An evening with Ramanathan Krishnan

“Nirmal Shekhar in Conversation with Ramanathan Krishnan at the Hyatt, Mount Road at 6.30pm”

After braving a rather severe cold from the past two days and a visit to the ENT center, this was something I had promised myself of not missing.

With some amount of the sniffles remaining, I set out along with mom to the star hotel. After high tea that involved “side dishes” such as a full-blown chaat menu, onion uthappam accompanied by 6 different varieties of chutney, medu vadai, chocolate cake and even a tiramisu dessert (all items on the house as part of a celebratory week-long fest in the city) which I must say played a pivotal role in attracting a minor chunk of the audience, the spotlight turned to the legend himself: a man who unabashedly describes himself as a product of competition, was brought up on strict diet of discipline and even turned down an offer of a $15,000 in 1959 to turn professional.

There are just somethings in life that Wikipedia entries may never end up replicating, like a good old face to face conversation of memories. I, for one, am a total sucker for such things; especially the ones coming directly from remarkable old timers.

Ramanathan Krishnan was and probably still is a household name for every kid brought up in Chennai, at least to the ones who thronged the tennis courts. But he was also the quintessential Indian sportsman who despite ruling the roost at home, achieved little success in his pursuits for individual silverware abroad. A 1954 boys singles title at Wimbledon was to be the only happy scoop as far as foreign tours were concerned; a feat that his son would go on to emulate 20 years later. But as far as stats and sport trivia go, one can always look it up online anytime. The evening was more about a personal sojourn, how tennis attained its present status in Madras down the years, and how the city remains a prime hub for talent in the sport.

The Early Days

A file photo of T. K. Ramanathan with his son Ramanathan Krishnan.

It is fitting to give the tag of “The first family of tennis” in India to the Krishnans. He proudly claims that they are composed of no less than four generations of accomplished tennis players starting from his father, T K Ramanathan who taught himself to play the game by reading Bill Tilden’s books. “Big Bill” as he was known in the Roaring Twenties was supposed to be the last word when it came to the sport of tennis. TKR, until then was a lad who hailed from small town Tenkasi in the deep south, acquainted with the subjects of accountancy and stenography. Initiated into marriage at the age of 17 to a girl 5 years his junior, he sought greener pastures, as was the norm, in the city of Madras. Stanley Medical College enrolled him for Rs.50 a month. He would cycle everyday to work from his residential house in Thambu Chetty Street, often catching glimpses of Englishmen playing the sport in their private clubs. The colonial masters could not be expected to impart skills to the native man. So TKR resorted to reading his way into it. By 1939, when conditions were more relaxed locally, he would achieve a career high rating becoming the third best player in the country. The prestige of the Davis Cup was to sadly elude him, due to the War. He found a larger calling in Delhi as a civil servant, where he would enroll his son Krishnan for primary schooling. TKR was determined to make sure the boy would achieve what he could not.

Return to Madras

The accelerated chapter of independence on August 15, 1947 and the consequent bloodshed from the wounds of partition forced the Krishnan family to return to their more peaceful southern province. A surprising fact during that era was the status tennis enjoyed not only in the cities, but also in the rustic setting of the rural areas. The standards of the game according to Ramanthan Krishnan, were uniformly good for those times.

Back in his native Tenkasi, Krishnan recounts joyously the motorcycle trips along with his father to the town of Kovilpatti for honing his skills on the clay courts. A certain Shanmuganatha Mudaliar from Tirunelveli with a vicious forehand chop frequently provided good training to the youngster and Krishnan still acknowledges him as being an early influence apart from his father. But better exposure needed better geography and what place better than Madras to beckon him to it. A German coach improved Krishnan’s grip, game and particularly his backhand returns.

Loyola College in Nungambakkam hosted a tournament known as the Stanley Cup(not to be confused with the ice hockey club trophy of the NHL) in the 50s only for college students. “I was still a school going boy then. My father pestered the organisers to let me participate somehow. In the end, they thought what the harm was in letting only one schoolboy in the draw and considered it. I went on to win the cup”, Krishnan states.This was to be only the beginning of his domination in the junior national circuit. He remembers another incident where he continued to torment senior players on the grounds of the Andhra Maha Sabha which stood adjacent to the Ripon Building. The staff of the nearby buildings would gather on their terraces and balconies just to watch him play, even during working hours.

T K Ramnathan had even managed to spruce up a family tennis court in their household backyard and devoted to hours of training the young Krishnan. Krishnan would copy this gesture later by creating a facility on Oliver road for his son, Ramesh.

