A gentle musician

Published : Nov 15, 1997 00:00 IST

Veena maestro Mysore Venkatesha Doreswamy Iyengar, 1920-1997.


"A PERFECT gentleman." This is the unanimous verdict on veena maestro Mysore Venkatesha Doreswamy Iyengar (1920-1997). It comes not only from members of his family and friends, but also from his musician colleagues of two generations.

It is no mean achievement to have obtained such a tribute from the world of art, characterised as it is by competitiveness, oneupmanship and egotism. Close associates speak of Doreswamy Iyengar's sweet nature, softspokenness and simplicity, qualities that are reflected in his music. His humility, fostered by long association with stalwarts in the field, made him almost embarrassed and self-conscious when talking about himself. It also made him focus exclusively on one goal: to make the best music he could on the veena, which he deemed the queen of all instruments. It had tonal purity, a rich grandeur combined with mellifluousness. It could reproduce every grace and nuance of the human voice. In his career of 65 years, Doreswamy Iyengar remained his own critic. No praise or applause could make him less severe in self-analysis.

Doreswamy Iyengar was born into a family steeped in music, in Gaddavalli village in Hassan district. His grandfather, Janardhana Iyengar, sang the devarnamas of the dasa saint-poets, including Purandaradasa. His father, Venkatesha Iyengar, was well versed in the veena. He become enamoured of the flute after hearing it played by Palladam Sanjiva Rao and he taught himself to play it well enough to win a place in the Vidwans' Orchestra at the Mysore Palace, under the patronage of Maharaja Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar IV. Led by the veena maestro Venkatagiriappa, this orchestra had highly qualified members, persons such as vocalist Titte Krishna Iyengar and violinist Sivarudrappa.

Encouraged by his father and grandfather, young Dore began to sing and play the mouth organ at the age of four. The people of the village used to give him toffee and jaggery to play for them. Watching the boy's attempts to teach himself to play the veena, the father began regular lessons; he was delighted when his friend Venkatagiriappa offered to put Dore through the rigours of disciplined training. For all practical purposes it was a gurukula regime. The rod was not spared, the schedule was taxing, the relationship between mentor and pupil was balanced between love and fear of chastisement. The guru insisted on three hours of unflagging practice every day. The kritis had to be sung as they were played. Chitta tanam (devised by Veena Seshanna for a meticulous grasp of that distinctive genre) was part of the training, as were 20 to 25 varnams to flex the fingers and the mind. Raga expansion and swaraprastara were left to be developed by the disciple as he matured in music.

The ambience supported early flowering. There was music at home and in the world outside. The boy attended the rehearsals of the palace orchestra where he became acquainted with the senior musical artists of Mysore. The frequent concerts held in the palace and organised in the town by music lovers and artists such as violinist T. Chowdiah gave him access to the stars of Carnatic and Hindustani music. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Madurai Mani Iyer or Tiger Varadachariar offered great stylistic variety, at variance from the sharp-toned, austere and straightforward style of Mysore, especially in instrumental music.

Young Doreswamy Iyengar graduated very early from the practice room to the concert platform, first with his guru, then as a soloist. At the age of 12, he made his debut at the palace. The nervous guru was elated when the fastidious Maharaja singled out Dore for commendation. The Maharaja said: "You should make sure he is properly trained. He will bring a name to Mysore." A few months later, at the Maharaja's instructions, Dore was appointed a junior vidwan in the palace orchestra. That was when he passed the examination in advanced theory of Western music conducted by the Trinity College of Music, London. He was barely 16 when he was nominated asthana vidwan (court musician) in Mysore state; he was the youngest to win the honour.

The boy quickly made a name for himself. An impressed senior artist T. Chowdiah insisted that Dore accompany his violin recitals. Those were the first duets of the violin and the veena to be performed. Soon Chowdiah gave his position at centrestage to the young man and moved left to the accompanist's place.

Later, Doreswamy Iyengar was to play jugalbandis with other violinists, including Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, T.N. Krishnan and M.S. Gopalakrishnan, and with the vocalists M. Balamuralikrishna and Palakkad K.V. Narayanaswami. He also performed duets with Hindustani artists Mallikarjun Mansur, Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan. His heart was less involved in these ventures because he held that the two systems of music were too disparate for balance or creative exchange. His partners on stage, whether in jugalbandi or as accompanists, found him very accommodative. K.V. Narayanaswami says: "Doreswamy Iyengar was a great artist, his tonal purity was matched by his command over rhythm. His development of the raga was expansive, his swaraprastara was extremely attractive without being overlong or showy. His tanam had class and majesty, even the lighter pieces were rendered with dignity. You could not fault him in any aspect of performance. It was a pleasure to sing with his veena."

