Scientist as an artist

Print edition : March 20, 2015

K. Radhakrishnan performing at the Chembai Sangeetholsavam 2012 in the Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Radhakrishnan as the Brahmin who loses his nine children, in Santhanagopalam (1995). Photo: By Special Arrangement

As Hanuman in Lavanasuravadham (1987). His guru T.V.A. Varier is in the background. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The former Chairman of ISRO is an accomplished Carnatic musician and Kathakali dancer.

NEWSPAPER reports of K. Radhakrishnan, who was Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, giving a Carnatic music concert at the Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple in Kerala in 2009 revealed another facet of the man who would become Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Later, news reports and pictures showing him as an accomplished Kathakali performer too appeared.

When he delivered the inaugural speech at the 88th annual conference and concerts of The Music Academy, Chennai, on December 15, 2014, the audience was impressed with his deep knowledge of Carnatic music. He learnt Carnatic music from doyens such as the late R.K. Srikantan and Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana, and Kathakali from Tripunithura Vijayabhanu and T.V.A. Varier. “Our musical heritage is traced to Sama Veda, which teaches the musical method of chanting verses. Saman refers to melodies or music…. It is believed that Siva, the original cosmic dancer, with his consort Parvathi, evolved tandava and lasya forms of dance,” he said on December 15. Frontline met Radhakrishnan on January 19 at his residence in Bangalore for an interview about his passion for Kathakali and Carnatic music. His wife, Padmini, also has learnt Carnatic music from her childhood. She would like him to “try” performing Kathakali again—he gave his last performance 15 years ago.

On the Kathakali performers and Carnatic music singers he admired, Radhakrishnan said, “The list is too long.” Excerpts from the interview:

How did you get interested in Carnatic music? Your speech at The Music Academy in Chennai while inaugurating its annual music festival on December 15 was widely appreciated. People were surprised by the depth of your knowledge of Carnatic music. When I mentioned that M. Chandrasekaran would accompany Trichur V. Ramachandran, the singer, you immediately said Chandrasekaran is a good violinist.

Chandrasekaran is also a vocalist. I have heard him singing in 1983, if I remember correctly, at Thrissur. He has a beautiful voice. He sang Sri Krishnam Bhaja Manasa Sathatham on that day. It is a composition of Muthuswami Dikshitar on Guruvayurappan. On that day, I heard that song for the first time. It generated a passion in me to learn that song and I did so. I sang it at the Guruvayur temple later.

How did you get interested in Carnatic music and Kathakali dance?

I come from Kerala. It has an ancient town called Irinjalakuda. It is famous for the temple of Bharata, the younger brother of Sree Rama. It is probably the only major temple for Bharata. We have a Kathakali school there. A family there performs Koothu and Koodiyattam, which are highly classical in nature. In my view, Koothu and Koodiyattam are the closest followers of Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra. My home was within 200 feet of all these places.

I started getting interested in art forms from a young age. My first stage performance was at the age of seven in my school. I had a lot of interest in dance. I had an ability to absorb whichever dance I watched and I used to perform them at home. My mother’s friends told her to send me for formal training in dance. It was Kerala Natanam, which is derived from Kathakali. So I started learning Kerala Natanam formally. In 1961, I got the first prize in the State youth festival for folk dance.

Our school used to encourage students to learn Kathakali and dance. It was a good experience there. One of my teachers who was an ardent admirer of Kathakali told me to start learning Kathakali and he said I had a control of rhythm.

Good control of rhythm?

That was his observation. I did not know why he said it. In my dance classes, my guru, Shri Tripunithura Vijayabhanu, used to engage me to teach the basic steps to new entrants. I understood later that he did so because I had a good control of rhythm. I started learning Kathakali when I was in the ninth standard. I performed at the school anniversary function the role of Damayanthi in Nalacharitham for an hour and a half. People said it was an excellent performance. In the district-level youth festival in 1963, I got the first prize.

The next day, I had a problem. Both my knees were swollen and I could not walk. It was rheumatic arthritis. I could not attend school for the last term of my Secondary School Leaving Certificate [course]. I was on leave. My mother, who was a teacher, taught me at home. The point is I had to discontinue learning Kathakali or dance for reasons of health.

The second phase of my Kathakali training began in 1979.

So there was a big gap.

Yes. There was a big gap. I was in Thiruvananthapuram. I met Tripunithura Vijayabhanu, who was then a professor at the Swathi Thirunal Music Academy. After just two days of practice, I performed Siva tandavam at the Navaratri puja festival organised by the Bengali Association in Thiruvananthapuram.

