He was a struggling but respected writer in Mysore soon to become an international celebrity. His college-going friend, 14 years younger, was a musician of rare promise. They met for the first time around 1939, introduced by the writer's younger brother. They exchanged lessons in English and in music, and became friends for life. R.K. Narayan, in one of his rare interviews to the press, talked to Gowri Ramnarayan about Mysore V. Doreswamy Iyengar, recalling the years of informal lessons, intense exchange and delightful times together.
When did you first meet Doreswamy Iyengar, who was to become one of your close friends?
My brother Ramachandran often talked about a classmate of his called Doreswamy who was highly skilled in playing the veena. He wanted to bring his friend home so that I could listen to him play. I said that no one must touch our veena; the friend would only spoil the very old and valuable instrument we had.
Some time after this, a music festival was conducted in Mysore at the Bidaram Krishnappa Hall. The concerts were by senior musicians like Ariyakudi (Ramanuja Iyengar), Chembai (Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar) and Semmangudi (Srinivasa Iyer). I was surprised to see a 14-year-old featured among these giants. Somewhat irked by this choice, I decided to leave the hall when it was his turn. Anyway it was close to eight and dinner time. But the boy began to play with such confidence that I was taken aback. He did so well that I sat through the performance, convinced of his genuine talent. Do you know that the Maharaja made him the youngest asthana vidwan in Mysore state? He was to win many more titles and awards but they did not make him arrogant. No ego, no self-importance. He wore them lightly, and remained simple, sweet-natured and uncomplicated all his life. He had no bad habits. Unfortunately he succumbed to hepatitis C. Nowadays even diseases have alphabetical tags - A, B and C!When did you meet him last?
In September 1997, when he came here for a concert... Last year when he was in Madras he looked so poorly. He had not recovered from the after-effects of jaundice. (N.) Ram and I arranged for him to be examined by Dr. (T.J.) Cherian. The doctor told me that the patient's condition made him nervous! It was serious. From then on, Doreswamy got worse, developed an aversion for food, practically starved himself. His son told me that even then he wanted to accept a concert engagement in Trivandrum! He could give up food, but not music... What is this? A cassette player? Why don't you take notes instead?
I'm used to it... it is just a modern gadget. It seems Arundhati Roy has to only sit before the word processor and the novel comes pouring out.
That is obvious. You can see it in the writing.
Didn't you learn to play the veena from Doreswamy Iyengar?
My playing was very unorthodox. I followed my own ear. I had no use for any method or system in plucking or fingering. Right at the start I told Doreswamy he must not compel me to be methodical. I will pluck the strings in any order, in any way I like. I want only the sound. I can't read notation but if you play something I can reproduce it. I would not use the tala strings except for sruti alignment. I could never get a grip over tala, something which frightens me. He agreed to all my conditions and taught me some wonderful pieces, especially varnams. But I have always been interested in the ragam. It gives you the freedom to enjoy and improvise.
Did you learn the kritis of the Mysore composers like Vasudevachar and Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar?
The so-called compositions of the Mysore Maharaja were actually composed by Vasudevachar. The Maharaja would call Vasudevachar and say I want these phrases from the Devi Ashtottram and the composer would do his bidding.
For how many years did you learn from Doreswamy Iyengar?
Our association began long before my daughter Hema started taking veena lessons from him at the age of seven. She continued until she got married and left home. Our daily meetings too stopped at about that time because Doreswamy shifted to Bangalore to accept the post of Producer at AIR. He was very happy there. A good job, good salary and many concert engagements.
But do you know what Chowdiah did? He didn't get many concerts at that time, so he compelled Doreswamy to play with him. Doreswamy could never say no to anyone. And Chowdiah was a senior artist whom he had known from childhood. I told him, "What is this? You were coming up so well, you have reduced yourself to the level of a sideman again!"
Have you heard Venkatagiriappa play the veena?
It was good but the style had too much of meettu (plucking the strings). You have to get many notes on one single meettu, not move your fingers all the time across the instrument to produce a series of notes. The veena must approximate the human voice, it must have continuity, modulation and sweetness.And did Doreswamy Iyengar play like his guru?
No. Doreswamy had sweetness and melodiousness. Many people don't know how to play the veena. They bang on it as if it were a harmonium and end up producing noise. Venkatagiriappa was a good man. He allowed his disciple to develop in his own way, doing what came naturally to him.
Do you have to stick the record player at my nose?
I will put it away. You said that you had a veena in your house. Who played it?
It was my father's. It was over a hundred years old even in those days. It had no ivory work or decorations like the Thanjavur veena. But the sound it produced was beautiful. You couldn't get that rich resonance anywhere else.Who did your father learn from?
I don't think he really learnt from anyone. There was a woman called Veenai Rajammal whom he knew but he was mostly self-taught. He was a natural musician, he liked the sound of the veena and improvised at will. He learnt from Veenai Dhanam when he was a student in Madras. I don't know what he learnt from her, but he was a regular at the Friday recitals she gave in her home. He was very devoted to Dhanam's veena.Did your mother play the veena?
She never came anywhere near it though all her sons, with the exception of (R.K.) Laxman, played the veena. Even today I prefer the veena to the violin. In fact I don't like the sound of the fiddle. Unless you play it superlatively well, the violin produces an unwanted sound. Of course, the veena too has to be handled properly, with care. Aggressiveness puts me off. In fact I was attracted to Doreswamy Iyengar only because he made the veena sound like the nadaswaram. It was like the effect produced by Rajaratnam Pillai when he played Todi or Bhairavi - smooth and contoured. Doreswamy could get three or four swaras in a single pull of the string. No unnecessary plucking. When some people play the veena, you can't even make out what instrument it is!
Did your daughter become proficient in the veena?
Doreswamy taught her many kritis. All selected by me. I used to be crazy about the Ata tala varnam. I used to make Doreswamy play, one after another, the four Ata tala varnams in Todi, Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam and Kalyani - my favourite. Over and over again, never got tired of them. There is something very special about those compositions. I recorded Hema and Doreswamy playing them together but those old spools are lost. Now my philosophy is - whatever is lost had better be lost. I just abandon all thoughts about it. Makes life much easier!Did you too have daily lessons?
Our music lessons had nothing formal about them. For over 10 years Doreswamy would come every day at three in the afternoon. He played the veena until I finished my writing for the day. At about five o' clock we would start playing together. I would compel him to accompany me on my evening walk, return, have dinner together and sometimes continue our music after that! Doreswamy belonged to a family that had an essential nobility and humility in temperament.
Didn't you coach Doreswamy Iyengar in English? Were you a patient teacher?
Oh yes. Teaching English was not difficult. English literature must not be taught in English. It must be taught in an Indian language to make an impact. But our teachers don't know this. (Nor, for that matter, do they know much English.) What I did was to teach him poems like "Ode to a Nightingale" (which he found very difficult) in Tamil and Kannada. Doreswamy began to appreciate them so much that he would say, "Keats has so much manodharma!" I did my best for him. He passed his examination easily. Got a second class. He used to read my novels even as I was writing them, and discussed them with me.