On a high note forever

 An Interview with Prince Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma

By M. Ramakrishnan

Rama Varma was in the city recently to conduct a two-day workshop ‘Swarasadhana,’ which was held at Satyananda Yoga Center in Triplicane. Here he talks about the event, his personal journey with classical music and his thoughts on the changing trends of the art form.

How did Swarasadhana happen? 

I have been teaching in this village called Perla near Mangalore for the past four years, at a music school called Veenavadini, run by the musician Sri Yogeesh Sharma. He gets musicians from outside to visit once a year. Four years ago they invited me. They enjoyed my teaching a lot and I enjoyed being there too.  My visits became regular. Some of these lessons were video-recorded and uploaded on YouTube. The Tirupati based Sri Venkatesa Bhakti Channel telecast around 200 episodes of the same on air. The organizers of the camp were familiar with my way of teaching through these sources as well as through having attended some teaching sessions directly.

What is special about this camp? What is it about Swarasadhana that hasn’t been done before?

This is the first time I’m conducting such a camp in Chennai. Also, 2013 is the 200th birth anniversary of my ancestor Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. So I have chosen some unique compositions of his that the participants may not be able to learn from many other sources.

Maharaja Swati Thirunal was undoubtedly one of the most important modern composers who included Hindustani styles in his compositions. Yet, how much of open mindedness is exhibited for the same by the rasikas and singers in the south?

Nowadays it’s become fashionable to say that one avoids Hindustani for Carnatic or the other way around. But looking back, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj were south Indians who became luminaries in the north Indian style. How many south Indian people are really open to Hindustani music is debatable. The late M S Gopalakrishnan Sir was very competent in the Hindustani field for example and  my colleague Sri Sanjay Subhrahmnayan is a Carnatic musician but is open to Hindustani ragas – he’ll sing pallavi in Bhagyashri for instance. Then again there are fundamentalist groups who think Behag, Sindhu Bhairavi, Yamuna Kalyani, Sivaranjani and their ilk should be totally done away with.

Are you using the same style of teaching as your gurus have used on you?

I had four gurus, one of whom is alive today. Each guru had something special. For example, my first vocal guru Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir would repeat parts of songs as many times as I wanted, until I got it right. But he wouldn’t allow recording. I imbibed his level of patience. My two veena gurus Trivandrum R.Venkatraman Sir and K.S.Narayansamy Sir would be very analytical, splitting phrases into the smallest fragments until each gamakam became very clear. Dr.Balamuralikrishna Sir… he doesn’t really Teach, per Se. He could be compared to a sumptuous  buffet in a five-star hotel. All sorts of goodies would be there in front of you and you could help yourself to whatever you liked. Only an advanced student can truly benefit from him, because he doesn’t  repeat parts of the song 300 times or break it up into smaller fragments. While teaching, he would sing as he would in concert. But he has absolutely no problem if you record him. I record his lessons and the tape recorder would become my guru as I play them over and over again.  So, my teaching style is essentially a combination of all what these gurus used.

What did you personally like about the way Swarasadhana was organized?

It was a very sincere effort. Sometimes there are big moneyed organizations that might help you with organizing something but their effort might not be genuine. Outside India, you get much more money for teaching but no job satisfaction, much of the time. There could be exceptions, though.

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Is the title of a prince making things get done easier for you?

Firstly I don’t use the title myself. If I did, I could have this royal image tag that could give me certain advantages. But people have branded me as a prince in virtually every report where my name appears. If you look at my visiting card, it does not use the [royal] title. It’s just Rama Varma. I follow this rule even when I write an article in the paper or if I were to produce a CD. Earlier there was a misconception that I used my title and family influence to get concerts or obtain sponsors easily. People did not know that my family was totally against my performing publicly. As royal patrons they believed that their duty was only to endorse and financially support musicians and singers. This tradition (in the Travancore royal family) was first broken by me.

You had earlier said that classical music should be accessible to the common man. Do you see this transition happening or is there still along way to go?

This sort of transition is a constant process, but it has been done before. Classical music has had mass appreciation through the efforts of people like K B Sundarambal, Madurai Mani Iyer and even my guru, Dr. Balamuralikrishna Sir.

Can this task be achieved easier through the mainstream medium of cinema or new-age music? There have been films like Sankarabharanam, Chithram and Bharatham in the past which have managed to pull it off. 

Yes, these films definitely had a major impact at the time. Some people feel you have to mix classical music with electronic keyboard sounds, a saxophone or a medley of film songs to have greater reach. I stick to my own method, which is to take the trouble to know the meaning of what each word in a song means and convey the same to my audience.

Is this style of explaining the history behind a song as an introductory note also inspired from one of your gurus or entirely yours?

 I have not heard many others do it.

Western music involves the participation of groups of people in the form of gospel choirs which essentially are based on their classical styles.  Is this applicable for the Indian scenario as well?

Both classical systems (in the east and the west) started out as a form of worship. While Christianity emphasizes on a congregational effort, Hinduism allows more individualism. The same principle applies to our singing. If 10 persons were to sing Vatapi Ganapatim Bhajeham, they would choose different tempos and even different sangathis. Our classical music is meant to be a solitary pursuit with lot of potential for instant creativity, pushing limits and exploring new methods. Of course, we also have bhajans which sound beautiful when sung as a group.

So the team effort as far as Carnatic music goes is restricted to the music accompaniments and the vocalist.

Yes. There are also cases of students who have studied under the same guru and sing in sync perfectly. But when I lived in Europe earlier for 10 years, I sometimes had to do concerts without accompaniments or microphones. They were just solo performances with the Tambura. It gave scope for elaborating on raga alapanas and other new ideas, without worrying about coordinating with the accompanists. Singing alone has its own rewards but one should be knowledgeable enough to know how to go about it. It requires great stamina, aesthetic sense and a sense of proportion. There shouldn’t be any hesitation in the mind. Otherwise it is better to stick with your team and perform.

What are your future plans?

Continue the same as much as possible. When I was 20 years old, I never thought I’d go to Europe. While in Europe I never thought I’d go to that small village in Karnataka to teach. My family and Dr. Balamuralikrishna never got along, but I ended up learning so much from him. I was initially attracted by some of his compositions thinking I would just learn a thillana or two and leave. But it’s been 19 years since that meeting took place and I’m still learning from him. I just go with the flow,more or less. I don’t plan.

 Is Swarasadhana on the way to becoming an annual event in your calendar?

That depends on the organizers really. I would be perfectly happy to come again if they were to invite me again.

 Lastly, how much does music mean to you?

During my SSLC exams I used to squeeze in my music classes even between examination breaks. My guru back then used to say no other disciple of his had done this before. After the exams, I remember that Sean Connerey’s comeback film as James Bond, ‘Never Say Never Again’ had just released . All my friends planned ahead and went for it. I finished my exam and came back in the evening for my music class. I realized even then that I couldn’t be without it, without ever imagining I would be a singer. They say the same about marriage: you shouldn’t marry someone whom you can live with but someone whom you can’t live without. I can’t live without music.