I came to Bangalore in 1981 when I joined the ISRO headquarters. Here, I met Shri T.V.A. Varier, a senior technician in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, who was a professionally trained Kathakali dancer. I started learning from him. I performed the role of Parasurama the same year. It is actually a vigorous role and I did it. The programme lasted an hour and 15 minutes and it dealt with the encounter between Sree Rama and Parasurama. I essayed the same role at the Sree Koodalmanikyam temple festival in my home town in 1982. For a person who could not even walk in 1964, it was a major milestone. I played Bheema in Kalyanasougandhikam, Hanuman in Lavanasuravadham and Daksha in Dakshayagam.

In 1994, I performed the role of a Brahmin character, which did not require the elaborate costumes of Kathakali. This was the role of Sudevaa in Nalacharitham. That is, the Brahmin who was sent by Damayanthi to the place where Nala was staying. Another role I played was that of a Brahmin in Santhanagopalam who loses his nine children soon after birth. My last Kathakali performance was in that role in the Jalahalli Ayyappa temple in Bangalore in December 1995.

Did you learn music professionally?

No. I got into music at the age of 26. Till then I was not singing at all. When I was a student of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore in 1975, I started learning Sarala Varase [simple sequences]. There was a teacher who taught a woman in the next house at Jayanagar where I lived. I used to go there and learn.

After finishing MBA, when I went back to Thiruvananthapuram, I continued the lessons in Carnatic music seriously. For a year, I learnt it from Shri N.K. Kolappan Pillai. Then I went to Prof. Vechoor Subramania Iyer. He was a disciple of Semmangudi [Srinivasa Iyer] and a leading musician and teacher. He is famously known as Vechoor Sir. I attended three classes a week—an hour and a half each—and it was serious learning from him. I continued it till 1981.

After moving to Bangalore in 1981, I became a student of Shri R.K. Srikantan in Carnatic music in January 1982. I stayed in a place close to his residence. I used to sit with him during his practice sessions and go with him to his performances. I used to play the tambura. I used to sing a few songs with him. This went on till 1984. After that, I continued as his student till 1996. I learned a few compositions from his son Rudrapatnam Ramakanth also.

I moved to Hyderabad in 1997. I was doing my PhD as an externally registered candidate. I started learning from Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana in 2000. On all Sundays, I used to go to his house and learn from him for a couple of hours. When I went back to Thiruvananthapuram, I located a disciple of Vechoor Sir.

This was when you became the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre for two years.

Yes. The disciple of Vechoor Sir was Parvathipuram Padmanabha Iyer and I learnt a few songs from him. When I came back to Bangalore in 2009 as ISRO Chairman, it was natural that I learnt from R.K. Srikantan again. He passed away last year at the age of 94. Even now, once in a while, I learn from Ramakanth.

When was your first stage performance in Carnatic music?

In 1980, for 15 minutes. Just three songs, starting with Viriboni Varnam in Bhairavi.

Which was the venue?

My home town, at the Koodalmanikyam temple. I performed there in 2010 and 2014 also during the annual festival. I [have] performed at the Malliyoor Ganapati temple for six years—one performance a year from 2003. Its importance is that there is a sangeetha archana in that temple and great musicians come to the temple and do seva there.

When I went to Guruvayur for a darshan in 2008, the Chembai Sangeetholsavam was going on there. The organisers asked me to sing a couple of songs there. For the past seven years, I have performed at the Chembai Sangeetholsavam. I used to sing two or three songs. In 2014, when I inaugurated the Utsav, I sang for 45 minutes. I used to perform in Bangalore also. I sang in November 2014 in the Sangeetha Utsav for about 90 minutes.

Your speech at The Music Academy showed your grasp of Carnatic music.

Apart from giving performances, I have been reading books on dance and music from my early days. That is how I gathered a lot of knowledge on the subject. I have about 30 books on Carnatic music. What helped me was the ambience in my home town. On the one side, Koothu and Koodiyattam were performed in the temple auditorium called Koothambalam. On the other, there is a Kathakali school in my home town, named after one of the great authors of Kathakali (Unnayi Varier, who composed Nalacharitham) who is from Irinjalakuda.

The Koodalmanikyam temple celebrates a 10-day annual festival and there used to be 24-hour performances. One of the performances was with the percussion instrument — panchari melam. There would be 18 such melams. We used to listen to them—nine during daytime and nine at night. So it is in our blood. All this would happen within 200 feet of our residence. That is the ambience in which I grew up. Bharata’s Natya Sastra is the basic document for our performing arts. I used to read translations of that text.

