Title :Moments with a Multifaceted Genius Chitravina N. Ravikiran
Guest :Chitravina N. Ravikiran
Interview with Chitravina N. Ravikiran by Naadhabrahmam's...
Interview with Chitravina N. Ravikiran by Naadhabrahmam's Subeditor Mohan Santhanam
If you don't believe in God, look at Ravikiran"- Pandit Ravi Shankar
"Child prodigies endure varied fates. The leap from prodigy to maestro is slippery, the ledge greased by our perception of prodigies as miraculous, good freaks. To meet a prodigy grown into a balanced mature musician still child-like in his enthusiasm is to meet Ravikiran." 
- Mark Humphrey in Folk Roots, London.

A music class was in progress with my Guru Shri TRS at his sister's house in Mylapore. It was announced that Shri TRS had a visitor. It turned out to be none other than Ravikiran himself.

It was actually my first face-to-face meeting with the acknowledged maestro of the Chitravina. Once the introductions were over and Ravikiran was seated, I said to my Guru, "Do you remember Ravikiran's concert in South Delhi Music Circle 1982?" 

TRS immediately answered, "Yes, of course. It was a morning concert." 

My Guru's response left me rather stumped - I really didn't expect him to remember the concert, I mean, it was more than two decades ago!

"There are some things which one simply cannot forget", TRS said seeing how surprised I was. He went even further and said to Ravikiran, " if I remember correctly, you played "Kamakshi" - the Bhairavi swarajati."

This was a little too much! But then TRS will be TRS, after all! "Yes," I said, and also added (rather lamely, I must say!) "you also played a Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi in Thodi."

TRS said to Ravikiran, "That is the kind of impact your concert has had more than 20 years ago!"

Ravikiran, true to his nature, received this conversation with a smile. TRS then said to me, "we will finish the kriti tomorrow. Let me spend some time with the celebrity."

Upon which I took my leave. Later when I asked TRS the reason for Ravikiran's visit, I was told that Ravikiran had come to talk to him about the merits, brilliance and the inherent beauties in the compositions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi. He said that the compositions are of such high order and have such immense potential that they MUST be made known to the public. 

Oothukadu Venkatakavi is NOT JUST "paal vadiyum mugam" or "alai paayuthe" - was the message which Ravikiran had wanted to convey.

TRS himself suggested to me, "Why don't you learn the compositions from him?"

Thus began a fascinating journey as his student and it was only then I realized what a multi-faceted personality he truly is. The music room at his residence is regally adorned by the Chitravina, his innumerable awards and titles, music books and books of various other kinds. His bookshelves present an interesting contrast in themselves; there are books authored by the one and only Don Bradman - yes, Ravikiran is passionate about cricket; there is Stephen Hawkin's bestseller 'A Brief History of Time', a book on Relativity by Einstein, and one that is interestingly titled 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' - a biography of the great Mathematical wizard Ramanjam. Apart from these, there are various volumes on Sanskrit and its study, Sanskrit dictionaries, a volume on the paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, and even best-selling popular fiction by authors like P.G.Wodehouse and Agatha Christie!

Interactions with him are not just limited to classes but also his various thoughts music - right from whether the dha-ni-sa sachara is acceptable in Ritigaula or the richness of Arabian music. I take this opportunity to share some of my interactions with him.

Note :   Read
Mohan SanthanamChitravina N. Ravikiran.

Your interest in Oothukadu Venkata Kavi - was it sudden or was it, to use a now-fairly-common management terminology, a paradigm shift?


To be honest, I had only learnt one composition of Oothukadu Venkata Kavi (Alaippayude) from my father, Chitravina Narasimhan, who taught me around 500 compositions by the age of 5. Only around the early 1980s did I get to even know that Oothukadu Venkata Kavi was not a modern day composer. It happened rather unexpectedly. The veteran Jalatarangam vidooshi, Seeta Doraiswami, used to live close-by and would often visit us. One day, she told me that she had just come from a group rendition of Navavaranams with a few of her friends. I naturally assumed this to be Muthuswami Dikshitar' navavarnams and asked her if it was so. 

She then told me, "No, these are Kamakshi Navavaranams of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi." I then asked her if he had composed his navavaranams in Tamil and she clarified that they were in excellent Sanskrit. "Not only that," she added, "He has also composed 7 magnificent songs, similar in structure to the Tyagaraja pancharatna krtis". 

I asked her about Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi's time period and she said that scholars have placed him a few decades before the trinity. She sang a few lines from the navavaranams and a few other pieces and it was immediately obvious to me that these songs were of exceedingly high quality and, handled by great musicians and polished well, they would dazzle anybody. 

I immediately requested her to teach me all the songs she knew and she was kind enough to do that. Along with her daughter, Visalakshi, she had learnt several OVK songs from Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar and one of his disciples, Srinivasan. I can never forget the fact that the two would come to my house late in the evenings, after all their household or professional chores, and the sessions would sometimes go on till well past midnight. I then learnt several other pieces from the books published by Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar and his wife, Rajammal and from other sources as well. I am continuing to do so even now.


Please share with us some of the merits of his compositions.