When asked about other sorts of pioneers in Madras, Krishnan vividly remembers maamis  in their nine yard sarees fashionably trying to mix in with their European counterparts through recreation clubs for ladies. A more detailed look into that fascinating story is available here. The quaint picture below would only hasten you to click on the link hopefully!

Maamis playing tennis in their traditional wear

Ostensibly these women folk were a tad shy to move around and run about lest they trip and fall clumsily. But it was a start alright.

Krishnan starts naming his contemporaries: Sheshadri (who was seated in the front row and helped Krishnan affirm some memories), Vishnu Mohan and Vijayappa Rao among others. Competitiveness was a common thread that connected these men and undeniably, Krishnan emerged in the top slot.

When asked about his most abiding memories during high school days, Krishnan responds “I used to represent Ramakrishna High School. I was given special treatment of every type including tuition and other privileges uncommon to my classmates at school. When I was nearing the end of high school during a Stanley Cup tournament at Loyola, a crowd of nearly a thousand had formed by the time I reached the final. They even climbed up the trees to witness the game. When I won it again, the Reverend Father of the institution came up to me personally and whispered something in my ear. It immediately became a subject of media attention and speculation.” Krishnan holds the crowd in suspense for a second before unfurling his next sentence: “The Rev. Father had reserved a seat for me in Loyola college after school.”

Going overseas

Krishnan doesn’t think hard when asked about his first overseas trip. “1952”, pat comes the resounding reply “All trips to London and Australia would involve going via Colombo. Our Indian contingent met two Muslim tennis players from Ceylon during that voyage. They had heard about me and insisted on my staying in Colombo for an exhibition match before proceeding to England. The gesture was so genuine back then and tennis truly brought people together. Sometimes rules would be so amateurish even. For instance, just to ensure the best footfall, the organisers would reshuffle the players in the semi-final round so that the best two made it to the grand finale.”

Wimbledon was a different story altogether. Once in London, Krishnan had realised the conditions were nothing like what he had imagined it to be. He found it hard adjusting to the cold, windy arena and the grass was a difficult customer to handle. Facing the Aussie giant Frank Sedgman, Krishnan admits that all he could focus was on his opponent’s enchanting face rather than his speedy foot movement. Furthermore, he had switched his wooden racket with someone else’s by mistake in the changing room. He never revealed this to his father who was accompanying him at that time. “I was too scared to tell him. It was simply not possible. He would have lost faith in me”, Krishnan says.

Krishnan also managed to make a smooth transition from a junior player to the senior level. “Two advantages”, he starts explaining. “In any one tournament, even if I was underage compared to the rest of the players I would participate in all combinations: boy’s singles and doubles, and men’s single and doubles. That’s something today’s parents would never let their wards try out. They should make juniors play senior players frequently so that they get used to competition early. Secondly, only two players from each country would be permitted into a grand slam like Wimbledon. Since I used to be consistently ranked in the top two places in India I was a natural choice. Things are different now. Players have to get into specific ATP rankings to play tournaments. Professionals were frowned upon by the public before the Open Era ensuring amateurs always had the upper hand.”

It was also a well-known fact that Krishnan had turned his back on a lot of offers to turn professional. He deconstructs this puzzling decision: ” The great Jack Kramer, who was a proponent of the modern format which allowed amateurs and professionals to play together, came to me with an offer in 1959 — $15000 for three years. That was a huge amount. But my father and I had come to a spontaneous decision. We refused it. If you turned pro, then you wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the Davis Cup. That was a greater source of pride for us. It meant playing for the country. I had everything else I needed and I have absolutely no regrets about throwing away the offer.” Krishnan adds “We were looked upon as special citizens. During a Davis Cup semi-final match in Calcutta, a barber offered me a free haircut. A shopkeeper refused to take money for some lemonade. That was the sort of status we enjoyed.”

Krishnan also made formed close friendships with many other giants of the time including Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. He reveals some fascinating information about Emerson in particular: “Roy Emerson was a good singer. And an extremely good yodeler, you know, like the way Kishore Kumar used to do it. I was a music buff and used to carry my records of M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Kishore da and Rafi wherever I went. Roy joined in to listen to them and you wouldn’t believe it – he could sing a line from every song he heard. There he was suddenly yodeling away M.S ‘ rendition of Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. I always believed if some Bhagavathar gave him ample training in Madras we could get him to sing a Margazhi Masam Kutcheri. Such camaraderie between players does not seem to exist any more.”