Coming to music, I read books on the heritage of Saint Tyagaraja. I read on Carnatic music and Kathakali, about the history of the art and the artistes. This has been going on seriously for the past four decades.

You made judicious use of your time by learning Carnatic music when arthritis prevented you from learning Kathakali.

I observed the dance and Kathakali performances and absorbed them even though I could not perform.

How did you overcome the problem of arthritis?

I went for allopathy and Ayurveda. I was going through a serious treatment even when I was a student of engineering.

Do you still give performances in Kathakali?

I have not been practising since 1995 after I moved to Hyderabad. I was living in a flat there. There was no teacher there. It is not all that easy to restart because you need a lot of practice. If I can, I will perform light roles.

Who are the people you admire in Carnatic music? Who are the artistes coming up now? People talk highly about Abhishek Raghuram.

If you talk about legendary figures whom I have seen in my life, I would mention Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Palakkad Mani Iyer, K.V. Narayanaswamy, M.D. Ramanathan, Alathur Srinivasa Iyer (I have not seen the Alathur brothers together but I have seen Alathur Srinivasa Iyer performing a couple of times), M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, D.K. Jayaraman, M.L. Vasanthakumari, Lalgudi Jayaraman, T.N. Krishnan, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, L. Subramaniam, M. Chandrasekaran, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Balamurali Krishna, R.K. Venkatarama Sastri, R.K. Srikantan, Palakkad Raghu, T.K. Govinda Rao, Trichur V. Ramachandran, then our Vechoor Sir, Mavelikara Prabhakara Varma and Neyyantinkara Vasudevan, Pala Ramachandran, Kumarakerala Varma, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Voletti Venkateshwarlu, Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana... they belong to one generation. Yesudas is a unique phenomenon, created for music.

Among the next generation, I admire Ramakanth, Hyderabad brothers, the Malladi brothers, Sudha Raghunathan, T.M. Krishna, Unnikrishnan, Vijay Siva.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Mysore Nagaraj and Manjunath, Sreevalsan J. Menon, Thrissur brothers, D.K. Pattammal’s granddaughter Nithyasree Mahadevan, Radha Viswanathan’s granddaughter Aishwarya, T.K. Rangachary’s grandson Aswin. The list would run into pages.

What happened to Thiruvizha Jayashankar? Does he still play nadaswaram?

He is a great nadaswaram player. Valayapatti Subramaniam (on thavil) and Thiruvizha Jayashankar used to be a great combination.

Is Thiruvizha Jayashankar still performing?

I do not know. I have listened to him several times. We have Ambalapuzha brothers in Kerala, playing nadaswaram.

Is nadaswaram a popular instrument in Kerala?

Nadaswaram is a mangala vadyam. For every puja in Kerala temples, we have nadaswaram and then there will also be sopana sangeetham. Sopana sangeetham is a style of singing, without embellishment, without ornamentation. It is sung by members of a community called Marar. It is sung just in front of sopanam [the steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum]. But nadaswaram is played just outside.

Is the situation about Kathakali promising?

It is certainly promising. There are several schools in Kerala teaching Kathakali, starting with Kerala Kalamandalam. If you take the performers, we had Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Pallipuram Gopalan Nair, Chengannur Raman Pillai and Kurichi Kunjan Panicker. They are old masters. I have seen their performances. Currently, there is Kalamandalam Gopi. He is a number one creative artiste. There are also Sadanam Krishnankutty, Kottakkal Chandrasekaran, Vasu Pisharody, Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri, Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, and so on. There is an array of great performers. I go to watch their performances whenever possible. People upload their performances on the Internet. You are able to watch them perform, sitting here.

What are your other hobbies?

I am not into sports.

What are the books that you bought on music?

(Radhakrishnan gets up and brings, from the shelves in his study room, several books on Carnatic music and Kathakali).

I bought this book in 1979. Ramakrishna Mission, Mylapore, Chennai, published it. It is titled Spiritual Heritage of Thyagaraja. It has an introductory passage which gives a different dimension to the spiritual understanding of classical music. This book called Natya Sastram was translated by Professor K.P. Narayana Pisharody and it was published by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi in 1979. This is another book called Natya Kalpa Dhrumam.

I have books on Kathakali, those dealing with how it evolved and so forth. I cannot live without them. I will get 80 per cent marks for my ability in dancing and 40 per cent in singing. The former is inborn and the latter is cultivated.

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