no objection to my students doing so either.”
Omkarnath Thakur was known to be rather difficult. “His standards were high and if he heard bad music, he would unhesitatingly call it out even on stage. But behind that tough exterior was an extremely good-hearted guru.”
To facilitate her learning, the family moved to Bombay. She had her lessons when Omkarnath visited the city every couple of months for several days.
Similar yet distinct styles
Though Krishnan and she learned from their father and the similarities in playing abound, there are clear distinctions as well, particularly in the left hand (non-bowing hand) technique. “Hindustani has some aspects not there in Carnatic — like the vilambit (slow) and the ati vilambit (extra slow) tempos and the fast taans (sequence of notes sung in akaaram). My father helped me to work on these. These brought some changes in my playing.” About learning from her brother, she says, “Anna was 10 years older than me and left to do gurukulavaasam at Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s when he was about 12. So, as a child, I saw him only occasionally. Later, of course, we performed together on many occasions. He was very proud of me as I was of him.”
Dr. Rajam considers herself more a student than an artiste. In the past few years, she has been working on understanding what produces roughness (pisharu) in bowing. “We pay more attention to our left hand — finger placement and the sound — and teachers are hypervigilant too. Similarly, I am focusing on how the entire bow comes into contact with the instrument and playing it very consciously. Codifying it comes next. Bowing technique is much more advanced in Western music where it has been extensively explored but in India, because of the integral gamakams which are difficult to reproduce, bowing technique has taken a back seat.”
A feature of Narayana Iyer’s training was the use of the entire bow. “My father would insist on it. The bow had to be used fully even if it sounded imperfect initially. Sophistication comes later. Of course, I also know to use very small parts of the bow if needed!”
She spent nearly 40 years at the Faculty of Performing Arts at BHU, voluntarily retiring as Dean. On how she began, her experience, challenges and learning there, she says, “After I passed my BA in 1957 (incidentally, she topped the university jointly with the award-winning astrophysicist Dr. Jayant Narlikar), Omkarnath-ji asked me to apply as a lecturer there. For reasons, including concern that a young woman might ‘corrupt’ the young men in the university, I got the position only two years later, in 1959. Learning about institutional politics was the biggest lesson. I followed my father’s advice of speaking minimally and only when necessary.” However, she says, she never hesitated to take necessary action as expected from a person of authority. While at BHU, she also completed an MA in Sanskrit, guided by Pt. Subramania Shastri and a Ph.D in Comparative Study of Hindustani and Carnatic Music under Dr. Premlatha Sharma.
Her daughter, Dr. Sangeeta Shankar and her granddaughters, Ragini and Nandini, continue her legacy. “Our family tradition is to hand a violin to every child, boy or girl, at age three. That is what I did.”
The author writes on classical music and musicians.