From what I have seen, OVK is an amazing combination of scholarship and imagination. It is a harsh fact that if one attempted classification of Carnatic composers from the lyrical perspective, one would find that ordinary composers are in abundance, scholarly composers are in relatively lesser numbers but the rarest of the lot are the imaginative ones. This alone would put him in a rarefied atmosphere but this is not all. His works reveal his innate musicianship (his handling of rare ragas, talas and several interesting musical forms reveal this) and knowledge of musical intricacies (he has explicitly but effortlessly mentioned several gamakams, ragas, talas in his compositions). His works also reveal his humility as a person and reverence to several great personalities (no other composer has composed as many eulogies as he has on people like Valmiki, Vyasa, Jayadeva, Andal etc nor mentioned as many great people as he has). Most of all, he had a catholic attitude that transcended petty divides (like Shiva vs Vishnu debates). His compositions also show that he had visited several religious centers and composed on the deities there such as Chennai, Kancheepuram, Madurai, Kannapuram, Pandrapur and Udupi, to name a few. In short, he is easily among the greatest composers India has seen. 


Yes, and thanks to your effort in this direction, OVK finally is now getting the recognition that is so richly deserved. 

Coming to aspects of music, I have often heard you say that one need not "typecast" a certain raga. For instance, Shubhapantuvarali need not be the pathos filled raga...your views on this.


It is true that some ragas suggest certain moods more than others but a good musician or composer can bring out much more from a raga than an average artiste. For instance, Mukhari, renowned for pathos was selected by Tyagaraja to project moods of cheer (Karubaru) and even amazement (Entani ne varnintunu Shabari bhagya). Papanasam Sivan used the same raga in a sarcastic vein (Chidambara darishanama) in the film Nandanar. Similarly, the kriti Manonmani in Shubhapantuvarali by Muttaiyya Bhagavatar is a far cry from the type of renditions we hear of the same raga in All India Radio or Doordarshan when the Head of the State passes away. Even Dikshitar's Shri Satyanarayanam does not seem to have been composed with an intention to project pathos but we find several musicians rendering it as though the only way to touch the hearts of listeners with this raga is to milk its pathos dry!


Some people say that ragas can be characterized as having a particular colour. What is your view on this? 


I have discussed this with several people who think this way and found that the colours vary from person to person. For instance Nattai may seem black to one and red to another. 


Except a few cases, the gandhara in Mayamalavagaula is not sung as a plain note. It's almost always sung as an oscillation from the rishaba to the madhyama. Probably the only exception is Thyagaraja's Meru samaana - why do think this is so?


I agree that more often the Ga is oscillated in Mayamalavagowla than not. This seems to be the default way to handle it. But the plain Ga has also been used on occasions by some artistes as a contrast. I guess it also has something to do with the stylistic preferences of artistes.


I would like to know if you have a particular raga that is your favourite -which you would love to play over and over again?


Not really. On the whole, whatever I am playing at a given time is my favourite for the moment (unless I am playing something on request)!


Fusion music currently seems to be the "in thing". Do you think fusion music could be used as an effective medium to propagate Carnatic music? Or do you think it is just a dilution that panders to the galleries?


There are several types of fusion going around today. Anything done with the right intentions and approach by a quality musician is worthwhile. If it is a collaboration done with substance with very good artistes from other cultures, this can put Carnatic music on the world map. I have been involved in fusion endeavours since 1987, when I played in a recording in Switzerland with some American pop musicians and Vinayakaram, Subhashchandran, and a few others at the instance of Dr. L. Subramaniam. During the last few years, I have been featured more and more as a composer as well and have had opportunity to work with very good soloists from various countries like USA, Canada, Brazil, Iran, China etc as also artistes from world famous orchestras like the BBC Philharmonic or the Cleveland Opera. This has enabled me to 'export' more and more of the great Carnatic concepts to other cultures. My aim is to share the greatness of Carnatic music the world over and bring it the profile it richly deserves as the greatest melodic system in the world.


What do you think could be done to popularize the chitravina better amongst the youngsters so that they get the incentive to learn this vaadhya?


Honestly speaking, I have never, to date, gone out of my way to promote Chitravina just because I play it. My love and loyalty is to music first and foremost and I firmly believe that the medium of expression is each individual's choice. Similarly, the listener should be free to make his choice depending on his taste and preference. 

However, the Chitravina is already among the most popular Indian instruments in many countries. I find this fascinating because, on the one hand, Indians flock towards instruments from other cultures while the reverse is seen in other parts of the world where people are dazzled by the magnificent instruments from India. Today, the Chitravina has been featured not only in every nook and corner of India (right from Punjab-Haryana to Karnataka-Kerala, Gujarat-Rajasthan to Bihar-Assam) but also in numerous major international venues and festivals in the world including the Millennium Festival UK and Brisbane Festival, Australia. 

Chitravina is among the most colourful instruments in the world with its deep sound, rich resonance (with 20-21 strings) and huge range of over five octaves (this Ravikiran demonstrated to me personally during a class). It is also one of the most extra ordinary instruments capable of producing more microtonal nuances than several other instruments. It is one of the easiest instruments to learn but can also be highly challenging to master. Over the last few years, more and more people are coming to learn the instrument. One of my good friends and disciples, Mr Muralidharan of Chennai Fine Arts has also created a platform for youngsters to come and learn the Chitravina and has also been promised support from Swami Dayananda. There are several talented artistes coming up and I am positive that some of them will serve the cause of music with distinction over the next few years.

M.S: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

You are welcome and it was my pleasure!

- As told to Naadhabrahmam's Subeditor Mohan Santhanam.
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