Role of Media in his career

Ramanathan Krishnan admits the specific role of print media in giving him good publicity during his heyday, but believes the introduction of television did more for the sport in general. “Unbelievable … the rate at which TV spreads information these days. You can know anything that happens in any corner of the world”, he admits “but it also has a significant setback. People now enjoy watching in the comfort of their homes rather than going and seeing the match live in the stadium. It’s just not the same.”

We learn of yet another mode of advertising through Krishnan, this time in Third World style. He refers to a technique called Bullock Cart advertising which spread word in the bovine settings like Tirunelveli during his matches there. It would roughly consist of a two-way communication between the messenger atop the cart and the listeners spread around him:

“Yellarum Kelunga, inniku Tennis potti irukku.” (Listen up everyone, there’s a tennis match today)

“Yaaru pa valyadraanga?” (Who’s playing?)

“Namma Krishnan valayadraaru” (Our Krishnan is playing)

“Yaaru pa jeypaanga?” (Who will win?)

“Theriyadhu vandhu paarunga. Ticket vilai moonu rooba, anju rooba, pathu rooba” (Don’t know, come and watch. Tickets available for Rs.3, Rs.5 and Rs.10)

Game, Set and Match

Krishnan’s wife Lalitha is called upon to give further insight to his private life. She initially starts by saying that when Krishnan was about 22 years old both their families were keen on their alliance. The only surprising element was Lalitha’s grandmother who was taken aback. She had been reeling under the impression that professional tennis was a jobless pursuit and wanted only a clerk or a civil servant for her granddaughter.

Krishnan acknowledges Lalitha’s critical homemaking skills and goes on to say that she was instrumental in designing the entire family court in the backyard. Krishnan asked whether his neighbour was impressed by his wife’s beautiful layout of the court. The neighbour had replied “Definitely, its beautiful. But I can’t help notice that one half of the court is in my backyard as well.” The crowd breaks into laughter at this point.

The audience are given a chance to interact with the legend thereafter. Veteran actor Mohan V Raman volunteers to hand over the mike to enthusiastic question-throwers. No hand seems to go up, at which point Yours Truly decides to break the ice and go for it. “The young man there!”, someone points out. I get the mic and duly ask what I had thought to be a most pertinent doubt: “How did you manage to adjust to the food during your overseas travels to England and Australia. Did you carry along your wife to look after your diet?”

Of course, Krishnan was a Brahmin and a vegetarian but he replied that he had to intake egg and meat often to improve fitness and stamina. He did not relish it, so he stuck to the Sambhar rice and curd rice. Yes, the power of curd rice prevails!

The second and last of the questions comes up from another member behind: “What was your greatest prize money earned through a tournament?”

Ramanathan Krishnan dutifully answers “A £60 voucher. And I couldn’t even en-cash it!”


Svanubhava 2012- The Palghat Mani Iyer tribute

In all honesty, our motley group made an entrance into the evergreen Kalakshetra Foundation in Thiruvanmiyur after a filling lunch. We were there to live tweet and even Instagram facets of Svanubhava (a culture fest) with what we could capture on our smart phones. We would have been almost lulled into deep slumber by the caressing winds of the pristine school campus, but for the enchanting performances that awaited us.

At the Svanubhava entrance in Kalakshetra
Photo courtesy: @arian_tweets instagram feed

Svanubhava as its main website quotes ”  is a cultural movement in celebration of Indian art like never before, exposing students to various Indian art forms.  It is a unique event conducted by the students of the performing arts.” Since 2008 it has seen successful runs and has been embraced warmly by the throbbing art lovers of the city.

Our schedule for the day could accommodate only the last two performances; A Bharatanatyam lecture demo by C.V Chandrasekar and a Talavadyam Concert in the memory of the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer’s birth centenary.

The first one saw Chandrasekhar’s disciples and himself gyrate to the classical tunes being belted with the help of vocalist, Hariprasad. Notes in appropriate places were duly pointed out by the maestro for the benefit of the enthusiastic youngsters who would soon take a similar path.