Lalgudi Jayaraman is equally appreciative. "We became so close that he was like a brother to me. We have played together as equals on several occasions. We had a perfect understanding and mutual regard; our relationship excluded all politics, confrontations or competition. We wanted to do our best - and together - for the listeners."

Just as the father had moved from village to town in pursuit of his career in music, so the son was compelled to shift from town to city when he was appointed a Producer with All India Radio (AIR) in Bangalore in 1955. Doreswamy Iyengar's initial reluctance owed both to his attachment to Mysore and to his fear that the demands of the post would curtail his involvement in music. He had to audition and select musicians, and plan features in music and music appreciation. He had to perform for AIR at need. Just when bureaucratic and organisational demands made him decide to give up the post, the Madras-based Chief Producer Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer visited Bangalore and persuaded him - with the assurances of flexible hours and fewer burdens of administration - to stay on.

"Gita Bharati" was among the unique features that Doreswamy Iyengar put together for AIR. It juxtaposed the kritis of Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar with the Bengali songs of Rabindranath Tagore, based on their musical structure. These unusual pieces had been composed by Tagore after his trip to southern India in the 1920s that included a visit to the Mysore court. Tagore had drawn inspiration from Carnatic compositions such as Needu charanamule (Simhendramadhyamam), Minakshi memudam (Purvikalyani) and Lavanya rama (Purnashadjam).

Doreswamy Iyengar's grand and moving tribute to the torchbearers of the Mysore school took shape as a homage to the composers of the post-Thyagaraja period in Karnataka. The radio programme of the compositions of Sadashiva Rao, Vasudevachar, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Veena Seshanna and Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar revealed their extraordinary creativity and ripeness.

Honours and awards came to Doreswamy Iyengar in ample measure. He was the first Kannadiga and vanika to perform for AIR's national programme. He participated in many national and international festivals and cultural events - such as at the millennium celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1969, where he was a guest artist; Festivals of India in Germany and the Soviet Union (where he presented his pancha, or five, veena recitals); he has given concerts and lecture demonstrations in many countries.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the Sangeeta Kalaratna of the Bangalore Gayana Samaj, the Chowdiah National Memorial Award, the Hafiz Ali Khan Award, the Sangeeta Kala Sikhamani of the Indian Fine Arts Society. In 1984 he realised the dream of every Carnatic musician when he was awarded the Sangeeta Kalanidhi of the Madras Music Academy.

As a boy Dore had hated school - he could never pay attention to his lessons or to his homework. How could he when his mind was given over to music? He managed to pass his B.A. examination with the coaching of his friend R.K. Narayan. Although he was a traditionalist of the old school, thanks to the wide exposure he received in the Mysore palace, he developed an understanding of Hindustani and Western music. Family members will tell you that some of his all-time favourite pieces were by German and Austrian musicians. Doreswamy Iyengar also scored the music for a film, Subba Shastri, and for a series of operas such as "Gokula Nirgamana" and "Hamsa Damayanti" by his friend P.T. Narasimhachar. But none of these interests ever left their shadow on his own music which remained chaste and orthodox till the end.

Doreswamy Iyengar's busy schedule and temperament did not allow him to train many disciples. Family members found him impatient in a teacher's role. Married at 12 and ordered by her father-in-law to learn the veena from her husband, his wife Sharadamma gave up the task because her husband's expectations were far too high. His brother Srinivasa, a schoolteacher, was told that his fingers were fit only for writing on a blackboard. But his son, D. Balakrishna, and his student C. Krishnamurti, managed to become accomplished musicians under his tutelage. He would often say to them: "Understand your tradition thoroughly before you begin to improvise." He never taught for money and was easygoing about remuneration for his concerts. He was unworldly. "He loved good clothes, but did not know where to buy them," laughs his daughter Vijaya.

Doreswamy Iyengar revered his forebears in the tradition so much that he painstakingly gathered the compositions of Veena Seshanna and popularised them. He attributed his good fortune to his guru's blessings and, as his guru lay bedridden before death, he played Bhairavi day after day at Venkatagiriappa's command.

He was uncompromising in his principles. He refused to play at weddings because they were venues of noise and distraction inimical to music. He was even against amplification because it robbed music of its nuances and often distorted the tone. He eschewed an aggressive style and strident fingering techniques, which made for easy popularity. And though connoisseurs found that with its preponderance of meettus (plucking), the Mysore style lacked fine-shaded gamakas and contouring anuswaras, they accepted Doreswamy Iyengar's music as smooth, sweet and satisfactory. He had the gentle touch of a cultured mind. His modesty and charm won friends for him everywhere.

Doreswamy Iyengar died of hepatitis C on October 8, 1997; his death created a vacuum in the world of music. In his time Doreswamy Iyengar had become the most worthy representative of the Mysore school and of those values that highlighted singleminded commitment, pride in tradition, and the eagerness to pursue excellence for its own sake.

(With inputs from Ravi Sharma in Bangalore)
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