C V Chandrashekar in his prime element.
Image courtesy: The Hindu


Enter 100 years since Palghat Mani Iyer

Palghat Mani Iyer, regarded by many as the greatest exponent of the Mridangam
Image courtesy: Sruti Mag

He played alongside the entire modern Carnatic heavyweights from G N Balasubramaniam, M L Vasanthakumari to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. His official website quotes him as the greatest mridangam artiste ever to have walked on the face of the earth. He played guru to later mridangam vidwans such as Late Palghat R. Raghu, Late Mavelikkara Velukkutty Nair,Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, Kamalakar Rao, and Palghat Suresh. Accepting Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s offer he even graced the premises of the Rishi Valley School teaching kids his preferred percussion style. His granddaughter happens to be a well known classical cum playback singer by the name of Nithyashree Mahadevan (Yes the very same one crooning, in unbelievable decibel levels the yesteryear film chart-busters such as Kannodu Kanbadhellam in Jeans and Minsara Kanna in Padayappa).

What remains to be told year after year to the student’s ear is the ultimate dedication and humbleness adhered to by the man himself. I’m sure more and more interesting trivia can be raked up from numerous blogs, websites and books on Mani Iyer, but a first hand rendition is always special. Especially when it came from T.R. Rajamani (who happens to be Iyer’s very own son) and Kamalakar Rao(one of his illustrious students).

They started with some memorable anecdotes from Mani Iyer’s life, about his utterly maddening routine in getting perfection out of his instrument and his open desire to have also made it as an accomplished singer on stage. Nothing less than a riveting Talavadyam followed for the next 1 1/2 hours. Small incidents such as a brief power cut, a car’s reverse gear melody and the ringing of the proverbial cell phone crept their way between the mridangam beats. Yet the audience was completely fixated on the incredible tempo and strokes generated from the two septuagenarians on stage. As T M Krishna, part of the organizing committee was to put it later while thanking them, “Age was just a number”.

I submit to you that my knowledge of Sangeetham  as they put it, is quite shallow and I do not nitpick into the technicalities involved in any type of concert. The bhava (feeling) that’s strongly reverberated through the hall is satisfactory enough to rate it. I absorbed with glee the incredible synchronization of the fast paced beats toward the end of the tribute.

A question session followed where the usual concerns of declining interest in cultural music, instrumentals was voiced by quite a few. Kamalakar Rao begged to differ, instead defending the current crop as even more aware and intelligent than the previous generation. Rajamani and Kamalakar however, both shared an equal vexation against the trendy fusion of the classical form gaining more popularity and preferred to be quite comfortable on their side of the orthodoxy. “Conservation, not adulteration” seemed to echo in the background.

Here are the two maestros addressing a rather nice question on the importance of poruththam (control over senses, ostensibly) in a concert. It is often known that, to the trained ear at least, the drowning out of the main vocal lead in certain sections by a mridangam artiste doesn’t gel well and ruins the bhava. Palghat Mani Iyer used to say “Its enough if you first understand when and where not to play, the part where the playing is required will automatically come”.

The man was revolutionary of sorts in the conservative music scene himself. He advocated that equal remuneration be given to all performing artistes in a kutcheri (concert), removing the element of hogging individualism by any means. A kutcheri as he would put it was “meant only for the pure, wholesome entertainment of the audience and was nothing but a collective team effort”.

I look forward to enlarging my selectivity this December Madras Music Season.

The Slumdog Questionnaire

The inequality problem has seemed to exist since time immemorial. At least in certain pockets of Chennai (formerly and personally preferred – Madras), apathy seems abound in plenty. How people exist in thatched huts in utmost filth and still adamantly strive to hope for the best from the state, whom they consider their utmost guardian angels, still beats me.

A common slum dwelling found in Indian metros. Equivalent of the infamous favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

A regional Chief Engineer of the Slum Clearance & Relocation board of Tamil Nadu seemed nothing less than flummoxed when I put forth the question “How many slum dwellings do you think would roughly exist in the city?”. He looked back as if I had asked the forbidden question, bits of wry sarcasm affixed around certain parts of his face that conveyed the net emotive result : “How in heaven’s name can one say that with pinpoint surety?”.

V. Subramanian, Chief Engineer, Slum Clearance & Relocation Board of Tamil Nadu (T Nagar Division, Chennai)

My team and I were more than happy that we had at last found a bureaucrat who didn’t direct us to the extreme left wing on the third floor of the building, where you’d find another person prepared to politely direct you further back to the east wing on the ground floor.

We were tracking a recent case of a supposed fire accident that had razed around 600 slum dwellings in a single area in the city on one fine Sunday evening. Our first visit to the infamous Ripon Building, where the “Worshipful Mayor” (honestly quoting the board description hanging within) was seated proved to be very uneventful. We were refused permission to obtain either a sound byte or a video byte from the ‘Worshipful-ness’ himself : ” Yaen paa enkitta byte’u byte’u nu kettu enna bite panrenga?! ” (Why are you guys always hounding for bytes, bytes and biting me?)

Unfazed and rather confused by the valiant attempt at satire coming from our Mayor himself, we went in search of greener pastures. Perhaps he was already in frustration about the renovation of the Ripon building which also had the Chennai Metro Rail construction work sneakily encroaching into its premises.

The Ripon Building, the city corporation office headquarters and seat of “The Worshipful Mayor”. The building built during colonial times is currently undergoing renovation along with Metro construction work to keep it company.

We also stumbled upon the fact that the city’s Corporation body cannot interfere with cases where land belongs to the State Government and hence is practically legless when it comes to dealing with slum destruction/relocation. But the Mayor made sure that his presence was felt as soon the huts were gutted down and even stated relocation efforts would be kick-started soon. A case of pointless publicity achieved.

The parent slum relocation board located on the Marina Beach Road alongside the Public Works Department complex made sure that we completed a Golden Triangle pilgrimage of sorts : ” Saar. This slum area where fire occurred does not come under our division. Please contact Mr V. Subramanian in the T Nagar branch for further details”.

And so formed the final set of questions we posed to Mr Subramanian. Below are brief transcripts from our conversation.

Q: Has the cause of the fire been established yet? Were there any casualties involved?

A: No, not yet. But only the forensic police & the fire brigade members would be aware of this classified information. And no, no casualties recorded.

Q: What steps have been taken by your department so far to help the victims?

A: Currently we are looking at moving them to a temporary location like a corporation school or a nearby marriage hall where we can give them some necessities until the housing board finishes their rebuilding work.

Q: How long would that usually take?

A: We can’t say. That usually depends on the housing board authorities.

Q: There has been word going around that this fire might have involved foul play with a political backing behind it. What do you think?

A: (Shrugs) Might be, can’t say. Nothing has been established yet from the investigative reports. The slum dwellers are usually a congested lot too. A small kitchen accident in one corner can set the entire dwelling ablaze at times.

Q: What has been the state of this slum according to your records so far?

A: Firstly it has never been a declared slum officially. Its a case of pure encroachment of migrating people. The land where they live has been under dispute since 1976. We really hope the police would assist us in these matters to make it easier.

Q: How would your board proceed usually when the relocation process starts?

A: See, there is usually the actual owner or the landlord of that slum in the records somewhere. But going by the book, we usually hand out 1/3rd of the original area back to the slum dwellers and the rest goes to the landlord. The victims will be given opportunities to become self dependent once again.

Q: But what about the existing damage caused? Who would be answerable to that?

A: That would lay in the hands of the revenue officials under the ambit of the State government. Due compensation would be provided by them and we cannot interfere with that. We have our duty to do and that’s that.

Q: What are the challenges the Slum Board faces in these cases?

A: Enormous ones. Its a well known fact that most of the slum population is unaccounted for, they’re mostly the floating population who come out of villages searching for jobs in the city. They are a nuisance in our view.

And here comes the double edged sword of politics. The politicians’ vote banks lies in these areas. Empty promises are swallowed by these gullible, naive people. Voting cards are provided the quickest for them when elections arrive. They sit still adamant with more hope.

Q: But not all has been a failure from your side. There have been many cases of successful relocation carried out right?

A: Correct. But you will not believe the unbelievable rates of further encroachment that happens. Its not possible to stop it immediately. And the slum people do not utilize the facilities we provide. If we build a multistory housing, additional maintenance is required for things such as the elevator. They dirty it frequently. They have no sense of hygiene. Do not even get me started about the latrines and kitchen sewers. Its horrendous. They continue to live as slum dwellers inside the new housing.

Q: What do you personally see as a cure for all this?

A: We need to acquire more land obviously. But with the recent skyrocketing of prices its impossible to do so. We initially thought of buying out lands in the outskirts, but even then there’s a roadblock. The outskirts are through and through, the living premises of the IT/Software people now. And they earn so much they can buy out that land in a few years. Where will we go?

The only possible way out is with the total cooperation of the police. They have to employ a special task force to monitor the entry of population into the slums. But I don’t see that happening at all honestly.
One side of the story had been thus, recorded in our books. But what of the ground reality? Our video team managed to bring some perspective from the actual spot of the accident. Things do not seem bright either way.